The Boyz: The K-Pop Sensations on Their Story So Far

Talking to Taylor Glasby, the 11-member K-Pop group talk growing up, on-stage disasters and what comes next for the young stars

An elderly woman in the hotel lobby has been watching The Boyz mill around, greet me with pressed hands, and scoot off to change into black vinyl outfits peppered with chains and safety pins, which make them look like a cross between catwalk punks and a baby-faced motorcycle gang. She can’t resist. “Who are they?” she asks curiously as they traipse past one final time. When told they’re an 11-member Korean pop group, she looks delighted. “Are they? They seem lovely. They look like a big family.”

Sangyeon, Ju Haknyeon, Eric, Juyeon, Q, Jacob, Sunwoo, New, Kevin, Hyunjae and Younghoon are, for all intents and purposes, a family, one that can sit comfortably together, laugh and tease one another. On stage, even when chatting with their fans (known as ‘The B’) there is a friendly ease, and they emit much the same uplifting energy when performing their crackling, feel-good pop songs. 

It is this live performance which is key – it brings into line what has been, thus far, a far-ranging set of songs and concepts, from the dark (No Air, TATTOO) to the light (D.D.D) to the positively effervescent (Bloom Bloom). On December 6, they turned two years old as a group; not quite rookies anymore but not yet seasoned idols. 

In this time, says Juyeon, “not only did our skills improve, vocally and in terms of dance, but also our gestures and stage presence in general. We’ve all learned to be more charismatic.” 

Two years into an idol career is generally a time when, although groups still experiment with their sound, the foundations of who they are are firmly in place. But The Boyz – whose youngest Eric is 18 (he’ll turn 19 on December 22) and whose eldest, Sangyeon, is only 23 – have seen their professional lives coincide with the chaotic self-searching process of becoming adults. Tastes, knowledge, comfort zones and desires change and change fast, and this is reflected by their fitful discography; this rapid transition, however, has also afforded them welcome hindsight.

For instance, Giddy Up, their second single, a song so loved by fans that The Boyz leave it for a raucous encore, was originally disliked by most of the members. “It was a song that was a challenge for me,” admits group leader Sangyeon, although judging by his expression, this could be an understatement. “But during our concert I realised it was a song that showed off our energy and was one we could enjoy together.” Eric agrees: “We didn’t like Giddy Up as much as we do now.”

Still, new directions may be afoot for The Boyz in 2020. Juyeon is balancing a specific focus with an eye on the bigger picture. “There are factors I’m satisfied with and not satisfied with so far [in our career]. I want to reach out to more people, to be more mainstream, I don’t feel like we’re at that level. But my mindset is that we should work even harder for the fans we’re so grateful for. That’s my priority.”

“Up until now,” says Q, slender, wide-eyed and known for his dance prowess, “we’ve shown a lot of our bright, young fresh ‘boy’ side, but next year I’d like to show more charismatic, powerful, mature sides of us.” Eric, one of the group’s three chatty North Americans, interjects. “Manly,” he adds. Like TVXQ’s Mirotic, that style of manly? “No, like EXO’s Overdose,” he says.

The Boyz debuted at a time when K-Pop was going through significant change. There was a massive uptick in traction in America, spearheaded by BTS. Fans were no longer just fans, they were content creators, group ambassadors, not just seen at concerts and through car windows but there to be interacted with online and in real time. Until recently, K-Pop idols were the last bastion of gated, meticulously crafted celebrity, like Prince and Madonna were in the 1980s. Idols still have an upright image to maintain but there’s a new flexibility in what audiences look for.

Rapper Sunwoo nods. “People used to focus on fine-tuned skills and talent and they still do, but these days they take an interest in an idol’s personality as well, a group’s merits and colours. People have developed a greater appreciation for the artists’ sincerity in their music and I’m thankful for that.” 

“Like how BTS really tell their story and share their growth or their pains through the music, fans really enjoy it,” says Jacob, so softly spoken that Eric will whisper to him to be a little louder. “And social media has really played a part in showing our onstage personality and our offstage personality. It’s a huge contributor to how people now feel about K-Pop.” “Idols try to reach for perfection and I think that’s why fans give us so much support, just for that effort, even if we can’t be perfect,” adds Eric.

“Social media has really played a part in showing our onstage personality and our offstage personality. It’s a huge contributor to how people now feel about K-Pop” – Jacob

As beautiful as perfection can be, it can also be a tiny bit dull. Flaws are fascinating, they produce life lessons and stories to be shared around laminated hotel tables, where Jacob will sip at tar-black coffee and London’s wintery darkness presses against the glass walls behind us. Q is demonstrating the dance move he was meant to do, but never quite managed. There are mistakes on stage, he laments. 

It was at the Melon Music Awards, he recalls, “and it was our first stage with new mics. They’re a lot heavier than the ones we used before, and it came off. So instead of extending my arm I had to grab it and the camera was on me right at that exact moment.” Laughter ripples around the table. 

“On my first time MC’ing at M Countdown [one of South Korea’s music performance TV shows],” offers Younghoon, “it was embarrassing because I was very nervous and my cue cards were shaking in my hand and you could see that on screen.” 

“During the Bloom Bloom promotions,” says Sangyeon, “my shoe came off during the live show. My mind went blank and I had to decide whether to keep dancing with one shoe off or put it back on and bring the perfection [of the stage] down. I threw the shoe and that was caught on camera, but thankfully my next move was going off to the side so I had a moment to get it and put it back on.”

Sometimes, the funniest memories contain a little bit of physical pain, and Kevin is laughing even before he’s begun explaining what happened. “On our Bloom Bloom comeback stage, we had sets with flower petals (across the floor) and there was this part where I’m crouching then I run back, but I slipped on the petals and biffed onto my face.” Eric puts up his hand. “If we tuck our shirt in our pants, we usually fasten them with a safety pin so it doesn’t move when we’re dancing. But sometimes it flies open so it’s stuck in your belly or hip. [After one performance] I had to pull out a pin that was stuck halfway in me.” 

Then there is Jacob. Sweet Jacob whose trousers betrayed him terribly in Vietnam during No Air. “The button popped off and for some reason the zipper wouldn’t stay up. It kept going down and I kept pulling it up, and Eric tried to help by putting pins in but they kept coming off.” He’s grinning as Eric mimes trying to pin his pants between songs. “There were three songs left so I danced with my underwear showing.”

Younghoon will mostly sit on stage during The Boyz’ European tour. In November he injured his collarbone and he pulls back his shirt to reveal he’s still wearing taping but he can, he smiles, once more wash his hair using both hands. When it happened, he was removed from all the group’s promotions to recover. He found solace in supportive fan letters and never missed watching a performance. “I was cheering them on,” he recalls. “I’m just glad I can be on the tour even though I’m not dancing. I’m itching to dance. It’s very frustrating to watch a passionate crowd and not be able to move.” 

The Boyz also experienced a permanent loss of a member when it was announced in October that Hwall was leaving having struggled with a long-term injury. “It was very difficult before and after the message went out,” says Jacob. “We’re still trying to get used to being 11 members.” There’s a hush over the group. “We’re going to support him with whatever he does and we know he’s going to keep cheering us on. We’re saddened by it. We’re trying to… it’s not easy. The words really aren’t coming out…” he says almost apologetically, his voice trailing off. But they’ve weathered this upheaval, says Sangyeon, “just by being next to each other, being present is comfort in itself. But in hard times we talk things out and make sure we’re doing ok.”

“Jacob and I are MCs for Simply K-Pop and the writers started using four-letter proverbs in our scripts recently,” says Kevin. They’re known as 사자성어 (sajasongo) and Jacob’s favourite is 고진감래 (kojingamlae), which he explains, “means at the end of hardship or struggles there is happiness”.

And in their two years as The Boyz they’ve experienced both happiness and pride. Sangyeon is proud of their first win on a music performance show with Bloom Bloom, Juyeon is thrilled that they’re playing shows so far from home and so early into their career. If he could tell his trainee self one thing, it would be that these tours were waiting for them “so keep working hard”. Haknyeon laughs in agreement, his advice to his younger self would have been “I can do, you can do it, we can do it.”

There are, of course, little regrets that play on their minds – Eric wishes he’d focused more on singing than just dancing and rapping when he began training – but their growing confidence in their abilities overrides these moments, driving the reach for their biggest goals, such as charting in the US. “Things flow better, our teamwork got better and we know what we’re doing,” says Eric. “That’s the biggest difference.”