Epik High’s Tablo: “I’ve gone through long periods where I felt like I was completely alone”
The Korean-Canadian artist talks the trio’s new single ‘Rain Song’, mental health in K-pop and inspiring a younger generation of artists
It’s probably an understatement that rain holds some significance to Tablo. For the Epik High frontman, it’s even a permanent part of him – in the form of not one, but two tattoos on either forearm: one with a rain cloud, depicting a rainy day, and the other of a closed umbrella.
“I usually work a lot better when it’s raining,” he tells NME over a video call from Seoul. “I think it’s the sense of strange comfort I feel [from it] and also a bit of loneliness. A lot of Epik High songs [were] created under those conditions.” This includes ‘Rain Song’, the latest single from the alternative hip-hop trio (with members Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz), also featuring singers Colde and Younha.
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Known as ‘비 오는 날 듣기 좋은 노래’ in Korean (loosely translated as ‘A good song to listen to on a rainy day’), the track comes full circle as Younha is also featured in one of Epik High’s most well-known and loved songs, ‘Umbrella’ or ‘우산’. “[I’m grateful that] for the last 13 years, it’s been played just as much as it was when it first came out,” he says of the track, released in 2008 as part of the group’s fifth studio album ‘Pieces, Part One’. “Anytime it rains in Korea – and it rains a lot in Korea – it’s like the number one go-to song.”
The country, and the world now have a new soundtrack for rainy days – but as Tablo explains, ‘Rain Song’ was rather close to not coming to fruition.
Congratulations on the release of ‘Rain Song’, Tablo! Could you tell us more about the track and how the collaboration with Colde came to be?
Tablo: “This song sort of came out of serendipity, I guess? So Tukutz and I did a very rough demo sketch of it on a rainy day. But then, we eventually abandoned the thought of finishing it because [we already have] ‘Umbrella’. We felt like it would be weird for us to have another rain[-themed] song, so we just put it off.
“Then, about a month ago, we did a rainy-day song special on our podcast show, and [the ‘Rain Song’ demo] came to mind. During the show, we were like, ‘Yo, we should work on that. It actually could be a good song.’ So we went to the studio that day, finished it up, and called up Colde. He heard the song and he’s like, ‘I would love to be on it.’ We went to his studio after that, [and] recorded him.
“I had also created a new bridge part [for the song] with lyrics that call back to ‘Umbrella’, like a look back on the past. We thought it would be great if somebody else did this, so we called up Younha, and she came to the studio and recorded it in one day.”
Could you elaborate on the significance of rain in your art and what it means to you?
Tablo: “In my solo album [‘Fever’s End Pt. 1’] that was released 10 years ago, I have a song that’s dedicated to my wife [actress Kang Hye-jung] and my daughter [Haru], called ‘Try’ (‘밑바닥에서’, or ‘From The Bottom’). I was going through this big scandal in Korea at the time known as ‘TaJinYo’ (‘타진요’, short for ‘We Demand The Truth From Tablo’). My life was nearly destroyed [by it, and] I made music to keep myself sane.
“I wrote this one line to my wife and daughter that said: ‘I’m sorry that I’m both your rain and your umbrella.’ That’s sort of what my whole life has been. I’ve never had long periods of peace. They’ve always been interrupted by either strife or struggles. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it’s been for me since I was a little kid. I always felt like – and it sounds very cliche – I was living with a dark cloud over me. But I also realised that it was up to me to build the strength to protect myself and my loved ones from that rain, or from the rain cloud that I brought.”
“So I think that’s sort of become my motto. There are gonna be rainy days. There are gonna be cloudy days. I can’t stop the rain, but [I] have the strength to protect [myself] and others from it. That’s sort of my worldview. Like I’m not a purely optimistic person. I don’t have an ideal, naive view of the world. I can be extremely realistic, but at the same time, I have the strength and the heart to shield myself or shield others from it. That’s who I try to be.”
“I now have the experience to console people better”
The pandemic has impacted daily life in more ways than one, but it has probably made the biggest impact on mental health. In South Korea, it’s a topic that’s not so often addressed, or more often than not merely swept under the carpet; though in recent years, K-pop artists like Day6, Kang Daniel and Sunmi have brought it to the surface by sharing their own struggles.
“There’s definitely progress being made, where people are outright saying it in public. This wasn’t the case when I was growing up, or even when I was growing up within this industry,” Tablo points out, adding that although a lot of Epik High’s early songs were about depression and other topics related to mental health, they “flew over people’s heads”.
“They’re like, ‘What is this guy talking about? How is he sad?’ or ‘How is he depressed when he’s like, number one on the charts?’ As if they’re mutually exclusive, right? But now, the fact that even people who appear to be successful and happy are opening up about how they feel inside, and how [what people perceive] doesn’t accurately mirror what they [are actually] feeling, I think that’s a big step.”
Do you feel like there have been enough conversations about mental health over the past year?
Tablo: (pause) “I don’t know what would qualify as ‘enough’. Because mental health is such a private matter, and it affects different people in wildly different ways.
“I have a lot of younger celebrities reaching out to me sometimes to get advice, because they know that I went through something very public and something very big. So, I think my name comes up in their mind and then they find the courage to call me. When [that happens], I try to do everything possible to help them. I also encourage them to see a professional. I’m glad that people are trying to find help, and that… if there’s any silver lining to what I’d gone through publicly – because honestly, there was nothing good about it – it’s that I now have the experience to console people better.”
As a mental health advocate yourself, what more do you think needs to be done, specifically for those in the entertainment scene?
Tablo: “It’s a difficult thing to find a solution for, but I think it’s important for people to do what they do best, to speak through what they do best. Musicians should speak through music, artists through their paintings, through dance, through whatever medium that they’ve been blessed with, and speak about their emotions.
“I know for a fact that [artists like] BTS are very open in their lyrics about how they feel inside, and that’s connected with, obviously, tons of people across the globe. That’s important. You know they’re doing [it] through what they do best. [And then, from there], I think conversations will happen. Even if conversations don’t happen, there will be people listening or watching, feeling like they’re not alone, and that’s a very important thing. Like I’ve gone through long periods where I felt like I was completely alone. And it’s important that you find some way to not feel alone.”
“It’s an amazing feeling to have impacted someone’s life positively”
Every artist has their origins and their influences. For BTS, arguably the biggest K-pop group in the world, members RM and Suga previously cited Epik High as one of their influences. Tablo himself recently spoke about this on the SBS radio programme Cultwo Show, of how both of them told the group that “they grew their dreams while listening to [Epik High’s 2005] song ‘Fly’”.
“When I wrote ‘Fly’, I didn’t create it knowing how many people it would [impact],” Tablo explains matter-of-factly. “I created that song, alone in a room with a laptop, trying to get our team out of a very difficult situation. We were struggling, we needed a song [that] gets into people’s ears and gets into people’s minds. And [the song] was like a ‘Hail Mary’. I needed to create this song for me to ‘fly’ out of my situation. I wrote it knowing that there are others out there feeling just like me, or others [who may be] feeling worse than me, and who need that push.”
How do you feel about having that influence on the younger generation of artists?
Tablo: (long pause) “I mean… it’s an amazing feeling when you know that you’ve [impacted] someone’s life [positively]. The fact that people, artists who have been [influenced and impacted] by us that have taken [on] wings to the point where they’re [impacting] the entire world. That is… an indescribable feeling.
“Because it’s crazy, right? When we were just starting out, there were artists that influenced us and made us want to become musicians. Then we became musicians, and we had a fairly big sphere of influence [through which] we could positively [impact] a certain number of people, and luckily, some of these people became artists. Not just BTS, but [also] other younger artists, indie musicians, idol groups that have cited us as inspirations.
“These people have created their own spheres, which are even bigger than ours and are [impacting] so many other people in a positive way – I mean, that’s just an amazing thing to [see] happen. And one day, somebody that [these artists] influence with their discography is going to be citing that, and on and on. And that’s awesome.”
“We are working on ‘Epik High Is Here Part Two’”
With the release of their latest studio album ‘Epik High Is Here 上, Part One’ earlier this year, the conversation naturally turns to the next instalment of the album, ‘Part Two’.
“We’ve completed about a good 70 to 80 per cent of the album, but it’s usually the last 10 to 20 per cent that I drive myself crazy over,” Tablo says wryly. “So there’s really no telling when it will be done. It is, at times, more introspective than ‘Part One’, and at times more aggressive. I’m trying to explore a lot in ‘Part Two’. That’s the difficulty.” ‘Rain Song’, he adds, also has a part to play in the lead-up to the upcoming album, adding how the track is“a step to get there”.
“We’ve never released a single before, believe it or not. Nearly two decades and we’ve never done that,” he muses, somewhat incredulously. “We troubled over it, but I’m glad I put it out because it helps me see where I’m at a little better and to figure out the next part. We may actually even drop a two, three song EP before it? I don’t know. Yeah, I get stressed out. (laughs) I’m trying to explore different ways to get my thoughts out before dropping a big album. But we are working on it.”
Epik High has collaborated with many artists on various albums over the years, and you’ve previously mentioned that you’re keen on working with Western stars like Mark Ronson, Billie Eilish and Bruno Mars. But, if you had to pick your ultimate collaborator, anyone in the present or from the past, who would it be and why?
Tablo: “Oh man. That would be… so like, past and present, right? (thinks) I would love to write a song with John Lennon. I’m not sure I’ll be able to pull my weight, but he may be like, ‘Dude, just sit over there and finish this.’ We’d probably fight a lot. But yeah, I think I would love to write a song with John Lennon. I mean, there are so many artists that I would love to just be on stage [with], like shaking a tambourine or something when Nirvana’s on stage…. there’s too many artists.”
You also had a fan moment when [Filipina singer and actress] Lea Salonga tweeted about Epik High recently.
Tablo: “I’m a huge, huge Disney music fan. Disney princess songs, specifically, really get me through difficult times. And Lea’s sung a lot of those songs, right? She was the voice of so many princesses so, like, it was crazy that she was listening to our music, and tweeting [about] us. I was like, just totally like a fanboy. But yeah, that was awesome.”
“I don’t know if I want to be remembered”
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Tablo pauses for a few seconds to consider the question. “I think I’ve answered this in a strange way [before],” he says, breaking the silence. “Every time I’m asked this, I answer in such a drastically different way. People are going to think that I’m just making stuff up, but it changes day to day.”
So, how would he like to be remembered at this present moment?
“Honestly, I don’t know if I want to be remembered,” he replies after much thought. “I would rather [have people remember] that I made [them] feel a certain way within themselves. Whether [it’s] solace or feeling like you can do anything, or just an emotion you’ve never felt before – I’d like to be able to give people that.”
“They can forget me, they can forget my songs, they can forget Epik High, they can forget where that feeling came from, but I would love it if they never forget that moment when they first felt it,” Tablo adds, echoing a classic saying by late poet Maya Angelou about how “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
“Every day that passes, every year that passes, I do get scared because I know that with time, it’s very possible that we could slowly fade away,” Tablo muses. “And everyone does, right? But the fact that I’ve apparently influenced other people who can carry on influencing other people, and on and on – that sort of gives me hope.”
Epik High’s new single ‘Rain Song’ is out now, with ‘Part Two’ of their ‘Epik High Is Here’ album expected to be released later this year.