"We're really thankful and really nervous"
Nearly four years after their debut, K-pop sextet Teen Top finds itself at a peculiar moment in their career. With half their members no longer actual teens, their name is awkward and, despite being burgeoning young men, the outfit is mostly marketed as a colorful and fun boy band that one can always depend on for a party tune. Last year, the boys released their first full-length album, "No. 1," and began exploring new sonic territory with the melancholic dance tune "I Wanna Love" and bouncy, piano jam "Miss Right" (below). While it helped the boy band's popularity -- they snagged another two Top 10 hits on the K-Pop Hot 100 and toured Europe -- it still felt like Teen Top could begin experimenting when they remained stuck in their roots as jailbait material, figuratively and literally in the "Miss Right" video.
Perhaps the growing pains were felt by the Teen Top guys as they opened the U.S. leg of their "HIGH KICK" world tour at New York City's Best Buy Theatre. Kicking off with their most recent hit, "Rocking" the boys, arguably, should have opened at their most comfortable with choreography they performed every week just seven months ago. But the boys were noticeably shaky and lacked enthusiasm for their first few songs.
Before the show, Billboard spoke to the boys -- who admitted that "because it's our first time touring the States, we're really thankful and really nervous" -- about where their careers stand today. "2013 was a year where we able to promote the name Teen Top to a lot of people," Teen Top says. "We feel our fans took care of us during that time when we were growing and with their help, we could take one step forward."
Despite progress, the boys add that they haven't felt like they've proven to the public who they really are. Vocalist Niel explains, "We haven't been able to show our true image yet. There are a lot of sounds we haven't been to explore. We hope to show a side in our new, upcoming album that everyone will be surprised by with a new, fresh image. Now that we're getting older and more mature, we hope to show a very sexy and manly image in the near future."
"Sexy and manly" or not, the fans still greeted the boys in their colorful opening stage costumes with huge screams. As the NY show progressed, the boys began warming up to the audience particularly after their English introductions by the band after the second song. By the third number, "Be Ma Girl," the choreography was already more energized, but the boys still seemed more interested in showcasing a cool, carefree image rather than hitting all every dance move. While this kind of stage movement works for acts like BIGBANG, Teen Top was only promoting a new single while taking a bubble bath just five months ago. Perhaps, if the boys were allowed to showcase the more "masculine" or "sexy" side, the lax charisma would make more sense. (The initial lack of energy could certainly also be a result of being tired and jet lagged -- the boys will perform four shows across North America in a week's time with only two days to adjust to the new time zone.)
A third of the way into the show, the boys broke into trios, leading to a show highlight where members L. Joe, Ricky and Changjo covered Cody Simpson's "Love." Dressed in cute, white sweaters and seated on stools, it was a much-needed dynamic shift in the show that saw the boys looking and sounding more comfortable than ever.
Regarding covering the Australian singer's reggae-pop tune, Changjo says that he's a fan of Simpson "so I forefronted that song choice. I wanted to choose a song that would be very easy listening for the audience." Meanwhile, Niel, Chunji and C.A.P covered "Call You Mine" by Nevada singer/songwriter Jeff Bernant, a choice Chunji explains with, "I'm a fan of ballads in general and I took the initiative to ask the other members [to sing it with me]."
As the show rolled on, the boys continued to get more and more comfortable, offering tidbits on English commentary that always sent their American audience into a tizzy. "Love You," a soaring pain ballad composed by L. Joe for the tour, was another highlight as the boys looked sweet, performing on stools in bedazzled, Prince Charming-esque suits. L. Joe tells Billboard that, "inspiration from movies and books" helped him compose the track.
Fans continued to support the boys as they pushed through their Korean discography along with growing confidence, peppering in surprise English covers like James Blunt's "You're Beautiful" and Bruno Mars' "Marry You." The group acknowledged their nerves -- like rapper C.A.P telling the audience, "I was nervous, but I'm happy you guys enjoyed it" -- while still taking in the big moment. "I feel like I'm dreaming," vocalist/dancer Ricky told the crowd.
While Teen Top plans will continue their international travels this year, performing in Europe, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong on this tour -- with the band adding "and hopefully South America!" -- the boys say that they haven't studied enough to record music in other languages. "We don't feel we're quite ready yet," the group explains. "But hopefully once we prepare more, we'll be able to record not only in English, but other languages too."
Four North American concerts were confirmed after fans pledged ticket sales via K-pop concert kickstarter Krowdpop. While a show in New York, Toronto and two California shows raised enough money, some cities fell short in their crowd funding. "I'm sure that the fans are as disappointed as much as we are," Teen Top says. "Next time we're here, we'll be sure to visit the fans that we can't visit this time."
The boys say the tour hasn't given them time to plan their K-pop comeback date, but whenever they come back -- and what image they show -- it's clear the guys care deeply about their global fanbase. "Teen Top will work harder to meet their fans worldwide," C.A.P adds. "We're doing that now and always trying to fulfill that. We hope people will continue to look forward to what we will bring and we'll receive more love for our albums and tours in the future."