LØREN wrote K-pop bangers. Now his grungy pop-punk is blowing up online
With songwriting credits across BLACKPINK's debut album, the Seoul musician and producer is going solo with his nostalgic sound.
Photography Khan 간재훈
Pop culture has tried, but it cannot kill rock. A decade after western rock bands began fading from the mainstream, a new generation -- including Olivia Rodrigo, Beabadoobee, Meet Me @ The Altar, The Linda Lindas, and TXT -- are enamoured with 90s rock and 00s pop-punk, and, just like that, riffs have found their way back into 2021’s zeitgeist. But the new pop-rock resurgence doesn’t exactly look or sound like its predecessor, instead bearing influences of a world far more connected, fluid and diverse. Enter South Korea’s new star, LØREN.
When the rising songwriter (with credits across BLACKPINK’s The Album) and producer dropped his debut single “Empty Trash” last November, the grunge influences were recognisable -- its intro resembled the grimy opening of The Prodigy’s “Voodoo People”, which in turn sampled Nirvana’s “Very Ape” -- but beneath the verses, modern trap snares hissed and rattled. At 26, he’s just old enough to have been impacted by emo and America’s garage band revival; young enough for the dethroning of rock by EDM and hip-hop to have broadened his musical spectrum.
LØREN left South Korea for Singapore at a young age (“I think around 5th grade,” he recalls), and was placed at the American International School before having any real command of English. Because of this, he says, “when I was watching TV, my only two options were Cartoon Network or MTV. I was in my rebellious phase so I watched a lot of MTV; Green Day was out with American Idiot, and there were a lot of rock bands on.” LØREN was enthralled. “Seeing all those artists smashing shit, their hair grown out, eyeliner… it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I’d always tell my parents: when I grow up, I want to do something music related, even if that’s not as an artist, I wanna do something in the industry. And they figured I was gonna grow out of it. I figured I’d grow out of it as well, but I still like it as much as I did back then,” he laughs, a cigarette smouldering between his fingers.
It’s late in Seoul, where LØREN now lives, but we find him in his small studio, sipping coffee and chain-smoking through an interview he says he’s “more nervous for than I thought I’d be”. His new, second single “Need”, with its gruff riffs and epic, pop-punk chorus, dropped a month ago but the accumulated YouTube views for these two tracks have already sailed way past 7 million. To his right, a drum kit is just visible. His jaw-length, multi-coloured hair has been sheared to ear-level bangs, the ends tinted a caramel hue. His now-fluent English carries an American accent and the image of him in music videos as the moody bad boy in the leather jacket is juxtaposed by an earthy humour, a thoughtfulness, and a fanboy’s appreciation for the music that’s shaped his own. The leather jacket, though, remains omnipresent.
Born as Lee Seungjoo into a “very conservative family”, he was kept on such a tight leash that even haircuts were undertaken by his grandparents throughout childhood. “It was worse [than a bowl cut], it was, like, a trapezoid,” he laughs. Somehow he managed to convince his strict parents to buy him a guitar at 13, and he went electric from the get-go. “I didn’t have a proper teacher, I had a guy that I met at the Guitar Center and he was actually really good so I asked if he’d teach me. It wasn’t like music theory or anything, it was ‘this is how you play this song’.” The first he fully learned was Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ “By The Way” although, he grins, “I don’t know if I played it right.”
Everything you hear on a LØREN track is made by his own hands -- drums, bass, guitar, post effects -- written, recorded and produced solo. It makes perfect sense for his moniker to be derived from a tattoo on his chest that reads LONER. “I figured if I switch the R and the N, it sounded kinda clean, so I stuck with it,” he tells us. “But it was never like I designed this proper persona, it was all rough around the edges.” The tattoo is a few years old though, and times have changed at least a little. “I don’t think I’m as secluded as I was back in the day, but I did have a tough time all throughout school,” LØREN says. “I can literally count the days when I ate lunch with someone.”
“When you move from elementary to high school, you get a shot at resetting yourself but I went to an all-in-one school, so, all the kids who thought I was weird? They moved right on with me through middle and high school,” he explains. “I didn’t really have friends back then, so that feeling of being alone was definitely a big part of me at the time I got the tattoo. I think I was still recovering from that darkness.”
LØREN picked up drumming when accidentally volunteering to learn percussion at school. He hadn’t understood what the music teacher asked the class but “a bunch of guys raised their hand, so I just raised mine, not knowing what this was but figuring if everyone wants to do it, it must be something good”. He had a natural affinity for it, becoming the drummer in the school-run jazz band and finding that he “really fell in love with drums, more so than guitar” and quickly saved up to buy a drum set. “I always had this urge to get up and play guitar but I thought I was a better drummer. I was never good with guitar solos or anything like that. And I didn’t even think about singing back in those days.”
After graduating high school, he moved to Japan to do Liberal Studies at college but dropped out in his second year. He’d already begun teaching himself songwriting and production on Ableton and FL Studio but “I didn’t think that I could do rock ‘n’ roll by myself. I had no hopes of finding four people I could make music with, so I figured an EDM producer or something along those lines would be a possible career option for me”. Between the ages of 19 and 21, LØREN focused on making rap and dubstep beats, wondering whether he even had what it took but nonetheless sending his tapes to whoever he thought might listen.
When The Black Label, founded by K-pop producer Teddy in 2015 (and a subsidiary of YG Entertainment, one of the biggest companies in K-pop), heard his work, they threw him a lifeline: come in and get better at being a producer. LØREN was unsure. “I didn't know if I deserved a spot in The Black Label,” he says. “They were just getting started at the time and they saw potential in me, that if they could give me a few years then maybe I could become a valuable person.” He went in with two goals -- to work and to learn -- and threw himself headlong into both.
“I’m really thankful to the guys at The Black Label,” he says. Their relationship remains a creative partnership and mentorship, though LØREN now releases via his own indie label (Fire Exit Records), with AWAL as a distributor. “They sort of pulled me into their rooms and let me watch them do their thing. Like, I always thought the key to a good drum loop was finding the right samples and was almost too afraid to mess around with it, but they showed me how to design sound and where each element should be.” LØREN took to the decks in Seoul’s teeming clubs to test his skills with EDM, and earned the chance to work with K-pop royalty such as G Dragon, on whose 2017 track “개소리 (BULLSHIT)” LØREN has a producer credit. As baptisms of fire go, it’s impressive. “I could almost imagine them telling me, ‘This is all you know?!?’ And kicking me right out the door,” he says, laughing.
Growing frustrated by electronic music and missing rock, LØREN felt the gap between what he loved and what he was making increasing and it bothered him. “I was wasting all that influence I got as a kid, so I pulled my guitar out and started messing around, and that progressed to demos,” he explains. One of those was “Empty Trash”. Written around 2018, he describes it as “rough as fuck” and inspired “by Lil Peep, who showed me this perfect gateway because he was a very good mix of a beat you can make in your bedroom but with a heavily rock influenced sound — that combination, to me, was so refreshing”.
Encouraged by The Black Label to consider himself as the performer of his songs, LØREN spent last year focused on his own debut, while also contributing to one of the biggest pop albums of 2020: BLACKPINK’s The Album. He’s credited as a lyricist on three tracks -- “Pretty Savage”, “You Never Know”, “Lovesick Girls” -- and appeared in the video for the latter. It wasn’t his first time on camera with the group either, having cropped up in two studio livestreams playing guitar for Rosé. When it came to filming his own music video, BLACKPINK offered him some valuable advice. “I was hella nervous -- seeing all those people there just for your sake was frightening, so I was like, having a panic attack,” he recalls. “But they’d told me: ‘This is your moment, this is the one time you’ve worked so hard for so make sure it’s worth it. Don't hesitate, don’t think about what people are going to think of you. It’s your first time, you’re going to make mistakes and feel awkward. Give it everything you’ve got’. Their advice really helped me.”
Since creating his Instagram in May 2020, his following has grown to 1.2 million followers. With rock music’s popularity in South Korea far behind its pop and hip-hop counterparts, LØREN supposes that most of his fans are coming from overseas. “I’ve never had an experience where I’m getting coffee or something and someone walks up and goes, ‘Are you LØREN?’” he smiles. Online, however, he gets asked about his hair routine A LOT. “Interest in me as a person is flattering and I’m grateful, but I’m touched more by people who say ‘I love your song’ or ‘Your song sounds like…’. I’d like all that attention to go towards my music, have them listen to that first, then see if they actually like me.”
Currently he’s torn between wanting to put out as many songs as he can because “I want to show the world that I’m not just sitting on my ass every day”, and feeling like what he's made isn’t good enough to release yet. But these tracks, says LØREN, will allow audiences “to see more from that 90s and early 00s era which has the most influence on me.” He face-palms himself. “It’s kinda awkward to talk about my sound ‘cos I only have two songs out. I’m not very good at advertising myself!” Admittedly hard on himself, he’s still trying to find a happy medium between being a creator and his own worst critic.
A tattoo of an upside-down umbrella and water droplets (taken from the artwork for Bring Me The Horizon’s 2015 album That’s the Spirit) sits just below his throat. “I’m a very emotional person, so this is supposed to be teardrops, the umbrella, and catching myself,” smiles LØREN, tapping his chest. “It’s me telling myself: it’s all good, you don’t have to worry too much, you’ve done what you could so far. And for what it’s worth… that’s all that matters.”