Rock without tearsWhere have all the rock gods gone?
While Korea had more than its share of homegrown rockers in the 1970s and 1980s, for more than a decade now teen dance-pop has dominated the airwaves and the CD racks. The idea of a real rock band that actually tours without lip-syncing, that writes its own songs and that doesn't have big '80s-rock hair, is practically unheard of ?or at least so marginal that it is barely worth mentioning. All that was before the neo-punk rockers Crying Nut came along.
In a land where independent bands are lucky to sell a thousand copies of their CDs, Crying Nut sells in the tens and hundreds of thousands. But for rock gods, Crying Nut remains remarkably down-to-earth. "I'm just happy to be able to go on pretty well doing only what I want to do," says the group's bass guitarist Han Kyung-rock.
They may be young - their ages range from 25 to 27 - but the band members already have had a long and storied history together. In addition to Han, the band consists of Lee Sang-hyuk, the drummer, Lee Sang-myun, the lead guitarist (and twin brother to Sang-hyuk), and Park Yoon-sick, the vocalist.
On a recent night at their home base, a club called Drug in the Hongik University neighborhood (known as "Hongdae"), the Crying Nut members are hanging out, engaged in their ordinary evening routines - playing music, watching music videos and banging away at computer games. The Hongdae area is the center of the city's underground rock scene. Of Hongdae's many live clubs, most of them vest-pocket places, Drug is one of the oldest and most popular, largely thanks to Crying Nut.
Getting the band members together for the interview is about as easy as herding cats. Finally, during a break, the four gather around a table in the club. During the interview, they frequently jump out of their chairs when they hear some punk rock music from a television show in Drug that inspired them, especially music of the Clash. When they finally start talking, however, the band is straightforward and candid about their music, inspiration and ambitions.
The four members have been pals since childhood, all growing up in the same apartment building in Dongbu Ichon-dong, central Seoul. They went to the same schools and shared the same dreams. They have been together almost every day since elementary school, united by their music and dreams. "Each of us vowed to buy new CDs on a regular basis, share and discuss them together," Sang-myun says. Unfortunately, this love of music didn't translate to music class at school - Sang-myun got a D.
At first, the four explored all styles of music, but then one day they happened to pick up some CDs by punk rock pioneers the Clash and the Sex Pistols. "We fell in love with punk rock from the very first moment we heard it," Yoon-sick says.
Indeed, even during the interview, whenever a music video by the Clash appeared on the club's television, Kyung-rock jumped over the table and rushed to watch. He tried to imitate the performance, but soon stopped: "Well, my legs are too short for that."
Asked about the meaning of the name of the band, Yoon-sick suddenly became serious. "It cannot be simply defined," he says.
Cutting in, Kyung-rock says: "Let's get out of here. I need a beer."
While walking through Hongdae to a pub, the four slowly reveal the origins of the band's name.
It was 1993, and they were high school students at Junggyeong High School. One day they went to the Yongsan electronics market. On their way back, the four found themselves ravenously hungry, so they used their bus fare to buy a pack of walnut cakes from a street vendor. Forced to walk home, they started complaining about the long trip home on foot. One of them, no one remembers who, said, "You know, we oughta form a band. What do you think?"
"What would we call ourselves?"
"Hey, since we're whining over eating walnut cakes, how about 'Crying Nut?'"
And a legend was born.
But any legend takes time. The band made its debut in 1994, playing to a small group of friends in a deserted house in Seoul. A day later they were hanging out in the Hongdae area, as they often do even now, and visited Drug, run by Lee Seok-moon. Hearing a style of music at Drug reminiscent of celebrated punkers the Clash and the Sex Pistols, Crying Nut asked to audition.
"We were wild," recalls Yoon-sick, laughing. "We not only sang, but went all out, breaking every bottle of beer, just because we were so excited."
Not much happened until Lee Seok-moon called them back to the club in early 1995. They started performing more than three times a week, and gradually built up a fan base by word of mouth. Lee Seok-moon established the independent record label Drug, and Crying Nut released their very first album, together with another underground rock band, Yellow Kitchen, titled "Our Nation."
People began showing up at Drug just to see this new band perform, but the album, like most independent albums, did not sell much. "We decided to roam around the peninsula, giving concerts until people got to know us," Sang-myun says.
It was tough, riding in a small van and, having been rejected by every record distributor, trying to sell their CDs to any record shop they saw. "I understood how hard it is to start from scratch," Kyung-rock says, "especially for an underground rock band in Korea. Back then I felt we were nothing more than a circus troupe."
Then they released their first full-length, solo CD in 1998, "Circus Magic Wanderers." Their hard work finally began to pay off. On the strength of their single "Mal Dalli-ja" ("Let's Ride Horses"), which actually broke into the cloistered pop charts, the album sold more than 70,000 copies. Their second and third albums did even better, both topping 100,000.
Crying Nut's fourth album is scheduled to come out some time before summer. Three years ago, the band played at Japan's Fuji Rock Festival.
Puffing on a cigarette, Sang-myun says that despite the band's success, "We are still peripheral on the overall local music scene."
To make a name as a singer, one has to appear on local entertainment TV shows, and is usually expected to crack silly jokes, something Crying Nut has no interest in doing. "We want to show that we can make it doing what we want to do," Sang-myun says, "even though it means going totally against the mainstream."
It is an attitude that rings true with their fans. At a recent concert, Lee Eun-mee, a high school student and self-professed Nuthead, says, "Crying Nut sings about me. They sing about people I can relate to, and they do it in their own style."
In 2001, Crying Nut starred in a small-budget digital film titled "Looking for Bruce Lee." Imagine a cross between "A Hard Day's Night" and "La Jetee." It was first screened at the Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival in the summer of 2001, then screened for two weeks at Artsonje Center. While not a box-office hit, Crying Nut made it memorable. "It was a kick to be in a film," says Kyung-rock, "but hey, we're rock musicians."
An important source of their musical inspiration, according to Yoon-sick, comes from listening to a variety of other artists. The four buy CDs all he time; recent purchases are Abba's "Definitive Collection" and the rhythm and blues singer T's "As Time Goes By." Most of all, the members say they cannot wait for the new Tom Waits.
"Truly, I feel blessed," Kyung-rock says. With a belch, he heads off to another bar with his three best friends.
Where have all the rock gods gone? Gone to Hongdae, every one.
Crying Nut performs irregularly at Drug (02-326-3085, 3055), and at numerous other shows around the peninsula. On Saturday, the band will play at Kyung Hee University. The show begins at 6 p.m. For information, call 1588-7890.
by Chun Su-jin