In a world dominated by boy bands and girl groups, there is an increasing number of bands making their way into the youth-oriented Korean music scene. Though still not overwhelmingly common, K-pop is seeing more and more pop-rock bands. Four-member The Rose arrived on the scene last year and had an impactful debut with their song “Sorry,” which was No. 7 on last year’s Best of K-pop list, and they recently completed a North American tour.
Just hours after landing in New York, main vocalist and guitarist Sammy, AKA Kim Woosung, and keyboardist Park Dojoon sat down with Billboard ahead of their tour’s first show, held at Irving Plaza on May 19. The pair, along with drummer Lee Hajoon and bassist Lee Jaehyeong, have been together for a few years, first as an indie group in Seoul known as Windfall, and now more formally as an act signed with J&Star Company. They still write all of their own music, despite becoming entrenched in the mainstream K-pop scene, where the majority of acts do not have immense creative freedom.
According to Sammy, who was raised in Los Angeles, the quartet knew early on that they wanted to try and move into South Korea’s pop scene, away from the indie busking scene they had started out in. Finding a company that they could collaborate with creatively took some time, and they’re still figuring out how to work within a more structured environment. “It was hard, to be honest, to find companies,” said Sammy, reflecting on their search for a label. “When we’re just doing it ourselves, we don’t have to communicate with anyone except us. But here it is more — we have so many things we have to communicate about to do our music.”
“More formal and more really, like, less of a joke, I guess,” added Dojoon in his New Zealand-tinged accent.
The Rose is a democracy; each of the four members have to agree on every aspect of a song before the band releases it. To Dojoon, the group’s synergy is what makes The Rose distinct. “We always keep explaining and keep [going] like, ‘Come on, this can’t be this’ and, ‘This can’t be this.’ And then they go, ‘Um, alright.’ And so we get to actually agree on every single note, every single word, every single concept.”
“It has to be the four of our opinions to make one song,” said Sammy. “Every single thing on there, even a word, so if one person doesn’t agree and three people do, it just doesn’t work out.”
The name of one of the group’s recent songs, “Candy,” was one such matter up for debate, which they settled by combining the two options and dubbing it “Candy (So Good).” The suggestion of picking the name at random was reviled by the pair. “We could never do that, we would never be satisfied with that, picking out of a hat,” insisted Sammy.
The group’s first EP, April’s Void, debuted at No. 8 on the World Albums chart. Through the five-track effort, The Rose’s intent was to highlight the darker elements of human emotion through dynamic pop-rock. “We just wanted to show how everybody does have an emptiness in their lives and when they’re happy, when they’re sad, whatever,” said Sammy. “So we do have songs that are sounding pretty upbeat and pretty happy but at the same time, we just wanted to show that empty space in every song.”
Take for instance the aforementioned “Candy (So Good).” With lyrics like, “Your taste is so good/ Just like candy on my lips/ So good if you want me I can take it slow,” what does that saccharine song have to do with the darkness of Void? To Sammy, It’s the perfect metaphor for a sense of fleeting happiness that accompanies the realities of romance. “Candy itself, it’s so fast and quick to go away and you feel so empty when it’s gone,” he explained. “We related it to a relationship, where in the beginning, it’s really good, but there’s that point in relationships that fall down and kind of dies down a little, and that’s kind of like candy. When you first [eat it], it’s freaking awesome but then you keep taking it and it keeps going away.”
The Rose have no plans of going away any time soon, but that doesn’t mean things are going to be easy, especially because they are fluid regarding their place in the K-pop industry. Most other bands currently active in South Korea are signed to bigger labels, all of which have also seen success with dance-focused idol groups and have largely run their bands the same way, with the label’s A&R teams driving much of their sound, especially in their earliest days. FNC Entertainment spearheaded the trend with FTIsland and CNBlue, both of which premiered in the ‘00s, and debuted their newest band NFlying in 2015. JYP Entertainment’s Day6, labelmates with the likes of Twice and Got7, also arrived on the scene that year. Those four are the most prominent bands in the K-pop scene at the moment, though The Rose and South Club, an act fronted by former WINNER member Nam Tae-hyun, are making a strong case for self-made bands. In the past, however, only a handful of acts have been able to break into the major label dominated South Korean music scene. “It’s actually not that easy but motivating at the same time,” said Sammy. “If you guys aren’t listening to it, we’ll make you listen to it.” “And you will eventually love it,” added Dojoon.