K-pop rock band CNBlue talk about BTS, Covid-19, playing with no audience and working on their next album

CNBLUE at KCONTACT 4U in June 2021
PHOTO: CJ ENM

CNBlue have been making K-pop rock music since 2009, and after a series of ups and downs the band are happy they’re still able to move forward.

“There aren’t many idols that debuted at the same time as we did that are still around nowadays,” reflects lead singer and guitarist Jung Yong-hwa. “But the fact that we’ve shared our history with our fans, we’ve had our ups and downs with them, it makes us feel really happy. I feel one of the strengths of a band is to perform for others for a long time, and we’re happy about that.”

In June the trio performed for the first time since the release of their eighth EP, Re-Code, in October, at a virtual music event, KContact 4U.

Though they’ve performed at several live KCon events, this was their first time playing at a virtual KContact event. The three admit it’s hard without an audience, but rather than being disappointed by fans’ absence, they’re motivated to try even harder.

“Even if it’s not face to face, it’s still a good opportunity for fans to make good memories with us so we were happy to be part of it,” says Jung. “I tend to imagine a crowd in front of us while performing virtually. It’s a bit difficult, but I’ve got used to imagining the audience.”

Drummer Kang Min-hyuk agrees they’re able to handle it, but feels they have other challenges to overcome than those confronting many of their peers in K-pop.

“Honestly, it’s a bit hard as a band. Because even if idols who dance can look good, for us, it’s difficult without the audience. We have to work super hard to show our passion through the screen, since there’s no live feedback,” says Kang.

“But since we’re pros, we can pull it off,” says Jung with a laugh. “No problem.”

Throughout our interview there’s a sense of levity – the trio talk over one another, have side conversations, and make jokes when another is speaking.

CNBlue’s Jung Yong-hwa is happy the band is still together after 12 years. PHOTO: CJ ENM

The long-awaited performance last month came after several months without performing together publicly, and after a few years’ hiatus: prior to Re-Code, their last songs came out in 2017. Since then, the men have done their compulsory military service in South Korea, and the band’s former bassist and fourth member, Lee Jong-hyun, left the band, amid allegations of sexual impropriety , in 2019. The pandemic also had an effect.

“There were a lot of things we were unhappy about since the break was so long,” admits bassist Lee Jung-shin. “We haven’t been able to meet our fans face to face, but somehow the online culture became a thing and we’ve been able to meet people online so it’s good that we’ve had this change. We’re still waiting for the pandemic to end and there will be face-to face-concerts.”

“I now look back on things that were just ordinary and typical, they’ve become something precious,” adds Jung.

As they grow older together, they are thinking a lot about what they want CNBlue to sound like. Although they largely perform pop rock, they’ve also explored more electronic dance music in recent years.

“When we work on music, it really depends on what we feel in that moment,” says Jung. “If we want to do rock, we’ll do rock. Our recent Korean album [Re-Code] was more rock ballad and our Japanese single [Zoom] was more pop. Since we’re not a heavy metal band, we’ll probably not go that far into that style of rock, but just keep leaning into our style and feelings.”

CNBlue’s Kang Min-hyuk. PHOTO: CJ ENM

Kang equates his relationship with music and songwriting to one with a fellow human being. In the past, band members were eager to try to create a better synergy between themselves as artists and their careers. But nowadays they are less frenzied, and the relationship is relaxed and more confident.

“Right now we’re in the period of time where things have become a little slower, and we’re trying to figure out what we can do as our relationship develops. I think this will lead us to the next level,” Kang says.

The trio are clearly tuned into the trendiest acts: when Kang talks, Jung and Lee start dancing and singing Aespa’s Next Level , and, later on, Jung eagerly offers his thoughts on hitmakers BTS.

“One thing nobody’s asked us over our career is our thoughts on BTS ,” says Jung. “We love BTS, and have found them awesome since their earliest days. During their debut era, they were so humble and we thought it’d be weird if they didn’t get big. Now they’re so big.”

CNBlue’s Lee Jung-shin. PHOTO: CJ ENM

“They had a different gaze in their eyes than other artists,” says Lee.

“Honestly, we find their music, lyrics, and message to be really nice,” adds Jung. “Their continuous storytelling is really great, and their development is really apparent through their albums. We’ve met them at an award show before, and I asked them what they do on their days off. They said they still work on those days, which really stood out to me.”

Jung then gestures to the space around them, referring to their company, FNC Entertainment. “Also, of course, if we’re talking about aspiring rookies, we could also talk about the younger acts from own company too, like Cherry Bullet and P1Harmony .”

The three are currently working on a new album, and Jung hopes they release a new “masterpiece” soon.

“I want to make a comeback within this year with a good album, and hopefully the pandemic will end so we can have an offline concert,” says Lee.

CNBlue don’t plan on stopping any time soon, and declare that they have no regrets when it comes to their career.

“Over the years, CNBlue have shown various types of music and we’re still thinking about how we can continue developing in the future,” says Kang. “I look back at what we’ve achieved so far and consider what more we can do. I think that’s how Then, Now and Forever came out. I really hope people look forward to what we’re doing in the future.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.