ENTRANCE FEE: ₩ 20 000
One of the biggest First World Problems that comes with living in a big city with a lively electronic music scene like Seoul is the excruciatingly difficult choices that have to be made on the weekend. On any given Friday or Saturday night, there are so many great acts, both local and international, playing in the city’s various venues, and only so many places someone can be at once. This Friday past was no exception; I was faced with having to choose between hearing a performance by legend of house music Fred P. (aka Black Jazz Consortium) at Contra, or a showcase by one of the most cutting-edge house labels to emerge in recent years, Lobster Theremin, at Faust. I really struggled to choose between the two (I went so far as to put up a survey in a dance music group on Facebook to help make the decision), but in the end, I chose to go to the Lobster Theremin party instead – honestly, not because I was so interested in seeing Lobster Theremin artists Asquith and Route 8 perform, but because Faust is such a good venue (sorry, Contra).
Faust has long been an important fixture on the Seoul underground nightlife scene. Previously, it used to occupy a spot near the top of Itaewon’s infamous Hooker Hill, surrounded by brothels and love motels; walking up to Faust (especially as a man alone) was always a bit of an eye-opening experience. Earlier this year, however, the club relocated a little bit down the hill, closer to the subway station, at the place previously occupied by club/events venue Sonnendeck. The relocation involved significant renovation and expansion on the part of Faust, with the club now occupying a significantly larger space and kitted out with a state-of-the-art sound system by Kirsch Audio that, at the time of writing, may well be the best one in the entire country. In terms of music on offer, Faust leans towards techno but often features house artists as well, and tends to host artists that have both underground cred as well as a little mainstream appeal; in that sense, it reminds me of Cakeshop, in that it seeks to cater to both deep techno heads alongside a slightly more mainstream audience – a slightly difficult thing to achieve, but one that thus far the management of Faust seems to be managing to pull off quite well.
Behind Faust, a mini-documentary released by Faust in order to promote their new venue.
On Friday night, Faust’s management had elected to indulge their housier inclinations, providing a venue for modern house label Lobster Theremin’s Seoul leg of their current Asia tour, which label founder Jimmy Asquith and star producer Route 8 embarked on in celebration of the label’s fifth anniversary. Based in London, but providing a home for producers from all around the world, Lobster Theremin have been at the vanguard of a new wave of post-internet house music, releasing a steady flow of singles and EPs remarkably consistent in their quality. They’ve sometimes (lazily, in my opinion) been lumped together with the broader category of “lo-fi house”, but the the adventurous nature of much of the label’s output, together with it’s vinyl-centric approach, sets it apart from the legions of YouTube house dilettantes currently in vogue, even though some of it’s landmark releases have come from lo-fi house icons such as DJ Seinfeld or Ross From Friends.
With all this in mind, I decided to give Fred P. a skip on Friday night and head down to Faust instead. The new Faust is split into two distinct zones: Faust itself, which consists of nothing but dancefloor, and Tanzbar, a more mellow chillout zone where one can buy drinks, mingle and listen to music on a smaller but still respectable soundsystem. I decided to check out Tanzbar first; my free drink ticket was burning a hole in my pocket. Here, everything still feels brand-new, from the bleached wood paneling to red and green neon light fixtures behind the bar (red and green seems to be the official colour scheme of Faust, which honestly I think is a bit of a weird design choice – the colour combination makes me think of ugly Christmas jumpers, not of one of Seoul’s premiere underground clubs). The overall vibe of the place is distinctly retro, like a seaside cocktail bar in the 80s. The Tanzbar DJ was playing an assortment of funky, elastic house tunes, pitched at the perfect volume for the space – it was loud enough to jam to, but soft enough that it was still possible to talk to someone without having to bellow into their ear.
Beyond Tanzbar, inside Faust itself, the vibe was completely different. I’d expected Route 8 to keep things on the more smooth and sultry side at the beginning of his set, but when I walked in he was belting out some hard, bone rattling techno, all staccato acid riffs and crunchy kick drums. The tune really showed off just how immaculate the new Faust’s sound system is. Every sound seemed deep and crisp and clear, and no matter where on the dancefloor I found myself, it felt like I was in the perfect listening spot – clearly some serious acoustic wizardry has gone into the construction of the space.
After another couple of grinding techno tracks, Route 8 changed pace a little, allowing his rhythms to get looser, his basslines more seductive, until we were firmly in house territory. This pattern defined much of his set that night: he would hit the audience with some groovy, soulful house (often vocal-driven) for a bit, allow things to get gradually harder and darker until we were suddenly listening to some heads-down beefy techno once again, only for him to lighten up again a few tracks later, creating a kind of push-pull emotional response on the dancefloor that varied up the pace enough so that the set never felt too boring or predictable and kept me intrigued and dancing for the majority of his time on the decks. A lot of the house numbers he was playing had a distinctly classic feel to them as well, sounding more like tunes he’d dug up from obscure 80s vinyl than lo-fi YouTube hits. Speaking of which, Lobster Theremin often gets lumped in with the “lo-fi house” phenomenon, but nothing I heard from either Route 8 or Asquith that night sounded especially lo-fi to me. If I had to describe the Lobster Theremin sound that night, I’d say it was somehow retro and futuristic at the same time, the house music equivalent of raygun gothic. This sort of retro feel to the night was enhanced by Faust’s lighting; during Route 8’s set, the lighting consisted mainly of slowly-circling colourful spotlights, that made the club feel a little like a Mediterranean disco in the late 70s.
The tone of the night changed a little when it was time for Jimmy Asquith to take over. The first half of his set was definitely a little harder and rougher around the edges than Route 8’s had been, favouring gritty techno over soulful house. His techno tracks still maintained that kind of retro/classic feel, though – a lot of what he was playing wouldn’t have sounded out of place on, say, the Ghost in the Shell PlayStation soundtrack (which is unironically one of the best showcases of 90s techno out there). The lighting inside Faust, as well, featuring more strobing and flashing lights and beams of colour that sliced through the darkness, creating a more intense, “ravier” atmosphere. Around midway through his set, however, Asquith changed up his sound quite dramatically, swapping out thumping kick drums and serrated synth rhythms for the syncopated beats and melancholy pads of UK garage house. The shift was really unexpected, and it took me a little bit to get used to; I actually had to leave the dancefloor at this point for the first time in ages to have a breather and get my bearings a little. When I returned, though, I got back into it, grooving to the more subtle, funky and emotional tunes Asquith was throwing down. Between the music, the lights and the clouds from the fog machine (which were, I shit you not, lemon-scented – probably one of the most Korean things I have ever experienced) it was really easy to lose myself in the moment and slip into that timeless, mesmerised state that to me is one of the biggest draws of dance music and club culture.
I snapped out of it, though, when Asquith decided to throw us a curveball by dropping ‘Miss Jackson’ by OutKast, which, of course, prompted a mass sing-along from everyone in the crowd (especially the foreigners). It was the kind of irreverent, playful move that can really make a set stand out, the kind of thing that I’ve not heard for a little while, given that for the last month or so I’ve been going exclusively to pretty serious, purist techno events. It was a moment that seemed to epitomise a lot of the seemingly contradictory qualities of Lobster Theremin, a label who over the last five years have shown they are not afraid to appeal to the everyday punter on the dancefloor as well as the more cerebral dance music heads haunting internet comment sections – a quality they share with the management behind Faust.
Shortly afterwards, Asquith stepped down from the decks and it was time for local DJ and producer Messiahwaits to close out the night. Once again, there was a significant sonic shift, with Messiahwaits following Asquith’s garage and hip hop inflected house with some twisty, trippy psychedelic techno, all rich metallic textures and ghostly echoes. It was maybe a bit too much of a deviation from what had gone before, and a lot of the people on the floor filtered out almost instantly, though that may just have been because they were tired – it was, after all, around 5 am at this point. For what it’s worth though, I enjoyed the closing set – none of the tunes sounded familiar or predictable to me at all, which for someone who listens to a lot of techno is kind of hard to come by. I can also see why so many people had to call it a night, though; at this point many of the dancers seemed decidedly worse for wear, alcohol wise. There was a lot of stumbling and slurred speech going on, and one person passed out in the stairway long enough that eventually paramedics had to be called. It’s not exactly an unusual sight in Itaewon on a Friday night, of course, but to me at least seeing stuff like that always sours the mood a little.
Hard as it was to make, by the end of the night I was sure I had made the right choice. Route 8 and Asquith’s sets complimented each other well, and between them they struck a nice balance between forward-thinking, exciting sounds, tried and tested formulas, and tongue-in-cheek-playfulness. And as a venue, the relocated Faust is truly quite remarkable, and represents an exponential step forward for the underground music scene in Seoul. I only hope that they can make a success of it; keeping a nightclub afloat isn’t easy, and it looks like some serious cash has been invested in Faust’s renovation. However, judging by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd on Friday night, I’m sure they’re not having too much difficulty getting people through the doors.