Balming Tiger

It’s 10am in Seoul, South Korea, and Balming Tiger’s Omega Sapien is telling NME about his efforts to work on his sleep schedule while he waits for his bandmates to join him on our video call. Between a busy run of international tour dates, chart-topping collaborations and creating new music, the rapper has found some time to rest – but not too much. It’s a lot to juggle all at once, but how else will Balming Tiger continue their mission to transform what it means to be a K-pop band if they slow down?

The diverse music collective and self-proclaimed “multinational alternative band” started out as friends who were active in Korea’s underground scene and, in some cases, already had successful solo careers. Eventually, the creatives came together with Sapien, performers Sogumm, BJ wnjn and Mudd the Student, producers San Yawn and Unsinkable, video directors Jan’ Qui and Leesuho, visual artist Chanhee Hong, DJ Abyss and writer Henson Hwang all making music and art under the Balming Tiger banner.

Though they’re proud to bring their culture to the rest of the world, the group aren’t interested in comprising on how they do so. They may not be what you’re looking for if polished, well-manicured and choreographed K-pop is your ideal. But, if you’re in the market for imperfect but imaginative and soulful R&B, bass-heavy hip-hop, or percolating rap tracks with raspy delivery, you’re in luck. Their releases so far have been creating buzz the world over, with their rhythmic funk sing-along ‘Just Fun!’ garnering millions of streams, the spiralling ‘Loop’ grabbing glowing reviews and their hypnotic track ‘Sexy Nukim’, which features RM of BTS, hitting No. 1 hit on Billboard’s ‘Hot Trending Songs’. The BTS icon has also cosigned the group, calling them “truly genuine and talented artists”.

Balming Tiger aren’t just fixated on reimagining the typical sonics and aesthetics of K-pop but popularising Asian youth culture worldwide, and that mission has already proven fruitful. In March, they picked up the Developing Act Grulke Prize at this year’s SXSW, an award that recognises promising acts breaking new creative ground and whose previous recipients include CHVRCHES, Haim and Leon Bridges. The band have also been gearing up for their first full-length release, sharing sneak peeks of their debut with ‘Sexy Nukim’, their buoyant positivity anthem ‘Trust Yourself’ and their latest single, an electric guitar romp called ‘SOS’. Last month, they played two sold-out gigs at New York City’s Baby’s Alright, and their next stop is making “Balming Tiger known all over the world”.

You had a lot of success at this year’s SXSW playing multiple sets and picking up the Grulke Prize. How was that experience for you?

Omega Sapien: “SXSW is a great experience but a challenge because you perform at the strangest places. We performed at Whole Foods at 3pm. We had to change the whole vibe of the set to family-friendly and put Whole Foods-esque songs in there and blurred out swear words. At the same time, the sound wasn’t working and the sound engineer was lying to us. But after that, you’re equipped for bigger stages. It’s like ‘Lollapalooza? Oh, that’s no big deal’.

“Last year we played a SXSW set at Soho House and there were only three people watching us and we got a cash voucher and it wasn’t even enough to cover our meal at the venue. But I get energy from the rest of the band even if there isn’t a crowd there. It’s a great learning experience, it prepares us for bigger stages and we’re always grateful to be there.”

Speaking of bigger stages, what are some of the places you’re most excited to play this year?

“Definitely Fuji Rock. It was on our list for quite some time but was delayed due to the virus. It’s such an iconic festival, one of the best in Asia. I remember saying in college, ‘I’m going to perform there someday’. Besides that, our fan favourite is Iceland Airwaves. We’ve never been there. Living in Asia, Iceland feels so far away, so we’re excited to go there.”

In a recent interview, you said “K-pop, is R&B, hip-hop and everything, so you can’t really specify what genre it is.” Do you think calling such a wide range of music K-pop is limiting?

“Having the ‘K’ in front – we’re all really proud of it because it represents all the hard work that not just our generation but previous generations [have put in]. I live with my grandma and she would tell us actual war stories, but now Korean people are on Billboard, we’re doing an interview with NME – it’s all amazing. We’re proud to be part of the K-pop culture and I can see how it can be easy to put all acts together and put a ‘K’ in front of it and call it all K-pop. Right now, when people think of K-pop, they think of groups like BLACKPINK, NewJeans and BTS, but as time goes on and as more artists like us emerge, the definition will naturally become more diversified. It’s just a matter of time.”

Balming Tiger
Balming Tiger CREDIT: Changhee Hong/Press

Why do you think your music has been resonating so much with fans, and what do you think makes you stand out in the world of K-pop?

“We show that it doesn’t have to be perfect. With a lot of Korean artists, it’s mandatory to go to the salon, get your hair done and have perfect makeup and perfect dance moves. For us, we aren’t even capable of doing perfect dance moves. We just feel comfortable in our own skin. There’s still a stigma there, especially for females, like with Sogumm saying she has to do her hair like this or wear makeup, and she doesn’t do that. We just go on stage, we just shoot videos. It’s a realistic representation of our lives. Our aim has never been to be perfect but to penetrate the global market.

“It’s hard to feel that when you’re in Asia, but when you’re in Europe or the US, when you become the minority, it hits us stronger that we have to do our own shit, that we add value to the world by doing our own thing. So we’re OK not being perfect; we’re just focusing on sharing our Asian culture and making Asian music.”

Do you recall a recent show or experience where you could see the reach of your music in real time?

“Mudd was saying it was when we did our biggest headline show in Los Angeles. It was at Echoplex. I remember it too, it was just so loud, and I remember so many people came to watch us. Usually, we go on stage and our mindset is, ‘Let’s give them good energy, let’s give them a good time’. But that was one of the first times we received the energy from the crowd – we left the show so energised. Usually, we control the crowd, but with that show in LA, the crowd controlled us.

“Also, for me growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t see Asian people in NBA, NFL, or in music, all the content that middle school students consume. I came from Korea and came to America and went to school, and I was lost; it was such a culture shock. I had nobody to look up to. There was a festival recently, I forget which one, but after, these two guys in their forties came up to us and said, ‘I wish I had Balming Tiger when I was growing up’. That’s why having that Asian pride is so important so kids now can look up to us and think, ‘Look at them they’re not trying too hard they’re just being themselves; I guess it’s OK to feel comfortable in my own skin.’”

You had a massive collab with RM of BTS last year – as far as future collaborations go, who is on your wishlist and why?

“Our answer is always the same. First, Tyler, The Creator. He’s a genius. We like artists who venture out not only just in music but fashion and video direction, people who have a big creative spectrum. Pharrell Williams is another artist we’d love to work with. Even though they come from a different place and different culture from us, I’ve always connected to them.”

What are you most excited about sharing with your fans next?

“Balming Tiger’s first full-length compilation album is coming. We’ve never worked so hard on something. Sometimes we’re lazy, but this was the first time we were all like ‘10am to 5pm no excuses, everybody show up’. We were in business mode. We put a lot of heart into this because it’s our first introduction to the world. We started from a one-bedroom apartment in Seoul, and now we’re about to shift the energy of the industry. This is a warning. Get ready.”

The post Balming Tiger: Alternative music collective pushing the boundaries of K-pop appeared first on NME.


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