Sunday, September 21, 2014

[translation] Interview with Hitchhiker - from Solo Artist to SM Entertainment Composer. 10Asia, September 2014

Again, instead of doing a myriad of other things I should be doing, I came across a very interesting interview that 10Asia did with SM Entertainment's resident composer, Hitchhiker. I already knew that he was formerly known as Jinu of modern rock band Roller Coaster (with the lovely Jo Won Sun and enigmatic Lee Sang Soon - perhaps most well-known now as the husband of Lee Hyori), but I didn't know much else about him. Then, when he dropped the puzzling video for his "Eleven" few days ago, I was completely, utterly fascinated by the whole deal. What is this disturbing sound? What is this modern art gallery art video aesthetic of the music video? What was this song that people were claiming as the Illuminati's trap? In the interview below which I have translated, he explains and makes sense of a lot of things behind the bizarre project. Among other things, like how Brown Eyed Girls' "Abracadabra" came to be, or how he became an SM composer.

Some highlights from the interview include: how he created the music video for "Eleven" by himself; the disturbing ababa sound in the song being his 3 year-old daughter's voice; how if Krystal, or any other SM artists, weren't so busy, we wouldn't have this gem of a track...

Check out the interview below the cut.

Oh! Hitchhiker! Who are You?
Hitchhiker interviewed by Kwon Suk Jung for 10Asia, September 19 2014

A bizarre song called “Eleven” has been floating around. A song with odd electronic sounds with a looped vocal going “abababababa.” When you watch the music video, there are weird characters dancing against real-life backdrops, and at the center, there’s a mysterious character wearing a silver spacesuit. That is Hitchhiker, the protagonist of this song. The music video for “Eleven” has been going around with all sorts of rumors attached to it. Internationally known DJs Skrillex and Diplo praised the song, retweeting the video.

The one responsible for this video, Hitchhiker (real name Choi Jin Woo), is SM Entertainment’s resident composer who has wrote numerous hit songs. When we met him at the SM office, he introduced himself as a superstar. We know well that he has written songs for Girls’ Generation (SNSD), Super Junior, EXO, f(x), BoA, among others. But himself, a superstar? With a laid-back attitude, he started explaining.

“The concept for ‘Hitchhiker’ is that he is a global superstar. This 3D character is kind of like my avatar. He’s active through videos posted onto Youtube, social media sites. The Hitchhiker in the videos have his own private jet and flies all over the world to perform at global festivals. It’s not real, but at the same time it is. Because it exists as an artist inside the videos.”

It wasn’t easy to understand at first. Not real, but real? According to him, it’s similar to Superman and Spider-Man. Like how these characters are heroes in movies, Hitchhiker is a superstar in the videos. In his virtual world, he can be a cover model, or have a scandal with a famous actress. How did he come about to creating such an unbelievable character?

“I wanted to release a new album but I was afraid of performing on music shows with the young ones. So I thought it would be nice to just make music and have someone else promote it for me. I thought of maybe asking some SM artists I was closer to, but they’re all so busy. So I came up with an idea to create a new character and make him promote instead of me…”

Hitchhiker not only made the song, but he also made the music video and the teaser video. Character design by itself took 2 years. He learned over 10 computer programs to create the video, from 3D graphic to motion capture. He has done everything by himself, what a team of professional animators would normally do. Why did Hitchhiker do such a thing? He replied, “It was my dream.”

Q: Why did you start a project like this?
A: My original dream was to create animations. Japanese director Shinkai Makoto is famous for doing almost everything by himself. He created 5 Centimers Per Second almost by himself. When he finds a scenery he likes, he shoots it, draws it, and draws his characters over it. The whole process, he manages to do alone. I was drawn to that way or working, so I wanted to try it myself.

Q: How did you create “Eleven”? 
A: That song came to be thanks to my 5 year-old daughter. When she was 3, I was playing around with her, and when I drummed on her mouth she made the “ababababa” sound. It was a funny sound, so I recorded it with an iPhone and made music on the spot. I wanted to let my daughter hear how her voice can be made into music. I created a short 1-minute long track in less than 10 minutes, and when my daughter listened to it, she started dancing to it. When I let my wife listen to it, she said it’d be fun to make a whole song out of it, so I did. I let some foreign composers I worked with for SM listen to it as well. They all thought it was interesting, and said that it wasn’t like any other music they’ve heard before. I started to get hopeful and thought it would be good to start my solo project with this track.

Q: Why is the title “Eleven”? 
A: I finished the song with the “ababababa” sound and a 4-minute trap rhythm, but there wasn’t an actual vocal line. I thought it’d be fun to have my daughter sing for the track. She was going to an English-language kindergarten, so I asked her to say something in English. She started counting in English, and her pronunciation of “eleven” was so pretty, I decided to use it as the title. She started improvising a song in English, and my wife (lyricist Kim Bumin) told me to write some English lyrics that would suit the song and tell her to sing it. I recorded all of that and remixed it. I was originally going to make Krystal from f(x) sing on the track, but she was too busy… In a way, “Eleven” is a song that my wife, my daughter, and I made together.

Q: “Eleven” or Hitchhiker character, which came first?
A: Before “Eleven” came to be, I was designing this character for my solo project. I’ve already had a couple of electro house songs I made for the solo album. But when I thought about it, I realized that it wouldn’t be anything new with some average electronic music. But “Eleven” was different. Even I couldn’t justify this song. I’ve never heard something like it anywhere, and the process of making it was so much fun.

Q: You’ve created the music video and the teaser video by yourself. It doesn’t sound easy.
A: I’ve always dreamed of video production, but it was difficult to do it alone. I had to learn numerous computer programs, do motion capture, touch colors, and do the final editing. I was almost physically sick, trying to do everything. Since I was sitting the entire day working on the video, my thighs wouldn’t get circulation and turn purple. But once I got more skilled, it became enjoyable. When I showed the video to animators I knew, they were all surprised. They said that this kind of task isn’t something you do alone.

Q: It could be the strangest masterpiece of the year.
A: Haha. Perhaps. If it flops, it will be a big joke on me, but if it does well, it can survive as a very memorable content. One or the other. “Eleven” stylistically wasn’t like anything else, so mixing it was very hard. Normally, you’d have reference songs in a genre, but I didn’t have anything to reference to for “Eleven”. Whether to increase the bass or not, I didn’t have any standard for that, so I struggled.

Q: Aren’t you a resident SM composer? People may be taken aback by music like this coming from SM. 
A: Thankfully, SM told me that they’d help with distribution and promotion. The production is done under my personal label FIT. You could say that it’s similar to how Woollim Entertainment and Baljunso are under SM. Initially I was going to distribute it independently on my own. Our company [SM]’s schedule is almost murderous, I didn’t want to be a burden to our employees. But they helped out nonetheless, saying that we’re all a family. I’m so thankful.

Q: Before Hitchhiker became an SM composer, you were active as a solo singer in the 90’s as “Jinu”, and you were also popular as the trio band Roller Coaster with Jo Won Sun and Lee Sang Soon. Will you be active in the future as the Hitchhiker character?
A: Yes. This will become a long-term project. We would have to see, but to get the character of Hitchhiker to be known, it’d take at least 3-5 years. This project’s next goal is to have Hitchhiker become a real star, shooting movies and commercials, and having his figurine in toy stores. (He said this very seriously.) And someone may even perform with the Hitchhiker suit. My child once went to the shopping mall to see a “Cocomong Concert”. Average actors put on carton character Cocomong suit, and the kids screamed like they were at an SM concert. If Hitchhiker really becomes a star, it’d be possible to have concerts like that all over the country, simultaneously. The ultimate goal is for me to create an animation featuring Hitchhiker. I want Hitchhiker to be on the packing for kids’ vitamins. Haha! Or it could all just be a nonsensical dream.

Q: It does seem nonsensical. But fun. Then now, is the Jinu of the past really gone?
A: This starts the third stage of my life. From solo to Roller Coaster was my first stage, my composer career as my second stage, this character of Hitchhiker would be the third stage of my life. I plan on releasing my solo music as the Hitchhiker character from now on. The advantage of this character is that he can do anything. He could be a DJ at an EDM festival like Ultra, or he could play heavy metal music with an imaginary band. He could also sing ballads. But it’d be really funny if he sang ballads. Hahaha.

Q; Before “Eleven”, you released 3 solo albums as Jinu. You included a cartoon in the first album featuring Jinu as the protagonist. That signaled something bigger.
A: It was Lee Seung Hwan’s idea to have me appear as a cartoon character. Back then, it was only a month after I got discharged from my military service so I didn’t know what was going on. When I shot the music video I did everything Seung Hwan hyung told me to do.

Q: Did you officially debut through Lee Seung Hwan? 
A: I started playing in bands in middle school. I played in bands like “Warriors” and “Gaksital”, and I even won an award as a guitarist at an international university students’ music festival in Japan in 1991. In the navy, I got to know Yoo Hee Yeol, who introduced me to Seung Hwan hyung. I composed about 30 songs in the army. Among those, there was a song I wanted to sell to DJ DOC, who were really popular then. That song was “Odd Thought”.

Q: It wasn’t something you created for yourself?
A: To be honest, I was going to ask Seung Hwan hyung to introduce me to DJ DOC after letting him listen to “Odd Thought”. During a vacation I took with Hee Yeol from the army, we met up with Seung Hwan hyung secretly in a parking lot of a cafe. I gave him a 30-track cassette tape that was 90 minutes long, and he listened to the whole thing on the spot. Then he asked me when I would be discharged, and then asked me if I was interested in making this album myself. I was taken aback, like what?

Q: You debuted like that?
A: I was 26. I thought it was too late to debut. But then I started to think that it wouldn’t be impossible. My first album was released, and “Odd Thought” was a hot topic, but the album sales weren’t great.

Q: Lee Seung Hwan seemed disappointed that Jinu’s first and second album sales were so low, too.
A: That’s why I felt so bad for Seung Hwan hyung. He spent a lot of money on that album. The reason why he created Dream Factory Studio was so he could produce my debut album. I felt so bad, I told him that I’d make another album on no terms. To use as little money as possible on the 2nd album, I recorded it as a one-man band. I’d go to the studio when nobody’s there to record, and eat and sleep there. 2nd album didn’t do well either, but I learned the joy of working by myself during the process. You have to compromise when you work with someone else, but when you’re the only one playing the instruments, and experimenting with the MIDI, it may be awkward but you can make your music. That’s why we home-recorded Roller Coaster’s album.

Q: Roller Coaster presented a different sound in all their 5 albums. It’s the 3rd album Absolute with the song “Last Scene” where you tried an electro pop sound.
A: Yes. That album did the best out of all the Roller Coaster albums. We sold 10,000 copies and as a band that was a lot of albums. But after that, Rolle Coaster’s music became really complicated. We were greedy, so we tried to make better music, but we became more distant from the public.

Q: 4th album’s title track “Rainbow” was difficult, compared to other previous albums. 
A: Haha, we really tried to make that song a hit.

Q: You didn’t have the taste to be a hit composer yet.
A: Correct. I didn’t have any taste.

Q: After the disbanding of Roller Coaster, you turned into a club DJ. It must’ve been hard to do electronic music after doing band music, what inspired you?
A: All musicians are probably like this, but you start to lose the inspiration for your own genre. I wasn’t getting any inspired for band music, and I was almost getting tired of it. Then I got into electronic music. I was charmed by music I could create on my own, without having to discuss with band members. I first started DJing in 2000, when I was still in Roller Coaster. I went to a Hongdae club called 108 and heard DJ Bandi play Modjo’s “Lady” and Moloko’s “Sing It Back”. I danced like crazy because it was so good. Then I was determined to be a DJ. Dalparan was a DJ then, too. It was actually Dalparan hyung who first did a home-recording, not me. Pipi Band’s 2nd album was a home-recording, and I was very inspired by that. Dalparan was a respected senior and a role model.

Q: You were a producer on Um Jung Hwa’s 2006 album Prestige. This album won at the Korean Music Awards, and it is considered Um Jung Hwa’s finest album. 
A: That album was my comeback as a producer. One day, Jung Hwa noon called me, saying, “Jinu! I need to release an album. You have to do it!” She had many hit songs already, but she wanted to create something musically great and also meaningful. That was an album where we both wrote the songs and the lyrics together. When I created a song, she’d change to fit her better, and when I couldn’t think of a melody, she’d try creating it.

Q: Then Brown Eyed Girls’ “Abracadabra” literally blew up. 
A: There’s a long story behind that song. I was married and my wife just gave birth to our child. But I didn’t have a regular income as a musician. Because of financial difficulties, I decided to give up on music. When I was about to delete all my music programs and files off my drive, I got a phone call. It was Brown Eyed Girls’ agency Nega Network, and they asked me to remix a song called “How”. I remixed the song and sent it back. They told me they liked it, and asked me if I could write them a song. I thought about it for a while, and sent them a track I used to play as a club DJ. That was a track that would eventually become “Abracadabra”.

Q: So initially it wasn’t a track for a girl group.
A: They told me that they liked it and that they’ll use it as the title track. I was worried. Even I, as someone who was far from the mainstream, thought it wouldn’t be a hit song. A girl group doing “deep house”, does that make sense? The track I first sent them didn’t have a chorus. They asked me to write a chorus but I couldn’t think of something mainstream-friendly. So Nega Network called me and asked me if it’d be okay if composer Lee Min Soo wrote the chorus. I didn’t like the idea of someone else touching my song. So I was about to tell them to not use the song at all if they were going to do that. But I heard my newborn daughter crying near the couch. So I quickly told them to do whatever they wanted before hanging up to go check on the baby. Lee Min Soo ended up writing the chorus, and lyricist Kim Eana wrote the lyrics, and “Abracadabra” came to be.

Q: “Abracadabra” is considered the song that proved that idol music could also be well-made. 
A: Nega Network’s production team of producer Jo Young Chul, composer Lee Min Soo, and lyricist Kim Eana, they understood the mainstream taste very well. I didn’t know anything, all I did was give them something I already had. I didn’t even know that “Gee” was a Girls’ Generation song. I watched the first performance of “Abracadabra” and the sound was different from what I expected, and the reaction didn’t seem too hot. I was smoking my cigarette, thinking, “This is the end of my musical career. I am so unlucky. I should go format my drive.” But my wife told me that the internet community was freaking out about it. And they were really freaking out.

Q: It was a taste of a hit song you’ve never tasted before.
A: Yes. I’ve heard “you have musicality” and “you have a lot of mania fans”, but I haven’t had a song that everyone knew.

Q: Then you became an idol music composer.
A: After “Abracadabra” I realized that the electro songs I’ve worked on could become mainstream. I started getting more musical energy, calling up agencies to sell my tracks. I called up SM too. Using the representative’s number. Somehow I got in contact with Lee Sung Soo in A&R. I told him I wanted to give him songs, and he immediately asked to meet. I brought 5 songs to the meeting, and after listening to them all, he said he wanted to use all of them. He expected me to bring songs like “Be Strong Mr. Kim” and “Habit” from my Roller Coaster days, but it wasn’t like that. The songs I brought to him then were songs like Girls Generation’s “Show Show Show”, TVXQ’s “I Don’t Know”, f(x)’s “Ice Cream”, and Infinite’s “Come Back Again”. Afterwards, I worked with various companies, including YG, but SM was the most eager to use my songs. I also worked with many foreign composers through SM.

Q: How did you come to use the name Hitchhiker?
A: I created it when I worked on “Abracadabra”. At the time, I was working on Girls’ Generation and Big Bang remixes, and they were both already huge stars. It’s not like I made them. So I had the feeling I was hitchhiking on other people’s fame. So I thought of myself as Hitchhiker.

Q: Now you contribute to creating those people’s music and image. Also, Hitchhiker’s music contributes to the range of music that idols could attempt. 
A: I just made music I personally used to really like. I think it was only possible to have the music I used to make connect to idols because of SM. To tell you the truth, I sent my demo songs to numerous agencies, but SM was the only company that told me they’d use them. Other companies thought my music was too difficult.

Q: When you’re working, are there cases where Lee Soo Man would tell you to do something specific?
A: I don’t directly discuss with him, but I do discuss the direction of the project with the A&R employees. He contributes to all the music and performances that come out of SM. He listens to all the songs and pays attention to every line of the lyrics. He isn’t just an executive producer, but an actual producer.

Q: Compared to other idol companies’ music, SM’s music seems to be more focused on its artistry than following the hit song formula. Making quality music doesn’t always mean it’ll sell well. In that way, they have a very clear direction.
A: There’s an underlying commitment to trying something different from the norm. When I create demos, I let the employees listen to it. After listening to it, we discuss whether to give it to TVXQ or f(x), among other things, but never have they asked me to create something more mainstream. It’s the complete opposite from other companies. Other companies would say, “it’s not mainstream enough, we need a hook.” In the case of SM, they really value the quality of the finished product. They understand that the quality of the sound and the lyrics will impact the quality of the musicians.

Q: You started out as a guitarist. You turned to bass when you saw Lee Sang Soon play the guitar. 
A: Yes. Sang Soon playing the guitar, and me playing the bass, everything thought it was ridiculous. I practiced so much. When you look at the cover of my 2nd solo album, I’m holding a telecaster vintage model. I took that guitar to the instrument market and traded it for a bass guitar. I still play that bass when I work on SM projects. I play all the guitar, bass, and synthesizers for the songs I create.

Interview credit to 10Asia. Translated by sangha for, take out with credit.


  1. interesting read, thanks for translating sangha! but what a disturbing song...

  2. no problem! yeah I agree, quite disturbing.. but I had this song stuck in my head for days when it first came out lol.

  3. Awesome. Much appreciated this interview! <3

  4. You have no idea how happy this interview made me. Thank you so much. I've been a fan of Hitchhiker for a while since I saw his credits on f(x), Narsha, BEG and SHINee songs but there was still so little I knew about him. Thank you again.

  5. Thanks for the translation! It's nice hear more about the person that's given us so many amazing songs.

  6. This comment is pretty late, but thank you so much for translating this interview! I'm weirdly obsessed with this song/video/character and it was really interesting to learn about everything that went into creating it. What a fascinating guy.