Without fail, I am floored each time I press play on experimental folk musician Gongjoongdoduk‘s 2015 debut album, Gongjoongdoduk. This whimsical beast of an album is packed tight with visceral nuances, funky chord progressions and dissonances, wild performances, and savory melodies. Gongjoongdoduk crafted his world from the ground up, having composed, performed, and produced the large majority of the album. With this interview, I was able to dig deeper into the eclectic treasure chest that is Gongjoongdoduk’s mind.
Tell us more about your first album from last year, Gongjoong Doduk — what experiences or thoughts inspired you to create it? Is there a common theme or narrative that ties the work together?
I wanted to be in a band, but I didn’t know too many musicians and couldn’t find the right people. I got tired of waiting for the right time and just decided to make guitar music on my own. I hadn’t played guitar at a frequent rate for several years, so I thought it would be refreshing to play again. But it wasn’t really, haha.
Sonically, I paid much attention to keep all the songs in a common quality/colour of tone, but did not have a narrative motive because words are the last elements I focus on when I listen to and make music. Writing the words was quite a difficult process because I never have much to say to the listener, so I had help of my college friend writer Kyu and was introduced to a new musical friend (hopefully) named Cosmos Superstar. They both sang and wrote on the album!
Your music is remarkably nuanced — both in composition and arrangement — but somehow very organic and even improvisatory. Do you have a standard process for composing?
Thank you! My process was mostly standard and ordinary. The writing began with guitar and I considered the other parts after the main guitar parts were recorded. I read that Brian Wilson writes in small sections and then experiments with different combinations of those sections to make the whole song, so I tried that for some songs. That was fun! The most difficult part was mixing because my ears’ taste is higher than my actual mixing skills, so it took time to have the songs meet my satisfaction. The MOST fun part was having Cosmos Superstar and Kyu write the words and sing. I didn’t have to do anything! I could just go outside and play or eat food.
Is improvisation a significant part of your music-making process?
I prefer thankful accidents. I am amazed and have so much respect for improvisation (and not just in jazz) such as genius musicians like Okkyung Lee and Fred Frith. I think you will really enjoy them.
To be able to speak a fresh and unprepared musical paragraph (without a basis or foundation to build upon) requires crazy connection to the instrument and deep vocabulary of music, but also bravery and freedom I think. I really have none of those, haha. So when I accidentally discover a chord voicing or program a synthesizer sound that I like, I’m thankful for it and use it.
Your sense of harmony in particular is remarkable. Do you have a musical background that has helped you nurture this skill, and what is your process for developing ideas for harmonies and chord progressions?
Finally discovering the harmony I wanted to hear (which is rare [which is sad]) makes me happy.
Twisting ordinary progressions just by a little bit to give them different flavor is very exciting and the process is organic enough to do it without tiring of it.
Also, I don’t know if this is connected to the question, but I have a fear of sounding similar to existing songs that I’m not aware of. It is something I think about a lot. I tried not to be too harmonically experimental because I had the aim of being under the umbrella of pop or folk. Because of that, there’s a lot of music that I’m too skeptical to release because I think a similar song PROBABLY exists. Wouldn’t it be horrible to be accused of stealing a song that you weren’t aware existed? I wish there was some process of finding out if a song I wrote sounds similar (even a little) to existing songs, like how good newspaper companies check the facts very hard before they print.
Color/orchestration is another strength of yours. You work with a vast spectrum of timbres and they all seem so deliberately and tastefully placed. I love hearing small pieces of colors — willowy guitar riffs, light percussive effects, vocal effects, touches of synth notes and distortion effects — as they float in and out of your musical landscape. Can you tell us about your process of bringing a piece of music to life with colors and effects? Do you hear the them in your head or do they emerge via improvisation?
There is a very good reason most musicians record and mix in studios. The sound becomes easily 3 dimensional even with one instrument. When recording, mixing and mastering at home with a computer and cheap tapes, expanding the sonic walls can be achieved with selections of different textures (but holding hands in a whole mix). A lot of modern music has noise which I enjoy very much, and my tape dbx was broken, so I decided to add dirty timbres like a bed or blanket. Also, making clean sounds dirty and foggy is such a fun part of making music.
So after I recorded a few instruments and established the song structure, the sound becomes quite clear in my head, and sonic accidents during the process can add even more depth to the overall tone or sometimes make me change all the other elements for a completely different one. But the sonic goal of the album was to be at a mid point between completely filthy lo-fi and studio-quality, while ignoring the lower frequencies.
Although your music is unlike anything I’ve heard before, it sounds like several other genres — rock’n’roll, psychedelic, folk, electronica — chopped up into little pieces and assembled into one distinctive, cohesive collage. Can you talk about your musical influences and how they have worked their way into your own music?
There are so many influences. Isn’t it hard not to be influenced by anything you hear, whether bad or good, heard in foreground or background, or forced upon you or not? Home recording geniuses like Gary Wilson and R Stevie Moore were big influences, specifically their looseness. The music I listened to when I was in junior high and high school, mostly guitar music such as Candy Rat releases, G3 (haha) were also very considered on purpose.
As well as electronics, acoustic instruments — such as guitar, flute, percussion, piano, and the voice — have a significant presence in your album. First, how many of these instruments do you yourself play on this album? And secondly, what is approach to organically fusing these acoustic instruments with electronics?
My mom played the clarinet in one song, but since she was shy and critical of her performance, I buried it deep in the mix. The other instruments were by me and then cut on the computer.
To tell the truth, guitar is the only instrument I am not horrible at. I can’t really call myself a guitarist either because I make so many mistakes and have to re-record all the time, haha.
I think the term is “red light fever,” which means someone has fear or nervousness when it is time to record his/her performance. I have it. When I have to record music that I aim to release for people to hear, I get headaches. But when I record music just for myself for fun, it’s very enjoyable.
Because your music’s electronic and acoustic orchestration is so detailed, it sounds like it is very difficult to perform live. Do you have experience in performing your music live?
No, and performing those songs live wasn’t in consideration at the time of making the album.
I’ve forgotten how to play most of my songs anyway. But recently, some great players have been gathered to form a band, which I am very excited about. I can’t wait to play new music live with and without a band.
What other ways do you enjoy using your mind besides music? What non-musical things do you think have had a strong influence on your music?
Not using the mind might not be very sensible, but I enjoy it. I tried meditation but the result was ALWAYS the opposite and made the brain spin much faster with hellish thoughts. Drawing helps me not think. Bike riding and sometimes walking help to focus the direction of my thoughts on things right there in front at the moment.
Non musical things that influence my music would be listening to people tell stories, listening to people talking to each other and interesting movies & books. I’m not sure which is the strongest.
Any books or movies you would recommend?
The most recent fantastic movie I saw was a short film called “Paranmanjang (Night Fishing)” directed by Chan Wook Park. I read years ago that he was going to direct a movie with an iPhone with his brother and was very interested, but I finally saw it recently and it’s fantastic and beautiful. There’s a ‘behind the scenes’ video online and it’s hilarious because there are gigantic professional lenses & other equipment attached to a tiny little phone.
For books, the one that directly influences my music is “How Music Works” by David Byrne, whose music I never had the chance to get into, but the book is very insightful! And books I would recommend are “The Stench of Honolulu” and “Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey.” Two hilarious books with so many great individual short-form lines in every page that the larger narratives don’t really matter to me at all. Also, “The Remains of the Day” was a book that when I started I didn’t expect it to be funny at all, but many parts were surprisingly funny.
Finally, why do you make music?
Because making music is sometimes the most fun thing to do and it helps pass the time. Maybe it’s not a good final answer to close an interview, but those are the only good clear reasons. Thank you for the interview and have a nice day!