[Interview] Big Phony – SXSW

SXSW: Past, Present & Future

At this point, Big Phony a.k.a. Bobby Choy is a bonafide SXSW veteran. 2017 found him scheduled to make his fourth appearance as a showcasing artist at the annual festival in Austin Texas. The first thing we wanted to know was, what keeps him coming back year after year? Bobby’s response…”It has always been a dream of mine to perform at Southby,  just coming here is an honor. It’s nice being invited and having it be part of the year for me. It’s a good springboard to come back to the States during Southby and plan some other shows  and some other business around it.”

“Thankfully, it’s always a cheap time to fly internationally too,” says this always thrifty DIY indie artist, “If it was expensive to come, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

“Southby is just a lot of fun! The energy and people’s positivity, like, you feel that and it affects you. Every year when I go back home and reflect on it, I realize that it makes me a better artist. I see artists that are killing it, doing very well, you can see their fervor and it makes me want to be a better artist. It makes me want to work harder, so I have to come back here, until I feel that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Bobby then brings up a point that we are all in complete agreement on…The Korean showcases just keep getting better! “It started out at Elysium which is a cool spot, I prefer bars and clubs because that’s  where I got my start, but to see how it’s grown! The Belmont, it’s a bigger venue and open space and that’s fun too.”

“It’s crazy to be playing K-pop Night Out. I’m sure a lot of people are shaking
their heads thinking why Big Phony? It’s so weird, but for me it’s a big validation because I am a Korean artist, I consider myself a Korean artist. I live in Korea, I work there. I make a living there. A lot of Korean Americans do as well, they are legitimately in Kpop so why am I any different? I think I should have that opportunity. KOCCA (Korea Creative Content Agency) proves it, they funded my trip this year and I am so grateful and honored but I’m super happy that they recognized me as a Korean artist that they can support and bring to SXSW.”
“Essentially I am also in that pool that is trying to get Korean music on the map and it’s not just for Big Phony, it’s for Korean music in general. I love being part of that unit and that fight. Southby is a great place for Korean artists to come, I think. I don’t feel they should ever overlook it.”

Making Music In Korea

In relation to him being Korean American and his connection to the music scene in South Korea, Bobby admits that, for a long time, he actually felt ashamed. Being there trying to navigate his path but wondering where or if he belonged. “I was one of the lucky ones. I got to Korea and made friends very quickly with a lot of the indie bands like Galaxy Express, No Brain and Love X Stereo. All these guys really welcomed me, they made it clear. “You should do shows here, you should absolutely be a part of this.”

“At first I was like…I’m kind of stomping on your grounds, this is like…hallowed grounds, you guys built this and I’m just coming in as a foreigner, but they’re not about that, they are all about artistic creativity. Pushing forward. Getting to the next level of being an artist. That has nothing to do with borders, music is universal and they are proving that is true. They welcomed me to be a part of it and I am so grateful. I want to give back, I want people to know. I like being a spokesperson, if I can have that handle, and let people know Korea is where it’s at! They mean business! If they can’t say it for themselves then I’ll say it for them and for myself as well. I work my ass off and I want people to know about it!”

The Grind

You can’t sit down and talk to an indie artist without the conversation coming around to the struggle that takes place on a daily basis to stay afloat financially while creating your art and living your passion.

Earlier this year musician Lee Lang auctioned off her Korean Music Awards trophy during her acceptance speech for 500,000W to pay for her rent. We loved that she did that, at the same time we felt bad that she had to do it. Because of what she did, we started to see a lot of articles online and it brought awareness to the difficulties indie artists face.

“I loved it!” says Bobby.  “I can relate, [Lang Lee] said her rent was 500 bucks, mine is less and I can’t even afford it. She also mentioned how much she made that last month and she is doing way better than I am. So I totally understand, I’ve been through winters without heat in Korea. In the states it’s hard too. I’ve sold six guitars just to pay bills, one time I had no guitar so I couldn’t even perform.”
“The guitar I’ll be playing today is a guitar someone gave me from their garage. I looked it up and it’s worth fifty bucks. It’s a cheap guitar but you know what, I make it work. I make it fucking awesome! That’s how great I am! No excuses! Geez!” [laughter]
“Musicians, artists, creators have no excuses. If anyone ever tells you, ‘Oh I can’t afford a nice guitar; ‘You don’t need a nice guitar!’ Oh, but a nice guitar makes you sound better; ‘Bullshit!’ My guitar costs fifty bucks and I sound amazing! No excuses! You have to do what you’re passionate about, you have to do whatever it takes.”

Longevity

Knowing the struggle of being an indie artist when music doesn’t pay the bills, we were curious to know what keeps Bobby from just throwing in the towel. What keeps him from just saying I’m done.

“I say I’m done all the time! Every morning I wake up and say..’Fuck this, I’m done!’ Then I convince myself throughout the day that I need to do this. I’ve come this far. It’d be crazy for me to give up now.”

“I need to stick with it, and not just for myself,  I’d be letting a lot of people down if I gave up so that’s probably the biggest thing. You can’t do it alone. If you have the people who you love and the people who really believe in you, the people you trust and the people who are honest with you and say when you suck. Those are the people you want to surround yourself with and then, when you feel like you want to give up, those people wont let you and in turn you won’t want to let them down. That’s the way I think I’ve survived. That’s the best advice I can give you.”

Help Me, help you

When we found out that we were going to have a chance to talk to Bobby again this year, we were all in agreement that we wanted to talk to him about Patreon, since all of us at Rock ‘N Seoul are able to support some of our favorite artists using this platform, we were curious to hear his thoughts on it.  Bobby is no stranger to crowd sourcing.  Last year, after some gentle coaxing from good friend and fellow singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura,  Bobby went outside of his comfort zone and allowed his fans to show their love and support by asking us to help fund the recording of his 6th album. Through a successful Kickstarter campaign, backers not only met but surpassed the initial goal within a week.

“My biggest problem is that I’m very shy about asking for help.” Bobby confides. Even after two successful Kickstarter campaigns  he still feels self conscious about it. “Often I just give it [his music] away, you know?” “For me it’s never about the business of it. It drives the people who are closest to me in my life crazy! They’re always like…you have to sell your stuff, you have to be more business minded, but I’m not and I’m glad I’m not because I’m putting all my energy into the heart and that’s why everything else makes me uncomfortable. I need a manager.”

One of the things I admire most about Bobby is his attitude and outlook on being an DIY artist. He has no record label, no manager, and for the past 10 years, has been recording most of his music at home in his bedroom.

“I’ve kind-of almost gotten used to just being broke all the time, for me at least it’s a choice, this lifestyle is a choice. I knew what I was getting into, or actually…it’s a daily choice.  Do I continue to do this and not get paid? I’m working on it. Thats why I’m doing the film…”

Fiction & Other Realities

“One of my dreams is to have more music in films. I realized, as I was going down that road, a lot of people that get first dibs for that have relationships with music supervisors and the major labels get first dibs. I don’t have that, you know? I don’t have a direct line to these people to put my music in films. So I started thinking I should just make my own film and put all my music in it. And so that’s basically how that [Fiction & Other Realities] came about. So this is what I’m trying to do. It’s a huge gamble but it’s something big that I’m doing.”

The film, currently in its post-production phase, doesn’t have an official release date yet but it’s getting closer and closer every day. Until then please check out the film trailer. So many feels! We cant wait to see the finished film!

Big Phony Band

In his previous appearances at SXSW Bobby has played mainly acoustic sets. This year however, he came armed with a full band featuring some of the coolest session musicians anyone could ask for. What we didn’t know, was that back in the Big Phony LA days Bobby had a backing band who gigged with him. We were about to get a Big Phony history lesson.

“I felt most comfortable playing with a band. I lived in LA for nine years and I had a backing band, all of them amazing musicians, they were, at the time, playing for other musicians as well. One of them plays for Jason Mraz and Ray LaMontagne, all of these awesome artists. Another guy played with Ozomatli. They were all crazy amazing musicians. I left that in LA and moved to Korea then I had to start over again on my own the way I did in the States.”

“Coming to Southby I can’t just bring a band with me. It just costs too much money. Coming alone is hard enough. This year because I had the support from KOCCA and K-pop Night Out it gave me the option to have a band and crew.”

The super exciting thing for us [the fans] was that we were finally going to get to hear a bunch of Big Phony songs that we love but that hadn’t ever been performed before in a live set.

“It’s crazy because I’m hearing some of these songs for the first time ever live. I’ve always wanted to play them live but you know, you just need a band sometimes to make it work.”

“I’m absolutely thrilled and grateful that these guys [No Brain] , they love me…what can I say?” [laughter as “I love you’s” are exchanged with the members of No Brain, who are in the room with us and who’s members make up the majority of Big Phony’s Southby band.] “I’m just a terribly lucky person.” Bobby says.

“I basically stole members from other bands. We kicked out the singer from No Brain and are now going under cover as Big Phony, and then Brad, the drummer from Busker Busker joined us as well.”

“We tried it out. We did a show together, just to try it out, we were like…why not? It was fun!”

At that, Bobby receives some more No Brain love in the form of a kiss on the cheek. As we all swoon with audible exclamations of hearts melting, Bobby murmurs…”Now I’m gonna have to go wash my face.”

“It’s fun having them around. They’re so much fun.”

Seoul Indie Scene

From what we have seen and experienced in our encounters with indie artists from Seoul here at SXSW and in the time we’ve spent at Zandari Festa in Hongdae, we have seen that the community is very close and supportive of one another.

“It’s a big family.” Bobby says. “Every time somebody does well, we all do well. It’s kinda just one of those things. If one band succeeds, we all succeed.”  “We try to lift each other up as much as possible.”

“I love that. That’s why I’m in Seoul, that’s why I live there. Not that it doesn’t exist here, it’s just been harder for me because I have a lot of issues. Growing up as an Asian American wasn’t easy, you know. It’s hard for me to talk about because a lot of it I try not to think about and I just try to live my life. In Seoul I’ve had a lot of time and clarity being there, trying to find myself, who I am. Actually, the movie that we are doing is really a lot about that.”

“Please be forgiving though,” Bobby asks of us, “I’m not an actor first, I’m a musician first but we’ll see what you think.”

Kollaboration Showcase

Kollaboration hosted the first Asian American showcase at SXSW this year. Big Phony was invited to perform in the historic event.

“Kollaboration has been around for more than 10 years now and most Asian American’s know about it. So for them to have a showcase at SXSW is a big deal to a lot of us.”

“For me to play on that stage was not only an honor, it was really history in the making because, we’ve been waiting for it. A lot of people just didn’t know that it was possible.”

We all take a moment to discuss our thoughts and bewilderment as to why a showcase like this didn’t exist until now. Bobby’s take…”It’s been a slow and steady process for a lot of us Asian Americans. Trying to feel comfortable and trying to fit in, in every single part of society and that includes SXSW. Most of us, when we hear that an Asian American artist is going to Southby, we’re like…’Yes! That’s awesome!’ We talk about it and we all kinda, high five each other mentally.”

“At the same time, when you don’t have confidence…I speak for myself here, there are a lot of things that I’ve missed out on for a long time because I didn’t feel confident or I didn’t feel like I belonged there and I need to prove myself before I get there. Maybe it has something to do with that, you know. Like, yeah, this showcase is something that should have been available long before now I think, but thank god it’s there now. I feel like it can only get better. I hope that showcase continues to grow. There’s not a lack of bands, you know. There are so many Asian American bands that could go through that showcase and it would be very beneficial to them. They can play at other showcases of course, they deserve to do that to, but there is also this sense of community in the Asian American circle and that’s important, to come back around and see how we’re all doing. It’s the same in Seoul. We lift each other up as much as possible. And the same goes for me,  I have friends who aren’t Asian American or Korean and, you know, we lift each other up as well in strictly an artistic way and less of a cultural kind of thing. It’s all one love!”

Crossover

Something that has become a big thing now is for Korean artists to aim for a crossover to the U.S. market. We asked Bobby if that is something he thinks about or would want to try to do.

“That’d be funny! Me, being an American, going to Korea, and then breaking into the U.S. market.” [lols all around] “Which is sort of happening with K-pop Night Out. That’s basically what it is right? I’m all for it! Why not, I mean, it works for a lot of other American’s that are in K-pop bands. Jay Park, Lena Park, Ailee, Amber. Yeah, all of these Americans are doing it, I should be allowed to do it!”

We’re not giving you a choice, just do it! Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. [more laughter]

“I try to tread lightly”, Bobby confides. “I don’t know my place completely because Korean’s have been through really hard times and I wasn’t there for that. But at the same time I feel like I’ve been through a lot of shit myself in New York as a minority, so I have my own story as well. With Korean’s I can really sense and see, and I’ve heard about and I know how much they’ve been through and my heart breaks for them. I love that I can be there to support them as well. I’d like to continue that because I’ve made some of the best friends of my life, like No Brain, these guys are amazing people. And they’re rock stars! They’re at the top of that game and they have time for me. That’s amazing! I love them. I’m the luckiest guy!

 

I’ll leave you with a Big Phony favorite of mine. Please support this amazing artist. We think he’s the bee’s knees!

 

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