Bulssazo is a young band currently on the rise in Seoul. The band's furious guitar strumming, tuneful hooks, and buried vocals make lo-fi and shoegaze influenced rock sound fresh again. By day, frontman Sangchul Han writes liner notes at a local record label- among his works are releases by Beyonce and J. Lo. By night, his band Bulssazo has opened for heavyweights like Cocore and Mono (from Japan). An avid music fan, his disdain for boundaries in music is evident in conversation. At the same time, his band embodies many of the cultural tropes of indie rock- with their press-shy aversion to the spotlight, and their penchant for ironic and at times self-deprecating humor. In this interview, Sangchul shares with us Bulssazo's love for hiphop, the country life, and pro-wrestling among other things!
How did the members of Bulssazo first meet? What influenced you to start a band?
Our lineup has changed a few times. Our former members are all very important, but the story will be too long if I mention them all, so I'll just talk about the current members. The bassist Myunghoon Seo is my high school friend. Back then we had a band that covered songs by Pavement, Ride, Hooverphonic, Rage Against The Machine, and Divine Comedy. After our original drummer went away to study in New York, Young-il Ko joined us after leaving the band Paint Box (presently called Mineri).
Nothing in particular influenced me to start a band. Young-il used to be a B-Boy. Myunghoon was also in a dance club in high school and participated in dance battles. Both of them are highly skilled break dancers. We made a band just because we had the instruments. You know the AC/DC album Let There Be Rock? Yes, and there was rock.
When did you first become aware of local independent music?
It's not that important to distinguish indie or not indie, but the first generation of Korean indie bands was Crying Nut, Cocore, Yellow Kitchen, etc. I found out about them through events like “the Street Punk Show” that were held on the streets of Shinchon. The most important first generation Hongdae indie band for me personally is Pure Digital Silence (PDS). Seam's Sooyoung Park also selected their album as one of his favorites.
[ed. PDS's now out-of-print album may be downloaded from its label's website: http://www.balloonnneedle.com/]
When and how did you become aware of non-mainstream music from outside of Korea?
Non-mainstream? That's a vague term. All music in the world is beautiful, and I don't know when I first came to know of it.
To be more specific, how did you first hear about Pavement, Ride, Hooverphonic, etc.? They aren't exactly played on Korean mass media.
I bought their records after reading about them on PC Tong Shin (an early online dial-up system) or magazines. Pavement was licensed and released in Korea in the late '90s on the Pony Canyon Korea label. Hooverphonic was licensed in the early 2000s. A live video of Ride was released in the early or mid '90s. These bands may not appear on Korean mass media, but they were all officially released in Korea.
How and where was your first album "Furious Five" recorded? Was it a 4-track recording?
Actually it's not an official album. It was meant to be an EP, but because there were so many tracks, the label sold it at album price. I'm considering doing a recall on that release. It wasn't 4-track. We went to a good studio — “Studio Gong” where they mainly produce movie soundtracks and Korean traditional music. I had a very hard time deliberately making it sound dirty and deafening at such a good place.
I heard that your most recent album "I also will laugh at your disaster..." was recorded with a member of the Sokot band. What was it like working with him? Do you think he influenced the overall sound of the album, or did he mainly help to capture the sound of the band as it exists?
When you are a fan of a certain band, it can be such an honor to work with them. This experience was like that. The producer of our album was Sokot's guitarist Hyunmin Park, and he influenced the sound greatly and suggested new directions as well. While capturing the sound of the band as it exists, we also sampled from many vinyl LPs.
Do you have any plans or schedule as to how you will approach the third album?
We are still working on the schedule. We'll let everyone know once it's finalized.
I know you guys are big fans of underground hiphop. Did you ever think about getting involved in hiphop instead of, or in addition to, rock music? Why did you go with rock, as opposed to hiphop?
I'm not only a fan of underground hip hop, but mainstream hip hop as well. As I mentioned earlier, we have two B-Boys and a turntablist. The boundary between rock and hip hop is meaningless. Just as the Roots may be considered a rock band, I think we also can be considered a hiphop group. The album title Furious Five comes from Grandmaster Flash's backing members' names. Why did we decide to do rock? No particular reason. Let there be rock.
What do you guys think of the indie hiphop scene in Korea? How does it compare to the indie rock scene?
I never thought deeply about the scene. However, one thing I know from working at a record label is I hear other people in the industry say that Korean indie hip hop fans buy more CDs than indie rock fans. It seems like there's a sort of brotherhood at work in the scene. There are only a few Korean hip hop groups that people go crazy about- otherwise, there is not much interest. I recommend DJ Soulscape who is not only a great person but in every way the best in Korea.
What about the term "indie" itself- what does it mean to you? Does it connote a style? Is it an ideology? Or is it just a term used to dismiss artists who are "less popular"?
It carries no meaning for us. Would a koala understand that people call it “koala”? Or would it care? In Korea, less popular artists are commonly called “indie”. There is no case like in the US where an independent band gets on the Billboard chart.
Wouldn't Crying Nut be such an example in Korea? They were able to find success without going through the majors.
How should I explain this? No matter how successful Crying Nut has become, they are not at the level of Korean idol groups. I wouldn't say that the indie market is isolated [from the mainstream], but I have actually heard people who don't have much interest in the indie scene say that Crying Nut is still a strange "indie" rock band. Of course, from the indie point of view, they are superstars.
When you guys recently made the "Junwon Ilgi" t-shirts [“Junwon Ilgi” or “Country Diary” is a drama about rural life that has been running on Korean TV since 1980], Sangchul offered to meet buyers in person in front of his house or outside his workplace. Did you have any interesting experiences in meeting these people in person? Did you guys manage to sell off all the shirts? How did the idea for them come about?
Except for turning down a request for an autograph, there were no special incidents. There are no shirts left for some sizes and only a few are left. Rather than call it an “idea”, I'd say it was more a payment of respect to a farming village drama that I have watched since childhood. Because I've done a lot of rural work, I really liked that drama a lot… It's one of the “old-school” projects that I've been thinking about doing for a long time. In Korea there is less respect for the old-school than in other countries. I don't know if it's because everybody is only into technologically advanced stuff, but it's unfortunate.
When and where did you do rural work? What kind of stuff did you do?
Every summer vacation when I was in grade school, I went to work at Gamgok-myeon, Chungcheongbuk-do. My grandmother and uncle are farmers. I picked peaches, pulled weeds, and helped out with other chores. I still have the mower (for mowing grass around the grave) that I used every year. Of course, rural work is not fun. It's lonely and strenuous. When my uncle's music/coffee shop went bankrupt, all the LPs were brought to the country home. At the time there was bad TV reception, so I only listened to music. One of our songs “Jee-ok aesuh on Nongboo” ["Farmer From Hell"] is dedicated to my uncle. He is a passionate farmer and I learned a lot from him.
Also, when are you guys going to make an actual Bulssazo tshirt?
We call ourselves Bulssazo for convenience sake, but the truth is we don't have a band name. Therefore, there is no Bulssazo t-shirt either.
Sangchul, this last question is for you. Why is pro-wrestling better than mixed martial arts?
I wouldn't say that one is better than the other- it's just a matter of preference. Pro-wrestling is dramatic and it's sports-entertainment. However, when mixed martial arts fans denounce pro-wrestling as low level, I get very angry. There are a lot more severe injuries in pro-wrestling than in mixed martial arts. Who in mixed martial arts throws his body down to a floor filled with pushpins or nails like Mick Foley? Who in mixed martial arts jumps down from 5 meters up with no protection like Jimmy 'Superfly' Snuka? What mixed martial art CEO jumps off bleeding onto a floor full of glass?
Thank you Sangchul and Bulssazo!
VIDEO: Bulssazo "Ssibal"
VIDEO: Bulssazo @ Bbang 2007-10-04
VIDEO: Bulssazo "London" (Pet Shop Boys cover)