By Taylor Glasby
The first time I met the 12 members of The Boyz — Sangyeon, Sunwoo, Juyeon, Kevin, Hwall, Jacob, Q, New, Eric, Haknyeon, Younghoon, and Hyunjae — it was a few days after the release of their second EP Start Up and its exuberant single "Giddy Up." It was merely an off-the-cuff hangout in Seoul last April, but the group’s English speakers (Canadians Jacob and Kevin, and Angeleno Eric) made themselves comfortable. We talked about tattoos and horses, and Kevin grinned, “This is the first English conversation we’ve had in months!”
Fifteen months later, The Boyz are gazing down from a skyscraper at bustling New York streets. It's the Monday after their electrifying KCON NY set — which included a performance of Billie Eilish's newly minted Billboard No. 1, "Bad Guy" — and over the next few days they'll be shooting the photography and a teleportation-meets-Alice in Wonderland music video for their new album DreamLike and its lead single "D.D.D."
Since our first chat, the group has taken home nine rookie trophies at Asian music awards, completed their first tour, and scored their first win on The Show (one of South Korea’s weekly televised chart shows) with the ardent, sparkling “Bloom Bloom.” Several members shed tears, including 21-year-old vocalist Kevin, who called it “a very special moment.” Younghoon, 22, grins sheepishly while recalling how much he wept: “It still feels unreal. All the effort we put in and the end result was this win. All the memories up until that point started going through my head and the tears wouldn’t stop.”
The material differences a little over a year makes are easily spotted: the colored hair and more angular cheeks and jaws. But that which is intangible feels just as present; the tightly wound energy so many rookies possess — their drive to impress and be remembered — has eased into a more natural confidence that fills the room. “Last year we were lucky enough to have won a lot of different awards, and even though we’re still a new group, we’re past just being a new group,” says 19-year-old rapper Sunwoo, who is fearlessly but casually direct. “Something that makes us different is we’ve been keeping a very steady pace, one that works well for us, and because of this I feel like we don’t have limitations.”
The Boyz have been called “monster rookies” on home turf, but internationally, the group’s path has been more of a slow burn, albeit one stamped with earworm releases and breathing space for their personalities to, well, bloom of their own accord. There’s no rush to be biggest, just the pursuit of being the best they can be. Here in this air-conditioned boardroom, Eric (a rapper and the youngest at 18) doesn’t know that in a month he’ll go viral within the K-pop community for chasing, then being chased by, a remote-controlled camera at an event in front of over 200 of his peers. Right now, in his permanently husky voice, he’s relaying how far he’s come since their December 2017 debut.
“I’d be lying if I said being an idol is filled with joy 100 percent. There’s tough times and a lot of stress,” Eric explains. “But being able to do something you love and knowing that you’re loved, that’s what’s great about being an idol. Each day I have to become a better person, to give my energy to my fans and if I could be their happiness — and I’m sure I am just a little bit — but if I could continue that… .” Twenty-one-year old vocalist Juyeon concurs: “I’ve never had much passion about anything but for me to find something that I am so passionate about, to enjoy it and have fun with it, that’s what’s grown me as a person.”
The Boyz’s concept is simple and singular: boy. Yet that encapsulates his energy and youthfulness and all that comes with it, from his first crush to his first heartbreak. “I like to think that [each record] grounds us back to ‘boy,’” elaborates 22-year-old vocalist Jacob. “Just like how there’s different kinds of boys around the world — cute, handsome, charming — we also like to do different styles of music while keeping that image.”
They weren’t an unknown entity when they debuted, and several members gained earlier exposure through talent survival shows: Sunwoo on High School Rapper; Kevin on K-pop Star 6; and rapper Haknyeon, 20, on Produce 101. Eric points at Sunwoo being the most performance-ready of them when the time came to debut. “He’s one of the members that didn’t practice for long as a trainee but he’s so good at rapping, singing, and dancing, and talking, too. He’s a born entertainer.”
Other members faced rockier journeys, such as 20-year-old vocalist Q, who shakes his candy pink hair as he remembers realizing “becoming an idol was much harder than I thought. I felt like I needed to be better at everything. But I was able to overcome that with having a really positive mindset, it helped a lot when I need to be better at dancing or singing.”
“One of the reasons we can overcome these obstacles is because the group will come together as one to help each other,” offers Juyeon. Eric nods: “Since the day we became trainees, we had to stay away from our families and, for some of us, they live overseas so we couldn’t see them as much as other members saw theirs. But there was a strength that helped us — like, when I couldn’t see my family, Juyeon took me to his on a day off and that was really nice.”
Having grown up in Canada, it took Kevin “quite a while” to adjust to South Korea’s culture and feel comfortable using the language. But take one look at his pre-debut videos on YouTube — song covers with friends or school band, and so obviously in love with performing — and it’s not hard to see how or why he’s standing on a world stage as a K-pop idol. He laughs. “The whole experience has taught me to be cool with things and not take everything too seriously.”
At the other end of the spectrum is the soft-spoken Jacob, whose life could have been very different than it is now. “When I first came to [training], I didn’t know how to dance. I was probably the worst,” he admits. “If I wasn’t good at something, I would just give up, and after two months I had a choice to keep going or not. I was really leaning towards going back to Canada ‘cause I was like, ‘This isn’t for me.’ Back then I never opened up to people so the only person who knew was my mother. She gave me the push to keep going. I decided to give it another go and, with the members’ encouragement, I overcame myself and I’m grateful to them.”
It’s not uncommon for K-pop groups to adopt one lane for their singles while genre-hopping on the deep cuts. A preponderance of elaborate EDM layers connects The Boyz’s entire discography, but their modus operandi for lead singles has been not to have one; they spiral through sugary lashings of pop with “Giddy Up,” skip across to electro-funk for “Right Here,” and plunge into murky trop on “No Air.”
“We’ve been exploring quite a bit,” Kevin acknowledges. “D.D.D” is somewhere in the middle. It has the moombahton bass which gives it a wild energy. The concept is that we’re maturing and opening our eyes to the new world, and learning to enjoy every moment because we’re never going to get them back.”
Those moments are, quite clearly, precious to all of The Boyz, and they try to stash them safely. Sunwoo uploads things he’s “felt and seen” to their fancafe, and 21-year-old vocalist Hyunjae admits he was never the type “to take pictures or write but at one point I was like, ‘Maybe I should memorize everything’. Obviously, I wasn’t able to do that,” he smiles. “These days I’m taking photos and writing down what’s going on inside me because I want to remember more of my life.”
“We’re lucky enough to have a job where every monumental event in our lives is all on camera,” Kevin says, nodding towards their staff, “so when we have children we can show them and say, ‘This is your dad!’” That job takes up the majority of their waking hours, but there's another creative life that encircles it.
Nineteen-year-old rapper, Hwall (who will sit out of promoting DreamLike due to his health) says in English that The Boyz have “so many dreams. We’re interested in fashion, music, acting, all different things... when you’re an idol, it’s [about being] multi-talented, and it can come together with another job.” For Kevin, a prolific and often surreal illustrator, it’s a steady path. For Hwall, however, who’s spending time “studying about fashion,” things aren’t quite as clear cut. “I want to really find Hwall,” he says haltingly. “I haven’t found him yet, I don’t know what my real identity is.”
It’s in times like these, when things get a little shadowy around the edges, that they rely on each other. They refer to themselves — in cheery unison — as "12 brothers," and they've been through triumphs and tragedies, including the passing of Hwall and Haknyeon's fathers in 2019 and 2016, respectively. “I feel like being the first ones there, even though there’s not much to say, that just being next to them is a big strength for them,” says Jacob, often called the “mom” of the group. “I know that when things are hard, everyone has different ways of coping. Some members like to be left alone. Some need comfort and words. But no matter what, we’re always beside them.”
With that many vibrant personalities in motion around frantic schedules, moods tighten and even sometimes threaten to snap. To counteract the pressure, The Boyz have what Kevin calls a “weather check” while Juyeon announces it as “the five-minute talk.”
“When the day is over, we meet and talk about it,” explains Kevin. “If there’s something we can improve on, we tell each other. We call it a 'five-minute talk' but it can be like, an hour. Sometimes we can’t address problems on the spot, so having that time gives us a good opportunity to vent.”
The man in charge of keeping this energy and emotion at a healthy bubbling point is the eldest, Sangyeon. The 22-year-old vocalist is commanding but with a gentle side, one that laughs at the idea of the leader's job being akin to herding kittens, and whose humor and impressions are frequent highlights during TV interviews. “Some members are good on their own and some members need a little bit of help,” Sangyeon smiles. “The way I approach each of them is very different. If someone has something on their mind then I listen and guide them in the right direction, but most members tend to take the right path on their own. These five-minute talks we have allow the members to guide each other, and I can see that they’ve changed and the team’s relationship has stayed intact.”
And with this they stride forward in synchronicity, sixth album in hand, their next set of goals in sight. “I want us to be able to grow more and receive more love from our international fans. And be healthy and try our best in promoting,” says Juyeon diligently. “Another [music show] win,” says Eric, his eyes on the prize.
Jacob wishes for an American tour (“Vancouver!” adds Kevin), but the main consensus is “charting on Billboard.” At what number? There’s a cacophony of shouted rankings, most of which seem to be above 100. Hyunjae is indignant: “You’re meant to dream big!” The Boyz glance around and there’s a moment’s silence. “Number one, number one,” they grumble comically, and with, of course, perfect timing.