We sat down with one of the biggest K-pop groups in the world.
As the leading charge of YG Entertainment's new generation of artists, the five boys of Winner cut a striking silhouette: the group boasts three songwriter-producers among them, specializing in a broad spectrum of sensibilities (the folk and radio pop leanings of leader and guitarist Kang Seungyoon, 20; the underground hip-hop background of rapper Song Minho, 21; and vocalist Nam Taehyun, 20, who favors house and r&b), not to mention the sensitive lyrics and brilliant choreography of rapper Lee Seunghoon, 22. (Smooth crooner Kim Jinwoo, 22, rounds out the ensemble.) Despite not having officially debuted yet as a group, the songs they wrote and performed on last year's televised WIN: Who Is Next program have topped charts in Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam. The only K-pop act to match Winner's creative acumen are their labelmate seniors Big Bang, though the young group's skillset and early accomplishments make them virtually unique—not just in South Korea, but among all idol groups in global pop history.
I recently caught up with Winner during their cover trip to New York City. They had a busy week or so here, taking album art photos and filming their pitch perfect teaser video (which you can watch below), a nod to fashion preview art films backed by an instrumental à la Vangelis, M83, and just the subtlest touch of trap. During a casual roundtable drink in the Chatwal Hotel's hidden bar, the boys discussed their rare creativity, recent global tours supporting YG's biggest pop phenomena, and one of K-pop's most anticipated debuts of the year.
Noisey: So what have you been up to here in New York?
Kang Seungyoon: We came here—it's been about a week—to shoot our first album jacket cover. We've been shooting from early morning to night, and all around different locations, Central Park, Soho. New York City is so beautiful—like, we don't even have to do much, and the pictures turn out great.
How's the new music sounding?
KSY: We've recorded all the songs—the harder songs, the slow songs, all of it—it's really in the final stages of production. You know, just little editing, producing... just like, "it could sound even better like this." We keep getting inspired. So we really want to tweak it to make sure it's the best that we could put out.
What kind of release will it be?
Lee Seunghoon: We're still deciding.
KSY: We don't know yet if it's going to come out as a full album, mini-album, or even digital single. It really depends on the quality of the songs, after it's all done. We're going to work with our boss Yang Hyun-suk [founder and CEO of YG Entertainment], and he's going to help choose and really see what makes sense. And kind of cater it to how well done the songs are.
What's something you would say makes Winner different from other groups?
KSY: We all participate in producing, working with the songs, and we really put it out there for the group to decide, say, if a song is one we want to release. We incorporate our honest feelings and thoughts—the depth of it [is different] if someone else makes your song for you, versus being involved yourself as a writer. You can really relay that message, and people around your age, or people who share the same kind of emotions or feelings—whatever they're going through, they can really gain from that, and feel encouragement from that. So, what makes us different might be the fact that we've been producing songs, writing songs, making music. We've been putting ourselves into it.
I've actually always been impressed by your songs—I watched WIN as it was happening, and even though it's not officially released yet, I rated "Smile Again" as one of the best songs of last year. So I'm curious how long Seungyoon, Minho, and Taehyun have been writing.
Minho: I've loved music since I was young, so I started around 12, 13. And then, since then, I would just write things here and there, until I went under YG to practice. That's when I really started trying it seriously again.
Taehyun: I've always liked music, with or without lyrics—like electronic music, and house, for instance. It was maybe two years ago that I started with electronic music, making beats. But in terms of making full-out songs, with lyrics and everything, that was about a year ago.
KSY: As for me... I used to make songs on my guitar as I strummed, around age 16, in the style of music that I liked. Acoustic, folk, just jamming and writing. In terms of pop music and different genres, it was after we [Winner] became a team [in summer 2013, as Team A, on YG's WIN reality program], working as a team. That's when I started seriously.
What are some of the folk and acoustic artists that you liked?
KSY: Jason Mraz is an obvious one; a lot of people like him. [Ed. note: Mraz has long been a favorite in South Korea, even having appeared in a sketch on SNL Korea last year.] But I really like when heavy rock and metal groups take their style and do an acoustic number, like on an album where they'll have maybe the last song like that. I like taking the heavier stuff and making it acoustic on its own.
How did you guys start making beats and producing? Was that independently, or did YG's team teach you?
Taehyun: I really liked electronic music and DJs, so I just did that on my own, and moved on from there to writing lyrics. I always did it as a kind of self-expression, so I don't feel like I necessarily got specific teaching.
KSY: But as we entered the company and started making our own songs and producing, we got to share rooms with other producers. Just watching YG's in-house producers, in terms of their sequencing and what they were doing, gaining inspiration from their sound and the way they go at it—we felt a lot like, "oh, I can use that technique too," or "oh, so that's how you do that."
I was really impressed by your choreography on WIN, Seunghoon—I thought what you did with "Don't Stop the Music" was beautiful. Will you continue to be involved with Winner's choreography in the future?
LSH: Not even just the choreo, but really the overall stage presence, everything going on, the little details in the live production—I'm really into that. I'm hoping to learn more about it as time goes on, so we can really focus on the overall now.
It seemed like the WIN experience was really arduous and challenging. I was wondering what lessons you learned from that hundred-day stretch.
KSY: One of the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that it was a huge rivalry, a battle with Team B. Through them, and through that healthy competition—that's how we really grew as artists. If it wasn't for them, I don't think we would've been able to put our best forward. It's really that healthy competition that helped us to go above and beyond, and always grow. It was also the first time we developed as a team, officially, so it helped us to gauge and use the best of what we have, and to develop good synergy and work amongst ourselves to make the best teamwork possible.
What's been your favorite part of your debut preparations?
LSH: Really, up until debuting, we've been spending all our time in the practice rooms—we didn't really go anywhere else. All our memories together were in the practice room. So it's great to go travel abroad, like as guests on 2NE1's tour: we went to the Philippines, and all over the place. The world is so broad, and there's so much to gain inspiration from, so we feel like we're taking all that in. It really helps us as artists—just the little things, even, like hanging out in all these different cities.
What kind of group would you hope to be five years from now?
KSY: In five years, we want to be Winner. And in five years, we want to be a group deserving of the name Winner. Hopefully we'll be in the middle of our own world tour, so that when we come to New York in five years, we'll be having an interview about that.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations as sunbae [seniors, or role models]?
LSH: I'd like to point out Taeyang [YG solo artist and member of Big Bang]. In our second battle [against Team B] for the show, he actually produced and really helped us with our performance. He gave us a lot of good advice and shared a lot of wisdom. We feel like we gained a lot from that, and from there things started working out really great.
KSY: We were also guest performers on 2NE1's world tour, and at the YG Family concerts we got to be on stage with a lot of other YG artists. So through our performances, a lot of the older artists, the sunbae, would teach us different parts, and give us pointers and tips. They taught us a lot. Even just watching them from the side of the stage, we'd see, like, "oh, yeah, that's really effective." Also seeing that fan engagement, and seeing how much the crowd loves it, and really gets into the music – that kind of connection, we learn a lot through that.
I wanted to end in asking if you guys have any favorite memories of Team B, or things you most appreciate about them.
LSH: One of the greatest memories so far since the program is that we were recently on the YG Family tour, and Team B participated in that too. We got to perform together at the Tokyo Dome, and seeing them – you know, there's really that emotional aspect, because we really practiced together and helped each other grow so much. I just hope we can do that in the future, and that we become fellow artists. We always gain energy from each other and help each other out.
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