This month’s interviewee is Jo Sumin; a bassist, producer and vocalist. He was first known for his involvement in a band called PATiENTS, however, in recent years his music has been as part of a group that includes vocalist HEYNAM (HEYNAM SiN X PATiENTS). Sumin is also the owner of a small record label called Steel Face Records and a club (Club Steel Face). Sumin has many years of experience, has toured abroad, and has a multi-faceted perspective of the Korean music industry from his multiple roles over the years. He gave us some background to his music projects and his opinions about the state of the industry today.
Can you introduce yourself?
Hello, my name is Jo Sumin and I am the bassist and vocalist of the punk rock band PATiENTS. I’m also the bassist and producer of HEYNAM SiN X PATiENTS. In addition to that, I am the owner of Steel Face Records and Club Steel Face. It may seem like I’m doing a lot of things, but ultimately, I’m working to achieve one goal which is to make the music that I want to make, and live the life that I want to live.
When did you start to play bass guitar and what made you choose that instrument?
When I was around 10 years old, I was strongly inspired by punk bands in Korea and the U.K. I started by learning guitar from an older friend in my class. At first, I only focused on practising and learning guitar, but later found out that one of my favourite bands had an empty spot for a bassist. In order to join them I chose the bass. Rather than focusing on what instrument I had to play, I focused on what kind of music I would be making with whatever team.
I’ve been a bassist for over half my life and it allowed me to travel the world. The bass is a really fun and wonderful instrument. I do love it but my mindset about the band and my instrument is the same as when I was a teenager: no matter what music you play, it is about what feelings you play it with – this is crucial.
How long have you been part of the band PATiENTS? How did you meet each other and come up with the name? What makes PATiENTS a hybrid punk band?
PATiENTS first performed in the spring of 2005 so it has been 14 years now. It started with friends I thought fit well with each other and could play the positions that I wanted them to. At that time, I preferred a four-member system of vocal, guitar, bass and drums. At first, I picked friends who looked good, but I look for different things now as a result of going through several member changes. At this current time I’m working with a keyboardist who doesn’t like punk music and a drummer who doesn’t care about genres. Sometimes I think that I like people that are stubborn.
When you name a band, you start by asking, “What does everybody have?” And I thought the answer was “injury”. Everyone has been sick or will be sick in the future. And what do sick people need? They need a good time and that can be achieved with music because it will help you overcome your pain. So I started the band and decided to name it PATiENTS. I had a strong inspiration for punk rock, but quickly realized that repetitive imitation would be meaningless and boring. So we took some elements of classic punk rock, and started mixing colours and sounds. PATiENTS began with its love for punk rock and so we will always appreciate it, however, we’re definitely pursuing our own characteristics and sounds as well, so if anyone asks about the genre of PATiENTS’ music, we say it’s ‘Hybrid Punk.
Since we named the genre, we can be free to experiment. Whatever it is, it’s good to keep the tradition, but breaking the rules is always fun.
What gave you the idea to get more involved in other activities related to music? Does it help your music projects by doing these things too?
I didn’t want my stories and music to be distorted. That’s why I secured my own concert hall and created a label. This is related to regionality, but there were many things I didn’t like about parts of the Korean music market in the 90’s and 2000’s. I saw situations where others became more involved in the making of the music than the musicians themselves (“If you want to do it, you have to make music to fit them” sort of attitude). I didn’t want to compromise.
Direct comparisons are difficult because it hasn’t been long since I’ve started working abroad, but it was evident to me that the situation in Korea was wrong and I didn’t like it. My wish was to make songs and perform, not to be a record label and concert hall owner. But I found that I needed to, and it’s actually fun. Even though it is hard to do everything, I suppose I get an irrational pleasure out of the tough times. If you ask me if doing extra is helpful to the music, I would say that it is not always so. It helps me to “release music at my disposal,” but it is hard to say that it is helpful for the creation of music itself, mostly because my time has become shorter.
Although I can do as I like, I have less free time to do so. Sadness and fun have to co-exist.
Do you often spot new talent or make contacts for collaborations at the club?
Meeting talented new friends is one of the greatest pleasures of running a club. I don’t spend much time “exploring” new talent, but I don’t hide my excitement when I happen to discover someone. At times I get offers for collaborations and sometimes I am the one to reach out. It’s meaningful and enjoyable.
What would you say is special about Club Steel Face compared to other clubs in Korea? How do you encourage people to come to Club Steel Face?
In Seoul, there are many small, shabby concert halls and large, cool concert venues. The image Steel Face is aiming for is a “small and cool concert hall.” My definition of “cool” is “open-minded, with capable staff, and a venue equipped with a specialized sound system.”
When a really cool artist appears, not everyone can recognize them. There is a delay among the people in recognizing them due to their surroundings. Steel Face is specialized for such artists. It is a small space for the few people who believe in having their own preferences and beliefs. It is a space in which separation and sharing occur at the same time. In fact, I don’t encourage people to come to Club Steel Face. Looking at it from a sales perspective, that’s a serious problem.
I only say, if you like what we are doing, then you should come.
How do artists approach you to play at your venue? Or do you invite musicians and bands to perform there?
Artists who had previously never contacted us often send messages via e-mail or to the club’s social media account. Some of them have directly visited the club while others had it recommended to them by friends. The Steel Face crew will only reach out first to highly favoured musicians or who come highly recommended.
What challenges have you faced in recent years as a band and from the perspective of a music label? Do you focus more on online marketing rather than playing so many gigs these days?
In Korean society, a ‘band’s live performance’ is not as popular as it was before. Although bands wish to play their own music regardless of trends, the fact is that venues are shrinking and planners prefer DJ’ing or MR performances to live performances by bands, because it involves more preparation. This clearly affects the number and quality of performances by bands, in addition to our income.
As a label, I feel my efforts on albums rather than performances, is bearing more fruit. The members of Steel Face Records are not very good at online marketing, so it’s not a pleasant situation. It doesn’t match the pleasure and significance of performing, touring and releasing physical recordings. However, since the beginning of the label, we have wanted to live as musicians and activists focusing on the present and future rather than being tied to the past, so we have to face the challenge to continue working as times change. Online marketing or online activities are awkward but have their good points. We have increased our awareness of the importance of online content compared to the past. However, what hasn’t changed is that we start with good music, always.
What is involved in running Steel Face Records? How do you fit in your role with the label alongside your other duties? Who would you recommend as promising artists?
Steel Face Records just exists within my life and that of my colleagues. We created a environment where we could write the songs we wanted and present them without having to seek permission from anyone else. I’ve always been adverse to the idea of accepting other bands [into the label] that I didn’t belong to. I think that’s what’s right. I made something for myself so I don’t think I should invite other artists to join. In fact, whenever someone made a request, I would persistently tell them not to join. Nevertheless, I only accepted close friends who were willing to release and perform a song together through Steel Face Records. We have no talent for pursuing commercial success or fame. I would say, if you want to be a rock star or a musician who wants to earn a lot of money, you should not join Seoul’s Steel Face Records. As a label owner, my duty and role are in keeping with what I say. I hope those who act irresponsibly don’t make anything. As a label owner, the rules I have set myself are to be honest, to always seek development opportunities (whether big or small), and to cherish the songs of my colleagues.
Among the latest songs released by the label, I would recommend the single “UGLY MOTHERS CLUB” by Sin HEYNAM and PATiENTS (HEYNAM SiN X PATiENTS). Another recommendation would be THE PUNK DRUNK LOVE’s full-length album [DESPERATE ROCK ‘N’ BLUES], but it may hurt your ears! If you feel fine after listening to a few songs you should definitely listen to more. If it fits your tastes, you are a person who feels the romance behind this type of music. Punk rock bands from Seoul in 2019 are really hard to come across.
What is your opinion on music competition television programmes? These ‘music survival shows’ seem to be very popular with the Korean public. Do you think this process of choosing a winner discourages people from working together?
In my opinion, music competition programmes are for people who are not very attached to music in the first place. As long as rankings and the division of music into classes are major factors in the mainstream music market, there is no future. What kind of future is there for someone who has to trample on others to preserve his place? Furthermore, if music is merely used as a tool, it is not worth it.
What did you think of the Zandari Festa music festival this year? Do you feel it continues to improve or would you like to see any changes?
Zandari Festa may seem to repeat the same format every year, but when you take a closer look, members of the inner planning team are growing and becoming more diverse. It is not likely that there will be any major changes in the near future, but we are looking forward to maintaining steady development. Change is good, but I think keeping it like that is also beautiful.
What other festivals are good to attend in Korea?
We recommend the DMZ PEACE TRAIN MUSIC FESTIVAL, which is holding its second event this year. The location and timing of the event are meaningful. Korean music festivals are proof that it is possible to host independent events which have meaning and energy at the same time.
How were your experiences touring in the UK? Do you have any memorable moments that you would like to share?
I’ve been part of six British tours from 2014 to 2017. I have beautiful memories from three consecutive years playing at Liverpool Sound City, having performances on a sailboat, a messy home party at Astbury Castle, performances hosted by the Korean Cultural Centre where audiences showed great interest in Korean culture beyond our music, meeting great bands, hearing the stories of event planners and friends from Britain, gaining confidence while touring, meeting punk rocker Al Damidge at a highway pitstop… Many precious memories come to mind whenever I recall meeting his band.
Your collaboration with HEYNAM on the song ‘Night Flight’ and ‘My Sun’ were extremely enjoyable, especially the bright melodies, powerful guitar riffs and bassline. How did the ideas of the song come together? Did you have an idea in advance about the sound you would create?
Some of the songs from “HEYNAM SiN X PATiENTS” were written when I was much younger and some were written more recently. The songs are released in no particular order. I’ve been writing songs since my teens, despite not all of them being released. Among them, I had a song I really liked, but thought it would be awkward if I sang them myself. “Night Flight” is about loneliness, affection, and faint hope, but it seemed that HEYNAM, a beautiful woman in her 20’s, could add more life to the song than me, a man in his 30s. I feel the same about ‘My Sun’ and other love songs; that it is better for HEYNAM to sing them.
UGLY MOTHERS CLUB wanted to slander the meaningless and exaggerated censorship system of Korea, and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, but if such a song was sung by a man it could spark controversy over unwanted gender discrimination and sexual confrontation. So I thought it would be best for HEYNAM to perform it. I hope that regardless of gender, that what is wrong is pointed out. For “ON MY WAY” and soon-to-be-released “NEW WORLD,” the song was written and composed from the beginning as a song by HEYNAM SiN X PATiENTS. The members of HEYNAM SiN X PATiENTS sang about the path they wanted to take and the world they wanted to meet.
You have also released more songs together as HEYNAM SiN x PATiENTS. Will this be a long-term collaboration? What do you think each of your strengths are? Was it easy to work together because you are both involved in Club Steel Face?
We didn’t set a strict limit to our collaboration period. We are a band that is musically close but close as colleagues too. We are working together to present more beautiful songs. The strength of each member…first of all, I am a very nice person. In South Korea, where K-pop thrives, I am considered less sexy than K-pop male singers, which is a loss for me as a musician, but I feel that this is a cover for what I’m really like.
As for HEYNAM, she is a person who looks cool on the outside, but is actually even cooler on the inside. She is righteous, sincere and delicate yet brave. I fall for that part of her when we play music together. Of course, her charming voice is a big reason for playing music together as well. The base line is also fun. Suwon is a man who can simply be described as the ‘drummer.’ He has great skills and techniques and really is a wonderful drummer.
What songs do you most enjoy playing and what songs are you most proud of making?
I love all of the songs as if they were my own children, but the ones I love performing as PATiENTS is ‘18세기(Sipalsegi)’, ‘Space Call Girl’. The ones I am most proud of are ‘18세기(Sipalsegi)’ and HEYNAM SiN X PATiENTS ‘Night Flight’. The lyrics I love the most are ‘A Boy Who Turns Into A Dog’, and ‘Night Flight’. These songs didn’t particularly communicate well on my tours abroad but took pleasure in writing the Korean lyrics.
What do you like to do other than music?
I like drawing and writing. Before forming the band, I would do a lot of drawing and writing. I loved working on the cover art of the album before releasing it.
What are your favourite foods and drink?
I love Korean and Italian food. I like drinking Punk IPA beer, red wine, and Scotch whiskey.
If you could invite any 4 people to a once-in-a-lifetime dinner event, who would you choose?
John Rydon (of the Sex Pistols, PiL), Mads Mikkelsen (Actor), Captain Sensible (of the Damned), and Haruka Ayase (Actor).
What other things are you looking forward to this year?
Releasing new songs, performing on shows, touring, reading the books I haven’t had the time to read, and dieting.
(Original responses were translated by Song Y Yoon, and partially edited for clarity)
Feature image and in-article images © Jo Sumin. 20.05.2019. All rights reserved. Copyright belongs to the artist. Images were used with permission from the interviewee. No reproduction is permitted.
© Interview with Jo Sumin. 03.06.2019. Translation credit: Song Y Yoon. Edited by Louisa Lee and John O’Donnell. Inspire Me Korea.