Soul Of Seoul: Balming Tiger Interviewed

"We united through a shared ethos of being outcasts..."

Named after the Ancient Asian herbal salve, South Korean collective Balming Tiger invoke their moniker by inviting the listener to douse themselves in their one-of-a-kind sonic panacea. Their songs are rhythmic, bouncy but always restorative; a fizzy mash-up of hip-hop, Chiptune electronics, synthesized RnB and homespun K-pop. A Balming Tiger production is not an outright dismissal of the K-pop hierarchy but an active subversion of its preened, commodified foundations.

The Internet Collective derive their strength in numbers. There is no peripheral member; every member is key to the internal alchemy of a group that interlocks and expands with every subsequent release. Founded by interdisciplinary mastermind San Yawn in 2018, the revolving collective in its current guise consists of performers Omega Sapien, sogumm, bj wnjn, Chanhee Hong, Mudd the Student, and a coterie of supporting producers, auteurs and visual artists. Their debut album, ‘January Never Dies’, is an epic celestial trip that manages the tricky feat of mapping out each character’s essence in a wider tapestry.

In conversation, a week after their lauded Primavera Sound performance, Balming Tiger share their origin story, breaking down an amalgamated sound that bridges K-pop tropes with a maverick spirit. Together they honour an entity that is forever mutable.

Where are you now?

Omega Sapien: We’re in Vienna, Austria.

You’re in the midst of a European tour. What are the highlights?

San Yawn: Barcelona (Primavera) was one of the best stops. Finland was also amazing.

I wanted to start with the core differences between releasing music solo and as part of a collective. Balming Tiger is comprised of individual artists and you all have your own specialties. How does that feed into your work as part of a collaborative network?

OS: Having a team gives you an advantage. It’s not just the audio side of things but the visual side. We do graphic design, styling, and we have directors. Being a part of this collective gives me something new all the time. It’s built through connection which is always there, it’s always present. It just feels more natural being part of a group when you’re creating a work of art but having fun doing it.

That was evident when I watched you perform at Primavera. I was struck by this free-flowing energy exchange between each member. Take me back to the beginning: How did you meet? What roles does each member play in the collective? Is it set or fluid?

SY: Our origin story starts when me and my friends started a party crew at the legendary venue Cakeshop in Seoul. We started making compilations for the events hosted here. We realised making music comes naturally to us so we transitioned into being a label and collective, and started featuring artists and posting those collaborations online. That eventually became the premise for Balming Tiger. Omega has been part of the crew for 5-6 years-

OS: I’m the VIP of the crew (laughs). I’d like to add that in Korea the culture can be quite homogeneous. It’s getting better but it’s still slow to change or evolve. We united through a shared ethos of being outcasts in the sense that we had different tastes and quirks. We were vocal about what we liked and what we didn’t like: Wnjn likes RnB music, Sogumm likes something else. Altogether we’re different to what you’d find in Korea.

SY: I like that it’s fluid. Are we going to expand or stay as we are? Who knows.

Balming Tiger at Primavera Sound

Your music is a convergence of genres, styles and references. That dynamic mix is what sets you apart from the prevailing K-pop machine. What about the conveyor belt of mainstream K-pop do you like and integrate into your work?

OS: The positives is that this is the best time to make music. Like we’re being interviewed by CLASH magazine, you know? People are listening to Korean artists and it’s filtering down. Also, it’s quite a connected and insular world where everyone knows everyone. The scene is small and you can interact because everyone lives in Seoul.

That being said, you repudiate a lot of the conventions of the K-pop movement. What are you actively resisting?

OS: The traditional K-pop machine is a corporation picking talent when they’re young and impressionable. Their goal is to make profit. It’s driven by consumer patterns and it’s lucrative. We’re already homogeneous but corporations package it as something attractive. It’s often not about the music; it’s a system that doesn’t allow musicians to fail. It’s geared towards the person and the personality, and not the music. The person doesn’t change until they get older. That eliminates the diversity that we could have. If the capital is spread out evenly, imagine what we could achieve? Besides us, there are so many talented musicians in Korea that deserve the spotlight.

Your music is a polyglot enterprise, with songs that flit between English, Korean and Chinese. How do you go about plotting what is communicated in English and what is communicated in Korean or Chinese in the space of a song?

OS: Sogumm and myself lived in China, so we communicate in Chinese. It’s about expression and the ways a certain turn of phrase can only really be communicated in English, Korean or Chinese. We pick what’s apt in that moment. It’s also a practical thing; I started making music in America so I write in English, Wnjn was raised in Korea and uses more Korean. I will say it’s pretty mesmerising when our English fans sing in Korean. It shows you language doesn’t have to be a barrier.

Balming Tiger before their set at Primavera Sound

This synergy between you all is evident across your album, ‘January Never Dies’, which has been out for almost a year. It’s an album you’re touring around the world. What’s the reception been like and have you been teasing new material on the road?

OS: When you perform internationally, you just want more. The feeling is indescribable.

Chanhee Hong: It felt like the first definitive step forward but we already feel we have so much more to offer.

SY: We’re enjoying the process of creating again without the pressure of making a deadline. We’ve started a new project and it’s a different experience altogether. It’s more experimental. We could make an ambient album if we want, you know? It’s about different methodologies.

Do you create and record on the road?

OS: We’ve tried many times and failed miserably. ‘January Never Dies’ was the first album we made together. Creating an album was a different experience because it was so far removed from a compilation. We gained a lot of insight into the process of creating together. Now, we’re primed to create again because we have a template. I’m excited for the next one now that we’re finding our style.

Talk me through the process creating ‘January Never Dies’. When did you start? How long the recording take? Was it a contained studio experience?

SY: It took about one and a half years to create. It was less about specific references, and more about the ways we wanted to reflect our personalities on the project, and make something our own.

O: We’re all eccentrics so it was a challenge to create something together. We tried going down the songwriting retreat route. It was in the mountains with a convenience store thirty minutes away. We had one car but only one of us could drive. It wasn’t moving forward, so we became more regimented in the studio. We’re all enthusiastic but sometimes that enthusiasm doesn’t last long. We find it difficult to stick with a theme because we had a new insight every two weeks. It’s why the album is flavourful in so many ways.

Balming Tiger perform onstage at Primavera Sound

Why did you opt for that title? How does it represent your journey as a collective?

OS: San lives near a Shaman temple. If you use the Korean language with a Chinese character, the temple is called Praying Temple For The Sun And Moon. But if you ignorantly translate the Korean word, it’s January Never Dies. When we first started making music we’d go to San’s house all the time. So, we opted for a title that played with language and meaning, whilst paying homage to our origins.

Blaming Tiger’s your visual identity is as integral as the music. From album artwork to videos, what moodboard references are you citing?

CH: We’re mainly inspired by Asian films and directors. Even our costuming is inspired by directors like Stephen Chow.

SY: We’re big on illustrations. The album artwork came from an artist we found on Instagram. We actually wanted to make a Manga series but it was a money issue. So, we were looking for a compact illustration that represented the album. The concept of the CD connects with the illustration. Like Omega said earlier, the visuals and the audio are one.

‘Sexy Nukim’ is a defining hit of yours. It features RM of BTS. How did you go about bridging your musical worlds?

SY: A BTS member being part of it is probably why it’s the most-streamed. But we created the song to match RM, it’s a balance of both artists.

OS: We didn’t want to tack on a famous artist and make it user-friendly. We wanted to bring something new out of him but also evolve our sound in the process.

‘Buriburi’ is another fan favourite. It’s a funky song the centres dance and movement, something you realising in the video and stage. Does dance come naturally to you? Is it about showing Balming Tiger as a synchronised troupe?

OS: We’re all quite used to the K-pop style of choreography where you’re rehearsing ten hours a day, and we’ve been quite disciplined since the beginning. Wnjn is self-trained so he’s probably the most naturally rhythmic dancer in the group. We don’t have a choreographer, we just vibe and self-choreograph the sequences in a rented-out studio. Sogumm actually masterminds a lot of the dances, and she knows that it’s important to keep it very playful. All these moves are organic. I take pride in it coming from us and it’s all about transferring the energy between us to the crowd.

Final words on what you want to transmit to fans and followers as you continue to take Balming Tiger global?

OS: Freedom. Life is short, you have to be yourself.

SY: I have memories of when I was younger listening to my favourite artists. They kept inspiring me because the listener is always a part of the journey. We want to keep our fans invested.  

BJ Wnjn: Really come on this journey with us.

S: My wish is for Balming Tiger to be someone’s medicine – their remedy. Our music is aspirational and it’s feel-good. I always try to put my hopes and positive feelings into our music. I want our music to save a listener’s life!

CH: Trust yourself and your instincts.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain

Photography: Lesley Mensah

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