Stray Kids On Growing Up, Taking More Creative Risks, And Dealing With Self-Doubt

In the year since they made their blistering debut, the K-pop group have become voices for their generation

Stray Kids are following their own path. And that reluctance to play by anyone else's rules is precisely what makes this group of teens and young adults stand out. They've been releasing some of the boldest tracks in K-pop since making their debut with the blistering "District 9" a year ago, a song that harnessed their teen angst into a dizzying mix of hip-hop, rock, and EDM and quickly established them as rookie group to watch.

It's their ability to channel that raw emotion into their music that has resonated with fans all over the world, many of whom are on the cusp of adulthood themselves. As such, the group's signature sound can't be contained in a single genre; it's more of a state of being — a deeply earnest one.

"Stray Kids music is music that's relatable and can help you out when you're having a hard time," leader Bang Chan tells MTV News over the phone from Seoul, where the group is preparing to embark on their first solo U.S. tour. Though, he's quick to add, "It's got a lot of energy, doesn't it?"

And nowhere is that empathy and energy more apparent than on their latest single, "Miroh." Inspired by the word miro, or "maze" in Korean, the boisterous track — produced by members Bang Chan, Han, and Changbin, otherwise known as 3racha — is a cacophony of sounds, rhythms, chants, and animal noises. The hook is massive, a perfect stadium-sized banger that shows off the group's grit and potential. "It’s not hard / in this rough jungle," Bang Chan sings. "It was me who ran into it / I'm okay."

"'Miroh' was a really big attempt," the 21-year-old singer and producer said. "It shows that as we're getting older we tend to take more risks and try out new experiences, challenge ourselves."

And as members Bang Chan, Woojin, Lee Know, Changbin, Hyunjin, Han, Felix, Seungmin, and I.N grow and mature, so does their music. Their previous I Am... series focused heavily on the theme of identity through the teenage perspective. Who am I? Who am I trying to be? And does everyone feel scared and aimless like I do sometimes? With their most recent release, Clé 1: Miroh, it's clear that these questions are still at the forefront of their minds — and they're facing them head-on, charging into adolescent uncertainty with newfound confidence and perspective that comes when you enter your twenties. And of course, a bit of bravado. Their song "Boxer" opens with a cheeky declaration: "Hello, I’m a young man who can fly anywhere."

Within that "long but short kind of period" since their debut, Stray Kids have released four EPs and one pre-debut mixtape, all of which have been primarily written and produced by the members themselves. While 3racha have shaped the majority of the group's discography, all nine members are credited writers and encouraged to contribute to the production.

"The fact that we make our own music is one of [our] biggest weapons because that way it's a bit more genuine," Bang Chan said. "It's the message that we form and want to send everyone."

"It's much easier to express ourselves and express how we feel to the fans," rapper, and fellow Aussie, Felix added. "It's way more honest as well," Bang Chan concluded. "It's really important to Stray Kids."

Getty Images

Stray Kids

Members from left to right: Bang Chan, Hyunjin, I.N, Han, Changbin, Seungmin, Felix, Lee Know, and Woojin

That creative ethos starts with Bang Chan, who put the group together when they were trainees under Korea's JYP Entertainment. (The Stray Kids logo is even written in his handwriting.) Fans were first introduced to the Australia-raised leader on the group's survival program, aptly titled Stray Kids. Over the course of 10 episodes, Stray Kids — then teenagers with big dreams  — underwent teamwork challenges and regular evaluations for the chance to debut together as a group. The series documented the nine individuals as they prepared their blustery pre-debut song "Hellevator," producing and practicing around the clock for a dream that was never very certain. In fact, members Felix and Lee Know were originally eliminated from the project but were ultimately brought back in the final episode, giving even more meaning to their common phrase "nine or none."

The group's nonstop pace didn't slow down after their debut, either. If anything, the desire to create and funnel their questions into their music got even stronger because of their fans (called STAY).

As such, they're always creating. And when they feel stuck, they resort to the kinds of distractions you might expect from a group of young men: fresh air, movies (Creed), and anime (One Piece) for Bang Chan; video games and EDM music for Felix, who added, "I've been listening to 'My Pace' a lot."

"I'm always on my laptop trying to make new stuff, whenever we have free time," Bang Chan said. "On the plane as well. I make a lot of music on the plane. I remember I worked on 'I Am You' on the plane to New York last year. And we did use a bit of it, so it was pretty good."

Of course, with that comes its own unique kind of pressure. "There's that feeling of, 'Will people like this music? Will our fans like this music? Will STAYs like this music?' Sometimes, that can get into our heads," he said. "Trying to satisfy everyone is going to be an eternal challenge." Trying to do so while keeping up with the furious pace Stray Kids set in their first year is also challenging.

JYP Entertainment

Stray Kids - Bang Chan and Felix

Bang Chan (left) and Felix (right)

So it makes sense that time (examining it, questioning it, running away from it) is a running theme throughout Miroh. Album closer "19" is a moody and personal song, written and produced by member Han, that finds him navigating that age between adolescence and adulthood. "Maze Of Memories" is a hip-hop track in which the cadence matches the various twists and turns one might encounter while chasing your dreams. It starts off slow and foreboding, then evolves into something darker and more sinister — a nightmarish soundscape — before ending with a confident refrain of "never give up." And then there's "Chronosaurus," an atmospheric song that associates time with something to be afraid of.

"While I was writing 'Chronosaurus' I did think a lot that time is something that has a lot of pressure attached to it. Even when you're taking a test there's always a time limit, or when you're working there's always a deadline," Bang Chan said.

"I would love to have a superpower that could control time because then I could do whatever I want," he added, laughing. "But time being something that no one can stop, because it's something that's always going to be with me anyway, you might as well get comfortable with it. Try to take some of the pressure off it."

This candid exploration is something that means a lot to their fans, many of whom are also navigating their own everyday struggles — running into their own mazes and up against deadlines. "We wanted to spread the message that you guys aren't the only ones," the leader told the passionate crowd of fans at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night (May 14), the first of two sold-out nights and the first stop of the U.S. leg of their Unveil world tour. The two-hour set traces the group's young discography, telling the story of Stray Kids from the beginning.

Earlier singles "Hellevator" and "District 9" are full of angst and aggression — teens who balked at societal pressures and followed their own rules — while the energetic "My Pace" is uplifting and anthemic, and b-side "Voices" exposes their deep-seated insecurities. "I Am You," a song written for their fans, packs an emotional punch ("You shined on me when I didn’t even know myself," Hyunjin raps) and "Get Cool" is a playful ode to living in the moment ("Doesn't matter if the world is a cold place 'cause I'm getting cooler," Bang Chan sings). By the end, it's clear: Their music is a mirror to their fans, reflecting their innermost thoughts and anxieties — and intertwining their stories in the process.

"At events where we get to meet up with our fans they talk to us about what they're feeling or what's on their minds," Bang Chan said. "Knowing that, we can tell that our fans are changing and getting older with us. It's really cool to experience that."

But it's not just the themes in their music that connect with fans; it's the members themselves. Despite the number of rappers in their arsenal and their powerful stage presence, Bang Chan jokingly insists: "We're a mess!" And anyone who's seen even one episode of their weekly web series or tuned into one of their live streams would probably agree. After all, teenage boys are still teenage boys, regardless of whether or not they're idols.

Take, for example, their main rapper, who spits bars at a breakneck speed. "Changbin-hyung is different on-stage," Felix said. "When people see him on stage, they think he's this dark rapper. But at the end of the day, when it's just us, he's a big brother that plays around a lot."

And then there's baby-faced Felix, whose deep voice and effervescent personality hardly seem like an obvious pairing at first but are essential to the group's sonic identity.

"I now know how to use my voice a bit more. As we record for new songs, I'm able to improve and learn from 3racha on how to record," he said, reflecting on the past year. "And not only that. Since being in the group, I'm learning more about myself as well and who I really am. Being with Stray Kids has made me feel more confident. It made me who I really am. I feel brave these days."

When asked about the biggest change he sees in himself since being part of Stray Kids, Bang Chan was quick to note that he still doesn't have any answers. "I have always been on a quest to find who I really am," he said, pausing. "Honestly, I don't think I've figured it out 100 percent yet."

"But I have learned a lot about how to be on stage and how to communicate with my members and STAYs," he added. "Even producing our music, every time I make a new song, I learn something new. And I'm still learning. I'm excited thinking about that now — there's so much more to learn."

This perspective — approaching life as a series of shared experiences, not obstacles — is what makes Stray Kids voices for their generation. By opening up, they're encouraging others to do the same, to forge their own paths and perhaps learn something new about themselves along the way.