There are a number of Northern Irish bands and artists making music beyond our shores but more often than not the focus on Northern Irish music centres around bands at home, or those who have made a name for themselves. When we caught wind of one of our own playing in bands in Seoul, we thought we’d take a closer look.
Based in Seoul, South Korea, BaekMa are a four-piece with members from around the world, comprising of Stephanie Bankston (US), Ellis Frawley (Australia), Mike McGrath (England) and finally Maggie Devlin of Cookstown, Northern Ireland.
The band are part of a community of foreign bands playing in the South Korean capital. Maggie arrived in Seoul a few years ago, with the band forming in 2013. Fronted vocally by Maggie (listen out for the odd accent giveaway) and Stephanie, the band describe themselves as indie-pop. They released their debut album, Disaster Matinee at the end of last year. The video for the first single from the album, ‘Rabbits’ was released this month.
We had a chat with Northern Irish girl Maggie, a member of another Seoul band named New Blue Death, about BaekMa’s beginnings, their new album, thoughts of home and the meaning behind the “white horse” band name.
► How did the band come together?
Myself and Steph, the keyboard player, both played in bands when we first arrived in Korea. I was a big fan of Steph’s voice and style, and I suppose she saw something in me too. I’d kind of given up on music after my first year in Korea, but she kept hounding me to work together; wooing me with the occasional Facebook message. I gave in eventually, and we really clicked. All very romantic! Ellis came to the band a few months later after Steph drunkenly recruited her in an indie club. Then we stole Mike from another band we were very fond of when they were about to finish.
► I understand there’s an interesting meaning about the name, can you tell us about it?
Back when we were still trying to think of names I went on a date with a Korean dude. He leaned across the table and asked me if I knew about ‘BaekMa’. He pointed at me and shouted, ‘You! You are BaekMa!’ and started laughing. I sort of pretended I knew, then later asked some mates. It literally means ‘white horse’, or in the dating context: a white girl. It’s a derogatory term for white chicks in Korea. Bam! There was our band name! The reactions we get from people now are awesome. ‘It’s a very naughty name!’ ‘This name is a very bad word.’ Or just guys outright giggling in our faces. Definitely draws attention.
► So you’re a girl band at heart but I notice there’s a male bassist in your line-up, what’s that about?
Mike was playing in a band called Slow Dress when we were looking for a new bass player. We heard he was cool and could play, so myself and our drummer drank with him one night as a kind of espionage to see if he was sound. We knew he was perfect for us. He’s the biggest and most genuine music fan I’ve ever met. We’re so lucky. People still never believe he’s in the band though. He tells people he plays for BaekMa, and people just say, “Nah, mate. That’s that chick band.” Poor Mike.
► The band consists of members from all around the world, does that set you apart or is this common in the Seoul music scene?
It’s pretty common with foreign bands as far as I can see. My other band, New Blue Death has members from all over too, but for some reason it’s a talking point about BaekMa. Maybe because we have an Ozzy. Who knows!
► Any plans to play some shows in your home countries?
We would love to! I’d love to play a show in Belfast– it’d be amazing! I want to show the bands my home turf; the Belfast scene. It’s just so hard to mount a tour when everyone has full-time jobs, never mind from the other side of the world. It’s definitely an ambition though. We’re throwing around the idea of doing something next summer.
► What about women playing in bands in Seoul?
As far as I know, BaekMa is the only ‘girl band’ with foreign members. There are a lot of female faces in the scene though- as in, more than other scenes, I think. Our drummer, Eilis did a short showcase for TomTom Magazine highlighting female drummers. JuckJuck Grunzie are an awesome female-strong outfit too. Shame is, most fans of indie music here are young girls. It’s like Ed Sullivan-Beatles madness at a lot of indie shows– I’d love to see those girls get together and make music of their own. It can be frustrating for sure.
► Being from Northern Ireland, just how did you end up in Seoul?
My job in Belfast was really rewarding, but super stressful. I needed a break and to save some cash. So I hopped on a plane to Seoul for one year. It’ll be four years in March. God!
► Do you still keep up with the scene back in Northern Ireland? Do you have any favourites from home?
You know, I do more now probably than I did when I was at home. Twitter is great at keeping me in touch. I loved the video Rhinos put out. So exciting. It’s nice to share stuff from home. Northern Ireland, a victim of its regionality, doesn’t get highlighted nearly enough. I’d love some bands to come out here. They could sleep on my floor. I’d make them tea. I’ve got Nambarrie teabags from my mum.
► Do you bring any of your Northern Irish background into the band and your song writing?
I’m probably the most political songwriter in both bands; growing up on Stiff Little Fingers did that, I suppose. Songs like ‘Disaster Matinee’ and ‘The Raft’ (not on the album) deal with disaster porn, political inertia, tribalism… a bunch of old, complicated feelings about Northern Ireland. Then there’s my accent. Band members will say, ‘What’s that lyric about street-wise teens?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Straight-white teeth?’ At the end of ‘Baskets’ my accent is particularly wacky- haha!
► You’ve just released your debut album, Disaster Matinee in November, how did it come about? How was the experience of working on it?
We write so much– we knew we had to get some of it onto a record before we could move on. We recorded it in one weekend because we’re broke. Our recording engineer was super kind though and let us do a couple of remixes beyond what we deserved. It’s good. Recording levels a band up; getting songs tight enough to track. The studio’s also in a Chinese area of Seoul with a lot of amazing Chinese restaurants. That didn’t hurt either.
► There seems to be a playfulness to the sound but perhaps darker themes to the lyrics, are there any themes or particular influences that run through the album?
Yeah, lyrically this album is dark. ‘Invisible’ and ‘Before This Place’ deal with being a foreign girl in Seoul; it can be very hard, emotionally and self-esteem wise. ‘Disaster Matinee’, I wrote after the Sewol ferry sank. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The tragedy of those kids dying and then press going through their desks and schoolbags; it was disgusting. The day after the disaster there were sales in stores saying, ‘Buy X,Y and Z for your loved ones, you don’t know when you’ll lose them.’ It recalled countless examples of similar events; the St Valentine’s Day fire that Christy Moore sings about… the fire at the Kiss night club in Brazil. Just regular Joes being let down by people in charge. As an album, Disaster Matinee probably sounds quite upbeat on a first listen, but yeah, thematically it is dark. It’s us processing everything from living abroad to loveless marriages to the partition of India. Maybe our next album will be about, I don’t know, selfie-sticks and The Great British Bake-off. Holding hands or something… We’ll see!