It turns out that Hong Joong – the red-haired leader of the eight-member K-Pop group ATEEZ – has an excellent poker face. “We have some songs but haven’t recorded anything yet,” he’d said about new material before their show at Kentish Town Forum, during a sold-out Europe and US tour in April.
Three months later, in New York City, where ATEEZ do two short but ferocious sets for the K-Pop convention, KCON, he leans in and smiles. “It was a secret then, but before the tour we had portions of the album already prepared.” He’s not done yet. “We’d prepared our choreography before the tour, too.” Why you little… Hong Joong laughs. “I’m sorry!”
Despite debuting only ten months ago, ATEEZ (rappers Min Gi and Hong Joong and vocalists Seong Hwa, Yeo Sang, Yun Ho, Jong Ho, Woo Young and San) have released an accomplished trilogy of EPs that mesh a dozen sounds – from trance to hip hop to theatrical pop – and charts their journey as artists and their relationship with their fandom (known as ATINY). The latest, ‘Treasure EP.3: One To All’, arrived in June.
“The story we want to tell, that’s the reason we were able to do it like this,” says San. “I’m really thankful we can put out these albums in such a small amount of time.” Add the tremendous amount of extra content, from performance videos to their behind the scenes series, and you have a group creating at breakneck speed. “If it’s for ATINY then we can always make content like this,” replies Yeo Sang diplomatically. Ask him if he’s tired and he shakes his head with a smile.
The evolution of ATEEZ from their previous to latest incarnation is explicit. Their visual palette has transitioned from black, grey and neutrals to bright colours that saturate their album design, stage clothes and hair. The intimidating, apocalyptic drops of EP.2’s ‘HALA HALA’ and ‘Say My Name’ have made way for summery lashings of trop-pop on ‘Wave’ and the brassily convivial ‘Illusion’.
“‘Say My Name’ was very strong and energetic,” says Yun Ho. “This time [the songs are] more refreshing and we have to make very different expressions.” The sultry stares have been replaced by a hyperactive cuteness, which Min Gi grappled with in early rehearsals. “I practised more in the mirror, smiling every time and giving a more dynamic character to it. When I gave a heart sign, I thought, ‘I can’t look at myself’,” he recalls, although he’s come to embrace the concept.
Woo Young – a little unwell today and quietly huddled into his jacket to ward off the air-conditioning – says lately he’s felt the most confident he’s been thus far, a progression forged from “being on tour, meeting fans and receiving all that attention – it became a huge encouragement.” Jong Ho, dry-humored and the youngest at 18, says, “I’m more confident this time because I can show the handsomeness that I’ve been hiding. Whenever I smile, it really wrenches the fans’ hearts.” Yun Ho immediately covers his face, cringing. “I’m cringing here myself,” laughs Jong Ho, as Seong Hwa, the eldest at 21, and Hong Joong gaze at him, bemused.
The urgency of earlier work, such as the propulsive ‘Desire’ and fidgety, explosive ‘Promise’, has softened into a celebration of their achievements, which now includes selling 100,000+ copies of their latest EP. San describes ‘Treasure EP.1: All To Zero’ and ‘Treasure EP.2: Zero To One’ as albums where “we’ve been running and running, but on EP.3 we’re walking through our utopia. On ‘Wave’, there’s Min Gi’s line of “hakuna matata”, it’s saying to us that ‘everything’s ok and you guys can keep going’, it’s a good message. Like you said, it’s celebratory.”
Also on this EP is ‘AURORA’, its delicate early verses building into abrupt strings and snare rolls that melt and expand into a falsetto-lead chorus. It’s Hong Joong’s first composition on an ATEEZ record, his reply to feeling a disconnect with his new reality. “We’ve experienced so much love but haven’t been able to feel it properly yet and I wanted to express that,” Hong Joong muses. “We don’t know how to describe it, but the meaning behind the lyrics is that we’re just going to continue to do us.”
Hong Joong began ‘AURORA’ in the US and further developed the melody in Korea with their producer, EDEN, before finishing the lyrics in Europe. Of the final mix, he says, “the intro and verses are the same as when I began. EDEN wanted to make the chorus dance music, but I wanted it to be a little R&B. So I said, ‘I’ll mix them together’.” He played early versions to ATEEZ, as he does with every song he writes, and asked them what they thought. Adds Yun Ho, “Hong Joong likes realistic, honest feedback, so we keep that in mind.”
“Yesterday I gave Seong Hwa some music and he said, ‘I don’t know [about this]’. I said that in the chorus we’d be doing some really powerful moves like in ‘HALA HALA’, and he said ‘that’s not a very good idea’,” Hong Joong says. “So I changed it a little but I’m not sure I’ll develop it more because he’s hurt me.” His pitiful expression lasts only a second. “No, no, I’m ok. I’m joking!” he laughs.
That an increasing number of idols are being granted songwriting duties has been one of the industry’s major changes, but it also should be said that K-Pop has never been solely about the music. It’s bigger than that – a vortex of visuals and larger-than-life personalities. ATEEZ’s playful, candid dynamic has, in part, expeditiously propelled them through the mass of newcomers. It’s their job to be charming, but they’re also perpetually curious and considerate, emanating luminous bursts of confidence, flickers of vulnerability, and, often, a genuine sweetness.
They’re also mercilessly funny. Ask for random ATEEZ facts and they’ll throw each other under the bus. “Hong Joong is a very nice leader but when we practise, he’s like a tiger mom. Or even something scarier,” blurts Min Gi immediately, making Hong Joong splutter into his tea. “But I love him.”
“Min Gi always boasts to us ‘I’m naturally very talented’, but behind the scenes he works really hard,” San divulges. Jong Ho doesn’t hold back: “When Min Gi was in the lift, he was actually practising his expressions, like, ‘hot Min Gi’.” Sat beside him, Min Gi dissolves into his chair with embarrassment.
“When I feel something special inside, I always write it down in my journal. Sometimes I write multiple times a day, sometimes I don’t write for a week. Hopefully there’ll be a time when I can share these feelings with the fans,” reveals Seong Hwa. “Also, my feet are very thin, so you can shove me into any type of shoe and I’ll never feel uncomfortable onstage, no matter what I wear,” he adds, targeting himself in the hope no one else does.
Woo Young piles in anyway – “Seong Hwa always wants to be included in whatever I’m doing or when I’m playing around.”
Do you let him?
“Nope!” whoops San.
“Do you know why my hair colour became blue?” smiles Yun Ho. “There’d been no blue in the plan originally. We filmed ‘Wave’ with my green hair, then ‘Illusion’, but there was a lot of CGI in ‘Illusion’ and my hair totally disappeared on the green screen.” Hong Joong, who until recently sported a mullet that was almost as popular as he is, counters his bandmate’s hair confession by revealing “we have a video somewhere of the members cutting off my hair, but I don’t know where it is.”
ATEEZ’s international popularity has rocketed but in South Korea, progress has been a little slower. That tide is turning; at the end of June, ‘Wave’ won them their first ever trophy on one of South Korea’s numerous weekly chart TV shows, M Countdown. Then they took a second one on The Show.
“When we were nominated for the first time, we just thought, ‘oh, well, that’s a very big present for us’. But winning, that was a shock. I don’t know why I never expected it but… I don’t know…” Hong Joong’s voice tapers off as he navigates his thoughts. “You can’t predict that. We do the same thing we’ve always done, but our result is better.”
Their wins were met by a small but stinging group of online commenters unconvinced that a new group from a non-major label could, or should, triumph so early on. Yun Ho points out that “no matter what kind of attention we receive it’s all a good thing because the attention itself is like love. And with the feedback we receive, we’ll make more progression out of it.” His voice is serene but the sentiment is biting, and there’s a pin drop silence as he carefully puts down the phone recording our conversation.
One of the new EP’s key moments is the unapologetic, emphatic ‘Utopia’ on which Jong Ho belts “it’s a dream but the truth is I can’t stop even if everyone laughs at it”. Given their continued rise, the line becomes a delicious little ‘fuck you’ moment towards the doubters.
San seems startled (“Okayyyy,” he says, drawing out the word, eyes widening) but Min Gi and Hong Joong’s laughter rises into the air. “‘Utopia’ does include that,” says Hong Joong, composing himself. “It’s also an adventure between ATINY and ATEEZ. But for people who may not like us, we want to say, ‘just keep watching’. It’s our journey and we’re going to have fun with it.”
Aboard the rollercoaster that’s become their life, Hong Joong says the advice he’s taken to heart is “to be more thankful and more receiving.” San has turned some of his focus inwards: “Each day I try really hard to accept myself as I am, and when I get positive feedback from fans, that helps me to do that.” But he also agrees with Hong Joong. “Whether you have 1,000 fans or 10,000 fans,” San adds, “always act the same way you did when you started out and give the same love, no matter what.”