At 10pm, at their label in Seoul, the members of K-Pop group AB6IX – Daehwi, Youngmin, Woojin, Donghyun and Woong – are demonstrating Herculean levels of focus having already spent the day filming a performance of their recent single, the bouncy, synth-driven ‘Blind For Love’, at one of South Korea’s music chart shows. They’ll have also completed a fansign – where they connect emotionally and mentally with around 100 fans individually, all of whom have set up SLRs and video cameras to record their every move for two hours – and filmed content for their Japanese fans before filing into a minimalist concrete conference room where they settle noiselessly for this late-night rendezvous.
As any ABNEW (their fandom) knows, AB6IX may be a rookie group in terms of their debut date (May 22, 2019), but its members – aside from Woong – aren’t rookie idols at all. Rapper Woojin and vocalist Daehwi (AB6IX’s youngest at 18) were part of WANNA ONE, the incredibly popular but temporary 11-member group formed from the 2017 survival show Produce 101. Rapper Youngmin (AB6IX’s leader and eldest at 23) and vocalist Donghyun, who were also on Produce 101 but hadn’t made the final cut, promoted as the duo MXM.
Despite being the least experienced, 22-year-old Woong is no wallflower. At their fansign, he was gifted a cape and crown which he donned, swishing about, rather delightedly, in his faux royal finery. “I was worried because the other four have fandoms of their own. And I was worried the fans would have their own opinions when I was added to the group,” admits the vocalist, who will let his bandmates do most of the talking tonight, “but they’re actually really accepting of me. I’ve practised for a long time and AB6IX is the team I’d dreamed of debuting with. I’m thankful that I get to go on all these stages and that there’s so much love from the fans.”
Thusly, the five expectant gazes before me each convey a vastly different feel, reflective of their experiences – from coolly impassive to politely curious to a patient warmth. It’s disconcerting and challenging, akin to walking a foggy cliff top, wondering if your next step will find solid ground or thin air. Perhaps it’s somewhat similar to AB6IX’s beginning, where success is yesterday’s news and the future is unclear.
Daehwi, fluent in English and Korean, has a sharply animated, takes-no-shit energy that makes him an arresting storyteller, although it’s just as easily used to deliver a stinging quip. (It’s no surprise that AB6IX are already notorious with fans for their continual roasting of each other.) He cautiously acknowledges that debuting a second time felt very different to WANNA ONE; “This is a long term group so I felt a lot more responsibility,” he says, “(and) everything comes from us – the music, the concept – so we do our best to perform perfectly. There was a little bit of difficulty in coming together to find the colour of AB6IX because we’re all great at different things.”
They corralled their varying tastes and skills by writing “a lot of songs and being very honest in our opinions, like, ‘we like this’ or ‘let’s edit this’,” says Donghyun in his distinct baritone. They circumvented the possibility of ‘creative difficulties’ by being “always careful of our words because we might get kinda angry with each other,” smiles Daehwi. “But, you know, music is art, so there’s no (right or wrong) answer.”
Prior to their first single “Breathe”, a slick slice of deep house that espoused the need to live in the moment, Daehwi recalls practising “all day, all night. We practised so much that we lost sleep but when we went up on stage, it was perfect for us.” The debut EP, “B Complete”, sold over 167,000 copies, a triumph for a new quintet with a splintered and regrouped fandom, and whose names can be found on the credits of every song.
Less than five months have passed between their debut and sophomore album (called “6IXSENSE”, said as sixth sense) but Youngmin, flame-haired and with an affable, gentle poise, believes AB6IX’s dynamic has already gelled to the point of them “sensing something before we have to talk about it, so we can act accordingly. To come together there was a lot of talking (amongst ourselves) but it’s become a lot easier in general.”
Is this why the record bears its esoteric name? At this point, Donghyun’s stomach growls indignantly and noisily and AB6IX, startled into laughter, relax. “I think the title followed our compatibility,” agrees Youngmin, grinning at his bandmate. But for this album, he adds, “we wanted to give something back to the fans. We wanted to return the love.”
Like its predecessor, there’s purposely much ground traversed by the 11 songs on “6IXSENSE”. Opener “Be There” is a tug-of-war between sweetness and aggression, its chorus hammered with warped vocals, while the crisp “Blind For Love” (with Daehwi as one its composers) picks up where “Breathe” leaves off. “_And Me” edges towards space-age R&B but “Deep Inside” is an airy, tender mid-tempo ballad that curls around your fingers like smoke. The latter two are co-composed by Donghyun who says plainly, “We put a lot of genres on the album because we want people to think that this is a group that have (the ability to write on) a wide musical spectrum.”
There’s also moments of unfettered rawness. “D.R.E.A.M” is Woojin and Youngmin’s song, each rapper telling their story of getting to where they are now; “My scars are the marks of my many expectations, I think I spent days locked in my thoughts”, Youngmin simultaneously sighs and spits. “In the process of trying to achieve this dream, I received a lot of scars too,” he explains. “I went to a lot of auditions and failed, and when I wanted to do this job, my parents were against it. I did think about giving up but was never at that point where I would have.”
Woojin writes on “D.R.E.A.M” that “some people think our life is a drama”. “You could say that the meaning behind it is kind of like a TV drama, it’s like a rollercoaster ride. There’s sadness and happiness, all of that put together represents how life is,” he says, speaking for the first time since sitting down. “The line that comes after is that “you may think it’s always glamorous”… when you watch dramas, there’s so many things that could only happen on a drama. But it’s very different behind the scenes.”
In spite of social media and K-Pop’s unrelenting flow of content constructing a seemingly transparent link between public and artist, there remains one unshakeable fact – fans will never truly know what goes on once the cameras go off. But instead of the gap creating a healthy boundary, it’s instead been filled with fanfics and fan-art, shipping wars, sasaengs (obsessive, privacy-invading fans) and constant speculation around idols’ gender, sexuality and private relationships. These days, it’s not uncommon for artists to see their lives meticulously constructed online from fragments and guesswork, then voraciously dissected.
Daehwi initially took rumours around his sexuality in his stride, even joking about them in a 2018 episode of the variety show, Knowing Brothers. By summer 2019, however, he’d had enough, saying he (and his agency) were reporting malicious comments. The issue of South Korea’s cyberbullying epidemic has recently escalated, with the agency for solo artist Sunmi announcing their suing of 12 individuals for defamation and malicious comments, and the proposed Sulli Act (putting stricter controls over anonymous postings) coming in the wake of former idol Sulli, who experienced years of online abuse, taking her own life on October 14th.
“Those people comment from behind a computer screen just by looking at our outside appearance,” Daehwi says calmly, but his words resonate from deep within. “For me, that really hurts. It’s not just me but other idol friends, seniors and juniors. I’d hoped they’d realize there are a surprisingly large number of people hurt because of malicious comments but,” he shrugs, “people that will do it are just going to continue. So now I think, ‘Do what you please, I’m going to live my life the way I want’. Since I started thinking that way, it’s become a little easier. We’re public figures so it’s something we have to endure, but please don’t write malicious comments.”
Youngmin confesses to searching his name, mostly looking for constructive feedback. “I want to know what people are saying and thinking in order to see what direction the team should be heading,” he says, donning his leader cap. “I’ve had my fair share of comments online. If you don’t read it, you want to read it but when you do, you get hurt. I try to let it slide off, it’s very hard but I try.”
Woojin, however, isn’t quite so diplomatic. “If you’re going to say it, say it to our faces,” he says gruffly, and his bandmates laugh at his bluntness. If someone did, what would you do? Woojin tilts his head. “I’m ready,” he says in English as if spoiling for a showdown. He grins. “Just joking. It’s not like I can fight with that person but I’d want to ask, ‘What are you thinking? What did I ever do wrong to you?’ I haven’t really looked at negative comments but when I do see one or two, it’s upsetting. If I read them all the time, then I’d be like, ‘Oh, there they go again’,” he says wearily.
AB6IX’s candor (ask them about their relentless schedule and Daehwi will reply that he “feels like the five of us are tightly knit trying to just survive day to day, we’re relying on one another”) is still an unfamiliarity in an industry that prefers innocuous questions and answers to maintain a pristine image. They’re also rattling K-Pop’s more recent reluctance to invest early in big undertakings, such as a full-length studio album, in an increasingly fickle, saturated market. While they’re not entirely alone in this – boy group ATEEZ also released theirs in October at less than a year old – do they envisage their generation changing K-Pop’s course?
“Totally yes,” says Daehwi firmly. “I think we all want to grow the image of not just (being) an idol but artists. When you’re promoting as an idol group, as a dance group, you need more people and to achieve that you do need help from the company,” he says about K-Pop’s oft-criticised structure of 360-degree agencies and training. “But this newer generation is really changing it up by being more involved with their music and that’s changing how people think about idols.”