Kyle Decker's Blog

Say Sue Me brings Korean indie rock to Chicago

By Kyle Decker
The Korea Times

CHICAGO ― Busan band Say Sue Me brought their unique brand of shoegazy surf rock (surfgaze?) back to Chicago on July 20. It was the second-to-last stop on their seven-city North American tour, the night after playing K-Indie Music Night in New York with Crying Nut.

This was not their first time blowing the roof off the Windy City. They played an equally packed house in late 2019, also at the Empty Bottle, which has been one of Chi-town’s most iconic small venues for 30-plus years. I was also able to catch the 2019 show and had planned on seeing them back in early 2022, but COVID-19 surges and finances forced the tour to be canceled, which was disappointing. But I have to say, this show was worth the wait.

Members of Say Sue Me pose outside Chicago's Empty Bottle, July 20. Courtesy of Say Sue Me
Pictures taken at a photo booth in Chicago music venue Empty Bottle show Busan Band Say Sue Me, July 20. It’s a tradition for bands to be given free tokens for the photo booth. Bands keep the color ones, and the bar posts the black-and-white ones. Courtesy of Say Sue Me

I first came to know Say Sue Me back in 2014. My old band, Daegu-based Food for Worms, had played a show with a Busan band called Genius, who were friends of Say Sue Me. I later went to Busan and caught them playing shows together at a small club called the Basement near Pusan National University. Say Sue Me’s mix of 1960s surf rock and 1990s shoegaze hits you with a wall of sound and the energy of their live shows is infectious. It was easy to see why they had a rabid fanbase in their local scene ― me among them. On a personal note, I even included the classic Say Sue Me songs “I Know I’m Kinda Boring” and “I’m Sorry I’m Drunk” on the first mix CD I gave to the woman who would later be my wife. U.K. record label Damnably knew what they were doing when they snatched them up. “Where We Were Together” was my top record of 2018, and the track “Old Town” has held its place in my Top 5 songs ever since. Its themes of aging and growing apart from people hit home, and the guitar solo at the end is a heartbreaker.

The Empty Bottle, which is also near and dear to me personally, is really the perfect venue for Say Sue Me’s vibe. The 400-capacity venue has sat on Western Avenue in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood since it opened in 1992. Its “Music Friendly Dancing” awning and chalkboard door are Chicago landmarks in their own right. It was even ranked 12th on Rolling Stone’s list of the best small rock clubs in America. Most importantly, it also maintains the charm of a neighborhood dive bar. Historically, somewhere in the venue, there has always been a cat, and the current Bottle cat was chilling on the bar both before and after the show. Considering fan favorite “But I Like You” includes the line “I like somebody who likes cats,” it’s really quite kismet. When I asked her about the venue, frontwoman Choi Sumi commented, “I like playing this place. The audience seems to really like us and has good energy. I felt like I could cut loose. I felt free.”

Members of Say Sue Me pose outside Chicago's Empty Bottle, July 20. Courtesy of Say Sue Me
A cat sits on the bar at Chicago music venue Empty Bottle, July 20. Courtesy of Say Sue Me

As someone who has seen them play Chicago twice now, I can say that Chicagoans love Say Sue Me. When the band opened with an older song, “My Problem,” everyone was familiar with it, suggesting that these Chicago fans are digging into the back catalog. Anytime guitarist Kim Byungkyu would go into a solo, the audience would flip out.

This led me to walk around before and after the show to ask my fellow Chicagoans how they came to be familiar with Say Sue Me.

“I don’t honestly know,” said Dan, 35. “Spotify or YouTube, I think. But as a Korean American, their sound really resonated with me.”

“He introduced me,” said Michael, Dan’s cousin. And the Dan-Mike pattern was pretty consistent across the people that I spoke with. One person found out about them through a streaming service algorithm, and then they subsequently dragged along their friend, family member or significant other.

A young woman named Aubrey found out about them because their song “So Tender” was in the K-drama Nevertheless. Aubrey, in turn, dragged her friend, Vianna, to the show. A man named Sergio said it was their cover of Blondie’s “Dreaming” that caught his attention. One group of fans said they go together to South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin every year and Say Sue Me was on several lists of bands to see at SXSW. This group included local music journalist Bruce Novak of the blog and podcast No Wristbands.

Jeremy, 47, had been a fan of Say Sue Me’s Japanese labelmates Otoboke Beaver and had seen Say Sue Me play with them.

While speaking to others at the show, a fan named Aaron, 44, who found the band through music critic Steven Hyden, commented, “Their music has a cinematic quality. And the guitarist is great. But he also knows when to back off and let her (Choi) take the lead.”

Surprisingly, Say Sue Me were not the only Korean indie rockers on stage that night. Precocious Neophyte, a Chicago-based dream-pop band, has some familiar faces. Frontwoman Jeehye had been a member of Juck Juck Grunzie and Vidulgi OoyoO. Bass player Ethan was in Table People and Visuals. They even closed their set with a cover of Say Sue Me’s “Let It Begin” ― with permission, of course. The record release party for their album, “Home in the Desert,” will be in Chicago on Sept. 1 at DIY venue Sleeping Village.

Members of Say Sue Me pose outside Chicago's Empty Bottle, July 20. Courtesy of Say Sue Me
Members of Say Sue Me pose on stage with friends after a show at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, July 20. Courtesy of Steve C

As for myself. I had a blast. The bands were in fine form and I got to hang out with not only my buddy John Yingling, who filmed Say Sue Me in Busan for his World Underground documentary series, but also Steve, who had been in Genius and is Say Sue Me’s North American tour manager. The whole night felt like a marvelous mix of two of my worlds.

Wow. Life’s good, isn’t it?

Kyle Decker is a Chicago-based author, educator, and punk vocalist. He lived in Daegu from 2013 to 2018 where he fronted the multinational punk band Food for Worms and co-organized the Once a Month Punk show series. He currently provides vocals for Bad Chemicals, the punk band from his novel “This Rancid Mill”(PM Press, 2023). Visit kyledeckerauthor.comfor more information.