It is a vibrant spring afternoon in Seoul, and ASTRO are perched in a row of chairs at Fantagio Music, sunlight beaming through the gaps in the blinds behind them. The group’s eldest member MJ is notably absent, having commenced his mandatory military service just the day before, but that’s not going to stop the K-pop boyband from releasing and promoting new music. A week prior to the release of ‘Drive To The Starry Road’, NME catches up with JinJin, Cha Eun-woo, Moonbin, Rocky and Sanha over Zoom to discuss the new album and their journey thus far.
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“I’m really glad that we’re back again as a group, and with a new full-length album,” shares Eun-woo, who is also one of South Korea’s most successful young actors. Prior to the group’s comeback, the star had spent much of the past few months filming for the upcoming mystery K-drama Island. “We’ve been really eager to show everyone our new music, and above all, I’m glad that the COVID-19 situation is a lot better now, so we have more opportunities to meet our fans face-to-face. We’re really looking forward to that,” he says with a smile, leaning back in his chair.
Soft-spoken vocalist Moonbin is in charge of introducing their new single ‘Candy Sugar Pop’, a love letter of sorts to the boyband’s fanbase, also known as AROHA. It is our second time chatting – just two months after our interview for his subunit release with youngest member Sanha – and we share an awkward laugh while exchanging greetings, not expecting to meet again so soon. “‘Candy Sugar Pop’ is kind of a sweet and refreshing song, and the title refers to our fans, who are like candy to us. That’s definitely something they will enjoy, when looking at its lyrics,” he explains, adding that he had penned the track with rappers JinJin and Rocky.
Sweet is certainly one of ASTRO’s strong suits, having established themselves as one of the most lovably wholesome boybands in K-pop since their debut with the boyish, charming ‘Hide & Seek’ in 2016. While the group have maintained their youthful spark over the years, ASTRO have also shown incredible growth, combining their signature effervescence with a more mature, funky sound in singles like ‘Blue Flame’, ‘After Midnight’ and now, ‘Candy Sugar Pop’. “We’ve included more of a relaxed, mature vibe into [‘Candy Sugar Pop’],” says JinJin, the group’s leader. “It’s been seven years since we debuted, so that was something we wanted to show more of, along with [our usual] fun and fresh vibe.”
“I listen to [‘Candy Sugar Pop’] a lot. Not just because it’s the title track, but because I really like it, the melodies, everything about the song,” adds Rocky, who goes on to explain that its funky sound matches perfectly with his own preferences in music. Meanwhile, youngest member Sanha chimes in to share his love for one of their new B-side tracks – the playful, groovy ‘Something Something’. “My personal favourite song from this album is ‘Something Something’, because there’s this part in the chorus where we all sing together, and it’s so much fun to listen to,” he says with a shy smile, tugging at the sleeves of his sweater as he speaks. “It’s such an exciting song, and that’s why it’s my favourite.”
‘Drive To The Starry Road’ also marks ASTRO’s first-ever record where each member releases their very own solo track. From MJ showing off his impressive vocal chops on the stirring pop ballad ‘Story’, to Eun-woo’s sweet, jazzy pop confessional ‘First Love’, to Moonbin’s sleek, sensual R&B-tinged ‘Let’s Go Ride’, every member shines doing what they do best.
“What’s special about these songs is that nearly every member participated in some way,” shares JinJin, whose own solo track ‘All Day’ is a quirky commentary on his workaholic tendencies. “We are taking the next steps [in our careers] and showing off the unique musical colours each of us have,” he continues. “It felt really meaningful.”
As ASTRO take on their seventh year together, they reflect on their journey thus far. “I think we’ve always worked hard as one with our own bright energy, and our colour has become more distinct, both individually and team-wise as well,” says Rocky, who also takes the opportunity to poke fun at their youngest. “Personally, I think Sanha has changed the most from our rookie days, because he used to wear braces,” he jokes, “he grew up so well, in many different ways.”
Meanwhile, Eun-woo takes the time to look back on their past few years as musicians in a pandemic-stricken world. Their recent April fan meeting marked the first time ASTRO have been able to see their fans up close – but, even then, AROHA were unable to cheer for the group due to COVID-19 restrictions. “There were definitely a few difficult times, not being able to see our fans face-to-face,” recounts the idol-actor. “As performers, we gain a lot of energy from seeing the faces of our fans in the crowd, but since that was kind of cut off, we weren’t able to feel fully energised on stage, to be honest.”
Refusing to dwell on the past, Moonbin goes on to share his excitement for ASTRO’s upcoming concerts in South Korea and Japan, which kick off later in the month, and teases “more individual and unit activities” to come in the rest of the year. “Although [we got to meet AROHA] during the recent fan-meeting, they didn’t get to shout out and react with us. But they will be able to at our upcoming concert, so I’m really looking forward to that,” Eun-woo adds excitedly.
As our time together draws to a close, Sanha dedicates a quick message to their fans: “I want to say thank you for waiting for ASTRO, and I hope you like the new sides of us we have prepared for you this comeback. Let’s have fun and wrap up this promotion safely!”
ASTRO’s third studio album ‘Drive To The Starry Road’ is out now.