Posted on November 06, 2014
Yongsu Choi (guitar/cajon/melodion) was living a tough life as a songwriter, making ends meet day by day. One day, though he doesn’t recall why the thought came to him, he decided to start a band. Since you can’t have a band by yourself, he decided to sweet-talk Junhee Han, a close friend, to join him. Surprisingly enough, he succeeded in persuading him. They put out a posting in a musicians’ community website to recruit a female vocalist. Over 20 people applied, but Manju’s singing was definitely unrivaled. From here came Manju Pocket. After about six months of tedious trial and error, Manju Pocket was able to release their 1st single, Night Cat, and over the past year and half or so have released seven singles and one EP, and continue marching on.
I had my first experience watching a live performance of theirs at Auteur in October, and was most struck by their unique and entertaining chemistry on stage, as well as their versatile and catchy song-writing. Manju’s vocals ring beautifully over the carefully crafted melodies and rhythms of the band, and it’s impossible for the listener to not start toe-tapping and singing along. In addition to their special sound and style, I had the pleasure of spending some time one afternoon at a coffee shop with the band, and found that their upbeat, playful style is ever-present among the members. We got to chatting about all aspects of their history, music and inspirations and I hope all can find it as enjoyable to get to know them through words on a screen as it was to do so in person. Grab a manju pocket and enjoy the soul~
Yongsu Choi : Actually, the bass player worked at a venue we played at a while back, the same venue where I hit the bench.
Manju : He was in charge of engineering there, but we had heard that he was a pretty good bass player, so we decided to recruit him. We played shows with the four of us for a while, but we decided we needed a drummer for larger places. So, we asked the bassist to find someone he has experience playing with, because we thought it was very important for the bassist and drummer to have that kind of synergy.
Manju : You know manju is like the little snacks they sell around subways and stuff? Since I was young, people always told me that I look like some kind of bread, because my face is kind of…well, I always identified myself with bread. When we first started our band, I was trying to think of a name for myself because I wanted to have a unique name. One day, I was walking through the subway station and I thought, “I have to be Manju!” And the pronunciation is kind of cute and unique. So I decided to become Manju, and then in late 2012, we got to play in a small indie-acoustic festival on Nami Island. We didn’t have a name for our band yet since we had recently formed, so we realized we had to make a name for ourselves. Eventually I thought, why don’t we just be “Manju Pocket” and then if we don’t like it, we can change it later. It was a name that just came out spontaneously, but we ended up keeping it. So later on, we put meanings to it, like how manju is easily approachable to everyone, and gives you a warm and healing experience in the middle of your everyday life. Manju is kind of warm and healing for you, so it’s kind of like our sound.
Yongsu : It just seemed better to add a woman to the band. If we were just three guys, it seemed kind of boring to me. It’s kind of dark with all men.
Manju : Actually I asked him that when we met, and he said he didn’t really have a reason, just that three males, that’s, “No, no, no,” so it would be better with one female member.
Junhee Han : I was really interested in the soundtracks of films and animated movies, so started playing music. I learned piano, and I learned cello as well.
Manju : Oh, I didn’t know you played cello, too.
Junhee : I studied composition and music writing in university.
Manju : He’s the only one who majored in music at university.
Yongsu : I used to really like rock music.
Manju : Did you used to have long hair?
Yongsu : When I was 20, I told you.
Manju : Eww! I don’t want to picture that.
Yongsu : I don’t have any pictures from then. Anyway, I liked classic rock, like the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix. Also Metallica, Megadeth…so I listened to a lot of rock music and I wanted to start playing rock music (actually, I still do!).
Manju : I can do rock. I can do it!
Yongsu : I wanted to play rock, but I was also into pop music. I was especially into folk as well, like Kim Kwangseok and Yoon Sang. So, I listened to a variety of genres. However, after I started my music career in university, I had to make ends meet, so I took any kind of music work that was given to me. I got into musicals, advertisements, classical, film scoring, and so on. But when I started this band, I was trying to figure out what kind of music would suit Manju’s vocal style the best. That’s how we came to focus on a kind of soul music with Korean style. I learned music composition at Seoul Jazz Academy. Since then I kept on doing music, and work just came in. Thus, music became my profession…..but I was a philosophy major.
Manju : It doesn’t seem like it.
Yongsu : Manju majored in business administration and psychology. That’s even weirder.
Manju : As for me, I have played the piano and violin since I was young. My whole family plays a variety of instruments as well. When I was young, I was in the school orchestra, and my brother was in band. In high school, I started listening to American pop songs. At that time, R&B was really popular, and I was really into soul and R&B music. Then I started singing in a band in high school, and when I went to university, I joined a hip-hop R&B group and started singing those kinds of songs. After I started working at a company, I wasn’t really involved in music at all. But then I decided I wanted to get back into it, and I found these people. And as he said, we tried to find the music that would fit us, and we started making the style music we are playing now.
Manju : Most of our songs are written by Yongsu. He’s the leader and producer of our band, so he does most of the writing. Junhee does most of the arranging. I bring some songs too, a very small amount of our songs are written by me. Actually, I write a lot of songs, but Yongsu tosses everything out.
Yongsu : No! We use a lot of your songs as well.
Manju : I bring a lot of songs and he says, “That’s terrible!” and just tosses them.
Yongsu : As for me, melodies used to come first. I keep my cell phone with me at all times so I can record a new melody at any time it comes to me. But nowadays, I sometimes come up with lyrics first. I just find words in everyday life. Later on, I try matching the lyrics to some melodies I have. Anyway, when I have the melody I make a rough midi version of it and hand it over to Junhee. Then he arranges it and records the piano. After that, Manju comes and records a vocal guide. Then we work on it all together to eventually finalize a song.
Manju : I write a lot of songs, and bring them in, and they are all tossed out. So maybe one out of a zillion songs survive.
Yongsu : No, looking at the survival percentage, we do take a lot of your songs. I write about two to three new songs every week. Since I am a songwriter, it is just like a habit to write songs at all times. So, I have a lot of songs and bring only a few of them to the table. But MJ brings us every single song she writes. Looking at the portion, a lot of them survive.
Manju : Whatever. I bring everything, it’s all tossed.
Yongsu : Actually, Junhee is a great song writer and composer, but once I tossed one song he brought, so now he doesn’t bring any new songs.
Manju : Junhee studied composition, so he has a core part because he arranges practically everything we do.
Yongsu : He does all the hard stuff.
Manju : There’s a recent trend in Korea reflected in this. These days, there is a slang term used widely by young people in Korea and captured in a variety of songs and other types of cultural work, which is “some”. “Some” refers to when two people go out on a few dates, and they talk on the phone and message each other, but they haven’t had any kind of relationship conversation to make it official. This situation is “some,” from the word “something”, and the man becomes “some man” and the woman “some woman”. It’s used quite a bit these days.
Yongsu : As a result of its popularity, I wanted to write a song about this situation, specifically from the woman’s perspective. When you are in the state of “some” with someone, you tend to be sensitive to every little thing that person does, and your mood easily goes up and down depending on what he says or does. It’s not even big things that a person does that make you depressed or happy when you like someone; it’s really small things. We captured that kind of situation with the expression “I cry and laugh because of you, I cry and laugh even during sleep” which is used in the chorus. That’s where the title “During Sleep” came from.
Manju : In a relationship, if it’s a ‘boyfriend’ who’s not texting her or whatever, she can say something to him like “Why didn’t you text me!?” because their relationship is official. But since they are just in “some” situation, she can’t even say anything to him and just has to pretend to be cool about it. Anyways, in Korea and in songs like this, the female tends to be expressed to be rather passive, but we wanted to portray a proactive female in our song.
Yongsu : Also our intention was to convey a dual meaning in our song. We wanted the listeners to add their own imagination to the song. Actually, a singer/songwriter named Eumlansonyeon, who uses these kinds of dual meaning expressions a lot, is featured in this song. He is becoming quite popular recently. He is a friend of Manju’s. So she asked him to play with us on this song “During Sleep”. Anyways, he has a lot of songs like this one, which can have two meanings. The listener can imagine a lot of different things from a song (which is our intention).
Junhee : I like “Hungry.” It’s a ballad and it’s a piano song.
Manju : You know, we rarely play that song. I wrote it, and it was actually not tossed out! The lyrics are all in English. I tried to write it in Korean, but it felt a bit awkward, so I left it in English.
Junhee : Because it’s a piano song, we can play it without Yongsu.
Manju : Ahh, now I see why it didn’t get tossed out!
Junhee : So, it’s our one English song, and it was arranged by me, so I really like it.
Manju : I like that song, too. But for me, my favorite song to play is “Night Cat”. It was our first single. Yongsu wrote it about a stray cat that he saw everyday around our studio. It means a lot to me because it was one of the first songs that I started to play as a professional musician, and personally, I like the style as well.
Yongsu : I like “During Sleep.” It’s the most exciting song to play for me because of the rhythm. The drum beat and the guitar playing, it all makes the song fun to play.
Junhee : I was a composition major, so I had a lot of experience working by myself in the industry, but not as a piano player on stage. So, initially, while I think we were all nervous about performing, I was especially so at our first gigs.
Yongsu : Being the leader of our band, I had a lot of thoughts on how I should manage it. I think communication is the core in leading a group. But at first, the ways of communication and the process of work were quite different among the band members. I had my own style of work and communication which had become habit; not to say it’s necessarily good or bad. My understanding and methods of communication were especially different from Manju’s. So at first, it was really difficult to narrow the gap.
Manju : So where he had a lot of experience in the music industry, I had about five years of experience working in a company that emphasized communication and strategic thinking among the team. At first, I challenged him a lot in terms of communication and how we would lead our group to the goal that we had. So at first we spent of lot of time working that out. But apart from that, I mean, on the music side, I had some experience singing, but it was mostly a hobby for me, so we also had to determine with my singing style what direction our band would go. I mean, he had me sing all kinds of songs before we found our style. I think we are still on that path, too…. to really define our style. We always want to learn and grow more.
Junhee : I think I like the fans the most. This is my first band, so it’s all a very new experience for me. The fans tell me that my piano playing is great and it is very encouraging for me. Now we play lots of shows and see our fans, and I’m not that nervous anymore thanks to them.
Manju : I really like being in this band because of the group we have, and the system we have. We are equally supportive of each other, listening to each of our opinions, and we always put our all into everything we do. I think this may not always be the case for some other bands. I really like working with my members, and I’m really happy to be in Manju Pocket.
Yongsu : Above all, it’s fun. I generally used to do music work alone with midi using a computer. This was hard at times, and I even thought of quitting from time to time. But with our band, I’ve never thought of quitting. When we perform and play together, it’s much more enjoyable for me. So first of all, it’s fun. Secondly, well I think what Manju said was right on. Our collaboration and chemistry as a band is great. There’s a good chemistry among us and each of us has our unique character, and so we’re a good combination.
Yongsu : The hardest thing for me is that in Korea, some people tend to disregard musicians. For some reason, people don’t really take musicians seriously.
Manju : I think in a lot of countries, people don’t really discriminate against different professions. But in Korea, there is like an imaginary hierarchy of occupations. Like there are the professionals, doctors and lawyers, etc, and then it goes down from there and then at the bottom, where musicians are usually put. They call musicians “딴따라” [Ddanddara], which is a word disrespectful to musicians. So there is a very tangible discrimination that’s present on the musicians in Korea.
Yongsu : Yes. It’s not necessarily a hardship, but I do think the social perception on musicians is very low in Korea.
Manju : Since Yongsu brought that up…Three days ago, I was a marketer in a big company and now I quit that job, and am now solely working for an indie band. But when I had both jobs, as a marketer and indie singer, I felt a big difference when I was myself the marketer versus when I was Manju singing in Manju Pocket. I truly feel the difference in the perceptions people have in my social status or something.
Yongsu : Besides that, since we are a self-managed band in an independent management (actually run by myself), compared to bigger companies it’s inevitable that we lack some capabilities including money, power, etc. But these two help out a lot on running our team, so thanks to that we are pretty good. So overall for myself, there aren’t so many major difficulties to being a musician.
Manju : One of the hardships that I feel being an indie band in Korea is that it’s hard to get a lot of exposure. There aren’t a lot of platforms or media to help expose our music to the public or anonymous groups of listeners. So it’s very hard to recruit potential fans or listeners to Manju Pocket or any other indie group here. There just isn’t a lot of opportunity for exposure unless we have a lot of money, or we are in a very big management company. We have to do it ourselves. So, that’s one of the difficulties I notice.
Junhee : It upsets me when people around me do not take my profession as a musician seriously or even discourage the career I pursue. They say things like “Do you think you can get famous with that?”, “Can you make a living with that?” and more….and they worry about me. These kinds of comments frustrate me.
Yongsu : I think it is in Korean culture to have the tendency to be interested in and worried about other people’s lives. I guess that’s one of the reasons we get this attention from people around us about being musicians.
Yongsu : For me, it was Greenplugged. That was a fun performance. That was special and really enjoyable.
Manju : We were on a small stage there. We haven’t done a lot of outdoor performances, but that was outside and there were a lot of people there. It was really fun for me as well.
Junhee : “Green Friends,” which was the audition program to get into Greenplugged. I liked that show a lot. We were in the top 5 for Green Friends, and there was a final ‘audition performance’ held to select one winner to go on to Greenplugged. The fans there voted on who would win, and while we didn’t win, it was really fun. And we were later scouted to play at Greenplugged on a smaller stage.
Manju : It hasn’t been very long since we added the drummer. We’ve had two, no three, including Soundberry, performances with him. But the most recent one, it was a club show, ah, the one DoIndie came to! I like that one because you were there^^ Actually, it was our first show in a live club with a drummer, so we were kind of excited and everyone was hyper. It was really fun having a drummer on stage in a club. It was one performance that was really memorable, and it made me revisit how to perform at our shows.
Interview : Brian Gilbert
Korean Translation : 만쥬 (Manju)
Edited by : Jamie Leigh Gilbert
For more information on the band, check them out at the following sites :
Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/Manju1bag
Official Site : http://www.fondantsound.com/manju-1-bag/
Twitter : https://twitter.com/manju1bag
DoIndie : http://www.doindie.co.kr/en/bands/manju-one-bag