International

Stray Kids Aim to Reach A Global Audience with Relatable Take on K-pop: 'Stray is Okay'

Stray Kids
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Stray Kids performs on stage during Stray Kids World Tour 'District 9 : Unlock' in Miami at Watsco Center on Feb. 7, 2020 in Coral Gables, Fla.

“Not all those who wander are lost,” is a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, but it may as well be a slogan for K-pop boy band Stray Kids. 

The act has spent the last few years carving out a niche for themselves in the K-pop world, gathering and inspiring their fans, known collectively as Stay. With several producers in the team, Stray Kids have released a multitude of albums since then that feature songs that are both riotous and introspective, energetic and motivational. The eight-member act, which started out in 2018 as a nonet but saw one member depart last year, recently completed their Clé album trilogy, and debuted their first-ever all-English songs earlier this year amid a world tour that will see them hit up dozens of cities across Asia, North America, and Europe. 

While in New York City for the first show of their 2020 District 9: Unlock World Tour, the members of Stray Kids sat down with Billboard backstage ahead of their concert at Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden to discuss their career, the Clé album series, and their artistic vision. 

How’s New York treating you guys?

Bang Chan: It’s like our third time in New York, but every time we find something new. Hyunjin and Seungmin went to Times Square and they took a lot of photos and stuff. Every time we come, it’s always great.

How do you feel about 2020 so far? 

[Members gasp exaggeratedly.] 

Felix: Excited. What else? Not only excited, but we look forward to 2020 because it is our first world tour. 

Bang Chan: True.

Felix: We really want to show our much improved sides. We haven’t really shown much of what we’ve prepared so we’re really looking forward to showing that at the concert.

How do you feel you’ve grown since you performed in the U.S. last year?

Bang Chan: Well, I got a little taller. [Members laugh] I’m joking… Throughout the years, without even us knowing, we ‘ve improved skill wise and just getting used to the stage. Just the fact that we’re able to do a world tour with our own concert is an improvement itself, so I guess 2020 is another year for a lot of improvement so we’re getting ready for that.

What are you looking forward to the most on this tour? 

Felix: Meeting our fans, it’s been such a long time since we met them. We do look forward to meeting them and seeing how cheerful they are. It’s very memorable.

Bang Chan: It’s been around seven months since we last came to the U.S. Seven, eight months. 

I.N: It’s really exciting because we’re going to a lot of different, new cities. 

You just released “Double Knot” and “Levanter” in English. Why did you opt to release these two songs as your first English-language releases?

Bang Chan: I suppose it was an opportunity for us, because we’ve never released a full English track. But to have this opportunity to do that -- especially because there’s a lot of international Stays as well -- getting closer to them through these full English songs was really a great opportunity and chance for us.

Was there a reason you picked these songs in particular? 

Bang Chan: Well, they are our most recent releases. But because, especially with “Double Knot,” sound wise it’s really strong and confident, and we wanted to share that with Stay. And “Levanter,” it’s kind of got a different vibe to “Double Knot” so it’s the perfect one-plus-one package. 

Was it a different experience for Stray Kids as a team to approach creating songs in English? Some members speak English and there is an ample mount of English in your songs, but linguistic differences always affect things, so was it at all difficult?  

Hyunjin: Because my rap was all in English and it had a lot of speed to it, it was a little bit challenging. After recording it and listening to it, it felt really refreshing. It sounded like something new even though it was challenging to get through the recording at first. But after doing that, and doing the whole song in English, it felt like we were taking a step closer to our global fans. 

Felix: Getting to perform in English [on Kelly & Ryan and Good Day New York] was pretty cool. Very new. Very, “Oh wow, I’m not singing in Korean. Now I’m doing it in English.” It seems pretty cool. It was interesting. 

Bang Chan: I wrote the lyrics for “Double Knot,” cause the Korean version these two boys [points to Changbin and Han, who are credited with Bang Chan as co-lyricists on that version] wrote such good lyrics and I wanted to keep the meaning. So I was really trying my best to save the meanings they originally had, and try to translate it as close as possible without ruining the rap flow or the melody and stuff. It was a bit hard at first but luckily the song came out well, the boys recorded it really well. I was kind of proud of that. Thanks everyone. 

In many of your songs, you sing motivationally about being yourself, expressing yourself, and share the intent to go towards goals and dreams. Why are these themes that you revisit time and time again?

Changbin: We tend to write about songs with that type of theme because a lot of people in the world, just like us, have goals and dreams that they’re running towards. So by writing songs that can relate to these people, we hope to give them strength and support through that, as well as give that to ourselves too.

Are there any lyrics from your songs that you’re thinking about a lot lately?

Changbin: I didn’t write this part in “Miroh,” but I think about it a lot. “It’s not hard, in this rough jungle/ It was me who ran into it, I’m okay.” 

Han: In “Grow Up,” that hook part where we say “you’re doing fine,” that’s something that I think about a lot because it gives me a lot of strength. 

I.N: I didn’t write this, but in “My Side” there’s a lyric- 

Bang Chan: [translating}: “I hope these lyrics touch your ears.” 

I.N: I think about that a lot. 

Based on that lyric... How do you feel about the fact that maybe the lyrics aren’t reaching your listeners ears, since many don’t understand Korean or, with the new songs, English without a translation? 

Bang Chan: For me, it’s pretty funny. And they [the members] may not know this as well. But sometimes I listen to Indian music, sometimes I listen to Spanish music as well, usually from Spain. Honestly, I have no idea what they’re saying. But I dunno, just the vibe of the song and how the person actually sings it, I get a lot of different feelings as well. That kind of makes me want to find out what the lyrics actually mean, and what the singer really wants to say through the song. I do understand that there may be Stays that may just listen to our songs but not understand the lyrics, and I completely understand how that feels as well. So just want to put that out there. [Laughs] 

Han: People may not understand the message completely but, while there’s strength obviously in lyrics there is also strength in the melody and just the song in general as well. We do think about that as we perform and sing these songs because there are different ways you can gain strength through music, the lyrics are just one element. 

In the Clé album series, you went kind of grittier, darker, sometimes industrial, and just generally more experimental than some of your prior releases. Where did you draw inspiration from?

Bang Chan: I think you’re probably talking about “Side Effects,” and also “Maze of Memories” which is really gritty as well. For “Maze of Memories,” it was pretty fast. We wrote it pretty fast. The lyrics go really deep. But we wanted to try a really raw -- If you listen to the song, the rhythm changes, the BPM changes, the vibes of the song changes, the instruments change as well. I dunno. We just felt like through this Clé series, especially Clé 1 where “Miroh” talks about just going for a new challenge with a lot of confidence. With that being said, we wanted to make a song like “Maze of Memories” really experimental.

You said it took a short period of time to write the song, but what does that mean exactly? How long is your songwriting process usually like that that was considered fast? 

Han: It’s always different, every song. On average maybe 4-5 hours. 

Bang Chan: If everything flows smoothly. And we have to do the guide as well. With a guide, like six-plus hours. 

You talked a bit about what you wanted for Clé 1, but now that you’ve finished the entire series, what do you want listeners to take away from the sonic era as a whole? 

Changbin: We told a lot of stories through the Clé series. There were a lot of moments where we had a lot of confidence, and ones where there’s a lot of confusion, a lot of thoughts running through our head. A lot of people are going through that same thing as well, when they’re going through a lot of confusing thoughts in their heads. So we wanted to relate to other people going through that. I was kind of hoping that when people listen to this series, they can overcome those moments together [with us] by relating to each other. 

Are these feelings that you’re feeling as well? 

Changbin: Of course. I feel like everybody goes through that at some point. 

You released a lot of music videos throughout the Clé series. How do you feel the visual elements help relay your lyrical messages, if at all?

Bang Chan: Last year, we had so many music videos. But if I had to pick some, for example “Side Effects” itself has a lot of...

Seungmin: ...Easter eggs. 

Bang Chan: Yea, easter eggs. Especially for “Levanter,” it has a lot of easter eggs. Everything has its own meaning. I guess we know what it’s really about, and it is kind of difficult but it’s always fun to know what Stays think about it as well, because Stays do have a hard time trying to really solve what the music video is actually talking about. Even at a fansign event, they’ll be like, “So what does this video mean?” Like, “No, you gotta find out for yourself.” It’s kind of really fun to just know that Stays are trying to solve what the music videos are actually talking about. 

Changbin: It’s like, “You should guess.” 

Felix: It’s a challenge.

Bang Chan: It’s like Inception. Cause there may be a meaning that we want to put into the music video as well, but for some people they could take it in a totally different way, but that could be their own answer if you know what I mean. 

You shared your “Mixtape: Gone Days” at the end of last year, what did you want people to reflect on when listening to the song?

Bang Chan: It was a word play on “Gone Days,” as in days that have passed by and “kkondae(??).” 

Seungmin: A little joke in Korean.

Bang Chan: Yea, it’s a joke in Korean saying like, “old people.” But what I wanted to say was just, you know, the whole thing, really shortened, is, “The past is the past and, you know don’t really worry on the past too much and just focus on now. The future will come based on what you do now.” I think that’s what I wanted to say. 

Was that a message you wanted to give your Stays at the end of 2019?

Bang Chan: I suppose so, because even if a lot of things have happened... Especially in 2019 there were quite a lot of things that happened. But in the end, they will be memories to us and we might learn a lot from them. Those days aren’t going to come back. Because we’ve learned so much from what has happened, we can focus on how to improve a better feature. I think that’s what I wanted to tell Stays. 

We’re moving into 2020, and you mentioned that quite a lot happened in 2019, and changes often lead to stress and anxiety so how do you face any hardships that come your way? Any advice for fans? 

Felix: I do feel that there will always be hardships, and it’s not always easy at first for everyone to overcome a situation. But, then again, once you have the help and support from someone, or even if you try yourself, eventually there will be a time when you can overcome that loop or that hope, that wall. I always think that there’s positivity, and there’s always a chance to break through. Always have a good ending. I don’t worry too much. I always think that it’s a challenge and I’ll be able to overcome it. 

You have released a lot of “Mixtape” tracks, both on and off albums, so is there any difference between “Mixtape” songs versus non-“Mixtape” songs? Is there an obvious thing that I’m just missing? 

Bang Chan: Uhhh…. It’s not obvious. I think the slight difference that it is, is that we can be a bit more experimental with mixtapes. More comfortable, freer. I think that’s it. 

You don’t think your other music is experimental?

Bang Chan: Oh, no! Like “Side Effects” was crazy experimental. I think, augh. What is the difference?? It’s hard to explain. I guess it depends on how you package it, I think. Give me a moment... 

You finished the Clé series, so what are you working on now? 

Bang Chan: There’s a lot. 

Changbin: We are making a lot of new stuff, and we can’t go into too much detail but we will say that it’s going to be another chance for us to show people, Stays, a lot of different sides to us so you can expect a lot from that. 

Your name is “Stray Kids,” and in English “stray” means extra, lost, wandering, things like that. So a few years into your career, touring the world, do you feel that you’re still “Stray” Kids?

Hyunjin: Because we’re “Stray” there are so many roads that we can take, there are many options. Because we’re kind of lost. Because of that, we can also create our own paths, making roads that have not been taken yet thing. Being “stray” isn’t a bad thing. 

Bang Chan: I want to continue off of Hyunjin. People may think that “stray” isn’t a very positive word, but through being Stray Kids we’d like to make that being stray is okay. 

To end off on something kind of fun, what is each Stray Kids member’s song pick for a Stray Kids playlist? 

I.N: I’m going to say two. “My Side” and “Victory Song.” 

Bang Chan: Oh no, they’ll take everything away. Ah… [Felix laughs evilly.] 

Lee Know: “Sunshine” and “19.” 

Seungmin: For me, I’m going to pick “You Can STAY.”

Felix: I’m going to say “Levanter.” 

Han: “Levanter” and “Stop.” 

Bang Chan: I got it, I got it! “Miroh!” 

Felix: I left you that one. 

Changbin: “Gone Days.” 

Hyunjin: I like “Voices.” 

This interview was conducted in both Korean and English, and edited for clarity.