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“The Spring of Dong Youngbae” – Interview with Jang Woo Cheol

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The Spring of Dong Youngbae
Born in 1988. Also called Taeyang

You’re wearing a cap. I actually imagined you coming here wearing a cap.
― Yes, I worked till late at night yesterday, then went to dance instead of going to sleep first, and came here finally just after getting out of bed.

Has spring arrived?
― (pause) To me, spring has arrived. It’s truly here.

Do you want me to set the camera? I heard that you refuse to speak without someone filming you these days.
― Me? Who said that?

I did. You look joyous even in TV variety shows unlike before. Does this mean you overcame something?
― Um, in fact I don’t bother at all. Nothing really bothers me.

So spring came to you in such a way? How did it arrive?
― Ah, how should I say this? Though I’m still young, there’s something that felt quite differently after I turned 25. Things felt totally differently. By the way, didn’t we plan to do this interview at the riverside?

Ah, we talked about Hantan River then. I forgot about it.
― When you brought it up, I looked forward to doing it. I like scenic places.

The scenic places… Sometimes you talk like an old man. You once said you wanted to love without any concern of this fugitive life of yours. It sounds like little kids who were raised by their grandmothers talking about that tingling pain in the joints. Do I treat you as a child now when you’ve just announced you’re already 25? What’s your mother like?
― She’s quite an ordinary person.

When you appraise people with the criteria of being ordinary, I think there’s no one we can call “not ordinary”, right?
― She’s very, very, very sensitive. I inherited that from her.

When you were a kid, you went to film auditions, did you?
― Back then I was a pretty kid. Really. My face became chubby ever since I went to the actor’s academy. Before that, I was really cute.

Was it what you wanted to do?
― No.

Were you forced to do it?
― Um, as I recall the days, I think I just had to do it. I’ll explain. My father’s business was run soundly only until the IMF crisis came. I was left to my aunt’s care immediately. I started to go to the actor’s academy because my cousins, younger twin sisters, went there. I still remember that I really didn’t want to go. I really hated being forced to do something even then. I liked playing the piano and listening to music by myself, but you know, when there’s a family gathering, the elders ask the children to sing, show some dances, etc. They do so without thinking how the kids might feel…

Such as the dog’s leg dance?
― Yes, I wasn’t good at it and I hated it. No wonder I couldn’t fit in the academy. When you go there, the first thing you have to do every day is to show off your stuff. Maybe they wanted to see whether you have talents or not. But I was so shy, so ashamed, and thought that it wasn’t good to memorize the script and just act along.

You ‘thought’ even then. You’re not Dong Youngbae if you stop ‘thinking.’
― Right, I was already like that. Then I heard that some music video crews were looking for a child actor and they were from an agency called YG. I just tagged along with my friend who attended the audition, but I made myself a promise then that I would join the agency by all means. I was 13 years old.

13 years old. What do you think you knew back then? Maybe you were aware of what you don’t have any idea about now?
― At that very moment when I told mom I would join YG, I was already thinking that I’d have to carry out everything for myself from then on.

― I still remember that I thought I should make a decision. By any stretch of the imagination, I didn’t seem to succeed academically. But, actually I didn’t do that poorly in school. Really, I’m not lying. I think I’m not dumb.

Mothers often start to argue with this line “my son/daughter isn’t dumb at all, but only…”
― Um, it was a terrible shock to me to witness it. That my father fell on hard times overnight. I saw it with my own eyes, and it was really a shock. I was told things like we had to move out to a bad neighborhood. I thought I should hurry to save my family. Acting was such an impossible thing to me, and music was my favorite. I thought I should join YG by all means. Mom didn’t allow at first, but later told me to do that if I wanted it that badly, and even if things would go wrong she wouldn’t get involved. She told me to do whatever I wanted but fight my own battles, so I said OK.

Haha, you said just OK, huh?
― I turned my back sternly on acting and other things at that moment. To be honest, things were distressing. I was a trainee but there wasn’t even a temporary contract concluded. They just let me use a practice room and told me to do things on my own if I wanted. That was all. Jiyong also joined the company around the same time, but we were in very different situations. As for me, I had to insist to join, but Jiyong was a scouted talent from another company. I had a very difficult time. The old company building was also here in Hapjeong-dong.

Every day, every minute and second that you spent might have been accumulated in you.
― I was still living in Uijeongbu*, where I went to school and of course took exams, too. I had a rule of my own that I should never be ranked below 15th place in the class. And I was never gone below 15th. Why are you laughing?
(Translator’s comment: *Uijeongbu-shi is a city located just north of Seoul in Gyeonggi-do.)

― I often talk about it, I think I was crazy at that time. I even rarely slept. Shuttling between Uijeongbu and Hapjeong-dong, I went to bed at 3 or 4a.m. and woke up at 7. Ah, I always think that if I had slept properly in those days, then I would be taller, at least about…

Come on.
― I was just mad about it. Even for myself, that’s the only possible explanation.

There’s this thing called the achievement motivation. Say, I want to get recognized by someone, or I’ll get the chance to perform on stage as soon as possible.
― I was really happy that I was working like that. Honestly, that was all. My mom came to see me from time to time. She was worried about what I would grow up to be like, suspicious that I was doing fine. So I said to her, “Mom, my goal isn’t that low, I won’t be satisfied with being a singer just contending for the first place in Korean music shows.”

― Haha. I told her that I’d rather strive for the first place on the Billboard chart, wouldn’t be satisfied to succeed just in this country. “So you don’t have to come here and worry about me anymore,” I said. I still remember me speaking like that.

What do you think you dreamt of then?
― When I pictured myself as a singer, I saw myself performing in front of the crowd that pack out an unbelievably-sized dome. I thought I’d perform in such a place, thought like “of course, I shall be on such a stage someday.”

Even though you couldn’t dance the dog’s leg dance just in front of your family?
― Haha, I don’t know. It was definitely different. I was practicing rapping at that time. There were only rapper hyungs around me, I also tried my best. The style was also different from now. The blurred line between rapping and singing is the trend these days, but rapping was just rapping then. To be frank, I couldn’t keep up with those hyungs.

So you stuck to something that you weren’t good at but you wish you could do well, while your dream was performing on a big stage, that’s too much…
― That’s true. I had a hard time then.

Then what caused you to start to sing instead of rap?
― Honestly I think, I really love to sing since I was a kid.

― For real. I closed the door, stuck in my room just to listen to my favorite songs again and again till I could memorize them. I didn’t memorize the lyrics, exactly speaking, just memorized the sounds as I heard them. I just concentrated on rapping so much that I forgot about singing for a while. Meanwhile, when I was 15 or 16 years old, there emerged the R&B scene. That was the moment I decided to sing. Singing was not easy, either, because my voice broke already, but listening to Brian McKnight, Boyz II Men, and Stevie Wonder, I realized I was much more deeply moved by listening to songs than raps. I was never teary-eyed listening to raps, but I cried very much listening to songs at that time.

You said songs made you cry, so I can’t argue any more. By the way, there must be some differences between the Uijeongbu boys and the Seoul boys, right?
― The Uijeongbu boys are wild kids. They’re different, very different. I can be sure because I lived there. The high schools there were not standardized yet then, so there were different schools where top students and good kids went, where just the ordinary kids went, or where some lazy kids gathered.

Where did you belong?
― A middle-upper school.

But I heard that you were sort of a school fighter.
― Ah, that’s a twisted story. I think that resulted from the differences between the Seoul kids and the Uijeongbu kids. Because when the Uijeongbu kids meet, they first ask who the jjang (best fighter) of each other’s school is. So I also asked the question to Jiyong when I met him for the first time, “Who is the jjang of your school?” Jiyong answered me, and then asked back where I was ranked in my school. I said the jjang was blah, the second-in-command was blah, and the next was me. I was joking, but it was true those kinds of kids were my friends because I was a boy who liked dancing rather than studying. The rumor was made from that. I never committed a crime, but frequently got into mischief. I disturbed the class, spoke out random things, provoked the teachers without reason. I became bold because I felt so comfortable among the kids in my class, and I think a part of my talent as an entertainer manifested itself through such behaviors. I danced and sang in the hallway all the time.

So did you willingly show your dance upon requests then?
― Ah, I did everything when I was selected as a representative of the class… I do anything if they arrange a stage for me.

Jeez. It was you who named yourself Taeyang, right?
― Before joining BIGBANG, I used Taekwon* as my name when working as a featuring rapper. I didn’t like that name. I even found out my name was Taekwon after the album came out. But I really didn’t want to be called such in BIGBANG, too. Little kid as I was, my strategy was like this: if I made a totally different name for myself, I must get scolded. Then let’s keep the first word ‘Tae’ to name me Taeyang instead. Hyunsuk hyung said it didn’t sound very good, but I liked it.
(Translator’s comment: * This name is originated from Taekwondo, the Korean martial arts.)

I knew Lies already, of course, but what made me finally pay attention to you was the song Look Only At Me. Every summer that song comes up in my mind, and that means it brings about a season, that song does..
― About 5 years have passed already.

― Yes, I feel like that. Back then, there were no producers around me. I had to receive songs for my first solo album from some foreign composers whom I never met nor knew his name, I had to carry out in such a haphazard fashion. But no matter how hard I thought, it didn’t seem proper to me. There wasn’t a single song that touched my emotions. The album should’ve been out much ealier according to the original plan, but I continued to say no till Hyunsuk hyung said half-jokingly that he couldn’t put up with me anymore. Haha. I just waited. On the other hand, I was just muddled. After about a year, Teddy hyung joined the company, and one day he let me hear a song he said he had composed just last night. And it was the very song I’d been waiting so long, wow, that was really… I couldn’t hide my happiness. I said, I looove this, I really like this, I ever wanted to sing a song like this. I revealed my feelings too much.

Drawing a picture in mind. Kwon Bumoon, the artist I admire once said, “The photographers are likely to be like hunters inevitably, but they should ever be vigilant not to be like that. If you dream of the picture you want to make come true with all your energy, then it’ll finally come to you.” What he said is not about mysticism but about the inevitability of the world. Of course, it’s also different from making one’s best endeavors.
― Ah, that’s right. I see what you mean. And I really like the words! It may sound very abstract, but that has been always true in my case. When I feel that I want to do something, the whole picture comes to me like a photograph. It always does, in the same way. There are times that such a picture doesn’t emerge in my mind, in fact. And I think I must not push ahead in that case. It doesn’t seem to work trying all the time to get good music, make good music, etc. The only way out is waiting while drawing a picture in your mind.

And if you can’t wait like that, you’ll possibly lose edge just overnight.
― Yes, that’s true.

This is the fifth time for me to interview you, but you look like a whole different person today. Why do you think you do?
― I’ve changed. My personality also changed. I’m even different from who I was just a year ago. I think I changed because the time was ripe. I never tried to change myself, and the new me these days who look happy and bright also seems like a part of myself.

What do you think you’ve gone through?
― Many different seasons.

I saw you trying to introduce every session man one by one on the first stage of the BIGBANG world tour. Your voice couldn’t be heard clearly in the roar of the crowd, but such an episode makes me thinking “Yes, that’s Taeyang. That’s his way.” Though you just did what one has to do, it touched my heart.
― Haha, I don’t know why, either, but those who have kept an eye on me often tell me things like that. I’m such that kind of boy, I think.

I got this impression that you are not a person who boasts something that he really doesn’t have. One rarely tells a lie intentionally without need, but one can happen to make some pits and even sink into them oneself while proceeding a conversation. But Dong Youngbae never does.
― Actually, when I’m asked a question, I’m too busy working out an answer to be able to make up a lie.

In what way does a singer called Taeyang look at the present?
― Ah, that’s the question that I really want to make a good answer to. (pause for a while) I’m not sure I’m properly articulating, but since I turned 25, what comes up in my mind most often is the realization that I don’t have an infinite amount of time. But with the insight, I became very relaxed all the more. It’s strange but I feel more comfortable now. What’s this? How should I describe this? I have no idea myself.

You became braver than before?
― Once I turned 25, I became conscious of my age. I want to do exactly what I can do now.

It seems that you think the priority of now doesn’t need to be your next solo stage.
― Yes, that doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, whether it’s traveling, singing, or dancing, everything seems circling around me and I’m at the center of it. Actually, I don’t even care how others see me. Maybe I became much less conscious of something? That’s why I’m excited. I’m very happy these days. I feel like I finally became myself. I wonder what your opinion about it, but I’m very satisfied with our new album. How do you like it?

Bad Boy is brilliant.
― I can see really clearly now. Before, there was always some confusion at the back of my mind. I knew what I liked and what I wanted to do, but once the time to take action came, I started drifting again. I felt heavy. Now, I feel thick. Whatever song I sing or whatever music I dance to, my own color is thicker than them now. I don’t get lost any more.

Tae! Kwon!
― Haha.

Do you sometimes read books?
― Books? Ah, I haven’t read much recently.

Why do you wear such a guilty face all of a sudden?
― To be frank, I love comic books too much.

Is it shameful to say that you like comic books?
― You don’t know about One Piece, do you? That is the best for me.

It’s a good thing to be able to stay easy and free. Because such a capacity isn’t something that can be obtained from nowhere.
― I want to travel whenever I get time. You told me once that traveling always helps. Honestly, I couldn’t understand why then. I had many enough opportunities to travel before, too, but I just didn’t hit the road. Firstly it’s no fun to travel alone, right? Then while traveling for work or something, I felt such a refreshing feeling that I was in ‘another place.’ Though I haven’t traveled a lot, I feel, as I felt when I went to Okinawa, Japan last year, that what I’d lost is being brought back to me in those places far away home. The places make me think “I used to love those things so much”, “I was like this and that when I was a kid”, etc. Everything felt new and different. I want to travel anywhere and everywhere.

What is surprising to me is that you are probably conspicuous but never provocative.
― From time to time, it comes to my mind that I’m not born to be a celebrity. I don’t feel sorry. (pause for a while) By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about me not looking provocative.

“This is the cap I wore when I filmed the MV of Look Only At Me. Anyway, maybe I should have washed it before bringing it here.” Cap / Oliver Laric 2012, Seoul
“This is something I really wanted to have. This bracelet is the birthday present that the members saved up their money and bought for me not long after our debut. They did it for me even though they obviously didn’t have much money back then.” Bracelet / Francesco Vezzoli 2012, Seoul

To Taeyang, what does ‘people’ mean?
― Who I hope get certain ideas or inspiration from watching me.

Do you really think like that?
― Yes, I want to be such person.

Did the boy become a man finally?
― In what sense?

I don’t know.
― I think he’s becoming. I can’t say he became a man. Because he hasn’t grown up yet.

Then how do you know whether he’s becoming or not? Is there any sign? For example, a pressure cooker makes choo-choo sounds.
― That’s it. Exactly.

Well, what exactly?
― I feel a sign. I would really like to be in a relationship with a genuine woman. I never thought about that before. And it’s another story though, my regards for other members? My thoughts on them became incomparably greater than before. Now it feels like we are living together.

There’s this video on Solar, the second concert you had as a solo artist in summer, 2010. You probably see in it a very different you, right?
― Ah.. well, (pause for a while) um.. it’s a fond memory, filling me with emotions. It really is.

Do you feel like a lot time has passed?
― Yes, so much time has. And I also feel like I’m very different from then.

But people want you to be the same all the way.
― Yes, you’re right. Some people might not accept that I changed no matter what. I said the memory of the concert fills me with emotions, because there were special feelings I had at that time. I felt like I would never have an opportunity to hold such a concert again, I don’t know why though. It felt like the last time. There were such sad and strange feelings. Of course I’ll meet the audience again, but when I recall that time…

You once said you wanted to be happy whatever music by whoever artists you listen to, right?
― Yes, if the music is good.

How about your first own composition Take It Slow? Does it sometimes cross your mind?
― Whenever I listen to it, the most frequent thing that crosses my mind is “This actually came close to being omitted from the album.”

Have you memorized the lyrics now? (At the concert, he missed some lyrics)
― I have.

You’re lying.
― OK, I haven’t.

Does ‘slow’ from the title Take It Slow mean “Please take good care of the boy?”
― Haha.

When I interviewed you several years ago, I said you needed to drink, do some bad things, etc. so randomly, but now it seems I don’t have to say such a thing anymore. You even look like a person who had once drank but already quit. But people are still interested in speculating whether you have dated or not. And that always embarrasses you, Taeyang.
― Whenever I hear such a gossip, I think to myself, “Does it matter that much? Is it such an important thing?”

Who knows if you have bottles of Korean raspberries wine in your refrigerator?
― Haha, there’s only Perrier water.
(Translator’s comment: *Korean raspberries wine is known as a tonic that helps enhance men’s stamina.)

Is there any food you can’t eat?
― There’s none except disgusting food.

Don’t you pick out pieces of spring onions from your beef soup?
― No, I don’t like such a behavior. I don’t like others to do so, either. By the way, I have this talent in finding some delicious food.

How do you do that?
― Well, it’s just a hunch I have. I can see whether it’ll taste good or not just looking at it.

You’re a food guru, Dr. Dong?
― Yes, when someone brings some food saying it’s delicious, I guess that’ll taste such and such… and it turns out to be correct. Sort of, I think I’m almost an expert when it comes to taste. I’m so objective that I don’t think my mom’s cooking is always delicious. I can see the taste just looking at it.

What do you look at exactly?
― The texture of the food. It tells me how it’ll feel and taste in mouth.

Where did such a confidence about your palate come from?
― At first, I just asked myself if I was really good at appreciating food. Then, at some point, those around me began to ask my opinion. They ask before trying the food. Say, which one do you think tastes better?

I’m so doubtful to think you can actually appreciate tastes of different hamburgers at best.
― Um, I know what you mean. But I can confidently tell you. When I bite food, I can decide intuitively whether it’s dainty bits or not.

What do you think of your living here in Korea?
― To be honest, when I was a kid, there were times I wished my mom would had given birth to me in America. But now I’m really happy that I’m Korean. I’m not such a person who claims his blind love for his country, but I think there are so many things I can do because I’m Korean. First of all, there seems no country that has the kinds of food we have. I know I’m talking about food too much, but there’s really a variety of food in Korea. That means I know the tastes that others will never know. Americans won’t be able to appreciate the taste of cheonggukjang* stew. And what else?
(Translator’s comment: *Cheonggukjand is a fermented soybean paste that has a strong odor.)

Sesame leaves.
― Right, sesame leaves. But we can enjoy the taste. I think such a sensibility is reflected in music. There’s the sensibility that we have and others will never know. I think we have something they can’t even imitate.

So the origin of Taeyang’s music was cheonggukjang stew?
― Haha, you went too far.

Um, as for the Korean language, I think that…
― Ah! Can I say something on the subject first?

Go on.
― Um, I think Korean is the best. It’s crazy. ‘Norang’ is ‘yellow’ in English, but when the color fades we call it ‘nurikiri.’ We’re only ones who say our eyes are ‘chimchim*.’ Where can you find such an expression other than in Korean? And I know the subtle differences and sensibilities of those words because I’m Korean. That’s the greatest treasure that I have, I think. I’ve sung in Japanese and in English, too, but I can convey my exact feelings only through Korean. Think about the lyrics of the old Korean pops. Think about the lyrics of Jo Yongpil*’s songs.
(Translator’s comment 1: *Eyes that are ‘chimchim’ can be translated as bleared eyes or a dim eyesight. It seems Taeyang wanted to emphasize the variety and subtlety especially in Korean adjectives that have many characteristics of mimetic words.)
(Translators’s comment 2: * Jo Yongpil is one of the most famous and most admired singers in Korea.)

Your music will be much richer with the help of clear, good lyrics.
― Yes, I really think so.

That’s why you should have the company of books.
― Haha, I will.

It’s still unfamiliar to hear the word ‘jinsim*’ from a singer who’s regarded as an idol. How do you keep that word now?
― I said that I changed, that changing isn’t a bad thing, and that the time seems ripe, but as you said people want me not to change. But isn’t ‘jinsim’ such a thing that can never be changed? Isn’t it what I can’t manipulate at all? Even though you change your hair styles or attitudes, what you want to convey through your music won’t be changed, I think. That’s not the thing that you can decide with your will. There are many singers who sing or perform fantastically, but I can only respect them when I feel their jinsim. That always remains the same. Actually it’s not very long since I began to be able to listen to my singing. So I can listen to my voice accurately now. In the past, I just tried to listen because I had to monitor it. For example, I couldn’t listen to my singing as I listened to Jo Yongpil or Michael Jackson in my free time. I used to think “Why did I sing like that?” or “I should’ve sung with this emotion,” but now I don’t think like that. I can listen to my songs equally as I listen to any other artists’ music.
(Translator’s comment: *Jinsim means the truth of one’s heart or one’s sincerity.)

“It’s just a white t-shirt. Ah, it’s easily ripped.” Sleeveless/ Wolfgang Tilmans 2012, Seoul

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