Interview: Seoul on Sound, Images, and Vulnerability

Surprisingly minimalist yet ultimately affective, Seoul are a dream-pop band on the rise. Recently signed to Last Gang Records, the enigmatic Montreal-based trio are set to release their debut LP, I Become A Shade on June 9th. We had the chance to chat with Julian, Dexter, and Nigel—responding together as a unit—before the release.

“Everything we put out, whether it be words, songs, images, or videos, is an effort to share a perspective and a feeling.”

Your debut album has been picked up by Last Gang. Did you shop it around? Or did they come to you.

It was a bit of both, we might not go so far as to call it “flirting” per se, but there’s a certain amount of back and forth that could be said to vaguely resemble the codes and rituals of any courtship. You have to both be into it but never overwhelm each other. We met each other halfway, things have been good.

Where was I Become A Shade recorded, and how did you decide upon the title?

We recorded the majority of the record in Montreal, in a room with only a skylight in Outremont. Other small sections were recorded in a basement in Kingston, in a walk-in closet in Cote St. Luc, and in Boston.

The title came from a feeling we were trying to address through the songs – a feeling of becoming a sort of partial version of yourself as a reaction to situations we encounter living in a city, the post high school endeavor etc. Some of the songs address a feeling of liquefying or smearing into your surroundings, and how urban spaces can promote that process. We’re not intending on painting it as a necessarily bad thing either, as this process could feel alternately ecstatic or awful depending on the circumstances.

How do you go about translating your music into live performances?

We do our best to preserve the sound of the record generally, but we’ve taken computers out of our live set-up so some things end up fairly hard to recreate with the set-up of live instrumentation. We’ve done the computer thing before and it definitely made it possible to make things sound huge, but we were interested in having a more traditional ownership over the sound and direction of the set, so we’re using samples quite minimally and trying to translate the essence of the songs through a more live method. In our experience it increases the vulnerability of a live performance, putting you in more of a state to dig somewhere more profound with a crowd. When we’re in the studio, we are hardly ever considering how a song could be translated live, as it’s always seemed like a waste of a studio’s potential to limit yourself in that way.

You have a very well constructed – and enigmatic – aesthetic to your band. Was it a conscious decision to step away from the limelight and let listeners focus on the music, rather than the musicians playing?

When we started releasing songs from the record, we were also starting to create and collect images that felt related to the project that built on the world drawn out by the music. Because the internet is obviously our primary mode of presenting ourselves and is so visual, we came into the project intending to make Seoul matter visually just as it did musically. Maybe it’s just because we aren’t such intense photographic self-documenters that images of ourselves didn’t come to mind as the first and best option for visual representations of our music. We aren’t trying to step out of the limelight per se, I think we just genuinely felt that pairing the songs with images of ourselves felt almost ridiculous or something, especially compared to the evocativeness of other images, and considering how many options you have at your disposal to enrich the world of your songs. We’re not averse to having photos taken of us, and we certainly confront audiences in all our humanness when we get on stage in front of people who have listened to our music but have never seen us before – and we relish that juncture of getting to meet people and be real on stage and connect, it just seems like there can be a time for everything.

Was the description ‘Blue, Breathless, Gentle, Absolute’ something you decided to work with from the very beginning? Or did you attach the description to your project later on.

It came about around the release of “Stay With Us.” We had a notebook filled with one-word lists that we had compiled in an effort to come up with a band name, and sometimes just listing words that feel connected to the music instead of outright trying to find the right name can help. Those were four words that stood out and felt like a full description of our project. One of the first things that’s required of you when you start releasing content online as a band is a bio, and it can be an uncomfortable process trying to write in a way that’s self-aggrandizing. We were happy to have something that cut to the point and omitted the usual lists, awards, and achievements.


Why the name ‘Seoul’?

We have to always clear the air by first explaining that none of us are South Korean, or have even visited Seoul for that matter. It was a name that stood out in the aforementioned “notebook.” We wanted something that somehow referenced city life, which it obviously does, but the word “Seoul” heard in English has all these other great resonances that we responded to – how it can be heard as both “sole,” which evokes the loneliness of these urban environments, and “soul,” affirming the spirit of the individual in their amorphous surroundings.

How was Seoul formed?

Nigel and Julian were friends as kids and started making music when they were 12. Julian moved to Montreal and Nigel moved to Boston for University. Nigel met Dexter in Boston at school and the two of them started working on songs together. Nigel and Dex started to send demos of their songs to Julian in Montreal and we decided to try recording together. Dex and Nigel moved to Montreal for a year and we recorded our LP during that time. Then Dex and Nigel moved back to Boston to finish school for their final year. In the summer of 2013 we were all back in Montreal and started releasing songs under the name Seoul.

Have you always been drawn to the realm of ‘dream-pop?’

We have, and there are certain records of this style that mean so much to us, but it definitely isn’t a genre we hold above all others as listeners, and music generally tends to come out as an amalgam of everything you’ve been piqued by as a listener, so drawing lines from what we listen to, to what we end up writing can be rather circuitous and indirect. We definitely love music that emphasizes mood and an atmosphere, and also strive when we’re writing to focus our music into big rich moments that we feel bear “pop” feelings. We’ve always resonated strongly with music that pulls off “melancholy” and “bittersweet” while remaining sharp, meaningful, and integral. Dream pop is beautiful but we didn’t go into the writing of the album saying, “let’s make a dream-pop record,” and in a sense, I don’t think we totally have either.

How important are visuals to your music as a whole?

A lot of the visuals came after the music was already written, so in a sense they weren’t totally integral to the actual creation of the songs, but the addition of them definitely increased the scope of the music’s world, and its amazing to get into that process and try pairing the music with images and feel out what does and doesn’t work. Everything we put out, whether it be words, songs, images, or videos, is an effort to share a perspective and a feeling. It’s amazing to have so many outlets to fine tune your statements and elaborate on so many abstract feelings.

Will Montreal always be home base?

Hard to say. We love it here, but it seems best to not feel necessarily tied anywhere.

Does anything, or anyone specific inspire your sound?

We’ve been thinking more about the role ambient music played in the making of this record. We feel like citing it as an influence these days is both a banal statement but also profound, as ambient has become a ubiquitous, sought after, almost “resource” in the age of the internet. Most people are accomplishing their work via computers and look for music to “study” to or to help them “focus.” For us, ambient has played a huge role in dressing up the isolating space of laptop use with emotion and colour – to have it always simmering in the background as we do things lends a certain humanity to an otherwise cold space. This situation has made ambient enter our vocabulary as a medium to quickly express ourselves and describe emotions, and we’ve used it on this record and beyond.

Where do you see Seoul within the next 5, 10 years?

Trying to send our best selves into the world, no matter the configuration, medium, or moniker.

For more information about Seoul, check out their website.