By Sebastian W. Suh:
Alvin (Hyun-il) Cha, bassist for the band Gostwind, had gone AWOL. I was putting the final touches on my previous article, A Unique Musical Blend: Gostwind = Metal + Traditional Korean Music, and I needed to get in touch with him to finalize the Gostwind portion. (He was my main contact for the band). As frustrations kept mounting, I finally get a reply from him . . . in the form of a photo. In it, he was standing with Kim Jaeman, guitarist of Black Syndrome, one of Korea’s first-generation Metal bands. Between them was a man sporting a sick-looking goatee; it was flippin’ Coke Finlay! Here in Korea?! With the photo came a text: “Call me.” I promptly did so. Hyun-il didn’t even bother sharing pleasantries and passed the phone over. “This is Coke,” came the voice from the other side. I stuttered through my introduction and managed to end our short conversation with, “Would you fancy an interview?”
Coke Finlay is the mastermind behind Virus, a pioneering Thrash Metal band from the UK. If you don’t know who he or they are, that’s ok. For the uninformed, Thrash is a Metal subgenre that combines the speed, attitude, and aggression of Punk Rock with the articulate heaviness of Heavy Metal. Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax are commonly referred to as The Big Four of Thrash. “Big,” in this case, refers to commercial success and recognition, and from that perspective, there is no refuting that those four are the “biggest.” However, you will find fans in heated debates regarding who the True Big Four should be as “originators who are constantly putting out quality material in the form of true Thrash Metal.” Expect the likes of Exodus, Testament, and Overkill to appear in those discussions. Sometimes their German counterparts such as Kreator, Destruction, and Sodom get a respectful nod as well.
So where does Virus fit in? Let’s put it this way: You know when you have a group of friends who are collectively into a certain style of music, and you bring their attention to a relatively lesser-known band that kicks some serious a$$ like they’ve never heard before and you look totally cool in your friends’ eyes? Virus would do just that for Thrash Metal fans.
Seb: Welcome to Korea! Let’s start with an introduction: Virus’ origins and current status, please.
Coke: First, I must say it was a pleasure chatting with you on the phone, Sebastian. What an articulate English speaker you are, as well as an incredible vocalist! Anyway here goes: The band was formed in 1986 in Brighton, UK. I joined them just after the demo for the first album was released in 1987. And this year, we are releasing our first album in thirty years! We recently got re-signed by our old 80's record label (COMBAT RECORDS), now owned by the honourable Mr. David Ellefeson, bassist of Megadeth, representative for Jackson Guitars, coffee-company owner, and wine merchant extraordinaire. This has been a monumental step forward for us. We hope that with the help from joint CEO Mr. Thom Haezart, we will be playing the U.S this year, touring the new album.
Seb: What got you into Metal? Who are your favourite bands?
Coke: That’s a difficult question to answer; probably listening to the first Black Sabbath album and early Judas Priest. “Favourite bands” is another difficult one. There are so many. From “Exodus,” “Testament,” “Annihilator,” and “Anthrax” to “GBH,” “Discharge,” and “Sahon” (from Korea). Among the newer bands, I like “Periphery” and “Animals as Leaders” as well as “Lamb of God” and “Mastodon.”
Seb: Who were the biggest influences for the band? For you personally, who influenced you to pick up the guitar and sing?
Coke: I would say that our influences would include the unsung heroes of the Bay Area Thrash Metal scene, “Vio-lence.” “Suicidal Tendencies” was another influence. And last but not least, the UK Punk band “Discharge.” For me, it was Eddie Van Halen who made me want to pick up the guitar. Singing was an easy decision. I just wanted to be better than the original singer, and I think I’ve proven that already ;)
Seb: What kind of approach do you take when writing music/lyrics?
Coke: When writing songs, I basically write for myself, regardless of whether people like them. Music is subjective, and I know we will have our haters. If I like a riff and it represents what I’m trying to convey to the fans, then I’ve done my job! When it comes to lyrics, I usually stay away from political agendas, but I have touched on matters of corruption in the church and apocalyptic scenarios. There is always some sort of subliminal message in our songs. You just have to find it ;)
Seb: Is this your first time in Korea? What brings you to our country? It’s not as if Korea is well-known for a prolific Metal scene.
Coke: Yes, it’s my first time in Korea, but I doubt it will be my last. You have a beautiful country, and the world has to know that! I had the immense pleasure of touring in Europe last year with one of Korea’s biggest Thrash bands, the mighty “Sahon.” I became a fan the moment I heard them. It was definitely my kind of Thrash. I met Kyoung Hong (the drummer) via Facebook. To my amazement, he had heard of my band, and we just hit it off. I told him about my love for Korean Rock, Metal, and in particular, my favourite vocalist, Yim Jae Bum, who I discovered on “Hidden Singer” on Netflix. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to learn Korean, so I began studying your language.
Seb: What was your experience in Korea like? What do you remember most? You sure seemed to enjoy the food for one.
Coke: The whole experience was incredible. I fell in love with the people, the culture, the language, and yes, the food. What I loved about the food was that it was extremely diverse. My very good friend Hyun-il (a.k.a. Alvin Cha, bassist of Gostwind) did the honours of preparing the food in the restaurant for me. The cooking process was exhilarating to watch. I’ve never had a holiday like this. “Korea, Sarrang Hae Yo (I love you)!”
Seb: What is your impression of the Korean Metal scene? (Both good and bad)
Coke: Korea sure has an abundance of talent in its metal scene, as I have borne witness to. I’ve seen numerous bands that could put many UK and European bands to shame. The problem is that Metal in Korea is very underground, and unlike Japan, for instance, Korean Metal is still without an established foothold in the rest of the world. Promotion seems weak, with no one willing or daring enough to take things to the next level. From what I can tell, Korea has no TV shows or radio stations dedicated to Metal, whereas here in the UK, we already have two: Scuzz & Kerrrang. Granted, they aren’t as informative or cover as wide a range of demographics as they used to.
Seb: How is the Korean Metal scene different from the scene back home in the UK or Europe?
Coke: For a start, Metal shows happen most weeks in Europe and the UK, and more people come to see the live shows. The fashion is very different as well. I’ve noticed that Korean fans take pride in their appearance while our Metal fans just don't care. We have more booking agents and promoters trying to help bands. Not all, of course. Some of them indeed work on pure greed!
Seb: What do you think is needed to bring fans to the shows? They are out there, as can be seen from the massive turnout for the recent Metallica concert.
Coke: I would say this: Get your name known outside of Korea. I think Korean fans tend to want to see bands that are doing well globally. Also, try to get more access to airplay. Unfortunately, I feel that most Korean promoters are scared of losing money. We’ve all been through it, but if you have the passion for the music, money shouldn’t be part of the consideration. With regards to Metallica, I wouldn’t go see them now if you paid me to. I saw them in their heyday and that was enough for me. Besides, they are no longer a Thrash Metal band, sadly.
Seb: Do you have any questions for us?
Coke: Like I mentioned, there are so many talented bands. What is your take on why the scene is so small?
Seb: People in their thirties, forties, and even fifties comprise the majority of Metal fans, and they are just too busy at work during the weekdays. Even Iron Maiden wasn’t able to fill an arena because their show was on a Wednesday. Over the weekends, people need to tend to the family to make up for their absence during the week, so no Metal shows for them. This observation also applies to why Korea’s first generation Metal bands are returning to the scene recently. It’s because now they can, as their kids have now grown up!
Any last words?
Coke: A massive shout out to my Thrash brothers in Sahon. “Jaemi Isseo Yo (It’s fun)!” Yong Ho, Kyoung Hong, Chang Myoung, Mrs. Yong Ho (Hyeri Kim), my dear friend Bumtae Kim, Mr. Jaeman (guitarist of Black Syndrome) and his lovely wife, Jackie Kim, and Mr. Hyunil himself. Thank you for all the kindness and generosity you have shown me on my trip to Korea. “Kamsahamnida, Yeorobun (Thank you, everyone).”
Finally, I would just like to ask, if Virus ever came to Korea to play for the Korean Metal fans, would the Korean Metal fans come to see Virus? ;)
I replied in the affirmative and wrapped up the interview by thanking Coke, and telling him it was an honour to have talked with a legend in person. “I’m no legend,” he replied, “I’m just a friend who plays Metal.”
But I’m sure he’ll understand that “Korea’s Metal Scene through the eyes of a friend who plays metal” just wouldn’t pack enough of a punch as a title.