Chang Kiha and the Faces: An indie sensation
Chang Kiha and the Faces’ rise to stardom is reminiscent of the old-school, small-band-strikes-gold fables from decades past.
With no backing by a major label, the band burst onto the local music scene in 2008 and instantly saw success, much to the surprise of the band members themselves, with its mega-hit self-produced EP “Cheap Coffee.”
The title track, a folky, ’70s-esque ode to disillusioned youth and the loneliness of urban life, catapulted the band to overnight stardom, making its front man, Chang Kiha, the poster child for the “880,000 Won Generation” (a local term referring to Korea’s younger generation struggling with growing youth unemployment, part-time jobs and monthly salaries of 880,000 won, or $776).
By the next year, Chang Kiha won an unprecedented three Korean Music Awards, including Best Song of the Year. In Korea, where preadolescent idol acts pop up at a dizzying speed and K-pop hype knows no boundaries, Chang Kiha and the Faces provides a breath of fresh air, serving as the Bruce Springsteen antidote to the Debbie Gibsons of the scene.
The group’s retro folk sound and witty lyrics about everyday life in Seoul have won over fans from both the indie circles and the general public while also earning critical praise, making the band somewhat of an oddity here. In addition to concerts and regular TV appearances, Chang is also the host of his own daily radio program, “Chang Kiha’s Great Radio.”
Last year, the group released its second full-length album “Chang Kiha and the Faces” with two new members - Yohei Hasegawa (guitar) and Lee Jong-min (keyboard) - and saw its backup vocal and dance team, the Mimi Sisters, drop out.
Along with its popularity here, the band has also been one of the more globally savvy acts of the local indie scene, releasing albums in and touring throughout Japan. This month, the band is heading across the East Sea once again to perform at the Summer Sonic Festival in Tokyo after playing at its sister festival, Super!Sonic, at Olympic Park next Tuesday.
The Korea JoongAng Daily caught up with the band (except for drummer Kim Hyun-ho, who is fulfilling his mandatory military service) in its studio in northern Seoul last week before the musicians head off to Japan.
Q. You became an overnight success with the single “Cheap Coffee.” Why do you think this song became such a massive hit?
A. Chang Kiha: We had no idea that people would like the song that much - we initially only printed 100 copies of the “Cheap Coffee” EP. More than anything, luck was really on our side. When the song came out, I think Koreans were starting to get bored with the same old style of songs in the mainstream scene, and our song was something different. Also, the lyrics, even though it was unintentional on my part, spoke to people, especially those of the younger generation who are frustrated with the social climate of the country and uncertain about their future here.
When did you first realize that you had become famous?
Lee Min-ki: When we performed at the Ssamzie Sound Festival after releasing “Cheap Coffee,” there were around 20,000 people in the audience and they were all singing along and dancing to our music. It was quite surreal, and I think we started to realize that we were going to go big. But I think it is different between Kiha and the other members. I don’t think the rest of us are recognized by the public to the degree that it would make us uncomfortable.
Jeong Jung-yeop: It’s really rare, but when someone recognizes me, I feel grateful. [Laughs]
As you said, out of the members, Chang Kiha, as a songwriter, lyricist and vocalist, is perhaps the one in the limelight, often appearing on TV shows and interviews alone. Is this team dynamic frustrating for anyone? Do some of you want to have more creative input?
Lee Min-ki: Sometimes there is friction, but it’s rarely about this team dynamic. The other members, including myself, all came into the band knowing that the main creative talent in the band is Kiha, and I think we are all happy with doing the best with our respective roles in the band.
Jeong Jung-yeop: It would have been a different story if, for example, the songwriter were Lee Min-ki but Chang Kiha got all the spotlight for being good looking. If that were the scenario, I think we would have been upset, but Chang Kiha and the Faces started with Kiha’s vision, and in the end, it is his band.
Chang Kiha: And I buy them lots of meals. [Laughs]
Lee Jong-min: And we are all working on our own music on the side. I think as musicians, it is important to keep creating things by yourself.
The songs in your first album sound like folky, singer-songwriter music, while your second album sounds entirely different, with a fuller, more band-like sound. What brought on this change?
Chang Kiha: For the first album, I did almost everything, from song-writing and lyrics to producing. For the second album, even though I wrote the songs, all the band members participated in the production and instrumentation. So basically, I made a demo and the members added to it. For our third album, we intend to take this route as well.
Are your tastes in music similar?
Lee Min-ki: I think we have a common denominator as far as our main influences go, but we differ a bit as well. We all like The Beatles, The Doors, Bob Marley, Sanwoollim .?.?.
Jeong Jung-yeop: Our common thread is that we like old music. Up until recently, my favorite was The Beatles, but recently I started to really get into The Kinks. We do listen to current music like The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Black Kids, but for me, if I listen to these new bands constantly, it tends to tire me out because the sound is quite fancy and complicated. So I go back to the old songs.
Chang Kiha: I’ve been into St. Vincent lately. And I’ve always liked the Talking Heads, Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed. But I think our tastes in music are still evolving.
Compared to other indie acts that gained mainstream recognition around the same time you guys did, Chang Kiha and the Faces hasn’t done a lot of “commercial” stuff, like being in TV advertisements or some major campaign for a brand. Don’t you want to make more money?
Chang Kiha: We have never done a TV commercial. This was intentional on my part because I didn’t want the band’s identity to quickly be swayed a certain way. My thinking was that the popularity of our first album was mostly due to luck. I didn’t want to engage in these commercial activities until we could prove to people that we have substance as a band and our music can surpass the instant, lucky success of the first album. Last year, our second album came out, and I think we were able to prove this, so if a good opportunity arises, we would be open to commercial things now.
The Mimi Sisters dropped out in 2010. They were a big part of Chang Kiha and the Faces’ performances and visuals with their retro-style stage costumes and dancing. Has their absence impacted the band a lot?
Chang Kiha: The Mimi Sisters were part of this retro concept that we were trying to achieve on a performance level. In the beginning, I thought it would be a good idea for someone to take charge of that sort of stage presence. But when we released our second album, I wanted to focus more on the music itself and give off more of a band vibe. I don’t want to offend the Mimi Sisters, but I think we, as a band, have filled the void. These days, I don’t play guitar on stage but concentrate on singing and getting the audience involved.
Your lyrics are mostly grounded in reality and give funny insights into everyday life as a young person living in Korea. Are they all autobiographical?
Chang Kiha: Yes, most of the lyrics are my own stories. When “Cheap Coffee” first came out, some people criticized the lyrics, saying that the stuff about not having enough money and feeling like an outsider in this society was far from the reality of my own life because I graduated from Seoul National University and was not poor. In a way, that is true. But the lyrics were not about poverty. The song was about the emotion of feeling like I had nothing. Even though I went to a good school, I couldn’t imagine myself getting a nine-to-five job and working as an office worker. I felt desolate. The song was about those feelings.
You are performing at the Summer Sonic Festival in Japan this month. You’ve performed in Japan a number of times previously and even have licensed albums in Japan. Compared to the fans in Korea, how are Japanese fans?
Chang Kiha: I think because our songs are in Korean, Japanese fans are able to catch the sound and melodic aspects of the songs more. In general, Koreans are more responsive during performances. They all sing along and dance around, but Japanese fans are more subdued and quiet.
Do you have any plans as a band to venture abroad? Maybe release songs in North America or Europe?
Chang Kiha: We are happy with where we are at right now in Korea, but I think for bands that want to go abroad, they need to do music that only Koreans can do. It doesn’t have to be traditional Korean music but just do music in a way that Westerners have not heard of before.
Yohei Hasegawa: I totally agree. When I do gigs in the U.S., whenever I play blues music or folk, the locals will be like, “Why are you doing that?” But when I do something a bit more Asian, maybe like India-influenced psychedelic music, they’d be like “Wow!”
What is your biggest concern as a band these days?
Chang Kiha: The overall concept for our third album, in my mind, is somewhat set now, so I don’t have a lot of concerns about that at the moment. But I always worry about the balance in doing something new but also offering something that the public will feel is accessible.
By Cho Jae-eun [firstname.lastname@example.org]