Words by Matthew Spence-
WARNING: The following article will morph your wardrobe into thrifted hand-me-down clothing, increase your musical stubbornness, and My Bloody Valentine bootlegs will replace your entire music collection. You’ve been warned. It’s like the tape from “The Ring”, except expecting death in seven days. Instead, You’ll be greeted with a Fender Jaguar at your door, which you consistently pop G strings on. With that being said, time to shoegaze (for the most part) shit up.
It’s a cool time to be a Gen Z’er. Sure, the planet is burning slowly but surely and in this economy, most of us would have to give a kidney and 1000 blowjobs to be able to purchase a home, but hey music still exists while we’re here. Numerous scenes are growing and people are carrying the torch of their respective genres. Hip-Hop is more expanded than ever. Punk bands are still kicking ass. My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive are being introduced to the next gen (Thanks to Spotify and TikTok and other platforms for doing your job) and now we have talented artists creating ethereal, satisfyingly dooming, sonically ear-clogging experiences with Shoegaze/Dreampop. One of those artists. Known to his family and friends as Justin Kim. The indie scene knows him as Suave Punk. Musician, filmmaker, and a really dope person.
My geeky ass got to chat with the artist for two separate video calls. Day 1 had to be cut short due to the short amount of time as Justin had to head out. On day 2 we talked for about 3 hours about a lot of shit you’ll read about it in a few.
Switching from Coast to Coast: Born in Wisconsin (first one in his family to be born outside of Korea), raised in Florida for some time (that alone is a bit harsh because Florida is fucking so Bananas that Gwen Stefani would get hyperkalemia from going there), to finally residing in California in his pre-teens to currently. Constantly being the new kid may have not been the plan on his part: “It was something as a kid I’d think about ‘what If I knew the same surroundings”. However, that still didn’t wipe off the rose-colored shein his personality carried. Being a kid, the possibilities are endless and your teeth are limited. Curious, creative with imagination in a never-ending loop, and parents that made sure to nourish that adventure: “My parents, If I had a question, they never shot me down. If they didn’t know, they were ‘let’s look it up”. His musical track record would begin at an early age with him learning piano, and guitar (being self-taught at guitar at age 12), and being immersed by music around him: 80s Synth-Pop (aka the greatest sub-genre), Classic Rock, Dreampop, Shoegaze (being introduced to Cocteau Twins at a young age is goated stuff), and whatever else would play on 98.9. The musical wormhole would be deep as the more absurd and Lynchian the music felt, the more intrigued Justin got: “I always sought out the strange in music as a kid. Like oh the guitar makes this weird sound and etc”.
With all that being said, entering his teens, the bubbling talent would begin to take his hobby more seriously…that’s right….film. Did I mention he loves film too? Right before being in front of the camera for music videos, around age 10, he would be behind the camera. Hooked, he would develop his develop joy in filmmaking: photography, skits with friends, and a short film called Singularity of Youth. “Yeah, that was a while ago. I was 16, back in high school, ever since I was a kid was making short films.” However, before reaching 2 million streams and being posted on Clash Magazine, he reached local notoriety with his aforementioned short film being accepted at the San Antonio Film Festival. Now, its 2023, 2 EPs (2021s “Heaven is a Night Drive” and 2022s “Apathy Patrol”), a Champman School graduate, 2 million streams with his song HeatDeath on Spotify, and the other top 5 reaching over 100k streams.
But the battle of passions was inevitable. “Film vs Music” is the true endgame. “I never saw myself ever doing music really. The main turning point was my freshman year of college, it was in my dorm. I had a lot of time to myself you know; my roommates had their lives and things going. And I’m a shy guy, I tend to like my own free time. I just spent a lot of that time playing guitar and I thought it’d be cool to write my own songs, so I started working on that. In essence, the music stuff for me was just totally out of left field. I never thought one day I’d just record one of the songs I made and upload it on Spotify, and it’ll pick up traction”
Suave Punks’ music is on a growing path of uniqueness. Heaven is a Night Drive is a musical cruise through distress, emptiness, apathy, and through the end of the trip, what feels like acceptance and serenity. Sonically panning from flattering and dooming. Apathy Patrol is fuzzier, the wall of noise will kick your ass. As it’s heavier and less friendly versus his previous effort. Personally, that’s my take on his music (art is subjective) but straight from the creator: “MAKE GUITAR GO LOUD! <laughs> It’s as simple as that I guess”. If everything in life was that simple.
Don’t let the elementary explanation skew your view of the music or your perception of Justins’ musical library, as his frame of reference is very…. dope to put it shortly. From Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine to more recently, Minutemen to Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, McLusky, and that’s just revolving music. “Husker Du, They’ve probably inspired so much of the grunge stuff that happened in the 90s and not only that, but their work ethic is so inspirational. Truly a band. Adding to that, their lyricism is conducive to storytelling”. “Minutemen, are another big influence. Their attitude towards the music industry. Their philosophy of keeping things simple and affordable, so you can focus on what’s important. They really practiced what they preached. They never charged more than $5 and shows never ended late in case people had to go to work the next”.
Another big inspo is Shinichirō Watanabe, you know, the creator of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo (FYI: Cowboy Bebop soundtrack > Samurai Champloo if he had to choose one). During the convo, he couldn’t help but geek over the DIY scenes of Punk, No Wave, Shoegaze, etc. Plugging the book he’s been reading. “Our Band Could Be Your Life”. I highly recommend it; it really did me to not only pursue music in the sense of the industry and everything. More the culture. To see the roots of the independent music scene.” Taking bits and pieces from various areas of artists and learning, Justiin used these to work and enhance his songwriting: “ I graduated from Chapman Film School for Directing. A lot of it while I was there was just like ‘how to tell a story’ how to communicate certain themes’, so being all around that for the past four years, I’ve been starting to appreciate that more in within music. Like maybe I could adapt a short story idea into a song and that’s kind of how Husker Du operates with their songwriting.”.
Elaborating on the process of writing: “I’ve been trying to change it up recently, but I think up until now, most of my songs have been: instrumental first then lyrics after. Write a riff or like an idea on electric guitar and try to figure out the different parts.” He continues, “Try to write the song in terms of structure in terms of instrumental. When I get a good instrumental demo going, then I start thinking about lyrics” “Idk, I never saw myself as a good vocalist at all. So, I tend not to think of vocals and lyrics as my primary instrument, so I approach songwriting there. Cause I have more confidence in my guitar.”
No matter the approaches, the results are stellar. Which that says a lot, I never use the word “stellar”, now all I need is to say “excellent” and “magnificent” and I’ll be on the same playing field as Invade Zim and Dexter.
Suave Punks music feels it can unlock memories and emotions, which is the mission, but what exact feeling? Pain, Love, Disillusion, the urge to eat a whole box of Reece’s? Perhaps all of them. Yet, one thing he’s hoping to invoke is nostalgia. In VoyageLA, he explained that was a goal so I asked if he can elaborate a bit more on that: “When I think of nostalgia, I think of Moreso when I was a kid. The feelings I had while processing the world and looking at the world in grade school. For me, I have that age range in mind because before I moved to Cali, I lived in Florida, in my mind when I moved to Southern California when I was 10, that’s when my adolescence began. Where I started to consciously track my mind and my change.” Can it be that it was all so simple, the question: Gladys Knight & the Pips, Wu-Tang Clan, and Lauryn Hill have asked us. “Early college, I was getting depressed and was going through a lot. I think I fixated a lot on the differences between how I think now vs me as a kid in Florida.” This leads to a deeper discussion: “Whatever struggle we may feel now, is just exaggerated in our minds to be bigger and Badder than it is really. If we think about and detach ourselves from our own biases about the situation. Think like a child would think. “What is the impression here?”, I think that is a better way to think because that leans to “How are we going to react to this” than letting all of these things pile on top of us and letting these thoughts and emotions get the better of us.”
But that’s not to say he’s not enjoying the present time in his world. If not, hey, he could pull a fry and freeze himself. Instead, you can see it as him appreciating the upbringing that made him the person he is today, despite the consistent switch around. “I never had issues connecting with people, in the long run, I totally think it shaped me into who I am. I think it totally had a hand in what I do now, I don’t even know what I’d be doing if hadn’t been around that much. Even moving to California, like how much that had probably shaped my understanding of what the world was like as a kid. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Now, it seems he’s tackling a bit more over the past few months: starting a business hosting underground DIY shows with his college buddy. The Warehouse. “ We started a business because we’ve been throwing DIY underground shows in our college town and yeah we moved in”. On top of that, he’s in the making of his debut album: “I’ve been working on my first full-length album. It’s still a long way from being completed. I’ve been collaborating with a lot of cool people. This one is a lot more than less of just my own 2 cents. I think there’s a lot more perspective musically, and I’m very interested in how people will react”. Safe to say he’s gotten a to-do list to work on, but he’s all for the trip. Tackling everything from the love of DIY. Wearing it like a badge, or in this case, a pair of vans.
This makes sense, studying underground scenes embedded the punk (no pun intended) mantra of “Fuck it, do what you want, however, you want.” Being a geek who appreciates the ideology as well, I couldn’t help but ask about the Importance of DIY in his eyes. He makes his own music and is 1/2 of an underground business. Plus, I mean, I’ve asked everyone else, why not. What entailed was an answer that felt like the equivalent of the speech that Spongebob gave when he was picked to be the hall monitor. Gotta respect the passion.
“Idk. it’s hard, it’s a concept certain people have in their minds you know ‘Do it yourself’. There so many different ways people do it themselves as their people on earth. But for me, I define DIY as less of a method of doing things and more of an attitude [towards doing it]. What that attitude means is, you go forth and do things for the sake of your art and passion. It’s such an abstract philosophy that I have, but, I’ve never put it in words <chuckles>. When you’re trying to accomplish something and express yourself, do not think of things in terms of limitations and things you cant do. Instead, focus on those exact limitations that are bringing you down and try to find a way to flip them into advantages. Till this day, I’ve never had a professional recording session in a studio, and I don’t see myself as very talented either in recording at all. I just do what I know how to do and keep on trying to learn from my mistakes from the past. The attitude of honing oneself, I think. Of not just going out there, ‘oh it’s an independent thing’ or the DIY aesthetic cause a lot of people are going after an aesthetic, and idk I don’t think they’re thinking about the meaning of what they’re doing. However, it’s a beautiful thing. DIY is very important to me, it’s more than an operation, it’s a personal attitude that I hold at least”. “Your limitations are your strengths, don’t be detoured”
“A lot of times people are detoured by the barriers of entry in whichever art field, especially into music. Number 1, the reality is these barriers to entry exist like you have the right to feel dejected and feel that it’s unfair. But just because that’s the reality doesn’t mean you have subject to it. Cause who are these people who put up these barriers, they’re not artists. These are people who sold out essentially.”
That answer was so extensively bright to where I stopped focusing on my questions and observed. It was like having that one student with the A+++ science fair project that makes animals talk and get you free HBO and you have to follow up with your rotten fruit experiment.
As he forges on he hopes to carry it into his future endeavors like many of his influences Case in point, Steve Albini. Musician and legendary audio engineer (Pixies, Nirvana, The Breeders, all-star shit you know. Coincidentally, Suave Punk covers “Wave of Mutilation by Pixies during his sets). He touches on Steve’s essay on the music titled “The Problem with Music” and furthers into it: “His philosophy, he never turns down any artists that ask him to record. Doesn’t take any royalties. He’s a principle person. I admire that kind of person. Practice what you preach. That’s something to continue to uphold in my life, I’m just not in a position to make any big decision” While he may not be in CEO chair at Interscope Records or snorting lines in the bathroom of Geffen Records, that doesn’t invalidate his efforts and offers to his scene and peers. Building a studio in his warehouse, he wants to be more than a studio for him stating: “Once that’s up I’m super excited to start recording for other people, that’s the one thing I really wanna see, like what kind of music is out there”.
His underground shows, themselves, gather a range of people to have a sense of belonging and discovery. “Very diverse bills in terms of genres. It’s crazy to see our shows are a melting pot of so many people. College preppy kids coming for the college bands, we have locals, etc. It’s awesome to see some community”. Genuinity is the name, and indie is the game. Independence is something that he’s proud of and so with that in mind. We discussed the indie scene and I ask him how he defines indie: “It’s a very simple criterion: you work outside of the major music industry as a whole. You’re an amateur musician, you’re not signed to a big label with a corporate structure. I feel lots of times, indie has been turned into a genre and type an aesthetic, that these big companies have created. I feel like lots of times bands and albums get labeled “indie” when in reality it’s just a part of a subsidiary of Warner Bros or etc”. Hell earlier when discussing the book, he mentioned his thoughts as well. “Nowadays the idea of indie music has been very commercialized or like the indie scene has become more of an extension of more the bigger record labels at play. As we see more subsidiary record labels being created by bigger record companies to suit that market. In a way, I feel it’s been kinda diluted, so my friends were like “DON’T LOSE FAITH IN INDIE MUSIC'”
Being signed to an Indie label himself, Pack Records. Whom he signed with after the success of his single “Dreams of Losing Teeth” in 2021. That misconstrue-ness may be a tad annoying, but it’s all well. Wrapping up the convo, we went from discussing Stuart Little vs Chicken Little (we go Stuart), awkward habits we have, local scenes and events, and overall glee of music/culture. We talked for what felt like hours but the longer the interview, the more I gotta listen to myself talk and I don’t want that. Walking away from (I’d say) a productive convo, Justin is a creative mind that thrives off of the gift of art and learning the ins and outs due to an eager open mind: Celtic music to Punk to Koren Folk music. Suave Punk is a musical project that not helps Justin but now helps out others in times needed “I see it as a musical diary or journal for me.” Like good art, it could shape and bring you places you hope for.