Seokchon Lake is a curious point of convergence in Seoul. Neither a large-scale landmark nor a hidden gem, it is a quotidian neighborhood green to the southeast. Yet in this ordinary spot, a series of compelling foils emerge. It is a crisp December morning, and a yellow school bus has just unleashed a platoon of children onto the sprawling amusement park called Lotte World. The infamous Gyro Swing whirls in the background, and the sound of delighted screams is carried through the air.
A track runs beside the lake, around which dozens of grandmothers and grandfathers are doing laps in quilted down coats. They glance curiously, but do not stop, for the scene unfolding on the esplanade: five members of Balming Tiger, an alternative K-pop group and creative collective, dressed in slim black suits. They have linked arms and are leaning backward, as though they are dodging bullets in the Matrix. “Oh yeah, money shot, baby,” says Omega Sapien, the moss-haired frontman.
Balming Tiger was founded in 2017 when Yi Miseon, who DJs under the name Abyss, and Kang Daewang, whose moniker is San Yawn, began meeting with two other likeminded artists in a spare room above an art supply store near Hongik University (most Balming Tiger members release their creative work under more playful artist names). Fellow radio DJs in the electronic underground, the pair were joined by their desire to make their mark on the relatively conformist music scene. “As Balming Tiger, we have longed for a very strong and clear identity and individuality from the beginning,” Yi explains. “[San Yawn] wanted to inspire people significantly, even if we failed.”
Their first mixtape, 虎媄304, an eclectic fusion of experimental hip hop and psychedelic noise, immediately struck Jeong Ui-seok, or Omega Sapien, who was studying in Tokyo when he stumbled across it on Soundcloud. “I liked it because I’d never heard anything like it before,” he says of the alternative K-pop sound. “Hip-hop is hip-hop, electronic is electronic, but K-pop is everything all at once. We add an extra twist to it, so we can release whatever we want.”
Balming Tiger is set apart by its diverse roster of multifaceted young artists—a model for a new kind of collective. There’s producer and artist Leesuho, who last year released a wildly compelling experimental album called Monika and directed two recent music videos for J-Hope of BTS; Mudd the Student, a semi-finalist on the hugely popular rap competition show Show Me the Money; visual artist and art director Chanhee Hong; and producer Han Wonjin, or bj wnjn, who last fall worked closely with the crew on “Sexy Nukim” featuring RM of BTS. The crew currently stands at 11 men and women who grew up in Seoul, Palisades Park, N.J., or Monterrey, Mexico, and who range from their early 20s to 40s.
“We are creative and playful, always busy and hectic,” Yi says. “We are a weird team of mixed genders, not the same age, very different personalities, from different regions, working on the border between the underground and major scenes.”
“Alternative K-pop is a fun term,” Hong adds, “since alternative and pop are on opposite ends of the spectrum. We are K-pop, but at the same time, we are independent.” That’s become a rarity in Seoul: Balming Tiger says that of the many independent artists who also started their careers in 2017, they’re the only ones who still haven’t signed with a label or left the industry. Though they have achieved a level of notoriety—last fall, the crew released a song with RM of BTS, and their highly anticipated first album is due out this year—Balming Tiger has taken care to develop their eclectic sound and style slowly over time. To tease the forthcoming release, Omega Sapien, Mudd the Student, and bj wnjn dropped a new single this month aptly titled “Trust Yourself,” composed to bring “inspiration to those in need of motivation and comfort.” “Trust yourself,” Omega sings brightly, ”one step a day, even just by inches; one step a day, closer to your meaning.”
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“No label, 100% creative control with our own money. I don’t want some random 50-year-old to approve my music, you know what I mean?” Omega says. “It’s not easy, but because it’s not easy, there’s meaning to it. It’s more important for us to be a pioneer for younger generations to come up and look at Balming Tiger and be like, oh, we can just do this on our own. I take pride in that.”