By Tae Hong
EXO’s “Overdose” hit the markets on May 7.
It’s already broken records with a combined 658,710 pre-orders and, in less than two days, has hit a still-growing six million combined music video views on YouTube.
But before all of that, it’s a hot afternoon in downtown Los Angeles on May 1, and EXO-M has just arrived at the hotel.
They pile out of the black Cadillac Escalade, but there are little fanatic screams to be heard — there was plenty of that just a couple of hours prior inside LAX — as the six members, ushered by managers and security guards, enter the building and head toward the elevators.
EXO-M, the China-focused subgroup of EXO, is in the City of Angels for the first time in months to perform at The Korea Times’ Music Festival.
The fast-moving parade of colorful heads and shirts and very many bags finally comes to a stop inside the thankfully empty hallways that sit many floors above the lobby, away from noise.
There’s Xiumin, slight and blond; Luhan, definitively pretty; Kris, tall and imposing in sunglasses; Lay, dimpled and pale-skinned; Chen, bespectacled and lanky; and Tao, who is hours from turning 21 years old.
The band’s manager turns to me. “You said tomorrow?”
I nod. “Just about ten minutes.”
“See you then,” he says.
It’s around 8:30 p.m. the next day when the boys come into a spare backstage dressing room at the Hollywood Bowl minutes after wrapping up rehearsal for the show.
Chen enters first, a backwards cap on his head. The rest follow.
Two of the band’s members are Korean, one is Chinese Canadian and the rest are Chinese, which means that, between the six of them, only two — Chen and Xiumin — speak fluent Korean.
The main topic of buzz for the group is “Overdose,” their newest mini-album and the second since their explosive 2012 debut.
EXO comes from the word “exoplanet,” which refers to a planet outside the Solar System. Divided into two subgroups — one focused on activities in Korea and one on China — the 12-member team has taken over the Asian music industry with the kind of gusto that propelled their first studio album, “XOXO,” to become the first Korean record to pass one million album sales in 12 years.
After pushing back the album’s release due to a ferry boat tragedy that put a pause on most entertainment activities in Korea, EXO-M has only had the chance to perform the song in China.
American fans are just one day away from seeing “Overdose” live for the first time.
Six members means six personalities. EXO-M may be constantly scrutinized and idolized by millions, but in this dimly lit room filled with plastic chairs, they’re clearly people.
“This is our fourth time coming to the U.S. But every time we come, I feel the passionate support our foreign fans give us. I’m thankful for that and — ” Xiumin pauses, his blond hair sticking up from still-wet rehearsal sweat.
Seconds pass as his head tilts, searching for words.
“I’m sorry. My Korean is a bit clumsy,” he apologizes with a sheepish laugh but ends with a completed thought. “We want to come back each time with an upgrade. Sorry, it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken. I’m not very good at interviews.”
I throw him an encouraging smile, surprised at what sounds like fluent Korean. “You must be one of the Chinese members.”
The members laugh.
“He’s been living in Korea for 25 years,” Chen says, lips twitching.
The six members of EXO-M are on top of the K-pop world — that’s irrefutable — but sometimes it’s easy to forget that they’re also early twentysomethings.
Here in L.A., away from China and Korea, they still stick out on the street, and a few fangirls still follow their every move, but they can walk around and shop, grab Starbucks, look up at the sky.
“There’s a lot of things I want to do, and I just really like it here. I’m a fan of the Lakers, and the street fashion is great. It’s a good place for people who like fashion and for shopping,” Kris says. “It’s a good atmosphere.”
Everyone in the room lets out an “ahh” of agreement when Xiumin says he wants to experience college life in the United States.
“My Korean is clumsy, so I want to at least learn English correctly,” he jokes. “To learn English and to feel what college life is like — I really want to do it at least once.”
Next to him, Chen wants an opportunity to see the U.S. on vacation.
“We’ve been to a lot of countries because of our schedules, but we haven’t been able to comfortably have fun and enjoy rest in those places because of work,” Chen says. “We went to a beach in Malibu yesterday and it was beautiful. I want to go back there when I get vacation time in the future.”
Lay, who has directed three 90-degree bows at me over the course of two days, is one of the main dancers of the team.
He wants to take dance lessons from dancers he admires, among them Nick Bass, Lyle Beniga and Tony Testa — whom the band, he says, had dinner with the night before.
As for Luhan and Tao, time in the U.S. is best used as time spent resting.
“I just want to come here and relax,” Luhan says. “Have a cup of coffee at Rodeo Drive, sitting with my sunglasses on at a cafe.”
The band, now in their second year of activities, are still newbies by most standards, but nothing could have prepared Asia for the storm they brought on with “Growl” last year.
Lay speaks up in hesitant but wholly sincere Korean.
“I have a dream that I wish will come true,” he announces. “As EXO-M, EXO-K and just EXO, I want us to win all the awards at the end of the year.”
EXO picked up dozens of awards last year from countless sources, including 28 No. 1 wins on several broadcasting stations’ music programs, a time-honored measure of K-pop success.
“That’s why,” they tell me, “it’s more burdensome this time around.”
“We had good results last year because so many people gave us love, but our goal is to not lose sight of our original mindset, steer clear of vanity and try our best until the end,” Chen says.
cr: The Korea Times website