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by L Singh

The leaders of a new K-Pop generation.

When you’ve sold out a multi-continental tour less than a year from debut, you’re allowed to let a little bit — just a smidge — of that success get to your head. Everyone expects a tad bit of nonchalance, maybe even a slightly absurd demand for a special drink. Yet, here ATEEZ are, recounting embarrassing moments from their most recent tour, aptly titled Expedition — given the nautical themes of the K-pop group’s past three releases — like they’re being paid to do it.

“After our Chicago show, as we were travelling to our next stop, I belatedly realised that I left my laptop at our Chicago hotel,” 20-year-old Hongjoong, leader of this often chaotic and loud octet recalls. “Thankfully, I was able to find it, but I was really freaking out for a second there!”

“I ordered a “duck” through room service, but I wasn’t expecting [to get] foie gras.” Mingi adds, perhaps making a mental note to be slightly more specific with his food orders for future reference.

Strip away all the layers, and this is what they are: eight humble, talented, jovial, extremely focused boys who, in their own words, got incredibly, superbly lucky — basking in the glowing praise that’s heaped onto them and then going back and sweating it out in the practice room for hours on end. Despite the steady climb on various charts around the world, the pretence has failed to penetrate this close-knit circle.

The eight members of ATEEZ — Hongjoong, Seonghwa, Mingi, San, Wooyoung, Yunho, Yeosang, and Jongho — debuted nearly nine months ago to a modest audience of 400 people with “Pirate King”, the hypnotic title track off of their first album, Treasure EP 1: All to Zero. Swaying, sultry synths wrapped up in 80s hip-hop and traces of EDM, distilled to perfection with clean-cut choreography and eight pairs of smouldering eyes. The album peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard US World Albums Chart, only to be cannibalised by its successor, Treasure EP 2: Zero to One, three months later.

A sharp turn from their 90s grunge aesthetic splashed all over their debut album, and this one was leather coats, whips and unbridled power, courtesy of what is now a prerequisite track for new fans, “HALA HALA”. True to its ethos, the second album tore through the World Albums Chart, bowing out at No. 5, ATEEZ’s highest position to date. A sold-out tour spanning 15 cities across two continents followed, thanks in large part to their fans, collectively called ATINY, who banded together on the online platform MyMusicTaste to demand a concert. According to member Wooyoung — vocalist, dancer, and together with fellow member San the very personification of ‘chaotic evil’ — the group is still pinching themselves: “Even though we speak different languages, it was really fascinating to see fans all over the world enjoying our music. We received a lot of energy from our fans during every show, and I thought to myself that we should work even harder.”

Shortly after playing their last show (for the moment, as it turned out since they’re heading to Australia in August) in Russia, the octet teased their third album, Treasure EP 3: One to All, with a surprise. As a general trend, albums in K-pop are kept tightly under wraps until the release date, not being followed by singles that set a general tone. All the fans have to go on are concept teasers. That’s why ATEEZ is releasing musical teasers and asking fans to vote for the song they wanted to see as the title track was a pleasant anomaly.

“Before our album was released, we all came together to think about how we could make this an interactive effort with our fans,” Mingi, the group’s rapper, with a baritone as famous as his knife-sharp writing and rapping, explains. “Having our fans vote and decide on our main promotion song was an idea that came out of this. We’re also very happy because a lot of fans participated in the decision-making process and as a result, are enjoying our music now.”

It wasn’t just about real-time feedback. As close as ATEEZ are with their fans, the group thought it was imperative to make them feel like a part of the process. “We’re on a journey together with our fans,” Seonghwa, the eldest, elaborates. “So it’s important but also meaningful to be able to promote after receiving feedback from [them].”

It’s this two-way curiosity between ATEEZ and their fans that contributes to their reputation as one of K-pop’s brightest new acts. The general argument about K-pop — and the ardent fans it produces — is that its stars are far more accessible to fans that their western counterparts. During any given promotional cycle, there is an onslaught of fan-meetings, concerts, performances, showcases (events where the group interacts with fans and provides insight into the album), live sessions, and so on. Divulging information is as much a science as forming the group itself. The veil, however thin, is always front and centre.

Part of the reason for their dedicated fanbase, thus, is ATEEZ’s novel approach to reaching out to fans, letting them into the fold, and including them in the inner circle, so to say. It might raise concerns about blurred lines between idol-life and personal life, but the group’s not worried. “We’re not necessarily dividing our idol life and our personal lives. All of our members, including me, want to approach our fans and become familiar with them in a candid way,” says vocalist Yunho.

Their recent tour, thus, was a litmus test just for that: to see if they could make sense of their upward trajectory and still stay close to the ground.

“I’m learning something new every day. Rather than saying I’m leading my members, I’d say I’m still growing together with them,” Hongjoong says. “During the tour, I think I was able to see the members’ thoughts and ways of expressing through a new perspective. It was a good opportunity for us to understand each other better.”

As surprising and intelligent as it sounds, it’s something you would expect of a member of a group that had a relatively clayey launching pad. For nearly all members of ATEEZ, their agency KQ Entertainment, is their second one. Couple that with their unprecedented meteoric rise so soon after debut and it becomes easier to understand why the group is still unfurling aspects of each other’s personalities. It’s a double degree in knowing themselves and where they fit into the collective dynamic.

“While we were promoting and touring together, as a team, we once again learned the importance of cooperation and working together. I was also really inspired by the other members’ work ethics,” member Yeosang — dancer and vocalist — says.

“I feel this with every promotion, but I really think our members are very considerate of each other,” adds Mingi. “Even though sometimes it’s easy to get oversensitive or stressed out during comeback preparations, our members still think of each other and are considerate during those tough times. I learned a lot from them in those moments.”

Looking at ATEEZ armed with this insight is a revelation on its own, primarily because it explains, somewhat plausibly, their spectacular teamwork. On stage, ATEEZ are magnetic. As performers, they possess power and charisma that’s hard to look at for too long, but challenging to stay unaffected by at the same time. Together, they command attention, holding the audience’s breaths like taut strings. With such intense determination, however, it’s important to stop when things get into overdrive.

“I think every single member individually has a strong sense of responsibility and confidence in themselves,” Seonghwa explains what happens when they all need a moment. “Still, when we do reach our “breaking point” the member that acts like the “brakes” and helps us take a breather is our leader, Hongjoong. I’d also like to think that I play that role as well.”

San seconds him, adding that every member in a way has an internal alarm that warns when things get too much: “Rather than saying we have one specific member who does this, I think as an entire group, we take care of and embrace each other.”

Now that they’re fresh off of a new list of achievements — making their debut at KCON New York, getting signed to RCA Records, and releasing a new music video for the track “Aurora” off of the third album all under a month, not to mention their looming first anniversary — they’re getting new lessons in reeling things in.

“Our company staff always told us that we shouldn’t focus too much on music chart rankings and album sales,” Wooyoung elaborates. “Even now, my priority every time I go on stage is to make sure I enjoy and work hard every minute.”

For them, it’s crucial to remember where they started: as aspiring teens who now get to address their idols as peers. The group’s youngest, Jongho, sums it up best: “The members and I always talk about how important it is for us not to lose our rookie-mindset and remember our humble beginnings. I believe every opportunity for us to stand on stage is a precious one.”

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