Interview: Shawn Despres of Sounds from the Korean Underground

Image courtesy of Shawn Despres
Image courtesy of Shawn Despres

Have you ever had one of those ‘aha’ moments, you know the time where you all of a sudden realize something? I had one of those the other day when I thought “Hm, I should interview Shawn, he’s doing a cool radio show that I enjoy listening to.” And so I did. You’ll find it below. It was also slightly ironic as Shawn has helped me set up tons of interviews with Korean indie bands. But enough of me talking, keep reading to learn more about Shawn and his cool radio show, Sounds from the Korean Underground – which you can listen to online, anywhere (Sundays between 11pm – 12am) or catch past episodes on Mixcloud anytime!

The Interview

Can you please introduce yourself?

Hi! My name’s Shawn Despres. I’m from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada originally but spent the last dozen years living in East Asia. I lived in Japan for a few years to start, and then moved to Seoul at the end of 2007 and stayed there until this past February. In mid-April, I moved back to Hamilton with my very amazing family.

While living in Korea I wrote about the local indie scene for a handful of publications and in 2011 I also started helping Korean indie bands with overseas tour booking and international publicity. Now I work together with a great Seoul-based record label called Love Rock Company to offer these services to Korean acts. Doing this work has been fantastic experience and a lot of fun and I’m honoured to have had the opportunity to work with the likes of Apollo 18, Galaxy Express, Goonam, Gate Flowers, Crying Nut, Jambinai, Dead Buttons, Patients, Asian Chairshot, Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio, Smacksoft, EE, Victim Mentality, Juck Juck Grunzie, and MFBTY to help them with their overseas pursuits.

In early May of this year, I had the pleasure of being a speaker on the “Korean Indie Music 101” panel at Toronto Kpop Con that was hosted by ATK Magazine’s Cindy Zimmer. And in late May, I started hosting a weekly radio show that focuses on Korea’s indie scene called Sounds of the Korean Underground. The show airs on 93.3 CFMU, an awesome community radio station in Hamilton based out of McMaster University.

Image courtesy of Shawn Despres
Image courtesy of Shawn Despres

You started doing a radio show called Sounds from the Korean Underground on 93.3 CFMU in May of this year. Can you tell us a little about it?

Sounds from the Korean Underground airs every Sunday night from 11 pm – 12 am Eastern Standard Time. During the show, I play indie music that’s being made in Korea. Acts played on the show can be Korean or expats living in Korea. If someone is part of the Korean indie scene and is making cool music, I want to share it on my program! I like a lot of different styles of music so Sounds from the Korean Underground features everything from folk to electronic music to hardcore. There’s a lot of musical variety on the program each week and that’s something I really enjoy about it. Hopefully others do too.

Why did you decide to do a Korean indie music radio show?

Having spent the last seven years living in Seoul, Korea’s indie scene is what I know best right now. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I hosted community radio shows at CFMU and CHRW, which is based out of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, and those programs were always just open format shows were I played music mainly from North American acts. I always had a blast doing my radio shows in the past, so I approached CFMU about doing a weekly program on Korea’s indie scene. CFMU has an excellent show that focuses on Japan’s music scene called Octopus Army, so I thought they may be into showcasing another side of Asian music as well. I’m grateful that they liked my idea. CFMU’s schedule is stacked with interesting and diverse programs and has won “Station of the Year” at the Hamilton Music Awards eight times since the ceremony’s 2004 inception. I’m so happy that I’m able to broadcast Sounds from the Korean Underground on the station each week.

How did you get into Korean music?

I knew nothing about Korean music before moving to Seoul. But once that became my local scene, I tried to learn as much about Korean indie music as I could. When I was in Canada, I was really into the Canadian indie scene. When I moved to Japan, I got into Japanese indie music. And when I lived in Korea, I did the same thing. Some of the first friends I made in Seoul were folks who worked in the Korean music industry and musicians, and they treated me great and introduced me to lots of other people involved in the scene. I was really lucky to meet such awesome people shortly after arriving. A website called Korea Gig Guide really helped me learn more about the scene too. The site was started in early 2008 by a talented author and journalist named Mark Russell. Mark invited me to contribute to the site and that gave me more motivation to scour concert listings and to try and find out more and more about Korean bands.

How do you pick the songs on your playlists?

As I said earlier, the show airs every Sunday night. So usually on Fridays I start thinking about what I want to play. If a Korean indie act has some new music out, I try to play that if possible. And if any musicians or indie labels have sent me music recently, I make sure to get their songs on the air as well. Everything that gets sent to me gets played at some point. After that, I just fill out the playlists with acts I like or am curious to check out myself. I’ve done 28 episodes of the show so far and have played music from lots of very cool musicians. There are still many bands whose music I want to get on the air, though, so that’s something for me personally to look forward to next year.

What’s the future of Sounds from the Korean Underground?

As for the immediate future, on December 20 I’m doing a Christmas show that will be filled with Korean indie acts playing some Christmas classics and holiday-themed originals. And then I’m going to do “best of” programs on December 27 and January 3 that will feature several journalists that cover Korean indie music in English sharing info and music from some of their favourite Korean indie acts in 2015. I’m excited about those shows because I’m curious to see what stuff the journalists who are contributing dug this year and I’m also looking forward to having them do the bulk of the on-air talking for two weeks!

As for the coming year, I want to keep making the show better and better. I want to keep improving as a host and I want to continue to play a wide range of great music each week. I want to do more interviews too. Over the past several months, I did interviews on the air with members of Juck Juck Grunzie, Billy Carter, … Whatever That Means, Yuppie Killer, and Galaxy Express and chatted with Chris Park from the website Korean Indie too. All of the interviews went well, so it would be really cool to do more interviews in 2016.

Finally, just an opinion question but so far, 2015 has been a much better year for Korean music in Toronto (more shows), do you think this trend will continue?

I’m not sure. More and more Korean acts are getting the chance to perform overseas. And I know lots of bands that would love the chance to play in Canada so hopefully that means more concerts here in the future. And while it’s great that Toronto has gotten a number of gigs by Korean bands this year, I’d love to see more bands playing in other parts of Canada too. When Apollo 18 played in Canada in 2012, they played in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, and Montreal. They would have played in more places if they could have, but they were only here for five days so that’s why they were limited to four cities. It would be cool if other bands could also do several shows while they in Canada.

And if any bands make it to Hamilton, I’ve got an in with the host of the Sounds from the Korean Underground radio show on 93.3 CFMU. So it will be no problem to get you hooked up with an interview!

Just The Facts

Sounds from the Korean Underground airs every Sunday night from 11 pm – 12 am EST. The show can be listened to on 93.3 CFMU in Hamilton, Ontario and online anywhere in the world

Missed an episode, you can catch past episodes of the show on Mixcloud.

Don’t forget to show your support for Sounds from the Korean Underground on Facebook by liking them!

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday – this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it’s taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I’m the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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