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‘Bright Energy, Rather Than Sadness’: South Korea’s Best Indie Band, Say Sue Me, Opens Up

Sumi Choi’s origin story starts quietly. “I could barely speak when I was four years old,” she says. “But I did sing, and I would sing this very sad song. I was a sad kid.” There’s a pleasant candor that permeates a conversation with Choi, 34, and the rest of the Busan, South Korea-based quartet Say Sue Me. Even across Zoom, and with assistance from an interpreter, it’s evident that the cozy surf rock that has brought them an international audience is rooted in their appealing, easygoing attitudes.

Choi first came across the music of guitarist and songwriter Byungkyu Kim, drummer Semin Kang, and bassist Jaeyoung Ha a decade ago, in her mid-twenties. “I was a big fan of them,” she recalls. “One day they asked if I wanted to be their vocalist — I accepted.” It was a perfect fit: Soon after Choi joined the band as their singer and guitarist, Kim says, “it became easier to make music.” In the years since then, Say Sue Me have released two studio albums, with 2018’s Where We Were Together taking them far beyond the borders of their small indie scene.

On their third album, The Last Thing Left (out May 13), the band — which now consists of Kim, 37; Choi; drummer Sungwan Lim, 34; and bassist Jaeyoung Kim, 25 — continue to refine their unassuming rock music, adding a more nuanced emotional heft to their songs than ever before. “The feelings for this album are inexplicably deep,” Choi says. “We’ve always been sincere, and we can’t compare the depth with the previous album, but the difference is that we know a little bit about what we’re doing, and we want to deliver bright energy rather than sadness and complaints. It’s not easy, but we tried to do that.”

These 10 songs have a distinct lived-in quality to them. Even the instrumental opening track, “The Memory of the Time,” has the aura of cracking open a beer after a long, hard day: warm, well-earned comfort. It’s no surprise that such patient, evocative music comes from a tight-knit group. Asked what they love about each other, Jaeyoung Kim says that Choi “really looks after people,” while Lim appreciates the “youthful energy” that Jaeyoung brings to the group. Choi notes that her band members are all good listeners: “Not being talkative is a good thing,” she says with a laugh. The blissful, hand drum-featuring “We Look Alike” finds Choi reminiscing on a lover (“When I feel sad/You’re quiet, just listen to me”) to telegraph the way simple actions can lead to a symbiotic relationship.

This sort of everlasting love — of oneself and others, romantic or not — is the underlying theme of The Last Thing Left. “When I was troubled by the inexplicably complex feelings about myself and relationships with others,” Choi says, “I felt better when I had only one important thing in mind. I put all the negatives aside and [saw] what [was] left at the end: It’s love.”

Naturally, Choi’s lyrics hit hardest when she’s resoundingly self-aware. “Why do I doubt everything to just be me?” she sings on “Still Here,” a track whose ambling pace and doo-wop-ish melodies echo Yo La Tengo at their most melancholy and down-home. The more upbeat songs contain small revelations, too. On the jangly “Around You,” Choi is frustrated and static, feeling the weight of getting older while spending so much of life in her bedroom. “I’ll be better when I’m around you,” she declares. The song’s jauntiness and cozy harmonies are uncanny in the atmosphere they conjure up: They sound like an endearing friend who wants to cheer you up, adamantly but compassionately.

The Last Thing Left concludes charmingly with “George & Janice,” a song that served as a wedding gift to the couple who run the band’s U.K.-based record label, Damnably. Byungkyu Kim details the song’s origins: “We were on our European tour and, when we were in Spain, George and Janice came and told us they were getting married.” After hearing that, Kim immediately came up with a piano melody in his head, and it became the foundation for their twee love song. Notably, The Last Thing Left is the first album that Say Sue Me have made after leaving their Korean record label, Electric Muse. “We made this album by ourselves,” Lim says. Choi goes further: “Everything was done with our own intentions.”

Such need for boundlessness makes sense for a band that has never been tied to the prevailing musical trends in their home country. Since Say Sue Me aren’t based in Seoul — the capital city, where Byungkyu Kim says “everything is focused” — they are far removed from their country’s biggest pop stars and underground acts alike. They’re not working in the mold of Korean indie bands from throughout the past three decades, either. “We listen to a lot of American indie rock music, and we wanted to be like them,” Choi says. Kim then adds a lovely sentiment: “Everything in Korea is focused on Seoul, but we were born in Busan and never left. We can find meaning here.” By staying true to themselves, they’ve forged their own sound inside their own scene.

When Say Sue Me talk about Busan, they mostly emphasize the people. They point out that Seoul is too densely populated for them, and wince when thinking about its claustrophobic atmosphere. Specifically, Busan’s residents share a specific quality that stands out. “They’re really honest,” Choi says. “Sometimes it’s mean, but it’s honest. I like that kind of personality.”

That can partly explain why her lyrics are so frank. The most challenging song for Choi to write was “Photo of You,” which came after original bassist Jaeyoung Ha left the band — the remaining bandmates prefer not to get into specifics. She notes that the song wasn’t explicitly meant for him or to be about him, but about loss and the horror of severed relationships. With genteel decorum and Brill Building-like drums, Choi sings with a somber tone, “I don’t wanna get used to this feeling/I know all the days are not for getting ready to say goodbye.”

A feeling of genuine camaraderie is at the heart of Say Sue Me. It’s why Byungkyu Kim finds the songwriting process so challenging: Even when he gets input from others, it’s ultimately a lonely process. “But when we come together and record,” he says, “that’s when it’s fun.”

When Say Sue Me practice, they do so in a space close to Busan’s Gwangalli Beach. If you stand on its crescent-shaped cove, you’ll be mesmerized by the crystalline waters lapping onto shore. In the distance one can see the Gwangan Bridge — four miles of road linking the Suyeong and Haeundae districts — a sight that stifles the feeling of wide expanse that the East Sea otherwise provides. Turn around and you’ll see towering skyscrapers, restaurants, bars, hotels.

It’s in this humbling space, one replete with a simultaneous sense of confinement and freedom, that listeners can get a sense of Say Sue Me’s spirit. With every sense of calm, there’s an underlying wistfulness. That thought finds an echo in Choi’s explanation of why she sings primarily in English: “It’s easier to share my feelings, because then I can’t feel the feeling well.”

When Choi finally sings in Korean on “The Dream,” with lyrics about feeling alive, the economic arrangement and the guitar solo’s tenderness feel like a moment of gentle reprieve. The song ends with a fade-out, as if they never want this moment to end. It brings to mind the one reason that all of Say Sue Me’s members agree they’ve stayed in Busan all this time: “Everyone we love is here.”

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