Stray Kids: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
This eight-member South Korean powerhouse has forged one of the strongest identities in K-pop–next on their list? World domination
From the moment they hit the scene back in 2018, Stray Kids have been the Kings of Unconventional. Whether it was their fiery pre-debut single “Hellevator” or their first official EP Mixtape, there was a power in their sound that refused to go unnoticed. Rebellion, strength and determination resonated in every note of their self-produced discography, and the eight member group stepped into the industry with a firm sense of self that’s rarely found in most rookie K-pop acts. Now with three years experience, seven EPs and two studio albums under their belt, they’ve forged a distinct style that’s easy to recognize as theirs alone. They’ve also emerged as one of the leaders of the Fourth Generation of K-pop, artists who are on the helm of breaking patterns in the industry while making considerable strides on global charts–and guess what? This is just the beginning.
There’s a saying that people often fear what they cannot understand, and Stray Kids’ mature grasp on the art of noise scared quite a few of the uninoculated. The criticism around their EDM/trap-fuelled arsenal were signs of a point missed– ‘Noise music’ by definition is the art of creating music that’s meant to break the rules, and Stray Kids consistently deliver exactly that with a confidence that is untouchable. Their sound is delightfully aggressive and empowering, presenting fresh blends of hip-hop, trap and EDM courtesy of their seasoned in-group producer unit 3RACHA (comprising leader and vocalist Bang Chan plus rappers HAN and Changbin.) Add songwriting that’s honest, complex and layered, those are the keys to building up a new generation.
Cruising through the young group’s impressively large discography is a rollercoaster ride–adrenaline rushes are aplenty with celebratory anthems (“MIROH,” “God’s Menu,”) along with generous doses of gritty rap domination (“District 9,” “Easy,” “Victory Song,”) and haunting, detailed production (“Double Knot,” “The Tortoise and the Hare”) with just the right touch of playful, endearing R&B (“Airplane,” “You Can STAY,” “Get Cool.”) There’s something in there for everyone, and Stray Kids know their audience–if you appreciate the unexpected, they’re the band for you.
Stray Kids’ second studio album NOEASY dropped on August 23rd and saw them tackle a whole new dimension of artistry: noise meets tradition. It might seem confusing in theory, but the execution is impeccable–A play on ‘no easy’ and ‘noisy,’ the album’s title declares the group’s pride in their unique sound and is symbolic of their difficult journey to where they are now; they’ve embraced the tags often used to bash their soundscape, and evolved it to incorporate several different genres with tremendous results. The LP takes on various arcs in it’s progression; the first four tracks (“CHEESE,” “Thunderous,” “DOMINO” and “SSICK”) rip into their haters with the signature SKZ trap-EDM combo while the next five (“The View,” “Sorry, I Love You,” “Silent Cry,” “Secret Secret” and “Star Lost”) show off a more emotional side of the group with a step into synth pop, alt rock and R&B. Finally, we see more individualistic preferences as Stray Kids split into sub-units on the seductive “Red Lights” (Bang Chan and vocalist Hyunjin,) the playful “Surfin'” (vocalist Lee Know, Changbin and rapper Felix) and the sentimental “Gone Away”(HAN with vocalists Seungmin and I.N.) The album concludes with the thrilling “WOLFGANG” (which won them the crown on the K-pop reality show <Kingdom: Legendary War> earlier this year) and the intricate pre-release single “Mixtape : OH.” NOEASY isn’t as raw as their first studio album GO LIVE (2020,) but that’s the point; it packs a different sort of punch–they’ve grown up, discovered new sides to themselves, and they know they’re in this to win it.
On NOEASY, Stray Kids play with dark R&B, pop, alternative rock, ballads, trap and their signature spitfire rap, all while celebrating their cultural roots; the lead single “Thunderous” dives headfirst into experimentation with Korean instruments, puns and rap delivered in a pansori-style (traditional musical storytelling)–referenced within its Korean title “Sori-kkun” (“소리꾼.”) The music video is a similar mix of tradition and modernity, and it’s exhilarating to witness a new generation’s interpretation of national pride while they also declare they won’t bend to societal norms: “Man, I’m not sorry, I’m dirty/ Keep on talking, we don’t play by the rules.” Yes Stray Kids break the rules–but they do it with grace, courage and respect. It’s a brilliant amalgamation of contradictions and that’s exactly what makes the ride with them so exciting.
In the making of film for the album [INTRO “NOEASY”], the members describe their music as something that “only Stray Kids can do.” It’s a phrase that stuck with me, and when I ask about how they hope to impact the way K-pop evolves in the future, Bang Chan’s answer is eye-opening. “Well, we aren’t going to try and change the landscape,” he says firmly. “We are solely going to try our best to walk our path, and it is up to the people to decide whether they want to follow or not.”
In this exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, the eight members of Stray Kids open up about the development of their identities as individuals and as a group, how that process impacted the creation of NOEASY, and their dreams of visiting India for a concert someday.
Congratulations on releasing NOEASY! Tell me a little bit about the title and play on the words ‘noisy’ and ‘no easy’–why did you choose to title the album this way and what was the message you wanted to convey?
Bang Chan: Playing around with words is something that we always love doing. This time we mixed the words ‘noisy’ and ‘no easy’ to express that even though we go through hardships, we will always strive to be the noisiest!
When did you begin working on NOEASY, and how did the central themes of this album develop? Where does the process of a new album begin for you guys?
Changbin: I think it’s difficult to determine when exactly the process begins, because there’s also songs that have been made a long time ago in this album. I think the starting point of a new album goes with the title track. Whenever we have a certain concept or type of music in mind, we keep this as the main point and further develop this idea throughout our musical process. And when we don’t have anything specific in mind, we just experiment with a wide variety of things, which enables us to work on songs that each show their own special color.
HAN: Our album process always begins with the thought of ‘What do we want to talk about this time?’ I think our musical processes always begin with fun inspirations.
Like I.N mentioned in [INTRO “NOEASY”], this album showed so many different and new sides of Stray Kids. What were some of the things you learned about yourselves as a group and as individuals during the process of making this record?
Seungmin: I was able to feel that when all of us pour our energy into a stage, our sincere feelings are able to reach STAY. Also, because I’m the one who knows best about myself that I have to work at least twice as hard as others, I’m working even harder.
I.N: Through this album, I was able to think about my singing style. I also learned how to work with my voice.
You described this album as more mature than your previous works. How do you characterize this maturity? What does it mean to you?
Hyunjin: I think not only our voices, but everything including our image and the way of expressing concepts has grown to be more mature. In addition, because this album was our first full-length album in a while, the fact that everyone worked extremely hard also seemed mature.
There are so many Korean traditional elements you’ve incorporated into “Thunderous,” not just in the music video, but also in terms of the references and instrumentals–Changbin, your verse in particular also implements a pansori-style delivery. What inspired the vision of bringing in so many cultural elements in both the music video and sound?
Changbin: The title “Thunderous” itself gave off the feeling of ‘our sound.’ We wanted to express how grand our traditional musical sounds can be, as well as the possibilities of combining these sounds with K-pop. Like the title “Thunderous” (“소리꾼”) reads, we used traditional musical instrument sounds with a different rap style to create a distinct concept.
Felix: Throughout this song “Thunderous,” we really wanted to include the element of Korean culture! This is why we added in a few Korean sounds, performances and colour to our song and music video. We believe that this would help us express and deliver our message to everyone who watches over us.
Can you tell us a little bit more about which Korean instruments and sounds were used in “Thunderous”? What were the biggest challenges of blending tradition with modernity?
Bang Chan: The word ‘소리꾼’ refers to a ‘pansori singer’ from Korean traditional music, so we thought that it would be suitable to add in extra Korean traditional instruments to emphasize the concept of the song. Mixing different concepts to make a new concept is something that we’re really comfortable with, and so this time around, things weren’t so difficult.
HAN: Rather than being a challenge, we rather had worries such as ‘Would people fully understand the meaning we’re trying to convey?,’ ‘Are we being too futuristic?’ While combining traditional instruments with modern musical elements was a new challenge, we’re so grateful that many people have shown love towards our song.
In your songwriting you have explored different themes and shared your experiences vividly–especially in the first four tracks, “CHEESE,” “Thunderous,” “DOMINO” and “SSICK,” where you’re slamming baseless hate, misconceptions and criticism that’s aimed at Stray Kids. As young artists navigating through personal and professional growth, do you think there’s ever a ‘right’ way to handle hate and malicious comments?
Lee Know: To be honest, it’s not easy. Which is why I think it’s important to make your own ‘safe-zone’ that can relieve your stress.
Changbin: While there are some that can be helpful, I don’t think there’s any need to let your confidence drop because of these comments. If the feedback is helpful to your personal growth, take it in, and if it’s baseless criticism or condescending comments, I think you can just chew and spit it out.
As 3RACHA, Bang Chan, Changbin and HAN have produced numerous tracks on the Stray Kids discography, as well as produced and released music on SoundCloud before debuting as Stray Kids. As a songwriter and producer unit, what is the creative process like for you three together and how has your dynamic with each other changed or evolved since you first started?
Bang Chan: The creative process for 3RACHA is just us basically fooling around and having fun. Ever since we first started making music together, we have always talked through each other’s opinions and respected each other’s motives while we’re at it. We are now at the point of naturally letting out the same opinions and ideas, as if we shared the same brain cell.
Changbin: I think our synergy together is something that I’ve felt and recognized ever since the beginning. While each of us have our own personal thoughts and tastes, I think the best quality music is created when we bring all our ideas together while respecting each other’s opinions.
HAN: In the beginning, it was a bit difficult to bring our opinions together. Now, we don’t have any difficulties because we talk so much with each other and work on music together. We’re also able to work pretty quickly because we’re always checking each other’s work and have trust in each other.
In “SSICK” you examine the various aspects of fame. As a team, how do you deal with stardom and its responsibilities? Is there a lot of pressure on you since so many people around the world look up to you?
Lee Know: While sometimes we do feel pressure, I believe that we are able to power through if we have those who enjoy our songs by our side.
Seungmin: I think we’re always contemplating and working even harder so that we can show only our successful sides. I want to be someone who can be proud of his skills.
Is it difficult to show audiences new sides of yourselves as artists? Do you ever have moments of hesitation or fear and, if yes, how do you overcome it?
Felix: As artists who keep striving, we’re always thinking of new ideas and concepts in order to naturally show our new sides to our fans. Sometimes it may be hard, but as much as we work on it, I believe we are able to show off satisfying results.
I.N: While it was difficult at first to show new sides, I’m now okay because I’m used to it! I was once scared of making mistakes on stage, but now I’ve changed my way of thinking. I now keep the thought, ‘How can one live without making any mistakes’ in mind when practicing and taking vocal lessons. I’m always thinking about creating the perfect stage when practicing.
Seungmin, I was very moved by seeing how much hard work you put in for this album by taking extra classes and spending so many additional hours to improve yourself–your dedication and sincerity is very inspiring. What fuels your drive to better yourself? Do you feel you have made yourself proud with this comeback?
Seungmin: First of all, the fact that I am able to sing gives me great happiness. I’m able to find reason in my singing through how happy and excited I feel when I show my constant improvement to my members and STAY. My biggest thought is that I want to become a better person for STAY.
How do you feel you have all evolved as artists from when you made GO LIVE to now after releasing NOEASY? Is there a point of growth you are all particularly proud of?
Lee Know: I think we’ve become more mature.
I.N: I think we’ve changed quite a bit. I was most proud to be Stray Kids when we all came together to exchange opinions to prepare for the perfect stage.
You guys have experimented with so many genres on this record– hip-hop, electropop, R&B, alternative rock, synthpop and more. You also really surprised everyone with “Red Lights” in particular because people haven’t seen that style of R&B from Stray Kids yet. What were each of your favorite new sounds on this album that you really enjoyed trying?
Bang Chan: Honestly “Thunderous” is great, but if I had to choose a different track, it would be “DOMINO.” I don’t know why, but “DOMINO” just hits different going back and forth with the dynamics, which allows the listeners to enjoy it.
Lee Know: “Surfin’,” which I worked on with Changbin and Felix as a unit track, felt new to me.
Changbin: It has to be “Thunderous” for me. The process of combining traditional Korean musical instrument sounds with a powerful boom bap beat was exciting.
Hyunjin: The song I worked with Bang Chan, “Red Lights,” was new to me. I remember looking forward to it because it was my first time doing a sexy song.
HAN: I don’t think people have often been able to see Stray Kids’ lyrical and melodical sides. This album contains quite a few lyrical tracks and ballads, so I hope that people can find these new emotions contained within our voices interesting.
Felix: Even though I enjoy our title “Thunderous,” I also enjoy the song ‘CHEESE’ because it has that rhythm and the rock instrumental that I like.
Seungmin: To be honest, because this album contains so many diverse genre songs, I remember how excited and happy I was to be able to sing all these genres. In particular, the ballad track that I worked on with HAN and I.N, called “Gone Away” was quite exciting!
I.N: We made a lot of love songs this time, so I had fun recording and working on these love songs.
When it comes to the sub-unit tracks, how do you guys decide which members will feature on which song?
Hyunjin: I had been wanting to try a sexy song with Bang Chan, so I was the one to suggest it.
HAN: We chose our units based on who we click with and what images we wanted to show! I wanted to show more of my vocals this time, which is why I joined Seungmin and I.N. It was really fun and exciting to work on a song with a new unit.
What are some other sounds or concepts that you find interesting and want to try in the future?
Hyunjin: I would like to try a Christmas carol concept.
Felix: I would like to try something similar to “Red Lights” or “Gone Away”! It’s a style that I haven’t tried yet, so I will look forward to it in the future.
You’re known for your vast music videography along with your discography, so much that the visual identity of your music is equally as important. You had eight ‘UNVEIL : TRACK’ music videos and trailer films for this album itself–similar music video releases and pre-releases for your previous EPs–not to mention the numerous ‘SKZ-PLAYER’ music videos that you’ve released over the years. How easy or difficult is it to conceptualize and execute videos for so many different songs? What begins the visual journey?
Hyunjin: Our visual elements are usually decided through meetings with our company and hair and makeup stylists. We look for what’s trending these days.
I.N: We didn’t have any difficulties during the process of brainstorming and creating the video, everything went smoothly. For “Gone Away,” I remember finding inspiration by watching various music videos about love.
When you work on a particular track, how do you decide if it’s going to go into an album or if it’s going to be a part of ‘SKZ-RECORD’ or ‘SKZ-PLAYER’?
HAN: There really isn’t a definitive rule. Although the first ‘SKZ-PLAYER’ was released as a video, I remember because we wanted to release our songs quickly and because it’s faster to create audio tracks rather than videos, we ended up releasing a lot of ‘SKZ-RECORDs.’
Now after delivering one of your most expansive and powerful albums yet and seeing the world’s reaction, how are you all feeling about Stray Kids’ identity as a group and a team?
Felix: I do feel that we were able to deliver our color and identity to the world precisely this comeback! It’s been nearly a year since our last comeback, and just to receive such an impactful yet positive reaction from fans all over the world has really helped us feel confident.
Seungmin: We’re a lively group of eight music lovers who work extremely hard, and by bringing our skills onto stage we are able to deliver energy to our fans.
I found it interesting that many of the members mentioned that “no one but Stray Kids can do this kind of sound and performance” while talking about the album, and it’s very true. How do you see yourselves changing the landscape of K-pop today and in the future?
Bang Chan: Well, we aren’t going to try and change the landscape. We are solely going to try our best to walk our path, and it is up to the people to decide whether they want to follow or not. Letting out our own sound is our role, spreading it out is STAY’s role, and only time is responsible for the changes that K-pop will make.
Changbin: I think great artists before us were the ones who worked to spread K-pop globally. I hope Stray Kids can become a distinct genre within this culture called ‘K-pop,’ and become the one and only group that can deliver fresh and shocking music.
I.N: I think we’ll be able to create change through diverse music and performances.
We definitely have to talk about <Kingdom: Legendary War>— congratulations on winning! We saw so many fantastic new stages and moments of artistry from you all. What was the best part of competing on the show and what was the most challenging part?
Lee Know: The best part of <Kingdom: Legendary War> was that more people began to enjoy our music. The fact that we had to continuously show upgraded performances for each stage was a bit pressuring.
Felix: Having the opportunity to perform on the program <Kingdom: Legendary War> with many other idols brings me great honor and pleasure. As we prepare to compete with other teams on a much bigger scale, it has helped us mentally and physically every single round. I believe that as we precisely worked on our mistakes, we were able to perfect ourselves to the very best.
The show also cemented your position as one of the leaders of the Fourth Generation of K-pop. How do you feel about this label and what does it mean to you?
Bang Chan: First of all I am very, very, very thankful to those who think of us like that. It’s a really big label… and honestly it’s really pressuring too. But as much as a lot of people think of us as like that, I feel that it is definitely our responsibility to take action and protect that label. To not let anyone down and to be good representatives holding that label is a promise that I would like to make with everyone.
Seungmin: Thank you so much for your words. While at times we do feel pressure, I promise that we will continue to work hard so that we can become a group fit for the position.
Your relationship with your fandom STAY is one of the closest I have seen between an artist and their fans. One of the ways that fans feel connected with you is through your Vlog content on YouTube and livestream content on VLIVE– particularly Bang Chan’s regular weekly livestream, Chan’s Room. Fans have described these interactions as therapeutic. Would you say it’s the same for you as well?
Bang Chan: Well, it’s therapeutic for me too! I’m really thankful to not only STAYs but to the many people who watch me go live. Being comfortable with each other, talking about this and that, listening to music and just having fun is really stress relieving for me too. I would like to say thank you to everyone who spends even just a little of their time to be with me.
Lee Know: It wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t enjoyable for us as well. The process of communicating with our fans is exciting and therapeutic for us, which is why we’re able to continue to communicate.
Hyunjin: Sharing my feelings with others is what makes me happiest. Talking with STAY makes me naturally feel happy.
Let’s talk about India a little– have you guys heard any Indian music, tried Indian food or watched any Indian films?
Felix: I tried a lot of spices and curry in Australia!
I.N: I haven’t experienced any yet. I would really love to try some Indian food!
Do you think you’d like to visit our country for a tour someday?
Lee Know: Wherever STAY is, I would love to go.
Hyunjin: Of course. I can’t wait until the day we can tour!
Finally, what’s next for Stray Kids? Do you have a particular goal you are eager to accomplish?
Bang Chan: What’s next… Um… world domination? [laughs] Just kidding! Like I’ve said before, reaching out to those in need with our music is our priority, and I am really eager to quickly meet STAYs up close and perform in front of them. There are still so many things that we haven’t achieved yet, and we promise that we will try our best to bring STAYs the best presents ever!
HAN: In the future, I hope that Stray Kids can be recognized as our own genre. I wish to become a singer who can give comfort and relate to many people.
Seungmin: With this current situation in mind, I really cannot wait for the day when we can meet STAY in person and perform a concert… I really, truly miss our fans! I can’t wait to show how much we have improved and show STAY in person.
Check out Stray Kids’ special message for their Indian fans:
Stream Stray Kids’ ‘NOEASY’: