You looked like you were trying not to laugh during Middle of the Night at the Golden Disk Awards. What happened?
I messed up during rehearsals. My voice cracked. But also I was just having fun onstage. I guess it looked like I was holding back a laugh.
What was the most trivial or the most serious thing you talked about with your members recently?
When I got home from the studio yesterday, Jooheon was running around preparing a birthday surprise for Hyungwon by himself. We spent a long time discussing where we should hide and how we should surprise him. In the end, the surprise didn’t work very well but Hyungwon was still really happy. Then the three of us had chicken and beer and seriously debated the differences between CrossFit and bodybuilding.
Any resolutions for the new year? Or anything you’ve decided to give up?
I resolved to update my SNS a lot. I made an instagram account a few days ago. So far I’ve only uploaded three things, a picture of my studio, a video of me rehearsing choreography, and a video of me jogging in Central Park from when we were in New York for our US album. I feel like I should upload more pictures with a purpose and not just things that are too ordinary. And for this year, I give up on trying to be ‘young and fresh.’ (Laughs)
In our last interview, you said you don’t naturally have a lot of youthful freshness. In the year 2021 are you fully calling it quits?
Yup. Cuteness and freshness. I give up.
What would you say is the moment most worth commemorating in your career as Monsta X?
I don’t think any one moment really stands out. I think we’ve been building up our profile and making an impression bit by bit. If I really have to pick, I’d commemorate the moment Monsta X was created. We debuted on May 14th. I remember the waiting room most of all. Rookies are all put in one big hall with a bunch of dividers. There are so many artists and not enough rooms for all of them. When we were starting out, we were always in that waiting room space. Some singers were talking loudly, some were warming up their voices, some were just quiet, all sorts. And we always ate in the hallways. We were so full of passion back then and we thought we could take on the whole world. We thought we could do anything. We always thought, ‘we may be behind right now but it’s not because we’re not good enough.’ Of course, the world didn’t turn out to be as easy a place as we thought.
What are you most proud of yourself for?
The fact that I’ve been working steadily all this time and the appreciation I have for our fans.
Any compliments from your fans that you’re particularly satisfied with?
“I was shocked at how handsome you look on TV.” (Laughs)
If you had the chance to interview your members, what would you ask them?
I would ask them when they feel most sure of themselves as artists.
What do you think of the Naked Heat eyeshadow you used in your photoshoot?
Not that we can go now but it makes me think of a party. It’s got a lot of bold eye colors you could use if you’re going somewhere fancy or glamorous, or to give yourself a special kind of aura. Like you’ll own any room you walk into. (Laughs)
If you were to make a Youtube playlist, what would the theme be?
‘Songs to listen to as you drive’ or ’Songs that make you feel less lonely.’ For the first song on my driving playlist, I would put Show Me How by Men I Trust. For the first song on the ‘less lonely’ playlist, On 11 by Destiny Rogers would be nice.
You’ve produced and written a lot of songs for Monsta X. What do you think is the broader direction MX needs to take?
If I were to use a keyword to describe our direction, I’d say ‘warriors.’ The image of Monsta X that I have in my head is of warriors wielding swords and leading the charge at the frontlines of a battlefield. I imagine that kind of power that no one on earth can bring down when I’m making music.
If you’re warriors, what are you fighting against?
I always believe the message of music matters a lot. We want to be proactive in living our lives but there’s a lot of pressure forcing us to be passive. I want to speak up about the invisible battles we fight against the kind of scrutiny that isolates and torments us. I want to make music that gives us a sense of liberation, that unlocks a sense of freedom.
Which song do you think best expresses those themes?
Flow. I got really emotional when I was writing that song. I was so thankful for the fact that I could be here making this sort of music and I was really committed to the song. It felt like I was writing a movie script or something. I heard Michael Jackson once said, “making music requires more heart than anything else” and I believe that’s what I was feeling. I put in all the things that I was going through when I was feeling unwell. Same with the song SMOKY off of my mixtape. The road ahead seemed so bleak, a big part of me really wanted to just let it all go. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I’ve worked as hard as anyone else out there. Even when we were training, I would practice rapping, singing, dancing, writing songs and lyrics while the other guys slept. So I did all of that but when what came back to us wasn’t good, I couldn’t help but feel broken down. Like, I kept thinking “I worked that much and tried that hard for this?”
So how did you work through that setback?
I tend to break through that sort of thing pretty quickly. Exercising helped me overcome a lot. I work out with CrossFit really often. This might sound lame but I honestly believe CrossFit reflects life. The difficulty of CrossFit is nothing compared to the complicated and challenging issues that come up in life.
You must be aware of the members’ more subtle talents and styles. For example, Minhyuk’s voice in Flow, Hyungwon and Kihyun in By My Side or Shownu in Miss You, are all utilized very well. What different sides of the members have you discovered while working on music with them?
Each member has individual rhythms and patterns to their speech. And those habits show up when they’re singing. Hyungwon’s pronunciation is thick. Each syllable rolls around his mouth so his lines need to take time. So the layback technique, when the beats are pushed slightly late and off-rhythm, works well for him. I try to apply that to his parts. Kihyun can’t pronounce ’s’ sounds very well. So those ’s’ sounds need to be opened up to not draw attention to that. In other words, he can belt them out on high notes. I arrange the melody parts to match the members that suit them. Shownu has a strong R&B tone to his voice, so I like to adjust the backing track to fit it. When the members hearing the guide tracks that I record, they already know which parts are theirs. I believe it’s the job of the person writing the song to tailor it to the singers like that.
What steps do you think MX should take next?
I believe performance is a craft. I think a lot of different agencies are currently battling it out with different concepts. But I say you have to approach it the other way. You should stay open and not get too constrained to a certain style. You should have the ability to make any performance impressive. Instead of relying on a sexy concept, or a fierce concept, Monsta X in and of ourselves should be the genre we perform.
Tell us about a time when you had to put your faith in music to get you through something difficult.
I auditioned a lot when I was younger and failed almost every time. I think I was in middle school, one day I was practicing the drums at school and I don’t know, I just felt weirdly good that day. And sure enough, a friend shows up and says there’s someone behind the school building who’s looking for me. For a second, I thought I was going to get beat up. (Laughs) But some guy was there saying he was passing by when he heard me drumming and thought it sounded good so he gave me his agency business card. It’s not easy but I believe the key is to be consistent. You have to build up your skills enough to be able to seize the opportunities when they come to you.
The shirt you’re wearing happens to say ‘Art Changes Life’ on it. Would you agree?
Absolutely. I like this quote a lot.
Have you used Urban Decay products before?
Our choreography is intense and we sweat a lot when we’re performing so setting spray is an absolute must for us. We heard Urban Decay setting spray was the best so we tried it and it works superbly. And we’ve been using the Naked palette since we debuted. I was wearing a glittery gold shade from the Naked Honey palette for today’s shoot and I really liked it. I think it looks better on skin than in the palette. We also use the Eyeshadow Primer Potion a lot. You know, the one with the cap that looks like a crystal.
Your voice often provides the emotional resonance in Monsta X’s songs, for instance your parts in Jealousy and Miss You. In Party Time, you bring a lot of elegance and flair. What do you personally think your voice adds to the tone of MX’s music?
I used to think my voice didn’t have any real defining characteristics. That actually stressed me out a lot. But after debuting, I realized that just means I have the versatility to perform all sorts of songs.
What does it mean to be the main vocal of an idol group? It carries a lot of responsibility, doesn’t it?
Can I be honest with you? (Laughs) I think I make up at least 60% of any given song. All the choruses and ad-libs that aren’t very audible, that’s almost all me. They might not be obvious but all those parts are necessary to make a song sound full and complete. I’m sure this is the case for every main vocal in every group but I always arrive first on recording days and don’t leave until the very end.
Which MX songs are you especially fond of?
I like every song on our US album, All About Luv. Our previous songs were meant to be seen rather than just heard, but every song on that album is just a good listen. There are some with a band-based sound and more lyrical ones too. I liked Love Killa a lot. I thought it was really stylish. I liked Jealousy. I also really liked Dramarama. The music, the performance, the styling, the three beats came together perfectly.
In the previous year, MX concluded a successful round of promotions in the US and released an acclaimed full-length album. What are you looking forward to this year?
Personally, this last year was really hollow for me. Due to the pandemic, we spent from April through about July just wasting time, doing nothing. We were practically forced to take time off and couldn’t enjoy it at all. I think a lot of idols must have felt that way. We’re not used to not working, so we had no idea what do do with ourselves. We just ended up feeling lost and listless. Because we’re artists who weren’t able to perform. I think that’s why some of our members started working out again. So in 2021, rather than really achieving something new, I want to do all the things that were put off in 2020, including our tour. I want the chance to properly show off the songs from our 2020 albums.
Have you ever had a moment when you surprised by how music affected you?
Last spring, I recorded a cover of Believer by Imagine Dragons. All of the members, including me, were mentally and emotionally struggling a lot at the time. There’s a part in the lyrics that goes, ‘I’m the one at sail, I’m the master of my sea.’ To me, that means, ‘You say what you want, I’ll do what I want anyways’ and I really threw myself into singing it with all the emotion I could muster. The things that the song were speaking about sounded so much like the things we were struggling with. After that recording, I felt a huge sense of release. At the risk of sounding corny, I really did feel the power of music. I think it was all the more powerful because I don’t usually talk about my personal issues a lot. I hope a lot of people understand what I was trying to communicate with that song. I really did my best.
What kind of life do you want to make for yourself going forwards?
I used to have a lot of specific things that I wanted to accomplish, but I don’t really have any grand goals anymore. I just want to spend my life doing what I like to do, including music, for a long time.
You guys have enjoyed a lot of success in the US. Since you play such a central role in your interviews there, I’m sure you felt the response most directly. What do you think is ultimately responsible for that success?
It was good timing. There were a lot of sunbaes who had paved the way for us so were weren’t breaking new ground with nothing. Of course, we ourselves also worked hard. I try to be as casual as possible in interviews with foreign media, trying to create the feeling of us talking amongst ourselves. It’s okay if the members can’t speak English very well, I just want them to speak comfortably and I tried to make them feel like they could do that. I think people appreciate that side of us.
We hear you’ve got an upcoming solo album soon to be released. What are you planning to show us? How will this be different from your previous mixtapes?
Monsta X obviously puts forth a lot of intense, energetic performances but that’s actually not very me. My solo album will be closer to the musical direction that I personally want to pursue. I particularly wanted to explore this idea of paradoxical feelings. Like when you’re smiling but you don’t want to be, when you’re act like things are okay when they’re actually not, feelings like that. But I don’t want to do any music shows for the album. I don’t want to promote or perform by myself, I just wanted to release my own material.
Your voice is instrumental in setting the tone for songs like Last Carnival or Love Killa. You’ve also composed songs like U R from your 7th mini that showcase the members’ individual talents. How do you personally measure the balance between your talent and hard work?
More than any inherent talent, I rely a lot on learning, studying and putting work into making music. I’m thankful that I was gifted with a good voice but then it’s up to me to figure out how to best make something with it. Unlike when I’m rapping, I have to think a lot about whether it’s best to relax my vocal chords more or emphasize my breathing, or if I should just make the kind of song that I can sing more loosely.
What sort of things influence you when you’re making music?
A lot of it is in my imagination, and since I’m spending so much time at home and at my studio, I’m getting a lot of inspiration from the objects around me. For Night View, the song that I made with my crew, I had this image of moonlight coming through a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and turning the night blue. I imagined putting the moon in the bottle of gin. The glass of the bottle is blue and I imagined that color spreading throughout the darkness of night. One time I was lighting a candle and I imagined myself pulling all the things from my past that I wanted to get rid of out of my head and burning them up in the flame. That song is on the album too.
Being in an idol group naturally demands a lot of energy and cheer, but you have a different sort of atmosphere and pace. How do you maintain this personal rhythm of yours?
There’s definitely a gap there and I struggled with that for a while after debuting. But once I accepted it as a part of myself, it became easier to deal with. And I started thinking, ‘I should take the chance to express this side of me while I can.’ It’s a constant process of compromising and negotiating with myself, to this day.
What do you do when those thoughts start to feel overwhelming?
Air it out. If you physically get some fresh air, it helps clear out your thoughts as well. I don’t like to take hot showers these days, even though the weather is freezing. Cold water feels more cleansing. If you’re too warm all the time, you start feeling more and more lethargic. I was looking around me for things that I could change to stimulate myself and cold water came to mind.
Can you tell us about the meaning behind your tattoos?
The one on my wrist was done spontaneously. It popped in my head, I put it down in my phone and I liked it, so I asked them do it exactly like this. From one side it’s a frown and from the other it’s a smile. It’s that paradox I was talking about earlier. The duality of how I seem and how I really am. On my back, I have the quote, ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown.’ I put it there to remind me to endure and be strong when things are tough. I also have a cross and a sword with three roses on my back. It’s a bit complex. My favorite color is purple. As you know, purple comes from blue and red. So I have a tattoo of a purple rose and then a blue one and a red one beside it. There’s the right amount of passion and the right amount of peace, then the combination of those, and that’s where I am. The cross is there to protect me. I think I made it all sound a little too grandiose, but essentially the tattoos are about me and my sense of self.
Since the name of our magazine is Beauty+, what’s something that you found beauty in recently?
I've found that even withered flowers can be beautiful. Even dry flowers are beautiful.
You’re well-known for being remarkably laidback, but there must be something that makes even you feel rushed or impatient?
By now, I’ve realized that I get back what I put in. Instead of being in a rush to get more things done right now and succeed bigger and faster, I’m more focused on being consistent and stable. Obviously I still have a long way to go but I think putting in consistent, steady work and practice allowed me to create music that resonated with people. If I just keep up the steady effort, I hope I can build up my own songs bit by bit. Same goes for dancing, singing, all of it.
You wrote the song Nobody Else from your third full-length album FATAL LOVE. What images did you have in mind as you were writing the song?
It just started with me picturing Shownu dancing during the hook of the song. I was humming some melody to myself and I imagined Shownu body-waving and thought it would look really cool. Then I thought, this part would be good for Kihyun, this one for Jooheon and I just filled it in with the members, one by one.
What motivates you to keep writing music?
It’s the ability to express my thoughts in a completely different form. I can put in my own experiences but I can also express things I’ll never experience or things that haven’t happened but I’m hoping for. There’s no limit to what I can express and that makes it interesting.
We heard you take a lot of notes in your phone. Do you have any other good ideas written down?
I wrote down the line, “Don’t forget to notice the collateral beauty.” It’s a quote from the Will Smith movie. I heard that and it sparked something in me. I’d like to write a song about that theme someday. There’s also a lyric I want to use in the future, ‘Another day of mine that belongs to you.’ I just write stuff like that down when it comes to me every now and then.
Tell us about a moment when a song deeply resonated with you.
One time I cried while I was listening to Exhale by Sabrina Carpenter. To be fair, I was kind of drunk at the time (laughs) but I’d never done that before. The lyrics, ‘Can I exhale for a minute? Can I get this out in the open? Can I sit down for a second? Can I breathe?’ suddenly just hit me hard. It’s a song I’ve liked for a long time but I don’t know why it felt different that day. I guess I just empathized with it.
Where do think that sensitivity of yours comes from?
My parents. My father was always incredibly strict. But sometimes he’d cry quietly when we were watching movies together. I think I got that from him. I get really into the characters or situations when I watch movies.
A few days ago, you received Best Group at the Golden Disk Awards. What does being Best Group mean to you?
It means whatever we accomplished, we did it together so it’s a huge honor for us as a team. There are so many great groups and artists out there right now, I wasn’t really expecting us to win. It felt like our hard work as a team paid off. But there is one thing that we pride ourselves on. We have a really close connection when we’re on stage, and even more when we’re off. We rely on each other just as much as, or even more than, family. I’m so used to being with the members by now that it scares me a little bit. I’m so used to being with them but there will be a day, some time in the future, when we can’t be together like this and it scares me to think about that.
There are some songs like Follow and Jealousy, where a lot of fans are begging, “come back and do this song again, we’ll pretend we’ve never heard it before.” If you had the chance to promote any of your old songs again, which would you choose?
I.M’s song U R is great but sadly we hardly ever got to perform it. We do our flashy title songs a lot but we don’t get to perform our slower b-sides very often. It would be fun to perform it with like standing mics and dressed in something like white shirts, looking obviously tragic. And I want to do Dramarama one more time. We’ve always worked hard but we worked ridiculously hard on Dramarama. We practiced so long that our practice room steamed up with sweat, the mirrors were completely fogged over and the floors were all slippery. I naturally don’t sweat very much but we practiced so long that my clothes were completely soaked through.
Why do you think you did that?
I’m not sure. Nobody even told us to, we just did it. And then the fact we got our first music show #1 for a song that we worked so hard on, it felt even more significant.
You’re so aware of what your fans like and push your members to make it happen; a lot of fans wonder if you’re not a Monbebe yourself. Do you think that’s your duty as an idol?
It’s sort of a rule for myself. I like to do my best to give our fans what they want. A few days ago on my radio show Vogue Shipshow, Kihyun was a guest and the fans asked us to sing a song we didn’t know very well. We didn’t know all the lyrics or the melody but we gave it our best because it’s what our fans wanted. All of our members are kind of like that.
Would you consider yourself to be mentally tough?
No, I actually wouldn’t. Doing stuff like aegyo is actually kind of hard for me. (Laughs) It’s getting harder as I get older. But the more you start thinking that way, the harder it gets. Approaching it more like, ‘Is this what you want to see? Okay then,’ is better for my state of my mind and better for our fans. There’s no one right answer but I personally think we should be positive about what our fans like and always give it a shot.
You’re known as the ‘fun’ one but surely you must get lonely and downcast too. What do you do when that happens?
Of course I do. I’m actually a serious homebody. On my days off, I don’t even go outside to get fresh air. I have a lot of energy but not much stamina. I’ll use up all my energy at the photoshoot today, then I’ll go home and I won’t be able do anything else. I’ll just lie in bed. If I have a couple days to rest maybe I’ll paint something but if I don’t have that much time, I can’t even do that. The way I am when I’m working in front of others and the way I am when I’m relaxing by myself is actually pretty different. That started bothering me a lot at the end of last year, but it’s okay now. Sometimes I fall in a slump and then I come out of it and I go back and forth sometimes. If I start drowning in my thoughts, I just let them wash over me. Setting up rules for myself when that happens only makes it harder to deal with. If I’m not happy, then I’m not happy and if I am, then I am.
What kind of relationship is it, being members in the same group?
I think we have to be closer than family. There’s no set timeline to your real family. Being away from them for long doesn’t really change much or cause problems. But that’s not the case with an idol group. To be honest, I’m more comfortable with the members than anyone else in the world. These days, I’m more comfortable with them than with my actual family.
Which of Monsta X’s performances was most meaningful to you?
In 2015, the year we debuted, we went to perform at KCON at the Staples Center in LA. We were brand new rookies and nobody knew who we were. We came down off stage after our performance and sort of offhandedly said, “Let’s come back here on our own someday.” In 2019, we held a solo concert there as part of our WE ARE HERE World Tour. It’s a huge arena and it was an intense, moving experience. We actually followed through on what we said as rookies so I'd say that was the most memorable to me.
You’ve clearly got a lot of quick wit and talent as a current MC of SBS Inkigayo. What is something you want to try as a member of MX and what’s something you want to try for yourself?
As a group, instead of trying something new, we just want to go back to doing what we’ve always done and perform for our fans. For me personally, I want to be part of a reality variety show like “Family Outing” or something. Working with more sunbaes would be a great learning experience.
We saw that you like discussing scientific topics with Kihyun and I.M. What’s one question about the universe that you want to know the answer to?
We still haven’t discovered any signs of extraterrestrial life on other planets. Not even microscopic organisms. I’m most interested in finding out whether or not they actually exist. Are there other beings in the universe besides us? And if we find proof of them, I’m curious to see how it’ll affect the fields of science and religion. Even if it’s only microbes, I really want to know whether or not there’s any life out there before I die.
And thirst traps
The photos are still helllla basic but this is a great (and whew, extensive) interview covering a whole lot from product placement to aliens to existential crises
I have a lot of feelings about it but mostly I'm glad they can acknowledge that things were not okay, even if there's still a lot they can't say
++ thank you so much for your patience, mods!! Source code + html = mighty struggles ^_T