So What! Article

Yoon Do Hyun of YB: The So What! Interview

Oct 5, 2021

One of the Blacklist’s greatest joys is its international flavor. Steffan Chirazi had never heard of YB before their excellent take on “Sad But True,” but once he scratched the surface, he found a massive South Korean band with an enormous, dedicated following. YB’s founder and core – Yoon Do Hyun – talks with Chirazi through his translator Albert Park about the band, the cover, and playing in North Korea.

Amidst the 53 Metallica Blacklist collaborations, there have been some surprising ear-catchers. For me, YB firmly falls into that category. From the first brap-ba-da-da-da-da of their take on “Sad But True,” there is a bounce, swing, and verve to their version that gets you moving. It is a subtle shift, the tempo upped but not enough to make it anything more than brisky business, before there is a bridge moment involving dramatic vocals and horns. By the end, YB’s cover projects as much alterna-punk attitude as straight rock, leaving a striking, fresh take on this Black Album classic. And I quickly wanted to know more.

The brainchild of Yoon Do Hyun, YB is a South Korean phenomenon. Hugely popular and with its own zealous fan base, YB has also been growing internationally for some time. To cap it all, the group has played not once but twice in North Korea: the first time in 2002, having been a central part of South Korea’s successful co-hosting of the World Cup Finals. The second time in 2018, when Kim Jong Un was in attendance, that is some gig to play!

Thus it was that I sat down for a (now-covid era typical) Zoom chat with Hyun and his close friend, fellow musician, and skateboarder, Albert Park. Albert acted smoothly as a top translator allowing me to get the YB skinny. Therefore, it is important to note that although Albert was speaking, he was translating Hyun’s words, so for simplicity’s sake, Hyun is listed as the speaker/subject.

Steffan Chirazi: Could you give me an idea of some early sounds or noises that caught your ear as a small child?

Yoon Du Hyun: When I was a child, my father played guitar at home, and that’s the first music that I really enjoyed listening to. We lived in the countryside, a rural area, and there were a lot of nature sounds in that area, a lot of animal noises, like birds. So even to this day today, I enjoy the sound of nature.

SC: Very cool. Can I ask what style of guitar your father played? Was it rock and roll?

YDH: Yeah, it would’ve been nice if he played a lot of rock music, but that was not the case. He was not that style of guitarist, so, unfortunately, not rock. But it’s a somewhat more traditional type of Korean popular music. We call it “trot” music in Korea, and it’s more traditional for the older generation. I guess you can compare it to something like country music in America.

SC: Great, got it. Describe the access to rock music in South Korea back as a youth. How easy was it to hear? How many bands toured? I also read that there were maybe some musical exchanges going on with some of the soldiers? And that you became very excited by The Doors?

YDH: So, first of all, it was not easy to access rock music growing up in Korea. Even now, rock music is not mainstream music in Korea. The mentality and emotions are different, Western and Eastern; maybe that’s why there’s that – can I say – gap? But when I was growing up, there was one radio channel that would play rock music. Only rock and roll. But if I listened to that channel, I could not sleep at night because it only was on at night. So anyway, I listened to rock and roll with that radio channel!

There were no bands that toured Korea at the time; now, many bands tour Korea. And you’re correct; I lived near the DMZ [demilitarized zone, a buffer between North and South Korea established under the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953 – ED] in the small town of Paju-si. Actually, from my home, I could see across the border into North Korea, and I lived there all throughout my childhood into my adult life. And naturally, there’s a lot of army installations in that area. The US Eighth Army was stationed there too, and we would trade items with the US troops stationed there. So, for instance, if we got them some items that they needed from the local Korean market, they would give us chocolates, videotapes, and stuff like that. And the videotapes that they would trade were most likely tapes that were not for minors!

SC: Yeah. I was about to ask...

YDH: So we traded items with the US troops and got hold of this videotape. We were “highly anticipating” what was gonna come out, but unfortunately, we did not get what we wanted. Actually, we saw a performance on stage, and that was The Doors. So all of my friends were disappointed, and they just left, but it was different for me. I enjoyed that performance, took the tape home, and continued to watch it. I was so mesmerized by this band, The Doors, I wanted to know more about them. But we didn’t have internet or anything like that at the time. The only way I could do so was to go to some old bookstore to find some books on them. So I had to go from this small town near the DMZ all the way to Seoul at that time, which is a long way. I managed to find the bookstore that had two books about The Doors. And so that’s how I became a big Doors fan.

SC: So obviously, a career in music becomes something that you want to pursue. Talk about the decision to shun a solo career for band action?

YDH: So when I was playing in an underground band, a producer came to me and offered an album deal. I told this producer that I wanted to be in a band. The producer told me we don’t have the budget for a band. A band takes more money, it costs more, so he proposed that I start with a solo career, and then if there’s some success, he’ll put me into a band. So my first album actually was a solo album, based on that agreement. Then he kept his promise for the second album. I was able to form a band, and we started to play together. What’s peculiar here is that YB was actually put together from the session musicians that played on my first album.

SC: YB got huge national exposure at the 2002 World Cup, which was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, with specially written songs like “Oh, Pil Seung Korea” as well as the traditional Korean folk tune “Arirang.” You then ended up being the first band to play in North Korea. How did that happen?

YDH: When I was growing up, we were not well off. We lived in an environment that was quite, let’s say, difficult. I always had that longing for a change, trying to make that a better situation. The 2002 World Cup came along and provided an opportunity for us to gain more attention. And it’s because of that popularity gained, we were invited to do the Pyongyang, North Korea show. During the World Cup, I witnessed how music can bring together 300,000 people in one space, all coming together. And I think that was the reason we were also able to do the North Korea show, because of that kind of presence that music can bring. In the North and the South, there’s a will to bring about peace and reconciliation through cultural exchange. Through music, I believe that we would be able to influence that kind of emotion or sentiment.

When we got off the plane in North Korea, our guitarist had yellow hair at the time, and there was much controversy over that fact, actually. There were a lot of incidents leading up to the show, but once we went on stage and performed, it was very emotional, we were all in tears, and we could feel the North Koreans’ emotions too. We were basically yearning for the same things; we could see that.

SC: Were all the local dignitaries in attendance?

YDH: Yes. When we first went to North Korea in 2002, all the high-ranking officials in North Korea were there, and when we played again three years ago, the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, was there too. Yes, we met him.

SC: You’ve played in North Korea twice. You obviously went to America and broke through in the US. You know, when you’re traveling in such different worlds and such different cultures but seeing that everyone wants the same thing, what does it do to your writing? Do you get empowered to feel that you’re on almost a cultural exchange mission?

YDH: So, first of all, the first time I ever did an overseas concert where we toured outside of Korea was in Bali. We were actually awarded the World Peace Music Award in 2003 [for their 2002 activities in promoting human rights – ED]. At that venue, there were many renowned, global musicians there. And that made me think about a lot of things. Everything was new, and it made me think we had to broaden our spectrum, do more shows overseas and experience the world.

Soon after that, we were the first Korean band to tour in Europe [2005]. At the time, we were touring with a UK band, Steranko, and during that whole experience in this European tour, I felt a totally new energy about rock music. Then we participated in South by Southwest shows in 2007, where we saw a lot of new bands that were experimental and progressive. The diversity of the bands was just unimaginable; it was great. That’s when I thought maybe YB should also try some more experimental music. The same great feelings happened when we were first on the Warped Tour [in 2009], seeing many different bands that influenced each other.

SC: Great stuff, quite a trajectory. Now let’s talk about Metallica! Two simple questions. When did you first hear Metallica, and when did you first get exposed to The Black Album?

YDH: The first time I heard Metallica was when I was a teenager. I told you about that radio station that played rock and roll. They were the ones that played Metallica, and I first heard it there. Immediately I thought that this was a different sound from other heavy metal bands; I was especially attracted to the vocals and the drum sound. They were very unique. And the Black Album? The first time I heard that was after the college entrance exam I failed. I had to retake the exam, and there’s a school that kids go to prep and retake the exam in Seoul. There was a cigarette shop in front of that school, and they sold cigarettes by the stick to students who didn’t have money [for a whole pack]. There’s where I heard the Black Album! I don’t smoke now, I’ve quit, but when I used to smoke in the past, always I would think of that shop and “Sad But True.”

SC: Haha, that’s a good story. Your version of “Sad But True” is very dynamic. It rolls, it’s very crisp at the same time, it drops into that moody soundtrack vibe in the middle. There’s a lot in there.

YDH: Well, first of all, I want to say that for us as a band, to cover a Metallica song was very exciting. When we started to cover this, the immediate thought that came to me was that it’s such a great opportunity. I wanted to do everything that I could and show everything. I know Metallica is a heavy metal band, so we wanted to keep that a bit. But also put our own twist to it: add some punk influence in there, and I also wanted to bring in The Doors kind of vibe and more diverse instruments in the arrangement. So for a few days, this is what consumed my life, and in those few days, we came out with the version.

SC: Finally, these lyrics are James really expressing his own sadness and demons. Can you talk about what the “Sad But True” lyrics mean to you?

YDH: Everybody has some kind of sadness, pain, suffering that they go through, and when you acknowledge that it’s there, that’s when you can build up some kind of courage. That’s what I like about the lyrics of this song; they conjure up that kind of courage. The song title itself, “Sad But True,” says it all, you know? It’s sad, but you can’t deny it. It’s true, but that gives you the courage to be able to cope with it. It is what it is, and you’re accepting it, and you’re being honest.

SC: Thank you very much for your time, and thank you too, Albert!

YDH & ALBERT: Thank you as well.

WATCH THE MUSIC VIDEO FOR "SAD BUT TRUE" BY YB