Say Sue Me’s Soft-Hearted Surf Rock – AdHoc

Say Sue Me’s Soft-Hearted Surf Rock

Nobody in this South Korean rock band actually rides waves, but you wouldn’t know that from hearing their music.

This article originally appeared in print in AdHoc 29.

I recently received a sage piece of advice from an astrology app: “Let people come back to you.” But on “Good People,” a recent single from South Korean indie rock band Say Sue Me, frontwoman Sumi Choi is feeling disconnected not from other people, but herself. 

“I’ll do my best to get me back when I get home and in my bed / where I belong,” she sings. Somehow she makes this existential reckoning sound breezy, even fun. Her vocals are soft and buoyant, gliding over reverb-soaked guitar riffs and head-banging hooks. The song rolls and kicks and tumbles forward with a beachy pizzazz, focused yet understated.

It’s not hard to see why she might be missing the band’s hometown of Busan, a South Korean port city known for its beaches and mountains. Since releasing their acclaimed sophomore album, 2018’s Where We Were Together, the band—which currently includes Byungkyu Kim on lead guitar, Jaeyoung Ha on bass, and Sungwan Lim supporting on drums—has been on the road pretty much non-stop, making fans across the world dance with its dreamy take on ’60s surf rock.

“We’ve been around the world for two years with our second album, and the sentiments behind ‘Good People’ come from that experience,” Sumi told AdHoc via email. “I’m somehow changed after these long trips.” Their music shares this feeling of wistfulness: On “Funny and Cute,” off Where We Were Together, Sumi longs for Summer, as she often does: “Wish our Summer could be longer / Wish this Summer could be a little more.” She states her fears with the same nonchalance she reserves for her desires: “I’m afraid of making new memories without you.” 

But Say Sue Me can be just as emotionally exacting sans vocals, on instrumental tracks. On “Spy and Motorbike!” off their 2017 self-titled debut, their slinking surf guitar and ragged basslines slowly build to something of a reckoning, ending with a squeal of distortion that feels like an exhale.

Sumi spoke to AdHoc over email about life in Busan, being an indie rock musician in South Korea, and drawing inspiration from the sea. Catch Say Sue Me at Baby’s All Right on December 6.

AdHoc: Tell us about your hometown, Busan. How has it influenced your music? 

Sumi: Busan is rough and beautiful. It is a city where many young people leave. Every place you look, you see the sea and the mountains. Those who live close to the sea do not express their feelings easily. They appear to be strong, but they have soft hearts. We are also part of this place that is not vastly different to other places even far away, and I think we see [that] in our music as well.

What music did you grow up listening to?

Metallica and Megadeth were the beginning, as it was for many other rock kids. Naturally, we progressed to listening to Radiohead. Then we started listening to American indie rock music like Yo La Tengo, Pavement, and Seam, who became our idols.

The instrumental song “Fight the Shark,” from your 2017 self-titled record, calls to mind Dick Dale’s early surf guitar work, but also more contemporary takes on the genre like Guantanamo Baywatch. What are some of your biggest surf rock influences?  

Actually, we’re not really that knowledgeable about surf rock music, and we don’t know how to surf. But as we live near the beach, it seems to have affected us. The sound reminds us of the waves, and we always miss them. Surf music feels very cool–[its] reverb-filled guitar sound can excite anyone. 

How would you describe the underground rock scene in Busan? What are some differences between being an indie rock musician in South Korea and being one in the United States? 

The rock scene in Busan is simple and small, but cool. Both musicians and the audiences are easygoing. [The] focus has always been on Seoul, so we keep going our own way and supporting each other. I’m not sure about the difference between South Korea and the US, as we haven’t been on a proper US tour yet, and we’re still in Busan. It is amazing and surprising to us that there are people who listen to our music from such distance.

You received quite a few nominations at the 2019 Korean Music Awards. How did it feel to win Best Modern Album for Where We Were Together and Best Modern Rock Song for “Old Town”? Were you surprised?

It was really amazing. Good music is constantly coming out in the world. We’ve done our best, but so have many other musicians. So we are really grateful to receive [these] awards.

Tell us about your recent singles, “Your Book” and “Good People.” What are those songs about? 

The idea behind “Your Book” is that everyone has their own book that tells their own story. Some people seem to have hidden it and kept it only to themselves. Stories pile up every day, and sometimes they become a heavy burden to handle. We can lighten up by reading and sharing these stories, and we think that can allow us to live well together.

We’ve been around the world for two years with our second album, and the sentiments behind “Good People” come from that experience. I’m somehow changed after these long trips. As I get older, I feel new every day when I travel, but I don’t know if it’s good or bad. When I go home, I try to return to [the] original me, so that people won’t be surprised by my changes. “I just want you to spend time with good people while I’m away.” This is the message we started with when we began working on the song.

What’s next for you? 

We will play a few festivals in Asia, and then go on our first North American tour in December. We’re nervous, but excited. And we want to make a new album. It’s time to start thinking [about it].

Lastly, what would you be doing if you weren’t a musician? 

I think I would be a normal office worker who does open mic in a local pub sometimes.