South Korea is famous the world over for its music, though perhaps not the best of it reaches across the seas. But behind the plasticized K-pop stars and their vapid dance rhythms, there is a nation of live music that deserves to be heard. Punk, jazz, rock, classical, electronica—all of it is well represented in Seoul, and usually, it’s great. Bands here don’t practice by playing gigs—they learn their stuff behind closed doors, and then they go out onstage. Because of that discipline, upon visiting any of these venues, you’ll witness some of the tightest and most technically proficient independent music out there.
Dave Hazzan reads, writes, and drinks in Ilsan, South Korea.
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1. GBN Live House
GBN Live House is run by punks, for punks. The circle pits can get rowdy, but overall everyone is very friendly and this is a great place to not only hear the best in Seoul punk and hardcore, but to meet new friends and cop a feel of the city's DIY side. Beer is self-serve from cans in the fridge—anything else you want, you'll have to smuggle in yourself.
Shows are usually early so you can get the subway or bus back home. But come before the show and take the opportunity to explore the neighborhood of Mullae in the daylight. It's a light-industrial zone with some of the best street art in the city. Several other punk clubs are also in the vicinity.
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Burn is also known as Burn in Hal, after the cigar lounge and whiskey bar's eccentric manager, Hal. He likes to keep things classy, so no sweats, ripped jeans, or flip-flops, and don't get falling over drunk like you can at other bars in the country.
Instead, have a Cuban cigar, a glass of single malt scotch from his extensive list, and enjoy some of the best live jazz in the city. There is a rotating collection of brilliant musicians, including singer Maria Kim, American singer Nell Fox, and British-Korean trio Brown, who bring their understated, soulful magic every Saturday night.
The bar has a dark leather and hardwood interior, with long couches and armchairs to relax in. You can come in the main entrance, or climb the steep spiral staircase from the humidor room to the second floor club. The bar is located in Gyeongridan, a neighborhood choc-full of fancy bars and eateries.
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3. Thunderhorse Tavern
Thunderhorse Tavern is one of Seoul's premiere destinations for all manner of live rock: blues, heavy metal, acoustic, or punk. The owner Kirk is a very nice, affable guy, who looks ready to rock out, but in 1988. The bar itself gets a great mix of Koreans and foreigners, all of them music fans.
Thunderhorse is just up the street from Burn, but it couldn't be more different. Before the shows, the soundtrack is like what you'd hear on your favorite Classic Rock radio station, all AC/DC, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, and the like. It looks actually how an underground rock club should, right down to the stickers, banners and posters, and the filthy toilet upstairs. Drinks are cheap, and they serve some small microbrews that are hard to find in other parts of the city, especially in live venues.
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4. Club Steel Face
Club Steel Face is one of the newest live music clubs in Hongdae, the premiere party neighborhood in Seoul. Located six floors up, Steel Face is a small joint that is highly polished for a place that caters to indie and punk rock. No stickers or posters cram the walls, just a fresh coat of paint. They have a full cocktail bar, Kloud—one of the better brands of Korean beer—on tap, and even Brew Dog Punk IPA in bottles.
Steel Face is small and intimate, with no stage—the bands play amongst the crowd, and it's unlikely there will be more than 100 people in there. All sorts of fascinating acts pass through: shoegaze bands, noise rockers from Japan, hardcore outfits. Some of them are signed to Steel Face Records, an independent record production company that operates out of offices above the club.
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5. Cafe & Bar DDDa
DDDa is on the outskirts of Hongdae, by the Sangsu Subway station. Not to be confused with Bar Da or Café DDDa, Cafe & Bar DDDa is perhaps the most chilled-out location in Seoul. Dimly lit with a brick wall and Beatnik motif, this is no place to throw yourself around. Rather, it's a place to sit at a table, relax, and sip a glass of wine from their very extensive list.
And of course, there's the music. DDDa (pronounced Dee-Dee-Da) features a rotating line of performers playing all kinds of mellow music, especially jazz and blues. Be prepared though—not much English is spoken and there are very few foreigners or tourists, so bring a phrasebook or a Korean-speaking friend. And get there early—once the tables are full, there is no standing room.