"We are just looking forward to meeting with our fans in America," Johnny tells Billboard in Hong Kong. "I am hoping that a lot of our fans in America are waiting for us as well."
HONG KONG — Fresh off a wild 2018, K-pop boy band NCT 127 is set to kick off its first North American tour later this month.
In October, the 10-member group became the second-highest-charting K-pop band in history when it entered the Billboard 200 with its Regular-Irregular album. The group also made its U.S. debut on television, performing the English-language song “Regular” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and made an appearance on the red carpet at the American Music Awards. Two months later, the Seoul-based band was back, this time as Apple Music’s Up Next artist of the month, performing on a Los Angeles rooftop overlooking the city.
NCT 127, part of the Neo Culture Technology family of bands managed by SM Entertainment, just wrapped up a 14-date tour in Japan and is now preparing to hit the stage at Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center on April 24. The next leg on the Neo City: The Origin world tour is currently slated for 11 cities in the U.S. and Canada. It will expose even more of the U.S. to the K-pop phenomenon, a blend of members aged 18 to 24 from five countries -- South Korea, Japan, China, the U.S. and Canada.
Billboard’s International Editor, Alexei Barrionuevo, sat down backstage to talk with the group before they performed at the recent Hong Kong Asian-Pop Music Festival.
How are you feeling about your first tour in North America? Are you nervous?
Johnny: I am very excited because I am actually from Chicago, and it is one of the places we are going to be.
Johnny: Just being able to visit all the cities is going to be a new experience for all of us, being able to tour with our teammates. We are just looking forward to meeting with our fans in America. I am hoping that a lot of our fans in America are waiting for us as well.
Taeyong [in Korean]: I am super excited about it. Especially the fact that we can go to the U.S. and meet our U.S. fans. I am super excited to interact with them. And also to show a different side to them while on tour.
What kind of performances or stages are you planning to showcase on the tour? Can you give us a little flavor or what it’s going to be like for the fans?
Taeyong: Currently we are on our Japan tour. So we prepared things we thought the Japanese fans would like. But obviously for this next tour we are going to make it so that our U.S. fans can also enjoy it. Right now, things aren’t super set, but we are thinking about ways to make it tailored more to the U.S. audience. We will start practicing for that soon.
Is it just going to be new dance moves? Or is there something in the stage presentation that you are now featuring in the Japan tour?
Taeyong: Even for the Japanese tour right now, we have one performance where we have a jungle gym on the stage. It’s really cool. We do choreography on that, and we’re kind of climbing all over it. We are probably going to try to incorporate that into our U.S. tour as well. Each song has its own special performance and it’s own special stage. So you won’t get bored. You don’t have to worry about that.
So last year was pretty crazy. You had this Jimmy Kimmel show performance. You had this AMA red carpet, and the Up Next artist designation from Apple Music. What was your favorite moment from last year?
Jaehyun: Every schedule and every stage we did last year was really remarkable. But especially the stage we did on a rooftop in LA at night in front of our fans. That was really meaningful for me. That was a stage for Apple’s Up Next artist. That night mood and all that Hollywood scenery and our fans was really great.
Do you think that is where you are most popular in the U.S., in Los Angeles?
Mark: That’s where we go the most. So we don’t really know. For the tour, we might get to interact with fans all over America. But so far we have only been to LA, mostly.
How many cities will you hit on the tour?
Johnny: Right now it is 11. But we are trying to get more, so we don’t have an exact number. But at least 11. We are starting in New York and then going to Miami and Texas and Phoenix and LA…
How are you growing your fan base on social media?
Johnny: We do everything. We have our own official Twitter and Instagram accounts. And YouTube. I think the biggest part is YouTube, because that is where we can show our music videos, our performances. We actually upload a lot of our kind of vloggish videos so people know about us other than the music part. I feel that is where most of our fans get what kind of people we are.
I feel that part of this tour is also going to show them: "You guys watch us on YouTube, or you guys follow us on social media, but when you meet us up front, it is going to be different as well." And we hope to show that throughout the tour.
If you could do a collaboration with anyone in the music world, who would that be?
What is it about Ariana Grande? Is it the music? The way she dances?
Doyoung: I really like the songs. And she is obviously one of the hottest artists in America. Also, all over the world.
What other artists in the U.S. scene have inspired you?
Mark: It would be an honor to work with Justin Bieber. But he seems pretty busy now. But I have always looked up to Justin Bieber, ever since I was young. And to see him start as well at a young age, for me I have always felt a similarity that I could always look up to. I have always looked up to him as an idol. Just having him with us for any kind of collaboration would be pretty good. But his singing is what I really admire.
How much are you able to participate in the creation of your music?
Taeyong: When it comes to albums made for the U.S. or Japan, we try our best to not only study the language but also to study the vibe and the culture of whatever language we are about to make music in. So we try to get a little flavor of each country within our music so when we make it, that’s part of the album production process.
And then myself and Mark participate in the rap-making. So we write some of the rap lyrics for a lot of the songs. And we also have a producing team that works directly with the artists. And they discuss what style of music we want to do. And that’s how the album and the songs comes to be.
With the rap lyrics, are you thinking of some of your own experiences? What are you bringing to that process?
Mark: Well, it depends on the song. But there was a time when I would mention a bus I would take in Canada in a rap, because it was a very intimate topic. Stuff like that I am free to expose myself truly. But not all the time. In other circumstances, we usually bounce off ideas where we would imagine something or we would think of an idea and then make that seem true. Mostly we discuss it together and we agree on it together and then put it in the lyrics.
What do you think has made K-pop such a big phenomenon?
Taeyong: I am definitely honored and very grateful to be part of this huge phenomenon. The fact that NCT 127 is part of that is a huge honor for me. Part of our mission is to spread it to other areas that aren’t very familiar with the genre.
And the fact that there are a lot of different groups and so many different members that can show off different styles, different music, different performances is probably the genre’s biggest strength … and that is the strength of this group, NCT 127.
Do you guys consciously try to make hits? Are you thinking in pop-music terms when you create your music? Trying to create a melody line or a hook that people can really grab onto?
Mark: I think that in this day and age, it is really hard to like make a hit intentionally. So I feel like whenever we prepare something for another comeback or for a new song, we just try to focus on being ourselves rather than focusing on being a hit. Because that itself is something that we do [have] concern for, but mostly we just want to be ourselves whenever we show off new things. And we know that our fans love us for who we are. They want us to be us. We always hope for the best but never really try and chase after what people might like. So hopefully we get the recognition we do, but when we don’t, we just know that we did us.
There are 10 people in the group now. What is it like to have so many people in a band? What is the good and the bad of having so many members?
Johnny: Well honestly, we are very much like a big family. We live together, we eat together. We are with each other more than with our actual families. There are times when we might fight, there are times when we are having fun all together. All in all, we come together when we are onstage. And that is what is most important to us.
The best thing about having a lot of people in a group is ... we are not stuck to one genre. We are not stuck to one type of performance. There is a variety of things we are able to do. That’s what makes us different, I feel.
Is there one thing you guys love to do together aside from the music?
Johnny: I would say when we all come together the most is when we are eating. I am not trying to make this sound funny, but when we are eating, we are having a good time all around the table. Having 10 people eat together, that’s a little different.
Do you think you can grow your fan base this summer in a big way?
Johnny: Hopefully. We are just trying to spread our music and our performance. The story behind us is our dreams come together and that makes us NCT. I just hope our fans feel that as well. We just want to share that: Your dreams can come true as well.
Will you debut some new music on the tour?
Mark: That’s a maybe. That’s a maybe. We are always trying to bring something new, but we don’t want to bring that out yet. We just want them to know there is always something new to look forward to.