Club Heavy: Daegu Rocks

Before moving to Daegu my boss, a Korean-Canadian who lived in Seoul for two years, told me that Daegu, South Korea’s third largest city, was a “cultureless black hole”. In Daegu, he said, there’s no music nor art to be found. At the time, we were working at the uptown counterpart to a certain New York video and music store that just got busted by the Recording Industry Association of America. But that’s another story. He didn’t specify if his opinion of Daegu was formed from a comparison to Seoul or New York and other capital centers, or his was just the typical extracurricular expectations one might have of a city of “only” two and a half million. But I didn’t quite believe that such a large city could be lacking in artistic expression.

So I bought the Lonely Planet Korea to read up on Daegu: “Daegu is of significant economic importance as an industrial and commercial center”, the guide advised, but “The city itself has little offer in terms of scenic attractions.” The guide’s comments on Deurangil, the glitzy new restaurant and hotel district near what would soon be my house in Daegu, “There are literally hundreds of restaurants and dozens of places to stay… The only thing this area lacks is atmosphere.”

On the bus from Incheon airport to orientation, this opinion of Daegu was echoed by a Korean-American familiar with the country from previous visits. His take on Daegu was that it’s Korea’s Pittsburgh — industrial, polluted and off-the-map culturally. I took what he said with a grain of salt, still clinging to my belief that a city with such a large population couldn’t possibly be culturally barren. And I told him so. He just laughed and said he’d be spending all his time in Seoul.

Upon arrival in Daegu, I asked new Korean friends and acquaintences where I might go to see an independent movie, a concert, an art gallery? “In Seoul”, they’d reply. Surely there had to be something like this to do in Daegu as well? But my friends would just laugh as if I was making a joke. It seemed like Daegu was, indeed, a city with all the benefits of cosmopolitan life — except for a supported arts scene.

But then one day I wandered into a small record store near one of the city’s universities and asked the owner if he knew any place I might go to see a live concert. He leapt from his chair without explanation, took me by the arm, and led me out to the street. Leaving the store unattended, he politely tugged me a few doors down to a sign that said “Club Heavy” and some dark stairs leading to a basement lair. Fixed to the door outside the club was a magic markered list of dates and Korean writing that I assumed to be band names. “Today, concert, seven. Tomorrow concert, seven”, he said. I thanked him profusely and tucked the location into my memory for another day.

A few weeks later, I found myself standing before those stairs. I admit, the name “Club Heavy” scared me off at first. In the small Polish town where I lived last year, the only live music available was found at metal concerts filled with tough-looking, long-haired and leather jacketed teenagers. But here in the city of Daegu, I was holding out for a more varied music scene. The record store owner had also given me directions to another place called “Live Club InD”, which sounded more my taste than Club Heavy. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find Club InD, but it seems that if Club InD and Club Heavy swapped names it would create a far more appropriate description of the genre each club specializes in. Every time I mention Club InD to someone, they mimed head-banging, hardcore head-banging, the kind of head thrashing that shakes the body all the way down to the waist.

Despite It’s name, Club Heavy is small, comfortably intimate, about half the size of New York’s Knitting Factory, minus the balcony. And like the Knitting Factory, Club Heavy features an awkwardly placed pole in the middle of the floor. But it’s one of those places that will never sell out, so there’s no chance of being stuck behind the pole, sweating on tip-toe and pushing shoulders with the crowd, unable to see the band. There’s no bar but you can bring your own beer, soda, water, ice cream, sandwich, dinner or drink. Paintings of geometrical puzzles and brightly colored murals of people with instruments decorate the walls. Magazine pictures of pop icons ranging from Jeff Buckley to Yo La Tengo, and an Italian movie poster for the Deer Hunter, hang shrine-like in one corner. A large-scale rendition of the cover of Sonic Youth’s Goo fronts the sound booth. Trumpets, like those once used in kings’ courts, stick out of the ceiling’s beams, seeming ready to blare as if part of the club’s sound system.

I have trouble remembering my first night at Club Heavy. The music from several bands has blended together while I so was excited to finally be at a rock concert in Daegu. For months I’d met Koreans, mostly men my age (early 20s), who, when asked to name their favorite singers, would steadfastly reply Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. My middle-school students all listen to boy band pop and my coworkers to ballads. I’d pretty much given up on the existence of a vital rock scene in Korea, aside from a few punk bands from Seoul. One of those is an indie band called Yellow Kitchen, which sounds a little like Mercury Rev, albeit with less atmospherics and an unblended mix, each instrument tuned more to itself than the band. I’d tried to buy a few twee-looking CDs, their covers decorated with cute drawings and lots of geometry, from the one-shelf “independent” section of Hot Tracks, the main downtown record store, but all I ever ended up with was K-pop that sounded like watered down J-pop and eventually I gave up on the blind buys.

The opener at that first Club Heavy show, RGB+, was a lone girl in a chair with her guitar. I was surprised. I’d come in expecting a hardcore and male-dominated rock scene. Daegu is notorious for strict, conservative parents and the controlling rule they exert over their daughters, after all. To my further delight, the headlining band included a female drummer and the owner of the rock club turned out to be a woman in her early 30s. She’s run the club for the past 10 years, supporting it with money from a part-time job since Club Heavy only has shows on weekends and holidays and doesn’t sell alcohol or cater to large crowds.

After RGB+ played a few distinctly haunting songs and a Rickie Lee Jones cover in her Cat Poweresque voice that seemed to echo in upon itself, the first band, Pojangmacha, came out and RGB+ joined them in the role of guitarist. “Pojangmacha” translates directly to “carriage”, but now means “street food vendor”, evolving to refer to the people selling chicken on a stick and traditional Korean food on the streets. These vendors encase themselves and their cooking instruments in giant plastic tents, resembling a carriage without the horse, for protection against the wind. Pojangmacha’s shuffling indie-shy, mumbling demeanor and shoe-gazer, with highlights of Brit-pop, won the audience over.

Since the crowd laughed at Pojangmacha’s soft-spoken stage banter, I assumed the singer reeled off joke after joke, but after the show their manager told me that the audience laughed nervously, sympathetically, because the band was too shy. I was taken aback, thinking, “But people who play that kind of music are supposed to be shy.” The manager, though, seemed to want them to ooze strutting star-power like the headliner, The Mu:n. Either way, Pojangmacha’s backing away from the mike and downcast eyes worked for me, since I left the concert remembering a lot more about them than the Mu:n, who sounded like Blues Traveler would if they spiced up their songs with some metalish vocals.

That was a Saturday. I went back to Club Heavy the following Sunday, forming a weekend attendance pattern that would go on until I’d seen enough bands that I could pick and choose concerts instead of wandering in blindly. It’s been worth my weekends.

Most of what I hear at Club Heavy is hardcore that tempts me into moshing and doing congo lines along with the others, though I’ve so far resisted pogoing anywhere but in my seat. Yet hardcore is far from the only emotionally engrossing music in Daegu. Perhaps the best concert so far was when Z, a transplant from Seoul who used to play in a band called Zzzaam (translation: Sleep), opened for two bands from Busan. Zzzaam is easily the most interesting Korean band I’ve heard on CD, sounding a lot like Yo La Tengo, Electr-O-Pura era, all feedback and whispers. Solo Z murmured languidly, drifting melodically moody like he’d just woken up and decided to replace his best friend with an echo-mike. A droning guitar, some effects pedals, and occasional help from pre-recorded tracks, like the creaky drum and tambourine beat Z broke out during a cover of “Pale Blue Eyes” backed him.

The next band, Sleepstalker cranked up the amps and the feedback. The singer sawed his guitar with a violin bow and seldom reaching for a pick. I thought that a special touch, but after the show, when I commented on the technique I was told, “it’s just like Sigur Ros”. Sleepstalker dressed magazine indie-rock: snug-fitting hats, old T-shirts and geek-glasses. After my first month of shows at Club Heavy I could tell if a band was from Daegu or not by how well it dressed. Bands from Seoul win the style competition, as one might expect, but the Busan groups are certainly not far behind. Sleepstalker’s singer, especially, seems poised for the cover of a record sleeve, endowed with Mick Jagger-rock star lips from which he lets loose with a high-pitched, Radioheadesque howl.

Soft Pulse Carnival followed Sleepstalker and the atmosphere slowed to a reverent hum, with most of the crowd sitting on the floor to watch. The band consists of only two members, an acoustic guitar player, who sat on the stage, and a trumpet player, who took a chair. Both wore bedroom slippers and their music was as relaxed and unadorned as their feet. On the stage behind them in easy view of the audience they planted a music stand supporting a notebook on whose pages were written song titles. After each song the trumpet player flipped through the pages to find the sheet announce the next song’s name.

Another excellent weekend, Sogyumo Acacia Band (translation: Little Echinacea Band) came down from Seoul for an indie-unplugged night. For their first set, as with Soft Pulse Carnival, the audience sat on the floor (oh, do I wish more American audiences would try relaxing like at a concert), revering a female singer and two men, a guitarist and a bongo drummer, both wearing dark sunglasses. They their played music so quietly it was barely there and sang lyrics with an unabashed Phil Spector (minus the Wall of Sound, of course) emotional forthrightness, often in English. After the still set the band took a break, the audience stood up, and the band came back to play a more electric form of quiet, the sort of music where the spaces between notes seem to be held longer than the guitar chords. Everyone danced, or at least swayed, in a movement as muted as the music. The electric standing set featured bass propelled melodies with the sun-glassed guitarist occasionally contributing Edywn Collins smooth, almost humming vocals. His guitar twitched staccato, decorative toppings. In an odd choice of back-to-back covers, unless they planned to pair famous stuttering songs, they played “Karma Chameleon” and “Psycho Killer”. And by then I was dancing, too.

One of my favorite concerts was an all-girl band called Bloody Cookie, again, from Seoul. Why they chose that name, I have no idea, but it fit perfectly, cookies being sweet and blood clearly not. Just like them, smiles and nodding “kamsahamnida’s” (thank you’s) between their songs of screaming L7 grind and Chili Peppers thump-funk bass. I was entranced, having never seen Korean girls delight in acting so outrageously angry before. It felt like high school, when music had a more visceral importance, when I discovered Hole and Bikini Kill and their trashy clothes. Only Bloody Cookie wasn’t dressed vintage so much as 1980s, recalling in an odd way, Satisfaction, right down to the Britta Phillips’s spacey bass player with the scraggly hair. I bought their CD.

Pepe Lopez, who seem to play Club Heavy every other weekend, sound like they’ve just arrived from California, carting bouncy MxPx or Blink-182 guitar riffs and enthusiasm so infectious it crosses the language barrier. When the singer/bass player tells jokes as stage banter, I laugh along with the rest of the audience, without understanding a word. Another singer pogos behind the band, near the drums, scratching records behind a podium draped with a “Pepe Lopez” banner. Luckily for me, at least half of their songs are in English and now having seen them a few times I can almost sing along, at least with the choruses. A favorite song includes the strangled shout, “let’s go surfin’!” which until the last time I saw them I thought was “let’s go Brooklyn!” Now it finally makes sense when the singer/bassist introduces the band with a line about “California middle-high badabada sound.” The singer parsed the sentence into bits, feeding the audience one word at a time, “Ba!” “Da!” “Ba!” “Da!” “Punk!”, over and over again, with the crowd repeating it back to him, much like I lead my students in class.

Takryuhan (translation: Muddy Streaming… I know, to English-speaking ears it’s grammatically off-beat, but the sentiment behind the name translates poorly and “streaming” is what the band members swear by) is Daegu’s stand-out hometown indie band. One guitarist blurts choppy, anti-melodic rapid fire beats and the rest of the band swings full-out orchestrated feedback, except for when they taper into a Bedhead glide. The singer hides himself at the back of the stage, behind two guitarists and a bassist, next to the drums, where he sweetly murmurs lyrics and occasionally strums an acoustic guitar.

And in perhaps the ideal example of the wide variation in the bands that play Club Heavy at any given show, following Takryuhan one night was Unchained, who could have passed for Alice in Chains’ younger brother. The singer slanted into the mike with moves and a wardrobe copped from Layne Staley, right down to the black clothes and sunglasses. Since drugs are hard to come by in Korea, I assumed the sunglasses were a stylistic choice and not covering up heroin bloodshot eyes. The guitars behind him groaned grimy sludge and the drums did whatever thump thumps were required. In the US I probably would have run home, tucked my head under a pillow and protected it with some twee-pop, never having even liked Alice in Chains. Here, I nodded, even bopped and banged my head along, thankful that although a city with the population of Daegu should probably have more venues, at least it has Club Heavy.