First Aid is one of the most prominent figures in the Korean electronic music scene. He has made a name for himself with his sizzling combination of technical finesse and a great sense of style. Many of you might know him from his project with Hong Hyo Jin, Room 306, which as recently released a successful first album. If you have yet to witness his harmonically and rhythmically savory, expansive electronic sound worlds, stop what you’re doing right now and indulge yourself.
Tell us about your musical background: what were some of your musical interests and sources of inspiration early in your life, and how did you start doing music?
I remember when I first listened John Lenon’s “Imagine,” and how it was immediately and weirdly familiar to me, so I followed along and sang that song. I asked my mother, “Have I heard this song somewhere?” and she said, “Yes, when you were a fetus.” From that day, I believe my musical instinct was developed by prenatal education with great musicians such as Beatles, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, 유재하 (Yoo Jae Ha), 김광석 (Kim Kwang Seok), etc.
When I was 4 years old, I picked up some sheet music and asked my father repeatedly what the notes and marks were all about, and he sensed my interest in music. My parents decided to put me in a local piano institution. They recall that on the days I was at the institution, I came home very late because I enjoyed it so deeply. That 7 years was the start point of my timeline of music.
I listened to almost all kinds of music – literally, from classic music to hardcore rave – since when I got an MPMAN 32mb mp3 player and next, iPod Shuffle. If I calculate the time each day I spent listening, it would probably be 12 hours per a day. Soon I became nervous imagining if there were no music and only silence. It was almost paranoiac. Now I’ve changed that way of listening, but I don’t think it was bad thing, cause all the ingredients that I use for my creation were from the tracks I enjoyed at that time. And also I assume the habit of taking ideas from a little, segmented pieces of musical ingredients came from those experiences, having different styles of sonic masses in my ears for several years.
How has your music and your musical interests evolved over the years?
LTJ Bukem was the fire starter for me, I think. His and the label’s liquid drum and bass sounds hit me so hard, and opened eyes to the possibility of new sounds. Smooth jazzy synth pads and Rhodes electric piano sounds on funky breakbeat and groovy 808 bassline. At that time, I couldn’t identify these elements, but surely I adored those ingredients. Since then, I dug into the history of electronic music genre for seeking more things first, and soon, all the material in bass music and ambient, synth pop music shook my heart. Through this digging, I experienced a long, long journey of my own musical evolution, of searching new combinations of historical, remarkable sounds.
Tell us about the various projects and collaborations you have participated in, such as Room 306, F.W.D, and Pause Cuts. How are these projects different than what you do as a soloist and how have they stretched you as a musician?
As you know, I have a massive collection of my own projects. And all projects were started from a personal curiosity: combination. [85×2] Project was started from the sum of nice, warm pad/melodies and kick drum rhythm of drum and bass without snare. [Nostalgic Falling Down] was the sum of oldies and new things. [QUARANTINE] was the sum of sampling methods and 2-5-1 chord progressions cycling through different keys and constantly changing time signatures, which is unusual in electronic music scene. It’s like my own science experiment projects. Because they are such personal things, some of them are barely understandable for listeners. Selfish works, if I must say.
In the same vein, [Room306], [F.W.D.], and [Pause Cuts] are collisions of FIRST AID’s ego and others’ ego. I think every musician has different personality, taste, ability and habit, and thoughts. In these projects, ideas and taste of sound collide so hard that they make a new ego, which can be called their project name. It’s the most interesting phenomenon to me, since I have gotten various result of collision.
One remarkable aspect of your music is your sophisticated harmonies and melodies. Can you also tell us about your process of composing and your background in music theory (and did you ever study jazz theory, since I hear some jazz influences in your music)?
I didn’t get any proper coaching in music theory til I was about 23 to 24 years old. I had been writing melodies and using chords with only a hunch and with lessons from great songs. Of course I played drums for years and that amazingly helps me with working on rhythm, but composing was a blind dance to me. Because I was restricted by my limitation, I went into deep, deep slump that made me consider quitting music permanently. But I couldn’t give up either, so I bought various kinds of music theory books, especially about chord progressions, and copied songs that had chord progressions that I loved a lot. ([QUARANTINE] was born at this time.) Now I understand a tiny little bit of basic theory, and I think I have finally broke my barrier.
Your music is packed with intricate beats and rhythms and colorful, detailed orchestrations of electronic sounds and samples. For those of us who may have little experience in electronic music, can you tell us about your process of creating such complex electronic pieces?
I start by choosing the elements I want to use and combining them. I love to combing elements from other musicians in ways that haven’t been done by other musicians before. Maybe that’s why my tracks are complex sometimes. Usually I can’t tell that it will be superb but at least I have a expectation that it will go like this, like that. And then, I visualize or document a definition of the fixed elements/idea. Like this: (Instruments/Source Name) will be (Adjective), like (Reference Song Name). or: (Rhythm/Melody notes) will be (Static/Dynamic). And if I don’t know any history of the elements or specific sounds that I will use, I research them and try to find interviews of the pioneer of those elements.
While I structure all the elements and if they seem to be good, new ideas pop up really fast, automatically in my mind. That’s the positive circle of my working routine and if it’s overlapped again and again, I can tell the track will be done in good form. If new ideas don’t come up immediately (or within an hour max), I trash the project at once and move on to fix other elements.
For me, sound technique is just a tool for drawing my one big musical idea, not for showing off or overusing it meaninglessly. Flexibility on technique, following idea and flow is what I care about most when I work.
In what way is electronic music an effective vehicle of self expression for you? Why are you drawn to it?
Harmonics. Tones. Textures. Extreme musical transitions that are impossible in nature. The possibility of controlling all of them is fascinating enough to me. It’s natural and weird at the same time, like being a cook that has all cooking ingredients of world.
What do you appreciate about Korea’s electronic music scene, and how would you like to see it develop in the next decade?
A decade ago, the Korean electronic music scene was led by a few great pioneers. I think that scene lacked diversity because information about technique and working process was insufficient. But through the pioneers’ sharing efforts, increased availability of computer music technology, and the breakthrough of worldwide social networking, many Korean electronic musicians’ ideas are coming to the surface. I think that if more years pass, there will be no separation by country. Everyone will share their ideas and watch their work together without any border.