It’s an overcast day in New York City, and P1Harmony are sprawled out across a hotel room, reflecting on what has brought them halfway across the globe. Coming up in a few weeks’ time is their first anniversary as a group, and despite the grey sky, spirits are high. For the six young teens and twenty-somethings who debuted amid the raging pandemic – Keeho, Theo, Jiung, Intak, Soul and Jongseob – getting here is the culmination of a tireless journey.
Canadian-born leader Keeho is acting as hype man to soft-spoken Soul, whose aspirations to stardom date back a decade, when street performers doing the robot on TV spurred a lifelong love of dance. “If Soul wants to show us…” Keeho says pointedly, before translating into Korean. “5-6-7-8…” It’s the secret to cracking the more reserved member, and he knows it. A smile splits across Soul’s face as he pantomimes the precise movements of the dance. The room erupts into raucous applause.
After a year with his bandmates (or more, if you count their time as trainees), few things surprise Keeho. It comes with the territory of being a leader, and P1Harmony’s only native English speaker. In interviews, he’s their storyteller, interpreting for them and filtering their anecdotes through his signature levity. “I could answer all the questions for them,” Keeho laughs. “I know them so well.”
When I ask what made the others want to pursue becoming idols, Keeho predicts their responses with a clairvoyant confidence: for Theo, the eldest, it was staring out at the legendary K-pop boyband Big Bang from concert stands in Seoul; for the newly 20-year-old Jiung, it’s stealing the spotlight at his school talent show. “Even though the students didn’t know me, they were all singing together,” says Jiung, who chimes in sparily, but always (graciously) in English. “I felt an electric shock.”
Keeho leans in to exaggeratedly enunciate the title of the song Jiung sang, making sure I get it: “An-eun sa-ram yae-gi”. In English: ‘Story Of Someone I Know’. It’s surprisingly apt. “He felt like, ‘Woah, this is changing my life path’,” Keeho narrates, as if he were plucking details from his own memories. “Because he was super smart! I feel like I need to say this. He was going to be studying, and all of a sudden, he went on stage and thought, ‘Oh, I have to start performing’.”
This is the common dream that originally drew P1Harmony together: being able to shuffle from country to country, fill up stadiums and play to roaring crowds. But the six boys were met with immediate setbacks. Several delays first stalled their debut; then they spent a year grounded in South Korea, constricted by strict social distancing guidelines. Only now are they beginning to savour the whirlwind schedule of globe-trotting musicians.
I meet them midway through their bicoastal trip to the US, still buzzing from the previous night spent rubbing elbows with celebrities. (“I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s freaking Chloe Bailey’,” Keeho exclaims and mock gasps when I express jealousy that they got to meet the R&B-pop vocalist.) Soon they’ll be whisked off to LA to screen their debut film ‘P1H: The Beginning of a New World’ and perform to fans that will pack into free venues like sardines.
Yet amid all these fruits of their year’s labour, it’s the little things that stand out the most. Like riding their first airplane all together. Or being serenaded with ‘Happy Birthday’ on the streets of a new city. “I would have never thought in a million years we’d be able to come all the way to America,” Keeho says, citing the seemingly never-ending pandemic. “Life hits you so fast.”
It sounds funny, coming from someone who’s barely entering his 20s. That collective, out-of-place maturity is what surprises me most during our interview. Likely, it’s symptomatic of the industry, which hustles you out of childhood and into the dazzling, yet gruelling, limelight. And there’s no one more attuned to that reality than teen prodigy, and maknae, Jongseob, who projects an aura of almost unbelievable composition.
If he realises how much he’s accomplished in such a short time, he’s too humble to let it show. At age 12, he won K-Pop Star 6’ as half of a performance duo, before going on to compete on reality competition show YG Treasure Box’. “Rap’s my destiny,” he intones in his introduction, with all the gravity a 13-year-old can muster. Today, just shy of his 16th birthday, he’s already restless. Given the chance to travel back in time, he would urge his younger self to tread a path of his own design. “To experiment with and work harder on my own musical style,” the rapper-songwriter explains. “To do my own thing.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by his bandmates. “I feel like everyone’s like that,” Keeho says. “Looking back at it, you could have done a little better. At the time, we felt like we were working really hard. But now that we’re in the future, you still feel you could do just a little more.” Intak adds, “But even if I did go back in time and could work harder, I would feel the same now. Because of that yogsim.” Roughly translated: ambition, greed.
In a claustrophobic landscape of K-pop acts, it’s easy to become consumed with the endless chase for perfection. ‘Scared’, P1Harmony’s 2021 single, is all about this drive, cautioning against fear-fueled stagnation. “Don’t listen to their feedback,” Intak spits. “Why do you sit still, listening to them?” Theo’s honeyed vocals follow: “Before my eyes, you are trapped.”
Though their official discography sits at a bit over half an hour, it sweeps through genres as it untangles the thorny emotions of youth. On ‘Scared’, their raps are cocooned in dirty bass and a rattling beat; ‘If You Call Me’ smooths out an embittered worldview with slick guitar riffs and Keeho’s velvety falsetto. As an opener and a closer, the two couldn’t be more sonically different. Yet they bear like temperaments – and, both were worked on by members of P1Harmony.
“For our title tracks and B-sides, we all come together,” says Jongseob, launching into a rapid-fire dissection of their writing process. (With 11 credits to his name, he’s one of the most involved in the group’s songwriting, on par with Intak.) They brainstorm the crux of the song, before splitting off to pen their own verses. “Everyone has their own way of perceiving the topic, and really understanding it.”
It’s true – their range of approaches is even more diverse than their catalog. Intak, who radiates Golden Retriever energy yet blazes onstage, conceptualizes choreography first. “This time coming around, I wrote the lyrics thinking of how I would dance it,” he says, referring to the title track off their forthcoming (and, as of yet, undated) album. Keeho opts for a different route, pulling writing inspiration from the stream of consciousness stylings of SZA, Daniel Caesar and Frank Ocean. “The way they write is so personal and true to them,” he says. “It’s just like a diary, you know? I’ve been trying to freestyle and just let the words fall out.”
Theo, whose shy disposition often hides a biting wit, meanwhile, tinkers away at beats in private. “It’s super secret. He never shows it to us,” Keeho says. “I came to his room once and he was like, ‘No, I’m not gonna let you listen’.” Currently on heavy rotation for Theo? Lil Nas X’s ‘Industry Baby’ – it’s the type of instant earworm the vocalist hopes to craft someday. “Something simple, but catchy and addictive,” he says. “Something that just sticks.”
As aspiring multi-hyphenates, the six-piece want to dabble in a little bit of everything – they’re even considering reprising their role on the silver screen. “These days, I really want to be like… movie star,” Intak delivers theatrically in English, to peals of laughter. But for now, they have a lot to learn. “I feel like, one day, our goal is really just making an album that we produced all by ourselves, wrote all by ourselves, thought of all by ourselves,” Keeho says. “We’re just taking baby steps to get closer to that goal.”
This is P1Harmony’s common thread: shirking static positions on the team, rapping about how they won’t be confined. “This is just an appetiser,” they brag on their debut single, ‘Siren’. Yet for all their talk of breaking moulds, some fans lament the one-dimensional “Gen Z icon” status social media has bestowed upon them. It’s a title most often reserved for Keeho, a digital native with a deadpan sense of humour – and the most forward-facing member to many international fans.
For P1Harmony, the meme treatment is a double-edged sword. Upon reflection, they’re not ungrateful for the attention their online antics have brought the group and their music (1.4million followers on TikTok can’t hurt, either). But, ideally, they would like to amount to more in the public’s eyes.
“It’s still a constant thought that I have in the back of my head,” Keeho admits. “I’m really glad that people find us funny and entertaining. I just always have this weird thought in my mind. Like, if they find me too funny, they won’t take the artistic and musical parts of me as seriously.” He pauses to consider. “I thought about it a lot. But then I realised that doesn’t mean I should stop being myself.”
As much as the members want recognition for their creativity and craft, they’re unwilling to quell any one part of themselves. Playfully ribbing fans’ comments or filming lip-biting thirst traps is par for the course for six boys on the cusp of adulthood. Take them or leave them, Keeho says: “I feel like the people that’ll enjoy it and take it seriously, will. And that’s all that matters.”
This time, Keeho takes a moment to make sure they’re all on the same page. Being their leader means not always answering for them, even if, by now, he knows them well enough to. The six go back and forth in Korean, individually weighing in.
Eventually, Keeho turns back to me, appeased, and smiles. “Yeah,” he says. “I think that’s an opinion we all share.”