Contemporary Korean music is not limited to K-Pop. South Korea boasts a vibrant indie music scene, and neighborhoods such as Seoul’s Hongdae have live bands performing across various venues every night.
Our guest for this episode, Stephen Epstein, is one of the most astute observers and academic researchers of the Korean independent music scene. He kindly agreed to talk to us about the genesis of Korean indie rock since the 1980s, its political and societal underpinnings, the relationship between indie and mainstream, and some of the most influential bands in Korean indie music.
Stephen Epstein is Associate Professor and Director of the Asian Studies Institute at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He earned his BA from Harvard and his MA and PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.
Professor Epstein has published widely on contemporary Korean society, popular media and literature, and has translated numerous works of Korean and Indonesian fiction. Recent work on Korean popular music includes the articles Girls’ Generation? Gender, (Dis)Empowerment and K-Pop (with James Turnbull), and Into the New World: Girls’ Generation from the Local to the Global. He is also the co-producer of the documentary Us and Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-Pop World (2015), a follow-up to his earlier documentary Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community (2002; both co-produced with Timothy Tangherlini). Both movies were selected by several film festivals worldwide.
Maybe, if you went back [twenty years], people would be more likely to think that authentic indie music could have only come out of the Anglo-American axis, and they might have thought that stuff that was coming from Korea or China would be a pale imitation of what “real” indie rock is. But I think now, as of 2015, you’ll find more people who just say “hey, it’s a good band, it doesn’t really matter where they come from,” and can accept a Korean indie band as an equal of a band anywhere else. And what it will come down to is the individual talent and originality of any given band, no matter where it is located or what people’s ethnicity is.
The interview was recorded on December 18th in Seoul.