Kim Tae-woo Back on Center Stage

by JAMES S. KIM | @James_S_Kim

Kim Tae-woo cuts an impressive figure as he strides into the lobby of the Line Hotel in Koreatown, Los Angeles. At 6-feet-tall, the broad-shouldered singer with well-groomed facial hair stands a good bit taller than most of his entourage.

His aviators, his latest piece of signature eyewear, are the only throwback to Kim’s younger boy band days. The 33-year-old is joined by his wife, Kim Aeri, who works alongside him at Soulshop Entertainment, the Seoul-based talent agency he founded in 2011. A documentary crew from Korea is following them, recording the couple’s excursion to the U.S.

When the g.o.d. lead vocalist spoke with KoreAm in November, he was in the midst of a two-city U.S. tour (L.A., then New York) to perform reunion concerts with fellow members of one of K-pop’s most famous boy bands. Nearly a decade since g.o.d (which stands for “Groove Overdose”) disbanded, the group released a new album, Chapter 8, in July 2014.

The K-pop landscape was a lot different when g.o.d.’s Kim, Son Ho-young, Danny Ahn, Park Joon-hyung and Yoon Kye-sang ruled the charts in the early 2000s. For fans who grew up with g.o.d. and other first-generation K-pop groups like S.E.S., H.O.T. and Shinhwa, the Internet was still young, and digital content was far and few between.

But as K-pop evolved, so did Kim. When the group dispersed in 2005, Kim didn’t idle, adding solo artist, producer, businessman, husband and father to his résumé. Now, as head of Soulshop, Kim is in charge of signing and facilitating the growth of his own talented corps of artists.

A day before g.o.d.’s concert at L.A.’s Staples Center, Kim Tae-woo took a break in his schedule to chat with KoreAm about career, family and the reunion tour. The interview has been translated from Korean to English.

When did you and the other members first think about reuniting and coming out with Chapter 8?

All of us had this dream in mind. We all wanted to come back. In the meantime, we were each busy doing solo projects, and we were under different companies, so it took a long time to get everything together. Our schedules had to match up. For me, I had thought about it for a long time. Since the beginning of last year, I started thinking of ideas. My company and I eventually took on producing the album. We had to think of what image g.o.d. would have when we came back, what direction we would be going in. We took all this into consideration.

How did it feel to record a full album again with the group?

Chapter 8 was an album we made on our own. In the past, there was always a big producer like JYP Entertainment. Rather than focusing on asserting our own flavor, though, it was more of a learning experience. It felt like we were on the receiving end of the music that was new to us. The lyrics contain messages that we, as g.o.d., really wanted to express and convey.

We had plenty of freedom to do what we wanted. It was fun. For the first time in a long time, we were able to fool and joke around in the studio again. The result was definitely important, but our main goal was to really capture the feeling of the old days. We were doing our own thing for 10 years, so being able to come together again, talk about music—it was really important to us. The only thing different was that we were all more mature, and we all looked older.

When I first started with g.o.d., my goal was to be successful. This time around, I think there was real heart behind the comeback. We wanted to do this for the fans. The fans were our number one priority, and that gave us the most satisfaction, seeing the fans who were really anticipating us to come back. Back when we were a group, we always wondered if we’d be able to perform in America. Now, here we are.

You’ve come a long way since 2005. What was going through your mind when the group went on hiatus?

At the time, many people asked, “Why did you stop, when everything seemed to be going so well for you?” It was a great time in my life. But there are always ups and downs in life, and that applies to g.o.d. as artists, too. It’s the same way for current K-pop idols.

I thought about how I would move forward as an artist. I started my career when I was 18. I had a goal: I was going to be an artist for my entire life and career, so I went solo. It was a natural transition. There’s nothing permanent in this world. It applies to both stars and pop groups. In the end, we wanted to move on with our own individual musical philosophies.

In my life, g.o.d. was an important starting point for my career, but it’s not something I could have expected to be a part of until I was 60 or 70 years old. It felt like a natural thing for me to move on. I stood at the top with g.o.d., and when the group disbanded, I started my solo career, where I was recognized, too.

When did you first begin thinking about music as a career?

I was in fourth grade, and it was a dream of mine to become a musician. I liked going up on stage and performing when I was young, and I loved music and singing, so I naturally continued pursuing it as a career. I met great teachers and had good opportunities. Park Jinyoung (JYP) selected me [for g.o.d] after I sent a demo tape to his company.

Luck is so important. It’s really important who you first start your music career with. It’s also important what kind of chances you’re given. For me, those kind of things worked out really well. The other members were great. The producers who helped us were great. They are the ones who I appreciate for helping me along and giving me the strength now to continue with music.

Who were your biggest influences in music?

JYP first, obviously, since he’s the one who helped me start my career. In regards to artists I looked up to and wanted to emulate, I really enjoyed Stevie Wonder, James Ingram and especially Brian McKnight. I met all of them.

When I was able to meet them and speak with them, it was a huge moment in my life. I saw them as heroes. I was able to get a vocal lesson from James Ingram for an hour at his studio. I got to talk with Brian McKnight. I wasn’t able to talk too long with Stevie Wonder, but I gave him my CD. Those instances were all like dreams.

What made you want to go into the business side of music and open your own company?

It’s difficult, first of all, to be an artist. I didn’t want to just make music—I wanted to help someone else realize their dreams of becoming a musician, in the same way [Park] Jinyoung helped me do the same.

I’ve found that it isn’t easy. If I release my own album and it doesn’t do well, then I take the blame and responsibility. If I help produce another artist’s album and it doesn’t do well, I’m also responsible for both the album and the artist. But it’s a lot of fun. It’s a different goal that I’m trying to achieve.

I’m not in the business to make [K-pop] idols. I want my company to be a place where artists who truly enjoy music can gather. I want these musicians to have the same mindset I had when I was younger: it’s not about becoming a star by being an artist. It’s about being an artist because they love music.

What qualities do you look for in artists you want to represent?

Passion. That’s the most important thing. Practicing is hard. It’s difficult to practice when you don’t really know what the immediate future holds for you. Your passion for music is what gets you through that and pushes you forward to try even harder. And a heart and soul that loves music.

What’s it like working with your spouse?

Of course it’s great. I’m very grateful. She gives me good direction. No one cares for how I am more than she does. She’s someone who thinks from my perspective, so there’s trust.

But she’s also very objective and makes sure I don’t get swayed. She tells me things that a regular employee at my company wouldn’t be able to say to me, so it’s helpful and frustrating at the same time.

If someone’s a member of my company, there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t get said in front of me. That’s not the case with Aeri. It’s a bit frustrating sometimes, because she’s able to say anything to me. “No, you can’t do that!” It’s great.

What are your thoughts on how Korean music and pop culture have expanded internationally?

It’s a great opportunity. The fact that not only Koreans, but people all over the world are listening to and going crazy over K-pop right now is a blessing to see.

I think what current artists don’t have on old-school is, they aren’t able to consistently sell one million to two million albums. Our fanbase also showed up in much more impressive numbers. Since SNS [social networking services] and the Internet weren’t prevalent back then, fans also made a bigger effort to come and watch their artists. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have any opportunities to see them.

These days, there isn’t as much hype around getting your hands on an album since we live in an age where we can find anything on the Internet. If I do anything, anyone can see it on the Internet. Psy’s case is amazing. A Korean artist on the Billboard charts? Americans are going crazy about Korean music. When I see that, I can’t help but feel happy for them.


How has K-pop evolved over the years?

I think the musical arrangements by Korean musicians have become among the best in the world. The standard has become a lot higher, and the methods have become much more refined. The ideas are much better.

Secondly, the melodies that Korean musicians use now have a much more human aspect to it. Many of the melodies in K-pop are [inspired] from the past, like the Beatles. Many of these find their way into modern tracks, which, as a result, appeals to American and global listeners and sounds fresh to them. Even though the melody might be old-school, the sound is definitely new.

When you look at musicians from years ago, doing music for a living was a very exceptional deal. Mostly, it was only those who were born with talent and ability who were able to make it big. But now, there are so many people who can sing well. You could become a star on YouTube. But in order to do so, a large part of that is making sure your music is appealing to audiences. If you want to make music that only you’ll enjoy, you might as well stay at home and do your music there. There’s no point to making an album or performing for people.

How do you balance work and family life?

Since my wife is working with me at my company, I feel like I’m always with family. I’m participating in [South Korean reality TV show on celebrity families] Oh My Baby, and luckily for one full day a week, I get to spend time with them. It’s a great opportunity for me. Usually, I don’t get to see [my kids] until I come back home from work, or if Aeri is up late when I get back. I normally don’t see them more than two hours a day. I feel sorry that I can’t spend more time, but I’m trying my best to raise my kids. Once they grow up, I think they’ll understand why their parents worked so hard. Once I grew up, I came to realize the same thing about my own parents.

In terms of balance, it’s important for everything. I’m a workaholic, but it’s not like I don’t spend any time with the family. On the flip side, I’m not a full-out family man who doesn’t work.

What do you do when you are with your family?

Personally, I love staying at home. I love my sofa, my bed. These days, though, my two daughters are at the age where all they want to do is run around and play—they’re 2 and 3 years old. They want to go out. For me, it’s everything right up until we actually go out that’s the most tiresome. I have to get myself ready, wash up and wear something nice. When I’m at home, I can wear anything and comfortably be a couch potato for the rest of the day. If I go out, people might recognize me.

It’s great, seeing the kids run around. But it’s tiring for their dad.

Have you introduced music to them?

Aeri (interjecting): They’ve been listening to music since they were born.

Tae-woo:When my first daughter was born, I was in the delivery room. I was playing James Ingram, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder. My wife was in labor for 19 hours, but I kept the soul music going. My first daughter can sing really well because of that.

What do they like listening to now?

Aeri: g.o.d. music.

Tae-woo: They really like it.

Old-school g.o.d.?

Aeri: No, their new album.

Tae-woo: They’re a bit young for old-school g.o.d. They like pop.

What about Chapter 8 appeals to your daughters?

Tae-woo: They’re able to hear a familiar voice—their dad’s voice. They like a good melody, one that makes them happy. That’s pretty much the most important goal for g.o.d. Even if the song might be sad, we want people who listen to the song to feel better afterwards.

Aeri : Their songs can cover all generations.

Tae-woo: (To Aeri, in English) Oh, good! (In Korean) I’ll give you $10 for that.


Photos courtesy of Soulshop Entertainment

This article was published in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribetoday! To purchase a single issue copy of the December/January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).