In 2018, the Rose made their U.S. concert debut performing for about 300 students at Northwestern University’s Korean American Students Conference. This year, on August 3 – exactly six years after the Korean indie-rock band officially launched their career with their single “Sorry” – the quartet will headline at Lollapalooza’s Bacardi stage in Chicago.
“We’re very excited about Lollapalooza,” group leader, vocalist, and guitarist Woosung says in a Zoom interview. “We were very surprised and happy that one of our biggest festival dates is on our anniversary. All of this is very thrilling.”
On the day of this interview, the group’s members — who also include Dojoon (keyboards, guitars, vocals), Jaehyeong (bass), and Hajoon (drums) — are logging on from their homes in Seoul at 9 a.m. KST, which by musician standards might as well be the crack of dawn. Woosung actually enters the chat six minutes early to ensure no one has to wait for him. I tease him about being paranoid because the day before, Tablo (of the hip-hop trio Epik High) had playfully and publicly accused Woosung of being late to meet him for lunch.
“I wasn’t even that late,” Woosung says, laughing. “I had texted him that I was going to be late [because] I was in a fitting for our new album … and then he did that.”
This is a significant and busy period for the Rose, whose next album, Dual, will be released this fall. Just as their world tour to promote last year’s Heal wound down, they shifted into festival mode, performing at overseas Lollapaloozas in Sweden, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, as well as Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival and BST Hyde Park in England. At their recent Stockholm show, the band debuted their upcoming all-English single “Back to Me,” a guitar-heavy rocker focused on a cavalier protagonist who accepts all the blame for a broken relationship that he unintentionally orchestrated.
The vocals on “Back to Me” are split between the group’s fluent English speakers, Woosung and Dojoon. Dojoon’s language skills are the result of five years spent in New Zealand as a child, but Woosung — who was born in South Korea and spent most of his early years in the United States — is a U.S. national who splits his time between Seoul and Los Angeles. (Hajoon and Jaehyeong have brushed up on their foreign language skills and now do interviews primarily in English as well, with a little Korean sprinkled in.)
“When I first saw Sammy, I thought, ‘He’s so good at English!’” Jaehyeong says as his bandmates laugh at the memory. “And then I realized he’s American. Because he’s so good at Korean, I thought he was Korean. His Korean is better than mine!”
In case you’re wondering, Sammy is Woosung’s western name. Each member has one, and throughout this conversation, they refer to each other by both: Dojoon/Leo, Hajoon/Dylan, and Jaehyeong/Jeff.
“Sammy looked a bit different when I first saw him,” Hajoon says. Thinking of the right phrase, he adds in Korean, “Sammy’s body frame was a little bigger then than now.”
He isn’t talking about an in-person meeting: This was in 2011, when Woosung, still in high school, had arrived in Seoul to audition for the Korean talent series K-pop Star. He was a tanned kid from California, whose dreams of becoming a football player were shattered after a series of injuries. Curious about the K-pop world, he auditioned for the show even though he wasn’t confident of his looks.
“I think high school days are the worst for boys,” Woosung says, laughing. “I was ugly.”
Dojoon nods, adding about himself, “Yeah, we go through puberty and don’t really look good. [Our looks] change every month.”
Woosung adds that the K-pop Star team “later told me they only put me on the show because of my singing and my guitar playing. I was very confused, because I definitely only practiced dancing after I got accepted to the first round. But then they asked me to sing more.”
Hajoon remembers being disappointed when Woosung didn’t make it into the show’s Top 10.
Though Woosung didn’t win the talent competition, his distinctive singing style — which includes a gorgeous raspy trill — and guitar skills got him signed to Polaris Entertainment.
Was he disappointed he didn’t get the opportunity to showcase his dancing skills in a K-pop group?
“No, thank God!” Woosung groans. “First of all, I don’t think I’m that good at dancing. And then also I don’t think I would have the energy to dance to every song. I think my body would hurt. Honestly, I think my bones are weak. I don’t know how all these groups sing and dance for two hours.”
He’s talking about the many K-pop idol groups that perform pro-level choreographed moves while singing on stage, something the Rose doesn’t do. Unlike many popular Korean groups, they weren’t put together by the South Korean entertainment companies that dominate the idol market. Rather, these four men chose each other around 2016 based on their songwriting and musical capabilities. They wrote new songs, busked, got signed, and eventually sued their previous management company to terminate what they believed was a predatory contract. (The company denied their claims, and the dispute went into arbitration; the two sides ultimately reached a settlement and parted ways.)
This tumultuous period segued into Covid-19, which resulted in the cancelation of a planned opening slot for Halsey in Seoul. Unsure of when they would be able to resume touring, Dojoon, Hajoon, and Jaehyeong enlisted for the mandatory military duty that is required of all able-bodied South Korean men. As a U.S. citizen, Woosung was exempt.
That time apart was difficult for the band members, who were accustomed to working on their music together. While military life kept them too busy to actively work on new songs, they jotted down ideas that they would later explore once they were discharged. On the standout track “See-Saw” from 2022’s Heal, Jaehyeong delved into the emotional turmoil he experienced while serving.
“I had a hard time in the military,” he candidly offers. “So I didn’t try to write songs. I was busy [being a soldier]. We all were.”
While Woosung waited for his bandmates to return, he opened for Epik High on their U.S. tour and released his solo EP Moth. The big plan, though, was to reunite with the Rose. Once Dojoon, Hajoon, and Jaehyeong were discharged within months of each other in 2022, the group dove into writing songs and recording Heal.
Asked individually if they, too, would like to pursue solo careers like Woosung, Dojoon answers for the band: “I think doing solo work is a really great idea, but we don’t have any energy left to do that. We are focused on the Rose and we really don’t have much free time. Our next few years are packed.”
The Rose is their priority, but members do make occasional exceptions. Early in their career, Dojoon, Hajoon, and Jaehyeong made a cameo appearance in the K-drama Entertainer. Jaehyeong landed the male lead role in the web series Six Love Story. And more recently, Woosung was cast as a voice actor in the upcoming Ali Wong-led Netflix animated series Jentry Chau vs. The Underworld.
They also make time to work with good friends. When BTS rapper Suga asked Woosung to collaborate with him on “Snooze,” he was busy finishing up Heal, but he said yes.
“Suga and I have known each other for three or four years,” he says. “I would let him hear our new music and he would let me hear his music that he was working on, and it was always great. He had mentioned to me that he’s doing a solo album. He sent me the song with an empty chorus. He already had the instrumental and the rap on it with about 80 percent of the lyrics in there.”
From there, it was easy. “I think I was in Joshua Tree,” he continues. “I told him I just needed two more weeks to finish our work and then I’ll write the chorus after. I had his rap and his lyrics were very beautifully done. So I put a little bit of the Rose taste on there with the petals in the lyrics.”
At the time of this interview, the Rose’s members were still adding finishing touches to Dual. I ask if the album will be a continuation of their theme of healing and forgiveness that was explored on Heal.
“Dual is going from a totally different angle, definitely,” Woosung says. “We’re playing around with new sounds and tones. We’re going to have two sides to the album. The dawn side will be more exciting and have festival vibes, while the dusk side will be more mature with darker-sounding tracks. We want to showcase two sides of our genre and tones.”
The Rose demonstrate their duality in the raucous “Back to Me” (dawn) and the pensive ballad “You’re Beautiful” (dusk), a gentle song of appreciation that’s also performed in English.
As our interview winds down, I ask each of them to describe the traits they find most admirable in each other. Dojoon jumps right in: “I admire the way Hajoon feels happiness in his life, the way Jeff respects people, and the way Sammy has love towards other people.”
“How serious are we going?” Woosung asks, making everyone laugh. “I admire Hajoon’s passion. Once he decides he’s going to do something, he really does it. Jeff has a lot of sensitivity, which is a good quality for an artist. And with Dojoon, he never gives up. He’s consistent, which I think is also one of the biggest reasons why the Rose could stay together.”
Switching between Korean and English, Jeff adds, “I admire Sammy’s can-do attitude. Once he gets an idea that he believes is right, he doesn’t back down. Leo is so focused he won’t sleep if he needs to get something done. Dylan is focused on happiness and I really envy that.”
Hajoon adds, “I admire Jeff’s consideration for others. He’s always thinking about other people and how to put himself in other people’s shoes. When I met Leo, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s really handsome.’ And he’s a real busker. I admire Leo’s efforts and all the things that he does for the Rose. And I admire Sammy’s confidence. Even when he does interviews, he exhibits boldness.”
The most important message they’d like to get across as a collective, though, is that the Rose is an inclusive band for everyone. The music they create is meant for teens and their parents, for trendsetters and their grandparents. “I want to see babies come to our shows with [protective] headphones on and enjoy the concert!” Woosung says, laughing.
“We have a lot of grandmothers attend our shows,” Dojoon says. “There was someone holding up a sign that said, ‘Granny Loves The Rose.’ And one of our fans said, ‘Please marry my daughter!’”
Six years after their debut, the Rose has remained firm about who they are and what messages they want to convey to their fandom, Black Rose. While they don’t mind being categorized as K-pop, they also appreciate being acknowledged as an indie-rock band whose creative direction comes from within.
“We were considered risky in the idol world because of how the music industry is here,” Dojoon says. “Bands like us aren’t always viewed as being able to be successful.”
At first, Woosung says, “There were suggestions that we needed songs from a writer who wrote for a huge K-pop band.” Their previous management thought that “Sorry” was “a little too sad and slow” for their debut single, he says.
“We didn’t back down,” he continues. “We believed in ourselves and our sound. And we didn’t want to receive songs from other people, especially for our first song. If we were going to do songs that other people were telling us to do, we would have already gone our separate ways.”