“There’s Meaning In Growing As An Individual” ATEEZ Interviewed

The K-Pop icons are embracing their evolution...

It’s a few days before the release of ATEEZ’s tenth EP, ‘The World EP.2: Outlaw’ and its single ‘Bouncy (K-Hot Chilli Peppers)’, but Hongjoong, Mingi, San, Seonghwa, Yeosang, Yunho, Wooyoung, and Jongho are yet to see the final version of the music video. Ostensibly, they’re saving the moment to film a reaction video, in which they’ll look suitably in awe of their most high-octane visuals to date, a gun-toting, pyrotechnic-heavy, neon-drenched cinephile’s dream that appears to draw inspiration from cult films like Akira, From Dusk Till Dawn, Bloodsport, and Wanted, while self-referencing the dystopian alt-world they’ve built throughout their career.

“Yeosang and I [got to] ride motorcycles, but this is all CGI on green backgrounds. We just kind of went ‘vroom vroom!’” Seonghwa says, as he mimes swerving down a highway. “Actually there were a bunch of staff pushing and pulling us on the bikes during filming. So although we haven’t seen it yet, I’m really looking forward to it.”

The reason for the addition of ‘K-Hot Chilli Peppers’ to the title is simple, says ATEEZ’s leader, Hongjoong. “Because in the lyrics we include words like cheongyang gochu, which is the name of a famous Korean spicy chilli pepper, but our overseas fans don’t really know about it, so we thought about how to explain it a little more easily. We know that our global fans are familiar with the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers so, with our own take on it, we chose to add K, for Korean, -Hot Chilli Peppers, making it easy to explain our new song.”

It has to be said that there isn’t a whole lot of rock involved in ‘Bouncy (K-Hot Chilli Peppers)’. It’s big and bold electronica, packed tight with terrace chants, vocal effects and maniacal synths, and a chorus and dance break which arrive in the best way possible, like a wrecking ball through the side of a building. In ATEEZ’s overall sonic canon, it’s a party song, and everyone’s invited. “I think there’s a slight similarity between the vibes of ‘Bouncy’ and ‘The Real’,” says San, who, with energy to burn, pops dance moves with his shoulders when he speaks, “but also in ‘Bouncy’ you’ll find a new and completely different aspect of ATEEZ.”  

If the music video allows an immersion into ultra-colourful characters – Mingi’s trigger-happy outlaw, Yunho and Jongho’s undercover cops or Hongjoong’s leather-clad assassin, for example – then the song itself has a new ease of certainty in celebrating their power as one of K-pop’s loudest and most thrilling acts. For the casual listener, this may seem an oxymoron: When ATEEZ debuted in late 2018, they delivered ‘Treasure’, ‘Pirate King’, ‘Say My Name’ and ‘Hala Hala (Hearts Awakened, Live Alive)’ within their first four months, a whirlwind of power notes, potent choreography, and sublime confidence that’s become the band’s calling card. But the latter has been a smokescreen at times – “There are moments when we don’t feel so confident ahead of a tour or an album release,” Hongjoong said earlier this year – a quiet vulnerability they found to be happily absent on the run-up to ‘The World EP.2: Outlaw’. 

“Firstly, the song itself is really good,” explains Wooyoung. “And when we last spoke to you in London [in March], we already had the choreography set for the song too, and we were confident about it. We knew that this was a song that fans could dance along to and enjoy, but also encapsulates a lot of things that are definitive of ATEEZ and what we’re good at, so we were certain that ATINY would like it.”

A key line – Wooyoung’s, actually – in ‘Bouncy (K-Hot Chilli Peppers)’ runs thus: “Nothing stands in our way, try to stop us”. It’s a succinct snapshot of ATEEZ’s career. Their agency, KQ Entertainment, was only established in 2016, with ATEEZ as their sole idol group until this year (a second boy group, Xikers, debuted in March), and for an act from a start-up K-pop company to score three US Top 10 entries on Billboard’s main album chart and, over two world tours in the past two years, play to 430,000 fans, is a rare feat indeed.

ATEEZ’s success lies largely with an international fanbase, a result often attributed to their fierce stage presence and penchant for speaker-rattling production, while on home turf, these elements have, arguably, given them niche status. Although, in actuality, ATEEZ’s back catalogue is a landscape of surprising contrasts – from the piano and strings of ‘Be There With You’ (2021) and lounge jazz of 2019’s ‘With U’, to the dense 80s synths of ‘Take Me Home’ (2021) and ‘Cyberpunk’ (2022) – there’s also something captivatingly and irresistibly punk about a group who continually, deliberately test their sonic limits, throw themselves so forcefully into every performance that they intimidate audiences, and be wholly unapologetic about all of it. In March, when some Korean press wondered if ATEEZ would soften their edges to cultivate a wider audience, it was met with a chiselled rebuttal. “We will neither change our initial plans nor put out albums with different styles to earn more recognition from the general public,” Hongjoong told reporters.

Music artists will always be, in part, defined by record sales, touring numbers and chart positions, and ATEEZ have already exceeded here in ways few expected them to. “I think I’d define success mainly as ATEEZ being able to perform for many people, on huge stages, in front of many more fans and in many places. And it’s a success that I truly believe we will achieve,” says Wooyoung, as Yeosang adds: “I’d say I’ve already succeeded in some ways. One of my successes is that I met the members of ATEEZ, and another is meeting ATINY. An even bigger success would be meeting more ATINY.” 

But they also agree that to solely define success by such markers would be unmerited. It’s something ATEEZ thinks about frequently. “I think to be successful is to be happy with no regrets,” says San. Adds Seonghwa, “There is an importance in reaching outcomes that I personally, and with the group, can be content with and feel pride in. There’s meaning in growing as an individual to become a better person and being someone I can respect and admire for myself, so knowing that I gained an understanding of myself and put in the effort to achieve whatever those results are, lays down the tracks for the journey to success.”

It means giving “the best of everything to the people who love us and cheer for us,” says Hongjoong. “We worked really hard to prepare for this comeback, and one of the many things we thought about is a [TikTok] dance challenge. Some people might think we’ve done this because ATEEZ just wants to ‘succeed’ with their new mini-album but the reality is that we know many ATINY have wanted to dance with us and follow along but until now, our choreography has been really tough to follow. That’s why we were excited to prepare this challenge. I just want to make ATINY happier with our music and performances.”

Ever since ATEEZ strode out into the Moroccan desert in ‘Treasure’ in 2018, with huge flags bearing their name slung over their shoulder, they’ve staked ground as being a cinematic band. Their lyrics and videos are driven by a narrative that has segued from fantastical pirate-inspired beginnings to a complex sci-fi parallel universe where citizens are conditioned to become soulless, mindless beings, and whom ATEEZ are attempting to free.

For newcomers, the extensive world-building can be a mind-boggling prospect (thankfully, there’s dozens of fan-made explainer videos available), and although films still provide inspiration (references to Blade Runner 2049, Inception, and Metropolis are easy spots in their previous works), Hongjoong says, “These days when it comes to lyrics and vibes, we will start with our own lives and the people around us then work on it further to relate it to our ongoing ATEEZ narrative. From there we think about how we can explain our ideas more easily, and elaborate on the symbolism within each track.”

From the new EP, ‘Dune’ – which is both urgent and weighty, its bass beats pressing hard against the ear – allows the lyrics “to reflect on the quote ‘What do I live for?’, in reference to those who live in this world where emotions don’t exist, music isn’t accepted, and dance is banned,” says Seonghwa.

In real life, Hongjoong considers asking “What do I live for?” as the chance to centre oneself, rather than trigger an existential crisis. It’s a luxury of consciousness and freedom. “Let’s think about it like this, if we didn’t have our own opinions or thoughts, we wouldn’t ever be able to ask ourselves questions like that. Everyone around the world is likely to ask themselves ‘What do I live for?’ at least once, at some point in their lives. I think it’s a positive question if people go about it the right way and look at it from the right perspective,” he says. 

Adds Yunho: “There’s honestly a multitude of questions that I ask all time, but that’s also partially why I’m the type that likes to make decisions quickly for anything that can have an answer. The questions that I continue to ask myself though, usually pertain to my sense of personal self. I ask myself ‘Who exactly am I?’ often.”

ATEEZ – whose ages range between 22 and 25 – all began idol training while still in school. While they had no way of knowing if they’d debut as an idol, they had their answer to ‘What do I live for?’. But to be able to define this so clearly at a young age also contains “positives and negatives”, says Hongjoong. “There are times when the difference between our ideals and reality can hit us hard. We are fortunate, but the question of knowing what we want and like for our own growth is one that I think is good for us to ask ourselves constantly.”

‘Wake Up’ is, they say, the track that most heavily draws from their daily lives and thought processes: “You’ll be bewitched and lose all your other thoughts, you get swayed here and there without resistance / When it rains in this dry and worn-out drought, only then will you know who you are and who you are not”.

“It reflects on those moments when you feel like you’re in some sort of hypnosis. There are times when you get into a mindset or situation where you feel like something is wrong and you end up questioning yourself. It kind of tracks the enlightenment process of when different thoughts and contemplations enter your mind, and you begin to question why you have them,” says Hongjoong.

When ATEEZ experiences difficult moments, their way out is most often through each other. “And when there are times I still haven’t found the answer to complicated thoughts, ATINY are always there to support me with compliments and advice,” says Hongjoong. “Seeing that, I know I can solve any problems I’m having.” And it’s because of their fans’ communication, says San, that the stage is one place free of any uncertainty: “I think there’s a bigger sense of self-assurance because of the fans who believe in us. We’re able to take the stage with confidence and show an even cooler side naturally thanks to them.” 

But there’s one more idea underpinning ‘Wake Up’, that what if everything happening right now is nothing but a part of someone else’s fantasy script? It’s a queasy premise, and something  Hongjoong found some lyrical inspiration for via The Truman Show (“It’s one of my favourite movies”). Yet he also didn’t have to look far from himself, for as they play huge arenas – standing under banks of lights, confetti, and gigantic screens filled with their own visages, bigger than they could have ever once imagine – sometimes ATEEZ (albeit in a far more enjoyable manner) feel reality slip out under their feet.

“‘Then, what should we call this moment – a dream, or a reality? Dream, reality. Which one?’” says Jongho, quoting a line from their The Fellowship: Break The Wall concert. “It’s the fact that being able to perform in front of thousands of ATINY is really like a dream, and there are times when I question if the ATINY in the audience before me are really in front of me but the fact that it’s a reality for us – a happy reality – is surreal. It’s something we’re so thankful for.”

The post-show effect many artists struggle with – the disconnect between highs of performing and the mundanity that bookends it – is also still present but far less than before. “I used to really feel the difference the day after a concert when I would wake up in the morning and there wasn’t much to do,” says Mingi. “I think I’ve found my own method of overcoming this sense of a gap in the realities. It’s in finding comfort in the small things, whether that be finding something to eat or talking to the other members. As we’ve grown as artists and gained experience touring, I don’t think I feel that gap as much anymore.”

At the halfway point of 2023, ATEEZ still has three months of arena shows in Asia and South America to come. In São Paulo, they’re playing the same venue Taylor Swift has booked for her Eras Tour, while their Mexico City pre-sales tickets sold out in less than two hours. If anyone ever wondered what the deep secret might be to ATEEZ’s ongoing achievements, the short answer is that there isn’t one.

“I’d like to think that it’s ATEEZ, ATINY and our company,” says Hongjoong. “We made it. It’s not something based on luck. We worked really hard, and our fans worked even harder to show us to the world. That’s the reason we can be here like this. If ATINY wants more to see or listen to, we’ll prepare it. If we have something else we want to relay in our messages musically, or we feel like trying different genres, we’ll do just that. It’s easy. We just want to do our music and see our fans enjoy it with us. That’s all really.” 

But they’re also storytellers and as every good story contains a little bit of magic, so there is a sprinkling of stardust and fatalism atop the hard graft and innate talent which ATEEZ – even its most logical-minded members – have embraced. “You could say it’s kind of a mix of all that – work and luck,” says Yunho, “because that the eight of us were able to come together to do the hard work that led us here is sort of like fate. And meeting our ATINY feels like, and has been, like pure destiny.”

‘The World EP.2: Outlaw’ is out now.

Words: Taylor Glasby // @_xTGx

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