Ready to rock

2014-02-20 19:30

YB. (Dee company)

A few hours after its English-language digital single “Cigarette Girl” became available on overseas music sites Wednesday, YB members quietly awaited listeners’ reactions at an office in Hapjeong-dong, Seoul, near Hongdae area where the band got its start. The members seemed to be in no hurry.

The rock band ― composed of vocalist Yoon Do-hyun, bassist Park Tae-hee, guitarists Heo Joon and Scott Hellowell, and Kim Jin-won on the drums ― has been in the business long enough to know that there won’t be instant magic. Since debuting in 1995, has released nine albums and numerous singles in its 19 years, becoming one of those rare rock bands with a tremendous staying power and broad, popular appeal.

“It is a long journey,” said Hellowell. “There is pressure for Korean pop idols to make it big very quickly. That doesn’t apply to us.” 

Cover of YB’s English-language digital single, “Cigarette Girl”

With its romantic narrative, “Cigarette Girl” is an interesting choice for the band’s first official foray overseas. Originally released in 1987 by folk singer Song Chang-sik in funk style, in the hands of YB, “Cigarette Girl” has been transformed into a classic rock piece, the witty storyline and humor of the original lyrics preserved in tact in its English version.

“Our U.S. management listened to all our albums, from one to nine. And then we gave them ‘Cigarette Girl’ which we had recorded in English back in 2007 without anyone really knowing about it. They heard it and right away decided on it,” Yoon recalled.

The lyrics were completely re-translated. It was changed around at least four times. Four different people were involved in the translation in an effort to not lose the cultural context, explains Hellowell.

“I sometimes felt bad for Yoon who had to learn the lyrics all over again,” said Park with a chuckle. A story of the innocent bravado of a young man smitten by a girl working in a neighborhood cigarette store, the song is heavy on words.

In fact, the lyrics had a lot to do with why the song was selected.

“The lines are fun and funky and the music has our color,” said Yoon, which made it ideal for the band’s first global release.

“It is really a live song. We want to show it on a live stage,” Yoon continued, adding that there is a lot of room to play around with the song when it is performed live.

A number of Korean expressions and words have been kept or added for the English version, including a couple of words that are responsible for the song being slapped with an “explicit” warning on the iTunes site.

The song will be featured on the global English-language debut album slated for release in June. The album will feature 10 songs or so, according to Yoon.

This is not the first time that the band has worked in the overseas market. In 2005 YB toured Europe and performed in the U.K. with British rock band Steranko. The following year, the band released “Why Be?” that featured a number of English versions of their songs as well as “Feel Free,” an English-language digital single released during their European tour. That effort apparently did not pay off but also did not stop YB from preparing for another attempt.

Yoon describes the 2005 project as “hitting it cold.” This time, the band has onboard Doug Goldstein, former manager of the legendary U.S. rock band Guns N’ Roses, as its manager. Hellowell, a British guitarist who signed on as an official member in 2011 after a number of years as a guest, is a big help, too.

“We have video conference calls with Doug on Wednesday mornings. I really look forward to the meetings with great anticipation,” said Yoon, explaining he is learning a lot from working with Goldstein.

YB’s attempt to expand into the U.S. and U.K. scenes is only natural, according to Yoon.

“I started singing in my neighborhood. That doesn’t mean I will end my singing in my neighborhood,” said Yoon. “As musicians, we want to meet more people and we want to perform more. We want to go to many countries,” he added.

“The group never intended to limit its acts to Korea.”

The band is rearing to go, spurred on by the new challenge.

“It is difficult work but it is fun. It is fun because it involves creating. Of course the future is unclear, but I think settling for the easy way is the worst kind of life,” Yoon pointed out.

Kim Jin-won concurred. “Tours broaden your horizon. I enjoy challenges and I have a lot of expectations and I am excited,” he said of the upcoming concerts in the United States. The band is scheduled to hold concerts in Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles as well as performing at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas next month.

YB performed at SXSW in 2007 and 2008 where they were chosen the most popular band by other participating bands. In fact, the responses from fellow musicians there gave the band the courage to take on the challenge of venturing overseas.

Yoon admits it will be hard for Korean rock musicians to achieve recognition overseas. K-pop and idol groups enjoy a competitive edge because they are unique; things are different for rock bands who face the challenge of showing their uniqueness among the sea of bands already out there.

“Our music is dynamic. It is classic rock-based with a bit of hard rock and punk, but it is not dark. It is definitely different from British or American rock. Our goal is to deliver our unique sound so that the audience can discern the difference,” said Yoon. “It will take a long time.”

Meanwhile, the band will release the “Cigarette Girl” music video next Tuesday through online editions of Revolver Magazine and Total Rock. Directed by a former Korean rock guitarist, it is said to be a big departure from the band’s previous music videos, featuring some “spicy” scenes.

“It is very different,” Yoon promised. “It may get an R-rating,” he said with a chuckle. The R-rating will not be for violent content, however.

By Kim Hoo-ran, Senior writer (
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