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Q&A: Talking with Tablo of Epik High on music and society

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This past weekend in San Francisco, I had the chance to interview Tablo, the frontman of Epik High, one of South Korea’s biggest hip-hop groups. Tablo was a Stanford alumnus (Daniel Seonwoong Lee ’01 M.A. ’02) who did his undergraduate and master’s degree in the English Literature and Creative Writing program. We sat down before Epik High’s sold-out show at The Warfield in San Francisco to talk about his memories at Stanford and probe into the thematic leanings of their newest album, the hypnotically pensive “sleepless in ______”, where he shared his thoughts on topics like our modern attitudes towards productivity and happiness.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you get into music? Was there a moment when you realized it was something you wanted to do as a career?

Tablo: Interestingly enough, I got heavy into music at Stanford. So right before college, when I was in high school, I wrote a lot of poetry. There was a very big musician in Korea, he was like a legendary musician, and he somehow got to see some of my poetry and asked me to write lyrics for him. That was, I think, my junior year in high school. I got introduced to the music scene in that way. Once I was at Stanford, I was studying English Literature. I was still doing a lot of writing — I was in the Creative Writing program — and on the side as a hobby, some friends and I made a hip hop group. We used to perform at the AASA (Asian American Students’ Association) talent show, which was easy for me to do because I actually was a publicity chair for AASA — I just slipped us into one of the acts at the talent show. Some people saw us, and we started performing at clubs around San Francisco. And this was all just a hobby— I didn’t imagine that it would become a career, but at the time I felt like it was a very natural thing coming from a creative writing background, and the way rap was back then with the focus on lyricism. I felt very natural being in both spaces, and after college I was like, “Maybe I’ll take a shot at music!” And that’s what happened. The campus itself and the friends I had there, I think it played a huge role in how I became a musician.

TSD: Now that we’re talking about Stanford – was there a class that still stays with you?

Tablo: Honestly, I really enjoyed the Fiction Writing class — I don’t know if they still have it in the same form. Tobias Wolff was the head of the department and just being in that program was great. I loved that actual authors were professors and were the instructors. It was great having another writer look over our writing. I actually got an honorable mention for one of my fiction stories from Tobias Wolff, and I think that was a very big thing for me because I admired him as a writer. Just getting that recognition was great — I got a little bit of money for that too. All the fiction writing classes, I loved. I am also very, very into film. I’m a cinephile so the limited amount of film classes they offered at the time, I took advantage of. I’m not sure if they still have it, but at the media center, there’s a place where you could just go and sit on the couch and watch any movie ever.

TSD: They have that?

Tablo: They have that — well, they had that. At that time, they were on either LaserDisc or VHS. I would just go there — it wasn’t a class or anything — but I would go down there and watch all these foreign films that I couldn’t afford to just rent. And this was all before streaming and all of that stuff. I made very good use of Stanford outside of the classroom, and I think that benefited me a lot.

TSD: Let’s talk about your newest album, “sleepless in _____”.  The themes of melancholy and solitude in the modern city were very present. Were you trying to speak to universal emotions, or were you responding to a specific cultural and political moment?

Tablo: That’s a heavy question. It’s very simple — I believe that sleeplessness is a topic that is common to everyone, that is pertinent to everyone, just like love. There are two sides to being sleepless: there’s the positive aspect, where if you have have a goal or an ambition or a dream, a lot of people will be sleepless because of that, to pursue that. I’m sure you know as a college student and being on campus, that sometimes sleeplessness is treated like a merit, as if it’s some badge of chasing your dreams. If it results in a step towards your goals or your dreams, I guess sleeplessness can be good, but also on the flipside, sleeplessness causes, even away from health problems… it’s just not a good way to live. It’s a very desolate thing as well. Those two aspects where you could go from a dream to a nightmare, or you could go from something beneficial to something harmful. Just like love, I thought was a topic that everybody can identify with. I felt like the topic of sleeplessness or insomnia deserves as many songs as love, and that’s why I decided to do it.

TSD: It’s interesting how you mentioned that sleeplessness can be bragged about, because I do think our culture valorizes productivity for productivity’s sake. Even if what you’re doing is not necessarily something meaningful to you.

Tablo: To add to that — I don’t know if it’s still the same way, I’m pretty sure it is — growing up as a kid in my generation, growing up in Korea and being that Asian kid, not sleeping, or keeping yourself awake in order to study or to do something that was deemed productive, was really treated like it was a merit. I remember when I was in Korea as a kid, if you had a nosebleed because you were studying so hard, it was a noble thing. It was treated like a noble thing where you would go to school and some kid would kind of brag, like “Yo, I got a nosebleed from studying.” Some teachers or parents would encourage that by applauding it, which in retrospect is a very sad thing: to call something productive when it is literally destroying your body and destroying your mental health as well. It was very important for me with this album to talk about: What are you sleepless for? Are you sleepless for the right things? I think it’s something that everyone should ask themselves.

TSD: Speaking of mental health – the Western media sometimes runs stories on how people don’t really talk about mental health in Korea. Do you think their impression is accurate?

Tablo: I think their impression is outdated. I think it’s a different time now, and a lot of people do freely discuss it. Epik High has always been talking about that, even since our first album 16 years ago, and at that time, people didn’t really catch it. They didn’t catch that we were talking about these things because generally no one talked about it. But now, not just Epik High, but even the most popular idol group BTS — their music talks about it, which shows that it is something that the youth are open to talking about. Of course there’s still a long way to go, so that people can feel comfortable talking about those topics without any stigma. I’m sure there’s always long ways to go in any culture, but I think it’s a different time in Korea. It’s not the way it was 10 years ago.

TSD: The loneliness evoked in the album felt like it wasn’t just about alienation from others, but also alienation from oneself — a struggle to hold onto a self in a fast-moving world. How do you hold onto that sense of self as an artist and as a person?

Tablo: That’s definitely a tough question because there really isn’t an answer. You’re right, it’s very difficult to know what ‘self’ even means anymore because the way the world is right now. Everything that we do and we are is somehow connected to others, it’s within different communities or gatherings, because the internet, social media and all of this. It’s really hard to truly know your place. But luckily for me, I’ve always been sort of in my own world, ever since I was a kid. I am blessed with a personality where I have never really been afraid to be myself and many times that has worked against me, because not everyone is gonna like who someone is, not everyone’s gonna like everything about you. For you to be open enough and for you to be self-confident enough, to truly be yourself, means that at times some people are gonna be against that, and some people are not gonna approve of it. Many times, because we are afraid to deal with that kind of negativity or try to get validation from these people who obviously don’t really care, we often sacrifice bits and pieces of who we are, and then it goes on and on until one day you’ve become someone that you are not. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with a personality where I was always myself, and I was very, very strongly myself. When I was faced with negativity — I was faced with a lot of negativity in many many occasions, where at times it threatened to destroy my life— but I think I’ve always held on to who I am. I’ve never really given up on that. It’s not easy.

TSD: In moments like these, we are also seeing a growing obsession with the idea of happiness. Do you think this fixation with happiness is overrated or underrated?

Tablo: I have a theory that, well not a theory, but my thoughts on that is that we are…  let me gather my thoughts here. We wrongly, no… we mistakenly think of happiness as something that is grander than it is. Does that make any sense?

TSD: It does.

Tablo: What I’m trying to say is, we are very lax on what causes unhappiness. If you sit down and think about all the things that make you unhappy, you’ll write up a list without any problem. You’ll just keep going, right? Because you know the tiniest things can make you unhappy, can make you upset and these things come easy. But in the flipside when we try to think of the things that make us happy, we try to come up with these great, huge things. We don’t write down “I read a comic today,” [or] “The new Avengers movie is out”. We try to come up with these big things like “I’m in love”, “I got promoted”, “I’ve amassed wealth”. These big things that, we feel like in order to attain happiness, we have to attain amazing things, while in order for us to attain unhappiness, we allow ourselves to [be affected by] just the littlest things. I think that is the reason why it’s so hard to be happy. If we were lax on what happiness is, as much as we are on what causes unhappiness, I think you would find that it’s easier to attain.

I actually literally did this — I got a piece of paper, I put a line down the middle and I wrote what causes unhappiness for me, what gives me happiness. For the unhappiness side, I seriously wrote the most fickle things, things that are very temporary. Like “I have to get up in the morning”, “I have to do this and do that”. While for the happiness side, I sat there and I couldn’t write it as fast as the unhappiness side because I was thinking, trying to come up with these grand things. And I was like, oh, I am very strict on myself about happiness, but about unhappiness, I allow all these things. So maybe that’s like an exercise.

TSD: This album, more so than previous ones, works like a cohesive mood piece. The chill vibe reminds me of this article on how popular music has slowed down in tempo over the recent years, like it was symptomatic of a national mood. Were you consciously tapping into these trends or was it something that arose naturally?

Tablo: Strangely enough, we’ve always been doing this chill music and I think the trend caught up. What I mean is, I’m not saying that I was ahead of the trend, but I’m saying trends change. We’ve always been very consistent over the years with the type of music we love to do. That just happens to be fairly chill music, a lot of lo-fi music, and we’ve just stuck with it. Sometimes we are within the trend, sometimes we’re not. and I guess right now we’re back in it. I think that’s because the type of music Epik High makes. So there is music like club music, where people want to just go out on the weekend, they wanna forget about all the things that stress them out and just wanna dance, just wanna have a great time. The musicians who make that kind of music, I’m very grateful to them, and I need that sometimes. But Epik High’s music is sort of the music that you need for the Uber ride back home after [the] club or your night out. That moment where you’re going back home by yourself, and you need to wind down from it. I think that’s what Epik High’s music is, and I think right now a lot of people, they need something that will chill them out, something that will unplug them, and I’m glad that our music can provide that.

TSD: Closing questions — since you mentioned you were an English major, any recent favorite reads?

Tablo: Hold on. (goes over to take his tablet) Right now, I’m actually reading — so it’s “The Playboy Interview.” It’s a collection of interviews that Playboy magazine did over 50 years, and there are different books. There’s “Music Men,” which is interviews with musicians, “Men of Letters,” which is interviews with writers and “Moguls,” which is interviews with businessmen. I used to read predominantly fiction, but these days, I am very interested in iconic interviews. I like to, I guess, listen to people talk. So I’ve been reading this.

TSD: Any figure in the music industry that stood out to you when you read those interviews?

Tablo: From the book — I used to be really into Bob Dylan and Beatles. The Beatles interview here was when they were getting big, so they’re very lively and constantly joking around. It’s great because when I read that, I get glimpses back. I get to take a time machine, back to different times in my career as well, to when we were still very green, when everything was new to us, and that’s important for me to do because it keeps me grounded. I do keep my eyes on the road ahead, but I always make it a point to look back, because it’s a great memory, and also, when I look back on certain moments of my life that I regret, it teaches me something that will help me in my step forward. I enjoy the fact that we’ve been doing music this long, and I have now lived life this long. A lot of people start getting afraid when they get to my age, because your youth is behind you and there are heavy and serious things ahead of you, but I actually am very grateful for my position in time right now. Because I can look back on so many different things, and I can relive them, and I can learn from them, and I just have that wealth of memories.

Contact Linda Zhou at zlinda ‘at’ stanford.edu.