By Taylor Glasby
ATEEZ have just played a sweaty showcase in Seoul for their second mini-album, Treasure EP.2: Zero To One, five new cuts of what already feels like their signature sound — pop-rap fused with orchestral brass and dance beats, ranging from trop-house to dubstep. Three months into their career, and the eight-member Korean boy group (consisting of Hong Joong, Min Gi, Woo Young, Yun Ho, San, Yeo Sang, Jong Ho, and Seong Hwa) are making waves: EP.2 bowed at No. 5 on the Billboard World Albums chart this week, and they recently announced their first U.S. tour.
Treasure EP.2: Zero To One is the follow-up to last October’s debut, Treasure EP.1: All To Zero, on which "Treasure," with its vast, cinematic chorus, flexed hard — husky-voiced rapper Min Gi predicted ATEEZ would "melt everything, we’re going to be all over the press in two years." With this and the lead single, the blustery "Pirate King," they accumulated over 7 million views. The new single, "Say My Name," which charismatic rapper and lyricist Hong Joong describes as a "country music style of EDM with trap sounds," garnered upwards of 1.4 million YouTube views in two days. In the saturated K-pop industry, this is indeed a very big deal for a rookie group from a small company.
The two rappers and six vocalists are aged between 18 and 20 and, like most K-pop groups, their laser-focused stage presence is the polar opposite of their robust, youthful off-stage nature. They exude ambition yet worry about each performance, and despite the anticipation for EP.2, Hong Joong, the group’s leader, downplays the strenuous run up to release. "We’ve been practicing hard to prepare," he tells MTV News. "We’re a rookie group who just debuted, we have to try our best."
ATEEZ kicked off 2019 with a single image on Twitter — a hunting horn adorned with a tattered flag bearing their logo — accompanied by a line of Morse code which translated as "say my name." The first concept photos saw them veiled by black face masks, wearing vigilante-esque wide-brimmed hats and black tailoring. They held walkie talkies and, oddly, a wand; it was at odds with the pale denim and white cotton of their debut videos, shot in the desert and riads of Morocco.
“It’s hard to explain the relationship between the two different Treasure [albums]. We hope people interpret it freely,” Hong Joong says cagily, then relents a split-second later. “I’ll give you a hint why there’s a wand in the promo: The concept of the album represents ATEEZ vs. ATEEZ. The black photo is about one identity that’s pressuring and controlling us.”
These bandit outfits were used in a performance video teaser for EP.2’s “HALA HALA,” whose lyrics call to break out and find success, and feature in "Say My Name" like alter-egos. If you look back to the trailer for EP.1’s “Intro: Long Journey,” ATEEZ wear variations of the black outfits as they question what treasures people seek — eternal life, fame, love. It becomes clear ATEEZ are creating their own map on which themes (success, youth), key words (treasure, light, darkness, dreams), and colours link and cross like magical ley lines.
In an extra twist, the video for "Say My Name" segues into the opening bars of "Treasure," positioning it as the latter’s precursor in terms of storytelling, and charting the group as they step onto the path of an artist, supported by their fans (known as ATINY, a mix of "ATEEZ" and "destiny"). They seem to allude to ATINY in "Say My Name" — "I believe in me the moment you called me" — but, interestingly, ATEEZ have ambiguous lyrics that could reference each other, fans, friends, or lovers at any point. Hong Joong points out that “one of the single’s meanings is when someone calls my name, we go forward towards the bright future. ATEEZ look for a treasure that’s hidden somewhere.”
For Hong Joong, his admiration of long-standing boy group Block B inspired him to reach out to their label, KQ, about joining the company as a trainee: "I sent my mixtape to KQ as I didn’t get a chance to have an audition. Luckily, one of them listened to it and contacted me!"
Having turned 20 last November, Hong Joong’s path has seen him sacrifice what many trainees give up: a normal life. "I started as a trainee producing music earlier than others, whereas my friends were studying at school," he explains. "Most people say the most memorable period in life is high school and spending a lot of time with friends. I just have a memory that I had to practice all the time rather than having fun. But I don’t have regrets. It was a valuable time."
He’s written many songs but says he’s "still learning," adding, "I talk to EDEN, who is my teacher and producer, all the time.” Hong Joong and Min Gi are credited on all but one of their songs as lyricists. “I write for my part,” says Min Gi. “For other parts, I get feedback from the producing team and Hong Joong. We make it all together.”
Prior to their debut, the members partook in two reality shows, Code Name ATEEZ and KQ Fellaz (their early moniker), and travelled to Los Angeles for training at renowned dance schools, including Millennium Studio. Yun Ho (who chooses himself as team motivator because of his unstoppable ambition) recalls that "it was an amazing experience. Our movements became more accurate, and we had a new confidence." The feline-looking San adds, "We thought it was a great chance for us to experience new things and have a strong base when it comes to dance. Since then, whenever we learn new choreography or techniques, we’re able to give it our own style."
Being followed by a bank of cameras, however, wasn’t without its pressures. "It was exciting and we were so curious," recalls Seong Hwa, "but we felt awkward, too. Some members were nervous about being on the show but people started to support us at the end, so we thought we have to put more effort into making good music for them."
ATEEZ have already made a splash with international fans — one only needs to look at the thousands of English comments beneath the videos and social posts — and the timing of their debut couldn’t be better with K-pop now at its highest-ever level of popularity outside of Asia. This advantage comes with its own issues, however; the stakes are higher, there’s an unstoppable flow of new groups, and established idol groups are more frequently releasing material.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for ATEEZ is that they buck the trend for groups formed through hugely successful survival shows, which give them a ready-made fanbase. ATEEZ are doggedly building theirs from scratch, and although more than equipped to rise through the K-pop ranks, Hong Joong is pragmatic about their future and potential for global success. "Senior groups have performed greatly overseas and we’d like to follow in their footsteps," he says. But first, he admits: "I just believe that we need to have our own story to tell fans through our music and performance."
They cite groundbreakers like G-Dragon, BTS, Zico, and Jay Park as influences. "They’re the artists I can learn a lot from [because] they’re trying their best to show new things to the audience," Woo Young, the group's moodmaker, explains. On stage, ATEEZ don’t look like a rookie group. It’s not just the polished moves and music that impart this but their remarkable self-assuredness and solid sense of identity. The nerves are all but invisible and the thrill of performing is evident.
Their visual (or, visually striking member), Yeo Sang, credits this dynamic to constant communication. "We chat with each other all the time," he says. "We set each Saturday to talk about something together, and share opinions about how we should change or improve. This process is very important to us."
Despite being together 24/7, the members have gotten used to one another's individual quirks. "Even when he sleeps, I’ve never seen someone like Seong Hwa," the youngest, Jong Ho, says. "We sleep in different rooms, but he heard the alarm from mine and came to turn it off."
"Our members are very understanding. We try to make each other comfortable, thus we don’t have any conflicts so far," adds Seong Hwa. He pauses. "Ah! Except for choosing food! Everyone wants a different menu all the time."