By Tae Hong
A few hours before the start of The Korea Times’ Music Festival on May 3, a voice singing Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” rings off the walls of the empty staircase outside the singers’ dressing rooms inside the Hollywood Bowl.
Baro and San-deul, two members of B1A4, appear at the top of the stairs. The voice belongs to the latter, who is the main vocalist of the group.
“And when you smile — and when you smile — smile — smile — ” His falsetto stops when he spots me staring.
B1A4, which debuted in 2011, celebrated their third anniversary just last month. This — the Hollywood Bowl — is their first time ever visiting and performing in the U.S.
From sold-out solo concerts in Korea, Baro and Jin-young’s acting stints on “Reply 1994” and “She is Wow” to San-deul’s regular presence on “Immortal Songs 2,” the team has seen a rise — “fly,” as their motto would say — in the K-pop scene in the past year.
It’s also hard to ignore the excitement of their fans at Los Angeles International Airport just two days prior and harder still to forget that, as archaic a form of popularity measurement as it may be, B1A4’s official fan cafe ranks No. 6 — that’s a member count of more than 166,000 people — among boy bands in Korea, behind Infinite, Big Bang and Beast but above Super Junior, 2PM and Block B.
It’s a short walk to the band’s dressing room near the end of the hallway.
“L.A. is fun, isn’t it?” I say to San-deul, who has fallen into step next to me.
“So fun,” he says, cheery. “I didn’t think I would speak English this well here. I feel like I can communicate. How can I be communicating so well?”
B1A4’s dressing room is a small space crammed with a black leather couch, a coffee table, a few chairs and too many people.
I squeeze by Gong-chan and Jin-young as they gesture to a sloping space at the end of the couch.
CNU, who is in the midst of having his hair and makeup done, shifts to turn himself sideways. He’s not wearing his trademark glasses.
The five members — Jin-young, CNU, San-deul, Baro and Gong-chan — are known as many things by Korean fans, the most famous of them as countryside idols (because none of them hail from Seoul) and as paper idols because “B1” and “A4” are, literally, paper sizes.
“It’s so fascinating, how full of confidence I am in English,” San-deul continues.
“Say something in English,” I offer.
His pause is as short as his actual English response: “Sorry.”
“I’m so very sorry,” Jin-young apologizes.
Baro says he likes L.A. for its sunny sky.
“The sky,” he says. “It’s so high here. It feels open.”
He’s referring to the Seoul skyscape, which contrasts with L.A. in the same way looking up at the sky in Manhattan may bring in views of mostly high-rise buildings, windows and more buildings. The L.A. skyline is — well, the sky. It’s blue most days, as smog-plagued as it may look miles away, and trees and clouds dominate what is upward.
Jin-young, strawberry platinum hair sticking out beneath his black cap, is the leader of the group, but he’s also one of the few idols in the K-pop industry — two more who pop into mind are probably G-Dragon and Beast’s Yong Jun-hyung — who composes and writes his own music.
Jin-young’s self-produced tracks include most of the band’s title songs, among them “Baby I’m Sorry,” “Baby Good Night,” “Tried to Walk,” “What’s Going On?” and “Lonely.”
“I listen to a lot of music,” he says. “From both American and Korean artists. I originally liked the electronic genre a lot, but lately it’s been slower genres. I’ve been trying my best to listen to a variety of things.”
In 2013, his self-composed track, “What’s Going On?”, won the band their very first No. 1 win on a music program.
Now, when asked what he wants to see B1A4 doing in the future, he’s got a big goal.
“I’ve wanted to do this since a long time ago,” he says. “I want to do a world tour and connect with fans all over the world and perform for them.”
B1A4 have spent their two days in town so far filming with a TV crew straight from LAX and trekking around downtown, where one fan snapped a photo of members of the band holding plastic shopping bags from clearance-rack shop Ross.
The real question is: What do they really want to do while here in the U.S.?
“Mine’s simple,” Jin-young says. “I want to walk into a coffee shop here and order an Americano. Then I want to sit back and look at the atmosphere outside. I really want to try that,” he says.
Gong-chan, the group’s youngest member, has a similarly simple wish.
“I wanted to ride a bicycle on the beach, and we got to do that at Venice Beach,” he says. “It felt really good. Next time, I want to go swimming at the beach. I saw other people there and it looked so enjoyable.”
CNU stretches as he thinks.
“I want to go on a drive. I’ve always enjoyed driving around, and I want to feel L.A.’s nice weather,” he says.
Baro has a different idea.
“I want to enjoy a festival,” Baro says. “I want to personally go to a festival on the beach where they invite foreign artists to come and perform.”
And San-deul, too, wants to stay on the coast.
“I want to try surfing,” he says. “I’ve never done it before. I want to enjoy that feeling and atmosphere.”
But for now, they’re here for one thing — to perform for the audience and to stand on an American stage for the first time — and they say they’re thrilled.
“We’ve come to the U.S. for the first time since debut and we really wanted to meet everyone. We’re so excited,” Jin-young says. “Soon, we’ll be able to meet our fans on stage. That’s why we’re planning on making a lot of eye contact with our fans and enjoying ourselves without regrets. We’re not meeting them for the first time in a while — it’s the first time ever. We want to make a lot of good memories with them. We really wanted to see them.”
When the time comes for the band to go on stage, it’s a whirlwind of fan service within a storm of exhilarated fangirl screams.
Donned in black suits and wearing yellow ribbons — symbols of hope and unity in the wake of Sewol — B1A4 performs “What’s Going On?”, “Baby Good Night” and “Lonely.”
Many, many selfies with fans are taken. A couple of the members take bunny ears from the crowd. Jin-young accepts a giant drawing of himself from a fan.
The response by BANAs, the official name for the group’s fans, is explosive on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.
“I will never forget the precious moments I spent with B1A4,” one fan says on a fan account on her Tumblr. “And will be looking forward to their solo showcase or concert in the U.S.”
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