Time Lapse: Travelling The Globe With NCT 127

The K-Pop group revel in Latin American hospitality...

127° 1′ 28.6032” E is the longitude coordinate of the cosmopolitan Seoul, South Korea. Almost on the other side of the globe, at 46° 37′ 31.0440” W, stands the concrete jungle of São Paulo, Brazil. Despite being sister cities, the two metropolises are separated by 18,331 kilometres and a 12-hour time difference, therefore remaining uncharted territory to most of their respective populations.

Until last week, K-pop group NCT 127 — who take their name from the above-mentioned coordinate — were part of that demographic. Recently arrived in São Paulo for the Latin American leg of their ‘Neo City The Origin’ tour, everything still feels a little surreal to them. One by one, the eight members (minus Haechan, who is currently sitting out of promotions due to health reasons) enter a minuscule room at the backstage of Vibra São Paulo venue, eyes eager with curiosity. It’s less than an hour before their first out of three concerts in the city begins, but they speak to Clash as if time didn’t exist.

“The trees look very tropical,” says the witty rapper Mark about his first impressions of Brazil. “The sky feels really high,” adds vocalist Jaehyun in his impossibly soft tone. “And the [restaurant] workers are really, really kind,” says the magnetic leader Taeyong. (The night before, they all went to NB Steakhouse to eat churrasco, or Brazilian barbecue, and drink Brazilian wine). “We feel that Latin America really knows how to have fun,” summarises the charming Johnny, who has a knack for making everyone feel comfortable around him. “The last time we went to Mexico [in 2019], everybody went crazy, so we’re very excited about that.”

However, Brazil is an untamed beast, and whatever NCT 127 were expecting, the audience found a way to overcome it. They don’t know it yet, but fans will sing along to every song from start to finish, and their contagious enthusiasm will prompt Doyoung to say “you have the loudest screams I have ever heard in my life”. Later on, Yuta would declare himself to be Neymar while wearing the soccer player’s jersey that someone threw on stage. For the next two concerts, “Highway to Heaven” and “Regular” would be performed in English instead of Korean, because that’s the version the public was singing.

But back to the moments before all this happened, they reminisce about what has changed since their pre-pandemic first tour, ‘Neo City – The Origin’. “We’re getting older,” says the eldest member and powerful vocalist Taeil, but Johnny re-words it: “Let’s say more mature.” Jaehyun chimes in, saying that they are getting more relaxed together. “We can see more stuff on stage and feel more during the tour,” he adds. The lithe and flexible dancer Jungwoo, who sits quiet for most of the conversation, holds up his phone and reads a translation he just typed in: “I can see each and every one of you better”.

For some reason, this was enough for Mark to jump on his seat, laughing and clapping his hands so loud that it muffled any other sound in the room. “He means us. He thinks that each member shines more than before,” Johnny explains after taking a look at Jungwoo’s phone. “He really loves the members”, Taeyong furthers. Jungwoo agrees, ending the banter with an impish, “They are charming guys”.

As with all of us, there was a NCT 127 before the pandemic, and there is one after. Although tours and in-person fan meetings stopped for most of the last three years, the group saw their sales multiply and the fandom expand. They went viral on TikTok with early 2020’s single “Kick It (영웅)”, and sold 1.5 million copies of their latest album, September’s ‘질주 (2 Baddies)’, on the first week. In a way, ‘THE LINK’ — as its name suggests — serves as a bridge between the fresh twenty-somethings they were in 2019, and the household names they are now, just six months away from their 7th debut anniversary.

According to Johnny, choosing the setlist for this tour was one of the hardest parts. “We knew we had to put a lot of songs from [our previous album ‘Sticker’] in, but for that we had to take out a lot of other songs too,” he says. “When we decided which ones should go, we thought about the [past] tour. What songs had the best reactions, what songs would upset the fans if they weren’t in there. It’s actually for the fans.”

There is some discussion around what songs they believe had to be in the setlist, no matter what, but the consensus lands on ‘Kick It (영웅)’ and 2018’s ‘Cherry Bomb’. That is, until I mention fan favourite ‘Limitless’, which was, to use a fitting Brazilian meme, forgotten at the churrasco. A wave of apologies follows, while Mark says that he wishes he could add it to this concert. “‘Limitless’ always comes up in fan requests,” Jaehyun recalls. Why wasn’t it added to the setlist, then? We’ll never know.

And since we’re talking about mysteries, NCT 127 are on the verge of another potential masterpiece. ‘Ay-Yo’, their fourth album repackage, comes out on January 30th, and comprises three new songs. To Jungwoo, the title track of the same name “holds a powerful yet cool vibe,” but it’s the b-side ‘DJ’ who provides an interesting contrast to their usual style. Taeyong says that the other b-side, ‘Skyscraper’, is lyrically more straightforward, “breaking the limits and going above and beyond”, while ‘DJ’ is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder and of their 2018 single ‘Touch’ — which Johnny complements by saying it’s a “more mature” version of it.

That’s when Osaka-born Yuta, a mesmerising dancer who’s known for his unverified fact-spilling, says to Johnny, sitting across from him: “I can see your sexy body.” The room fills up with raucous laughter and Mark’s clapping once again. “That was no spoiler for ‘Ay-Yo’”, Johnny clarifies. “That was just a natural interaction between us.” Mark mocks them back: “Very natural.”

These moments reflect Jaehyun’s statement about how at ease they feel with each other now. Looking back on their experiences throughout the years, they range from unserious to thoughtful, sometimes in the same sentence. For example, Taeil believes that “nothing is impossible with a strong core” — physically and mentally, make of that what you will. Meanwhile, Johnny mentions that they have the most fun on tour, and Jungwoo agrees with that feeling. He says that being on tour allows him to “see how relationships get stronger by the year”, both with fans and with the other members.

“Working hard is the basics, but you really need good people around you to go higher,” adds the thoughtful Jaehyun, who recently released the longing single “Forever Only” through SM STATION : NCT LAB. The project aims to release several solo and unit songs by members of the larger collective NCT, introducing newer sides of the members to the public. “When you’re in a group, you try to blend in with everybody, but you also have to make sure you don’t forget yourself while doing that”, says Johnny.

If their first tour, ‘The Origin’, was a demonstration of the sheer potential they held, ‘THE LINK’, on the other hand, is a consolidation of their talents as individuals. It reflects Johnny’s words, highlighting each member’s artistry through unit performances and solos, in addition to their biggest hits as a group. Johnny’s own ‘Focus’, where he performs an intricate, shirtless choreography inside a glass shower, is one of the concert’s most anticipated moments.

Another one is Doyoung’s ballad ‘The Reason Why It’s Favorite,’ which precedes their 2021 hit ‘Favorite (Vampire)’. The sensitive, gifted vocalist says that his biggest learning since debut was that “truth will prevail”. It’s in line with his demeanour — although known to be quiet and chill offstage, he was one of the most expressive ones during the concert. In another ment, he revealed feeling emotional to be in a country he probably would never visit if he wasn’t an idol, and that it was beautiful to see everyone singing in Korean, even though they don’t speak it.

Yuta, who expresses himself through the self-penned ‘Butterfly’ (in reference to the blue butterfly tattoo he has on his hip), says that being part of NCT 127 taught him to love himself. But if you think such a poetic lesson would fly unscathed in this chaotic room, think again. Upon hearing his bandmate, Taeyong starts laughing hysterically. “This is so Yuta,” he says, trying to catch a breath. Meanwhile, Yuta looks at me like the living version of the expressionless face emoji. “Taeyong always does that,” he complains, jokingly.

So, what has Taeyong learned after all these years? He mentions how much he relates to the song ‘Coming Home’. “Family will always be beside you, even if you’re not physically together. I’ve realised that they’re there for you no matter what,” he says, in Korean. But as soon as the interpreter relays his words, he switches to English and finishes it off, classic Taeyong style: “I’m mama’s boy.”

As the laughter subsides, Mark sums his thoughts up. “I think our team really did get better,” he says. “We are more respectful towards each of our individualities, and that really shows in this concert.” A multitude of paths spreads before them — solo debuts? More tour stops? Even more music? — but they take it one step at a time, knowing that each decision will shape the group’s future, too. “Our concert is, in a way, a reflection of what our team looks like, and of what’s going on inside and outside. Our concert is NCT 127.”

Words: Tássia Assis // @_tassia_a 

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