Posted on March 15, 2019
The Yangbans, who have released a trilogy of albums [Love Songs], [Revolution Songs] & [Vagabond Songs] are back after a break forced upon them when band leader and vocalist Jun Bum Sun had to take time out for military service. The band’s music is rooted in rock and roll, but includes includes influences from a wide variety of other genres. On top of their strong sound their unique visual character (Jun Bum Sun has his hair in a traditional top knot style and wears a Hanbok on stage) makes them a hard band to forget once you have seen them live. Over the winter we meet Jun Bum Sun in the Seoul neighbourhood of Haebang Cheon to chat about his music and various other cultural projects.
Jun Bum Sun: I am Jun Bum Sun from the band 'The Yangbans'. Aside from that, I do a lot of other musical and cultural things as well.
Jun Bum Sun: Well, first of all, I reformed my band 'The Yangbans'. The original members had all started other jobs while I was away in the army, except for one guy. So I recruited some new members, and now there are 5 of us, including a new keyboard player. At the moment we’re finishing off the new album. Aside from music, I have a few other things I’m working on as well. First, I opened a temple food restaurant called 'Soseek' in the Haebangchon district of Seoul. Second, I established a publishing company called 'Dooroomee Books', and we published our first book recently. Lastly, I recently bought a second hand bookstore with some partners. The store is called ‘Poolmoojil’.
Jun Bum Sun: There is a clause that restricts soldiers from profit-making activities while in service, which is ridiculous. As a musician, you need to earn money from making music, even when you're doing military service. So I was trying to find a way to continue making money without breaking the law, and the only way I could think of was to participate in contests and win the prize money. The Ministry of Unification runs an annual contest called the Uni Music Race, and the first prize is ₩10,000,000. I thought that this would be a good opportunity for me. I figured that if I wrote some lyrics that pleased the U.S Military, Ministry of Unification, and Ministry of Defense, I could make a profit legally with my music. So I decided to make that song.
Jun Bum Sun: Yes. Like a bounty hunter. If I had worked for 21 months for the minimum wage instead of being in the military service, I would have made more than 10,000,000 won. With that in mind, I deserve the money, right? (Ha ha)
Jun Bum Sun: Anyone who has done military service will know there is a song called ‘육군가 (The Army Song)’ that we all used to sing at the training centre. I liked it a lot; musically it’s a pretty good song. However, after my training period I was placed in the KATUSA (Korean Augmentation Troops to the United States Army) division and never got the chance to sing that song again. Like most war songs, the original version of the song ‘Frontline’ has a gloomy and almost unwelcoming vibe to it. I feel like all the soldiers from the United States, South Korea, and North Korea are in a similar unpleasant situation and probably feel some level of sympathy towards each other. I imagined a picture with Soyo Mountain at the center, the US Army and the ROK Army at the foot of the mountain, and the North Korean army beyond the mountain. With that picture in mind, I wrote new lyrics for the song (keeping the same title). I wanted to write something that both reflected my own ideology and also accurately accounted for the current situation here on the Korean peninsula.
Personally, I think the song embraces the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) as well. I think they’re in the most pitiful situation of all. I was not the happiest man when serving the military, but in the North they have to suffer for seven years. It’s the same for the US army guys too--a lot of them are really poor. There are many people who become soldiers because they simply want to get American citizenship. They get a lot of money comparatively, but I still feel sorry for them. The phrase “come with us” appears in the chorus of my version of ‘Frontline’. That’s the slogan of the US Second Infantry Division. It originally meant “USA and South Korea go together”, but in my song I wanted to send that same message to the North Korean soldiers too. It seems to me that the song matches the current government policy towards North Korea, and it reflects my own personal thoughts on it, too.
Jun Bum Sun: I thought a lot about that too. I claim to play ‘Joseon (Korean) Rock’ music. But what exactly is Joseon Rock? It seems like the root of it likely comes from the EUSA. If that is right, it means that the Joseon music I love does in fact come from the USA. It’s hard to trace the exact history of Korean modern music and break it down into obvious sections. However, I think that the music emanated from the EUSA as entertainment for the soldiers. After that, it probably went downtown and later on ended up in Hongdae. The audience is completely different of course, and as a result, the ‘colour’ of the music has changed somewhat as well. I lived in America and England for a long time, so I’m used to western ideology and probably think like a westerner to a certain extent. I wanted to do something different after coming back to Korea, so I found Joseon Rock and decided to do that. But it turns out that I’ve just ended up becoming a kind of American entertainment artist anyway.
Park Junghee banned the use of cannabis in Korea in 1975 and all the EUSA bands, including Shin Joonghyun, ended up going to prison or back to America. I see that as a bit of a turning point. Before 1975, there were lots of drugs and sex in the EUSA, and that formed the core of the rock ‘n’ roll culture, and whether you like it or not, it made a perfect background for downtown Seoul and Hongdae in the ‘80s and ‘90s. White and black music combined to create rock ‘n’ roll, and except for Japan and Thailand, the only places where rock ‘n’ roll met Asian music were Dongducheon and Paju, where there are several US Army bases. So basically, the bit I like about the Korean band music of the ‘60s and ‘70s is the ‘American’ part; I like the fusion of American genres with Korean modification.
After that, the Korean indie music of the 90s and 2000s is really different from previous Korean rock ‘n’ roll music. Most of the lyrics the artists write are kind of self-deprecating. I think the essence of rock ‘n’ roll is spirit and grit, but I don’t feel that grit here in Korea anymore. The audiences, who are mainly interested in cheap Americanos... Bands have reacted to that, and as a result the form of rock ‘n’ roll music has changed, and it doesn’t suit me really. I don’t think I have the right genes for it. I’ve been in the Korean indie scene for about eight years now and always end up wondering why I don’t like the songs that have become popular. Other people keep telling me that the Yangbans are a really ‘Korean’ band, but personally I think musicians like 10cm represent Korea much better than us. I think that the independent music being made in Korea these days is very ‘Korean’, but the Joseon music that I make suits the EUSA scene more than it does the Korean one. Back then it felt like music that came out of the EUSA was more of a mixture of American and Korean ethnicity than it is now. Bands like Songolmae had that mixed culture feel to them.
It seems to me that my musical roots can be traced back to the ‘70s, when the vestiges of Japanese imperialism started to disappear and the US military and Korea were blended together like a melting pot. I don’t hate indie, but I don’t like it when people call me an indie musician. I consider myself more of a rock ‘n’ roll guy. I also don’t feel like I need to write songs in the Korean language either. I used English for two years while I was a member of the the US Army, and my American friends say that I’m more American than they are. I went to college in the US and my friends are from Puerto Rico. I was more fluent in English than Korean. I am Korean, but ideologically feel more like an American; I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I am not some kind of intangible cultural property, so I’m free to think what I want, and I think that the root of Joseon Rock is the EUSA.
The most striking thing I’ve heard is that the band members of ‘Baekdusan’ hung the American flag on their rehearsal room wall, took a bath, and never ate kimchi again. They didn’t want to lose their American spirit. Yet to me, they seem like one of the most Korean bands there is. The members of that band, though, want to be more like Americans. When Koreans try American style, the result is something different, and I that’s the style I want to follow. I want to overcome the irony that I have become some kind of representative for Korean music.
Jun Bum Sun: Kind of. I was thinking a lot about identity while I was in the army. During my military service, I lived in an American command system on US territory in my homeland of Korea. Before going to the army, I saw Park Geunhye being impeached and Moon Jaein starting a new government. I went to the army thinking, ‘finally it’s time to realize true democracy and clean up the mess in Korea’, but my commander-in-chief ended up being Donald Trump, whether I liked it or not. I couldn’t help but feel that Korea was still a colony, and that was frustrating to me. I felt like I had no power at all. When I performed at Gwanghwamun in front of hundreds of thousands of people at the protests, I felt an enormous energy. Then, the next month I went to the US Army Training Center and they took down the portrait of Obama and hung Trump’s picture in its place on the wall. In the middle of such rapid situational changes, all I could feel was a sense of uselessness, and that I had no control.
I studied hard and got into the best high school in Korea, and they suggested that I go study in the US. It feels to me that there is some superstructure in place, and even if you become the best at something in Korea, you might eventually end up in the US. I’m not saying that I like it or I don’t, but I’ve just come to realise that this cycle is a part of me and decided to express it in my music. There have been lots of dramatic political events and ironic things that have happened in Korea. It doesn’t really matter what I think of them; from the standpoint of the universe, I am just a small artist who grew up and studied on the edge of the huge American empire, and who is now trying to come back and live in my hometown again.
Jun Bum Sun: When I was in Dongducheon, I met a critic named Choi Jiho, and we started the project together. Dongducheon holds a particular significance in Korean pop music history. But all the US military base towns are gone now, except for Dongducheon. There was one in Yongsan, but that too has moved further south now. For the younger generation, it’s hard to imagine the scenery of a military base town, and if you don’t know about the base town, you can’t fully know the roots of Korean pop music either. If you listen to Shin Joonghyun’s music now, it seems really amazing. Sanulim’s music is great too. However, Sanulim’s music has the vibe of the bourgeois from Seoul National University, which perhaps reflects more of a modern Korea. On the other hand, Shin Joonghyun’s music sounds more like American music with a little splash of local color.
When I was in the army I visited the base town in Dongducheon regularly on patrol. I could feel the American influence there. Shin Joonghyun could only have composed those songs because he lived in that kind of environment. The atmosphere was culturally similar to mine when I was living and performing in front of my friends in the US. I’ve come a long way to doing a full loop and finding that kind of environment here in Korea. This thought made me want to make some videos of the base town, which will disappear soon. However, there’s not much atmosphere left because of the suppression of the Park Junghee government, and the people there are somehow reluctant to talk about it. There seems to be a lot of sad history in the area. Dongducheon is, in fact, trying to hide its slightly seedy past and is trying to make rock music the main symbol of the city. There has been a rock festival there for around 21 years now, and they also have a rock museum. But while emphasizing rock music and its cultural significance, they have abandoned their full history completely. If you erase history like that, then it’s not possible to understand the background of the music that comes from there. I wanted to talk about those forgotten parts of history. The contents are almost ready, but I’m doing more research as we speak. We haven’t started shooting yet, and it would be nice to work with a broadcasting company on the project.
Mr. Choi Jiho is a critic at ‘Music Taste Y’ and a member of the Korean Music Awards committee as well. Now he’s working as a culture planner at Dongducheon. He’s the first critic who wrote about our album [Revolution Songs]. By chance, I got to see him often while I was working in Dongducheon. The elderly people there listen to rock ‘n’ roll in the street. You expect to hear trot songs, but everything you hear is old rock music. In some ways, the town was culturally isolated from the rest of Korea. It was said that the appearance of the town was almost like that of an entertainment complex. There were lots of brothels and prostitutes in the area, as well as American military bands.It’s kind of like Las Vegas I guess, and the government controlled the system and justified the exploitation of people within it. The people of the area became accustomed to such situations. There are various races of people living there, including Nigerians, Filipinos and Russians. It’s a very unique town in Korea. The Dongducheon US base should have been gone five years ago now, but nothing has happened so far. All the units moved to Pyeongtaek except the artillery. The base is going to disappear in three to five years I’d say, and I want to make a record of it before it’s gone. So I’m working on that with Mr. Choi. He’s got a research fund and he’s writing a paper about the town’s history. I want to make content that explains his dissertation to the public.
Jun Bum Sun: I feel like my first, second and third albums all contain traces from my amateur musician days. This album was a pure creation that was not intended to be either a professional or commercial release. I just made it and released it once it was done. I think there are waves in our lives, and it’s hard to be immersed in what you do if you miss the chances as they come and go. If the album [Revolution Songs] had not been released in March 2016, it wouldn’t have had such an impact on the public and would not have meant as much to me as it does now. The album [Vagabond Songs]; I made that in 2016 before I went to do my military service. I made it with aspirations of being a vagabond. The wandering could include my army period, but it is also about my musical journey. It seemed cooler to present my aspirations during the journey, rather than returning to them later once the journey was done. I signed to a label after my second album and they invested in the third album. However, because I had to join the military and thus could not tour the album or promote it properly, they would not be able to make any return on their investment. So I just told them to release it while I was serving my time in the military. Now we’re preparing something completely different and new.
Jun Bum Sun: The Korean name will still be ‘Jun Bum Sun And The Yangbans’. That name in English, though, is too long, so we shortened it to ‘The Yangbans’, a bit like the ‘Bangtan Boys’ who call themselves ‘BTS’. When I told my fellow soldiers that I was in a band called ‘Jun Bum Sun And The Yangbans’, I always had to explain the meaning of ‘Jun Bum Sun’ and the ‘Yangbans’ separately. So it was easier to just pick one, and we decided to go with ‘Yangbans’.
Jun Bum Sun: The Yangbans were the ruling / upper class of Korea. I say they are something a bit like a noble class. However, these days, they tend to see my photos from the [Revolution Songs] cover art first … so I just tell them that the Yangbans are something like the Japanese samurai. Ha ha ha!
Jun Bum Sun: No, no. The title [Hope Songs] was just a joke. There will be no more concept albums, since I don’t plan to release any full length albums for the foreseeable future. I’m just concentrating on music itself for now. The new members are amazing musicians, so I’m looking forward to playing with them. A characteristic of musicians from the EUSA is that they all play their instruments incredibly well, because they all have to play different kinds of music all the time. When they go to a black club they play soul music, when they go to a white soldier club they play rock ‘n’ roll, and when they’re at a white officer club, they play country music. I’m also trying to make various kinds of music. Our original songs had a hard rock vibe, but I think we can expand our style to incorporate other genres of music too.
Jun Bum Sun: Looking back it seems that a lot of my ideas came from my time in high school (Korean Minjok Leadership Academy). If I had gone to a foreign language school, I doubt I would have ended up wearing a hanbok or a topknot like I do now. They ordered the students to use English only and wear hanbok at my school. I didn't think it was all that weird at that time, but now it seems strange to me. The school’s Korean name means ‘ethnicity and history’, but they didn’t teach history as much as the name suggests. The English name of the school is just ‘Leadership Academy’. Anyways, there were pros and cons to studying history, and I think my identity developed as a negative reaction to the type of education I was exposed to. My school uniform was hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and our music club practice space was a hanok (a traditional Korean style house), so I was used to singing and playing guitar while in this traditional setting. It felt so natural to me, but when I think about it now, it was probably only me who feels like it is a natural thing; others probably see it as some kind of concept that I have thought up and am purposefully aiming for. It’s just something that I have embodied over time and has become my inspiration. Also, I get lots of linguistic concepts from the books I read as well. For example, I was inspired to write the song ‘Jihwaja’ when reading a book on the traditional Andong mask dance.
Jun Bum Sun: I listen to that kind of music every day without really ever trying to search it out; that’s just what I have listened to for a long time. These days I tend to search for hip hop more than anything else. I don’t know K-pop music so well, so I can’t really share in the joys of Sechskies or GOD with my peers. In my high school, people were familiar with American culture, and so we only listened to rock music, really. On top of that, I lived abroad in my early twenties. As a person who plays pop music in Korea, I have to communicate with the public, but I don’t really know the culture all that well. The things that I think are cool are often not considered cool over here. I think singers like Soran,10cm, Buzz, and SG Wannabe are the kinds of artists who represent Korea these days. To help myself bridge this culture gap, I watch TV shows like <Show Me The Money> and listen to idol music these days.
Jun Bum Sun: I think that Americans are now very aware of K-pop, and I think that they consider it to be very Korean too. The essence of what is Korean is actually changeable over time. The thing I feel sad about is that what might considered ‘Korean’ these days doesn’t really have any historical roots to it. Additionally, it is all a bit obsequious towards foreign culture. The way people tend to think stuff from abroad is ‘better’ in some way is a little bit embarrassing to me. There are things that exist here that I don’t really want to show my friends from other countries. BTS and Girls’ Generation are super popular even over in America. As a Korean, I have some kind of pride about that I guess, but that pride is similar to the pride I feel when seeing Hyundai and Samsung. Nothing more than that. It’s impossible to say that these things are really great and can only be found in Korea or anything like that. Britain is a culturally conservative country. If you visit Oxford, there are 800 year old pubs, and you can see they have a great pride in cultural continuity. Actually, I named the band after seeing the aristocrats in Oxford. They used to dine in capes and pray in Latin before eating. At first I found it ridiculous and somewhat repulsive, but somehow it became appealing to me in some way.
Jun Bum Sun: I think like to reconnect things that have become disconnected. However I don’t like things to be be contrived. In terms of music and in the case of America everything is connected. It started from folk music and over time, white folk music and black folk music combined to become jazz, ragtime, rock ‘n’ roll, and then disco. However, Korean folk songs have no connection with the pop music of today. So I think it gets awkward if you try to relate songs and styles of today to what is essentially an empty background. An idea I always have in the back of my mind is to bring the original spirit of something into the modern day.
I wanted to apply my music style to eating as well. I became a vegetarian to protect animal rights. They say that Korean vegetarianism has been influenced by western culture, but actually, it’s the opposite. Vegetarianism appeared in the UK around the 18th century, but it has its roots in Indian Buddhism and Hindu culture. In fact, the vegetarian diet in Korea has already been in place for over a thousand years. To me it seems to be similar to the phenomenon of pop music suddenly ‘becoming popular’ here because it is popular elsewhere. So I started the restaurant with two friends to reinterpret temple food in our own way.
Jun Bum Sun: Seven years ago. When I was in college, I read the book [Animal Liberation], and I couldn’t refute the book’s theory. So I became a vegetarian. I’ve been expanding my diet step by step and now I’m in fact a full vegan.
Jun Bum Sun: Basically, it’s a temple food restaurant, but it’s a little different from the restaurants of the Jogye Order. We sell traditional liquor and grilled skewers. We will also sell our own spirits and rice wine too. Yakju and soju also. It’s kind of like a tavern of sorts, so you could call it a temple where you can drink, I guess (ha ha)! I believe that drinking is the basis of spiritual training, so I sell alcohol and simple food dishes to those who want to eat. The meal is provided in a bowl like at a Buddhist temple. It’s vegan. I will run my restaurant that way. You don’t have to worry about the meal because there’s a separate chef, it’s not me cooking!
Jun Bum Sun: In the same context as I mentioned before, to preserve history. I majored in political history and did a master’s degree in it as well. After that, I declared that I would make music, but it felt like a bit of a waste to have studied so hard and not make use of it. I won’t stop studying for the rest of my life. I’m studying at the moment as well; I want to share all the things I have learned and communicate it to others. While I was in the army, the political situation changed a lot, and I think that now other ideologies can survive in Korea. Of course, there’s still the National Security Law, but I think that there is room for a wider range of ideologies than before. We collected the stories of Huh Jungsook, who is a North Korean socialist and a women’s libber, and published them in our first book. Next, we will collect stories of writers like Jang Junha. We’re going to publish the stories of persecuted people in North and South Korea.
Jun Bum Sun: I’d always dreamed of creating a second hand bookstore to go along with Dooroomee Books. Then I saw an article that said the bookstore Poolmoojil was in crisis and looking for someone to take it over to keep the spirit of it alive. After reading, I immediately visited the shop. ‘Poolmoojil’ literally means to stoke the fire with bellows. This shop was the place where they stoked the fires of revolution against the dictatorship. I plan to have this space light our the fires of our lives again. People say it’s hard to run an independent bookstore these days, but I believe it’s probably easier than being in an independent band. I think it’s better to sell books than CDs.
Jun Bum Sun: I started it with the wish to see rock ‘n’ roll music rise again. The center of the rock ‘n’ roll community seemed to be Ratdo’s Band Music channel, and there were a lot of people I knew there, so I ended up joining too. Technically, Ratdo’s Band Music is more focused on emotional indie music than rock ‘n’ roll. I DJ from 9 to 11 every Tuesday.
Jun Bum Sun: When I do things, I like to do them right. I started because my label told me to do it, because if you don’t have a channel, then it’s hard to survive these days. Personally, I’d like to talk more about politics than music. I admire Shin Haechul very much, not only his music but also his social activities. I want to become a person who talks well and openly like him.
Jun Bum Sun: I’d like to succeed in what I planned. The goals haven’t changed. All artists are doing it for fame, really. It would be self-deception if I denied it. I wouldn’t be playing music if I was only interested in money. If we reach the break-even point, then we’ll see where it goes from there. For now, I’m just trying to do what I planned.
Jun Bum Sun: I talked so much already.. (giggle) First of all, thank you for reading this interview. From this year, I’ll play loads of shows. Also, last year a couple of new members joined the crew, so we did a lot of preparation together. 2019 will be all about gigs. We’re going to have fun preparing as if practicing for a Korean traditional shamanic ceremony. The reason I do rock ‘n’ roll is so I can reach a trance-like state. My other activities that I talked about today may distract my fans from enjoying my music. So just ignore all of that; those things are my personal burden. Just come and enjoy seeing us play, and think of me as a showman first and foremost.
Interview : Minjip Kim, Yerim Lee
Translation : Songhee Roh
Edited by : Rock 'N Rose
For more information on the band, check them out at the following sites :