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‘Mawang’ Shin Hae-chul refuses to be labeled ‘progressive’

 His hardcore fans and students call him “Mawang” -- “the devil” in Korean -- in praise of his despotic nature in experimenting with new music and spitting out radically progressive comments on social issues.

His anti-fans criticize him for being too lazy to release a new album -- his most recent album came out in late 2008 -- and for going too far on sensitive issues such as jokingly praising North Korea’s test-firing of missiles.

Shin Hae-chul, a singer-song writer, producer and a one time radio program host and activist, said the last thing he wants to be called is a progressive because it would make him trapped in the “traditional” notion of what is progressive.

“The moment you frame me as a progressive, I would stop being a progressive. That’s what I strongly refuse to be and which is why I’ve always been at odds with the general public,” the 48-year-old said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

The pop star had faced a lawsuit from a group of conservatives last April when he lauded Pyongyang’s testing of a missile. The conservatives demanded the prosecution of Shin for breaching the National Security Law.

However, Shin was cleared in January and he later wrote on his website that the incident was “a result of the regression of Korea’s democracy.”

Shin’s support for the legalization of marijuana and opposition to corporal punishment in schools also stirred a controversy.

Since his debut in 1988 by topping MBC’s college pop music competition, Shin has released 26 albums encompassing a variety of genres from pop ballad to heavy metal to techno to punk rock.

Shin recently opened a private music academy, Siren Academy, to push teenagers to become “real musicians” as he couldn’t stand the low quality of the currently popular K-pops and the rigid mindsets of musician aspirants, he said.

Following are the excerpts of the interview with the artist at his academy in Gangnam, southern Seoul. He discussed the fall of pop music, his latest album, education and North Korea.


Korea Herald: The homepage of the Siren Academy introduces itself as “a music academy based on Spartan education.” What does Spartan education mean? Do you beat up students if they don’t do homework?

Shin Hae-chul: It doesn’t mean we control students. We demand two things. First, they should have fun. If their parents have issues with them becoming a musician and they make a face here, they’d better not come. Second, if they become complacent, I’m gonna kill them. I’m famous for being against corporal punishment but that’s the case with schools. Here, a private institute, I can kick their ass in the hallway.

KH: You’re doing a three-month lecture on “All About Music” at the academy. What’s your opinion on how we should listen to music?

Shin: People often question whether there are high and low levels when it comes to listening to music. I say there are, although we should not look down on others for what they listen to. Then, how do we distinguish the different levels? Let’s put it this way. When you’re a child, you like sweet tastes. As you grow, you get to understand the bitter taste of alcohol and cigarettes. It’s the same with music. When you’re young, you like simple C major music -- Do, Mi, Sol. As you grow, you get to understand a broken chord. You get more mature, you reach a point where you accept dissonance.

There is no problem if a man in his 40s loves Girls’ Generation songs. But if everyone in their 40s listens to only Girls’ Generation, we should be alarmed that there is something wrong with that age group. Why do those in their 40s refuse to walk toward the world of dissonance?

KH: You have been saying the Korean pop music market has been collapsing since the introduction of MP3 files in Korea. Why do you think it was Korea which suffered the most in the world?

Shin: In Japan where users also extracted MP3 files from CDs and resold the CDs in the second-hand market, there were no illegal distributions of MP3 files.

I wouldn’t blame only Korean users for the collapse of the pop music market because it was the fault of all the related parties, including artists and the mass media.

But Korean consumers did not raise any voice to protect the copyrights of artists and they later blamed the artists, saying, “We would have bought your music if your music was good enough to listen.” It was as though parents, whose kids were kidnapped by a criminal, got criticized by the criminal for not raising the kids properly. Why do only consumers get excluded from the criticism that artists and the mass media all accept and honestly deal with?
Shin Hae-chul
Shin Hae-chul

KH: Do you see any potential in young artists who are currently in the K-pop market?

Shin: I’m not interested in them. In the 1990s when we had PC communication services like Chollian and Hitel, pop music fan communities had a life-and-death debate on a new album for two months. Even when they made bad comments about those albums, they were the motivation for us to do music and they led the general public.

The level of current professional musicians is lower than that of those Hitel fans at that time.

KH: The regression of pop music could be attributed to the lack of creativity and diversity. How do you want to improve this as a musician?

Shin: I will keep defying the mainstream. I’ve been teaching junior musicians for a long time and I’ve realized that even youngsters in their 20s are already rigid in their own way of thinking. So I decided to teach teenagers. That’s why I opened this academy.

The lack of creativity and diversity is not a problem in the music industry only. It is a matter of the entire Korean society where people still demand you be a “survivor.” But this was necessary only for a short period of time in the wake of the Korean War. 
Shin Hae-chul poses a photo at his office in southern Seoul. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Shin Hae-chul poses a photo at his office in southern Seoul. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

I really hate to see students at my academy who play the musical instruments as if they’re studying at a library, memorizing the notes and repeating them like a machine.

If you want to become a musician, be obsessed with pleasures and childish ideas.

KH: What’s your plan for the release of the next album? Isn’t it done yet?

Shin: The album is already completed. I’ve recorded seven songs. I don’t really know when I’ll be releasing it but it will be the most optimal timing. The album includes a tribute song for the late President Roh Moo-hyun. I intentionally delayed it because if I had released it with the timing of the first year of Roh’s passing away (in May), I would’ve received criticism that I was trying to take advantage of the timing. The trouble for me is, people don’t stop talking about Roh! May be I should release the song when people have almost forgotten about him.

KH: You recently moved to Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, to send your two children to an alternative school. What if they want to transfer to a normal school in Seoul?

Shin: I’ll do what my children want, except for allowing overseas studies. I don’t want my children to be forced to learn English at five and to be beaten up by a school teacher. That’s why I am going to send them to an alternative school.

If they want to study overseas, they will have to pay for it themselves. But I wonder if they would need overseas study really, considering the rapid pace of the growth of information technology.

When it comes to overseas study, I sneer at Korean artists who brag about getting all As at a foreign music school. That means they couldn’t make friends with a single local. If they had studied overseas, they should know the foreign culture and come back to teach us how cultural differences make our music different.

KH: Regarding the recent flooding in North Korea, South Korea officially said it will not consider providing food aid for Pyongyang. What’s your opinion on this?

Shin: I guess it is because South Koreans couldn’t reach an agreement that there would be no future unless the two resolve the tangle of hatred and antagonism.

I can understand the sadness and anger of families whose close family were shot dead by the North Korean soldiers during the Korean War. I know we can’t force them to reconcile with the North.

But those people, who were directly affected by the war and who I really wish could reach their hands out first to reconcile, are the ones radically protesting with LPG cylinders.

What I suggest to them is to start accepting the fact that there is a growing number of Korean people who want to regard North Koreans as the same ethnic people, not as the sworn enemies, and that the number is not small. I understand your anger against the North but don’t force me into thinking that North Koreans are my enemies.

By Kim Yoon-mi (