WORDS: SEAN HUBBARD
Flagship South Korean hardcore band The Geeks have been leaders of Korean straight-edge culture since their inception in 1999. While they are not as widely known in the west as contemporaries in American and British hardcore bands are, their influence in spreading hardcore culture throughout Asia cannot be understated, having been the first Korean hardcore band to tour across Europe and North America. Vocalist Seo Kiseok spoke at length about the difficulties they faced as a Korean act, revealing that they struggled with achieving any overseas success because of the lack of western distributors that would stock their vinyl, and it wasn’t until music sharing on the internet began in earnest that they would have more interest from abroad, more specifically saying that “Myspace really helped us out, it was a gateway to an international presence and exposed far more people to our music.”
Because it was so difficult for their music to expand out of Korea it meant that The Geeks had to adopt a DIY ethos to getting work done, including booking all their own shows as “we never really had a label or booking agency so had to do everything ourselves and I’m still doing it.” This attitude of hard work has helped them stay humble and avoid any ‘rockstar’ attitude, and Seo himself continues to book shows, reflecting that “After 20 years we might have a legacy but I’m still doing a lot of things DIY.” His booking agency has also bought some of the biggest stars in western hardcore to South Korea, including Terror, Have Heart and Sick Of It All. His main inspiration behind continuing to do this is simply because there is no one else bringing these bands over, and also because The Geeks would not be able to play with their idols if there was no one else booking these shows.
“Hardcore and punk taught me how to think for myself and view the world differently, to grow and be myself”
The straight-edge nature of the band as a whole and Seo individually is a huge part of their mind-set, and is unique for a Korean band especially due to the heavy drinking culture that is embedded in Korea. “It’s not work hard, play hard, instead it is work hard, drink hard,” Seo admits, drinking culture is not so much a matter of relief and enjoying oneself after working hard but rather simply because of societal pressure to conform to cultural norms. He views living a straight-edge lifestyle in Korea as being far more difficult than in the United States or Europe purely because of the sheer pressure to be a drinker that comes from all of Korean society – “If someone senior at work offers you a drink and you refuse they can get really mad,” reflecting on a time where he was attacked for refusing to drink alcohol.
To be straight-edge is to be non-conformist in Korea, a country that Seo says used to value conformity over any other attribute. To go against the grain is often to cause outrage and to be ostracized, however Seo gained valuable experience as “Hardcore and punk taught me how to think for myself and view the world differently, to grow and be myself. I didn’t want to go completely against the grain but I wanted to make a peaceful difference.” That peaceful difference has included having a major hand in creating a South Korean punk scene, inspiring other bands into making music, and also proving to fellow Koreans that a straight-edge lifestyle is possible despite the societal pressure pushing the opposite direction.
“lots of kids in Asia are not really allowed to go outside of their country to explore music”
The positive mental attitude promoted by hardcore and the straight-edge movement is also something that Seo has gained valuable experience from, and it is something that he has found useful when dealing with the major pressure that Korean society tends to place on people. He feels that it is incredibly powerful, perhaps even more so than in the west, mainly because “the west strongly values individualism and pushing onesfelf ahead, whereas the Korean mind-set is all about not wanting to be left behind.” This is one of the unfortunate side effects of the rapid economic development of Korea since the Korean War, “the passion to improve was the driving force of our economic jump forward.” This is something that manifests itself very early on in life, with Seo describing his schooling hours as being 6am-1am and being under constant pressure to study.
For The Geeks it is continually important to work hard but the ethos behind their music is a very different kind of hard work than Korean society promotes. Instead they view the culture of punk and hardcore as an alternative to conformity, and as a way to gain life experience that many fellow Koreans do not, especially internationally as “lots of kids in Asia are not really allowed to go outside of their country to explore music.” Their success both domestically and internationally has opened the gates for further Korean musical exports, and has begun to alter the perception of straight-edge culture in South Korea into something positive. Seo has certainly managed to make the peaceful difference he dreamt of twenty years ago.