When Sumi Choi—lead singer, guitarist, and lyricist of the South Korean surf rock band Say Sue Me—watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master, the words “crying episode” caught her ear. “I was struck by the phrase,” she tells me, emailing from the band’s home in beachy Busan, located on the shore of the country’s Yeongnam region. “I looked back on my own crying sessions, and that’s the genesis of ‘Crying Episode’ from our first album.” This is the kind of anecdote that defines the spirit of Say Sue Me’s music. Sumi’s lyrics imbue bummed out times with light-hearted humor; combined with guitarist and songwriter Kim Byunggyu’s sunny-sad dream-pop melodies, the effect is magnetic. “Let’s make a crying episode,” Sumi sings over winsome guitars and a cloud of reverb. “That won’t hurt you like you think/It won’t make you feel sad.”
Say Sue Me formed when Sumi met Byunggyu, bassist Jae Young, and drummer Kang Semin in 2012 at a tea shop in Busan’s busy shopping area of Nampo-dong. The latter three were childhood friends who fell in love with Sumi’s speaking voice, and asked her to sing for their new band. In 2014, Say Sue Me released their debut album, a shoegaze-y comedown called We’ve Sobered Up, and in 2015 put out a warm, noodly guitar-filled EP Big Summer Night, both on Seoul record label Electric Muse. Last April, they combined the two records for their first non-Korean release, a self-titled full-length on Damnably, a small U.K. label known for supporting artists like Shonen Knife and Otoboke Beaver.
Sumi, Semin, Byunggyu, and Jae Young had just begun working on their new album, Where We Were Together, in 2015, when Semin was injured after a fall and went into a semi-comatose state. “For a while after the accident, we felt like we couldn’t move on,” Sumi remembers. “The next thing we knew, we felt like we had to.”
They named their 2017 EP Semin, and after meeting their new drummer, Chang Won, online, they finished writing Where We Were Together. “We were able to complete the album because the rest of us were still together,” Sumi continues. “We wanted to better appreciate our time together and to share more enjoyable and wonderful moments. We want to cherish what we’ve done together.”
The album, naturally, became partly an ode to their missing piece. “Funny And Cute” is rife with bittersweet lines like, “I put some words on this melody you may like,” and “We’ll wait for you when it gets cold/You know the place, our cozy bar.” It’s an album of longing, “full of nostalgia for all the places, physical or otherwise, where we could share our minds and companionship,” Sumi explains.
Where We Were Together builds on Say Sue Me’s dreamy palette and fuzzy sound, with Sumi’s deft hybrid of playfulness and melancholy front and center. On the charming and upbeat “But I Like You,” she croons alongside jangly guitar, “I like somebody who likes cats/Somebody who likes old movies.” At times she’s also self-deprecating, observing, “I’m full of things I hate, but I like you/I like you liking me/Yet I’m full of things I hate.” A favorite off the album, “I Just Wanna Dance,” joins the time-honored tradition of dancing through the pain. In this instance, it’s the pangs of uncertainty: “I wanna be something/Don’t know what it is,” Sumi sings, and it’s impossible not to want to jump around.
Busan has a bustling music scene, including high-wattage K-Pop stars like Big Bang. But Say Sue Me has more in common sonically with bands like La Luz, High Sunn, and Best Coast than it does with South Korea’s high-production pop stars, slick power-pop and nu-metal, or even their punk-minded U.K. labelmates. Beneath Korea’s glitzy pop exports is a thriving indie rock scene, including bands like Barbie Dolls and Genius, whose song “One Question” Say Sue Me has covered. Say Sue Me’s surfy sound is influenced by both Quentin Tarantino soundtracks and the fact that Busan is on the water.
“We’re more easygoing here, than in Seoul,” says Sumi. “Maybe this is why Busan musicians don’t play to gain popularity.” Venues like expat rock bar The Basement and indie music hub Someday are where the action happens. “The audience is drinking, dancing, and enjoying our performances, so we think they have pure souls about rock and roll,” she adds. “The crowds are small anyways. We just love music and try to find the best ways to enjoy ourselves through it.”
Despite Busan’s plethora of bands, Say Sue Me don’t really spend time with other musicians. Mostly it’s just the four of them hanging out on the beach eating snacks. “We make jokes and look at the sea and the people,” Sumi says. “We’re most serious when deciding what to eat together. The games of rock-paper-scissors involved get very intense!” Asked what they hope for their future as a team, which seems quite promising, Sumi writes, “We’d like to never work full-time again, and just stay together: happy, healthy, and always playing music.”
SAY SUE ME’S LATEST RECORD WHERE WE WERE TOGETHER IS OUT APRIL 13TH ON DAMNABLY.