Nam Taehyun crackles. Figuratively, of course, but the restless energy around the 23 year old, South Korean singer-songwriter is so palpable that sitting next to him in a London hotel lounge is as much a visceral experience as a physical one. He answers frequently in English, with concise replies that send the conversation tumbling forward and away from, perhaps, revealing too much about himself; this is a line he’s often teetered on since his departure from the boy group WINNER, one of K-Pop’s major success stories, in November 2016.
The move was a shocking one for his followers, and fans of Korean pop music in general, spawning countless theories as to the reasons behind it, but his former label – the Korean entertainment giant, YG – later cited Nam’s mental health as a major deciding factor. Although Nam publicly acknowledged experiencing depression, he’s been sometimes recalcitrant and, at others, open, on the subject. These days, however, he’s far more focused on his band, South Club.
Made up four members, including Nam, Kang Kunku (guitar), Nam Donghyun (bass) and Jang Wonyoung (drums), South Club’s sound runs the spectrum of Taehyun’s inner jukebox – “Dirty House” is a scuzzy howler, “Believe U” sways through bluesy Americana and “Hug Me” is the melancholy acoustic pop that he often wrote for WINNER. He appears to relish the lack of constraints, the openness and freedom around his work, and it’s now imprinted on his external self; when it’s time to shoot images he makes a fast beeline for outside. Taehyun is visibly more relaxed under the vivid blue London sky and on the wide, empty streets – a man happy to roam – but, as he poses fluidly for the camera, it’s a reminder that he remains a quintessential popstar.
South Club have been together for over a year now; are you settled into a rhythm of creating and being a band?
There’s been up and downs of course, good things happened and bad things happened. But that’s a nature of a band. It will get better.
What were some of those early challenges?
The upside is having fun on the stage and creating but the downside is when there’s discrepancy in the thoughts and opinions between the members, but we don’t fight because I’m the boss [smiles].
Why did you set up your own label instead of signing with another agency?
YG is the biggest, most structured agency in Korea, so after leaving I didn’t see much point in joining another agency. And as I’m capable of making music as a musician, I thought I wouldn’t be a bad idea to do it on my own.
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of being your own boss?
Back in YG, everything was taken care of so I all had to do was think about the stage performance but being my own boss gives me lots of pressure and burdens that I have to deal with myself. But those make the music more firm. It’s fun. It gives me more sense of achievement.
You had a couple of months after you left YG to yourself – what did you do?
I just made a song. I was lonely. I was trying to maximise all those emotions that I had and use that when writing.
Did you go out at all or just stay in and write?
I was very depressed and sick but now I enjoy everything. I’m good.
What’s your inspiration at the moment?
Movies, maybe, and [European] techno music.
You’ve been doing DJ spots on Casper Radio where you’ve able to play music you love, and talk freely. What have you gotten from it?
My relationship with my fans became closer.
Is it cathartic?
“Believe U” came out of jamming and was recorded in one take, is that how you normally work?
I like the natural sound and studio noise and reverb. “Believe U” was a very experimental song, but everything is done differently.
What’s the difference between creating off the cuff and writing down songs?
Jamming is so fun because we hear the mistakes. And for the detailed songs it can be boring later because I have listened to them so many times [laughs].
Then can you still love older songs as much as when they were created?
I love them because everything [I create] is my baby.
On last year’s debut album 90, you explored youth, freedom and escape – are these subjects you’re still focused on or are you exploring new themes?
I don’t put narrative in when I write songs because it can get cheesy sometimes, so most of the time I put “reality”- how I feel at that moment in to my lyrics. And these days I’m into more upbeat music, so I’m expecting some upbeat songs to come out.
The South Club shows have taken you into some intimate venues – what’s that feeling like?
When the audience is that close, there are more gestures I can do so it feels more engaging.
Were the early shows nerve-wracking because you’d come from big stages where it can feel like you’re very far away from the fans?
I was never really nervous on-stage. Because on the stage I am the best, so I don’t care!
You have a lot more ink these days – which one is special?
This one [points to his inner right arm, an image of a sheet of notes] – I study guitar and my teacher wrote down secondary notes, which is the basics for learning guitar, and I took that and made it into a tattoo.
What about the BLISS one? Is that an indicator of something good you’ve experienced?
It’s not very serious when I get a tattoo, it can be quite spontaneous.
You wake up and think “I want a tattoo”?
Yes. Today I want to hurt [laughs].
A year ago you did several episodes of ICON TV, which looked at your day-to-day life, and you talked about loneliness and alienation. You seem happier now; has something changed to bring that about?
I am not happy now [laughs]. But it is better than before, and I’m definitely mentally healthier… because of tennis.
Tennis? I didn’t see that coming. Are you good at it?
What is it about tennis that’s helping?
The swing… [mimes hitting tennis balls] Stress! Stress!
Stress relief, I can understand that. I definitely recommend boxing then…
I started boxing two weeks ago! But I’m only boxing using a sandbag.
Because you’re more of a spontaneous person, how far do you think ahead?
I don’t necessarily put timings [on my career] but rather I see the whole picture.
When can we expect to hear new material?
Maybe May? Or June? But I’m already playing new songs [on this tour].