Ham Jee-hye of Precious Neophyte performs during the vinyl release show for “Home in the Desert” at Chicago’s Sleeping Village, Sept. 1 (local time). Courtesy of Kyle Decker
By Kyle Decker
The Korea Times
By Kyle Decker
CHICAGO ― Chicago is a great city for music. That’s just a fact. And, honestly, the best stuff is found in the smaller venues. There’s no shortage of talent to be found, especially among the hard-working local independent musicians. The same could be said of Seoul, for that matter.
Enter Precocious Neophyte, a Korean-Chicagoan shoegaze/dream-pop outfit that celebrated the vinyl release of its album “Home in the Desert” at Sleeping Village, a bar/cafe/venue in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood, on Sept. 1.
|The members of Precious Neophyte stand outside Sleeping Village in Chicago, Sept. 1. Courtesy of Precious Neophyte|
Precocious Neophyte (or “Preco Neo” for short) is fronted by Ham Jee-hye and Ethan Waddell. Both should be familiar faces to the aforementioned Seoul scene for their work in bands there. Jee-hye had been in Juck Juck Grunzie and Vidulgi OoyoO, and Ethan was a member of Table People and Visuals.
Jee-hye and Ethan moved to Chicago in 2018. “The first time I got to Chicago, it was exciting to be in a new environment and meet new people,” Jee-hye said. But, like many of us who call the Second City home, Jee-hye mentioned that the long winters often made her sad, although she has started to warm to her adopted city.
Comparing it to the crowds of Seoul she said, “Chicago has a different vibe. It is big, and my neighborhood is very quiet. But I slowly started to like Chicago more and more. I like to walk in my neighborhood and see the giant trees. And I like my place, where there are many windows so I can see the sunlight, birds and sometimes cats on the other side of the building.”
In winter 2021, Jee-hye started to record some music with the intention of uploading songs to SoundCloud, not with the expectation of starting a band, just a desire to share her music. She’d met guitarist Brenden Romanowski and drummer Clinton Weber through Craigslist and had played in bands with them before. But, like most things, it got tripped up by the pandemic. They managed to write material but things “fizzled out” before the venues reopened, according to Weber, who joined Preco Neo in May.
Back in July, Precocious Neophyte opened for Korean indie band Say Sue Me at the iconic Empty Bottle and announced their record release show before closing their set. It definitely worked. Several audience members had Say Sue Me shirts on (myself included) and mentioned they’d also discovered Preco Neo after seeing them at the Bottle. So, clearly, the band had left an impression, although that’s not surprising.
While the band’s sound definitely calls to mind 1980s and 1990s shoegaze like My Bloody Valentine, Preco Neo moves the genre forward and gives it a 2020s sensibility.
“Smashing Pumpkins have been trying to make music like this for over 20 years,” commented local musician David Labedz, who was in the crowd that night.
Jee-hye mentions being heavily influenced by New Zealand’s Connan Mockasin. “I really like Connan Mockasin’s guitar tone. But eventually, because I couldn’t make more than two songs like that, I just went back to shoegaze and it felt so comfy. I cannot deny I was influenced by bands like Parannoul, especially their attitude, which is to just keep going, and be very honest and sincere,” she said.
Of course, Jee-hye herself is no slouch in the guitar department. “I still keep a lot of the styles of the bands that I played with in Korea,” she said, “I especially keep the raw energy, the guitar style and the vibe of the music. So even though the music is different now, things like guitar tone still stay with me.”
Jee-hye has also made the bold ― and, in my opinion, perfect ― decision to sing in Korean, despite being a Chicago-based band.
|The merch table at Precious Neophyte’s vinyl release party for its album “Home in the Desert” in Chicago’s Sleeping Village, Sept. 1 (local time) / Courtesy of Kyle Decker|
“It would be great if I could write lyrics in English, maybe more people could listen to my music,” she opined, “but I’m not fluent in English and I know I cannot deliver my exact feelings in English. I keep convincing myself that the lyrics are not that important for my music, but most of the time I spend on my music is for lyrics.”
As for the possibility of English lyrics? “Maybe someday.”
It’s worth noting, though, that one-third of their set consisted of English “subtitles” projected onto a screen on stage. Including the track “Korean Lesson #7 (Where is Michael?),” which started off with lyrics containing basic phrases you might find in a Korean language textbook, but gradually got more and more disturbing as the music became more frantic. It will be interesting to see if this facet of their shows continues and includes more songs in future shows.
|Clinton Weber, drummer of Precious Neophyte, plays in front of a projection displaying song lyrics during the vinyl release show for “Home in the Desert” at Chicago’s Sleeping Village, Sept. 1 (local time). Courtesy of Kyle Decker|
Whether or not you understand the lyrics, the longing in her voice is palpable, which adds to the overall themes in “Home in the Desert.”
“As an immigrant in this country, I started to think about what home is and what it means from afar,” she said. “It is just a personal thing and an old thing, but I don’t know, I just feel that there might be a lot on this record that people can relate to regardless of their nationality.”
From where I was standing, that certainly seemed to be the case. The band was well-received by the crowd, resulting in a healthy line for the merch table, where they sold vinyl and cassettes of “Home in the Desert,” T-shirts and (I can’t believe more bands haven’t thought of this) gave away print-outs of the setlist as souvenirs.
|A copy of Precious Neophyte’s setlist from the vinyl release show for the album “Home in the Desert” at Chicago’s Sleeping Village, Sept. 1. Courtesy of Kyle Decker|
When asked about the music scenes of Seoul and Chicago, she observed, “One similar thing is that there is barely any audience at routine shows.”
Which, yes, I can vouch that does happen in both scenes. So, allow me a moment to remind you, dear reader, of the importance of supporting local music. It’s cheap, it’s fun and it’s intimate. Those cover charges are worth it.
A major difference she noted is that after-parties are not as frequent in the Chicago music scene as they are in the Korean one. Which is also true. But Jee-hye doesn’t consider this a bad thing. She sees it as “reasonable.” “It is very clean, simple, and musicians can save their money and energy,” she said, adding that less partying helps keep things more professional. “I’m making many more songs than (my) previous bands did. I think we hung out too much in Korea.”
Speaking for myself, I’m looking forward to what Preco Neo does next. And, based on the crowd reaction that night, there are at least several dozen fellow Chicagoans who feel the same way.
Kyle Decker is a Chicago-based author, educator, and punk vocalist. He lived in Daegu from 2013-2018 where he fronted the multi-national 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).