Unfortunately, not everything was all dream collabos and debates about beer. SXSW this year was rocked by the savage ugliness that sometimes seems to creep up in America in large doses. More often than not, it affects not just those who live in the States, but anyone who has a wish to visit. Such was the case when a slew of performers from outside the States tried to get into the country. It’s a topic we coudn’t avoid, not even when catching up with someone who has slowly started to become a friend of ours at Rock N’ Seoul.
Of Travel Bans & Immigration Officers
Neon Bunny is obviously no stranger to travel, having taken this trip to Austin for the second year in a row, and now experiencing the Japanese culture firsthand. However, travel these days has become something of a sore spot. As it pertains to SXSW, there’s been a dark cloud over the festival, a sinister ugliness that’s seen many artists from all over the world, including South Korea, suffer.
“Some of our friends have had a hard time getting through customs at the airport,: Jenna says.
“Really?” Neon responds. In the madness that was her trying to get here on her own, missing her flight, and trekking up and down Congress with all her gear in tow, it’s no surprise she hasn’t heard much on the multiple customs fiascos for many of the artists coming in.
“Don Malik got sent back. They called him bad names because he was Asian.”
That spark that was there when talking about her music turns cold. She’s noticeably shocked, pissed even. “What!” she exclaims.
As much as you want to shield friends, new and old alike, from the ugliness of the world, the harsh reality is things are different. With that shift comes the harsh reality that no matter how much things seem to be shifting in the right direction, oftentimes they’re just as horrific as they were ten, twenty, fifty years ago.
“No Brain and Big Phony and his band, they were detained for three hours and missed their flight to Austin.”
“I’m friends with Big Phony,” she informs us. “He said he missed the flight. I saw it on Instagram, but I didn’t know he got detained.” Her demeanor changes, her face dropping with a bit of sadness. A very big part of me feels bad to have I placed that look on her face. But her honesty is endearing, and she’s not afraid to say what she feels. “I booked the ticket really late, and somehow I had to transfer from Japan to Dallas to Austin.”
“The two bad ones were in San Francisco. You were lucky you missed that one,” Jenna says.
Airport technology at least has evolved almost as quickly as everyone else. Immigration is bit easier in many ways, using computers to scan passports, for example. “I just scanned my passport and that was it,” Neon explains. “I was kind of really nervous. Sometimes during immigration they can be really mean, but it was just like the computer, and it was totally okay.”
“That’s really good. Because Don had a really bad experience.”
“Oh, ah! Maybe he had a record of like smoking,” Neon says, trying to reconcile what we’ve told her with her own relatively painless experience.
While it wouldn’t be unheard of for someone with a record to have to go through a little extra to get through, what Don Malik went through was unacceptable, bordering more on profiling than anything else. If you aren’t aware of what he went through, you can follow this link to find out on your own. But for the time being, Neon’s reactions are all that really interest us. She goes on to say, “But Bobby’s American, right?”
“But No Brain spent three hours being detained.”
“Brad from Busker Busker was too.”
Again she exclaims, “That’s crazy.” Once she settles down, taking a step back from the emotional onslaught of knowing her friends had such a hard time getting here, she reflects, saying, “I thought it was going to feel different than last year, because last year it was Obama and this year it’s Trump. And maybe, I don’t know about that, but I feel a little bit different. Feel something… feel weird.”
“Yeah,” Jenna sighs. “We all just want to put our arms around our friends and protect them.”
“That’s really too bad,” Neon says. “I can’t believe it.”
From the troubles with immigration, we move on to something a little closer to home: the indie scene in Hongdae. Every band we’ve talked to have expressed a liking to a local brand of beer called Shiner. After extracting a promise from us that we’d buy her a beer later, Jenna makes a comment that she’s surprised it’s not being sold there.
“I should try Shiner,” Neon says.
However, on the subject of Hongdae, things aren’t as simple as bands sharing a couple beers. There seems to be a rising level of tension in the former indie district. Jenna shares that she was in Hongdae last year in October for about a week and a half. She asks, “Do you think that area is starting to get really commercial–”
Before she can even get the rest of her question out, Neon Bunny responds with an emphatic “Yes!”
Jenna continues, “Do you think that it’s changing the way artists have to function? Do you think it’s really harder for indie artists now?”
From the swiftness of her response, clearly Neon has a lot to say on the subject. She begins, “One thing is there’s no good restaurants in Hongdae any more. It’s all franchises, and local restaurants got kicked out to Yeongnam-do. Yeongnam-do is more (local). But Hongdae has become all franchised, and it’s really awful. I don’t like it.” As I said, she’s not at all afraid to speak her mind (the old adage of the quiet ones being the ones you have to look out for).
“It’s really commercial,” Jenna reflects.
“Yeah. I don’t even go to Hongdae.”
So since Hongdae has seemingly become less of a haven for artists anymore, where does she rest her computer and soundboard?
“I prefer Itaewon area. Theres a lot of new clubs coming up.”
“Is there a lot of electronic stuff happening?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she says with a bit more energy. “There’s a bunch of new clubs opening day by day. It’s really crazy.”
“So there’s more indie artists going over there?”
Jenna adds, “Gangnam is more like dance clubs.”
“Like dancing clubs, not for musicians. Just money, DJs, and pretty girls, and you need to be dressed up to get in the club.”
“Do you think there’s a large shift of musicians moving out of Hongdae?”
“Yes. Like, near Hongdae, most indie artists are moving to Hapjong or Gangnam. They’re moving slightly out of it. Or like musicians are working near Itaewon because there are a lot of clubs.” With her recent experience performing in Japan, she’s gained even further perspective on the movement of music out of Hongdae, reaching further to find a place to settle. “I was really surprised in Japan because everybody in Japan wants to come to Korea because there’s a lot of things going on and it’s so brand-new. They think they have a chance in Korea, so a lot of Japanese musicians ask me how’s everthing near Itaewon.”
It’s an interesting dichotomy when we look deeper into it from a musician’s standpoint. With Miyavi’s recent tour with Kahi & the Faces and Slot Machine, there was a noticeable difference in ticket price compared to their Korean counterparts.”We were asking about why Japanese tickets are so low compared to Korean artists. And they were saying it was because of the big (album) sales in Japan. Japanese artists are making money off of albums. They don’t have to make money on shows.” The demand for K-pop in the States as of late dictates that bigger artists are coming more frequently; however, that also means an empty bank account for those trying to see them–most shows ranging in price for $70 to upwards of $300. Counter that with the booming album sales of Japanese artists, it’s easy to see why Asia on Tour, a showcase featuring three huge artists from their respective countries, is selling for $25.
“It’s because of the population of Korea,” Neon offers. “Really small country, so you have to go outside of Korea to do something. Because indie or, like, rock music is really small. The population is small, just people who listen to music is small. But Japan is bigger. I was talking to my Japanese friend,” she continues. “Japan is like there’s a big fear. They don’t want to go outside of Japan because they can kind of make money in Japan, but that’s the bad thing about Japanese musicians. They kind of settle down in Japan.
But if that’s the case, Mirella expresses, why come to Korea? “Korea doesn’t really support their own indie artists. So I’m wondering why so many Japanese artists want to come.”
Neon has an answer for that as well “They’re really nice to foreign artists, especially for DJing work for clubs. A lot of DJs come to Seoul clubs because the clubs….” She takes a moment. The dynamics of the Korean entertainment industry compared to its economic structure is a tricky road to navigate, but Neon makes it plain: “Korea’s economy is fucked-up right now. So when the economy went bad, the clubs started doing well. People are really kind of stressed out and they want relief, so they go to clubs or watch movies and dramas. So a lot of clubs are just opening.”
“When the economy is down, the clubs go up.”
“Yeah. So a lot of American and European DJs are coming to Seoul like every week. Maybe that’s why.” She quickly adds, “And I heard that Japanese people are really polite watching the show. I sort of felt that way. Like when I play in Japan they’re mad about it, but they’re really just polite. They really admire you. But Korean people are bit more crazy. My Japanese friend said that’s what they like about Korean audiences.”
“This is very interesting.”
“Yeah, it’s really intreresting because I have a lot of foreign friends, and they’re always talking about the music scene. It’s really interesting talk about that.”
We have a similar trend in the States. There was a noticeable increase in movie ticket sales when the economy seemed at its lowest. But for most of us, going to the movies is the cheapest form of entertainment beyond sitting at home with a six-pack. With one distinct difference.
“In Korea it’s kind of… you can just like at 12 am go walking by yourself.”
Yeah, that wouldn’t be something we’d advise anyone to do here in the States, particularly for the ladies. Jenna reveals, “I was walking back to where I was staying when I was visiting Korea, and I took a picture. It was like one in the morning, and I was like, ‘Back home this would terrify me.’ But there was like nobody out, couples walking home…”
“Yeah, no guns there,” Neon adds. “There’s strange people in the world anywhere, but compared to other palces it’s much safer.”
As far as I’m concerned that’s quite a relief, especially considering I’d like to visit Korea sometime in the near future. Neon assures me there’s nothing to worry about as far as walking back and forth at night.
We’ve noticeably moved away from a traditional interview, falling back on familiarity and just having a conversation between friends. We ask her about her favorite spots in Itaewon.
“Cakeshop, Ol’ Distills, Rabbit Hole. Not as a musician but just to go,” she says with a smile.
Cakeshop is a name I’ve heard in a lot of hip-hop and R&B circles, so that’s certainly a club I’ve got on my radar.
“They [the owners of Cakeshop] bought the building,” she tells us. “The club’s in the basement, but they bought the building and a whole bunch of the buildings. I was like, ‘Really?’ And they opened another club on the first floor.”
“So they don’t have to worry about their rent being raised,” Jenna supplies, and we all agree. Not bad business if you’re looking to make 100 percent profit.
“It’s awesome,” Neon Bunny quips.
But that doesn’t take away from just how heartbreaking it is to see the virtual home of the indie scene be cut through so viciously. Jenna laments, “There was a club that closed while I was in Korea. And I was there for the final show.”
“Yeah.” Neon sighs into her next words. “Hongdae is dying. No hopes. It’s really sad. All run by big companies.”
Jenna agrees. “You can’t blink and not see another cosmetic shop. Like there’s TonyMoly here and there.”
“It’s like getting to that stage where it’s every franchise, restaurant, store,” Neon continues. In a show of solidarity she says, “I was trying to NOT get Starbucks.” But she raises her plastic cup, Starbucks logo boldly emblazoned on the side for all to see. “But I’m in the States so…”
It’s unavoidable, basically. We share a laugh, because there’s almost no away around submitting to the mass commercialization of the world around us. But as far as places for an interview to go, Neon observes, “It’s kind of comfortable in here.”
“Well, this is familiar,” we agree.
However, all good things, even compelling conversation, must come to an end. We all stand up, expressing just how much fun we have talking to her, and she agrees. With a few more hugs all around, she says thank you and we’re on our way out the café.
Neon Bunny is one of those artists that no matter how many times you see or talk to her, you learn something new. Though this is only my second time talking to her, and her second time at SXSW, we’ve all seemed to naturally build a camaraderie. It’s incredibly easy to talk to Neon Bunny, but it’s even more rewarding to see her passion and excitement about her work and the ever-shifitng world of indie. With the release of more music, hopefully we’ll get a chance to have another sit-down talk like this, maybe in Starbucks, or maybe at a locally owned coffee shop to keep our dedication supporting to all things indie. Either way, it’s always a pleasure.
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