Balming Tiger Is Re-Writing the Rules of K-Pop

The 11-piece band ironically calls their music “alt K-pop.” However, the Korean collective’s wild energy and punk approach to pop is anything but a joke.

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This article originally appeared in ‘Hypebeast Magazine Issue 33: The Systems Issue.’


Cultural theorist Stuart Hall proffered the idea that to remedy a broken system, you must do it from “without.” The theory implies that since the system has an inherent flaw, it will always produce something unsatisfactory to the rebellious. The wild, 11-member Korean creative collective and band Balming Tiger couldn’t be having more fun embodying Hall’s sentiment.

Sogumm (singer) Omega Sapien (rapper), Mudd the Student (producer/rapper/singer), Chanhee (photographer/stylist/DJ), BJ Wnjn (producer/singer), Unsinkable (DJ/producer), Abyss (A&R/DJ/producer), San Yawn (creative director), Leeshuo (producer/director), Jan Qui (director), and Henson (A&R/video editor) have been touring, dancing, rapping, singing, and shooting enough videos together for the last five years to carve their own lane in 한류, or the Korean Wave’s exploding music scene. While the group likes to say its self-described “alternative K-pop” project began partially as a joke, the genre within a genre has become the real deal, attracting co-signs from the country’s biggest stars and millions of listeners across the globe, despite being an independent act.

Balming Tiger stands out in the K-pop landscape both visually and sonically. Their music rapidly swerves from bombastic club rap to ‘70s-inspired surf rock to electro-tinged pop-punk, accompanied by swaggering lyrics that vacillate between English and Korean. Their music videos and press photos, all created in-house, are as essential to expressing their sh*tkicking attitude as the music itself. “SEXY NUKIM,” for example, features scenes involving cypherpunk brain scanners and shots of a dozen men wearing suits and retro scuba masks as they smoke cigarettes inside an elevator. Every video, even their no-budget releases shot on iPhones, feels like joining the band on a psychedelic amusement park ride.

The collective’s merry prankster ethos is infectious and their DIY approach to music is even antithetical to the more polished personas in the K-pop landscape. Where other artists feel controlled and palatable in an effort to achieve mass appeal, Balming Tiger wants to shake the champagne and make a mess. And when others join the party, such as RM from BTS on the aforementioned “SEXY NUKEM,” they play in the 11-piece’s world and not the other way around.

Just after wrapping up a tour in support of January Never Dies, their debut full-length from late 2023, the entire group gathered to provide a rare look into the improvised routine that allows them to operate outside the status quo of both K-pop and Korean cultural norms.

Where do you usually start when you want to create something new?

Sogumm: First, all 11 of us need to meet.

Omega: I’m not good at planning. So we just meet up and throw stuff at the wall. Then we see what we connect with the most. That’s how we pick the direction a lot of the time, maybe all the time [laughs].

Chanhee: Many of our ideas, like trailers, music videos, and song names, start as jokes.

Omega: The idea of calling our music “alt K-pop” also started as satire. “We’re not K-pop idols, but let’s make some K-pop anyway,” that idea. But as you do it more, you kinda become more aligned with it and believe in it. Even though it started as a joke, it became our reality. That’s Balming Tiger’s story: “This is funny, so let’s do it.”

What’s an example of something that started as a joke and evolved into a serious project?

Omega: “Sudden Attack.” I don’t know who came up with it, but someone was like, “Oh this song is really fast.” Even the album title January Never Dies. There’s no meaning behind it, but it has all the meaning to us. It comes from being spontaneous.

Chanhee: Even during the last few hours leading up to the “Buriburi” video’s release, I debated if we should upload it, because we shot it on an iPhone. But then we uploaded it to YouTube and it got a great reaction.

Is there a starting point that sparks your group conversations?

Omega: San Yawn usually brings in the big picture ideas, but we each have different sectors. At first, we were a little reluctant, but now we understand each other’s roles and boundaries more. We trust each other more now.

You all joined the group at different times. Did that present any issues?

Chanhee: Although we joined at different times, the last of us joined around the pandemic. So we spent a lot of time together and that helped. Being on tour helped, too.

Omega: I know I can’t do everything, and I understand that others in the group have their own strengths. So I don’t have to finish whatever we’re doing. I do the parts I want to do, leave it there, then someone I trust can continue it. Like Unsinkable can send a beat and someone will put a verse on it. When I make my solo stuff, I ask, “What should I write for my second verse?” Because writing the first verse and first hook is easy. But two minutes into a song, I’m like, “Oh sh*t, how do I get past this?” Then someone else will step in and continue building.

How were decisions for choreography, outfits and merch made for January Never Dies?

Omega: It’s a group thing, but it’s also a personal thing. For example, Chanhee designed the merch, but we all discussed everything together. Choreography, it’s like, “Yo, we got booked for Camp Flog Gnaw. Let’s book a dance studio and practice!”
You guys are very self-sufficient and tight-knit. Do you invite others to work on your shared vision?

Omega: One example is the engineer JNKYRD, who helps us with post-production on the music. Same with the talented director Eunhoo, who made the trailers for January Never Dies. The director Bang Jaeyeob has helped us since we started. Now he’s shooting some of the biggest idols in Korea. For “POP THE TAG,” we didn’t have any budget. No lighting guy. Just me, San Yawn, and Bang. Often, we include friends of friends and embrace a DIY spirit.

Mudd the Student: There’s also our stylist Yeyoung Kim, who collaborates with Chanhee on our overall visual aesthetic.

What sets Balming Tiger apart from other groups?

Mudd the Student: Our faces [laughs].

Omega: We do what we wanna do, as cliché as that sounds. There aren’t many groups in Korea that operate independently. Signing to a label doesn’t necessarily mean that an artist’s creativity is stripped away, but we’d rather come up with everything independently. And when it goes badly, we’ll take the L. But when it’s good, we made everything from start to finish. There’s joy in that. We felt lost a lot of the time because our path is so unconventional, so we can’t compare ourselves to other people. Mostly, we’ll do something we think is cool or fun, and we just lean into it. This is the only thing we can do. We tried to fit into the program and we couldn’t [laughs].

Do you see other groups like Balming Tiger popping up?

Omega: I bet there are but, we don’t see any. The Korean music scene is so saturated and industrialized because the Korean market likes efficiency. Other people will bring in like 50 producers, and try to create a media company. And it’s only been 30, 40 years since contemporary music has been around here. The scene is very young. Since we like combining our energy, though, we joked about trying to break into the K-pop scene and then we had the idea
of becoming an alternative to that. It’s not easy.

What’s something you hope to have accomplished with Balming Tiger by the time you’re ready to move on to the next thing?

Omega: When I see a young version of Omega Sapien in 2035 and this kid is like, “I saw you and it made me feel OK to be me.”

Chanhee: Have my own house?

Sogumm: I’ve never even thought about the end of all of this, but I’d like it if we all stayed friends.

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