With their debut album in the works and so many people involved, the 11 members of the Seoul-based collective Balming Tiger have instituted an in-studio schedule from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during weekdays — and latecomers get fined. The fine doesn’t necessarily stop people from coming late, but it is padding the rest of their wallets. bj wnjn, for instance, recently bought a flute. (He attempts to play it during our interview, but he just got it two weeks ago and is still getting the hang of it.)
Getting together the 11 individuals of Balming Tiger on a Zoom call is an experience. Most call from their homes, while some are together in their studio. The collective’s players all have distinct roles. There are performers Omega Sapien, Sogumm, bj wnjn, and Mudd the Student; producers Unsinkable and San Yawn, who founded Balming Tiger; video directors Jan’Qui and Leesuho; visual artist Chanhee Hong; and DJ Abyss and writer Henson Hwang. Together, they round out this distinctly colorful crew — made all the more colorful by Omega Sapien’s currently teal-colored hair, and their distinct artistic styles.
They’ve united as Balming Tiger, they say, as a crew of friends bonding professionally because they’ve spent a lot of their lives alone, as outsiders with more niche interests.
“We’re sharing memories that we have lived in Korea while we’ve liked independent and alternative things ever since we’re young, when people who liked those things are few,” reflects Hong, who is also known as Seoulthesoloist.
[Photo by Nikolai Ahn]
Around 2018, San Yawn, who previously worked in A&R and as a DJ, brought everyone together. Or, at least, he brought a few people together, and they brought their friends. The group’s youngest member, Mudd the Student, who they call their “trainee,” joined after he won the others over when he competed in a competition that members of Balming Tiger judged back in 2019.
“I feel like we were all outsiders at some point in our life,” says Omega Sapien. “In Korea, it’s kind of difficult to listen to left field [music] or have interest in alternative things. The subculture scene was very small back then. I was the only one listening to this, and he was the only one listening to that. But as we grow older, now we can meet the people that we want to meet, and I feel like it’s natural that we all share [this] similar background.”
Balming Tiger’s experimental music sometimes feels like a fever dream composite of what most people think of Korean popular music, blending hip-hop, R&B, alt-rock, electronica, pop, trance, and pretty much whatever other inspirations hit them while they’re in the studio.
Their sound is catching on, too. Last year, they teamed up with RM of BTS on the trippy, hip-hop empowerment track “Sexy Nukim,” or “Sexy Feeling.” And this year, they were awarded the Grulke Prize at SXSW — an award whose previous recipients include the likes of Haim, Chvrches, and Anderson.Paak.
In April, they released their latest single, “SOS.” It’s the first track all 11 members worked on, and features production by bj wnjn and Unsinkable. A music video directed by Jan’Quin was filmed in Hong Kong while they were there performing at the city’s biggest music festival, Clockenflap, and is visually inspired by the iconic cinema of Wong Kar-Wai.
Following “Sexy Nukim” and February’s rather comedic single “Trust Yourself,” the funky love song “SOS” shows another side of Balming Tiger, and can hopefully leave people with impressions of what their debut album will be like.
“I think that song explained more about our album’s vibes,” says San. “We can do the band stuff, we can do live instrument stuff. It’s not just viral hit songs. We want people to feel, ‘Oh, this kind of vibe will be in the album.’”
“A more straightforward version of that answer,” Omega Sapien declares, “is, ‘We’ve done too much goofy shit. Let’s drop something cool. We’re making okay money now, the followers are growing.’”
“I didn’t say that,” San protests. “‘Trust Yourself,’ ‘Sexy Nukim’ — I think our fans can imagine that those fit with Balming Tiger. But I think people can hear ‘SOS’ and think, ‘Oh shit, Balming Tiger can do this too?’”
Ultimately, they’re expanding what K-pop or “alternative K-pop,” as they call themselves, can be.
Typically, when people think of K-pop, they may imagine glossy idol groups like BTS or BLACKPINK, or go in the other direction and imagine PSY of “Gangnam Style” fame. Balming Tiger isn’t like that. In fact, they’re not really like anything. Music videos may be over the top, and they may have colorful personalities, but they’re not tied to any one genre or aesthetic. When they lost suitcases while touring in Europe, members showed up on stage in matching gray shirts and sweats after a quick H&M run. They’re a quick thinking, quick innovating, high energy crew of musical misfits who have found their place among one another.
When they first formed and were trying to figure out a way to introduce themselves, K-pop was already gaining traction around the world, but the term was, and still is, something not everyone wants to declare themselves as because of stereotypes, both in Korea and beyond. Balming Tiger’s avowal of being an alternative K-pop group is simple: K-pop isn’t necessarily any one thing claimed by any one person, so they’re going to claim it as theirs and bring their vision to the world.
“When we started this whole thing of alternative K-pop, we thought K-Pop was the best thing,” recalls Omega Sapien. “Especially me, having experienced living abroad, having experienced living in America, living as an immigrant, as a minority, and as a kid who had a big identity crisis. I was so proud of K-pop and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. So I was like, ‘Yo, why are people not claiming this is our shit? Why are people claiming, ‘Oh no, we’re hip hop.’ ‘No, don’t call me K-Pop, I’m an indie-rock artist.’ We were like, ‘Let’s claim it.’”
[Photo by Nikolai Ahn]
The act’s name comes from the pain-relieving Tiger Balm — but not because they want to leave you comforted after a bit of a sharp feeling or anything of the like. Tiger Balm is originally a Singaporean product, but it is popular worldwide, not limited to east or western hemispheres. That’s what Balming Tiger aims to be, a collaborative bridging genres, art styles, and audiences through their music.
“Hopefully through this album, we show people that we’re capable of different music,” says Sogumm. “Our ultimate goal, our sound goal as Balming Tiger, is to have a Balming Tiger sound. I think through this album, we’re one step closer to that goal because we’re trying different stuff, finding out what is more comfortable for us, what’s not comfortable. It’s natural for us to not stay in a box. We’re always changing, we’re always learning, we’re always growing.”
Balming Tiger’s first collaborative album is still yet-to-be-named and without a release date. The call begins in the evening, around 11 p.m. in South Korea, and they’re planning to sit down together to name it and some songs the next day.
Hopefully someone’s late, because Sogumm is currently in the market for a MacBook Pro.