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Thornapple Thrives in Korea's Indie Scene Following Military Hiatus

Some musicians take time off to travel, to find themselves, or for creative exploration. Others go on hiatus because their government forces them to do so. For South Korean bands like Thornapple and The Koxx, a military hiatus is common due to South Korea's conscription, or mandatory military service.

Also known under the name gasisagwa, which loosely translates to thorn apple in Korean, the band was formed in 2009. They released their first album “I Keep Stuttering and Have Forgotten How to Sleep” in 2010 and shortly afterward, vocalist Yoon Sunghyun and bassist Shim Jaehyun were drafted into the army to serve their mandatory terms of two years.

The band reunited in 2012 and released a re-mastered version of their first album, which sold out within a couple of months just like the first version. They signed with Happy Robot Records after appearing on the show “Era of a Band,” where they covered popular rock songs in a battle of the bands-style competition on Korean television, and where they stole the hearts of many new female fans.

Below, “Cicadae Cry Even When It Rains,” a song from Thornapple’s first album:

Fans praise their second album “Abnormal Climate,” released in June 2014, and say their sound is more polished than the grungy melodies in “I Keep Stuttering.” The band used this new album to connect with its fans in new ways, such as an art exhibit Thornapple opened along with the album release. The photographs, paintings, and installations in the collection were created to serve as visual portrayals of "Abnormal," as the band wanted to offer “lyrics heard with the eyes and music seen with the ears.”

Thornapple’s exhibit was hosted in Hongdae, a popular Seoul district near fine arts institution Hongik University. This is the city’s best-known entertainment area but it’s also the heart of Korea’s growing indie music scene, where bands like The Koxx play at venues such as Club FF, Club Crack, and Bbang. Events like Hongdae fest and Second Saturdays, and places like the basement space at Ruailrock are giving punk, ska, grunge, and other types of rock bands a platform to expand Korea’s music scene.

“When we started booking Second Saturdays, we just wanted to make a fun show where people could come out, have a good time, see bands from different genres playing together, and have a few drinks,” said Jeff Moses, owner of promotions group World Domination Inc. and member of punk band …Whatever That Means.

Club Freebird founder Skyler Jeong was not a musician himself but after opening his small Hongdae venue more than two decades ago, his stage, recording studio, and rehearsal space have helped shape a “counter-culture” of fine arts students and “oddballs” who want to listen to more than K-pop.

"[K-pop is] so omnipresent in our daily lives it's become unavoidable. But the world doesn't know there is more to music in Korea,” Jeong said. “That's why I am promoting indie bands through my venue."

While not all bands have Thornapple’s luck to catch a second wave of popularity following their mandatory military service, most musicians climbing up the ranks of Hongdae’s indie scene do know they will put their career on hold for about two years in their 20s.

Sometimes considered a rite of passage for Korean young men, serving can be perceived as an achievement. The experience is romanticized in pop-culture with a portrayal of military years as a transition into manhood. For example, the popular show “Real Men” claims to give celebrities (and viewers) a taste of what their life will be like in the military by putting the cast of pop-stars, models, and actors through daily challenges.

Unfortunately, the humorous challenges in “Real Men” are hardly a representation of conscripts’ daily lives, when compared to the abuses and deaths reported in Korean military units. Many people find these two years to be a waste of time and abuses surface every few years.

When news got out in August 2014 about a soldier beat to death in April 2014, a wave of reports began to emerge about violence, hazing, suicide in the service. Known only as “Private First Class Yoon,” the 20-year-old was beat nearly every day for more than a month. Fellow conscripts forced him to lick spit off the ground and rubbed irritant onto his genitals. He collapsed after a particularly terrible beating and he choked to death on a chunk of food he was forced to swallow, though rights groups say he died from blows to the head. Only weeks after, two sets of two soldiers were found dead in apparent suicides.

Fans of Korea's growing indie scene will continue to wait eagerly for their favorite Korean bands to return from military hiatus, hoping they come back with a fresh perspective the same way Thornapple did, and without the trauma that less fortunate Korean soldiers have experienced for decades.

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