In recent years, it’s been almost impossible not to notice the rise of South Korea as a cultural powerhouse. From the early days of “Gangnam Style” to record-breaking BTS and Oscar-winning Parasite, the small East Asian country has the global audience hooked.
But believe us when we say there’s so much more to discover than just the impressively produced, flashy tracks of the Korean pop scene. Today, we’re taking you deep into the K-indie scene – the lesser known, yet just as thriving world of ambient tunes.
Since the days when no one outside the country had even heard of “K-pop”, the South Korean independent music scene had made its presence felt in Seoul’s university districts. Though now popular tourist shopping destinations with global chain stores and trendy, Instagrammable cafes, Shinchon and Hongdae were once known as incubators for local indie acts and artists from the 1970s to the 1990s.
This gentrification hasn’t been the only thing standing in K-indie’s way. In 2005, during a live broadcast of Live Music Camp on MBC (one of Korea’s leading television stations), two members from punk rock bands Couch and Spiky Brats decided to expose themselves while jumping around on stage. At that time, Live Music Camp had been running a weekly segment that gave indie, rock and punk artists the spotlight to perform, but the indecent behaviour and the subsequent public backlash brought that to an abrupt hiatus between 2005 and 2009.
It wasn’t until the breakthrough of newer bands in 2008 (like Broccoli, you too? and the now-defunct Kiha and the Faces) that the indie scene started to revive its reputation. While originally dominated by rock bands, globalisation had allowed the younger generation to explore their styles further, delivering a more diverse and public-friendly sound that we currently recognise as today’s K-indie music. With its signature mellow vibe, K-indie encompasses a variety of genres, but with a distinctly ambient, often vintage-inspired aesthetic that’s perfect for bringing out that carefree spirit in you, no matter how deep it’s been buried over the years.
This week, Sound of Life brings you our current favourite line-up of K-indie bands that you'll have streaming on repeat:
Dubbed the fastest-rising new-generation K-Indie band, SURL debuted in July 2018 and bagged the grand prize at the Shinhan Card Rookie Project a few months later. Comprising four high school friends, their music resonates with many – lead singer Seol’s voice, which takes on a slight nasal resonance, goes well with the band’s laidback style. In recent years, SURL has been actively performing at music festivals and participating in the creation of Korean drama soundtracks. Their 2020 collab with Jay Park, “Don’t Say No”, brings a fresh new take to an indie-R&B crossover.
Other recommended songs: “Don’t Say No”, “Stay Here”
Dasutt’s inspiration for their band name is pretty straightforward – derived from the Korean word 다섯 (daseot), which literally means “five”, for the number of original members. However, only four members remain: Han Riwoo (vocals), Lee Yongchul (guitar), Baek Minjyun (bass) and Jeon Kyungjun (drums). Formed in 2016, Dasutt became incredibly popular in the Hongdae underground music scene within a short time – their music possesses a sense of timelessness, often making you wonder, “Is this really a new song?” Even without understanding what the lyrics mean, it’s not difficult to feel the underlying tone of melancholy about the lives of the younger generation that Dasutt often sings about.
Other recommended songs: “Youth”, “Camel”
There’s relatively little information about Sunday Moon (singer-songwriter Sarah Lee and producer Cozy) on the internet, but their songs convey a silent warmth, often accentuated with the subtle use of synthesizers, not to disguise a lack of singing prowess, but rather, to highlight the soft timbre of her voice. In 2021, Sunday Moon received a total of 3.7 million plays on Spotify. Most of their songs are performed in English, with a blend of electronic/synth pop that adds depth to the listening experience – perfect to enjoy while wearing headphones as you try to catch each layer of sound that makes up the song.
Other recommended songs: “Golden”, “Million Miles”
Originally a punk rock band in its early days, We Are The Night (formerly known as Rocket Diary) shot to fame after performing the Korean version of the theme song from popular anime One Piece. Now, their sound is significantly more electronic, with a heavy Lo-fi influence. On Spotify, the band describes its music as “sophisticated and dreamlike, with cinematic sounds combining synthesizers and acoustic instruments”. In terms of artistic independence, We Are The Night is as indie as it gets – all members are fully-responsible for not only the music, but also the making of their own music videos.
Other recommended songs: “Like the Movie”, “Dreamcatcher”
All-female band Kim Hyemi, Lee Luli and Shin Hyemi debuted in 2016 with “When I First Saw You”, featuring a catchy, repetitive melody that is instantly recognisable. Before the formation of Seoulmoon, all three were originally part of other bands with markedly different styles. Releasing an average of three to four singles each year since then, Seoulmoon’s music is lively, with the vibrant flavour of retro city pop elements (not unlike Swedish duo Icona Pop). K-music online publication The Kraze describes the band as “chill yet filled with positivity, offering a new kind of spirit to Korean rock”. If you’re looking for a pick-me-up, be sure to add their songs to your playlist!
Other recommended songs: “Lucky Lucky”, “Coconut Love”
Another feel-good selection comes in the form of Sultan of the Disco, which is heavily influenced by the soul and funk scene from the golden disco ages. Even their name is derived from the Dire Straits song, “Sultans of Swing”. Active since 2006, what makes the band so special is how serious they are about having fun. In September, in a dramatic show of defiance (but following strict safety guidelines), they recorded a 40-minute showcase called “Sultan of the Diss-Corona”, intended as a powerful insult to the Covid-19 virus that caused a global pandemic. Shot on 11 action cameras, each angle was captured in detail, allowing fans to enjoy Sultan of the Disco’s mad energy as they sang and danced in unison to their zany brand of music.
Other recommended songs: “Hide Out”, “Shining Road”
Liked the songs we recommended above? Listen to our K-Indie Spotify playlist below:
Cover Credit: Artists’ respective record labels
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.