The Quiet Revolution of Nam Taehyun
South Korea’s rock rebel on his trials since walking away from K-pop, getting a grip on the business of music, and his hunger for mainstream success
Nam Taehyun is the quintessential millennial rockstar. In music videos he’s reckless and/or melancholic, usually moping around on furniture, smashing things or indulging in other forms of orchestrated delinquency. On Instagram he’s the epitome of grunge elegance with artsy vintage shots and firm gazes directed to the camera. He speaks frankly of his trials and tribulations but there’s an underlying angst about him that keeps him an enigma. He’s clear about his goals for the future but has no idea if he’ll ever end up achieving them. “I want to be a revolutionist that creates something that hasn’t existed before… But I don’t know what that would be,” he says with a laugh. He’s a walking paradox and in that, a symbol of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion done right.
The 24-year old singer-songwriter has been a subject to controversy ever since he left popular South Korean boy group WINNER in 2016 and shed the glitz and glamour of K-pop to pursue a path of blues rock rebellion. He maintains there’s no animosity between him and his former bandmates, but the Internet still spent two years dissecting every tattoo, cigarette, performance and Instagram post to unravel the ‘truth’ behind his departure, while unsavory assumptions about his mental health and relationship status made the rounds on tabloids. It’s probably why Nam (despite his badass reputation) is cautious, level-headed and tends to think twice before he lets the world see too much of himself anymore. “When I’m working by myself, I try to limit how much of my image I’m exposing,” he says. He adds that the biggest glimpse anyone will see of his true emotions is when he’s making music with his alt rock band South Club.
Formed in 2016, South Club started with Nam on lead vocals, Kim Euimyeong on bass, Choi Yunhee on keys, Jang Wonyoung on drums and Kang Kunku on guitar. (Kim and Choi left in 2018 and Nam’s brother Donghyun took over on bass.) The band was a result of an online recruitment form Nam put out in a bid to find musicians who had the same vision as he did. “We had our first meeting at the rehearsal room, and we listened to each other’s music stories and discussed what we can agree on. Everyone seemed to like the blues genre,” he recalls. This suited his own strong foundation in blues, grunge and indie rock just fine and set the tone for South Club’s sound. The band finally debuted in May 2017 under Nam’s newly self-established label South Buyers Club with the single “Hug Me,” an emotional rock ballad Nam describes as the most ‘honest’ track he’s written. A month later, they unleashed a mini Nineties Britpop revival with their appropriately titled debut EP 90. The album is filled with generous doses of blues and alt rock but the band particularly grabbed attention with “Dirty House,” a delicious B-side grunge rock number filled with saucy innuendo. In the video Nam saunters around Berlin with a devil-may-care attitude, smoking and repeatedly flipping off the camera–a far cry from the carefully conceptualized ‘clean’ image he used to stick to as a K-pop star–and generally creating quite the buzz.
For their second EP 20 (2018,) the band shifted gears to a mainly blues rock and jazz mode, while their latest release Contact Information is even mellower, abandoning rock completely for slow, dreamy, old-school soul. The change in sound is a little abrupt and not quite filled with the same angst we saw in 90– it doesn’t feel as raw, but Nam’s got his reasons. “If the previous ones included shouting and songs that I wanted to do, this time I included songs [fans] want to hear from me. So I think it’s more prone to popularity in that way.” The topic of popularity is one that arises often in a conversation with him. The musician struggled with the drop in media attention once the buzz around his departure from WINNER died down and the lack of chart success that came with it; an inevitable result of stepping away from his former label YG Entertainment’s powerful PR and marketing. While 90 managed to peak at number four on South Korean charts, 20 didn’t quite make the same impression, peaking at number 14. Contact Information tapped in at 25. When I ask him what he needs to be truly happy at this point in his life, he replies, “I would be happy if I can release one song that becomes a major hit that gets acknowledged.”
To understand Nam’s frustration, you’ll need to rewind to January 2016 when the (then five-member) WINNER dropped their groundbreaking first EP Exit : E. Built of rich, intricate Motown-style blues, soft rock numbers and acoustic ballads, it wasn’t something commonly found in K-pop and cut through pop patterns to set new standards for idol-produced records. Nam was responsible for composing two of the most significant tracks: the Motown-heavy lead single “Baby Baby” and the soft rock flavored “Sentimental.” Both went on to top several charts across South Korea and pushed the band to new heights of fame while Nam was lauded for his old soul and affinity for blues. The shockwave reaction “Dirty House” spurred was possibly a brief taste of what he wanted but it wasn’t enough. But what is ‘enough success’? “I’d like to answer in regards to this, but I don’t know it myself to be honest,” he says. “Humans don’t know how to be satisfied, and if there was such a thing as success, I think it’ll be the state of being satisfied once there is nothing more to want.”
Right before the release of Contact Information, Nam tested the waters with a solo single written and produced by other artists. “Star” takes a break from the blues Nam is usually linked to and dives into dreamy synth-pop reminiscent of Troye Sivan. “Producer Park Geun Tae reached out to me first. I was grateful,” Nam says. “He told me to write the lyrics myself, but I don’t write lyrics for songs that aren’t mine. So the lyrics were written by [Korean singer-songwriter] Seonwoo Junga.” The lyrics ponder the vast emptiness of the night, tackle the struggles of loneliness but still remain optimistic for a better tomorrow. It’s a perfect example of Nam’s vision for his solo artistry–not too personal, but all too relatable and different from anything he’s done before.
However no matter what the formula he tries, he still isn’t seeing the results he wants. While “Star” did surprise fans and cause conversation, it failed to chart. Nam mentioned last year that part of his problem is not being able to write songs that both make him happy and attain good results on popular music charts. It’s a choice between being honest with himself versus giving in to public demand–a problem he’s been trying to escape since before he quit being a K-pop idol. Does he feel he is gradually getting closer to finding a balance? “I’m not sure,” he answers. “Music is a subjective thing and trends are something that can’t be ignored. Also, the public’s ears have intimidatingly high standards, and if you want good points, you have to have something great.” It’s moments like this that make me wonder if he still has regrets about leaving YG. “If I said there was none, I’d be lying,” he admits. “But I’m satisfied now and I want to grow more from here.”
Nam is realistic about his place in the industry and has no illusions of grandeur when it comes to facing the daunting task ahead of him. “The down side of it is I have to bear the burden of it being a business, and this is something the artist doesn’t spend too much time being concerned about,” Nam says. “Each time [as the CEO] I feel the reality and brutality of it. The upside to this is because it’s my own label, I feel more of a personal attachment to it and it’s precious. I try to make that much of an effort for it.” He’s admitted before that launching South Buyers Club took a bigger financial and emotional toll on him than he expected and it’s not something he’s completely recovered from. He doesn’t shy away from discussing his battle with bipolar disorder and his efforts to push forward despite the hurdles in his path. “Being productive every day helps me overcome loneliness and depression. I have to continue working without giving it a rest if I don’t want to be depressed.” To top it all off, he doesn’t think his forthcoming nature is anything special. “So many people struggle psychologically and that’s just how people live,” he says. “We only live once, shouldn’t we be honest and comfortable?”
The rise to the top is rarely instantaneous and South Club is quietly but gradually making a name for itself thanks to Nam and his bandmates’ collective drive. This year the band completed fan meetings in Japan and Hong Kong plus two successful European tours and have another Japanese tour at the end of the year. The gigs may be smaller but the fans are hungrier and there’s an appreciation for Nam’s old soul. The path ahead is a difficult one, but he’s not about to step off it any time soon. “Nothing is impossible,” he says. “I want people to see me and challenge themselves to greater things, try it out and make it happen. You could say, ‘When others aren’t doing it, there’s a reason for it,’ but I don’t want people to include themselves in that group of ‘others.’ Nobody is the same and when people do things that others don’t do, that’s when you can truly shine.”
Watch South Club’s latest release “I’m Crazy” below: