k-pop’s nct 127 on the eternal struggle of being sexy and cute… at the same time
We discuss fans, tough tour life and big ambitions with your new fave Seoul boyband.
“We are from the future,” jokes Mark, a bright, quick-witted rapper who will turn 20 next month. The bold claim he’s making is about his group, the K-pop powerhouse NCT 127. Based in Seoul (127 is the longitudinal coordinate of the city), they’re the 9-strong sub-unit of SM Entertainment’s daring Neo Culture Technology, or NCT: a boyband idol project with impressive dance moves, unlimited members and multiple units on a mission to go global. As it stands, NCT has 21 members from different countries, who are spread across (and sometimes move between) four subunits -- with 127 serving as the main vehicle for international exposure. Got it?
NCT 127 are not an easy group to define. In the words of Chicago-born member Johnny, “you will be stimulated not only with your ears, but also your eyes. Everything is very visually aesthetic, and the music is something that you never heard before”. Japanese member Yuta points out that many of their releases are “very unique” and even “hard to relate” to, but according to Mark, this is simply part of their DNA. “Neo Culture Technology means we are always working with what is yet to come,” he explains.
After an impactful 2018, where they were named an Up Next artist by Apple music, hailed as the ones “leading the next generation of K-pop” by the Los Angeles Times, and broke records as the first K-pop act to hit the top of Billboard’s Emerging Artist Chart, 2019 has so far presented even more opportunities for the three-year-old group.
For the past six months, NCT 127 have found themselves with an increasingly hectic schedule. Their first tour, NeoCity -- The Origin, kicked off in January and the band have since performed in Asia, North America and Europe; made several appearances on American TV shows; released the Japanese album Awaken and the Korean EP We Are Superhuman; and recently collaborated with American singer Ava Max on a version of her single, So Am I.
But rather than just keeping up, the members of NCT 127 feel like they are living with an exciting momentum. “Once you start, you just keep going,” says Mark, who was born in Canada and trained for four years (K-pop stars typically first spend time in a trainee group, in this case SMRookies, which also incubated several members of Red Velvet) before debuting with the group. “I feel like we've been doing that ever since we started this team. We're just thankful for all that's happening.”
Team is a key word for them. Taeyong, Yuta, Jaehyun, Mark, Haechan, Taeil, Johnny, Doyoung, and Jungwoo all acknowledge that synergy is one of the group’s sustaining pillars. “We have to lean on each other, because doing everything by yourself would be impossible. When we're at our lowest points during the tour, we're always helping each other out,” says 24-year-old Johnny, who was a trainee for nine years. “We have been together for so long that we feel like brothers, so touring and staying away from home make touring itself home,” Mark adds.
But the demanding lifestyle can take its toll, something which lavender-haired Jaehyun is very open about. “It's a lie if we say we're not tired,” he says, “but we always get a lot of energy through the tour... that's our main motivation for doing it.” With nods from the rest of the group, Johnny summarises: “Touring beats the tiredness.”
That certainly held true during the entirety of their London concert, held on 7 July at the SSE Wembley Arena. For over two and a half hours, the group showed no signs of weariness as they pushed through a dynamic setlist. While the concert reserved a segment for touching ballads like Timeless and Jet Lag -- where vocalists Doyoung, Taeil, Jaehyun, Jungwoo, and Haechan were clearly in their element -- most of the group’s discography is comprised of hammering out hits that leave little time for fans to catch their breath.
Matching the group’s energy, NCTzens (their fandom) passionately sang along and waved lightsticks in green, red, and yellow ripples -- a colour show coordinated by creative directors via bluetooth. It’s a special kind of sight, one that makes it easy to understand why meeting with the fans is NCT 127’s favourite part of touring. “We can feel their heat, get to know their cultures, and all of that makes us feel much closer to our fans,” Jaehyun adds, dimples forming as he smiles. In fact, their concerts are said to transform even the most laidback members, like Doyoung, who -- according to bandmate Johnny -- is “a guy who just likes to lay in bed, be at home, eat food... but in front of our fans you can see how much high energy he gets. What he does for the fans amazes us every time”.
Like their latest single Superhuman suggests, NCT 127 seem to have levelled up individually, gone beyond their limits by working together. The uber-futuristic release presents an addictive mix of discopop and edm sounds, with a music video that sees band members floating in outer space, surrounded by neon glitches and CGI effects. The lyrics, however, strike a little closer to home, with motivational messages of “I’m the only one who can save myself” and “I want to become someone who’s beyond imagination”. These words of wisdom, Johnny tells us, urge the listener to “keep going, until you eventually become your own superhuman”. Yuta and Haechan (the maknae, the group’s youngest member) say that it’s their favourite single so far, with Yuta noting that “it has such a positive message and lyrics, making it that much more relatable to fans and any listeners. It’s a song that can have a positive influence”.
In a saturated and competitive industry like K-pop, finding a niche is how many groups manage to stay afloat. NCT 127 never anchored on that, and have retained the same experimental style they started out with. From the Moombahton of their debut single Fire Truck, to the saccharine Touch, or the anthemic powers of Limitless, there has never been a predictable way forward. “Adapting to a lot of diverse styles is our style,” says Mark, enthusiastically. “That's our goal as well -- not to stay in just one side, but to be able to reach all the genres,” agrees Yuta. “That's where our real strength lies. With each new concept or style we pull off, each member does his part in filling in any empty spaces or gaps that make each concept whole and complete.”
And what concepts do they want to try in the future? “Sexy and cute, at the same time,” says Taeyong. When the absurdity of it dawns on the blue-haired singer, he nearly falls off his seat laughing. Johnny and his mood maker qualities weigh in: “I mean, it would be something new... and we always want something new.”