Korean Alternative Pop Band LEENALCHI on How Travel and Music Collide
The genre-bending group shares their favorite travel memories, top tips for experiencing Korean traditional music culture in Seoul and dream music festivals that they hope to play at in the future.
At their core, popular Korean music group LEENALCHI – known for their vibrant, evocative and haunting narrative tracks that have captivated listeners all across the globe – considers themselves to be a pop band.
Although their free-wheeling repertoire includes strong elements of pansori – a form of Korean traditional music that emphasizes storytelling – and some new wave aspects, they stress that the main sound they aim to achieve through their seemingly genre-bending music is pop. “As we converge different styles, we’re certainly not a conventional band,” says bassist Jang Young Gyu. “But that gives us our unique identity.”
Seoul’s vibrant music culture
LEENALCHI’s identity is firmly rooted in the country that they call home. According to the band, Seoul in particular has a thriving and diverse music scene, and is where many of Korea’s musicians come to hone their craft as part of close-knit communities.
Different areas of the city have their own musical identities, and those working and creating sounds in a specific genre tend to gravitate towards those districts. For instance, the bustling university area of Hongdae is where many bands congregate. Meanwhile, the Korean traditional music community hangs out, practices and performs together in the Yangjae-dong suburb.
If someone were to visit LEENALCHI in Seoul and wanted to experience Gugak, or Korean traditional music, the band would usually take them to music studios or to small house concerts, as they believe that this offers a direct and personal experience in an intimate setting. “We think that this is a great way to make Korean traditional music accessible to the listener and to give them a special experience,” Young Gyu stresses. Of course, venues like the National Theater of Korea put out a robust calendar of live shows, which visitors can also check out if they want to experience Korean traditional music in a big concert hall.
Exploring their own backyard
As LEENALCHI was only formed in 2019, right before the pandemic hit, the band hasn’t gotten the chance to travel together internationally. However, they’ve been lucky enough to visit a few destinations within Korea to perform over the past year. During these trips, they usually like to stay on for at least half a day following their show, so that they can explore the city together and get to know it a little better.
In 2020, LEENALCHI also participated in a campaign with the Korean Tourism Organization to promote various domestic destinations, such as Seoul, Jeonju, Busan and Gangneung. During the campaign they had the opportunity to visit Mokpo and Andong. For some band members it was the first time to visit these cities and they were extremely excited for the opportunity to do so as part of this initiative.
“As we worked on the project and were able to travel to these diverse places, we truly realized and appreciated just how many wonderful destinations there are to visit within Korea itself,” says vocalist Lee Na Rae, adding that it was a special experience for the band to be able to visit these cities together. “It really gave us a newfound appreciation for domestic travel.”
This was especially so when LEENALCHI ventured to the beautiful city of Andong, which totally surpassed their wildest expectations. “We didn’t know what to expect, but we felt as if we’d uncovered a hidden secret of Korea,” Na Rae reminisces. While in Andong, they even had the chance to visit the historic structure of Byeongsan Seowon – an old academic building that was an important site during the Joseon Dynasty centuries ago.
“We didn’t know what to expect, but we felt as if we’d uncovered a hidden secret of Korea” – Na Rae
Plans for future travels
Indeed, traveling forms an important part of the brand’s creative process – both individually and collectively. According to LEENALCHI’s members, exploring new places inspires them greatly and helps them with making their music. It’s also very important for them to understand more about historic cultures and experience different communities, as they feel that this brings about greater understanding and togetherness.
Once the world opens up again, the band is eager to take a long-awaited vacation together to bond, as well as travel abroad for further gigs. They would also love to participate in a global music festival – with Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California being one of the top spots on their list.
LEENALCHI was initially slated to perform at the important DMZ Peace Train Music Festival last year, which is held near the Korean demilitarized zone. Unfortunately, it had to be called off due to the pandemic, and the band was crushed. “It’s a very meaningful music festival given its associations with peace, so we were really excited about it,” Na Rae says. “We definitely can’t wait to perform there in the future.”
LEENALCHI’s Different Members Share Their Favourite Travel Memories
The individual musicians each tell us about their favorite trips – including embarking on a serene honeymoon in Iceland and attending a vibrant carnival in South America – and how music from different cultures has inspired them creatively.
Jang Young Gyu
Young Gyu decided to make it his goal to collaborate with one of the region’s talented street performers. He ended up meeting an accordion player from Russia on a bridge in Berlin, and the pair went on to compose and record music that would eventually end up being featured in a film.
Another great travel experience he had was attending the Barranquilla Carnival in Colombia, where he was exposed to local music that he’d never heard before. “It was super unique, and the sounds were so unfamiliar to me,” he recalls. “I remember trying so hard to figure out how the rhythms and percussion worked. It’s really very different from Korean traditional music, so it was hard for me to understand it with my existing knowledge. That was a great learning experience.”
Living in a fast-paced city like Seoul, Young Gyu admits that he rarely has time by himself to think as he goes about his regular routine. Travelling serves as an antidote by offering some space for him to organize his thoughts, reflect on life and ponder the future. “Everything gets loaded in during my busy life,” he says. “Leisure trips allow me to empty out anything that doesn’t serve me any longer.“
Lee Na Rae
Vocalist Lee Na Rae likes to remember her travel experiences through music. “When I go somewhere, I like to think of a song that perfectly captures the moment. And so, when I listen to that song after returning home, the memories come flooding back,” she reveals.
Na Rae cites an example of this as when LEENALCHI visited Busan as part of their project with the Korean Tourism Organization. When their song “어류도감” (“A Fish Map”) started to play, it became the perfect way for her to encapsulate the experience. “Now, whenever I listen to that song, I think of the city and the entire scene that I saw before me: the beautiful sky, the beach and the seagulls,” she says. “I think this is something that everyone can try as a way to capture their own travel memories.”
Before COVID-19 broke out, she wasn’t the type of person who thought that it was essential to take at least one leisurely trip a year. Her work always took priority, and most of her trips were centered on her profession. However, the pandemic has changed her perspective.
“I’ve realized it’s important to get the chance to spend and share time with people who are special to me – which is especially hard to do now given social-distancing restrictions,” she says. “I’ve really missed having that opportunity, and I hope to do it again soon.”
Ahn Yi Ho
One of vocalist Ahn Yi Ho’s most memorable trips was to Jeju Island. “The rest of the band went back to Seoul after our performance, but I decided to extend my visit by one more day – which is something that I wouldn’t usually do,” he says. “I rented a car and drove around the island without a destination in mind, and without referring to a map or GPS system. I took multiple dips in the ocean along the way, and only stopped to eat when I was hungry. Eventually, the road I was on ended at a desolate forest, just as the sun was setting. It was a surreal experience.”
Another cherished travel memory was from an expedition he took to a valley with her neighbors when he was young. “There was a stream where people could swim or even dive. We made a fire, caught fish using a small round net and cooked it with ramen and grilled meat,” he says, adding that they even set up a tent and slept overnight in the great outdoors. “I look back on this trip fondly, because it’s not really possible to have this kind of experience anymore.”
Kwon Song Hee
Travel has had a huge influence on vocalist Kwon Song Hee’s creative process. When she’s overseas, she makes it a point to experience the culture of a destination through signature aspects of its music scene. “I’ve gone to West End musicals in London; band concerts in Galway, Ireland; electronic dance music clubs in Ibiza; flamenco concerts in Seville, Spain; and Chinese opera performances in Beijing,” she reminisces. “All of this allowed me to truly immerse myself in the vividness and intricacies of these music scenes, which you can’t experience from watching videos online.”
Song Hee is particularly inspired by the local music cultures of Spain, Iceland and India. “In Spain, I visited different clubs, each of which had a diverse theme, concept and identity,” she reveals. “I loved how the whole experience changed depending on the venue you went to – it was impossible to get bored.”
Meanwhile, Iceland is home to many of her favorite musicians, such as Björk, Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Sigur Rós. “Their music evokes a common sensibility that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. But when I went to Iceland for my honeymoon, I instantly realized how the sheer beauty of the country inspired all those musicians to create their beautiful music,” she says.
Finally, she has a friend from India who always sings as he meditates. “I find myself attracted to the unique melodies and tones of the traditional music,” she says. “It’s great to watch him close his eyes and sing in the forest against a backdrop of instruments playing.”
Shin Yu Jin
Besides missing traveling, vocalist Shin Yu Jin longs for the ordinary rhythm of daily life before the pandemic. She is grateful that LEENALCHI has had an ongoing performance and shooting schedule within Korea, which allowed her to travel around the country with the band. Some of the places they visited were Ulsan, Gwangju, Jeonju, Tongyeong, Jeju Island and Marado Island. “During these trips, I was able to relax and experience the local atmosphere, so it satisfied a little bit of my thirst for travel,” she says.
Once the pandemic is over, she would like to embark on a trip that’s purely for leisure. “I would also really like to travel to various countries in Europe with the rest of the band,” she says. “I want to see how Europeans feel about our music. It would also be great to go on a food trip to France, since we are all very serious about our food!”
“Travelling should be fun, so I think that your playlist should be, too.” – Chul Hee
Lee Chul Hee
Drummer Lee Chul Hee believes that when the world finally gets moving again, people will be raring to get up and go. However, at least in the early stages, they may choose to make a beeline for more remote or sequestered places, and perhaps avoid the bigger cities.
For him, putting together the right travel playlist is all about matching the mood of the moment. It depends on the weather, the atmosphere and the feeling you may have on a specific day, or when you’re in a certain city. “Personally, I like bright and upbeat music, so I’ll usually listen to disco classics from the ‘80s, as well as Boney M. and ABBA,” he reveals. “Travelling should be fun, so I think that your playlist should be, too.”