Kite Operations: (from left to right) Jie, Joe, Sung, Dave
Pil Ho Kim
Kite Operations is an independent rock band based in the New York City. All four members are of Korean-American origin, sprung up from the Korean immigrant community in New York. Joseph (Joe) Kim (g, v) and David (Dave) Yang (g, v) were born in the states, while Jie Whoon Kang (b) and Sung Shin (d) belong to the ‘1.5 generation’ who came from Korea at an early age. Kite Operations is about five years old, but the actual history is longer than that as Joe and Dave formed a band named Theselah along with two other – now departed – members way back in 1994.
Theselah recorded three albums between 1999 and 2002, all under their own label, K.O.A. records. After recruiting Jie and Sung, they released two EPs under the new band name, Kite Operations, in 2003. They embarked on their full-fledged flying mission with the first Kite Operations LP ‘Dandelion Day’ (2005), followed by ‘Heart Attacks, Back to Back’ (2007). Over the past few years, Kite Operations has frequently played live gigs around the New York area, toured the Midwest and the West Coast areas, and participated in Asian American rock festivals. For more information, as well as the music samples, visit their website.
Their ‘ethnic connection’ to Korea owes a great deal to Sung, the youngest member of the band who had been immersed in Korean indie music before coming to the states. His reaching out toward the Korean indie music community started bearing fruit as the Kite Operations LPs were licensed in Korea. Finally, the band earned an invitation to play at the 2007 Korean Festival in Seoul along with other overseas ethnic Korean musicians, including the Chinese rock legend Cui Jian. Kite Operations took full advantage of the opportunity, booking a mini-tour of three Korean clubs before the festival gigs.
When I heard the news that they were going to Korea, I asked them to write a tour diary for online publication. In response, they sent me Joe’s diary accompanied with a bunch of photographs and audio-visual files. Many thanks to Kite Operations for putting them together and sharing with us, and I hope readers to enjoy their unique experiences as much as I did.
2007 Korea tour diary
Joseph Kim (Kite Operations)
We’re flying in style. All the stewardesses are smokin’ fembots. In-flight food technology has come a long way. All the meals are quite savory, including the instant miyukgook (미역국: seaweed soup). Also, all of the seats now have personal monitors built into them. You can literally watch movies non-stop for the entire flight. So far, I have watched 300, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Spiderman 3, and a hilarious Korean movie Bokmyun Dalho (복면달호). I really like the theme song “Ichasun Dari” (이차선 다리), the trot version- maybe we can cover it some day…
[editor’s note: eventually, they did cover “Ichasun Dari,” which can be found here.]
We all went separate ways at the airport to the homes of our relatives. We’ll be meeting up in Hongdae in a couple days. But for now, it’s time to be with our families. I am enjoying the home-cooked meals immensely.
About text messaging in Korean- At first, I was puzzled because the keypad has no vowels. I couldn’t figure it out for some time, but as I furiously mashed the buttons in frustration, the secret revealed itself to me. I won’t give away the answer for those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of solving this puzzle, but I must say that I am incredibly proud of myself right now.
I was sitting outside the number 5 exit of the Hongdae subway station waiting for Sung and Sangchul (from Bulssazo) so we could go see the Crying Nut show at DGBD. The jetlag was starting to affect me so I started drinking some coffee. By the time I met up with the guys, I had already drunk two cups of coffee within an hour with no effect. For my third cup, I went to a vending machine (“japangi” in Korean) with Sung. 300 Won got me a little paper cup no larger than a shot of espresso. But that was all it took. My heart was racing for the rest of the night. Such is the power of japangi coffee.
At DGBD, the first band I saw was the Kingston Rudie Ska System. It seems to me that ska music has always been an influence on Korean punk, even for the very first punk bands like Crying Nut and No Brain. However this was the first band I’d seen in Korea that played pure ska music. I enjoyed their set a lot- they got all the girls dancing so they were definitely doing it right.
Crying Nut was fantastic. I first saw them in 2002 at the old Drug. That was really one of the most intense shows of my life, being trapped in that basement where everyone was forced to mosh or die. They flailed and screamed with wild abandon as a broken air conditioner on the side of the stage blew out hot air, and the walls were splattered with our sweat. Crying Nut in 2007 seemed to have matured with all of their showmanship intact. I believe they’ve really grown as musicians, and I found it fascinating how they’ve started incorporating Korean traditional music into some of their songs. And what other punk band has a dedicated accordion player? They really are one of the unique rock bands of the world.
On Monday, Dave, Sung, and I went to meet with Mr. Kwanho, our distributor in Korea. We invited him out to lunch, our treat, but outrageously, he stole the bill and paid for us instead! That’s another aspect of Korean culture that doesn’t make sense to me sometimes.
After lunch, we spent some time in Kwanho’s office listening to music and he turned us on to many Korean bands we had never heard of like Mineri, Geurimja Goongjun (그림자 궁전), Plastic People, and Oysterboys (굴소년단). Mr. Kwanho is a classy gentleman and scholar.
Afterwards, we decided then to go to Apkujungdong to check out the Rodeo, a stretch of streets in a fashionable neighborhood, famous for all the beautiful women who hang out there. Unfortunately, it was mid-afternoon on Monday, and the streets were deserted. So instead, we ducked into the nearest dive bar- a place that happened to be called Boobi Boobi, and got crunked on bottles of soju, which at 3000 Won is cheaper than beer in the US. Soju usually costs $16 per bottle in NYC, so by a certain logic, each bottle of soju drank in Korea is equivalent to at least ten dollars gained back at home. We also consoled ourselves over a big plate of manly dried fish snacks.
Coming back out on the street, some guy came over and gave us business cards for “Club the Spot”, some booking club in Apkujungdong. In return, I handed him one of our fliers for our show on Wednesday at “Club Spot” in Hongdae. Then I high-fived him.
One of my aunts invited me over for lunch today and I brought Dave along with me. My baby cousins had grown in the past five years into surly teenagers, struggling with and angsty from sleep deprivation, puberty, and constant academic pressure. I asked one of them what her favorite tv show was currently. “Moohan Dojun!” (무한 도전) she answered without hesitation. By sheer good luck, the program was on after we finished lunch, and I was introduced to what is essentially Korea’s version of Jack-Ass. The name of the show translates to “Endless Challenge”. In each show, the team of MCs attempts to take on insurmountable physical feats or challenges such as defeating an entire all-girls high school at arm wrestling. Seeing them struggling to achieve the impossible is a source of infinite entertainment. It really seems to connect with the youth. I wonder if it’s not only because it’s goofy slapstick, but maybe on some unconscious level, they see a metaphor for their own lives as a type of moohan dojun?
We all met up in Hongdae in the evening. This was the first night we were all hanging out together since the flight in. We walked all over Hongdae, exploring and appreciating our new home away from home for the next few days. For dinner, we got some yaetnal ddukbokki and soondae from a truck in the middle of town. This truck is acknowledged by the locals as the best around, and there’s always a line around it.
Afterwards, Sung took us to Gopchang Jungol, a bar that recreates the experience of drinking in 1960s/70s Korea. We ate an interesting dessert of canned fruit, slice bananas, and cherry tomatoes mixed into ice water. Back in the day, these were considered exotic flavors and were probably an incredible treat to the taste buds. To my spoiled Western-raised tongue, this odd concoction was a jarring juxtaposition of flavors, so I stuck to drinking my makkali, enjoying the fizzy, sour, milky tingles as it slowly turned my mind into a giddy swirl. The sound of the air conditioner behind me droned in a key that matched perfectly with the retro Korean rock coming over the sound system. My mind was blown and I felt like I was stoned…
Tonight is the night before a national holiday, a day celebrating the mythical origin of Korea. There are a lot of beautiful girls out on the street. Especially in front of this one club called the “Orgiastic Temple” night club or something like that. It’s right near Kim Jae-gwon from Cocore’s juice bar. We wondered if these girls were paid to hang around outside in order to draw guys into the club.
We crossed the street to Skunk Hell. It still looks the same as what I remember when I came 5 years ago and it was called Drug. Inside, the band Hollow Jan was about to play its headlining set. I was very happy about this because I had found their Myspace page a few weeks ago and thought their music was really good. Live, it sounds even better. As the singer screamed his lungs out, the guitarists wove a most intricate web of harmonies, increasing and releasing tension at will. They played an 8 minute song for their encore, “Invisible Shadow”, that was so good it sent shivers all through me and made my hairs feel like they were being electrocuted. I of course bought their cd immediately after the show.
Our first show in Korea! After soundcheck at Spot, we were standing in the entrance-way of the club, rain drizzling down. I had a pocket full of handbills that were going to waste, so I started to try to hand them out to people passing by on the street. On my first try, I got a cute girl that was walking past me to turn around, come back up to me and take my flier. “This is going to be easy!”, I thought. But it turned out it was just beginner’s luck. My friend Jume decided to challenge me to a handbill competition. The winner would be the first to give away all his or her handbills. After several fruitless minutes, it was apparent that we were getting nowhere. Daydream‘s drummer Jong-Min wordlessly came up and took my stack of handbills. He then proceeded to walk up to total strangers cold and somehow magically got them to take the handbills. He got rid of my stack in 1 minute flat. Then he took Jume’s stack and did the same. As we looked upon him with awe, he confessed to us that he once took a job doing this. This was a true professional we were dealing with!
As Daydream started to play, the soundguy in the back started working the smoke machines. Smoke machines in this small club! Playing in a club with a smoke machine- this was a first for us. I was a bit apprehensive about using it, so I requested that he not turn it on during our set.
Daydream played an excellent set. I loved that they were re-tuning their guitars to alternate tunings between songs. Their songs ranged from pretty pop songs to feedback-laden noise rock jams. I definitely felt a musical kinship with these guys.
This was our first show in Seoul and I was nervous about coming up with stage banter in Korean. What could I possibly say without sounding like a retard? But somehow I managed to tap into my 5 year old vocabulary and get by. The great irony is that Jie and Sung are perfectly fluent, but never want to speak on stage.
Afterwards, we went to drink and eat mussels with Daydream and a new friend, Gyungjoo.
Bbang is in a new location than when I was last here. The old location was on the outskirts of Hongdae, closer to Yonsei University really, and in a claustrophobic basement. Nowadays, it’s right in Hongdae and the space is larger. One thing that hasn’t changed- I see that they still put out seats for the audience. We’d been warned in advance that the crowd at Bbang might not cheer or make too much noise applauding- and that this should not be taken as a sign that they dislike our music. Having been properly forewarned, we were prepared for the worst. After all, we are from New York City- we once played a show where no one applauded at all after some of our songs. We only found out after it was over that people really loved it. Strange town we come from…
Bulssazo played an excellent, although short set, augmented by a 4th member on percussion and electronics. Their second and most recent album is an excellent collection of concise shoegaze influenced pop songs. But tonight, they played all new material- songs that were instrumental and much longer. The new sounds were less dreamy, and seemed to have more gravity to them. I love the new direction and can’t wait to hear how album #3 turns out!
Daydream once again played wonderfully. Tonight they surprised us with an extended jam, a new song that was more experimental than anything we’d heard from them up to this point. We were so excited when they climaxed into pure noise and then pulled it back in for a dramatic ending. By the time we got on, the air was so smoky I could barely breathe. Everyone was lighting up cigarettes, we didn’t even need a smoke machine tonight- the audience did all of that for us. In truth, we didn’t play every song we had planned on playing. My endurance simply wasn’t there.
By the end I was dying for fresh air, and I spent a long time sitting on the curb outside, shivering in my sweat soaked shirt and trying to catch my breath. I never did catch it, even as we were relaxing at Gopchang Jungol afterward. I talked to John, a Korean-New Zealander noise fan, who told us a bit about the noise scene over in New Zealand. I also talked to Gyungjoo’s friend, a girl who sat cross-legged the entire show with her eyes closed and would periodically write a furious rush of words into her notepad and then go back to listening. I asked her afterwards what she was writing the whole time- and she shared with me some of her writings, but sadly it was too complex for me to understand, and she was rather shy about repeating it to anyone else. Even though I could not understand much, I was moved that our music had inspired her to create, which to me is the deepest compliment I could receive as an artist. I thank her for sharing that with me. I left the party early, and went to bed still feeling strangely short of breath.
Tonight was the big gig at DGBD.
[Kite Operations, “A Day Outside”]
Bulssazo once again rocked the house and we enjoyed a slightly longer set. Sangchul has the most amusing, self-deprecating stage banter. He’d swing the mic stand to face the crowd and say, “If anyone feels like singing, please go ahead.” Another favorite of mine was when he said, “I hope everybody is having fun!.. What am I saying? We’re not fun at all! Argh!” I gotta learn from this guy.
Cocore was magnificent. One of the things I most admire about Cocore is how experimental these guys are. They really don’t give a fuck about being commercial. When they first started out they were like the Nirvana of Korea. They were Korea’s premiere grunge, alternative rock band. They could have given the public exactly what it wanted and made out like bandits. Instead, they grew as musicians and started doing whatever they felt like doing. Their new album is a double-cd with all kinds of electronic and ambient textures. Even what seem to be straight ahead rock songs dissolve midway into a miasma of reversed soundwaves and tone poetry. Tonight however, they are making me dance. Totally funky and they had me dancing. So few bands can do that. James Brown can do it, the Rapture can do it, and so can Cocore. Then the lead guitarist broke out a flute and started jamming on that. I love these guys.
After the DGBD gig, we packed up our stuff and hauled everything on foot across town. The party destination of the night was a fried chicken joint that Cocore knows well. Someone had the foresight to book the entire top floor of the establishment for our by now sizeable crew of hungry and thirsty musicians. I can tell that Sung is probably the happiest out of all of us as he is hanging out with his childhood heroes. Kind of like how I might feel if I played a show with Sonic Youth and hung out with them afterwards.
I tried bbundagi for the first time. It’s good, but I think it tastes a little bit like how cockroaches smell. I try not to think about it as I swallow the little nuggets of bug meat.
After we downed several pitchers of Hite, I asked Sangchul if I could see his new double-neck guitar. We all took turns making rockstar poses with it and then it turned into a free-for-all guitar geek-out fest. I broke out my Flying V and Oosung broke out his surf-green Jaguar. Guys in bands are all essentially geeks and we love to geek out over gear. We are indulging in this geekness freely with kindred spirits. It’s a beautiful thing.
So this weekend is the reason we were invited to come to Korea at all. It was all thanks to the 2007 Korean Festival, which brought together musicians, artists, and other performers from all over the world who are ethnically Korean to play in the homeland of their ancestors.
Tonight was our first performance for this festival. Watching from the side of the stage, we got to see one of the biggest stars from China, Cui Jian performing. I actually remember learning about him when I took a course in college on Chinese music. He’s considered revolutionary for popularizing rock music in China and using it as a medium for political statements. I found it remarkable how he acted so much like an everyman. You really wouldn’t have known he was a huge rock star until he got on stage. His music was a diverse mixture which incorporated metal, Chinese traditional sounds, and even rap.
We also got to see Sanawon perform. We hadn’t seen Jenny or Philip since about 4 years ago when we played a couple shows together- we were just starting out then. It was cool to see them playing again and hear how their music had progressed. Good tunes and groovy beats!
We went on sometime later, and somehow managed to stick together despite not being able to hear each other. Meanwhile, there were flames and explosions periodically going off all over the stage. Pyromaniacs seemed to have taken over the controls! Frankly, it scared the shit out of me. If I can get out of this experience without 3rd degree burns on my body or lighting my hair on fire, I will be happy!
We performed in front of the giant red and blue seashell at Chunggyechun tonight. It had been threatening to rain all day, but somehow the rain stopped long enough to allow the concert to go on. I’m especially grateful for that because tonight is the first time most of my relatives in Korea saw me perform.
This was my 7th straight night of partying…By now, I’m really beginning to understand and appreciate light Korean beers. I had always wondered in the past why Korean beers were so light and flavorless. By now, I am beginning to see the reason. Drinking in Korea is a ritualistic and social bonding activity- just as it is in any culture. However, there is none of the connoisseurism that one might observe in the U.S. No finicky fuss over the balance of malt and hops in the microbrew; no oenophilic masturbation of the palate. Just light (beer), medium (soju / makkali), and hard (whiskey, vodka, etc.). Drinking serves the purpose of getting wasted, or keeping company with someone as he/she endeavors to become wasted. Light beer is for the latter category of drinker. If you are “professional party time”, that is a daily partier for an extended period of time, then water should be the drink of your choice, unless you desire to be dead by the time you are 50. If you perform, it’s almost a law that you must drink afterwards. Therefore, right now, we are “semi-professional party time”, and light beer is the perfect drink for the moment.
On the final night of the festival, the organizers, staff, and performers were all treated to a wonderful dinner at a hidden restaurant in Insadong. We were all in grave danger, because someone had busted out a bottle of vodka. Many people tonight were clearly beyond the soju level of drinking!
Someone from the Herald came in during the dinner to interview us. It wasn’t really a problem that nobody was sober by this time. Jie did most of the talking for us, but I got to do some talking, too. One of the questions I answered was, “What Korean songs did you know growing up?” I drunkenly told him “San Tokki” (a children’s song about a rabbit), “Arirang” (Korea’s most famous traditional song), “Aegookga” (Korea’s national anthem), and chansonggas (hymnals). And also “Bba bba bba” by Clon. All 100% true.
After dinner, our lovely festival intern friends invited us to come out and party with them one last time. My liver was cooked, but how could I say no? I was definitely sad to be leaving Korea the next day. I felt as though I could stay for another year and still not have had enough.
All in all, I am hopeful for the future of underground music in Korea. The seeds are all there, and I am sure the coming years will show great growth in the diversity and quality of music from the Korean music scene. It was a privilege for us to witness this and to have participated in it to the small extent that we did.
Korea, we <3 you.