Se So Neon are the new faces of Korean indie rock
Ahead of their second album Maladaptive, the trio talks finding their place and resisting the urge to conform.
Photos courtesy of Se So Neon.
When it comes to discussing the South Korean music scene, the glittering, voluminous behemoth of K-pop almost always takes center stage — thanks to the amount of music it produces, the breakneck pace with which it evolves, and of course, its growing international appeal. Until recently, Korean indie rock bands often ended up taking the back seat, existing largely in the outer circles of the scene and banking on a solid fan base built through years of playing live shows all over the country.
This was the case for indie rock trio Se So Neon, who were fixtures of the indie circuit for about a year before they were able to release their debut single “A Long Dream” in 2017. The song’s jagged, mid-tempo beats combine delectable elements of city pop and neo-psychedelic rock, calling to mind the likes of Tame Impala or Crumb. When the band, originally consisting of members Hwang So-yoon, Gang To, and Fancy Moon, released their first album Summer Plumage later that year, Se So Neon were thrust into the spotlight. They began playing TV shows and went on to win Rookie of the Year and Best Rock Song at the 2018 Korean Music Awards.
This February, Se So Neon will release their highly-anticipated sophomore album Maladaptive. It feels new and exciting, yet familiar at the same time. The sounding board single “Go Back” marked the band’s first release with new members Hyunjin and U-su, who were personally recruited by Soyoon after former bassist Fancy Moon and drummer Gang To left for their mandatory military service.
The process of making Maladaptive has been quite a journey and in the penultimate stages, the band members have realized how awfully “tedious” working on new music can be. “It requires a lot of repetitive processes that you really must go through. It's inevitable,” frontwoman Soyoon says. “Even though the work is still underway, it’s something that I have been thinking about. We will always have to go through that process no matter how many albums we make down this road.”
Soyoon’s words are cushioned by a classic dry humor that she deploys frequently and cleverly, and the band’s cognizant candor is what makes them one of the more honest voices shaping the contemporary Korean indie scene. Soyoon is hesitant to say that her lyrics reflect the collective beliefs of her generation, but Maladaptive asks questions about growing up and maturing that are familiar to us all.
“I am 23 years old in Korean age, which means that I am either just starting my first job, or [in my] last year of college,” she explains. “Out in the world, I was surrounded by a larger collective. I started asking questions about why everything is this way; who decides who has the power to be in charge. All these questions about what it means to be an adult, but also not really sure why things have to be done [a particular] way.”
At first listen one might think Maladaptive is a reactionary product, born out of the need to resist the status quo that’s amplified throughout this restless album. Soyoon, however, insists that it’s not so much about defiance as it’s about finding peace with the fact that you exist at a distance from the mainstream.
“This is some Korean etymology stuff,” she gears up to explain. “There are two different ways to say [‘Maladaptive’] in Korean. One refers to a condition where someone or something has failed, or someone is having trouble adjusting to something. But the Korean title of this album means that you're sort of unwilling to adjust.”
On Maladaptive, this energy turns inwards, crossing mental and emotional milestones to arrive at the conclusion that normalcy is a relative concept. “It is a story about the world, but also it's a lot of internal questioning,” Soyoon says. “Where is my stance, in terms of my position in this world? After that, you realize that you're sort of unwilling to adjust. It's sort of taking in this idea that whatever the ordinary is consuming, it isn't something that I would identify with.”
Were there any moments in the members’ lives when they didn’t feel particularly malleable? Both U-su and Hyunjin would say so.
“For me, it was the military,” U-su says, referring to the mandatory military service that every able-bodied South Korean male between the ages of 18 and 35 must complete. “It feels like rather than being in the army [and] getting along with people, I was just in that physical state. Just being present. And then I just left.”
Shy, fresh-faced Hyunjin speaks similarly of Confucianism, which remains a pillar of the moral fabric of Korean society, and governs everything from personal life to professional relations.
“In Korea, you have to be respectful of adults, and you have to speak in honorific terms even if this person doesn't know you,” he explains. “I felt really frustrated with all this. It wasn't something that I was willing to adapt to. I still try to live by the fact that whoever pays respect to me, I would like to reciprocate. Just because it's someone older than me, I won't be trying to adapt to the ways I'm supposed to treat this person.”
On the song “Dong,” Soyoon explores the common cultural practice of expressing restraint when it comes to public displays of affection or emotion. “I wrote [“Dong”] because when I'm walking down the street with my friend and a store would play music, I couldn't resist the urge to dance,” she explains. “It's something that is so joyful and happy for me, [but] others look at me with stances of strangeness… I am always witnessing this psychological stance of ‘Oh, you're not really seeing the way I'm seeing it. I'm happy, but because I'm doing it in this public space, it might be something that I'm not supposed to do.’”
With this added lens, it’s easy to understand why Se So Neon are the mouthpiece of an evolving generation, one which is having impassioned, open conversations about national identity, self-expression, and their place in an economy that doesn’t offer much stability. Over the course of Maladaptive, Se So Neon explore the idea of finding your own place in this fluctuating environment, even if you have to confront parts that are not particularly beautiful.
“It's this collection of small moments that I thought about,” Soyoon concludes. “Rather than being like ‘Oh, I'm trying to find where I belong,’ it's sort of, ‘Oh, I'm just trying to be me but society is telling me not to be.’ The way the world works is telling me not to [be me]. And that's really sad.”