Band To Watch: Balming Tiger
During our interview, Balming Tiger’s Omega Sapien grabs a small glass jar of Tiger Balm (maximum strength) from the desk and holds it up to his computer monitor, while I lift my own jar (original strength) to my laptop’s camera, grinning. If you know, you know: Tiger Balm is a miracle. More specifically, it’s a topical muscle salve. According to the company’s own legend, it was first developed by an herbalist in the Qing Dynasty’s Imperial Court, from camphor and menthol, which lends it a refreshing and strangely addictive sensation. It encourages blood circulation, so athletes use it to recover from injuries and treat muscle soreness. Laypeople use it to stay awake on long drives and cure headaches. And this Seoul-based music collective uses it for their own playful name (though, unfortunately, neither I nor Balming Tiger is sponsored by Tiger Balm, Inc.).
Balming Tiger, which takes the form of a supergroup, band, label, or creative studio depending on the day, has become a surprisingly apt derivative of its namesake herbal remedy. Much like Tiger Balm’s own active ingredient, menthol, their work is strikingly original and unexpected — it takes you by surprise, and they approach every project with a new sound and an undyingly positive attitude. In their official bio, the group describes their music as a surprisingly nondescript “alternative, multi-national K-pop,” and in our conversation, Omega maintains the party line, identifying their genre as “underground K-pop, extra-alternative.”
Balming Tiger’s music is barely reminiscent of the corporate-produced K-pop groups that the world has come to know — the bands like BTS and BlackPink that have built out a robust $5 billion industry for global export. Besides the shared language (most of their songs are performed in Korean and English), big-budget K-pop can be a maximalist genre meld at times, combining pop, EDM, and hip-hop elements into sparkling monolithic productions. But the music coming from Balming Tiger and its affiliated artists is genre-bending in quirkier, more exploratory ways. Their records range from off-kilter indie rock to funk-inspired hip-hop and digitally manipulated rap, often sampling video game melodies and conversations in unexpected interludes. It’s a far cry from the polished sounds and tightly-practiced routines that characterize the larger K-pop industry, yet they’ve contextualized themselves within it culturally. “We’re definitely a part of K-pop because K-pop is not a genre, it’s a phenomenon,” Omega says. “It’s just music coming out of Korea.”
The group is based in the “center of Korea’s subculture” in a neighborhood called Itaewon, but its members are multinational, coming from Japan, China, and different parts of the Korean countryside. Omega Sapien — the de facto frontman for the band, whose new solo track “CHROMEHEARTSRING” with Lil Cherry is out today — offers an individual microcosm of the group’s experience, growing up as a “third culture kid” in Korea, China, the US, and Japan. Today, the group draws on their diverse regional backgrounds, cultivating a pan-Asian aesthetic in their imagery, incorporating anime, martial arts, delivery food, cyberpunk futurism, uniformity, and black comedy. Meanwhile, their sound has become a global-facing fusion of genres, blending sadgirl indie with classic ‘90s power ballads, with funk-inspired riffs and explosive raps. To give a sense of their broad-reaching spectrum, the music they make has been likened to 100 gecs, Girls’ Generation, Brockhampton, Keith Ape, and Abra.
Their last full-band release, February’s two-track EP JUST FUN! / LOOP?, was a representation of their seemingly limitless range. The psychedelic music video for “JUST FUN!” opens with the four band members, in miniature size, writhing on a bed of lettuce, taunting each other in a restaurant, and dancing gleefully in their studio. The song is driven by a repetitive guitar riff, sharp snares, and an even exchange between wnjn’s crooning vocals and sogumm’s murmured delivery, interrupted by Omega’s ever self-assured delivery. Like a mantra, they shout “just fun!” over a smooth, rhythmic funk. “LOOP?” offers a balanced darker contrast, descending towards minor chords and muted sound. Here, sogumm’s yawning vocals lay the groundwork for a more frantic rap overlay, interrupted by haunting auto-tuned voices and paranoid, ambient din. The band’s sound is dynamic and inventive, shapeshifting with each new project.
As a product of their generation, they have the internet to thank for both their creative influences and their origin story. Everyone met online, where they had mostly pursued their creative interests independently, and eventually found their way to the project. Omega recounts that he had been making music on his own while attending college in Japan, saw a few YouTube mixtapes from an intriguing Korean label called Balming Tiger, visited for a weekend, had a conversation with founder and manager San Yawn about his ambitions, and immediately moved countries to join the band. Although Itaewon is Balming Tiger’s home base now, Yawn says that they’re not “school friends or hometown friends, but internet friends,” reminiscent of the old internet‘s world of chat rooms and meetups.
As more people joined, the group took an amorphous shape: trying out live performances, recording together in the studio, creating collaborative music videos, releasing music as both a band and as individual artists. Many already had successful solo careers before coming together to collaborate in the loosely affiliated collective, like singer-songwriter Sogumm, who has long been a staple in the Korean indie scene and is signed to another Korea-based label AOMG, or Sukhoon, an enigma who left the band two years ago but has his own fan-made documentary devoted to him. Today, Balming Tiger comprises a roster of nine artists: Omega Sapien, sogumm, director and DJ San Yawn, singer-songwriter Mudd The Student, singer-songwriter wnjn, producer Unsinkable, film director Jan’Qui, D Abyss, and editor Henson.
It’s fitting that a group that was made from the internet has thrived there, accruing millions of views on their videos and garnering a robust international fan base, even as their local scene has remained comparatively small. Corporate attention in Korea is given to the traditional K-pop industry, and hipsters just haven’t been able to attract the same funding or numbers. The pandemic threw them off, too, canceling the dozens of international shows Balming Tiger had booked for 2020, including festivals like the Great Escape and SXSW. And yet, Omega says this pandemic year presented “incredibly valuable time,” to shoot music videos and record without breaks for touring. Without the pressure to produce on a linear content schedule, they were able to expand and explore, questioning even the future direction of their collective: “We thought, ‘What else could we do?’ We thought about doing classes, like ‘How To Teach Music 101,’ or memes, funny videos, sitcoms, maybe directing movies. It allowed us to think outside of music.” Unexpectedly, this year served as a creative retreat.
The balance between creative, casual exploration and entrepreneurial ambition is a tension that has underscored the music industry at most levels, but the group attributes their adventurous spirit to their success. And at a time when their plans to “make it outside of their home country” were put on hold, they did manage a major breakthrough, signing to superstar label Columbia Records UK in February 2021. Omega waves off their accomplishment with humility and a note of disbelief, explaining his commitment to their open-minded creative approach: “Look, we’re just trying to have fun out in Seoul, Korea, no budget, no bullshit, but Columbia Records reached out to us.”
The internet has helped everyone to cultivate their sounds, drawing from genres and influences around the world. Omega confesses, “When I see interviews of other artists, especially American or British artists, they often say their influence comes from their home, like their dad’s record collection, but to us, at least for me, I don’t think Korean parents really play music in the house.” He laughs and continues, “Our teacher is the internet. So we all adventure through, and dig our own super-wide spectrum of music. We listen to everything. Because the internet is our influence, stateless music makes sense.” Here, stateless music refers as much to the genres and musical lineages that bound music as it does to the nations that bound people, a particular source of pain for the Korean peninsula. And as a multicultural group, they insist that everything they create is a blend of influences, by default. Omega notes, “We all come from different parts of Korea, and the world. So we really understand what it means to be the foreigner, the immigrant, the quote-unquote other. We all have that experience. We know that’s bullshit.” Stateless music is a compelling way to describe their interpretation of cultural and musical mashup, even one without a sharp political bite.
In Korea, which both San and Omega refer to as a largely “monocultural society” where “95% of people have the same haircut,” they are always standing out. Their music and their aesthetics are imaginative, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque, but most of the time just eccentric. Omega Sapien’s head is entirely shaved besides his neon green bangs, and everyone in the group embraces the frontier of street fashion, stretching gender identity and performativity, building nonconformist and cartoonish personas. This unconventional approach is on display in their music videos, where artistic direction seems boundless.
In “Kolo Kolo,” directed by Omega’s friend Pennacky, Omega raps alongside 30 half-naked middle-aged men, in a sauna, at a training camp, and on a beach, making a parody of uniformity and masculinity. In “Armadillo,” also directed by Pennacky, there’s a shared affinity for the bizarre, where Omega and Sukhoon perform in barren concrete landscapes, poking fun at the “hipsters of the world, satiring global hypebeast culture.” Omega recounts that their approach was loose, arriving to set and coming up with shots as they went, “How about a guy dancing naked with an alien mask on? Like, alright let’s do that.” And in so many of their videos, there are grotesque and surprising uses of food, covering people’s bodies, making them sick, and bringing them health. Here, Balming Tiger’s slogan “Joyful delivery!” offers another play on delivery food, integrating Asian cuisine and food culture into every part of their aesthetic. It feels like everything is an inside joke that you’re welcome to be a part of.
“Joyful delivery!” may also be the best summary of their mission, a natural blend of fun and ambition, giddily pursuing their “big dreams of making it outside of Korea, of doing something that’s never happened before.” Omega laughs, “Music’s really not a good way to make money. But similar to entrepreneurship, you really have to love what you do. Naturally, accomplishments come after.” And their accomplishments have slowly begun to accumulate — cover photo shoots for W Mag and GQ Korea, collaborations with companies like Vans, and their recent signing — even with the group’s unorthodox structure and unconventional approach. They’re reaching people all over the world, just like they’ve always wanted to. Tiger Balm’s official slogan reads “PAIN HAPPENS. SUFFERING IS OPTIONAL.” Balming Tiger are similarly optimistic: “JUST FUN!” they grin at the camera, defying expectations.