In the right key: The Hugh Keice Interview

Hugh Keice. Image by Kraig Kang
Hugh Keice. Image by Kraig Kang

I was not going to cover the topic of music in my blogging career, but somehow, someway Hugh Keice managed to change my mind after an evening I had spent at the Korean Cultural Centre. It was back in May and the event was an Artist Talk Party: Think in Indie Music. Hugh was talking on a panelist discussion with the subject revolving around indie music in Korea and the challenges facing artists today. I was initially struck by his speaking voice where the combination of all three accents, German, English and Korean gave his voice a unique tonal quality. Soon after he took to the stage and performed three songs. ‘J’ was the one that did not leave the musical memory of my consciousness, a song where the chorus is made of up the lines ‘I am looking for J’. Later after leaving the KCC, over and over it played to the backdrop of the tube where countless faces sat staring vacantly searching. Perhaps they were looking for ‘J’ too. I had to find out, just who or what is ‘J’. It was then I knew, I had to make contact with the singer songwriter Hugh Keice.

Hugh Keice performing at the Korean Cultural Centre UK in May 2014
Hugh Keice performing at the Korean Cultural Centre UK in May 2014

A few weeks later, I found myself on Skype with Hugh on the other end apologising because he was caught in crazy Seoul traffic and running behind our scheduled interview. He said he would call again when he reached his destination. Twenty minutes later, we are talking comfortably and laughing away like old friends. I start with the usual questions, his childhood and background etc. His upbringing was pretty laid back. He spent 5 years of it in Stuttgart. He can speak German, somewhat youthfully, as this was the age when he learnt it. He also speaks Japanese making that a total of four languages including Korean and English. Being an only child, he was a quiet one whilst growing up. He would have become either an artist or a webtoonist if it had not been for one musical gig that he attended at school. At this gig, they were playing all kinds of music and he was given a couple of CDs, belonging to Korn, (an American metal band) and Luna Sea, (a Japanese rock band) to listen to and thus his love of music was born. He began learning the guitar and before you knew it Hongdae and Igidae in Seoul was playing host to a fresh face artist, Hanwoo Kim beginning his gigging career at the tender age of 18.

Hugh Keice, image by Byung Su Yang
Hugh Keice, image by Byung Su Yang

You get the impression that Hugh is a very down to earth and appreciative guy and you would be right to stick to this. When he is not on stage singing, strumming guitar or writing his music,  you will find him at home, watching movies, reading books, playing video games and enjoying his favourite past time – sleep. He is currently listening to the Beatles, the Revolver album and his favourite film if he had to choose would be ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ He loves the work of the Coen Brothers, but more so the films where Michel Goundry and Charlie Kaufman have collaborated.  I ask him if there are any memories that he would like to erase, but after having watched the film, he does not think it is such a great idea. He loves all sorts of food ranging from pasta, steak to Korean jigae (stews) Chicken Stew (Samgyetang) and Oxtail dishes. He does not like to eat or cook by himself. Although if he was forced to, it would be in the form of cereal or ramyun. His biggest pet peeves are driving in Seoul and its traffic. He also immensely dislikes the rush hour in the underground be it Seoul or London.  If superpowers were being given away, he would love the power of teleportation to be able to avoid long hour flights despite enjoying the destination of travel.

It is tricky to place Hugh’s musical style and pigeon hole him to one particular genre. Looking at his full length album, Whale Song Omnibus, which was released in October last year, this is evident. It is his favourite of his four albums so far.* Described as a combination of Soul, Folk, Blues, Rock and Funk, his favourite song on the album is ‘Dancing in the Rain’.  Hugh takes me through these heart felt moments that inspired him to write the song. It was back when he was working in London, at a Korean restaurant in Tottenham Court Road. He was also giving six guitar lessons a week just to pay his rent. It was a really difficult time for him and his musical career was static and going nowhere. Despite this, he knew he just had to carry on. He had to keep dancing even when the rain was pouring down. Thus the song was born. The recording of the track is equally inspiring. It seemed the heat of the moment overtook them and they decided to turn the lights down in the studio and just improvise. What had originally meant to be a three minute track turned into a five minute track. You can tell he is very proud of this. One of the many pieces of good advice he has received over the years is not to make the same album again and again.  He was told to explore his creativity and be bold about what he really wanted to do. In the beginning he was almost hysterical that everything had to fit in the same formula like pop music and it almost ruined him. Now all his songs are recorded live and there is no formula. He just lets it flow. Listening to Dancing in the Rain, you can hear the sincerity in this. There is greater meaning in exploring creativity and improvising and Hugh finds beauty in imperfection.

 Image by Kraig Kang
Image by Kraig Kang

So how much of his personal life inspires him in his music? The answer – absolutely everything. It can range from the moodiness to the simple joy in his life. This is my cue to ask him about the song ‘J’ and the inspiration behind it and I seize the opportunity!  He tells me the melody for the track popped into his head whilst he was at boots buying Lemsip! Who knew medicine could be so inspirational? It was not until later he penned the lyrics. During the time he was reading the book by science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick ‘Do Androids dream of electric sheep’. The film ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) was primarily based on this book. So what is this book about? The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future. It focuses on a bounty hunter, Rick Deckard, ‘retiring’ a group of androids and John Isidore part of the subplot, but an important character as an individual who wants to save them. Though branded an untouchable by society, he is actually the most humane character in the book. Hugh fell in love with it and took the symbols and meaning from the book and incorporated them into the lyrics of the song. Is John Isidore the elusive ‘J’ to whom he is referring in the song? Unfortunately Hugh does not answer directly and leaves a mystery to this question. ‘J’ is a symbol of whomever you want it, him or her to be! The answer for each person seeking meaning will be different and that is what makes the unique beauty of the song.  This was the first time Hugh had fused another art form with his own to really interesting results.  Feeling somewhat disappointed but almost in awe that the answer to J’s identity lies within me, I move on to the more traditional questions of his musical influences. He cites a variety, John Mayer, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye. He is also a massive fan of D’angelo and was pretty chuffed when a fan at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival back in 2011, compared him to the singer of the hit song ‘Brown Sugar’. This was round about the time when he was just starting out. He was scheduled to play on stage four times in the week, Monday, Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday. The first time he took to the stage, there were only five people in the audience. When he had a moment free, he realised he needed to get the word out. On Wednesday he did a couple of hours of busking on the main streets and handed out handmade flyers that he made in his bedroom. When Saturday arrived, his hard worked had paid off and he had a sea of faces waiting to hear him play.  This gave him an amazing surge of confidence and he assumed that this fan who dubbed him similar to D’angelo was amongst the audience.
However, his favourite place to tour is London. He is always in awe and grateful for the support he receives from his fans. He remembers himself as the foreigner and outsider when he first started out. The signs were not looking so good and he was losing his confidence because no one was caring, but now the he cannot believe the amount of support he receives.  It is incredible and he appreciates it. He is also continually amazed at how people find him through social media and go out of their way to support him. 

Hugh Keice, Image by Byung Su Yang
Hugh Keice, Image by Byung Su Yang

We go on to his stage name, Hugh Keice and how it came about. He had wanted to keep the same initials and settled on the name Hugh. It had a deeper meaning of brightness of mind in Germany and since this reflected some of the years he spent there, he thought this was pretty cool. His second proved somewhat linguistically challenging. Deciding against the name ‘Hugh Kim’ due to the countless numbers of others with that name, he went with Keice. When first moving to London, he loved how the names of places such as ‘Leicester Sq’ and ‘Southwark’ varied greatly from spelling to their pronunciation and he wanted his last name to reflect this in some way. Although the downside to this day are people not really knowing how to pronounce it let alone spell it.

I ask Hugh about performing in Korean as I am conscious that it is something he does not do a lot of.  When I saw him at the KCC, out of the three songs he performed he sung one in Korean. It is very rare that he performs in his native language. He did it once before, in Edinburgh. However the reason for performing in Korean at the KCC was due to the audience and the surroundings. He said audience members at the KCC were bound to be interested in the culture so it seemed appropriate. Although music is still music and regardless of the language barrier, people can still connect with the sounds, however other times people can relate to the lyrics and find a deeper meaning. 

Hugh Keice at the Korean Cultural Centre, May 2014 Image courtesy of the Korean Cultural Centre UK
Hugh Keice at the Korean Cultural Centre, May 2014 Image courtesy of the Korean Cultural Centre UK

We briefly touch on the topic of the industry. He is a big advocator of the organic glass roots relationship, and if he can help it, he does not really want to charge money for every song he releases. For him the music belongs to the fans and he wants to keep it open so they can share it. He understands that the market is changing and the traditional model for musicians is not working. The way a musician made it big previously is no longer the way forward. He would love to remain as an Independent artist for as long as he can and recognises that it can be difficult unless there is major financial support involved. Equally he would also love for Universal to sign him too but just as long as he can stay doing what he is doing and travel the world, or teleport if he had his way, this is his dream.

We talk for just under an hour and out of the many questions I ask him, not once does Hugh rush his answers. He carefully considers them and answers them fully. He even wittingly comes up with the answer to the stranded dessert island question, where if you had to choose one item to take and one person to be with, who and what would they be.  His answer is Ellie Goulding and a mobile phone. The reason being so Ellie can call her manger for a Hellie (Hellicopter) which would come and rescue them! Would he also love to collaborate with Ellie rather than just go on a helicopter ride with her? Sure, he would love to! In the pipelines, he is going to do something with his good friend TeTe. As well he being a close friend, he also enjoys his musical style. He is also planning to collaborate, not only on stage but in recordings with other Korean artists.As yet nothing has been finalised. As well as Korean artists, is looking to collaborates with UK artist, but there is nothing in the pipelines as yet.

He is due to release his EP later this May entitled ‘‘Why Can’t You Luv me’ and is due to play at a number of music festivals in Korea. All dates of any upcoming tours visit his website

Although whilst he claims he may not as catchy as Korean Pop music, there is beauty and sincerity in his. If all music would sound the same, there would be a lack of diversity in the world. To those fans just discovering him, he hopes he can reach out and connect with you through his lyrics. If it was not for the fans, he would not be doing what he loves.
Hugh, it was such a pleasure to chat to you and find you to be such a down to earth and inspirational artist.

Watch the videos and songs mentioned in the article:

Listen to the song ‘J’
Listen to the song ‘Dancing in the Rain’
Listen to his new album ‘‘Why Can’t You Luv me’

*I had interviewed Hugh before the release of his EP in late May 2014, just before the release of his latest album.

All pictures here unless otherwise credited are courtesy of Hugh Keice.

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