In the last few years, it's become difficult to remark on Seoul's blossoming underground scene without mentioning Mogwaa. Since first releasing under his alias in 2017, this self-taught hardware maestro has built up a substantial catalogue of music ranging from fluttery ambient to sharp-edged techno. Everything Mogwaa does is tied together by a unique, distinctive warmth — usually felt through deep, spanning synths and analogue groove.
Born, raised and now still-residing in his own little pocket of Seoul — Mogwaa, real name Seungyoung Lee, first became entranced with music after learning to play guitar and - as many teenagers do - decided to join a band. But it was digging through samples used in his favourite hip hop tracks that first led him on the path to sounds spanning electronic styles, funk, soul-jazz, reggae and Latin music, scouring the archives of everything from the Ohio Players, Parliament Funkadelic, King Tubby and Tito Puente. "I played in a soul-jazz band called "Funkafric Booster" for a while and flew to Peru to study music," Seungyoung says. "That's when I first heard cumbia. It was a pivotal experience to be in Latin America, feeling their whole culture."
The experience stuck with him, and after finishing an alternative form of Korean military service in 2012, he made the decision to go solo and to experiment with electronic music. “I saved money during the service and I bought gear as soon as I finished, then I started to explore," he recounts during an interview with Mixmag Asia. "It took almost five years until my debut since I had to learn everything by myself.”
Capturing the underground's collective curiosity with his 2017 debut, 'Déjà Vu', released on legendary Chicago boogie imprint Star Creature, he's gone on to release on a miscellany of revered labels across the spectrum of electronic: MM Discos, Spring Theory, Zen2000 to name a few — before catching the eye of South Korean DJ megastar Peggy Gou, making his debut on her imprint Gudu Records in 2022 with EP 'From Above'. All the while, Seungyoung has grown his own label WALLS AND PALS alongside co-owner Jesse You, with a vision to redefine "dancefloor sounds", the imprint released 'Pals FM: Floor Materials Vol.2' in December last year.
Following the release of his second EP on Gudu Records, 'Drifted' — we caught up with Mogwaa to talk warmth, coming alive in Latin America and trying to get a synth repaired while on the phone with Peggy Gou.
You've have released your new EP 'Drifted', which touches on a myriad of genres and sounds. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the project?
I just wanted to make a record that people can dance to on the dancefloor. So for this release, I tried to be in the dancer's position and imagined myself on the 'floor — that’s where the project has started. Musically, I think this is an extract of the dance music that I’ve been listening to over the years. But I wouldn’t say it’s influenced by certain genres or sounds. I haven’t started the track determining genres from the sketches, there were just tiny little pieces I disassembled and also it was hard for me to determine genre after I finished the tracks. So I’m really curious how the audience determines my music musically.
What was the process of creating the record? Or maybe your process in creating an EP in general?
It depends on the release. Sometimes I just compile from my demos. And sometimes I set a concept or mood for whole EP and start from there. For ‘Drifted’, as I mentioned, I wanted the record to be played on the dancefloor more than any other records I’ve done. And then I started to jam. In the process of creating ‘Drifted’, like for ‘Driven’, I wanted to use breaks but didn’t want to use them in a typical way. Also, I wanted the lead sounds fade in and out naturally without noticing. For ‘Chances for Bounces’, the typical digital reggae bass sound was the key when I first started the track. And for ‘Rushing’, I wanted the leads and comping to give step sequenced stiff nuances so I used tracker for it.
How was it to release on Gudu Records? The label has been flying the flag for South Korean artists — is it a positive thing to work with a label who is doing that?
It was such a huge pleasure to release on Gudu Records. And it’s such a good feeling to work with the label that supports artists really well. From the beginning stages of the release they’re really supportive and care a lot to work with the artist to make the release the best it can be. Although Peggy is Korean, I don’t see Gudu as something that just flies the flag for South Korean artists — because the roster is actually very global, and it releases music from artists from all over the world. Originally me and Peggy were the only Korean artists on the label, but obviously that’s changed with the recent compilation (which features Salamanda and Closet Yi). But for me personally, I’m always happy to expose and support producers from South Korea — there are so many good musicians here who should be played out loud
How has it been working with Peggy Gou?
I still remember the first time I had a phone call with Peggy. I was on the bus to pick up my Roland JX3P which has been sent to tech for ages and it was finally fixed. She asked me if we could get a quick coffee before she headed to Europe the next day, but I couldn’t join because I’d been waiting so long to get my synth fixed. That was the first moment I talked with Peggy. And ever since then, she has been the greatest supporter for me and my music. Also she’s such a great advisor, her advice has helped me a lot with DJing and making music.
You have a pretty eclectic taste when it comes to music — what do you think the common factor is that attracts you to a sound?
There are so many factors that attract me to music, but the most important thing is warmth I’d say. My taste of music is pretty broad but putting warmth in it ties it all together. I’m always interested in producing music with different techniques for diverse genres/styles, as well as DJing. But I always want to give a certain mood to what I play and create. And that’s the warmth. It can be melody, chord progressions, pad sound, texture for drums or whatever. But definitely there's a mix of genres.
What is it about Seoul that gives you inspiration? How do you think the city differs from everywhere else/what is unique about the dance music scene?
There are so many layers in Seoul. I have lived in Seoul for most of my life, at the same site since I was a baby. And there are still new things I discover when I take a walk in the neighbourhood. I can’t say if it inspires me musically, but it definitely inspires me emotionally.
Can you tell us something about the music in Seoul that no one else knows?
I’m researching and archiving this music called ‘짝(Jjak)’. It's the music played at the cabaret, which is a club for seniors in Korea. It’s deeply connected to their dance, which has pretty obvious form and actually this style/term has started from the dance. So “짝(Jjak)’ is Korean expression for the clap sound and both music and dance gives accent on 2-4 Clap beat. This music may sound cheesy for some people, but the musicians are using almost the same or similar instruments that are used in electronic music production but with a different approach. These artists started their career in the '70s or '80s and they’re still in the business. But the whole scene is getting old, also the pioneers have begun to retire. So at some point, I felt obliged to archive and record this scene otherwise it might just fade away.
Can you tell us about one of your favourite parties you've played at?
Maybe I’ll pick two. One was when my label WALLS AND PALS invited Mr.Ho to play in Seoul. I still can feel the energy from that day. Everyone who participated on that day still remembers the day as one of the best days they played. And the other was also in Seoul, when Peggy played as a secret guest. It’s really hard to see Peggy playing at a club, especially in Seoul. And people really rush when she’s playing at the club. Both parties were held at one of my favourite clubs in Seoul, Modeci.
How would you like audiences to listen to your music? What would you like them to take away once they've listened?
I want audiences to listen to my music to find out who Mogwaa is. So I want them to take away the genre/style of the music once they’ve listened to certain album or track from me. There are so many inspirations forming who I am and I’m always on the journey to interpreting them with my own musical language. And I feel like I’m still on the sketching stage. Hopefully one day I wish I could show the final drawings for the audience.
What is coming up next for you?
I’m planning to do an overnight event with me doing everything. Covering whole club hours by myself. Could be DJing for two hours, play live for two hours and another DJ set for three hours, but still figuring it out. We always talk about if there are new fun things when I hang out with friends, and suddenly I came up with this idea. So I’m just talking out to push myself and make it happen. But seriously, this might happen in few months, just looking at the date now. And also me and Jesse You’s label WALLS AND PALS and Thai label More Rice are working on the split release which will be out around September. Another thing is I’m working on my own imprint to release my personal works. First one would be the music I made without a midi or computer. Me playing guitar, bass, synth and wurlitzer, plus rhythm boxes such as Roland CR8000 and Maestro Rhythm King, recorded and mixed directly on 4-track cassette recorder.
Can you tell us about this mix?
It’s all about the groove and funkiness when I DJ, and I also love to play music from my friends. So for this mix, I played tunes that I want to hear on the floor and vibe. Breaks, electro beats, syncopated rhythms and swing, plus friends. That’s what you can hear from this mix.
Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Editor, follow her on Twitter
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