Bang Yongguk left his K-Pop idol past behind; now he name-checks Kurt Cobain and confronts his mental health struggles in music

"I’m constantly living my life trapped in fear," the B.A.P frontman and solo artist tells Taylor Glasby

The date of the 27th has orbited Bang Yongguk’s life like a moon. The first ever London concert Yongguk played was at O2 Academy Brixton on April 27, 2014. He and the five other members of K-Pop group, B.A.P, did a pre-show interview where I recall him as attentive, but mostly silent, avoiding extended eye contact.

It was in stark contrast to Yongguk on stage; the charismatic rapper whose forceful, punchy delivery intimated a jumble of emotion and frustration below the surface.

Six months later, on November 27, it was alleged that B.A.P had filed a lawsuit against their agency regarding working conditions and profit distribution, putting the group out of the public eye for months. After reaching a settlement, B.A.P’s comeback single, ‘Young, Wild & Free’, netted them a win at one of Korea’s weekly music shows on November 27, 2015.

Last year, Yongguk’s contract with his agency expired and he left (as did all the members as their contracts ran out) to go solo. And right now, he’s sat in a London hotel lounge having arrived from Paris. His concert, where he’ll perform his eponymous, just-released debut album, is the next evening – March 27.

Yongguk is still a shy man. He wears a bucket hat so low that it’s hard to see his eyes but his speaking voice is as soothing and resonant as ever. Solo interviews aren’t that bad. “Now I can be honest, so it’s OK,” he says. Back then, he points out, he couldn’t be. It was easier to stay quiet.

Yongguk’s album tears off the idol skin he’s worn since debuting in 2012, but giving a voice to those silent years and his total creative control made for a tumultuous process. “I’d never done anything like this, so I felt a lot of pressure about whether I could do it on my own. I have the tendency to be a perfectionist,” he says softly. “When each aspect came together I received a lot of positive energy, but I don’t want to do an album like this again. It hurt too much.”

“I don’t want to do an album like this again. It hurt too much” – Bang Yongguk

‘Bang Yongguk’ knits dozens of sounds – from sensual R&B to jaunty space age synths – into a dense, complicated journey. It’s punctuated with sarcasm (the trap-meets-Chinese Pipa of ‘Xie Xie’), love and loss (a jazz instrumental, ‘Portrait’, and distorted electronica of ‘Hot and Cold’), but much of it reveals a life lived with introversion, loneliness and depression. His lyrics are based on the contents of his diary, the keeping of which was inspired by his grandfather who passed away during the early days of B.A.P.

“He’s the person I respect the most in this world,” Yongguk says. “By chance I found a diary he kept, read it, and started writing my own, thinking [one day] people that really liked me would read the stories in it, just like I remember my grandfather by reading his.”

Yongguk included two older songs in the tracklisting – ‘Portrait’ and ‘AM 4:44’. Released in 2015 during his group’s hiatus, the latter’s helplessness and fury are so potent that listening to it, even now, feels like a physical blow. “The assholes who ruined this are living with their bellies full”, he spits, “…I know I want to leave and put down the weight of reality that trapped me and just cry.”   

“The theme of this album is myself, and ‘AM 4:44’ fits best with that,” he explains. “It’s still hard emotionally when I listen to it but if this song wasn’t on this album, I don’t think I could call it ‘Bang Yongguk’.”

The final track, ‘See You Later’, rich with blues guitar and warped dance beats, wears a sense of the triumphant in its pacing. “Come and let’s have a drink, I’ll remember you forever, thank you and see you later,” he exhorts in the lyrics, name-checking artists (Cobain, Lennon, J Cole), family and friends like an acceptance speech. The basis of it, however, is a Will he wrote in his journal.

“I think I’m constantly living [my life] trapped in fear,” he says slowly. He sounds matter-of-fact but the particular Korean words he uses express the emotional profundity of his statement. “I thought the subject of my Will would be good as the last song because I had thoughts that this album could be my last. I don’t think I wrote anything too emotional. It’s a song that I made thinking it would be nice if they remember me when they hear ‘See You Later’.”

If anything captures the constantly swinging pendulum of light and shade that is Bang Yongguk, it’s this. A man who writes a song for others to play after he abandons music, or even his death, yet discusses it as calmly as you would the weather. Talking with Yongguk is to be laughing one moment, the next, experiencing an urge to grip him tight to this world.

“Finding happiness in life is the hardest thing,” Yongguk reflects. “I’m on tour, so I’m in a state of happiness, but my fans know how difficult it is for me to be back onstage. When I’m up there I get the feeling they’re holding me, it’s comforting.”

In October 2016, Yongguk took five months off from B.A.P, openly sharing his diagnosis of the panic disorder which prevented him performing. “When I was promoting as B.A.P, it was very hard mentally. When my contract expired, I stopped wanting to make music or be a public figure.”

During the first few months of leaving his agency, Yongguk hid himself; “Other than going for walks with my dog, I don’t think I left the house.” He began spending time with family, something his schedule hadn’t allowed for, and “one of the things I wanted to do was learn to play tennis. So I learned how to play tennis,” he smiles. “But there was a sense of emptiness and when I look back, that was me thinking, ‘I need to do music’.”

South Korea’s view of mental health has typically been unsympathetic; seen more as a weakness in personality than a legitimate health problem, many suffer in silence. There’s progress in changing perception and treatment, but it’s slow. Only a handful of idols, including Yongguk, have opened up about their struggles within K-Pop’s high-stress environment.

“I’ve always felt a lot of pressure towards myself,” he muses. “Even though I was doing my best, it was like, ‘what are you doing, you should be trying even harder’. When I was younger, I let it pass, not realising it was depression. I also thought maybe I’m too old to get help.”

MORE BY THE SAME AUTHOR: Meet Taemin, the melancholic megastar of K-Pop

“I’ve never felt embarrassed about myself in regards to this,” Yongguk adds. “I’m getting treatment and I’m diligent in taking my medication.” He pauses. “To be a little more honest, I’ve come to believe that I won’t be able to take myself out of this depression.”

His candour is painful but for years his fans have found in it a strength, a voice or a mirror to their own issues. They leave messages under his videos and social posts, some letting him know that he’s saved their lives. “When I see those messages I feel a strong sense of responsibility but embarrassment, too, I feel like I’m not worthy. When I look at myself, I feel that I’m weak,” he says, “but it’s like my fans are motivating me to get up and work.”

At his overcrowded gig, he’s visibly nervous during the first half. There are a few glowing Matoki’s – B.A.P’s lightstick – but most of the audience only grip phones. His confidence slowly uncurls, and he ends the show with one foot on the monitors, drenched in water and sweat, the crowd chanting his name. There’s no confetti cannons or expensive video backgrounds. It’s as far removed from idol-dom as it gets. He’s happy nonetheless.

When it comes to B.A.P, he’s still experiencing mixed emotions. “I’m speaking about this for the first time,” Yongguk says. “I don’t want to use the word “withdrawal” [around his decision]. That was completely what my former company wanted. Even when I left, I still did all the remaining schedules. I wanted to end my contract alongside my members but nothing worked out the way I wanted it to, so I feel a bit sad about it.”

“At that time, I thought about just enduring it [until all the contracts had expired], but also felt like… ‘you’ve already endured so much, do you want to endure it even more?’ I’ve left the company, but I don’t think I’ve withdrawn from B.A.P. I still see myself as B.A.P’s leader. I still believe there’ll be a time where we make an album together.”  As for the next chapter of his own work, he thinks for a short moment before replying. “I don’t know what that music will be, but whatever it is it’ll be music that sounds like me.”

Bang Yongguk’s album ‘Bang Yongguk’ is out now