“Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you have nightmares? Are you heartbroken? Do you feel down, depressed, hopeless? Do you miss someone. Do you find that things you once enjoyed no longer interest you? Are you lonely? Are you always… sleepless?”
So starts the robotic vocal intro of Sleepless In __________, the new album from Korean alt hip-hop trio Epik High. Full of collaborations — like the single “Lovedrunk” with R&B singer Crush, “Eternal Sunshine” co-produced by BTS’ Suga, and a captivating, martial arts film-inspired music video featuring IU and Jin Seo Yeon — the seven-track EP marks a new beginning for Epik High as their first self-produced album in a decade.
Upon its release the project topped charts in South Korea, and broke into the Top 30 of the U.S. iTunes real-time chart. Their first release since parting ways with former label YG Entertainment last year, the feat is a testament to Epik High’s career as one of the Korean music world’s most innovative, tenacious acts.
Prior to its release, Epik High’s Tablo spoke to Billboard over the phone from Seoul to discuss the album and the group’s upcoming tours.
B: How’re you feeling?
T: I’m feeling tired and refreshed at the same time. I don’t know if that’s possible but that’s what I feel. It’s a strange feeling because I know starting March 11, it’s like the first page or the first sentence for a new chapter of Epik High in many ways. In a way it’s frightening, and at the same time it’s got this strange serenity to it too. It’s going to be the first album that we’re releasing basically alone. It’s the first time that Epik High is independent in a long time. When we released [2009’s] Map the Soul, at that time we had gone independent and we were releasing an album that was going to start a new chapter. I think it’s a similar feeling right now.
How are your preparations for your album and upcoming Europe and North American tours going?
T: It’s a lot of shows. It’s back to back to back with shows, and just in Europe alone we’re doing seven countries. In North America, it’s 17 cities. There’s a lot of music that we need to prepare. It’s been a while since we did an international tour like this. There’s that much more to show. We’ve Done Something Wonderful, that  album has never been performed in the States. So it’s going to be two albums that we are going to be performed for the first time outside of Korea. It’s going to be amazing. I can’t wait to go through the setlist.
I saw you tweeted out about what songs people would like to hear during the tour, and you had to ask people to refrain from suggesting so many songs.
T: People were suggesting like 200 different songs. Unfortunately, the venue doesn’t allow that. [Laughs.] We have a time limit. But we’ll be performing songs from way back til this moment. Whoever comes to the concert is going to see the very wide range of Epik High.
Do you feel this tour and album serve as an introduction to Epik High for people who may not be as familiar with your career?
T: I think it could be a very good [introduction]. The album is very, very Epik High. Even more so than We’ve Done Something Wonderful or Shoebox. It’s seven songs, but down to the essence of what Epik High should sound like. I think if it’s the first time for somebody to be hearing us or seeing us, it’s the perfect entry point. It does, it literally does, feel like a new beginning.
How does it feel returning to that side of Epik High?
T: Epik High is not a group that is bent on always doing the new, fresh, current thing. It’s not like we deliberately avoid it but we’re not obsessed with constantly switching up our thing. I think that’s always worked to our benefit, and our fans have appreciated it. Ironically, that’s the thing that set us apart. With the current culture, everything moves so fast and everything is very disposable in that the next thing happens so fast. I think the times call for artists who can stick to what they do and this is how we’re going to do that.
How does the sense of lo-fi sleepiness of Sleepless In __________ reflect your dedication to your sound?
T: When we decided that we were going independent and started working on what would become our first album as an independent artist, we brainstormed many different ways to go. It could be an album that’s like, “We’re back! We’re independent!” It could be loud, it could be very proud, and it could be very energetic. But we started working on the songs and, strangely enough, we were coming out with more mellow music. I think there’s this strange serenity that we felt, and I think it was coming out through the music. This album, I think, is our current mindset. I think the emotion we felt at the moment we started working on this album is a sense of sleeplessness for good and bad reasons.
What evoked that sleeplessness?
T: I’ve always had insomnia. Sometimes that insomnia was brought on by the fact that I was very driven by a dream. I wouldn’t allow myself to sleep early because time was so precious and I didn’t want to waste it sleeping. That was a good reason to be sleepless. At the same time, there were many times when I was sleepless because reality had become like a nightmare. I couldn’t sleep. If you look at somebody and you want to check that they’re alive, you zoom in on the fact that they’re breathing, right? Most of the time you don’t notice that someone is breathing until they’re not. To observe someone’s sleeplessness allows you to see why they’re breathing. And what is either driving them or what is making them suffer from nightmares. I think sleeplessness shows so much about a person. As much as dreams or love or other emotions. Much more than those emotions.
Is the album a way to see where you guys are in regards to your mental state and what’s keeping you from sleep now that you went independent?
T: Let me think about that. [Pauses.] Once we announced the subject of the album and the album title, I was surprised by how many people related to sleeplessness. Epik High’s music, if you would describe it in a word, is “sleepless.” Our music is music that you can play at your bedside, music you can chill to. And at the same time, music that drives you when you don’t let yourself sleep because you’re trying to achieve something. I think we go back and forth between those two extremes.
Why did you decide to leave the album title unanswered?
T: People are confused as to how you’re supposed to pronounce the blanks, the 10 underbars. So we decided that it should be said, “Sleepless In [makes scraping noise].” The sound of a pencil going across a page.
Is it inspired by Sleepless in Seattle?
T: That’s definitely a title I have in my head. I don’t remember the movie. But we decided to keep it blank. On our album we say “Sleepless” “In Seoul,” that’s just for us, right? That’s where we are right now. That’s where we were recording the song and the album. We are sleepless in Seoul, but people who listening to this album are going to be sleepless elsewhere, so we left it blank so that people can mentally fill it in.
You guys decided to fill in that blank with “In Seoul” with sunwoojunga, one of several artists featured on the album. Are these the artists you like listening to when you’re sleepless in Seoul?
T: I actually revealed my sleep playlist to a media outlet here. All of these artists have a huge range and when they do songs that are very emotional, they’re just exceptional at it. When I was trying to come up with collaborators or people that I wanted on the album, I think I kind of cast it like a film. So I would look at my actual sleep playlist and see who is on there, and I thought that having them on the album would only make sense.
So the playlist of your sleep is coming to life on your own album?
What’s the connection between this album and film?
T: I’m a huge cinephile. Before I did music, I wanted to go into film and actually worked as an [assistant director] on a film. Whenever I’m sleepless, I usually watch a movie. I’m always thinking of the songs as short films.
And I think that affected how I approached the music video for this album as well. We just dropped the teaser a few hours ago, and it’s directed by [Bae Jong (Park Kwang-hyun)] the director of [2005’s] Welcome to Dongmakgol, which is a huge classic film in Korea that my wife [actor Kang Hye-jung] happened to be a star in. That director directed the music video and it has two actors in it, IU and Jin Seo Yeon, and we literally shot a short film. It’s really not like a music video. And I think it totally made sense to me to do that because the song “Lovedrunk” was written like a soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist. After I finished the song, I went to look for someone who could create this film that doesn’t exist.
The music video, even with the teasers, people were like, “Is this IU’s new film?” “Is this a new movie she’s in, and did Epik High use the footage?” But no, it’s a film that was created for this project.
Are the other songs like that as well, or are they more things derived from your own day to day lives? Or is the album as a whole acting as a soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist?
T: If you listen to the album from the intro to the outro, you’ll probably see an arc. We approached it sort of like a film and also like a book of short stories, maybe. We wanted to start with somebody alone in a room, contemplating why they’re “Sleepless.” And then it goes to “In Seoul,” which is less mellow than the other songs. It’s more raw hip-hop in certain ways. I think we wanted to show that a lot of people, at least around me, are sleepless because they’re afraid of something or something is troubling them or the city has become like a nightmare to them. And then the album progresses, and eventually it ends on a “Lullaby For A Cat,” a very calm and peaceful song. We wanted to sort of sonically recreate what happens when someone goes from sleeplessness to the moment where they fall asleep.
Why is it a “Lullaby For A Cat”? Why a cat?
T: For the intro, I imagined somebody alone in a bedroom. I didn’t want to make this person completely alone. So I gave that person a cat. When I was in the States, when I was in college [at Stanford], I took a summer out. Right after my freshman year, I went to work on a film in New York. And I had no place to stay, so I looked it up in the paper and I got a room in East Harlem, with an old lady who was living by herself, renting out one of her rooms. She had nine cats. I would go to sleep, and when I would wake up all nine cats would be on the bed surrounding me. Ever since then, I’ve had a thing for cats.
How did the single, “Lovedrunk” with Crush, come about?
T: I had a picture of this song for a very, very, very long time. On We’ve Done Something Wonderful, there’s a song called “Tape 2002 [7 28]” and on that track we have bits and pieces of demos that we were working on since 2002, ‘til we dropped that album. A little piece of “Lovedrunk” appears on that track. The vocal part is in my voice. It was a demo that I had held onto for a long time because I couldn’t find the perfect person to sing the melody. There was a voice that I was looking for, and at the time I couldn’t figure out who. I heard a song that Crush sang, an English song that he dropped recently.
T: Yeah. Wait, was it this song? I can’t remember. There was a song of Crush’s that I heard, and I was like, “Dude, it’s this guy.” And it’s not the first time working with Crush but there was a song of his that I heard that made me rediscover him in a way. There was a side to his voice that I didn’t really know was there. So that’s how he became a part of this song. Thanks to him I was finally able to complete this song.
Do you remember when you started working on it?
T: I think I had the first bare minimum sketch four years ago. It’s evolved in different directions during that time, on and off. I think my first demo was like four years ago. It sounded very different then.
What about this song that turned into “Lovedrunk” that made you keep going back to it?
T: I really don’t know, but I really liked this song for some reason. There was a discussion to see whether we should put it on We’ve Done Something Wonderful, but I told my members, “I want to hold onto this one.” I’m glad that we did. I think it’s the right time for it to come out. It starts off like a ballad, and then it has this thing about it that makes me feel really, really sad and, at the same time, it makes my heart beat for some reason. It sounds like what I’m trying to say with this sleeplessness thing.
So you worked with Crush on that one after discovering his voice, and you worked with Malaysian singer Yuna on “No Different.” How did that come about?
T: I met Yuna for the first time at Coachella [in 2016]. It was the day before our set, and she was also performing there, and we met when we were both in line for some food. I can’t remember what the food was. On Twitter, people were telling me to say “Hi” to her if I saw her, and literally a couple hours after I saw those tweets we ran into each other. She was really cool. Immediately we were talking about one day maybe doing music together. And now it’s finally become reality.
That’s so serendipitous.
T: I don’t know what it is about me or about us, but that always happens. Our fans will say something to me or ask me to do something for them, and then I will think to myself, “That will never happen.” And then very soon after it will happen. So I make it a point that people around me never say anything negative. Because it tends to happen. I’m actually not very good at that, keeping negative things out. But I try.
Is that how the other collaborations also came out?
T: I think the other collaborations were more organic. Even with Suga and the recent collaborations I’ve had with him…. If you think about it, a long time ago when Suga was just starting off with his music, there were videos where he was mentioning that Epik High’s songs inspired him to do music, right? That was in his mind. And now he’s producing for us. He’s also someone who if he imagines something or if he feels deeply about something it becomes a reality for him. And that’s probably why BTS is able to do so many amazing things, things that were once thought impossible. To anyone who is reading this, try to keep negative things out of your head. Don’t give even a tiny room to negative thoughts. Because positive thoughts will become reality if you think about them deeply enough.
Suga and other members of BTS have mentioned Epik High being inspirations to them, but what about him makes him an ideal collaborator as a songwriter for you on a personal level, working with him on both “Eternal Sunshine” as well as the recently released Lee Sora song, “Song Request”?
T: He has an amazing range, from really turned-up songs to really mellow songs. I don’t think it requires a huge effort on his part to do that. He really loves making music. And that seems like a given for a musician to love making music, but that’s a very rare thing, unfortunately. There are a lot of musicians who are very good, and very talented, but not as passionate as when they started. Passion is a hard thing to hold onto. And with all that happened with the huge changes that his group must be experiencing on a daily basis, for him to be able to hold onto that passion is not as easy as it looks.
Do you ever struggle with that?
T: I’ve struggled with it on various occasions. But, luckily, it’s a gift and curse that I’m still holding onto that passion as the same way when I started. It’s keeping me perpetually sleepless.
The final collaboration on the album to discuss is “In Seoul,” with sunwoojunga. Have you worked with her in the past? What was it like working with her on this?
T: No, this is the first time. I’ve known sunwoojunga for a long time. She worked on the first Lee Hi album [too]. And a lot of people don’t know this but when I first got to YG, like seven years ago, sunwoojunga was there preparing to possibly become an artist. She was writing songs for 2NE1, Lee Hi. I was introduced to sunwoojunga because the company thought that we would feel less lonely, I think. That we would connect. And we did. We didn’t become friends or anything, but I was always a fan of her music. She was always checking out my stuff. We always respected each other. For some reason, there was never a song that we could hop onto together until now.
Even though it marks a new start as Epik High’s first album since leaving YG, there’s only one song on Sleepless In __________ that is written by all three members of the group and that’s “Rain Again Tomorrow.” What about that song makes it distinctly Epik High’s song?
T: If you listen to the album straight, “Rain Again Tomorrow” connects directly with “Lullaby For A Cat.” It becomes the lullaby. When we were coming up with the song, we wanted to talk about ourselves and why we can’t sleep. The majority of the album before that is a series of short stories. It could technically be about anyone. We wanted these last two chapters, beginning with “Rain Again Tomorrow,” to deal with personally why we can’t sleep. So the lyrics on that is Mithra and I talking about the various things that we went through and how we feel about doing music this long, and the fears we have struggling to maintain the passion and stuff like that.
How do you determine what artists to feature on Epik High’s music?
T: A lot of the times, I already know who I want to work with and I write the song to have them on it. I think that’s why our collaborations work so well, because I have them in mind when I actually write the melodies. Some other times I would write the songs first, like with “Lovedrunk.” I think I do have them in mind usually. I listen to a lot of music, and when I’m listening to music I will notice something about someone’s voice or just about what they’re saying, or just about the essence of their being, and a lot of time that’s inspiration for me to start writing a new song. So I’m very grateful that there are so many talented people. Because they literally inspire me to create my music. Definitely I have a mental list of people I’d love to collab with.