James Lee: ‘I’m Not Trying to Sell a Million CDs’
Korean-American rock band Royal Pirates’ member on the accident that forced him to give up playing bass, walking away from the K-pop world and finding the strength to make a solo comeback
When I first reach out to James Lee for an interview, it’s via a direct message on Instagram and I don’t really expect anything to come of it. It’s one message in a flood of several filtering into a celebrity’s inbox, after all. So when the Korean-American musician does reply within the day, saying he’s up for a conversation, there is surprise on both ends. “I had no idea that [someone in Mumbai] would know about me, this random guy,” he tells me later.
We connect over Skype a few days later; it’s 9:30 am in Los Angeles and 11 pm here in Mumbai, and the first thing he does is apologize for the timing. “Because I know it’s late there,” he says, even after I assure him it’s no big deal. During our hour-long conversation, Lee interjects even the saddest parts with self-deprecating humor and funny anecdotes, inquires after fans in India but highlights his upcoming EP The Light. “It might be harder for the average consumer to relate to it… Because I’m talking about how my hand got cut off,” he says with a grin about his first solo project and big comeback since an accident in 2015 that nearly cost him his life. “I’m not trying to sell a million CDs. Right now I’m in the position to finally get over what I went through.”
Lee rose to fame as the bassist of Korean-American pop-rock band Royal Pirates with bandmates Kim Moonchul (lead vocals) and Kim Sooyoon aka EXSY (drummer.) He joined in 2009 and moved with the band to South Korea in 2012 to become immersed in the K-pop industry, eventually becoming a notable name playing straightforward rock amidst a predominantly pop circuit. “They needed a bassist because Moon’s brother passed away,” he says, his tone contemplative as he adds, “The band kind of had a lot of tragedy for the bass position.”
Like many other American-born Korean musicians who moved to South Korea, there was a massive culture shock awaiting Lee. The band were tossed head-first into the manufactured world of K-pop and it was a deviation from everything they knew. “When I first started, they were really into creating a packaged product whereas in America, my mentality was more artistic and just having fun with it,” says Lee, adding that for him, being a musician in Korea soon became ‘having a job.’ K-pop had built a certain image for itself–makeup and androgyny were big, as was synthesized music and sharp choreography. It was all pretty alien to Lee. “I had never worn makeup before and I wore a dress against my wishes,” he says with a laugh, referring to the video for their breezy pop-rock 2014 single “Drawing The Line” where he had to force his six-foot-two, muscular frame into a long black dress. “Everyone was like, ‘It’s going to look great!’ but it’s one of my biggest regrets!” Ironically, the video was about rebelling against the system of showbiz.
Was there any creative freedom? Lee is careful as he answers, “Our company was really good about wanting to bring [creativity] out of us, but personally I didn’t feel as if I really got to do all the things that I wanted to do. That’s why I’m doing this project.” He does admit that working with professionals helped him learn a lot about the songwriting process. “I had emotional discourse but they helped me package it. Then I had the accident and… it kind of threw a wrench in all that.”
It was on June 10th 2015, a day after Lee’s 27th birthday, when a freak incident changed his life. He was walking into a restaurant in Seoul to meet a friend when a huge glass windowpane next to the door smashed onto him, crushing his left shoulder and slicing through his left wrist. “I woke up and my hand was off of my arm… it was disconnected from my arm,” recalls Lee, adding that at first he couldn’t believe the sight of it. “I was like, ‘Nah, this is a nightmare. This doesn’t happen’.” His hand remained connected to his wrist only by a piece of skin. “I thought I was going to die because the blood was pouring out of my wrist—I was lying in a pool of blood. And I don’t know why, but I was screaming in Korean, ‘Please, please I don’t want to die. God help me.’”
It didn’t help that when Lee sought immediate medical help, the country was going through a lockdown in light of a MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus) outbreak. Hospitals were reluctant to admit new patients, and Lee’s friends and managers tried as many places as possible before they found one that would help. By then, the bassist’s hand had turned black and cold; the doctors told him to brace himself for possible amputation. They were able to avoid it, but Lee would need a total of five surgeries and years of painful physiotherapy to regain minimal function. He lifts his left hand into the video frame to show it to me; it’s bound at the wrist with what looks like bright blue Kinesiology tape and seems mostly frozen. “I can move my pinky,” he says cheerfully, wiggling it. “But I can’t use my thumb anymore.” With necrosis and arthritis setting into the bone now, Lee says a sixth surgery seems unavoidable.
Just a few months after his accident and surgeries, Lee did attempt to get back into playing music. Nerve damage prevented him from feeling the strings of a bass, and even when he took to playing keys for Royal Pirates’ comeback EP 3.3 (2015), Lee found it too painful to perform and keep up with the rigors of touring. “I had to step away from doing music publicly because I had an identity crisis. I played bass for 12 to 13 years. I prided myself on it, it was what I enjoyed doing most. I felt the impact in my career and self-confidence after the accident.”
He reveals there were so many more additional incidents that happened in the aftermath of his accident which the public didn’t know about; for one, there was the time he had to go to a mental hospital as part of a court order. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Is it not obvious that if a guitarist gets his hand cut off he’s going through some shit?’ But no, they needed to see proof.” He spent six days locked up there; rubber room, no shoe-laces, no glass, no cellphone. Another was when a MRI and CT scan last year revealed a blood clot in his brain—the result of a stroke he’d had sometime after his accident. “So there’s a few centimeters in my brain that’s just gone. But I’m really lucky it was really small stroke. It was wild!”
Despite it all, Lee is positive, hopeful—“I was addicted to medications, I had to go to a mental hospital, I had this crazy lawsuit, I had to escape this tragedy in my head, I had to leave Korea, I had to leave everything I knew… It’s about the journey. [Writing about it is] therapy to me, to be honest.” He credits his friend Brad Moore, drummer of South Korean indie band Busker Busker, as the one who finally snapped him out of his depression and self-pity. “He told me, ‘You gotta shut the fuck up. You can’t keep complaining.’ Because I would only complain to him.”
Earlier this month, Lee launched a Kickstarter project to crowdfund his solo three-track EP, The Light. The overwhelming response is testament to how many fans are ready for more music. Several celebrity friends, including prominent K-pop star Amber Liu, extended their help by promoting the project on social media. The initial goal of $27,600 was met within hours of it going online and, as of print, the total stands at $71,751. He says about the EP, “The songs are written but they need to be produced and rearranged. Since I can’t play guitar anymore, I need to have someone I trust execute it for me. I’m actually meeting Enik (Lin, producer, friend and frontman of electro-rock outfits IAMMEDIC and Fyke) today to go over a couple of the tracks.”
Mining his roots of indie and singer-songwriter music, Lee doesn’t give away too much about the EP, but there are a few demos he’s put out to gauge public response. I ask him if there’s anything he wants to say to his fans and he responds immediately with, “Dude, I can’t believe I still have fans! I post depressing shit (on Instagram) and I know I can get people down but I’m so lucky that they’re still there. I remember them and I’m grateful for them. They helped me get through so much of this.”
He sees his solo project as a way of not just reconnecting with those fans, but also with himself as an artist. “I’m tired of bullshit,” he says firmly. “What I’ve come to realize with my accident is that you could die literally at any moment. Everyone wants to have a five year plan—which is great to have—but you don’t know if you’re going to make it out today. So the reason this project is so important to me is because it could be my last one. I could die at any moment and before I go, I better have something to show for myself that I’m proud of. This can be that project. That’s why I’m doing this.”
You can contribute to James Lee’s Kickstarter here.
All photos courtesy of James Lee