Over the next two weekends, all eyes will be on Coachella for a few iconic reunions and outstanding performances. And Korean hip-hop trio Epik High is going to be there to partake in it all.
Compared to last year when they played SXSW and held a major North American tour, 2016 has been comparatively quiet for the trio. The alternative hip-hop act spent the first quarter of the year working on new music and running HIGHGRND, an indie sub-label of the K-pop music agency YG Entertainment. They also have a Japanese tour beginning later this month, but before that, Epik High plans to make history at Coachella as the first major South Korean act playing the music festival.
Less than a week before their first set, frontman Tablo spoke with Billboard over the phone from Seoul about the festival and what the group’s been up to.
How does it feel to be coming back to the U.S. and being the first Korean act to play Coachella?
It’s very exciting. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a long time since we’ve been [in the U.S.] but [Coachella] is definitely a venue that we always dreamed about performing at. It still kind of feels like a miracle. We’re totally hyped to do this.
What sort of response do you hope to receive?
Everybody’s congratulating us already, which seems weird because we haven’t actually done the show yet. But I guess that’s how much it means. We’ll have to step it up so that we’re worth the congratulations.
How do you guys personally feel about playing Coachella?
It’s strange because we always talked about, like, just going to Coachella to see it and hang out and, you know, just to party and just being part of that experience as a member of the audience. We never imagined that we’d go on stage. Especially when Guns N’ Roses are getting back together on stage and we’re huge fans of all of those musicians. It’s a trip, actually.
What musicians are you looking forward to meet or see perform?
Well, Guns N’ Roses without a doubt. Ice Cube. Joey Bada$$. A bunch of people.
When you were here last time you did some collaborations. Do you hope to get in touch with anybody at Coachella to do some collaborations?
We’ve been contacted by certain artists who want to meet up and just hang out. Most of the collaborations in the past have come out of something organic. It’s never been, you know, papers going back and forth. It’s never been business, we usually just hang out. We become friends first. So I’m sure that something interesting will come out of it.
Do you guys have any future plans for North America?
We’re up for anything, we’re open to anything. Whenever the opportunity comes up, we’ll definitely be open to it. You know, we’ve never really made it a strategy to take our music elsewhere. It’s never been planned out. It’s never been like a mission. Usually, we just think that anywhere else is the same as wherever we are. We respect and we’re appreciative of every fan anywhere. So whenever any good opportunity or anything interesting comes up, we’re open to it and we’ll be on site right there.
Which songs will you be playing at Coachella?
We’re going to be doing a lot of songs, it’s a pretty long set. So we’re going to be doing some chilled out music as well as [some] really energetic. It’s going to be a diverse set but at the end of it all it’s going to feel coherent because we like to have a lot of fun on stage.
Are you guys going to be playing the same set both weekends?
Probably not. We’ve never performed the same set anywhere, even on the stage floor we switch up the set. We like to make sure that even if you come to our show twice in a row you’ll have a different experience every time.
Will you guys be playing more of your older music or some of your more recent releases during Coachella?
We think it’s going to be a good mix of past and present.
Which songs do you think will resonate the most with the U.S. audience?
We have no idea. I think that we’ll know after the first show. But we’ve never really calculated out what song will work. We just do the songs we want to do. Luckily, audiences in the U.S., Korea, Japan, all over… China even. They relate to the same songs. It’s more about how much energy we bring to the songs and how much sincerity we bring to the songs rather than which songs we do.
Along with Coachella, you guys are heading HIGHGRND. What’s that been like and what are you envisioning for the label’s future?
You know, HIGHGRND is basically the artists that are there. We have a very free ranging lineup of artists, from rock to hip-hop to DJ. Individually we want each artist to be themselves, not just to be one of the artists at HIGHGRND. I’m actually very excited and very curious to see where each artist goes with whatever they’re doing right now. HIGHGRND will be along for the ride — we won’t be the ones driving it.
So you’re going to keep picking up artists after they’re already set in their artistic way?
Not necessarily. Most of our artists are just starting off. Basically we like to work with singer-songwriters who have a very good idea of what they want to do even if they haven’t accomplished a lot of it yet. So it’s worked out that we’re able to aid the artist in doing what they want.
Epik High has been around for a while in an industry where pop groups dominate the scene. What do you think is Epik High’s secret to remaining relevant for so long?
I think it’s less about trying to stay relevant. I think for a group or a band to stay together this long the most important thing — the only important thing — is that you’re good to the fans, you communicate well with the fans, you appreciate them, you appreciate each other. I think that’s the key to staying together for so long. I think as long as you have that as the first priority, relevance will naturally come. I think a lot of the time groups and bands try to place relevance above the fans or above each other and I think that’s when you have to actually struggle to keep things together.
How does Epik High manage their personal lives and the band?
Luckily our respective family members really enjoy watching us on stage, really enjoy being along for the ride so it’s not really a juggling act that we have to do.
So you guys are working on Pieces, Part Two. Would you mind talking about that a bit?
Tentatively we’re calling it Pieces, Part Two because it has a lot of songs we’re working on. I don’t know what album it’s going to end up being. We have absolutely no idea when it’s going to come out, actually. Every song that we complete, we were somehow inspired to do another. So it just keeps going on and on. I have no idea when it’s all going to stop. Hopefully it’ll come out soon.
What is the one thing you’ve never had a chance to speak about during an interview?
I have no idea… I have a fear of flights. I’m claustrophobic. I’m also a little bit agoraphobic. I have a lot of phobias. I don’t think I’ve ever really mentioned that.
But you fly all over the world?
Yea, it’s not easy every time. It’s fun trying to overcome it every time.
If you’re going to be at Coachella, come check out Epik High. We’re going to make sure that it’s a worthwhile, meaningful time. I guess that’s pretty much it. If you somehow end up seeing us somewhere in the world, we’ll make sure that you want to come see us again.
Epik High plays Coachella on Sundays, April 17 and April 24.