[FEB’12 10Asia interview] Lee Jungyeop, Former Manager to Successful Producer
“Initially I thought all this will not happen. I developed high dreams, but the dream still seemed far away.” Infinite represents Woollim’s first idol group that houses other groups/singers like Nell, Epik High and Jisun. He’s [Jungyeop] in a challenge in the middle of serving a greater idol world dominated three large enterprises such as SM, YG, and JYP where they are strengthening their roots. Nonetheless Infinite have, in one and a half years, consistently stood on stage with clear concepts or hook songs to allow people to distinguish them from other groups. ‘Be Mine’ rose to 2nd position in KBS’s ‘Song of the Year’ at the end of 2011. The eyes of the man that Infinite fans call ‘boss’ always shines like a teenager every time he says and stresses, “I want to create good songs.”
Q: Infinite’s February 11/12th concerts were sold out, right?
A: For a singer, the most important is the album, then only concerts. Honestly, I’m quite afraid about the public’s judgement (towards Infinite), but I did not spare any cost in production and prepared as intensely as possible so that the fans could enjoy a good show.
Q: For an idol group, this moment in the idol world is like a red sea. How early did you think about entering it?
A: Over the past few years, the Asian music market has started to increase. At that time I already felt that this will be heavily based on the idol. I already have a lot of previous work experience with musicians such as Nell and Epik High and following that, as a producer. What else is the task of a producer? If you write music, there are already those who write music; for a concept there are already those who produce them so all a producer has to do is release albums. Because of this rose a ‘bravado’ to create a song well with a direct jump from the early stages of manufacturing up to music.
Q: I’ve heard a lot about how, 18 years ago, you were Lee Seunghwan’s manager. Since when did you actually begin to step foot in this business?
A: After passing the SMA, i moved from busan to the city without anything. I spent my time auditioning as an actor, but failed. But it was clear, despite everything, I wanted to work in this industry. I then worked as a newspaper distributor. In the noon I worked in the construction field and at dawn, I was distributing newspapers. One day i hurt my feet on nails at the construction site, so I couldn’t work there any more. [i don’t understand the exact details but the manager at the newspaper distribution company moved him to the industry of instrumental rental, and he worked there instead]. While there i started work installing concert kits for Lee Seunghwan, and that’s when I received the offer to become his manager.
Q: What made you move to Seoul and work in this field without a plan?
A: Since I was young I really liked films and music. Back then, the rental for one video was only 100 won, and in a day i would rent up to 5 videos. Every time I watched it, I would think “Ah, I want a job like this.” In Seoul when I visited relatives, I only listened to the radio broadcast of the ‘Golden Disk Kim Gwanghan’ every day with my cousins. That was it time of interesting pop music. There was idol music, rock, ballad, country music; everything was present. My cousin liked Culture Club, and i liked A-Ha. The musical direction that I love now comes from the style of the music then. The character of the music produced by Sweetune matched, so I really like this job.
Q: Is this why Infinite’s signature songs, ‘Comeback again’ and ‘Be Mine’, channel the emotion and style of the ’80s?
A: Yes. when I listen to those songs, my heart is so touched (laughs)
Q: Honestly, how do you do work with the music industry?
A: When song writers demo their songs, I ask to change only small parts and add several parts. Like with ‘Nothing’s Over’, in the middle there is a drum beat, and I asked them to add it in because I was inspired by Sting’s ‘English Man in New York’. In ‘BTD’, I asked to emphasize the scorpion dance part to become the peak of the song. For ‘Be Mine’, the riffs only happened once but I asked it to be repeated twice and added to the dance break. Though the song’s character is dance music, if given a touch of emotion, melody and riff, then it would be better to listen to. It seems that’s what seniors do to create the best music.
Q: But it’s not an easy thing to enter personal taste in the business world? When producing the song ‘Comeback Again’, were there fears because the song was inspired by disco music such as A-Ha or musicians from the ’80s as a source in the present music market?
A: Before, I had hesitations. Now, most idol songs are characterized as hook songs. In the idol market, many use electronic sounds in their peak. In ‘Comeback Again’, the lyrics “comeback again” was repeated several times and to make it catchy, we added the impact of a guitar. But I was still afraid and asked the thoughts of Sweetune writer, Kang Jaeho. He said, “Idols now are mostly kids who have never heard songs like this. Maybe they will be presented with a new color.” His answer was enough to give me confidence. This is why my thoughts for ‘Comeback Again’ was enough even though it was less successful (laughs).
Q: You say you are happy to concentrate only on the music and performance, and Infinite is the first idol group you’ve debuted. Apart from concentrating on music and performance, you do not have the desire to bring their music to the characteristic hook song ideal or variety shows to attract fame?
A: Whatever people say, the clearest thing I like is the character of Infinite’s music. From the beginning I felt that they would go far. So from the start until now, I have never seen anything other than their music.
Q: You’re very determined to put out good quality and it sounds ideal, but it also sounds unrealistic. Isn’t it the most important thing for a producer to be inclusive/mainstream?
A: This is a job that I do, and I have staked my name. I don’t want to throw everything away chasing profits. From the start of my production career, I valued my goals, not money. It was only after Epik High and Nell started doing well that finally, profits were made. For me, all the films I’ve watched, all the songs I’ve heard and all my experiences have been an asset. When I was handling singers like Jo Dong Jin, Jong Dong Ik, Jang Phil Sun, Han Dong Jun, Yu Heui Yeol and Lee So Ra, a part of the time that I spent with them was in recording room. It was very tiring to see them and listen to the same songs over and over. But a good thing that came from that was that I know how to judge a song and see what’s good and bad about it (T/N: Literally, he’s saying “I know the measurement or standard of judgement regarding the good and bad bits of a song.”). Because of this, I know that if a song I heard or a film that I watched receives negative criticism, that’s a sign that I can’t make a song with the same character. Some people say I’m able to say things like this (T/N: so freely, so easily) because now I’m financially stable. But if you examine the details, it’s evident that I began work truly with nothing. Coming from Seoul I only brought 30,000 won and the price to take a car was only 6,100 won and in the time we finished recording ‘be mine’, we didn’t have the capital to create the MV. In the end, I used the mortgage money from my home and lived in Infinite’s dorm. Once, it was raining heavily and the basement flooded, and I had to drain it myself. At that moment, I thought, “If i am a successful producer, why are things like this?” (laughs) But because I wanted to make good music, I would rather live like that.
Q: Now infinite has moved dorms, but I remember watching Infinite’s You Are My Oppa’ and in that, their dorm was really miserable (laughs)
A: Yes, I am very thankful to them even though they suffered, they trusted and followed me. They are truly energetic. I’m so happy I can watch them progress rapidly.
Q: Conditions keep improving, but a big team also entails a large funding. What will you spread outside of music for income?
A: If i’m asked to look to the future, this is my theory. If it’s time to raise profits, it is better to hold events overseas. I am very thankful to the members. Compared to other idols now, they don’t receive a lot of money. But they have never once complained about money or the schedule.
Q: An idol group requires a precise production process and also systematic training and it’s a contrast to Nell or Epik High who are singer-writers. Truthfully, how was Infinite created?
A: We already live together and have taken the leap (laughs). The thought to ‘jump’ is very important. If, from the beginning, there was no passion, the future would be very burdensome. Honestly, Sunggyu never had intentions to become an idol, and his musical direction was more towards rock and R&B. Woohyun and Hoya, from a visual point-of-view in the past, did not fit the mold (laughs). But they really wanted to sing and dance, and they were selected. Looking at it now, the decision was right.
Q: Infinite’s speciality is a group synchronization. This has become a heated topic and Infinite’s weapon.
A: The moment their debut was finalized, I brought in choreographer Kim Dongmin from NANA School. We knew each other from when I was a manager before. Other than Dongwoo and Hoya who were used to dancing, everyone else was alarming (laughs). For ‘Comeback Again”s choreography, I wanted to give them Michael Jackson’s character, but the kids were very stiff. Their bodies weren’t used to following the beat of the song, and it was to the point the sense of the movement wasn’t alive. It really made me worry (laughs). In the end we decided to remove the groove and to coordinate the movements of the seven members to cover their weaknesses.
Q: Before, Infinite’s album did receive public success but what effect did you receive from them receiving #1 on music shows?
A: Motivation from the members. The success of becoming the #1 singers in the country meant that they had enough influence to promote overseas.
Q: To manage the thoughts of the members, you seem to be have to think hard too.
A: Honestly in the past, Woohyun was the one who was most afraid to talk to an interviewer one-on-one like this, but now he is the one who undergoes activities like this (laughs). To ask these 20-year-old boys to not do certain things doesn’t seem like the thing to do. Fortunately, they are all good kids and they do not like to lie.
Q: What are your plans for Woollim Entertainment this year?
A: Nell’s album will be released in March. Infinite are also slated to return in May; their hit song is already out and slowly being prepared. Their schedule is also centered around Japanese promotions. Baby Soul and Yoo Jiah will also release a digital single, but the schedule of exactly when and how to launch is still undecided.
Q: Through Woollim Entertainment, what else do you envision?
A: I want to show that current rookies suffer enough having to stay up all day and only get paid one million won a month, if I can succeed as a producer. Since young, I held the belief that “If you preserver, you will succeed”. But if the music industry becomes a money game, then all this passion will be lost. Even so, I wanted to create an environment in which managers can work with their dreams and hopes. For the identity of the company I was confused, but the main thing is that I want to create a company that is filled by familiar friends to make good music. Singing is a sensitive job, and it would be better with people we have known from the beginning. I hope I can always work with the people I am familiar with.
Q: From your beginnings as a manager to the CEO of a music company. What have you learnt while doing this?
A: Never, ever feel embarrassed (laughs).