When one thinks of K-pop, they think of perfectly polished groups poised with crazy choreography, catchy songs and impeccable fashion sense. But what really defines K-pop? Is it the presence of having a group composed entirely of Koreans singing in their native tongue? We meet with K-pop group EXP Edition, who are testing the limits of the industry as their band is made up of all non-Korean members, teamed up to pursue their music dreams in South Korea. Sure, they aren’t the first group to have non-Korean members (boy group GOT7 has members from Hong Kong, America and Thailand, and girl group Twice has Japanese and Chinese members), but EXP Edition is the first group composed entirely of international members, formed in New York City before moving over to debut in South Korea in 2017.
Ahead of their two upcoming Tokyo shows, we catch up with the four-member group who, true to K-pop style, each occupy a specified role in the band. Frankie is the team’s leader; Hunter is the group’s main rapper; then there’s lead vocalist Šime; and Koki is the 'visual' and 'maknae' (ie youngest member) of the group.
We are excited to see you guys perform in Tokyo. Tell us how you got into K-pop, and how your band came together
Šime: We all have different stories of how we got introduced to K-pop and Korean culture. I was awe-struck watching a K-pop music video for the first time. Everything was perfect: the music, the visuals, choreography, fashion, etc. Living in New York, we would often hang out in K-Town, too. In the last couple of years, K-pop has grown so much as a global music genre, it’s amazing to hear it on the streets or on the radio stations in the US.
As to how we got together, we each auditioned to become a part of EXP Edition almost four years ago. The group was originally created by Bora Kim, along with Karin Kuroda and Samantha Y Shao, as part of a documentary as well as Bora’s MFA Thesis Project at Columbia University. She wanted to create the first non-Korean K-pop group to explore the cultural phenomenon within the Korean wave and how it’s connected to topics such as cultural hybridity, gender and fandom, all while documenting the process of making our group.
You have faced a lot of criticism since your debut as EXP Edition. What do you think defines K-pop and how do you guys fit the mould?
Frankie: People mistakenly called us an ‘All American K-pop Group’ but in reality, Šime was born and raised in Croatia, Koki is a Japanese born in Hong Kong, and I am Portuguese raised in the US. When we debuted, people were shocked to see a K-pop group of all non-Korean members, since it was a new concept. The warm reception from Korean audiences has been incredibly humbling, and we can only hope to keep on spreading our music.
Since then, there has been a lot of conversation revolving around the ‘definition’ of K-pop, or any genre for that matter. K-pop, like most other music genres, has changed over time, pulling influences from many different cultures and music styles and is sung in Korean and English. K-pop is mainly known for having groups with many members, very precise choreography and are signed to a Korean company. We sing all of our songs in Korean, are signed to a Korean company, are living in Korea and working in the K-pop industry. We train everyday, and we’re dedicated to learning the language. K-pop has become our lives and I think as the genre continues to change and evolve, the definition of K-pop will as well. Trying to fit a box around any genre never works.
What do you hope people will take away from watching your performance? Do you want them to just enjoy your music, or experience something deeper?
Koki: EXP Edition was started with the idea of pursuing things that seem impossible. So I hope that when people hear our story and watch our performance, they are also inspired to pursue goals or dreams they may have once thought to be out of reach.
What's the music industry really like in South Korea? Since you aren't signed to one of the typical Korean management companies, do you have a lot more freedom?
Hunter: The K-pop industry is definitely different from the American pop industry, and now that we are actually in Korea and working here, we get to see how unbelievably precise, hard-working and professional everyone is. In terms of freedom, since we started this together, we are lucky enough to have a say in collaborating with our team, and it really feels like a family. At the same time, we are all responsible enough to take care of our work, and our company trusts us enough in that regard.
Do you guys think you are limited in how far you can go in the industry? How has the reception been since your debut?
Šime: I don’t like to think there is a limit. No one should put any restriction or limit to their goals and dreams. Back when we first started in New York, we never thought we would actually live in Korea, let alone perform on some of the biggest K-pop stages and TV shows. You gotta keep on dreaming! Though we have caused a lot of controversy in the K-pop fan world, it has been mainly with the international English-speaking fans. Our reception from Korean audiences has been welcoming, and for that I am extremely thankful.
Are you all fluent in Korean? What’s the most difficult part about writing music in another language?
Frankie: We’ve been learning Korean for almost two years now. We do many of our interviews and live shows in Korean, which takes a lot of prep and practice. There are many things that make it such a challenge, especially when singing since pronunciation has to be perfect. Usually, we write our lyrics in English first and then it gets translated into Korean. However, as we continue to get better, we will eventually like to write our songs in Korean.
We heard you had no Asian pop icons to look up to when growing up. What do you think of other Korean bands like BTS who have been making a big impact in the global music industry recently? Do you hope to become influential back home in the US one day, or are you just focused on Korea at the moment?
Koki: Growing up without Asian pop icons definitely affected my view of what was or wasn’t attainable. I remember when I was introduced to K-pop through one of Big Bang’s music videos, I was shocked but also excited. In my mind, the idea of pursuing music as a career became possible again. The change in the American industry has been gradual, but it’s amazing to see artists like BTS, Big Bang, GOT7, Seventeen, Jay Park, Amber Liu, Kris Wu, and many others taking over on a global scale. Their influence on the world will only grow, and I hope that we too can also have an impact.
Since we’re based in Japan, we’re a bit sad that you chose K-pop instead of J-pop. However, we understand that K-pop has a wider reach globally...
Koki: I think both J-pop and K-pop produce high quality music. It’s not that one is better than the other, they’re just different.
What else do you plan to do while you’re in Tokyo?
Hunter: We want to see as much of Tokyo as we can! Last time, I went to Senso-ji, but I would love to visit more temples and shrines. I really like Japanese street fashion and my friends have recommended that I check out the cool vintage clothing stores here, so I want to find some good buys. I also want to eat delicious ramen!
Catch EXP Edition Live in Japan on May 2. For more event details, click here.