This year, America’s biggest K-pop festival KCON strayed from being a strictly pop affair and made a point to spotlight other top names in Korea’s music scene past their very visible boy bands and girl groups. That decision was probably best seen by recruiting Zion.T and Crush, the R&B wunderkinds who performed their Staples Center set as a duo. At the time of their Aug. 2 performance, Zion.T’s single “Yanghwa BRDG” was atop the charts in Korea, the latest No. 1 for him after conquering earlier this year with Crush on their silky collabo “Just” earlier this year.
Backstage at KCON 2015 Los Angeles, the duo speak calmly while talking to Billboard before bringing that same chill demeanor to the arena stage — as the crowd went bonkers for them — while collaborating with Red Velvet‘s Wendy, Block B‘s Zico and more during their set. Find out how the R&B polymaths feel about the warm welcome to L.A., upcoming music, must-own albums and more.
You’re playing the Staples Center, this huge arena, for KCON. What’s going through your head right now?
Zion.T: This is where my favorite artists have performed, the Grammy Awards are here, it’s overwhelming — the vibe itself. But I think it’s going to be a very good experience, I have really high expectations.
Crush: It’s my first time in L.A. I like the NBA and wish I had tickets for an NBA game, but I always wanted to come here to see fans. It’s honorable to be performing here.
How was meeting U.S. fans?
Zion.T: Korean fans are kind of shy, but American fans are loud and give a huge reaction. [Gives a high pitched “woo!” scream.] It was very hot. There are more non-Koreans than I expected, it was very interesting.
I was at your New York concert with Amoeba Culture earlier this year. What different preparations did you have for that versus KCON?
Zion.T: Before, it was a live concert, it was our show. This is a show where we’re a part of other acts, so we’re going to perform only our hits and bring our careers to the stage.
Crush: No matter what kind of show, it’s inspiring just to be able to perform in the States. That’s what’s most meaningful to me.
You two aren’t exactly “K-pop” as most would define it. Where do you see yourself fitting in the overall scene or at a show like this?
Zion.T: The best way to put it would be, “Yanghwa BRDG” is about a bridge by the Han River [in South Korea]. It means a lot to me, the song itself. I thought [American] fans might not get it because of the lyrics, but to be able to sing the song here makes me very touched.
I actually wanted to ask about “Yanghwa BRDG,” it’s a very personal song to release as a single. Do you ever get nervous about being so open in your music?
Zion.T: That’s actually what I always want to do and talk about in songs.
Crush, you recently released “Oasis” and revealed both a jazz and neo-soul version of the track. What’s your background with those genres?
Crush: That was actually my major, modern music, in college. I practiced the piano and I like jazz bars. I even cry when I listen to jazz. I know fans may not be able to imagine me performing jazz, but I really like it. I want to explore these genres more in the future.
Did you get to go to a jazz bar when you were last in New York?!
Crush: Yeah, I got to go to one in New York. It wasn’t really a bar, well, it was actually Sleep No More. We saw the play, and on the way out we watched some jazz being played.
The Weeknd is someone who started in the R&B world, but has grown to be a huge music star and crossed his sound over into pop. Do you see Korean R&B taking a similar route?
Zion.T: There are so many Korean R&B musicians that are inspired by The Weeknd. They all do something similar to his music and they’re growing in popularity as The Weeknd also gets more popular.
What’s coming next for you two?
Crush: My mini-album is coming out this year, no specific time set yet, but sometime this year.
Zion.T: We want to release another new song together because it’s more fun to perform as a duo.
Crush: We have the same brain. [Laughs.]
As the R&B experts, what are the three albums R&B fans must have or must listen to, in your opinion?