“I’m not sure if I can be that funny, but I would definitely go on [the show],” Zee of From the Airport says with an embarrassed chuckle when discussing his favorite show Infinity Challenge. While Zee is a dedicated fan, watching regularly for a good seven years, Milo, the other half of this electro-rock outfit, doesn’t really watch variety shows. He prefers to watch movies in his free time, fitting for his film scoring background. But both spend much of their time on something more important: their music, whether it’s creating, recording or practicing it. The truth is this indie duo is all in when it comes to their music.
With varying backgrounds in film and music production, Milo and Zee met in early 2012 in a friend’s basement and quickly found themselves in a musically symbiotic relationship. They began to play and experiment with the electro-rock sound that soon became their own. “It was fall of 2012. That was when we didn’t have a label. We were just in a basement,” Zee explains.
Those basement jam sessions resulted in their debut single, the self-released hypnotic blend of beats, guitar and synth titled “Colors.” Two singles later, it was 2013, and they had begun to build a following online. It wasn’t long before indie label Fluxus Music got a hold of track “Timelines” and signed them.
When asked about the change in joining a label, the duo first mentions the joy of having an actual studio available full time but soon goes into the benefit of being with Fluxus specifically. Labelmates Clazziquai, Urban Zakapa and others regularly give them musical feedback and industry guidance. “They just know the Korean music industry better,” Zee says before mentioning the possibility of future collaborations. While the opportunity has yet to strike, the duo is definitely open to it. In fact, one could say that From the Airport is willing to go anywhere with their music, as they are constantly trying to improve the balance of electro-rock.
Their first full-length album You Could Imagine, just released this month, is a testament of that with its wide variety of styles and sounds. Some might sense a shift to a more upbeat sound compared to their first EP Chemical Love. The duo shrugs off the suggestion since it happened unintentionally, as many of the tracks were leftover compositions from Chemical Love. Still, there is a definite theme to the album that guided them in its making, and Zee confirms, “The album concept overall was fantasy.”
For instance, “The Queen (The Beast)” takes on a harder rock edge because of its inspiration: the ice queen (aka the White Witch) of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, used in this case as a metaphor for evil. “We tried to make the song about retaliation against her. The song is at 120BPM, a walking tempo, because we were trying to depict the army marching. That’s why it became heavier and darker than other songs,” Zee clarifies.
Despite the darkness of “The Queen (The Beast),” Milo and Zee lyrically prefer to use a lot of light imagery because of its positive connotations. “It brings you warmth, and it brings you hope. In our lyrics, we always try to put a positive message. That’s why we keep bringing up light and colorful metaphors. We really like light … even though we stay up late and don’t see light that much,” Zee admits, as they both laugh. In fact, it’s 11:00 AM in Korea when we sit down for this interview, and the duo has just woken up.
Though they’ve just rolled out of bed, Milo and Zee are enthusiastic and happy to talk about their music. Zee does a lot of the talking because of his mastery of English, but Milo is just as eager to join the conversation, quickly overcoming any language barrier, just as their music attempts to do.
From its foundation, From the Airport has used chiefly English, the lingua franca of the world. “We tried Korean lyrics, but it just didn’t feel as From the Airport-like as English until now. We’re trying to find the way to make that [using Korean lyrics] happen more.” You Could Imagine features a Korean version of “Sight,” “a test” in using Korean lyrics to appeal specifically to their Korean audience.
Nevertheless, the duo is not shy to share their international aspirations. “We wanted our audience to be global,” Zee says honestly. Their growth and visibility, while definitely due to their great music, has also undeniably been helped by the Hallyu wave. While K-pop is the focus, artists like From the Airport are on the rise internationally, and Zee thinks “the next step is for K-indie artists to have their own movement.” The duo is hopeful that all of the international attention on Korean music as a whole will better the industry. While they hint at future plans to promote overseas on tour, they remain mum about any details of a line-up, location or date.
Performances are a hot topic for them, as the duo is insistent on not using any session players on stage with them. “It’s different for each song, but we play all the guitars live. We’re just a duo so we can’t really play everything. We’d have to have, like, four hands,” Zee jokes, “but we do try to play all the things we can play. I think that’s the dilemma of a lot of electronic musicians. That’s why a lot of musicians choose to have more session players on stage. But at the moment we want to instill the concept of a duo electronic set so we don’t want other people on the set with us. We do all the vocals, and, for the things that we can play, we play them with our laptops so that we can live edit and add effects on the fly.”
Because of the intricacy of their performances in having to get set up everything for two players, Milo and Zee obviously spend a lot of time practicing and planning. “It’s not the generic five-man band setup so it needs a lot of experimenting to figure out how to get the best sound out of it,” Zee says.
The two spend a lot of time together as they do their utmost to split the creative process from beginning to end. Constantly searching for new coffee shops and different spots to meet, they collaborate on all of their music and always in a space that’s open and allows their creative energy to flow easily. They exchange ideas, write and bring their talents together for as much of the process as they can. There is no emailing and confirming one another’s ideas. Instead, they produce everything together at the same time in the same place, trying to find new inspiration wherever.
When asked about their favorite artists and influences, Milo jumps in with a hearty “U2!” They like not only the sound of the famed Irish rock band, but also their personalities and what they do for society with their many activist campaigns and humanitarian efforts. Zee extols French house music, mentioning such artists as Justice, Daft Punk and Sebastian. Big fans of Pitchfork and Hype Machine, they like to stream different kinds of music for an hour or two a day to hear how other artists are experimenting with both electronic and rock music.
That willingness to experiment plays a large part in their music videos. In talking about the planning that goes into them, Milo discusses the “Hit My Cash” music video and how they emailed various YouTube users to see if they could use their footage. They then got together and created the collage of first-person videos all by themselves. And while Zee mentions that they didn’t have as much input for “Sight,” they still try to have as much creative control over the videos because of how important the visual is to them.
At the same time, Milo and Zee also know when to step back and let someone else have the creative reins. For the gorgeous artwork of You Could Imagine, they went to Korean visual artist Kildren, whose body of work includes painting, drawing and varying forms of mixed media. After giving him the album and lyrical meaning behind the songs, they gave him free rein to create according to his own impressions of their music, and that work led to the album art.
Their approach to their work is wonderfully balanced. They take great joy in getting together and spilling all of their ideas and thoughts, but they also like to see the structure and themes stemming forth. It’s a delicate equilibrium of hard work and creativity that works because they fit so well together. Milo takes care of much of the guitar, and Zee does most of the percussions. But they share synth, vocals and production. Sometimes they have lyrics first and then compose. Other times things work in reverse. There is an organic give-and-take in how they work that’s evident even in the way they talk to one another.
Because of this, their future is undoubtedly bright. “We want to keep on improving the overall balance of our music and our sound, both live and [in the studio]. When we release our next track, we want it to sound even better,” Zee says. “We really want to meet every one of you [our international fans], but the world is really big. We wish we could have more opportunities, but if we keep on working hard and making good music, some day we’ll meet you guys in person.”