[INTERVIEW] KARD calls domestic popularity its 'biggest homework'

Four-member K-pop band KARD [DSP MEDIA]

Having both men and women members means both opportunities and obstacles for K-pop quartet KARD, but that doesn't mean that the band is making compromises — in fact, the members believe being a mixed-gender band is the reason it can talk about sexuality like no other in K-pop.

"What we do as KARD can only be done because it's us, because we are a mixed-gender group," member Jiwoo said in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Thursday, ahead of the release of the band's sixth EP "ICKY," that comes out today at 6 p.m.

KARD is a four-member band that debuted in 2017 with two men, J.Seph and BM, and two women members, Somin and Jiwoo.

"ICKY" is the quartet's first album since its last EP "Re:" released last June. The album has nine tracks with the title track followed by new songs, including "Fxxk you," "Been That Boy" and "Cake," as well as Tropical-Latin electronic dance music (EDM) number "Without You" that was released as a digital single last month. A remix of "Without You" by world-renowned musician DJ Aoki is also to be included.

The title of "ICKY" is a play-on-word for both the Korean word ikki, which means moss and the English expression used to describe something unpleasant. While both words carry negative connotations, KARD says it's intended to sound, well, "ICKY."

Like how young English speakers refer to something cool as being "nasty" or "sick," Korean people also use the verb jjeonda, which means to soak or pickle in liquid, as a compliment. KARD picked up on this commonality to describe the "sticky" sexual tension between men and women by using their gender mix as the weapon.

Four-member K-pop band KARD [DSP MEDIA]

"Our song is quite sexy, but not too much so that it becomes provocative," J.Seph said. "That's why we used the word 'icky' so that we give the context another word."

The lyrics are full of innuendos that may surprise mature listeners, but the lyrics were softened down for the women members' parts in consideration of Korea's conservative culture, according to members. Still, a changing world is allowing them to talk more freely about sexuality and having both men and women members is the best constitution to do so, the band said.

"Our songs make you feel like you're listening to a man and a woman talking to each other, like they're in a conversation," BM said.

"We believe this is our weapon," Somin said. "As a mixed-gender group, we can talk about the love between men and women like no one else. We can make it beautiful and accompany it with great performance, vocals and rap. We believe it's something that listeners of all countries can relate to."

Having debuted with the Latin-pop-inspired EDM track "Hola Hola" (2017), KARD has been pushing for similar sounds in its music, making it more popular overseas than in Korea.

The band has held multiple performances in the United States, Mexico, Chile, Columbia, Argentina, Brazil and others. The "Hola Hola" EP peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard World Albums chart in 2017, and its second EP "You & Me" peaked at No. 4 the same year.

But it's a different story in Korea, where KARD's name is usually mentioned by experts as a unique case of a mixed-gender group seeing success in a market oversaturated by single-gender bands, but the group's lesser-common music style and particular makeup has been keeping the band's music on the lower end of the Korean music charts.

KARD described its quest to expand its fandom in Korea as "the biggest homework" in an interview with a Korean press in 2020.

Four-member K-pop band KARD [DSP MEDIA]

"And we're still working on our homework," J.Seph said. "I don't think the workload has gotten smaller because we can't just overlook the domestic market. We've thought very hard about how we could make it work, but it's not easy. At the same time, we're grateful to be able to think about this because it means we're receiving so much love from overseas."

While having both genders in the team gives depth and versatility to the band's music, members are aware that it does make it difficult for fans to completely immerse into the band, especially in K-pop.

"Liking an artist takes place in many forms, which are often similar to affections you would have toward a lover," J.Seph said. "But with KARD, it can feel like you're always seeing your boyfriend with a really close woman friend or vice versa. It can bother some people, and I think it's part of the reason our fandom is not growing much."

Somin added, "Our songs are also difficult to sing along to. There's Jiwoo and me singing melodic lines and then suddenly powerful rap lines, and it's not something you can sing along in a karaoke."

The only way to overcome this is through good music and performance — to become a long-running mixed-gender pop group like the Korean trio Urban Zakapa. All members renewed their contracts with DSP Media last year because even though their "homework" seemed difficult, no one wanted to give up.

Four-member K-pop band KARD [DSP MEDIA]

"It wasn't a matter of whether or not we'll renew our contract and continue as KARD. It was a matter of how we'll negotiate our terms because we'll continue anyway," BM said, adding, jokingly, he is "very satisfied" with the results.

"Right now, our goal is to win first place at a television music show," BM said. "Just imagining it brings me to tears."

"We wish that our songs are heard so much in the streets that our friends and family don't have to tell us that they've heard our song," Jiwoo added.

All the hardships aside, the members said that being a part of KARD has been the best experience anyone could hope for.

"Our profession is about how much attention we get from the public, and the size of that attention determines the size of your success," BM said. "But along the way of trying to win people's attention, there are so many things that you have to hold off from. You have to endure a lot. But I think we did a good job, and that's the best thing I could have done."

"I just want a little more, a little more until we become No. 1."