What started as a one-time interview seems to be turning into a retrospective on the early Korean-American K-Pop idols. I had the pleasure of talking to the very busy Brian Joo, formerly of the R&B duo Fly to the Sky, who is currently preparing to appear in an all-star musical in Los Angeles, and took him on a walk down memory lane. Why the preoccupation with these early idols? Again, because this is the era of K-Pop that I fell in love with, and inspired me to start Soompi.
I distinctly remember watching Fly to the Sky’s debut music video, Day By Day , and thinking three things: 1. Wow, these guys can really sing, 2. That one guy’s hair is very unfortunate, and 3. That clown is really scary. Back then, most of the idol groups had only one really good singer, maybe one decent singer, and the rest were rappers or pretty faces that got a line or two, so it was unusual to see two very strong singers together.
Fly to the Sky stayed together for 10 years, though Brian released his first solo album in 2006 while they were still together. Let’s start with the early years:
Did you know about Soompi and your fans here in the States when you were in Fly to the Sky?
I’ve known about Soompi before I debuted. I remember going on Soompi to look up stuff on H.O.T. and S.E.S. In fact, even my Caucasian friends from high school, even back then, were very interested in K-Pop, though they didn’t think it would get this big. They would ask, “Brian, what kind of music do you listen to?” and as a Korean-American who listens to Korean music, I showed them your site, and a lot of them have kept up with it through Soompi. [*doing a happy dance*]
As a native English speaker, what did you think when you heard that your partner’s name was going to be Fany?
When I first came into SM and met him, I called him by his first name, which is Yoon Suk. A week before we debuted – Lee Soo Man sun-saeng (literally teacher, but used to address anyone you respect) came up with the name Hwan-hee (brightly). We travelled to Taiwan, where they asked me how to spell it, and I said “H”, but he thought that spelling it with an “H” was so typical, so they came up with F-A-N-Y. I knew it was not a good spelling – in America, it means your booty! You know what it means in the UK, right? [Readers, you can look it up yourselves ^^;] After about a year, we changed it to Hwany. I used to tease him about it too, after I told him what it means in America.
Korean-American idols discovered through Brothers Entertainment
I’ve always been curious about Brothers Entertainment and Gary Boone, since pretty much all the early Korean-American singers seem to be connected with him. What was your experience with him?
He gave me advice, like what angle to look, which side of my face looks better, which profile looks better, stuff like that. He put me with these two other guys, and the three of us auditioned together as a group. At first I had auditioned by myself, but he wanted us to audition as a group to see if it would go anywhere. SM wanted only me, and another label wanted another guy, but the 3rd guy never got picked up. Gary gave us a heads-up on what to expect before we go to Korea.
Were you close to any of your fellow English speakers at SM?
I wasn’t friends with them before I went to SM, but I became friends with them while I was there, especially Eugene from S.E.S., and Andy (Shinhwa) in the beginning. But we all lost touch after time went by.
But I imagine you still run into some of them on variety shows and stuff?
Me and the S.E.S. girls still go to the same hair place, so we see each other from time to time.
Any people outside of SM?
I’d occasionally see Danny from 1TYM at church, but now he’s back in LA. The closest out of the people I was connected to through Brothers Entertainment was Jason (Yunsuk) from Click-B. He and I used to keep in touch, but then he just vanished for a while.
These days, there’s my younger hoobae’s – G.na, Min from miss A, Ailee, Park Jae Bum (Jay Park) from time to time. Out of the sunbae’s, there’s Kim Jo Han, who was originally supposed to play the role I’m playing in the musical, but now he’s in Korea. He texted me the other day on Kakao saying “Good luck with the musical, I’ll be praying for you.” He’s really encouraging all the time like that. Also, Jae Chong (Solid), and Flosik from Aziatix.
During the early years, fans like myself wondered if there was some secret club for all the English speakers.
I never had that little clique with the English speakers because I wanted to force myself to be as Korean as possible, culturally and professionally, so I actually hung out with more Koreans in the beginning.
How was your Korean when you first went to Korea?
My Korean was never bad – I was taught by my father. Me and my brother spoke Korean in the house no matter what since we were born, and my dad taught us how to read and write starting in 4th grade. Every summer vacation, most kids go out, or go to summer school, or vacation, but me and my brother actually had to wake up at 6am in the morning and studied Korean till 2 o’clock in the afternoon. You know, back then, I was young and immature, and would think “Oh, I hate this,” “My dad doesn’t love me.” Now that I’m grown up, I realize what our dad did was a huge help for us in our lives, and I’m grateful that he did it.
How was your transition moving to Korea – did you go by yourself, or did your parents come out with you?
When I auditioned, I went by myself, with Gary Boone. When I contracted with SM and had to live in Korea, my parents came out with me for about a week to help me settle into my dorm and then they left, so basically, it was just me. I have one aunt and uncle and two cousins in Korea, but I rarely saw them because I wasn’t allowed to leave the house. We had to stay in the dorm after practice all the time, and in the dorm, we had to practice all the time as well. The managers would always watch us and stuff. I pretty much grew up on my own in my college years as I’d call it, since I went to Korea right after high school.
It’s hard to imagine what it was like as an American going out there and being fully immersed in the Korean culture for the first time.
It was really hard in the beginning – it really was.
You signed with SM before the advent of the “slave contracts” associated with TVXQ. How was your contract in comparison?
Our contracts weren’t that bad compared to theirs, but at the same time, it wasn’t the fairest contract either, but we were young, and it’s a learning experience. I wasn’t really picky about what the contract said. Even after the contract was over, I wasn’t like “I hate my label because of this and that.” I love them because they gave me experience and the opportunity to become what I am. They PR’ed us in every form to get us out there, so I have no negative feelings towards SM at all.
How have you managed to stay relevant in an industry that is always looking for younger and newer talent?
I guess the main thing is that I’m just myself. A lot of people feel like they have to play the part too much – “Oh, I’m a popular singer” or “I’m a popular actor so I have to play the part.” Once that popularity starts to die down, that realization goes to their head, and they kind of vanish off the scene because they are ashamed of their popularity slowly vanishing. With me, that was never a problem. I never thought, “I’m popular, so I have to act like I’m popular around these kids.” I’m just a kid from New Jersey who used to wash dishes for four years in a restaurant, and just got the lucky chance of making an album with an amazing partner and vocalist Hwanhee, and now I’m doing my own thing. Even now, I think of it more as a job and career, not who I really am. I’m just Brian, who everyone can talk to and relate to, and one of the things about Brian is that he is a singer, he is an entertainer. That’s just a part of me, but it’s not 100% of my persona – it’s not what defines me as a person.
Did you ever feel pressure to serve in the military even though you’re American? I know this is such a sensitive topic for males in the industry.
In the beginning, I did, because a lot of people asked me, “Why don’t you just man up, be a proud Korean, and go to the military?” I feel like, if you don’t have to, why should you? (note: All Korean-born males are required to serve in the military, but Brian was born in the US, and as a US citizen, he has no obligation to serve in the Korean military. In the past, some singers who were naturalized citizens of the US chose to give up their American citizenship to serve in the Korean military.)
I saw a picture of you with PK at KCON. Soompi was there as well.
I was backstage at the concert, and snuck out through the side. Only a few girls saw me, and they were like “Is that Brian Joo?” “But he wasn’t on the lineup…” “It is Brian Joo!” but by then it was too late – I ran away!
What did you think of it? Did you ever imagine there would be such a large-scale K-Pop event in America?
I’ve experienced it before (in terms of numbers) with Hollywood Bowl so it wasn’t too new, but what made it amazing this time around was that there were so many more foreigners. For me, to see all those non-Korean fans supporting K-Pop, I was like “Wow!”
What do you think about the whole Gangnam Style phenomenon?
I like the fact that a lot of people overseas love it and support it, but at the same time, I wish they had more respect for all K-Pop music in that way. A lot of foreigners will listen to other K-Pop groups and compare it to American or European music and think, “Ok, it’s the same thing as our music, but in a different language, so why should we support these songs?” I wish it wasn’t like that – if you’re a music lover, love all music, no matter what language it is.
The fact that Psy’s music video was the reason for it to go viral – because it was so unique and so original, and so out there – part of me feels like, as a musician, a song shouldn’t get that popular just because of a crazy video, but because of the actual song. At the same time, I know that music videos are a great way of getting your songs out there, so I’m happy for him. I hear him on the radio all the time – he gets played more here in the States than he does in Korea. I listen to the radio in Korea and I hear the song once or twice, but here, I hear him like every 15 minutes. I heard Carson Daly say, “Hey, this is Carson Daly, and that was Psy with Gangnam Style,” and I’m like “Wow – Carson Daly is hosting a show and talking about Psy!”
I heard that Psy is releasing an English album in November – what do you think of his chances here?
I can say this – he’s got a huge, overwhelming burden to carry right now.
How did you get involved with the musical, “Loving the Silent Tears”?
It’s pretty simple – I was in Korea, and got an email from one of the staff members asking if I wanted to be on board. I asked them a bunch of questions, they gave me a summary, and I said, “Sure I’ll do it.” Everything happened so fast.
It almost seems wrong for it to be a one-time performance with so much star-power involved.
I feel the same way, but the reason they are doing it one night only, on October 27, is because that day is the 19th anniversary of Supreme Master Ching Hai Day, whose poetry we’ll be performing on stage.
I have to mention that I’m huge fan of the musical “Rent” and would have loved to see you play Mark in the Korean version. Were you familiar with the musical before you joined the Korean production?
I saw Rent on Broadway in 1997 for the first time – so I saw it when it was still fresh. I fell in love with it, and then saw it again right after Fly to the Sky, when I came back to New York. That’s when I decided that if I ever get an opportunity to do this musical, I’m going to do it. Luckily, two years ago, I was asked to do it, and last year, I practiced with the cast for four months – four months of working our butts off. It was fun.
Was the Korean production exactly like the original, or was it edited to appeal more to the Korean audience?
Not exactly – Kolleen Park (producer) wanted to change one scene around with another scene, the choreography was all changed, and the staging was changed, so it was a lot different staging-wise from the original version. I had a friend, Laura, who actually helped with Rent on Broadway, and she said that our staging was magnificent, and that our vocals were so perfect – this coming from someone who works on Broadway!
I saw a bunch of clips on YouTube – it was totally legit, but kind of crazy hearing it in Korean.
It doesn’t feel quite right. For me, when I was singing it, I felt awkward, flinching inside. It was still fun though.
So what’s next for you? I read that you recently parted ways with Jellyfish Entertainment and that you’re looking for a new home.
I found a new label, but I haven’t signed with them yet. I wanted to wait till this LA trip was over before I decided to do anything. I’m going back to Korea to talk to them about the contracts and stuff – hopefully it will go well. There’s probably an 87% chance I’ll be working with them, and I hope to start working on some albums.
Right now, I’m doing a radio DJ-ing job in Korea on tbs eFM that’s an all-English radio program where I talk about movie soundtracks called “The Drive In.” You can listen to it anywhere in the world, online or on your mobile device, Monday through Friday from 9-10am KST.
Next month, I’m going to go to Malaysia and Thailand, and in December, I’ll probably start slowly going into the studio to record my next album.
Do you have any people that you want to work with on your next album?
My last album was more of a collaboration album, so I had a lot of featured guests. For the next album, I probably won’t have too many guests – maybe just one or two, because I want to make it so it’s my album this time, not another ‘Brian and Friends’ type of thing.
A huge thanks to Brian for being such a good sport with my questions!
Official Site: brianjoo.com
Loving the Silent Tears Official Site – if you’re in the LA area on Saturday, October 27, you can still get tickets from the official site.