Korean music is currently seeing an unprecedented amount of popularity in the United States, with acts like BTS topping the Billboard charts, NCT127 participating in a star-studded Michael Jackson tribute, and Monsta X closing out KIIS-FM's Jingle Ball. But while much of the focus has been on pop acts, other genres have been increasingly turning heads. Indie rock group The Rose is one of these bands, telling heartfelt stories of love, loss, and hope with the kind of passion and sincerity that needs no translation.
Comprised of lead vocalist/guitarist Woosung (also known as Sammy), main vocalist/keyboardist Dojoon (also known as Leo), bassist Jaehyeong, and drummer Hajoon, The Rose began as a group of friends busking in Seoul's lively Hongdae neighborhood. Led by Sammy's breathy, delicate tenor — with a lovely signature vibrato that seems to wander on its own — and Leo's luscious bass voice, the group made their name after being signed by J&Star Company and releasing their first LP, Void. The five-track work is an exploration of the darker times in between moments of happiness — a theme not often explored in the usually glossy Korean music scene. Their lead track "Sorry" was named one of the best Korean pop songs of 2017 by Billboard.
Last month, The Rose released their more hopeful follow-up LP, Dawn, and music video for the lead single "She's in the Rain." They are currently promoting the project in an extensive European tour. In September, EARMILK sat down with the quartet ahead of their performance at K-Expo in New York City to talk about allowing yourself to feel, Sing Street and busking.
Before Dawn you released Void, which was a lot more somber. Why did you want to lead with that message first?
Sammy: "I think that the message that the media gives is 'be happy,' 'everybody can be happy,' and all that. But at the same time, I think everybody can be sad. It's one of the big emotions that we always feel, like loneliness. So we definitely want to give an idea that it's ok to be sad, it's ok to feel empty and lonely. And that you're not alone, because everyone else is probably feeling the same way — except on [social media]. Everybody seems so happy on Instagram and Facebook but in reality those people are pretty sad too, so it's ok for you to have those days and enjoy it, I think."
Leo: "You don't have to be happy all the time. You've got the darkness inside, I've got it too, so why don't we share it? That was the main message and what we wanted to do through the Void album."
In this U.S., people are starting to talk about how it's ok to not be perfect all the time, but in Korea it seems to still be somewhat of a new concept. People aren't really talking about it.
Sammy: "It's really hard to do the music we do in Korea because it's not really like a mainstream thing, I guess. Not yet. But I mean we know how much Korean people feel depressed, sad, lonely because I think it's the country with the highest suicide rate. If they just knew that it was ok to feel sad and knew how to deal with their emotions it would be much, much better."
And now you're on to this new chapter. What are you looking forward to in Dawn and for fans to hear?
Leo: "We want fans to think, 'Oh, they're really starting their career." Maybe Void was really like an...appetizer maybe? And Dawn is…"
Sammy: "The main dish!"
Leo: "Not yet! Not yet! Course one. It's the start of The Rose."
Sammy: "We can't say it's the main dish yet."
Leo: "We're hoping fans can get a better idea of what we want to say."
I feel there's this unfair stereotype that Western people have — they think that music from Korea is "manufactured." How do you keep things authentic?
Sammy: "We don't care about mainstream music that much. I think that's one of the biggest things. We love the music that's in right now — especially K-pop and dance music, we love it — but we don't have to do that music. Because there's plenty of dance music that people can listen to right now. So we just do what we like to do, and we always love doing British pop. We love how it touches your mind and how it excites you.
You could go to a Coldplay concert — the BPM is not even that fast, but people are jumping around and dancing like crazy. It's not "dance music," but why are people dancing? Because it touches your mind, and we felt like that was the biggest thing about British pop music and that was the kind of vibe we wanted to go for."
You guys still busk from time-to-time. You're out on the street and with fans. So why is that kind of performance still important for you guys to do?
Sammy: "We don't want to lose the feeling that we had when we first met. It's a good reminder for us, when we busk. It's how The Rose happened in the first place. We never want to lose that, because we want to keep this going just as if it was the beginning, now matter how long time passes."
Leo: "No matter how big we become — we'll busk all the time and we'll think of the first situation we were in."
Sammy: "That's why we watch Sing Street every year. "
I love that movie! When I read that online, I didn't think that was true.
Sammy: "It is true! We've done it for three years. We love that movie."
Leo: "When we were watching that movie we thought, 'they're kind of similar to how we began.' They were like, 'Hey! Let's start a band." And they're young. What they're doing is what we're trying to do."
Sammy: "My favorite part was when [the protagonist] was imagining things in his head — like at the school dance — but the reality wasn't at all how he was imagining it. But that meant so much to us, because we imagine everything we want in our heads, and we want to go bigger and do better all the time. In reality it sometimes doesn't come out that way, but in the movie when they did that it felt like such a breath of fresh air."
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.