In the last couple of years, Jannabi have experienced all the highs and lows that the music industry has to offer. The indie band’s slow and steady climb to stardom achieved fruition with the massive success of 2019’s Legend and its lead single “for lovers who hesitate”.
On the personal end, things have been going less swimmingly. Mere months after the release of Legend, keyboardist Yoo Young-hyun left Jannabi after admitting to allegations of school violence. Leader and vocalist Choi Jung-hoon came under fire after his father’s company was investigated for fraud, embezzlement, and bribery. It looked like Jannabi’s rise could be short-lived.
But it wasn’t. Despite their starring turn in the gossip pages, Jannabi weren’t dumped by the music industry. In fact, they were showered with awards at the end of 2019 and their future, while uncertain, is far from doomed. Jannabi are proof that indie bands play by a different set of rules than K-pop groups.
This is as true musically as it is publicity-wise. When pop groups struggle to gain traction, they often flip through styles until one hits home. Despite spending years in obscurity, Jannabi have remained fiercely true to their quirky, retro vibes. Rather than changing themselves to fit audiences, they waited until audiences were ready to appreciate who they had always been.
Jannabi began as a trio in 2012, comprised of Choi Jung-hoon, Yoo Young-hyun, and guitarist Kim Do-hyung. Their name comes from an old Korean slang word for monkey. All the members, including bassist Jang Kyung-joon and drummer Yoon Kyul who joined in 2015, were born in the year of the monkey.
The band’s name is simple but effective, with a nostalgic twist and somewhat off-kilter charm. These also happen to be Jannabi’s signature qualities as a group; they are on full display in the collection of singles and OST contributions which make up most of their early discography.
Take 2014’s “Pole Dance”. The track is lyrically simple yet full of an eccentric, old-fashioned allure. Choi Jung-hoon’s strengths as a front man are on full display. He sings with conviction and charisma, swiftly alternating between vocal heft and melodic delicacy. “Pole Dance” is one of many songs that demonstrate just how much of Jannabi’s appeal rests on Choi Jung-hoon’s shoulders.
The band’s first EP, See Your Eyes, introduces the more wistful tone of Jannabi’s current work. Previous releases were full of upbeat rebellion; See Your Eyes certainly has that, but it also has softer songs like “November Rain” and “The moon”. Here, Jannabi still hadn’t quite mastered the trick of being sentimental without becoming saccharine. Nonetheless, “November Rain” in particular foreshadows the signature sound they were steadily evolving towards.
Jannabi’s next big musical leap came in 2016 with the release of their first full album, Monkey Hotel. The tracks on Monkey Hotel represent a significant increase in maturity and lyrical ingenuity. Everything that they were doing before is still being done, just better. Jannabi were coming into their own.
2017 and 2018 saw only a handful of single and collaboration track releases. They led up to Legend, Jannabi’s creative and commercial breakthrough. The 12 songs on Legend create a stunningly dreamy, nostalgia-enveloped soundscape. The band also bring a poetic touch to a wide array of topics. Album closer “dreams, books, power and walls” has a devastatingly memorable take on what it means to grow up:
But after you wake up, it will be alright
Because you will be a day older
Remember those indifferent eyes
Those eyes that we’ve seen when we were young
We’ll have to inevitably become like them
Like all good bands, Jannabi have evolved and improved over the years. It is notable though that their journey has been one of honing an always consistent style, as opposed to finding their voice through trial and error.
From the beginning, they set themselves apart with their throwback charm, wit, and a proclivity for interjecting even the most sensitive of tunes with touches of dramatic kitsch. This is a group with a passion for choral background vocals and orchestral production. The result is a discography that is easy listening music in the best sense of the term: fun, comforting, addictive, and far from brainless.
Where they have stumbled is in the public sphere, particularly after being catapulted into the spotlight by Legend. There were the aforementioned scandals, and also the basic awkwardness of being an indie act generating pop levels of public interest.
The experiences of the past year have taken a toll. The now 4-member group is currently operating as a duo. Drummer Yoon Kyul enlisted in the fall of 2019. Bassist Jang Kyung-joon is on indefinite hiatus after experiencing online harassment following the announcement of his marriage, an absurd situation that sadly might not feel out of place for a K-pop idol, but certainly seems strange here.
Due to these developments, Jannabi’s newest release only features the talents of Choi Jung-hoon and guitarist Kim Do-hyung. You wouldn’t know it from just a listen. At only five tracks, Jannabi’s Small Pieces I can’t achieve the depth of Legend. It is nevertheless a satisfying and worthy follow-up, not to mention a timely dose of melancholic sweetness to leaven the darkness of 2020.
Where Jannabi go from here is anyone’s guess. They may continue as a duo, perform as a trio, or reformulate as a quartet. What seems certain though is that whatever Jannabi produce, with whatever member structure, it will be worth tuning into.
It’s rare to find a group with such a consistent identity. Jannabi occupy a very special and specific corner of the musical universe. There is a chance that what they have to offer may not match certain peoples’ individual tastes. Still, it’s hard not to root for a group this stubborn in their artistic convictions, and this brilliant in their artistic creations.