“Artists Must Guard and Maintain One’s Own Style and yet Be Able to Show Various Colours.” – In Conversation with SURL, a South Korean Rock Band

It has been just over two years since SURL, a pop/rock band, debuted. Although they are fresh-faces in the South Korean music market, Ho-seung, Han-bin, Myung-seok and Do-yeon have already won over not only a domestic audience but also gained a decent European fanbase. In September of 2018, SURL released their 1st official song called Stay Here followed by an EP, Aren’t You. The same year, the group won the grand prize at the Shinhan Card Rookie Project, and in addition to the aforementioned honours, SURL won the Excellence Award at EBS Rookie with KOCCA, solidifying their strength as a one of the most promising young bands in South Korea. In 2019, SURL released a single, Cilia, and a 2nd EP, I Know, to positive reviews.

Photo © Happy Robot Records

While sticking to their youthful yet sombre style, the group’s precise arrangements and relatable lyrics give an emotional and honest delivery. Although 2020 has been a very difficult year, SURL released Ferris Wheels in March and in August they released Don’t Say No on which they teamed up with Jay Park, an R&B and hip-hop artist. In spite of the fact that performing live is currently impossible, SURL use their time wisely by working on their music and a full-length album. 

How much were SURL’s creative decisions shaped by cultural differences? How do they see the role of their fans in the musical communication process? And what are their plans for the future? You can read all about this in the interview View of the Arts conducted exclusively for their readers.

Photo © Happy Robot Records 

You are four very young men who debuted in 2018, but you have already expanded your fan-base to a foreign audience. You have also shown that Korean music goes beyond K-pop. As you have been friends since high school, do you remember the first moment when you felt that music was your future? When did you decide to become a band?

Ho-seung Seol: I think I decided to continue with music when I was a freshman in high school. At the time, I was in a related school club with my peers and was watching a lot of performance videos, and all that made me want to pursue music. I was 20 when I decided to form a band.

Han-bin Lee: My parents are professional musicians (my father is a conductor and my mother is an organist), so I naturally came to learn how to play cello when I was young. Then, I entered middle school, and I thought bands looked so cool that I applied to be the bassist. Now, here I am, still playing bass! Then, when I turned 20, I wanted to have more fun with music, so I contacted Ho-seung and suggested that we start a band. We contacted Myung-seok and Do-yeon afterwards and came together as a band.

Myung-seok Oh: I was only focused on my studies at first when I was in middle school. But then, I played the drums for the first time ever and I instantly felt that I should do music. I kept on doing music after that, and then Hanbin sent me a demo when I was 20. I listened to it and immediately knew I should join this band.

Do-yeon Kim: I felt it since high school.

Photo © Happy Robot Records 

Since your official debut, you released two EPs and a few singles, including your latest work, Don’t Say No, in August, on which you collaborated with Jay Park. And in October of this year, alongside DAYBREAK, you released a single called Cheering Song for You along with the song Shine. What was the creative process behind those two singles? 

Ho-seung Seol: For Don’t Say No, we actually didn’t work with Jay Park in person for the song. Jay Park and our band kept going back and forth contacting each other and carried out our collaboration. Then, we met Jay Park afterwards for the first time at the music video shoot. We talked a lot then. 

For the album we collaborated on with DAYBREAK, the premise was to write lyrics based on stories submitted by fans. We read all the stories we received, but we still wanted to hear more of their stories through their own voice, so we talked to them on the phone and got to hear their stories in-depth. Thanks to that, we were able to write better lyrics.

As I mentioned before, you collaborated with Jay Park on Don’t Say No; what was that experience like for you? Were there any artistic differences between you, the band, and Jay Park during the recording process?

Ho-seung Seol: No, there was nothing like that. Yes, we are a band while Jay Park is a hip hop artist, but before any of that, we are all musicians. So, we all just worked hard to create a great result. Jay Park also told us he’s been really interested in band music since he was young.

Han-bin Lee: Jay Park had the idea to add rap to the last part, which was totally unexpected. That last part was originally a bit boring, but it became very fresh and original after we added the rap, which made it so fun to work on.

Photo © Happy Robot Records

(Question for Ho-seung Seol) What kind of approach do you use to write your lyrics and how much of input does the rest of the group have when it comes to writing and composing the music?

Ho-seung Seol: When I write lyrics, I base them on our members’ own experiences, so I try to do a good job of expressing what was felt at the time, among other things. I especially put a lot of effort into making them relatable for other people. The other members also participate in the lyrics, so we exchange a lot of ideas as we work on them.

Looking at your 2018 EP, Aren’t You, and then your work from 2019 (I Know and Cilla) as well as your repertoire from 2020, one can notice that, within just a couple of years, you matured not only as artists, but your songs also matured lyrically. Do you believe that your surroundings shaped you as a band in a creative sense and if so, in what way?

Ho-seung Seol: As I mentioned, we write our songs based on what we have personally experienced, so I think everything we experience in life influences us and helps us. And, to understand those matters, just the four of us often get together and have a lot of discussions.

Han-bin Lee: I get a lot of inspiration from stories of people close to me. I tend to be influenced a lot by my conversations with them, like friends and family. Even changes in weather influence me a lot.

Young-seok Oh: For me, I usually get a lot of creative inspiration from music genres I’ve experienced such as music I frequently listen to, bands I like, music I’ve prepared for performances, etc. As a member of a band, I keep learning continuously, and get inspired more and more.

Do-yeon Kim: I get influenced a lot by my relationships with people – both good and bad relationships.

How much, do you feel, are your creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?

Ho-seung Seol: It’s a huge influence, I think. Each of us lived and grew up in different environments, which caused the differences in thought among us. When you bring together those eclectic thoughts into one, so many ideas burst out. Also, the music each person grew up listening to or liked is different, so a really interesting type of music is born when we exchange ideas.

Photo © Happy Robot Records 

Looking at the Korean music industry right now, where do you aspire to fit in? Do you want to play strictly rock/pop-rock or would you like to make music of a different genre someday?

Ho-seung Seol: I want to be an artist who is free to create and express himself however he wishes rather than to be an artist who resolutely sticks to one genre.

Han-bin Lee: I don’t think a band should only do rock music. There are so many great, different genres out there. I get musical inspiration from those other genres when we work on our own songs. I do want to become a legend in pop/rock music someday, but I also want to try various genres.

Myung-seok Oh: I may be different from the usual band kids because I really want to try just a ton of different genres and find one that could go well with our band. Whether it’s pop or rock, or whichever genre, I want us to become a band that excels in all genres and never feels like it doesn’t belong.

Do-yeon Kim: I want to be tied to various genres, but I do want our foundation to be on rock.

The role of an artist is always subject to change. What’s your view on the tasks of artists today, and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?

Ho-seung Seol: I believe artists must guard and maintain one’s own style and yet be able to show various colours. I think that’s the fate of an artist. And so, to express and create well, we listen to a wide range of music, refer to them when making our own, and try out a lot of new things.

Han-bin Lee: I think a musician’s fate is to continually give new, good music to people. Our band is also regularly trying out various things to make brand new music. 

Photo © Happy Robot Records 

Looking at your career so far, what have been some of your main compositional and production challenges?

Ho-seung Seol: Personally, I think our most daring moment was when we made our song Ferris Wheel. I think it’s a very different style of music than our usual music. I believe we were able to accomplish that because we all worked so hard on it at the time.

Han-bin Lee: To be honest, I was scared when we released Cilla. The song’s intro is really long, so I was really worried whether people would listen to this song to the end. But people liked Cilla a lot more than I expected. Even now, people love it when we perform it, which makes me very grateful and happy.

Usually, it is considered that it is the job of the artist to win over an audience. But listening is also an active rather than a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener (your fans) in the musical communication process? 

Ho-seung Seol: First off, I don’t think you should have the mindset of setting someone as ‘above’ and the other as ‘below’. That’s because anyone can be a creator, just as anyone can be a listener. Some listeners may just listen and enjoy the song while some listeners may think deeply about the songwriter’s intent. Some may also critique the song but not out of hatred. The bottom line is that listening to our songs and liking them already make listeners a huge help and a grateful presence to artists.

Han-bin Lee: Nowadays, listeners also actively make their own secondary work. For instance, we don’t have a music video for Not OK. But I came across a really fun video for the song on YouTube (https://youtu.be/Iftmxr8DQd0). Listeners, if you like our music, please express it through whatever method (song covers, comments, reviews, Instagram posts, etc.). Communication like that is just so fun.

Myung-seok Oh: Listeners are really precious to us. They are like a stand that holds up our band’s music. Please just listen to our music a lot and honestly express what you feel and think about it.

Do-yeon Kim: I view listeners as people with similar tastes as the creator who allow creators to continue making more music.

Is there music you like, which never fails to make you feel good? Who really inspires you as singers? And who motivates you to work hard and stay on track?

Ho-seung Seol: There is a lot of music that instantly puts me in a good mood, but I’ll say Yellow by Coldplay. It’s not just good – it makes me go insane! The Magic Gang is a band who personally gave me a lot of inspiration. The band that keeps me from getting lazy is The Beatles. We should push onwards without stopping if we want to become a band like them.

Han-bin Lee: Paul McCartney for me. Even now, he produces and releases albums, and I think of him as someone who makes music that immediately puts you in a good mood. He’s a huge motivation for me because he has genuinely loved music all his life and creates music consistently.

Myung-seok Oh: As a performer, I get in a good mood when I listen to fusion music sometimes. I also sometimes listen to great masters like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.

Do-yeon Kim: For me, Andy Shauf and Mac DeMarco.

Photo © Happy Robot Records 

When you are not working, what do you do to get away from it all and relax?

Ho-seung Seol: I recently started driving, so I go on drives by myself. I get far away from my neighbourhood and wander. Besides that, I listen to music by myself or hang out with friends. Ordinary, huh?

Han-bin Lee: I’m into working out lately, so I just keep working out these days. 

Myung-seok: I just listen to music or sleep a lot at home. Sometimes, I even sleep for more than 14~15 hours in one day.

Do-yeon Kim: I watch Netflix or YouTube.

Which song (songs) in your catalogue best describes the sound and style you ultimately prefer and why?

Ho-seung Seol: Personally, I think it’s Cilla. I had a blast when we made that song. I liked it because we’ve never heard a song like that by another artist, but it was also really new even among our own songs. The song has lyrics you can fully imagine, even if you just read them, and a sound that excellently captures the four stages of composition. The song was a huge help to us in forming our own colour.

Han-bin Lee: Cilla – I think it’s the representative song of SURL’s sound.

Myung-seok Oh: I think it’d be Cilla!

Do-yeong Kim: It’s Cilla.

The world has been consumed by Covid-19 and made it very hard for musicians, and other creative professionals out there, to organise tours, meet fans, etc. Looking at the current situation, what’s your wider vision? What do you hope to achieve within the next year or so? Can your fans expect a full-length album?

Ho-seung Seol: First off, we shouldn’t stand still where we are, just be weary with the situation. I believe we should find whatever we can find or make whatever we can make. I do want to perform even if it’s on a small stage. I also think I should use this time as an opportunity to focus on song writing and make a lot of great music when I can. Everything is on a halt right now, but I want to be well-prepared for when we are on the move again. I think it’d be great if that move is our first full-length album. I’m also going to make more people know about us and listen to our music. We’re going to become people who are driven.

Han-bin Lee: We are working on our full-length album. I wish our band can receive a Korean Music Award in the future. Also, I really hope we enter the charts at least once, one day.

Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Julia Litwinowicz

Translarion by Esther Kim

Music Video © Happy Robot Records

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

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