Legendary singer returns, kinder, gentler

By Korea Herald

Softer around the edges, ‘Evil King’ Shin Hae-chul continues to push boundaries with his music

  • Published : Jul 25, 2014 - 21:25
  • Updated : Jul 25, 2014 - 22:17
It is early afternoon on July 14, one of the hottest days of the year so far, and I am panicked at the thought of having to ask singer Shin Hae-chul to pose in the white-hot heat in a tiny park where there would surely be gawkers. Arranging the interview, I had insisted on a photo shoot and Shin’s manager only reluctantly agreed, politely explaining that Shin usually does not do photo shoots.

But Shin is cool about it. As we wait at the crosswalk opposite the park, a young female assistant holds out several caps for Shin to choose from and we make small talk. He mentions his weight gain, explaining how he put on kilos following surgery a couple of years ago. “I exercise regularly, riding bikes,” but it is not easy to lose weight, Shin says.

Shin comments on how much cooler it is in his neighborhood in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, where he lives with his family and his parents. His wife, Yoon Won-hee, a former Miss Korea New York and a graduate of a prestigious women’s college in the U.S., writes a monthly magazine column about her life in the countryside with three generations living under one roof. “It is several degrees cooler than in Seoul,” Shin says. In our brief chit-chat, Shin is not the legendary singer ― equally legendary for his sharp tongue ― but a regular guy with a sense of humor.

Back at the office, we discuss Shin’s latest album released last month after a six-year hiatus.

“I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I knew people would wonder, ‘Shin Hae-chul, does he still have creativity?’ I think the response was good,” he says, noting how the audience was screaming. “I could tell they were hungry.”
Singer Shin Hae-chul poses before an interview with The Korea Herald on July 14. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

The four-track album, titled “Reboot Myself (6th Part 1),” took a month to produce, working at a studio in Bundang, Gyeonggi Province, a 10-minute bike ride from his home. How did he do it so fast? “I had 140 songs stocked up over the six years,” Shin explains.

Once Shin got started, he went at it at a furious pace, working 17 hours a day in front of the computer, including weekends. “I slept every other day,” he recalls. There were days when he did not go home because he did not want his children to see him so fatigued and worn out. The music video of “A.D.D.A,” a one-man a capella piece showing multiple split images of Shin singing the various parts and working at the studio, is a recreation of what was involved in producing the album.

There were several reasons for the long break, but he does not regret being away. “There was the health reason and the question of whether I wanted to live as a musician,” he says. “At first, the break was half-voluntary, half-imposed. But I enjoyed the time with my family, I have a 9-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, and it has been the most fulfilling period of my life.”

Winning a popular college song contest, Shin made his debut with a rock band in 1988. He was a fresh jolt to the music scene, which was dominated by ballads, and over the years he continued to enthrall his captive fans, who fondly called him the “Evil King” in reference to his charismatic performances and persona. He was also a popular radio DJ, lording over his own brand of radio show for several years. Before the long hiatus, he was releasing an album every two to three years.

Now that he is back, Shin is working at full throttle. There is a plan for the release of a band album in September followed by a solo album of four to five songs in December. He is also planning an orchestral performance in December. 
Shin Hae-chul performs during a showcase at V-Hall in Seoul’s Hongdae area on June 20. (K.C.A. Entertainment)

What about the much anticipated return of N.EX.T, which disbanded in 1997 after four albums? “There will be a new system for N.EX.T. I call it ‘N.EX.T United,’ It will have different formations. Formation K, which features a team of traditional Korean musicians, will perform in December,” Shin says. Two days after the interview, it is announced that a “Shin Hae-chul with N.EX.T United” concert will be held on Sept. 20.

“I started the gugak project partly out of a sense of duty and partly out of curiosity. As I became familiar with it, I got to discover its charms,” Shin explains.

Traditional Korean music, or gugak, is not new to Shin. “I used traditional Korean instruments 20 years ago and also in the song for the 2002 World Cup,” he says. Last year, he was the program director of a KBS audition show for budding traditional Korean musicians.

For the singer, who debuted at 20 and is now well into middle age, the music scene has changed tremendously. “In terms of technology and the environment, the difference is that of the Neolithic Age and the Moon landing,” Shin says. For example, today, a studio-like environment is available to everyone: At the time of his debut, all Shin wanted was a chance to record in a studio before he died.

From being a vocalist, Shin moved on to playing the guitar and then to arranging. “Step by step, I got into engineering. I am very, very lucky,” Shin says.

During a four-year stay in England, Shin was introduced to MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), using computer programming to create music. “I showed that a single person could do everything,” he says of “A.D.D.A,” a track that is an example of what is possible with MIDI.

Looking ahead, Shin predicts that auto-composing will be a possibility before 2030. “Musicians will not disappear as a result. The boundary between listeners and professional musicians is breaking down already,” Shin says.

Moving on to the subject of his controversial public comments that have often landed him in hot waters, Shin says, “My outspokenness was my music.” He aimed to make living his life and his music one and the same, he explains, citing John Lennon as an example.

He agrees with the observation that he has become “kinder,” gentler, even.

“The complexes and the scars of my 20s have all healed,” Shin says. The softening happened about 10 years ago, according to Shin. “I had found my own answers about life and I had children. My best accomplishment of the last 10 years is that I have never yelled at my kids,” he says.

“I asked myself whether to put down the sword or keep holding it,” he says. “I decided that if I were to carry the sword, I would keep it in its sheath.”

“I also defined when I would take it out. Speaking out on too many things lowers the value of what you are saying,” he says.

By Kim Hoo-ran, Senior writer