Shut Up and Deal: The Evolution of Korea`s Only Rockabilly Band


BUSAN, South Korea — The most shocking part of the Rock Tigers’ first widespread music video, Come Back, is precisely how un-shocking it is. In it, Velvet Geena, the band’s lead singer and frenetic sexual stage presence, looks unusually solemn. Her face is out of focus, her hair big and long instead of tomboyishly short, dyed brown instead of hot pink. A calm guitar riff confirms that this is not the stuff of wild pompadours, punk Buddy Holly covers and straight chugs of whiskey, all of which define modern rockabilly, the Tigers’ chosen genre. This is something different. This is radio-friendly.

The new attitude persists up to an hour before showtime at Busan’s Vinyl Underground when I met up with them in spring. The band calmly does soundcheck while Geena, who seems to have traded in her studded leather vest for a bright red cardigan, slouches over her smartphone. Aside from abnormally heavy eyeliner and enormous wedge heels that raise her up from really short to, at best, pretty short, she looks every bit the female Korean conformist.

It would be dangerously easy to assume that the Rock Tigers, who have committed 12 loud years to being one of South Korea’s only significant indie bands in the Western sense of the word—playing small clubs, actively ignoring rules that dictate K-pop stars’ success—are starting to reconsider their values and change direction. They’re definitely getting more popular: in late May, the Tigers were added to the Jisan World Rock Festival, sharing a stage with the likes of Weezer, Placebo and Jamiroquai.

Honestly, we want commercial success, he laughs, and Geena shoots him a look. He sort of apologizes, then quickly tag-teams out of the interview and is replaced by Geena, who rewrites Tiger’s interpretation somewhat.

Any notion of complacency, though, is quickly shattered once the house lights drop. It’s immediately obvious that the five Tigers are just as angry and reflexive and sporadic as they ever have been. Eddie throws through the air his leopard-print standup bass; Tiger falls down beside him for a frenzied face-off. Geena, meanwhile, utterly transforms onstage, inhabiting some sort of nymphomaniacal specter that sends her into spasms of sweat and sexual momentum, slowly raising her arms to bury her face in her armpits, then exploding outward again in a flurry of limbs.

Normally my personality is very silent, and I don’t talk too much, she explained to me after the show, in a voice so surprisingly quiet I had to readjust my recorder. But on the stage I change automatically.

This is actually unsurprising for a genre that blends innocence with biker gangs. Rockabilly occupies a now-quiet corner of rock and roll, divided into any number of sub-subgenres: psychobilly, thrashabilly, punkabilly. The Tigers call themselves kimchibilly, after the nation’s iconic spicy dish; their style falls roughly closest to psychobilly, where everyone dresses like an alcoholic Fonz in 1970s Britain: short leather jackets and heavily moussed hairdos mix with the bouncy guitar riffs of way-early 1950s blues rock, a universe where everyone’s named Susie and Bobby. It’s a particularly stylish subculture. Past members of the Rock Tigers boasted names like Psycho MJ, Ace, Hurricane Billy, Billy the Machine Gun and Rock. (The current roster is made up of Velvet Geena, Tiger, Eddie Tarantula and, with disappointing normalcy, Jeff and Roy.)

Come Back, the sobering first music video off their otherwise kinetic new album, Shut Up And Deal, is a confusing and deliberate shift for the band. Tiger, the lead guitarist and daytime web designer, who is also the only original band member other than Geena, thought the same thing when Geena first approached the group with it. It’s not good for Rock Tigers, he thought to himself. But he quickly reconsidered. He’s always been a fan of country music, which he cites as the foundation of rockabilly, and agreed to try a riff on that genre.

It’s kind of… adventure? he tells me, immediately looking to Geena. Sheehom, sheehom, he repeats.

Test, she offers.

Test! It’s kind of test. It is not, he clarifies, the band’s entirely new direction, although the reason they chose it for the group’s first-ever music video, produced by their newly-minted self-made record label Tiger Records, is transparent.

Honestly, we want commercial success, he laughs, and Geena shoots him a look. He sort of apologizes, then quickly tag-teams out of the interview and is replaced by Geena, who rewrites Tiger’s interpretation somewhat.

He was kidding, she says with a smile. We wanted some different style. I think ‘Come Back’ is very slow, kind of ballad, Korean-style, but we put some country in it… We just want to say that we can play these slow songs sometimes. That’s all. She’s quick to add that the band’s follow-up music video is Haunted, which is much more traditional rockabilly, though the video is a noticeably smaller production, made up mostly of scenes cut from live performances and devoid of any visual narrative.

Come Back, meanwhile, tells the story of a girl conflicted over whether she wants her ex, while we see the band playing only occasionally. It’s an admittedly catchy but totally innocuous tune, but, despite being the Tigers’ only YouTube video from the past three years with numbers in the four digits, not to mention it being the only one they’ve made with viable TV potential, it in no way resembles what he band is known for. (Party in the Graveyard, for example, also off their latest album, features a barrage of Korean lyrics with English interjections like WATCH OUT BABY and EAT THE BRAIN.)

It’s very possible that the tender sound of Come Back will lure in Koreans more accustomed to that sort of emotion. If it does, it would mark a significant departure from the band’s current fanbase, which consists largely of expats and Korea’s fringeline alternative subculture, many of whom still dress like the Sex Pistols. At one point during our interview, a blonde North American girl walked up to Geena, cradled her face with two hands, leaned in and honestly looked as if she were going to shove her tongue down the singer’s throat. Instead, she mumbled a very drunken compliment, and Geena thanked her. But she was visibly shaken afterward, and nervously laughed for about 10 seconds.

Here is a woman who barely even hints at the onstage bravado and unbridled carnality that hides somewhere inside of her. The possibility of her transformation from quiet Korean girl into roaring, counterculture tiger is the magic of the band and the essence of rockabilly. It reveals itself only onstage, as she belts out into the spiky-haired sea before her: Shut up and deal.

Photos by Indy Randhawa

Check out the Rock Tigers on their website or on their Facebook group page.






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