Sounds of IronyThe two band members of Uhuhboo Project, despite their poetic way of presenting socio-political messages, have often been portrayed in the Korean mainstream media as eccentric bullies from the underground music scene. In fact, they were nicknamed "Foul Kings of the Music World" after the band contributed songs to the original sound track of the film "The Foul King." The satirical film about a bank teller who turns into a pro wrestler by night suggests the unpredictable changes in Uhuhboo's style of music.
The name uhuhboo means both a fisherman and the father of a fish. Like the band's music, which is full of puns, the term was chosen to provide a sense of irony. Uhuhboo's music － and its irony － first appeared in 1995. The band's fan base, though growing, is still not large, though it remains extremely loyal. The band recently appeared as a gay couple in the popular Korean film "Flower Island," which won an award at this years' Busan International Film Festival's main competition.
"Perhaps the only consistency I can think of about our past albums is a mixed sense of attentiveness to detail and a little bit of looseness," says the 29-year-old vocalist and songwriter Baek Hyun-jin, or "Maboo," (meaning father of a horse) as he calls himself, while explaining the public reaction to their latest cabaret-styled album, "21st Century New Hair." Maboo is sitting at a corner table in the club Sori, in Hongdae, where the band members frequently drop by after playing a few gigs in the live theater upstairs. "I would think the attention to detail comes mostly from the bandmaster Young-kyu, and the looseness is from myself."
Clad in a baggy, hooded jacket and a dark pair of horn-rimmed glasses, Maboo looks rather serious, giving out a few sardonic, uninspired smiles when the conversation begins with the mainstream music scene in Korea. Maboo speaks slowly, often with twisted humor and an odd selection of adjectives when he describes his likes and dislikes.
Maboo talks briefly about his college years while he was majoring in sculpture at Hongik University. After two years of studying in one of the most prestigious fine arts programs in Korea, he withdrew from the school. "At that time, I just didn't want to have a fine arts degree from Hongik University," he says sighing. Instead, Maboo went on to study with the club musicians he hung out with in the area.
Jang Young-kyu, the duo's instrumentalist and four years older than Maboo, sits relatively quiet. Whenever Maboo falls into an infrequent silence, Jang speaks a few words. Otherwise, Jang nods and laughs, but mostly speaks to people through his childlike blank face, which seems to suggest that he doesn't care.
"But he never gets swept away," says Maboo of his band mate. "I tend to get swept away more easily," he shyly says and then goes on to explain about the heated discussion he had with friends recently when the government announced that they would replace all the outdoor food vendors selling traditional Korean foods with hamburgers and sandwiches for the World Cup 2002.
"I got so angry that evening I ended up drinking all night with friends," Maboo says. "But eventually I came to a conclusion that my gestures were rather useless. I am beginning to feel that maybe it's not good for artists to be swept up by things too easily." He empties a large glass of ice water and asks the bartender in the club to lower the volume of the music. Jang smiles and continues to drink his Coke.
Though Maboo tends to show a visceral distaste for terms like "independent" and "underground," which often surround the band, he does admit that their lyrics favor various minority groups in Korean society in many sarcastic ways. "But I don't feel a sense of duty to represent anybody when I write songs," Maboo stresses.
In the song "Surreal Mama" from their latest album, Uhuhboo presents the story of a perplexed son who one day discovers that his mother has undergone a sex-change operation. "Chinese Sisters," from the same album, is a disturbing ballad about the exhausting lives of two Chinese sisters in Korea who make a living by stringing beads in a small room.
Maboo says that the subject matter for his songs is often based on guilt, in particular the guilt of having been so indifferent to the people around him. By writing songs about people he has slighted, Maboo says he gains a means of self-healing.
"I remember from elementary school that I drew a funny cartoon of this Chinese girl in our class who had an oversized head. I passed the drawings around the school and ended up ostracizing her from the other kids," he says.
Jang, who composes most of the band's songs, says it's difficult to understand the people who find Uhuh boo's music disturbing. Jang says he always tries to make the songs as beautiful as he can, even when the lyrics go on about men who live in gutters or a son who looks at his mother's bushy mustache. "I am amused when we sometimes perform in front of kids living in the countryside," he says. "They seem to really absorb our songs in an innocent way."
The band's cult fans typically call Uhuhboo's songs "highly theatrical." Perhaps the thing that makes Uhuhboo so interesting is how the band often deviates from the strict confines of music and looks for simulation in other dramatic fields of art. For the last 10 years the band has contributed onstage music for the avant-garde contemporary dancer Ahn Eun-mi. Last month, the band went to Wuppertal, Germany, to perform with Ahn at the Pina Bausch Festival, a dance event organized by the forerunners of the neo-expressionist choreographer Pina Bausch. Recently, the band members played a few songs in a circus, performed in musicals and participated in various original sound tracks for films.
"It's not like we consciously make our music all theatrical," Maboo says. "We are just naturally influenced by some of the traditions we grew up with." He names "Animal Farm," a popular tune sung by Korean comedians in the 1960s, as an example of the frequent use of animal sounds in their songs.
"Our music is often compared to artists like Tom Waits and Screaming Jay Hawkins. But I think we still have a long way to go," Maboo says. "It's nice because it means we are still open to changes."
More in Features
[Shifting the Paradigm] With one epidemic under control, another is threatening Korean society
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it