"That's What Success Looks Like!" Pentagon Interviewed

"That's What Success Looks Like!" Pentagon Interviewed

The Korean group talk global breakthrough, aesthetic reinvention, and focussing on the art...

When Pentagon’s main vocalist Jinho returned from his mandatory, 18-month military service in November last year, he noticed two things. The first was that his bandmates Shinwon, Kino, Wooseok, Yanan, Yuto, Yeo One and Hongseok (the group’s leader, Hui, enlisted in February 2021) hadn’t lost an iota of one of his favourite traits, their brotherly “silliness” that makes them so entertaining in their behind the scenes content. The second was that he saw “how Shinwon had gained leadership skills and the carefulness in decision-making that was needed in the absence of the hyungs (older members). I could see that he matured into being an adult.”

Shinwon, hair grown out into bangs he’s firmly tucked behind his ears, is half-proud and half-bashful. “I just allocated the things that Hui used to do and helped the members think about them,” he deflects. “I don’t think what I did was more nor less than that.” But as Pentagon heads towards their sixth anniversary this October, they’ve been thinking about ‘maturity’ a whole lot recently, centring it as a theme of their 12th record, 'IN:VITE U'.

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It’s not necessarily the most linear term to unpack, certainly not in the subjective arena of music or when there are eight individual personalities contributing to an EP’s creation, but Kino pinpoints their performance as a key indicator. “As a person matures with age, they become more relaxed and generous. That vibe is sexy. Rather than the feeling of trying so hard to seduce someone, we focused on being relaxed in our expressions and our dancing to express the sexiness.”

He’s referring to the stages for latest single, 'Feelin’ Like', with its beguiling, muted bass and lyrics which draw on the Greek myth of sculptor Pygmalion. It’s their first single since 2017 not to be composed by the group, one of six new songs on an EP they deliberately took their time over, the slower pace giving them the opportunity, says Kino, “to be careful with our choices. It’s our first time telling anyone this but our plans changed multiple times for this release to give people a higher quality [record].”  

Wooseok, Kino and Shinwon co-composed the B-sides on 'IN:VITE U', and Kino, Wooseok and Jinho are credited as lyricists on 'Feelin’ Like', but the composer behind the single is veteran songwriter Ryan Jhun, whose roster includes Taemin, Red Velvet, NCT 127, and Twice. The appearance of his name created a measure of surprise amongst fans on social media. Jhun’s songs are hot property yet also wildly divisive, and opinion on Cube Entertainment’s buy-in seemed dependent on how you felt about his latest run of mega-successful songs, and where you consider Pentagon’s position to be in the current K-pop landscape.

But, for Japan-born rapper Yuto, Pentagon’s thinking came from a different direction. They try not to be “results focused,” he says, his baritone rumbling through the mikes set up along conference desks. Music for them is love, passion, boldness and curiosity, a path on which Hongseok says “we want to put ourselves to the edge”. Challenges, like working with new writers, create little anxieties and worries but for Kino, they’re there to be learned from. Neither the song nor writer was a done deal when they began the record. Yeo One (absent from this interview due to injury) mentioned to Tatler Asia that they blind-listened to around 500 tracks before making their final selection. When rapper and youngest member Wooseok first heard “Feelin’ Like” he wasn’t entirely sure it would be the single but he liked it and said as such. Their opinions, he says, count in everything that they do, whether it’s made by their hands or not.

“Making our album with the music we write isn’t our top priority and we’ve never insisted on it,” says Jinho, who, as the eldest member, is often a pillar amongst their chaotic camaraderie. Yet he’s equally an instigator, as droll as he is calmly stern, frequently in the same sentence. “The majority of our songs were written by us. But if there’s a better song, we’ve always wanted to choose that song even if it wasn’t one we wrote. Hui’s songs have always won our votes but, this time, Hui wasn’t here and we wanted a song that was completely different and transformative.”

The album’s liner notes feature words like ‘Rediscovery’ and ‘Rebranded’, yet while the sticky, minimalist chorus on 'Feelin’ Like' is a departure from Hui’s gloriously anthemic style, one could counter that rather being a singular catalyst, it’s a reflection of one that’s long been in progress. The truest of transformations take time and in the six years since debuting, Pentagon have evolved by pushing themselves from every angle. They release solo work, both covers and originals, painstakingly refining their songwriting skills. They’re all multi-hyphenates: singer, rapper, dancer, choreographer, musician, actor, MC, and radio/podcast host. The beauty of 'IN:VITE U' is it’s still wholly recognisable as a Pentagon record, one that’s firing so hard on all cylinders it deserves to have two more singles taken from it: Kino’s gorgeously layered 'Call My Name' with its homage to Blackstreet’s 'No Diggity', and instant fan-favourite, 'The Game', Wooseok’s Don Quixote-referencing collision between EDM and a rock opera.

Wooseok, blue-haired and wrapped in a shearling bomber jacket, presses his near two-metre frame into his chair. He first heard about the online reaction to his work via the team around him. “I wasn’t expecting it at all, it was hard for me to believe such a response,” he says frankly. For the record, he’s read Miguel des Cervantes’ novel although it wasn’t a direct inspiration. Instead, the memory of Rocinante (Quixote’s steed) sprang to mind during writing the “run like a devil” refrain. He knows fans are keen to see the song live but he’s giving away nothing. “The performance and stage, if we were to have that,” Wooseok says mildly, “it’d be fun to see what we could do.”

The band’s creative decisions on 'IN:VITE U' have borne sweet fruit; 'Feelin’ Like' gave them their first win on Music Bank. There are multiple chart shows aired on cable and terrestrial channels, and the latter - whose shows, like Music Bank, allow far less fan votes and weight scoring towards digital sales and streams - are always harder to win. Their trophy comes fifteen months after their first ever win (four years into their career) for 'Daisy' on The Show, on which Kino sobbed through their encore. This time it was Shinwon who cracked, overwhelmed as he thanked their fans, known as Universe.

“Actually, it’s very hard to explain how we felt emotionally,” says Hongseok, who speaks in English throughout. “We couldn’t believe the results. Even the next day we asked ourselves, ‘Do we deserve this? Is this actually happening?’” With a Korean discography containing eleven EPs and one studio album, all of which have gone Top 10 or Top 5 in South Korea, his hesitation seems incongruous. “Results don't always come [even] after how hard the efforts [we make] are, it’s always that way, so we - our hearts - weren’t ready for the first prize on a terrestrial show,” he says dryly.

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Pentagon may not be driven, as Yuto says, by results, but this doesn’t mean they don’t desire them. In 2018, their single 'Shine' was everywhere in South Korea. Idols sang it on their VLives, danced to it on stage and in waiting rooms, and dance crews uploaded versions to YouTube by the dozen. The scale of the song’s infiltration put Pentagon at the cusp of something that felt very big and very famous. But while 'Shine' exploded into the stratosphere, Pentagon did not.

It wasn’t for want of good material: their follow up single, 'Naughty Boy' played to the group’s breezy, summery-pop strengths, and the DNA of 2019’s excellent 'Sha La La' lay in another monster Pentagon-penned hit, 2017’s 'Energetic', written for Wanna One. Fans have theories as to why the group’s trajectory stalled but, more than that, they have fire in their bellies. Camp out in the comments under a Pentagon video and you’ll see variations on the same sentiment: Pentagon are slept-on. They deserve more. They’re the underdogs.

Universe’s sense of frustration is as palpable as their love. But for football-fan Shinwon, there’s a cinematic grit to being the underdog. “I personally like the word because it has a dramatic nuance to it,” he muses. “Like Leicester City. They’re underdogs, and I like that it has that meaning of ‘overcoming’.” Kino sees it as an affirmation, a marker of faith that their fans’ expectations run so high, and he hopes one day to exceed them. That day might not actually be far off.

Since the group’s participation in the multi-group survival show Road To Kingdom in May 2020, audiences are coming around to what Universe has long known: Pentagon are a powerhouse. Buoyed by the success of 'Daisy' in October, its parent EP, 'WE:TH', became their first release to reach over 100,000 sales. They bested it the following Spring with sales of 114,000 for EP, 'Love Or Take', and 'IN:VITE U' has set their highest ever first week (76,966 sales), becoming their first number one on South Korea’s Gaon album chart.

Before joining Cube Entertainment, the member’s journeys involved dropping out of education to pursue music, countless odd jobs to make ends meet, agency switches, and almost abandoning the dream of being an artist altogether. The changes amongst them over the years are a mix of practical and deeply personal but the individual fighting spirit of those early years has been replaced, they say, with a united, goal-orientated sensibility.

Yanan, Pentagon’s Chinese member (often dubbed their ‘visual’ by his bandmates, with biceps almost as chiselled as his cheekbones) thinks more than he speaks. He’s silent for much of the interview but prompt him gently and he slowly reaches for a microphone. “Okay, I’ll start,” he says, as all eyes fall on him. “When I first came to the company, we were just students, working part-time and such, and all of us grew individually through the training and practising. Some people think that you’re set if you just have the skills but I disagree. I believe that you need to be well-rounded in order to adapt to society.”

“You asked us earlier, ‘What do you think success is?’ Actually, we haven’t yet gotten to where we’ve wanted for a long time to be, but there are many people who want to be a celebrity, right? And the fact that we’re able to have this career is something to be happy about and grateful for. Success is always putting in steady and persistent effort, and not giving up. I think the process is more important than the result,” Yanan nods.

If Yanan is right (and he is), then Pentagon has never not been successful. They’ve weathered a line-up change and comebacks with members missing due to injury or health issues or enlistment without compromising on calibre. They’ve built a ride or die fandom, and carved out their own acclaimed sound and style. That IN:VITE U plunges so confidently into new realms of their creativity is thrilling, even more so when Hongseok calls it just the starting point of a “new era”. Yes, Pentagon has faced darkness in the past, he adds, but their present is the love they hold for each other and a rock solid belief in whatever they turn their hand to next.

“There’s a proverb in Korea that a tiger leaves its leather behind, and people leave their name behind,” Hongseok notes. Wooseok nods: ”The songs that we make, the videos of the performances we do are left for everyone to see even after we die. I don’t want to leave Pentagon’s history as something to be embarrassed about, I want our history to be well-made. That’s what success looks like.”

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Words: Taylor Glasby

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