FT Island aims for success outside K-pop comfort zone
By Kwaak Je-yup
At a studio in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, only three out of five members of the F.T.Island are waiting; the missing two are at a doctor's being checked up for fatigue, said the manager.
Of those present, bassist Lee Jae-jin-I looks at the interviewer with a curious grin but becomes a little alert when their eyes meet. Choi Jong-hun, leader, guitarist and keyboardist, and Lee Hong-gi, vocalist, are enjoying their "time off", jamming on an acoustic guitar and sitting quietly as the hair and make-up crew put on their final touches.
They are stars, though their faces are mostly inexpressive - impenetrable. Or maybe they are just tired from their 20-hours-a-day routine that began with the newest EP release earlier this month.
But they are also just young men who are reaching their 20s. When all five reunite at last, with Choi Min-hwan, drummer, and Song Seung-hyun, guitarist and vocalist, they become a playful gang, cracking jokes about each other's pet peeves or latest love interests.
"You know, I didn't even know singers needed to go to a throat doctor until (an older singer) told me", said Lee Hong-gi, 21, underlining both his inexperience and his goal of a long-lasting career. "Our range of music - what we can see and hear - is expanding. As a band, we've reached our comfort level. We are used to each other's habits when we perform together".
They say they are "Grown Up", like the title of their latest disc. They constantly reassess themselves in a strikingly carefree, frank and joyful manner, only possible in the blossom of one's youth. They have a five-year career, though, "veterans" by this fast industry's standards. They have built multinational stardom on a string of No. 1 hits and drama appearances.
But, as all members only just graduated from high school, they say they are still hungry for growth. They attribute this to their curiosity, musical and personal.
"When we are in Japan, we can see how much we are improving because the members write the words and the music. We sing what we really want to sing there", said Lee. "There are so many bands, so many opportunities, so many rehearsal studios".
"For Korea, we have to worry about (songs') addictiveness", said Lee Jae-jin-I, 20, who also serves as backup vocalist. "Without that it's hard to be noticed".
This particular formula heavy on hooks has been credited as the driver of K-pop's success overseas, yet the band seemed intent on distancing itself from the phenomenon.
"I want our band to be known (in other countries)", said Choi Min-hwan, 19, "not riding on hallyu but independently".
And FT Island can lay that claim - albeit partially. At the height of their fame in Korea in 2007, which was instant from their debut in the same year, the band moved outside their comfort zone to Japan, playing for 100-strong audiences in small venues there.
Their major success came with the Korean wave, though, as the band's popularity was propelled by the hit Korean drama "You're Beautiful" that starred Lee Hong-gi. It led to a record deal with Warner Music Japan in 2010.
Despite this power of Korean idols and good looks making waves abroad, FT Island stays modest, reminding themselves of their initial years as unknowns.
"The Japanese audience is so quiet when you perform", said the vocalist-cum-actor. "You can tell the reception very clearly. We were scared (in the beginning). In Korea, everyone applauds as soon as you're on stage".
There have been lingering doubts about their musical depth, too, with critics and anti-fans calling them "a fake band", thanks to their boyish looks and the public attention to their styles.
"We ignore them (the critics) now", said Choi Jong-hun, 21, decisively. They used to question themselves constantly over the definition of a real band at the beginning of their career, he said. No more.
"What is a real band, then?" said Lee Hong-gi, interrupting.
Regardless of the label, they find inspiration in unknown territories. Last September, FT Island performed in Toronto at a benefit concert for the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The members had a chance to interact with other bands participating - and experienced culture shock.
"There was a European band", said Lee Jae-jin-I, "where every member had a different nationality. How did they come to form the band?"
To the members of FT Island who started playing music from their middle school years - within a system - a concept of garage bands seemed so enviable.
"They seemed to have so many people around them who share the passion for music. I was impressed", said Lee Hong-gi. "As a normal school (student) band, it would be difficult to go on".
While they described the scene, about conversing through an interpreter and swatting mosquitoes together, the pace of their speech quickened and their eyes sparkled, even as the 90 minute interview drew to an end.
They were unable to hold their breath, excited to discover the whole world ahead of them - meanwhile gushing about how a fellow singer they met in Canada looked like Johnny Depp or Orlando Bloom.
Lack of ideas may not be a problem anytime soon: the band said they welcomed and received input from fans. They insisted that this reporter dedicate a few lines to the fan club Prima Donna for this reason. To the world fans, they simply said "Thank You".
"When we put everything together, we learn so much. We want to take more lessons, too", said Lee Jae-jin-I.
"We just want to make awesome music. We don't want to think of it all as complicated", said Lee Hong-gi, responding to the question of their future direction and adding that his favorite genre at the moment was punk rock. "We want to do the music that fits our age, not sticking to one style or genre. We want to go with our feelings".
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A glance at FT Island
FT Island, short for Five Treasure Island, debuted in 2007 with the album "Cheerful Sensibility". Members are Choi Jong-hun (guitar and keyboards), Lee Hong-gi (lead vocals), Lee Jae-jin-I (bass and vocals), Song Seung-hyun (guitar and vocals) and Choi Min-hwan (drums).
They have released two other full-length albums in Korea - "Colorful Sensibility" (2008) and "Cross & Change" (2009) - along with several singles.
They made their Japanese debut with the EP "Prologue of FT Island: Soyogi" in 2008 and released the full-length "So Long, Au Revoir" the next year. In 2010, the group's single "Flower Rock" ranked third on the Oricon daily chart on the day of its release.
Having won five Golden Disk Awards from the Music Industry Association of Korea, the band is regularly on tours here and abroad. It has also amassed a considerable fan base in Taiwan, which led them to hold a concert in 2011 with some 9,000 people in attendance.
Last month, the band held concerts in Stadium Negara, Malaysia and Max Pavilion, Singapore. Their latest single is "Severely" from the recently-released minialbum "Grown-up".
FT Island and CNBlue, another band from its agency FNC Music, will be performing at Nokia Theater in Los Angeles on March 9.
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