'It's All Out of Love': An Interview with Samuel Seo
At this point it’s no secret that Samuel Seo isn’t afraid to speak to his truth. As a musician who’s somewhat positioned himself outside the “mainstream” music industry’s periphery, he’s given himself space to be openly critical of the way things are done within it. Never malicious, he is, however, very vocal about what he perceives as some of the aspects of South Korea’s music scene that aren’t exactly great for certain genres (specifically R&B and soul). In this latest chat, he goes into greater detail while speaking about what he plans to do about it. He never holds back, and the world will either love him or hate him for it.
As ever, Seo holds himself with the ease of someone completely comfortable in his skin. Wearing signature all-black, hair falling into his face, his greeting is warm and excited. He’s just celebrated his 30th birthday with some of his work colleagues, taking out a party horn and giving it an enthusiastic blow. “I totally forgot today was my birthday,” he says with a hearty laugh. His joviality is contagious. While deadly serious about his music, he’s just a guy who likes to have fun with what he does, no matter what that is.
Lately he’s been having the time of his life collecting vintage outboards from the ’70s and ’80s. “I had an opportunity to talk to this engineer from Los Angeles who claims that he worked back in the ’70s at a jazz recording studio or something like that,” he says. “He first gave me the idea of, ‘Why don’t you apply this kind of stuff to your music so it has more like a vintage vibe to it?’ So that’s when I first felt really interested about outboard gears rather than just sticking to the plugins or the program.” This set him and longtime keyboardist AHMN on a path of really deep diving into the mechanics of sound. How the outboards, tapes, even wires influence what kind of sound he can get. “We bought like 10 different cassette tape recorders and basically dissected them into pieces to find out how they work. After we understood the process inside the material, we started collecting all those vintage gears, from tape recorders to reel-to-reel recorders to all sorts of different outboard gears. It’s rather better to use an outboard gear than just use the program itself,” he proclaims. “It doesn’t sound as authentic as it is.”
This latest obsession with all things pre-DAW extends to recording equipment from the dawn of recorded music. “I’m studying the history of recording nowadays,” he reveals. “I’m starting literally from scratch, from like the mid-1800s. Back when they started recording with a wax cylinder. I ordered one from the States, actually,” he says, brightness filling his tone. “It’s on its way. I can try it out to see what it was like back in the days to record on this small horn and carve it into a wax cylinder. I’d really liked to witness how it sounds in real life. So I thought it might be a great idea to go back in time, study the basics and then start from there. That’s when you can truly call yourself an analog guy, right?” In fact, mid-conversation, someone hands him an APEX reel-to-reel tape.“With the delivery system nowadays it’s taking forever just to get this one single tape.” Whatever frustration there is gets smothered by his enthusiasm. Of course, if you’d waited for over a month to get something you desperately wanted, any angst falls from the wayside in lieu of actually holding it in your hands.
Those who’ve had the opportunity to catch him on the occasional Instalive knows he’s taken a keen interest in music from the 1920s and ’30s. He mentions the usual suspects: Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson. He then moves into more contemporary heroes of the jazz era, specifically Roy Hargrove. “I [started] listening to that kind of music just because I wanted to learn from how it was back in the days and how it was recorded then,” he admits. “I’m on the phase right now, around the 1940s to ’50s when they just started recording multitrack, eight tracks still with wax cylinders and magnetic cassette tapes. I’m studying that sound nowadays.”
Admittedly, much of what Seo does is in large part due to his greatest musical influence, D’Angelo. He’s leaned into this preoccupation with the history of Black music as a sort of homage to the man who completely transformed his little skater boy, metalhead heart into a fiend for soul music. “He got most of his influence from way back, you know, like Jimi Hendrix and those guys. And those guys from back in the day were so used to recording with tape machines. So I thought, ‘Okay, that’s where I have to go.’”
Unsurprisingly, in his quest to unravel music’s origins in order to find further depth in his own, he’s gotten pushback from some of his contemporaries. Producers who, knowing the value of their equipment, still devalue Seo’s pursuit of a more “authentic,” or less digitized, sound. “I started visiting probably every studio located in Seoul to ask for advice on what to buy or how to use this sort of gear,” he says. “I'll say 100% of the engineers from this country, they all said, ‘Don't even try such things. You're living in 2022. What's the point of bringing back all those vintage sounds? Who would even listen to that kind of stuff?’”
Never one to back down from his purpose, Seo responds, “Okay, then what's the point for you guys to buy all those vintage microphones like Neumann U87 Original, or Telefunken U47 Vintage, or Neumann U67? What's the point for you guys to buy those kinds of microphones and take the life away from [them]?” As mentioned many times before, Seo is a student of music. Not just someone who borrows what he likes and applies it for the “cool” factor. He knows his shit, and he doesn’t mind letting you know how much he truly knows. “The beauty of the microphones and the gears from back in the days lies in itself when it's when it's left unharmed. Most of the mix engineers nowadays record and still use those vintage gears, but [they] turned them all into a somewhat really modern pop-ish type of sound. So what's the point of doing that?” In true Samuel Seo fashion, he turns some of that bravado back on those who try to demean his mission. “If you guys were to use those great gears and make it sound like that, then just give it to me.”
Their response? “Sure, if you pay us, we’ll give it to you.”
It’s a familiar tune he sings. Since at least 2018 he’s been so intentional in his pursuit to really learn about music. Where it comes from, how it’s evolved. “There’s a reason why I'm not releasing music [as much] as I did back in the days,” he says. “Nowadays, I'm learning more about music.” As it is, perhaps his most prominent complaint about the current generation of “musicians” is their ignorance and disinterest in raising themselves out of their blissful blindness. “I’m starting to have this second thought about music,” he admits. “The music industry in South Korea is not as cool as it was back in the day. People never stopped mimicking or ripping off from what we grew up watching from other countries, not just in the States. It’s all mixed into this, for me, very ridiculous music industry here, which I’m not a huge fan of.
“Especially whenever I get to talk to the teenage rapper guys who just randomly come up to my shop and ask me random questions, and most of them just talk about how poor they are, how rich they want to be. Nothing related to music. That’s when I feel literally angry, somewhat.” The admission is surprising. It’s obvious this is a feeling borne from an ever-increasing frustration with what he sees as music culture devolving, or worse, staying stagnant. “I started questioning where they get all their inspirations from, and they come up with all of these Korean rappers who [are] really well known for what we call ‘flexing.’ I’m not a huge fan of that culture anymore.”
However, Seo is never one to point the finger without first taking a good look at himself. “I talk about this, honestly, before COVID I didn't spend enough time to think about these issues,” he admits. “But after personally having a lot more time to think about these kinds of issues and a lot more time for me to study more about music and stuff, I started to look back on myself as well, of how much of a shitty musician I was back in the days. How much better I have to become in the future, and how much respect I have to pay in the future to the past musicians. But I don't see a lot of that movement happening in this country that we're living in right now.”
That being said, one thing Samuel Seo is going to do is channel his frustration into something that works for him. “Whenever I listen to new mainstream drops from South Korea, I’m like, ‘Okay, this is headed in the wrong direction, for sure.’ But on the other hand, I also think, ‘Have I stopped being trendy?’ My brain is trying to make me think in more of an old-fashioned way, rather than sticking to following the trends. That’s actually the main reason why I decided to found this new Korean K-pop production team called Studio OPC.” His full laugh is back, as if he’s cracked the code and discovered how to continue being creative while sating the beast known as the music industry.
“We just do pretty much whatever the record label wants for us to write. From the typical K-pop stuff, tracks to melody lines to lyrics, but every time I work on it, I try to be as trendy as possible.” Though he does admit that his conscience niggles at his sense of propriety, at the end of the day, he wants to find a way to set things right in this medium he loves so much. “I’m trying to somewhat turn it into a better organization, hopefully in the future. Just for the kids to learn that there are many different other ways to become a musician than just being an ‘idol.’”
This is a common criticism of those who dive deeper into music than what music charts and social media apps tell us is trending. It’s not rocket science. The number of “fans” (or “followers”) equates to musical success. However, success, as anyone will tell you, is subjective and certainly is no indication of musical quality or relevance. Most definitely doesn’t show any sign of respect for the craft or those who’ve paved the way for younger generations of creatives.
Seo’s dissatisfaction with music’s trajectory isn’t unique. Many musicians express the same disappointment. (Tale as old as time, they say.) However, Seo is nothing if not generous. He’s admitted to having a hard time saying no to those who want to work with him. (Though he’s lately learned that “no” is a complete sentence.) He wants the artists coming up behind him to succeed. He wants to see South Korea come into an era of musical blooming. “When I talk about the Korean music industry, it’s all out of love,” he says. And his words are earnest, like the words of a mentor who desperately wants his charge to understand where his heart is. “I just hope that it heads to a better way than it’s headed right now.”
This is the nature of the man. Who he is at his core. There’s never any malice in what he says. He’s simply a musician who loves music. Yes, he loves his country, but his soul belongs to the craft. The consummate student, Seo has scoured South Korea and the internet for relics of bygone eras for the singular purpose of getting to the root of it all. Finding the core of this thing that’s got such a hold on him, and truly becoming the artist he wants to be.
In one of his recent YouTube videos, he takes viewers on a journey through how he’s discovered some of his favorite music. (His current obsession, Illa J, less renowned but no less influential than his brother J Dilla.) Through a lot of backtracking, he breaks down music to its finest particles. Without the audience really cluing into what he’s doing, he’s giving everyone who comes by his channel both a history lesson and an inside look at the creative machinations of what it is to be an artist.
He references Russell Elevado in the video, and his name comes up a couple times in the conversation. “Actually, there’s one thing that I’m trying out nowadays,” he begins. “Since I’m a musician from South Korea, the original plan for me was to buy every gear that Russell Elevado owns.” While he admits to having aspirations of discovering the “thing” that makes Elevado’s sound so perfect, he begrudgingly has to concede that isn’t his path. “What’s the point of creating the same sound that he did back in the days using the same gears?” he says “That’s not me. That’s well, a rip-off version of Russell Elevado. Why don’t I switch lanes and be more Korean and start digging into the outboard scene from back in the days that was manufactured in our country.”
So where does that leave us? At the end of the day, Samuel Seo is going to do what Samuel Seo does: study the greats and try to become greater. Though his humility stops him from really putting it in those terms, that is his modus operandi. The catalyst for his constant and seemingly never-ending evolution as an artist. At the end of the day it’s about the music. Always music. And Seo is nothing if not confident in his abilities to deliver some of the best. “The fourth studio album,” he says, a smirk and his customary excitement dripping through the words, “it’s gonna be on another level, for sure. It’s gonna be different, and it’s gonna be like a new starting point for me personally as a musician.” He admits he still has a while to go until he feels satisfied enough to release it. But he declares, with his entire chest, “It’s probably gonna be the best R&B album ever released in South Korea. I can guarantee you that for sure. High-fidelity Korean soul music made by a Korean dude.”
There’s that bravado, that unshakeable belief in what he’s doing and conviction that he knows he can deliver. You know what? At this point it would be folly to doubt him.