Korean record producer Yoo Young-jin of SM Entertainment [photographed by Lee Jin-hyuk/10Asia]
10: Are you saying that is the reason you incorporated various genres into one song during the H.O.T. years?
Yoo Young-jin: Mr. Lee Soo-man wanted to try making a song that was a remix but would sound like one song. He suggested that we take a song he had written, write the first verse himself and bring in the second verse from one of my songs. He said if we took three significant tracks from an album, mix it together as if it were one song and perform it, then that performance would represent the entire album is about. That is how SMP first started.
10: In that sense, one could say that your songwriting method is like writing a hip-hop track. Because you were combining several different ideas onto one simple beat.
Yoo: Right. I used to love hip-hop and it is similar to how the same beat can produce completely different music depending on how the rapper does his rap. My music starts by taking a beat and fusing various ideas onto it.
Producer Yoo Young-jin [Lee Jin-hyuk/10Asia]
10: But you infuse rock music or R&B onto your composition rather than mixing rap. And since idol group singers are the ones who perform your songs, there are some negative opinions on that because it might be hard to accept, considering how traditional songwriters created their music.
Yoo: You are right. I get a lot of criticism for that too. (laugh) I am well aware that people have different opinions about my music and I always monitor their reactions. However, I believe that a cultural trend goes in a new direction when somebody creates a shock effect. Of course, when we are in the middle of that changing process, there could be some songs that sound premature or are too tipped in one particular direction that they sound other-worldly. But if we keep taking new risks, we might someday be able to come up with a shock that sounds refreshing. There are people who compose melodies that people like, but I think it’s fun to have a producer like me around too. Music is becoming globalized whether you like it or not, and I want to create music that can prove to others that I have actually been doing something. When they ask us about our music, I want to be able to say proudly that it is my goal to create music for the perfect performance.
10: What do you think is necessary for Korean pop music to succeed in the Western market?
Yoo: I once asked a foreign artist to monitor one of my previous songs, but they didn’t regard our R&B music as R&B. They thought of it as a new kind of Eastern music that was influenced by R&B. I am not just talking for SM here, but I think it will succeed when two things come together — there has to be a certain uniqueness to Eastern pop music and the right artist has to perform the songs. I think that would be a refreshing culture shock to Western people.
10: These days, even SM takes foreign songs and changes it to Korean style of music. You have done that as well. What do you think is important when you do that?
Yoo: Songs like “Amigo,” “Mirotic” and “Nu ABO” were written by foreign songwriters. When we decide we are going to write a certain kind of song, several songwriters including myself start doing the arrangement and write the lyrics. First of all, I don’t take a song from a foreign songwriter and just use it. Their songs are incredibly simple in terms of melody, lyrics and arrangement so I add certain parts to the song that I think are necessary to succeed in Korea. Sometimes I take the sub-melody in the original composition and make it the main melody, or even make a new one from scratch. If a song has a great overall flow but a weak climax, I make it stronger. For example, [Korean girl band f(x) member] Luna’s singing part in the latter part of “Nu ABO” — that part changes the entire flow of the track. But the way it breaks the original flow and changes to a completely different vibe with a definite impact — I think that is the style of Korean pop music.
10: How about the lyrics?
Yoo: Of course, the sound quality is the most important thing when we are re-arranging a non-Korean song. But changing the lyrics into Korean is extremely hard too. No word sounds really good because the syllables are divided up so short. The hardest time I had with the lyrics was SHINee’s “Amigo.” The original song title was “Turn It Up” but all the three-syllable Korean titles we came up with sounded cheesy. So my biggest concern is to make the syllables, melody and the end note as close to the original track as I can because that is how we can keep the same rhythm. If the rhythm changes, it becomes an entirely different song.
10: For your recent songs, it seems like you are particularly keen on using words that are catchy when the rhythm or flow of the song changes.
Yoo: You are right. When you write lyrics for a dance number, you first have to stay faithful to the vibe the original track gives off. And, at the same time, you have to decide on the direction you want go with the lyrics. You can use deep metaphors with just a couple of syllables of the melody and give up the rhymes, or do the rhymes to make the song click even if lessens the impact of lyrical meaning. I like the latter method. For example, you hear the word ‘mysteric’ in “Nu ABO” but that word does not exist in Korean language. But if you say ‘mystery,” the ending sound is too weak so I changed it to ‘mysteric.’ In such cases, I make up new words or use ones that you can accentuate on the first syllable.
From left, music videos for K-pop singles “Amigo” and “Nu ABO” [SM Entertainment]
10: But there are people who criticize the lyrics of “Nu ABO” for that very reason.
Yoo: I created “Nu ABO” based entirely on impulse. I expressed what I felt at the exact moment I wrote the lyrics. Because the kids who sing “Nu ABO” are incredibly adorable yet unpredictable. For example, Sulli is a very pretty girl who sometimes does ridiculous things, and I wanted to translate her personality into words.
10: Some critics say that is why the verses don’t connect and lyrics don’t make sense.
Yoo: When I am trying to make the words rhyme, sometimes I extract certain words I wrote in the lyrics and use those words later in the songs. I think that is why people are saying it doesn’t make sense. When I pick certain words to use, I know the overall content of the lyrics because I wrote it. But other people don’t. I would like [all the words] to carry the entire meaning, but it is not easy because you can only use so many words in this style of music. This is something I have to keep working at all. I have it all organized in my head but other people tell me they don’t get it. (laugh)
10: You have written lyrics that criticize society. And some people are critical of you using such lyrics for commercial music sung by idol groups.
Yoo Young-jin: There are many love songs that contain trendy words. So from the start, I was thinking that I want to try something a bit different. When TVXQ or H.O.T. sing such songs, people would enjoy their singing and dancing in the beginning but start hearing what they’re actually saying after a few times, and I thought some may even become interested in what message the lyrics are delivering. I tried “O-正.反.合.” because Mr. Lee Soo-man was telling me that he really hopes I use it one day when talking about changes in society. I thought that I could be able to provide somewhat of a different angle if someone looking at their performance starts taking interest in social issues he or she had not been interested in and decides to look it up on the Internet. I wasn’t aiming at changing society through the songs — I just wanted to say something through the lyrics. And I am aware of the likes and dislikes when it comes to such lyrics.
10: From the music to the stage to the lyrics, it seems like your songs try to stimulate [listeners] in every possible way.
Yoo: That’s right. Because culture is a shock. Look at how the Michael Jackson’s moon walk for “Billy Jean” changed [the trend for] the entire world. I too would like to create such a moment someday.
10: But I think you should control that level of shock since you make music to be sung by idol groups. What do you take into consideration when you give them songs?
Yoo: It depends on the team. With Super Junior, I think they’re a team which is better to go for their mass appeal by mixing in a bit of wit into their performances. I wanted create a song which is both equally fun and easy to listen to which is when I came up with “Sorry Sorry.” f(x) is just a year into their debut but the first time I heard “Nu ABO,” I thought it was very shocking and advanced. So while commercial success is important, I thought people would be shocked if we took on a new and erratic attempt. The company thought the same way about it too.
10: What about the five-member boy bands like H.O.T., TVXQ and SHINee?
Yoo: H.O.T. was a very young group back then so I wanted to write about their normal lives. They had little experience in life but were full of energy, and while there was so much they want to do, there actually wasn’t much they really could do so they would be dissatisfied. So I wanted to express them in the state of having an aggressive attitude. And I thought that at one point, I wanted H.O.T. to seem colossal. They were the first idol group to hold a concert at the Jamsil Main Statium and I wanted them to look big for when they do something like that. For their song “I Yah!” I thought of a man in a black trenchcoat, like in “The Matrix,” walking alone in the desert and I wrote it thinking that they would get to show it on a big stage.
10: I think HOT and TVXQ must be similar when it comes to the fact that they both stood on big stages and gave strong performances.
Yoo: TVXQ is really good when it comes to singing and dancing so I wanted to have them try a variety of things. I felt that they would be able to pull off big performances in particular, like H.O.T. did. And “Rising Sun” was where that all came together — it’s a song through which my hopes came true. It was the first time during my ten years of composing dance numbers that everything, from the choreography to the vocals to the dancing skills, interlocked perfectly. After that, I gave them “Tonight,” wondering whether they would be able to pull that off too because it has to be sung on a very wide range of notes. But they were really good at that too. (laugh) I got excited so I came up with some ad libs spontaneously which they also pulled off too. That’s when I told myself that I can try whatever I want with this kids (laugh) so I started coming up with songs which would maximize the abilities each member has. With SHINee, I thought it would be better to add in some easy parts rather than make their songs too difficult or aggressive. I also did it because I studied writing melodies with limited chords while I was pursuing my solo career, and it turns out it fits better with recent trends.
10: With each generation, the style of songs that you produce have also been changing. How do you think the recent trend of dance music is changing?
Yoo: What I think remains unchanged is that there is a growing crossover between genres. Whatever the original genre, new genres keep stemming from it which I think makes it necessary to think up more unique ideas and complex structures. In that sense I think you shouldn’t be scared to attempt carrying out new ideas. I felt that Black Eyed Pea’s “Boom Boom Pow” is simple to the extent that it could be considered close to minimalism but Americans let it become a huge hit. I’m envious of how they make such music and the way it can be accepted.
10: I think you’ve been making new attempts in that sense too. “BONAMANA” is made in a similar way as “Sorry Sorry” but I think you purposely meant to add in a Korean style of melodic structure to it.
Yoo: You’re right. To start with, I wasn’t intending on making something completely different from “Sorry Sorry.” It suited them and the singers had liked the song a lot too. So instead of thinking I would divert from it completely, I expanded on it. My wife did a bit of traditional Korean music when she was in college so when I asked for her recommendation for a samulnori beat, I came across a drum beat which I thought could be used as the melody. That’s how I came up with the melody in the beginning of “BONAMANA.” There’s definitely a limit to how much I can do because I’m a pop music composer but I want to do more specialized music. The melody in “BONAMANA” may repeat in a very simple way but I wanted to give various changes to it within that flow. I’m trying hard in my own way. (laugh)
10: You have become more elaborate in how you build up each sound in particular. The tone of percussion in “Ring Ding Dong” was impressive too. It wasn’t too dry nor did it ring out so much that it drowns other sounds.
Yoo: I really try hard to stick to the layers in which each sounds builds up. When the public listens to dance music, they only hear a few things like the kick, snare, high hat and percussion. And then maybe a bit of melody, the bass and strings, but you can’t make dance music where only those sounds are noticeable. You have to squeeze in a lot of sounds underneath it too. And there are sounds which you would never imagine would be used for melody but they actually do have melody. I lay out the most basic sounds first and then keep adding in other sounds which will make the original sounds sound more rich. I can’t make every sound be heard well but I use sources which will fill up that space even if one can’t hear them. I sometimes add in noise to the LP or make sound effects with my own mouth too. There’s a sound called glass percussion that was used in “Sorry Sorry” but it was actually made by hitting the plastic handle of a screwdriver onto a coffee mug. I think my 15 year career has helped me accumulate the know-how to immediately execute such eccentric ideas into my work.
10: Do you think you were able to come up with such ideas because you self-studied music? It probably helps you to think outside the box.
Yoo: You’re right. In a way, I sort of missed my chance. I really wanted to learn to play the piano but I couldn’t because my family was poor. I had to raise my younger siblings while living apart from my parents. And when I finally grew up and tried to learn the piano, I started my singing career. I started studying chord theory, musical composition and chord patterns around the time I became a sergeant while serving my mandatory military service. I learned chords by playing the piano with two fingers. (laugh) But I released an album right after I was discharged from the military so I still play the piano with two fingers. (laugh) Back then, people told me not to use such absurd chords but although it sounded like it was not in complete harmony to my ears, I also felt it was right. And I think I expanded on that idea.
10: Is that why you absorb music through rhythm and not through melody?
Yoo: When my senior musicians asked me why I consider vocals as rhythm, I told them to look at Michael Jackson. Why he would add in sounds like “Ah!” in the middle [of his songs]. I think one should be able to think of such things simultaneously with the choreography. I think that’s where my ideas stemmed from. From Kang-ta in H.O.T. to Donghae or U-Know Yunho, there are many singers in SM who want to do music. And I tell them that no matter how hard they practice from now on, they will never become better than pianist Yiruma. But I tell them to instead create something that they can be good at. It’s necessary to come up with a new approach even if it may make you look like a fool. Everything that can be done with the existing 12 scales is being done so you need absurd ideas from now on to make songs. You never know when they day will come when you throw a computer at the window and that sound is used for rhythm. So I don’t know until when I’ll be working but I keep trying to come up with absurd ideas.
10: Are you considering releasing a fourth album?
Yoo: Mr. Lee Soo-man has been saying I should and I would like to too. But I don’t want to be a burden on the company. If I say I want to [release an album], the company will let me. But I think I’d have a hard time if I made 5,000 copies but was told only 900 were sold. (laugh) To the extent that it won’t be burdensome, I do want to release songs, at least in the format of a digital single, to let people know that I am doing music.
10: What’s your goal as a musician?
Yoo: Up till now, I’ve rejected requests for interviews or short filmings of me teaching TVXQ. And I plan on not doing any more after this one. I prefer to continue doing my work in my own corner. If a singer is the main character, I want the focus to be on them, not on me for being their producer. I want to be a helper to SM and all of its singers. A helper who always does everything that he’s been given to do. I think I’d be very happy if I could sit down in a studio even when I’m eighty and still be creating rhythms.
Senior Reporter : Kang Myoung-Seok two@
Photographer : Lee Jin-hyuk eleven@
Editor : Jessica Kim jesskim@
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