ATEEZ: ‘K-pop Will Be a Cultural Movement’
The South Korean group discuss the intricacies of leading a new Hallyu wave and the decision to directly involve their fandom in the album release process
It’s a rainy night in Seoul when I meet ATEEZ for the second time. The first time we met in person was in April, backstage at their brother group Block B Bastarz’ show, and way too rushed for all of our tastes. We’d mostly just ended up staring at each other in excited disbelief for five minutes before they had to leave. “I’m so sorry we didn’t get a picture the last time,” the group’s leader HongJoong tells me when they arrive. “We’ll definitely take one today!” And we do.
They’ve had a long day of broadcast shows and interviews but they set aside time for me at 9:30 pm. Despite it all, they’re happy to see me and are happy that we have a lot more time to catch up. In the space since we’ve last seen each other, HongJoong, Seonghwa, Mingi, Yeosang, Wooyoung, San, Yunho and Jongho have finished two successful tours through the U.S. and Europe and dropped their third EP Treasure EP.3: One to All which they’re currently in the middle of promoting. I tell them I saw them perform live at music broadcast program M Countdown a few days ago and HongJoong’s eyes go wide. “I knew I saw you in front!” he recalls, stunned. “You were cheering for us!” Indeed I was. (A few days after I leave Korea, they’ll go on to secure their first music program broadcast award at M Countdown, and a second one at The Show right after. But of course none of us know that just yet.)
Hanging out with ATEEZ always means a lot of loud laughter, clapping and loud exclamations. They very kindly volunteer to teach me how to hit ‘The Woah’ and then have several questions about India (“Are there really a lot of ATINY there?”). After several distractions, we finally get to the matter at hand: their brand new record. “This album, we prepared before we went on tour,” says HongJoong with a smile. “It’s very different from the other albums, we’re a bit more bright and it has a little bit of a summer vibe to it. I hope you like listening to it.” Indeed while Treasure EP.2: Zero to One was a victorious blend of hip-hop, dubstep and pop, One to All is built of tropical beats, brighter melodies and bouncy trap. It does a great job of showing off what ATEEZ are like in real life–bubbly, fun and energetic young men. I ask whose personality the album matches the most and lead rapper Mingi shyly raises a hand. It’s not the biggest surprise; contrary to his sharp, intimidating appearance, he’s probably one of the most cheerful members of the group. “In this album, Mingi’s voice played a really important part,” insists HongJoong, while Mingi counters with, “First off, HongJoong wrote and produced ‘Aurora’ for the fans with Eden!” They’re highly supportive of each other, and also take every opportunity possible to thank their labelmate and lead producer on all their records, Eden.
“We tried to focus on the concept of this album,” Mingi continues, explaining that their desire to showcase a new side of ATEEZ prompted them to look at the big picture thematically first. “We wrote the lyrics and produced the music with Eden keeping that in mind.” I tell them that during their comeback stage at M Countdown, audience members who didn’t know them were highly impressed their facial expressions, and vocalist and dancer Wooyoung looks particularly pleased. “We focus on doing well and being positive, that’s a given, but our strength is in our facial expressions,” he says proudly. Their expressions are more playful and relaxed this comeback and there’s a lot more eye contact and smiles. “We wanted to show a more fun and cute side of ourselves to the audience,” vocalist Yeosang says.
This comeback also saw another kind of first: ATEEZ made the decision to directly involve their fandom ATINY in the album and single release process. The group presented short clips and teasers of two tracks, “Illusion” and “Wave,” and fans were allowed to vote for which one they wanted as the lead single. Of course they finally ended up dropping both songs on June 10th, but vocalist Seonghwa says rather than being a contest to decide which track is better, the voting was about making sure their fans felt more connected to them and to the music. “For our first and second albums, our story telling was about going on a voyage together,” he explains. “For this album, we wanted our fans ATINY to really come with us and we wanted them to be more involved.”
“Wave” (which won the vote) is a summery, tropical dance number filmed on the beaches of Saipan, while “Illusion” is a purple-hued, green-screen, bouncy trap fever dream, propelling ATEEZ’s pirate legacy ahead with a giant CGI ship sailing through the clouds. They tell me “Wave” is about letting go of your worries and enjoying life, while the lyrics in “Illusion” point to disbelief at the fantastical journey of fame the band have embarked upon. It’s been around nine months since they debuted and their global rise is one of fastest in K-pop’s history. Were they worried about the expectations fans had after the success of Zero To One? “First of all, thank you for saying Zero To One was a very successful album!” says main dancer Yunho with a big grin. We participate in a brief round of clapping before he continues, “For us, more than being afraid that we might not meet those expectations… it was about being confident in ourselves and finding the strength to move forward towards what we want to do.”
I ask how they feel about representing South Korea and being hailed as the next generation of K-pop and they go quiet. “I think personally… I haven’t absorbed it yet,” says vocalist and dancer San. “But we are really thankful that a lot of the audience really respects and give us positive feedback. It’s also great to hear we are representing the next K-pop wave, we’re really thankful for that and we will continue to do our best.”
Right now there are tons of rookie groups in K-pop that are producing and writing songs right from their debut and impressing audiences worldwide and ATEEZ is one of them. HongJoong and Mingi have songwriting credits on most of the band’s discography, with HongJoong also involved in production. What do they feel it means for how the world perceives K-pop? “For me personally, being influenced by the idols before us and having that helped us make music like we are now,” HongJoong says immediately, making it a point to thank the artists who came before them. “Worldwide right now K-pop is kind of a trend, but let’s say we don’t stop from here and K-pop goes forward… I feel it will be more of a cultural movement down the line.”
As the night comes to a close, we finally take our photos and chat a bit more about live shows and pre-performance rituals (“We do our ‘Eight makes one team!’ together and for me personally I need to put on lip balm,” admits main vocalist Jongho while everyone else laughs) and they tell me they’ve got a lot more planned for the year. These plans include first time appearances at KCON and a showcase in Australia, but when I ask them what are some other countries they want to visit, HongJoong explains they don’t want to be quite so specific because they don’t want to exclude anyone. “After our world tour… more than having a goal of which country we want to go to, we just want to make sure our message is getting to the audience, you know?” he says. “Age doesn’t matter, gender doesn’t matter, we just want to give our message to the people around the world. That’s our goal.”