Glen Check: ‘Music Sounds Better Than Words’
The South Korean indie band walk us through their big comeback LP ‘Bleach,’ the creative process behind their music and tour plans
This story appears in Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue, on sale now. Buy your copy here.
When people ask me to recommend Korean indie music to them, the first name that comes to mind is Glen Check. I discovered them back in 2012, when I heard their single “Racket” from their simmering, unforgettable debut LP, Haute Couture. The synth and electro-pop sound was something I was drawn to immediately because it was refreshing and addictive – not just within the Korean music space, but globally. I soon dove head-first into their discography and found that Glen Check’s sound was definitely not limited to a single genre – they offered up synthwave, hip-hop, alternative rock, dream-pop, R&B and techno, and there was a thirst for creation and adventure that was clearly unquenchable. They’re one of those artists that embody the phrase ‘they’ve got something for everybody’ and it’s impossible not to fall in love with at least one of their tracks.
For the past 11 years, the duo have constantly been pushing the boundaries of genre and sound, carving their own niche in the Korean indie scene. “It’s actually quite deliberate that we change styles with every album,” says Kang Hyuk Jun, Glen Check’s bassist, synthesizer player and producer. Speaking about their latest album, Bleach, Kang continues, “We started this project knowing that we wanted to experiment with different genres and styles of music, because we’re both fans of different genres and styles. And we wanted that to show in our music.”
Fresh off the release of Bleach in March 2022, Kang along with vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and producer Kim June One, join me for a chat on Zoom. They’re bang in the middle of preparations for their concert in Seoul at the end of this month, but they’re generous with their time for the conversation. They greet me with warm smiles, and seem laid-back and relaxed. Almost immediately, the meeting feels less like an interview and more like a chilled-out chat with old friends – a sharp contrast to Glen Check’s powerful, commanding sound. “We’re very shy boys,” says Kim, with a bashful grin. “We don’t really talk about our feelings to other people.” It’s like looking into a mirror, honestly, and the pockets of contemplative silences as the self-proclaimed shy boys think about each answer carefully, are comfortable.
The duo burst into the Korean indie music scene in 2011 with their debut EP, Disco Elevator, and immediately made a splash. Their sound was innovative and energetic, blending eighties synth and electro-pop to create something new, a sound wholly theirs – this was much before the rest of the Korean music industry had delved into these genres and was still in the late phases of EDM. Their second release and first full album, Haute Couture, catapulted the band to fame, earning rave reviews from critics as well as winning them the award for Best Dance and Electronic Album at the Korean Music Awards in 2013. Although this was a tough act to follow, Glen Check bagged the award again the following year with their second album, Youth!.
Anyone who has been following the band since the beginning would know that Glen Check have never restricted themselves to a certain kind of sound. Sure, among casual fans they’re known for their electronica and synth-pop, but if you dive deeper, you’ll find high-tempo techno, gritty grunge rock and languid, pensive R&B. Now in 2022, Bleach is a new victory that blends all these styles together. Each of the 13 tracks on this album is unique in its style and approach. Their appreciation for punk rock shines through tracks like “Dive Baby, Dive” and “Dazed & Confused.” “Sins” and “4ever” evoke nostalgia for the familiar youthful Glen Check synth-pop sound from their earlier releases like Disco Elevator. Techno-pop track “Raving” takes us to the act’s roots in the underground club subculture of Seoul. Bleach is a celebration of all that Glen Check is. “We tried to have little bits of what we’ve done in the past in this album,” Kang says. “It’s kind of like a ‘best of’ album… but with new songs!” he laughs.
The release of Bleach marks the return of Glen Check after five years, their last release being their 2018 single, Velvet Goldmine. It’s the band’s third studio album, a follow-up to Youth!, and the duo describe it as having been in the works for years. “‘Bleach’ wasn’t an album name in the beginning, it was just a folder name,” Kim says. “We had this folder called ‘Bleach’ where we put all our scraps and ideas that we were collecting through the years. And that ended up becoming the album name.” They began teasing the album at the end of 2021 with “Dive Baby, Dive,” “Raving” and “4ever,” all pre-release singles.
While Glen Check’s previous releases have all been concept-based, indicative of different moods, themes and moments in time (take a look at the youthful vibrance of records like Disco Elevator, Cliche and Haute Couture, the rebellious energy of Youth!, and the slow introspection and melancholy of their last EP, The Glen Check Experience, and Velvet Goldmine) this album is more personal. The logline of the LP, ‘Bleach your mind,’ acts as something of a call to action for the band. Kang explains, “Before making this album, there was a lot of effort [from us] to come up with a new concept for the album. ‘Bleach your mind’ was a reference to the idea that we wanted to get rid of this feeling that we needed to come up with something entirely new. It became like a compilation of all the different ideas that we had visited before.”
For Kim, ‘Bleach your mind’ also refers to letting go of inhibitions. “When you live your life, you have these moments where you feel shame or you feel shy to speak about yourself,” he says. He goes on to explain that this album became a turning point for them to be able to express themselves through music, despite the shyness and the fears, “Music sounds better than words.” As for why it’s taken Glen Check nine years to release a studio album, Kang explains that it has been an organic process. “All our albums have added to the identity of Glen Check,” he says. “It took us three albums to allow us to become a band that can do any genre. Because we’ve done so many styles and genres in the past, it makes sense for us to release an album like Bleach. The timing was right.”
The duo also believe that Bleach is a great way to introduce Glen Check to someone who doesn’t know anything about the band. “It has little bits of everything – our past, our current tastes and it even opens up for what’s possible for us in the future,” Kim says. He likens the album to the cover of a book, if the book were Glen Check’s discography. “It’s a very good book cover to show people when they ask what’s inside.”
While the band visits their earlier styles of songwriting and production on Bleach, the album has also been an opportunity to experiment. When asked what song they found most challenging to work on, the duo agree that it has to be the alternative rock track, “Dive Baby, Dive.” “It was a genre we had never tried before as Glen Check, but it’s a style that June One and I have really liked since high school,” Kang says. “We were so obsessed with guitar sounds, but we haven’t been able to use them as much as on this album before,” Kim adds. “We were careful. We knew what we wanted and we weren’t able to produce that kind of sound back in the day. But now since we’ve learned a lot from our experiences in the studio recording, we tried our best.”
Another first for the duo was collaborating with another artist on Glen Check’s music. While Kim and Kang have each worked with a number of artists over their solo careers as producers or collaborators, “Blush” with rapper Sokodomo marks the first time the duo have featured another artist on a Glen Check track – and they tell me it was born of friendship, chill vibes and mutual appreciation, something that’s very on-brand for the duo. “Soko and I are pretty close,” Kim says. “We were having a drink together years ago and were brainstorming about a new project. But we never actually got to get into the studio together and work on a song. [Kang and I] came up with a chord progression and sent it to Soko and he just recorded it in his home studio. It was very natural.”
I’m curious about their creative process for solo works. Even though Glen Check music has always been in the works for Kim and Kang, the duo have also worked on numerous solo projects each. Along with his work with Glen Check, Kim has released two solo mixtapes on Soundcloud and on YouTube, and has collaborated with various artists like Krystal of K-pop group f(x), rapper Ximya Kim, and DJ and producer Goosebumps. Kang teases that he is working on a possible solo music that is different from Glen Check’s sound. He hopes to release something later this year.
Glen Check continue to work on solo projects in their spare time, but explain that Bleach’s release has put a stop to that for now – and the reason’s pretty worth it. Their schedules for the next few months are jammed as they prepare for their upcoming live shows in Seoul. The duo have thrown themselves into making this round of concerts special because it’s been a long time since they’ve seen their fans. Kim and Kang consider themselves lucky that their mandatory enlistment in the Korean military coincided with the timing of most of the COVID-19 pandemic. This meant that they as a band were not as badly affected by the restrictions on live shows as other artists. “Now that the pandemic is slowly letting up and concerts are starting to open again, we can play live again. The timing was really right for us,” Kang reiterates.
The band are known for their incredible stage and visual design as well as for performing different remixes of their songs live, so it’s a rather fun point in our entire discussion to get an idea of what they’re planning this time around. “When we change up the songs for live performances it’s with the purpose of making it interesting for the live audience. We want them to have a really good reason for coming to our show, rather than just listening to [the music] on their phones,” Kang says. Even outside of live shows, Glen Check have always been playing with songs – sometimes their own and sometimes those by other artists – to mix them into something familiar but new. They have released four EPs of remixes of their own music as well as remixed singles of other artists like K-pop megastars SHINee and, unexpectedly, Justin Timberlake. “We took the vocals from a song and built a new instrumental around it. It’s good practice for songwriting. This really helps us to build new ideas for new songs,” Kim explains.
With the restrictions on live performances relaxing globally, Glen Check is ready to return to the stage not just in Korea but internationally. Having performed previously at numerous international music festivals like South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, the band are eager to travel. “Performing overseas is always fun for us because it’s different from performing in Korea,” Kang says. “I think the experience of playing in different countries stays with us when we’re performing in Seoul or other parts of Korea. We’re always comparing our experiences and building on that. It’s a great source of inspiration when we’re making new music.” India is a goal on the list and they’re eager to get here as soon as they can. “We are coming, so get ready,” Kim says to Indian fans with a grin, adding, “Bleach your mind.”
For fans who can’t see them in person, Glen Check wanted to create a new avenue of connection by diving into the NFT space. It fuels their drive to create new art and serves as a branch to share ‘merchandise’ with fans globally through digital media, something they’ve been passionate about for a while. Collaborating with music NFT company 3PM earlier this year, the band released The Rabbit Hole, a collection of 7,777 digital art tokens and interactive fan experiences. “As we’re going deeper into the digital age, I think it’s fitting that we have digital band merchandise that we can share with the fans,” Kang says, explaining that the white rabbit acts as a central character in the album design as well as the NFT project. “We wanted to have an album cover with a character design in the middle to make it original. So we came up with the rabbit character as a reference to our song ‘Follow The White Rabbit’ off our EP The Glen Check Experience as sort of a philosophical mascot. It was an interesting opportunity for us because it was one way to connect with the fans during the pandemic when we couldn’t do any live shows. It was also an interesting way to explain the philosophy behind Bleach with the rabbit character.”
As for any similar projects in the future, the band are ready to explore the gamut of the musical and visual experience. “From the very beginning of Glen Check, we’ve always emphasized on using different kinds of media along with the music. We were both really interested in the visual side of things,” Kang admits. “[The NFT project] is definitely not just a one time thing, we’re going to keep expanding on it.” The expansion is endless as the duo also share plans for accompanying films for their music – something that appeals to me personally as a filmmaker. “We’ve been brainstorming stories for a movie or a short film – a kind of video form of art, alongside the music,” Kim teases.
But we realize we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Glen Check stresses that their focus for now is still on Bleach. With the album serving as the ultimate roundup of their discography and capability packed into 13 tracks, Glen Check proved that they are not bound by anything – genre, idea or sound – cementing their brand of being the band that has ‘something for everyone.’ “I think this album was very liberating for us,” Kang says. “We titled it ‘Bleach’ because it really kind of freed our minds about what we needed to do… In the sense that we didn’t need to do anything, that we could just do whatever we want and make the kind of music we want. We don’t have any kind of shackles stopping us anymore.”