Having a top-charting album may matter to some people, but the three men behind Epik High don’t put too much importance on it — regardless of how well their newly released We’ve Done Something Wonderful is ranking on charts in South Korea.
Epik High has been doing what they love for 14 years now and their approach to alt hip-hop has thrust them beyond the confines of the local Korean music scene, landing them appearances at festivals like Coachella and Glastonbury. But don’t ask the trio what they think of their longevity in the fast-paced Korean entertainment industry; they’re all about the here and now, and what that means for their music.
“We’re the type of people that don’t really think about ‘career,’” Tablo (Daniel Lee) tells Billboard. “Like how we’ll be remembered. We don’t think of it in terms like that. We think of each album as another chance to do what we love.”
The team’s latest album came three years after their widely-acclaimed Shoebox, which saw Epik High top the World Albums chart and make appearances on the Independent and Heatseekers Albums charts. Wonderful was released on Monday to coincide with the anniversary of their first album, Map of the Human Soul. “By the time we were finished with the album it didn’t really matter to us at that point what the reception would be,” says Tablo, who did the majority of the speaking for the group and translated on behalf of the others. “We were very satisfied with the album. We had made beautiful memories, wonderful memories together and we were completely content with what we had accomplished. For me, personally, these guys are like my brothers. So the project was, first and foremost, about the music. But right up there with that was trying to make wonderful memories together.”
We’ve Done Something Wonderful is an album filled with reflection and overflows with regrets, a theme carried through numerous songs including the singles “Home Is Far Away” featuring Oh Hyuk of the band Hyukoh and the IU-featuring “Love Story.” “Both songs are about loss, but they’re about dreams and love which pretty much sums up the most important things in human existence,” he says. “We thought these two songs talking about these two things would resonate with the audience.”
But despite the relatively dark nature, the project was created in a time of relative ease for Epik High. “We barely ever fought,” says Tablo. “It was just a kickass time. It didn’t look like that, to the people who work with us. They said that we looked like we were in great pain. But it might look like that, but to us it was a great — these are memories that we’re going to have the moment we close our eyes before death.”
Great pain and the human condition in general has been a theme throughout Epik High’s work, with numerous songs reflecting on the ills of the world that Tablo, Mithra Jin (Choi Jin) and DJ Tukutz (Kim Jongshik) have faced and witnessed throughout their lives.
“Even if you go back to our first album, a common theme that comes up is to be aware of your surroundings,” Tablo continues. “And, yes, you can feel like people around you are doing horrible things. And you can point it out and you can rebel against it. You can criticize it. You can fight it. But you too are part of that process. And we are too. And that might sound like, you know, I’m making culprits out of everybody. But what we’re trying to say is that because we’re all part of that process we can also come together and create something positive together. We can be part of the process of turning things around. I think that’s very important to us. And even the songs this time [on the new album], some of the songs criticize some things but it’s very aware that we’re part of the problem.”
Wonderful focuses heavily on Epik High’s responsibilities as adults and artists who have put their all into their career, with songs like “Bleed,” “Us Against the World” and “Here Come The Regrets” featuring Lee Hi, drawing on the pain that has accompanied the learning experiences of the trio’s lives. But their reflection, while heavy, leaves way for the most humorous moment on the album; “NO THANXXX” (feat. WINNER’s Mino, Simon Dominic and The Quiett) gives Tablo an opportunity to declare himself a “motherfucking Groot,” referencing the Guardians of the Galaxy character after singing about cutting out his soul and giving it all to his artistry.
“The irony of the song is that it may be the song that’s the most explicit on the album but it’s also the most innocent song, I think,” says Tablo. “That’s why I felt like Groot is a good choice. Because if you see the movies, Groot does some extremely horrible things. When he’s fighting he’s a very scary, imposing character. But at the same time, he’s got this innocence where he can turn into Baby Groot. That’s like the core of that character. Of course I didn’t go into any deep construction about Groot, but I think it fits the song.”
The line, which quickly become a fan favorite after the album’s release, came about thanks to a whimsical comment from Tukutz, who Tablo lays the blame at for the anachronistic line. “I was writing my verse and I had gotten to the point right before I scream out ‘I am Groot!’ In the lines before I was talking about how I’m like the Giving Tree, that I’ve had to cut my limbs to give something good to someone else. I was very serious about what I was writing,” he says. “There was no way that that could go from that to Groot. But I was rapping the lines to myself and Tukutz was like, ‘You’re Groot,’ he joked to me. Then he left and I was like, ‘Oh no, I can’t get Groot out of my head now.’ And I was like, ‘I hate you.’ Like an hour passed and there was nothing that I could come up with that was better than ‘I am Groot.’ A declaration of Grootness. I haven’t used any lines that are humorous for a while. I don’t like humor coming into my verses very much. But I felt like this had to be the only line that could possibly end the verse. So It’s Tukutz’s fault that I’ve become Groot.”
(Tablo concedes that he has to be Adult Groot while his daughter Haru, a popular figure who has over 2 million followers on Instagram after appearing on a South Korean reality show with her father, would be Baby Groot. Tukutz is Teenager Groot, whereas Mithra is Drax The Destroyer.)
While it was a Wonderful time creating the album, it wasn’t easy; the final release is the third version of what the band spent three years working on. Featuring nine other Korean singers as guests vocalists and rappers, it was a collaborative project along the lines of what Epik High has done in the past.
“Epik High as a group… When we first started, when we were deciding what kind of group we wanted to be, we wanted it to be sort of like an open band concept,” says Tablo. “Because we felt very limited by what the three of us could do because if we stuck to just us three doing it, there would be beats and raps, which is fine, which we love… But at the same time, we also love melodies. We love a lot of instrumentation. We are fans of other genres. I’m actually more of a rock kid than hip-hop. Tukutz loves hip-hop but also loves jazz. He loves K-pop. Mithra pretty much listens to everything. And we wanted this group to channel all of that.”
The way to do that was having Epik High serve as the core and bringing in guest collaborators. While frequent in the Korean entertainment industry nowadays, a decade and a half ago it was almost unheard of. Since then, the trio has worked with dozens of artists and often return to work again with some of the same vocalists. “We write our songs, we plan out the melodies, we write out the lyrics and then we’re basically casting who we think fits the role of that song, of that story. Certain musicians, we know they’re the only ones that can provide what we’re trying to emote. We go back to them often.” (Both Mino and Nel?l’s Kim Jongwan were featured on both We’ve Done Something Wonderful and Shoebox.)
Several of the artists Epik High works with fall under the category of K-pop stars whereas others are part of the Korean hip-hop or indie scenes. But those genre categories, fluid at the best of times, mean nothing to Mithra, Tukutz and Tablo. “Outside of Korea, sometimes we’re referred to as a K-pop group and sometimes they make a clear distinction about us being a hip-hop group,” says Tablo. “You can call us anything. We’ve been called a boy band even. To us, it’s got no negative connotation because we don’t attach negative connotations to any of those terms.”
According to Tablo, the trio doesn’t understand the stigma some other Korean artists have against being lumped beneath the K-pop umbrella. Instead, they see it as an immensely positive factor in the rise of popularity of interest in Korean music in general.
“The love for K-pop elsewhere right now is a great gateway into other genres, other less recognized genres in the Korean music scene,” he says. “So if these hugely talented boy bands that are dancing and singing their asses off and creating these crazy music videos that can somehow pull someone into listening to a Korean indie rock band, I mean I’m all for that. So, thank you. Because otherwise these people may never have listened to any Asian music. They may not have known any Asian people in their whole lives. Maybe they live in a place where they haven’t interacted with anyone who was Asian. But by watching a video on Youtube they fell in love with some K-pop group and then they became interested in Asia and in Korea and all the amazing things that it’s got to offer, then that’s… Call that K-pop, call that a miracle. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. That is something wonderful.”
Though they just dropped We’ve Done Something Wonderful, Epik High’s already working on the next project. Not only has Tablo written a song for the veteran Korean singer Lee Sora featuring BTS‘ Suga, but the trio’s already putting together what will likely lead to their 10th album. “This album came out and it’s been received well so we’re taking that [to mean that] the audience has given us another chance again,” says Tablo. “We’re actually working on the next project. We don’t know what it’s going to be, but we’ve already started.”