[NEWS] 170825 Billboard: “How EXO's 'The War' Came Together: A Song-By-Song Breakdown With the Band, Its Producers & More”
A behind-the-scenes look at what went into making summer’s hottest K-pop album.
From the frenetic synths of “Going Crazy” to the dreamlike melodies of “Walk on Memories,” EXO’s latest album, The War, held nothing back from fans. Pulling inspiration from funk, reggae, EDM, trap and more, then weaving it all together through top-notch production, it proved a logical progression in their sonic journey and a summer-friendly successor to the group’s darker previous album, Ex'Act.
With The War, EXO topped Billboard’s World Albums chart for two consecutive weeks and went on to sell over 1 million copies globally, proving that the EXO-L fandom is sticking around for the boy band’s evolution.
Learn what went into the hottest K-pop album of the summer from the members themselves and some of the producers behind its hottest tracks.
Mike Woods: I was one of the producers on “The Eve” which was originally titled “Black Dress.” I wrote it alongside Kevin White, Andrew Bazzi and Henry Lau. Originally the song was for Henry Lau’s project, but we all felt that it going to EXO would be best for everyone as it was a perfect record for them. The sound came about from us wanting something sexy and melodic, but also performance driven. We wanted to paint a dark and mysterious vibe, hence the title “Black Dress.” We wrote the song during a writing camp for SM [Entertainment] – we basically write one to two songs a day for about 10 days and see what we come up with. “The Eve” came about on the fourth day of the camp and only took us one day to complete, from conception of music and lyrics to the final composition. We recorded the demo for the song the same day of conception.
“Ko Ko Bop”
Styalz Fuego: I went out to Seoul early November last year. It was maybe 10 of us … and basically we were all put in the the SM studios for a couple of weeks. It was my first time out there. [You’re] basically hearing a quick [overview] of the whole scene and everything that’s going on in K-pop and then you’re put in the rooms every day to just write songs. “Ko Ko Bop” was maybe the fourth of fifth day in. The first couple of days I was trying to get a hang of [it.] I listened to a lot of K-pop, but still, it’s a different scene to write a song [for] because it’s so much more complex. [K-pop songs] have so many more moving components to them, than say, if you’re out in L.A. writing, trying to make things very simple and trying to get to the core of the lyric and have the beat as simple as possible.
I kinda knew as soon as we’d done the song and we played it back for everyone, just from the response we got to the song it was gonna be something, but I had no idea it’d be [EXO’s]. Going into writing that song, it was basically to do something with the reggae feel, that was the main thing we were aiming for. It took a whole different direction with the crazy drop section after the chorus. We went into this doing a reggae-pop song and it transformed into what it is.
I don’t think it was ever for EXO – I think it was more for a female group. Shaylen [Carroll, co-producer] did the demo. When they did the playback for everyone at SM, [we thought] they would essentially understand this is for one of the girl groups. A girl is singing it and it’s in the range of what the girls can sing. The song was actually in a higher key – I think three semitones higher – so it was more fitted for a female [group] originally.
But I guess it worked out well because we had a few of our voices in the song spread out, so I guess when they started picking where the song could go, it made sense for EXO because there are so many different sections vocally.
Shaylen Carroll: I wrote the lyrics and melodies with Tay Jasper, then I sang the demo. It’s a “feel good” type of track, so the melodies came easily. Styalz’s stuff is easy to write to. When I was recording some melody ideas I kept on singing nonsense phrases and one was “Shimmy shimmy Ko Ko Bop,” which we all thought was super quirky and catchy. So we built off that and turned it into something real. The song is about not worrying about things… Sometimes you just gotta go with the flow! Don’t worry about the haters.
Jared Cotter, Shaylen’s manager: [SM Entertainment] let us know it was being considered for a girl group.
Carroll: [I] definitely never thought it would get flipped to EXO, but obviously we are thrilled it did. We [knew] it was special when we finished it. I am really glad it found the home that it did.
Chen: [The members and I] wrote the lyrics separately and worked on putting the lyrics together for the song afterwards. We worked on the song using a special method, where we gathered all three of our lyrics for the song and selected which lyrics would suit the song the best. I don’t think I have any regrets or wish that it could have better since it’s the best result produced through all the effort that our members and other various writers have put into the process. Through the lyrics, I wanted “Ko Ko Bop” to have people shake off all their stress and enjoy themselves just as who they are.
Baekhyun: I felt that a lot of our fans were unable to fully enjoy our concerts or performances because they’re conscious of what others would think. Since “Ko Ko Bop” is a reggae and EDM genre and it’s easy to groove to, I wanted my lyrics to have people to become more carefree, release their stress and dance away with the music.
“What U Do?”
Ronny Svendsen: The song was written in Seoul last December. We went over to Korea to do a camp for SM with our, at the time, new publishing company called Ekko Music Rights. We tried to create a song that would be danceable and organic sounding with emphasis on real instruments – bass, guitar, piano. The song was really based around the guitars and a simple chord progression. Sound-wise we had a reference from another boy band of SM Entertainment’s called NCT, which we originally aimed for: danceable, but not “synthy.”
Greg Bonnick of LDN NOISE: This was written in Seoul with Kenzie and Adrian McKinnon. We knew the vibe was perfect for EXO so we worked on it for about a week on and off to get it right, trying different chords and toplines. The intro part was initially the chorus. We thought, “Great, we nailed it,” but once we listened back, it needed to go up another gear. We then added the extra section, which is now the chorus, and it came to life and made it so much bigger.
To be honest, we wanted to make a “Monster” 2.0 but still be different and bigger, you know? We always have fun when we can mix hard hip-hop verses with a bright chorus, and for a group like EXO, it gives it the perfect balance.
We wanted to make a statement: this song, this album, it’s EXO forever. We feel really connected to this group and the fans so it’s important we got it right, and the feedback has been amazing, so we are very happy.
Denzil Remedios: From what I recall, “Touch It” came to Ryan [Jhun]’s hands first. He got the song originally from the Jackie Boyz [Carlos and Steven Battey] and the Fliptonez. I think they sent it to him while we were still in Korea and this was actually more than a year ago now, maybe close to almost two years ago when they sent that record, and it just kinda connected right away. We heard what it could be – it already sounded like the guts of a smash was there, at least something we could put into a big group’s hands. From there, Ryan and I did what we normally do, which is pick it apart and say, “Hey, what parts could get stronger? What could we do extra with the production to pump it a little bit more?” That’s how we got the record, and then we just worked on all those elements over probably months back and forth.
“Touch It,” when we first heard it, already had such a non-today-ish vibe – a classic vibe. It’s not like the everyday pop EDM electronic-y sound that everyone’s doing, which was refreshing when we first heard it. We were like, “Yo, this sounds like an old Justin Timberlake, almost Michael Jackson type of thing.” That old school vibe. We didn’t wanna change the production or toplining to the point where it didn’t sound like that anymore. When we were hearing it, sonically we were like, “Cool, this can be something that a group like EXO can take and use for the album and it doesn’t sound like everything else they would normally be putting out.”
We were thinking stage performance at the time too. It’s just a really fun track that doesn’t have to be too serious – you don’t have to have crazy choreography where they drop from the top of the stadium.
Chen: My imagination provides the most inspiration for the lyrics. For “Touch It,” I played out the lyrics in my mind as if it is like a scene from a movie when writing it. After completing the draft, I worked on it by fixing awkward pronunciations by singing along the lyrics with the music. This helped me figure out more suitable and comfortable words that would enhance the groove when listening to the song.
Otha “Vakseen” Davis: We went to a song camp last year – I wanna say it was November – and it was probably the third camp my team has been on. Anytime we go to song camps at SM, they usually have a focus for us as far as what to work on and I know we worked on some things for EXO. For any creator, you always wanna try to make an EXO project. We fell in love with the vibe and the energy[of “Chill”] in the studio and SM’s team felt the same way about the record. That happened to be one that everybody loved – the guys loved it ultimately when they heard it.
There were certain elements like the breakdown in “Chill” that was added at the camp, but we came with the ideas already fleshed out. Ultimately, [the breakdown] was to serve as a dance breakdown. K-pop acts, especially EXO, are very performance-oriented, so you wanna have sections to show out. You wanna make something that feels good but still can allow them to move.
Chanyeol: Usually it’s common to work on the lyrics based on a demo guide, but for the song “Chill” I worked on the lyrics with an empty track without demo lyrics. I think that’s part of the reason why the lyrics were able to come out pretty naturally.
“Walk on Memories”
Albi Albertsson: In late 2015, Wassily Gradovsky, who was actually interning for me as a producer at that time, brought an instrumental to me, which was later to become the instrumental for “Walk on Memories.” He had recorded a loop on the upright piano I have in my living room and incorporated it into this smooth R&B style beat.
I immediately liked the chord progression and the vibe of the track, so I sent it to Justin Reinstein, a writer from New York who we had just started working with at that time. He had a very smooth topline and vocal style that I thought would be perfect for this track, so he worked on the instrumental to craft the melodies.
From then on it was only finalizing the song: I added stacks of vocal harmonies and other details to make it work better for a group performance and make it more “K-pop,” added some vocal adlibs and then finalized the production by adding more instruments and finalizing the mix.
When I sent it to EXO’s A&R, he immediately loved it but wanted a more distinct intro that reflected the fantasy theme he had in mind for the new album. So instead of the very basic intro the track originally had, I came up with a new, more mysterious and vibey intro, which is the intro you can hear in the final version of the song.
Wassily Gradovsky: The track was influenced by the genres of ‘90s R&B and jazz, reimagined with contemporary sounds. The arrangement of the piano chords – being arpeggiated from bottom to the top – was inspired by Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River,” but with a lighter and more positive tone. The slightly melancholic bridge, which is modulating into the final uplifting chorus, represents an uplifting, “happy ending” twist to the story.
Otha “Vakseen” Davis: It was something that we did maybe around February of 2016. They loved it and for some reason could not find the right topline for it – I think they had one originally and it didn’t work at the end of the day. So they had this track, it was already placed on EXO and my team was presented with the opportunity to write to it. So I had one of my writers go in and do what he does. Funny enough, it was supposed to go on the Ex'Act album. It was something that they loved, but it didn’t make sense then. We were persistent. Between myself and my business partner, we [would say], “Hey, what about this one? Don’t forget this record!” Fast forward to now, the new album was coming out, [and] we were finally able to get them to connect. I think we had to make a couple of edits on it between that year or so passing just to make sure it was as fresh as possible.
The track’s over a year old – there’s something so special about it because you drop it now, 2017, and it’s still hot, still relevant. And that’s the goal: create timeless music that can be good any time.
Being an older-than-your-average fan, who is already working and has stanned groups since 2009, I am perpetually worried about NCT 127. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to inject unnecessary panic into people’s thoughts, I just wanted to share with y’all why it’s important to show our support for them in any way we can. It’s just that you can really see how much different the group is compared to other groups and how different this era of kpop is for idols from the rest. In this day and age, the success of a group suddenly seems linked to how viral they can be or how much hype they can illicit from the public. The “it” groups tend to be the ones who make it to popular dance covers and vines and trend words, etc. But we all know NCT 127 has strayed from that path, as their music to begin with is unique (more k-hiphop than kpop really), and have immediately gained more international recognition than local (the k-public). While I’d like to believe that they are taking the slow and sure path upwards, than the usual viral-almost-immediately-famous path, I cant help but feel that this Cherry Bomb era was expected by the company and by our boys to explode virally. All of you can see that they did go all-out this time, with the crazy difficult choreography, 2D animation in the MV, all those practice videos and BOY videos, the promos, etc. We’re literally being spoiled by SM, meaning that SM and our boys have invested a lot on this comeback, hoping it would indeed explode their popularity (same way as Sorry Sorry, Growl/Monster, Gee, etc) . Obviously, digital charts say otherwise (which I understand, nowadays girl groups and catchy-generic songs fair better digitally and 127′s k-fanbase is still much small), and in the coming music shows with them being up against famous groups, you can see how small they still are and how the bomb hasn’t exploded the way they would have wanted it to. Fortunately, it seems that SM isn’t irked by this, and have even resorted to sticking to their sound when KBS banned the song from being promoted on air. Dont get me wrong, this era (which btw isnt done yet!!!) has managed to bring them more fame and more fans. I love that the reception for it, at least internationally, is so great, that non-i-fans have turned and converted into fans (we’re getting bigger in the fandom yay). I mean, look at our boys run!! Although they’ve only won once on a music show, they’ve been invited to two KCONs (turning three), several international music festivals, and won year-end rookie awards less than a year into their debut!!! But really my worry stems more from the fact that our boys have probably been exhausted to the core in trying to be that big “HIT” they needed to be for this era, most esp to the kpublic. But I guess, it’s gonna take time, I just hope that each and every one of them will be strong enough to hold on to that dream until it happens. In the mean time, please stream Cherry Bomb on Melon, Naver, GEnie and watch their MV as much as you can!
OK BUT GUYS can we talk about how momo’s performance on hit the stage talked about abusive relationships??? it CLEARLY was about abusive relationships but she also showed how society tends to ignore that truth. like with the backdancers, they covered their eyes and kept walking bc they didnt want to know they didnt want to see they didnt do ANYTHING to stop mina’s suffering. and then when mina dies momo “breaks” but then joins them and closes her eyes so she cant see what shes done to mina and also walks away. im just speechless SHE DID THAT MOMO AND MINA THEY DID THAT IM SO. SHOCKED I REALLY DONT KNOW WHAT TO SAY
(there are hints of smut but nothing more than pg-13ish and a sentence or 2 that implies more than pg-13 actions)
It was finally the end of EXO’s restless weeks of promotions and Baekhyun wanted to spend every moment of his one day off with me. He told me to meet him at a coffee shop at midnight so that we could have all 24 hours just bfor us.
I arrived around 11:45 and there was a worker there to let me in, but as soon as I sat down at a table that was decorated with sunset roses and 2 cups of what smelled like red velvet hot chocolate, he disappeared into the back room never to reappear again this evening.
I sat waiting for Baekhyun, but midnight came and went. I was all alone and it was almost 12:30 when I heard a sound coming from somewhere in the coffee shop.
The voice was faint, but I knew exactly who it was. His distinctive smooth vocals that would caress the air as he sang while the light taps of his feet on the rustic wooden floors set a slow and relaxing tempo. He wasn’t that close, but I knew he was here.
I heard the gentle steps approaching as the voice grew louder and the words more distinct. I smiled, not looking away from the now luke-warm hot chocolate, since I knew that the second I did, I would be attacked with one of the worst tickle fights of my life since that was our usual greeting. I would normally just let it happen, but I would rather, in this moment, just let his voice serenade me instead.
As the chorus was coming to an end, he slowly moved to lean on the table across from me, trying to pull my gaze up from my drink. I snuck a glance and blushed as I caught a glimpse of the man who was all mine. His dark silk shirt was unbuttoned at the top and he had on tight black jeans that accented his newly dyed hair. His eyeliner only enticed me to glance up again to admire his beauty and talent for a moment longer.
Baekhyun was giving me a slightly amused smile as he continued to sing softly acapella. I noticed that the song was almost over.
I glanced through the window just behind him, only to notice that the snow has slowly began to fall gracefully from the sky. I smiled softly and looked away from the window to the love of my life as the last words of the song were sung.
As he finished, the lights in the café dimmed to the point of barely being on and Baekhyun pulled out a box of matches and lit the few candles that were scattered on the table, illuminating his features.
“Hi,” He said softly as he pulled his chair closer to mine.
“Hi,” I responded with some bewilderment at the effort his put into the night already. I saw him admiring the smile that had crept upon my face as he grabbed my hand and gently kissed it.
“Can I get a real kiss now?” I asked as he shifted to wind his arms around my waist.
“That depends,” He said in his playful tone as a mischievous smirk found its way onto his face.
“On what?” I asked as I slowly moved my lips closer to his.
“Is that extra hot chocolate for me?” he erupted into his contagiously boisterous laughter.
“I can’t imagine it belongs to anyone else.” I responded as I closed the gap between us.
Baekhyun immediately responded to the kiss and I savored the moments like these where we could get lost in each other with no interruptions.
His hands roamed from my waist to my thighs and he was venturing into territory that should only be encroached on in a much more private place than a coffee shop, even if we were alone.
“Baek-“ I breathlessly moaned as I broke away from his lips, “we can’t…not here…” His lips moved to my jaw and then along my neck until he found that one spot that always makes me melt into his touch. “Later….I promise…but not here…” I barely got my words out before Baekhyun took hold of my bottom lip with his teeth and lightly tugged.
“If that’s a promise, then we can continue on with our date and come back to this later,” he seductively answered.
He moved my head into his lap and began telling me the stories of his travels abroad: The fights between Kyungsoo and Chanyeol, the crazy amount of money Suho spent to keep everyone happy, and the crazy new choreography that both Sehun and Jongin almost broke their necks trying to perfect.
We talked through the night, and before I realized it, the sun began to rise outside of the café.
Moments like these with Baekhyun were my favorite. We were laying in the early rays of the morning, letting the light caress our faces as he gently played with my hair. He combed his fingers through my soft curls as we watched the colors of the morning blossom.
“I know I promised you a whole day,” Baekhyun began with sadness creeping into his usually warm smile, “But we have to leave to go back to China this afternoon.”
He leaned down and gently kissed my forehead. “I’m sorry.”
I sat up and pulled him towards me for a passionate kiss.
“Then I guess we should head back to your place so I can help you pack…” I said softly on his lips as I pulled ever so slightly away.
“Is that all you want to do?” He asked softly as his lips found their was to the corner of my mouth.
“Well…If I recall…” I began as I unbuttoned a few more of the buttons on his shirt, “I have a promise to keep…and we don’t want to turn me into someone who doesn’t keep her promises, now do we?”
Baekhyun kissed me fiercely as he pulled me outside to hail a taxi.
This day together might be cut short, but I was going to make sure it was one where we could never forget a single moment.