ATEEZ: The New Generation
How the atmospheric rise of a five-month old rookie group is setting new standards in K-pop
When the eight members of ATEEZ join me on a Skype call all the way from Seoul, it’s almost immediately a (delightful) mess. While rapper HongJoong, the group’s leader and most fluent in English, steers the majority of the conversation, the rest of the members–Seonghwa, Yunho, Yeosang, Mingi, San, Wooyoung and Jongho–take it upon themselves to give me numerous thumbs-up signs, finger hearts and applause after answering each question. At one point when the conversation turns to Bruno Mars, the group burst into a spontaneous, yet somehow perfectly in-sync, rendition of the American singer’s 2010 single “Grenade.” It’s a lot to take in all at once, and quite the contrast to the dark and glamorous neo-pirates we see in their music videos, but it simply adds to the charm.
The group just had a comeback in January with their sophomore offering TREASURE EP.2 : Zero To One and are set to embark on their first world tour next month. They’re the first rookie K-pop band to have sold out a five-city U.S. tour this fast post debut, have confirmed a 10-city Europe tour and are already sure about where they want to go next. “I want to come to India,” says HongJoong, with a big grin while main rapper Mingi whoops in agreement in the background. “I want to visit Indian fans.”
While their debut EP TREASURE EP.1 : All To Zero made quite a splash upon its release in October 2018–peaking at Number Seven on Korean music charts and Number 12 on Billboard World Albums chart–TREASURE EP.2 : Zero To One did the job of propelling them towards world stardom. In addition to ranking a notch higher at Number Six on Korean charts, the EP appeared on Billboard’s Heatseekers music chart for the first time and hit Number Five on the Billboard World Albums chart. The music videos for its lead singles “Say My Name” and “Hala Hala” have gathered millions of views on YouTube and have fans utterly enthralled. There’s a comment on the video for “Hala Hala” that sums up the general emotions around this band pretty well: “ATEEZ make me wanna go outside and show this to every single person cause the world deserves to see this masterpiece.”
A lot of these are feats unheard of for most rookie groups–especially one that’s just five months old. ATEEZ remain modest in the wake of all the success and demand, but perhaps that’s because they don’t quite know how it happened. “I think we are very fortunate,” HongJoong says carefully. “We are happy and we are surprised too. I don’t know how we got [popular] so fast, but we can say to you that we prepare very well and very hard.” He makes sure to add a quick thanks and shout-out to their growing fandom, ATINY (the name comes from a mix of ‘ATEEZ’ and ‘destiny’), and the entire band nod in approval at this. “We write songs and lyrics honestly, for our fans and audience. So I think that’s our positive point.”
What’s most interesting about ATEEZ is that they had already begun making waves several months before their official debut. They put out a series of dance covers on their label KQ Entertainment’s YouTube channel and it built the foundation of their identity, although none of us knew what it would lead to back then. When the first video (choreography to Famous Dex’s “Pick It Up”) popped up on YouTube, many were curious as to who this group of idols were and what they were going to bring to the table. Known simply as ‘KQ Fellaz’ at the time, the band created intrigue with their slick dance moves, arresting facial expressions and a uniform look to intentionally create a sense of anonymity. It’s a theme that echoes through in their current artistry, as ATEEZ remain masked in their latest comeback videos and a lot of their appeal lies in the mysteries surrounding their fictional identities.
To keep the viral traction from the videos, the band then dropped KQ Fellaz, a YouTube vlog/reality series that followed them while they trained in dance and music in Los Angeles and introduced curious fans to the members of the band. “I think it was an unforgettable experience for us,” says main dancer Yunho of their time in America. “Because during the training in L.A., it was really important for us to learn the dance trends that are popular there and how they express themselves. As for how it helped us as a team… during that long month in a foreign country, we learned how to trust each other and how to work as a team. Because it was difficult being away from our own country for the first time.” As the demand for more content around the boys grew, a reality TV show (also pre-debut) called Code Name ATEEZ soon followed.
The band proceeded to win fans over with their hilarious personalities, honesty and drive, and it set the bedrock for what would turn out to be one of the year’s most anticipated K-pop debuts. With so many eyes on them already, did they feel the pressure to live up to expectations? “I think first of all we are very grateful to have an audience waiting for us before we debuted,” says vocalist Wooyoung. “Definitely, it would be a lie to say we weren’t pressured. But because of that pressure, we worked harder, we were able prepare and make an even better second album and we will continue to work hard.”At this point of time, K-pop is bigger than it’s ever been globally. As more Korean artists get popular internationally and begin touring in western countries, it’s worth looking at how new artists work on standing out from the hundreds that debut each year. ATEEZ seem to be on the right track, so what was the game plan when they began? “More than having a game plan for standing out, the most important part is expression,” says HongJoong. “We think a lot about our song and our performance expressions and how we can gear it towards our audience and our fans. It’s not just our faces but also our hand movements and body movements that say something to the audience. So we try to focus on that more.” The key is to play the long game and set a standard on all their records. “We started to prepare for this album before we finished working on our first album,” he says about TREASURE EP.2 : Zero To One.
This helps us get closer to the crux of why they stand out from their peers: for ATEEZ, it really isn’t about the ‘concept’ formula that most groups have relied on to debut with in the past–it’s the manner of execution that takes center stage. They are confident, have phenomenal stage presence, have already developed a hard-hitting signature sound, and fit together seamlessly as a team. Not a single member ever falls behind in the choreography and there’s a power that they emit as a unit that other groups in their bracket don’t quite match. Their work does still meet the K-pop industry’s standards of cinematic production and penchant for hidden narratives, but the symbolism lies in their movements rather than Easter eggs in between the videos’ frames. They move like clockwork, intricate details woven in seamlessly in every piece of choreography and their facial expressions are striking. It isn’t focused on sex-appeal or looking beautiful; they’re masked and covered head-to-toe in black for the majority of the “Hala Hala” music video, but it’s the clip that receives the most praise with audiences gushing about the ferocity of the choreography and the emotion the members’ eyes. Another top comment on one of their videos states, “I think I never realized how important facial expressions actually are when you dance, until I found ATEEZ.”
With the help of their labelmate and lead producer on their records, EDEN (whom they make sure to thank during the conversation), ATEEZ blend hip-hop, trap, dubstep and pop to present a sound that is purely theirs. From Middle Eastern flavors in TREASURE EP.1 : All To Zero and traces of indie pop in TREASURE EP.2 : Zero To One, they seem to have understood how to create a strong singular identity without sacrificing creativity and variety. Their B-side tracks explore tropical house (“Twilight”), synthwave (“Desire”) and trap-infused slow jams (“Light”) and present several sides of ATEEZ–right in tune with their album concepts as a whole. “K-pop groups have different roles and positions like singing position, dance, rap… and all these members make one team. I think that makes more synergy and international fans love that point,” says HongJoong. He explains rather than it being a single genre in itself, it is evolving into an umbrella term for Korean artists’ take on genres that are already popular worldwide and it’s something ATEEZ have always kept in mind. “The change that I’ve seen in the industry that I personally really like, is that before K-pop got really big, it was kind of having a pop genre identity to it. Right now, it’s level with international pop where it’s about having more genres within.”
The band make sure to be deeply involved in the songwriting, production and conceptualization of each album, first sitting down together to discuss what they want to share with their art. “When it comes to our members, we talk about it in a very casual setting and really give each other different kinds of ideas,” explains main dancer and vocalist San about how the band come up with their music videos. “We then meet up with our music video production team and director and develop the concept with feedback from our director as well.”
Most of ATEEZ’s lyrics are motivational and revolve around teamwork, success, togetherness and confidence. Their lead singles tend to be anthemic and incite a sense of euphoria in their audiences. HongJoong and Mingi are credited as songwriters on almost every ATEEZ track and explain that their lyrics center around themes like this because it’s exactly what they and their fans most believe in. “My inspiration comes from fan letters or our fans’ stories,” HongJoong says, explaining that the team take time to understand their fans on a personal level and hope their fans understand them better in return.
“We put our thoughts and our feelings into our albums and I think it’s really important the fans know about it,” adds Mingi. “Having a connection like that with our fans is very important right from the beginning as we set out on this path.”
HongJoong shares that getting these messages out there is the main reason behind why he set out on this path in the first place. “I started [studying] music in middle school I started to make music because I want to connect with fans and an audience who sees us.” All of the members connect to this sentiment and it almost seems like destiny for them to be on this path. Mingi relates to HongJoong as a songwriter, while the vocalists are all united by a their love for performance and what it can inspire in others.
“I was actually part of a sports team,” shares youngest member Jongho shyly. “I wanted to go into sports initially.” He explains that it was hearing veteran Korean ballad singer Yoo Jaeha’s iconic 1987 single “Because I Love You” that sealed the deal towards a career in music instead. “The song gives strength and hope to people and I want to do that for my fans, I want to be that person to them.”
The band isn’t just making a splash among fans–professionals in the music media industry are fascinated, evident through a storm of appreciation on social media and via various news portals internationally. Vocalist and dancer Yeosang admits it was unexpected. “We only debuted a few months ago and we’re getting all this attention from international journalists… we’re really thankful, and grateful and humbled by the feedback we’re getting.”
As for 2019, ATEEZ are confident they’re going to make an impact and establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with. They’re extremely secretive about their upcoming music but hint that they don’t mind experimenting a bit more. “As you know, we are more towards dark and hard songs so we want to try doing the opposite of that, have more of an emotional side, the ballad kind of genre,” says Jongho. “We can’t share what kind of genre we’re doing,” he makes sure to say though with a grin, and they all laugh at my disappointment. “But we want to try new techniques for different genres and definitely hope you like it.”
Towards the end of the conversation we broach the topic of dream collaborations and it all promptly turns into chaos again. “The first is BTS!” yells Wooyoung enthusiastically, referring to the world’s current reigning boy band (also South Korean and an inspiration to the group.) The rest of his members agree wholeheartedly with several nods and thumbs-ups, while San adds Chris Brown to the mix and Jongho names Bruno Mars as his idol. This is the point where they burst into song, and it’s a sudden reminder of how young they all really are and how much they’ve already achieved.
They calm down again when I ask about what they want their fans to learn from them and the mood turns contemplative. Oldest member and vocalist Seonghwa says carefully, “Rather than fans looking at us and learning from us… it’s the other way around. We’re looking at our fans and learning from them.” He thinks about it for a moment before adding, “But if there is something we hope people like about us, it would be our teamwork. It’s about how we can create that relationship with our fans and create that trust with them as well. ATEEZ’s vision is… giving our all. The way to do that is to focus on what we’re doing right now and go one day at a time. If we do this, I feel we can fulfill our vision and the dream we are trying to reach.”
HongJoong, who had remained silent for the last few minutes, suddenly looks up before adding with calm confidence, “Our plans for our albums and songs may be a secret right now, but we can tell you that this year… this year is ATEEZ’s year.”
All images courtesy of KQ Entertainment
Watch ATEEZ’s video for “Say My Name” below: