As far as music goes, New Jersey native Jay Sakong is what you might call a “self-starter.” Over the course of six months in 2012, he recorded the debut album by his band, Owel, in the studio where he works. He also released it on his own label and is responsible for the animation in the video for the group’s song “Once the Ocean.” He took a similarly proactive approach to recruiting the band’s violinist Jane Park, with whom he used to play Christian music at the Korean church they attended as teenagers.
“I remember he was telling me his band was going to play a venue near our neighborhood,” Park says over beers at a Brooklyn bar a few hours before their set at the borough’s annual Northside Festival. “But I was in a band, and we were playing somewhere else the same night. I wanted to see them, because I hadn’t seen Jay in years.” Park played her set and immediately rushed to see Owel, with whom she was instantly impressed. The band invited her to join them at their next practice session to see if there was any chemistry.
“And like she just played one note,” says Sakong, “everyone was like ‘ooooooooh!!’”
It was a crucial addition: Park’s delicate playing gives Owel’s songs a spectral, crystalline quality, which makes them all the more thrilling when they shift from graceful to overwhelming. Their self-titled debut only hints at their potential.
So you’re from Jersey City?
Jay Sakong: Yeah, well, I moved to New York City about two years ago, but [I'm originally from] Central Jersey. It’s weird that Jersey City, for as hip-seeming as it is — and it’s getting there — doesn’t have any venues. I mean, we have [an old] Loew’s movie theater that [now has] a bar and a stage and a shitty PA, but it feels like a living room show at that point. Which could be fun, actually. Me and Ryan [Vargas, the band's drummer] did a special Smashing Pumpkins cover set there. It was a Halloween show, so the theme was everyone had to cover a band. I had been listening to Smashing Pumpkins, getting nostalgic over Siamese Dream — and so me, Ryan, and a couple people not in the band did a set. Mostly Siamese Dream, some Mellon Collie. It was awesome. There’s something really cool about being a cover band. There’s a great validation in playing cover songs that everyone knows them and is tied to has a certain memory about. You’re sort of pretending for a little bit, playing rock star. And everyone was dressed up in character.
So did you wear a “Zero” shirt?
Sakong: I did wear a “Zero” shirt [laughs]! Yeah, I actually ordered one from eBay.
Vargas: I was supposed to have my hair dyed like Jimmy Chamberlin, so we got green dye, and I dyed my hair light green on top.
Sakong: I don’t know why you did that. Jimmy Chamberlin never had green hair.
Ryan Vargas: No! I think I saw — I was watching, um, I forget what video — “Rat in a Cage” video, he had kind of greenish-orange…
Sakong: You’re talking about “Everlasting Gaze.” Anyway, everyone [who saw the show] was confused, because I’m the Asian guy, but I was Billy Corgan and the white guy was James Iha.
You were singing lead, though.
Sakong: Once we started, I guess they figured it out.
Vargas: And Jay sounds like Billy Corgan.
Sakong: If Cartman tried singing, he’d sound like Billy Corgan.
Did you guys know each other growing up?
Sakong: I think I’m the common link between everyone. When me and Jane were kids, our parents used to take us to the same Korean church, so we were actually jamming with each other when we were little kids. It was like —
Jane Park: It was Christian pop.
Sakong: I can’t believe I’m saying it on tape, because it’s really embarrassing. But for us, it was just playing music.
Park: It was the first time I was able to jam with someone else, and I fell in love with the idea of playing music with someone else.
Sakong: I went to high school with Ryan, I went to audio engineering school with Seamus, and Pat joined on later, after we were playing together and found out what we were looking for.
So what was growing up in Jersey like? Was there a music scene in your hometowns? Were you playing VFW halls, or was it kind of isolated?
Vargas: It was a lot of that. I mean, when Jay and I were in high school, there were a lot of VFW shows. There were a couple bands in our high school who were spread out, so there were people listening to music and going to shows, but nothing too awesome.
A lot of hardcore?
Seamus O’Connor: Hell yeah. Hardfuckingcore music.
Sakong: I think everyone of us except Jane had been in a hardcore band before this band.
Growing up in Jersey, aren’t you obligated to play hardcore at some point?
Sakong: I don’t know about “play” — it was hard for me to find people to play with. I remember teaching my friends when I was 13 the basics of drum and guitar just so I’d have someone to play with, but that feels more about how tight your jeans were than how good you played guitar.
Park: So Jay and I knew each other during childhood, but we lost touch for years —
Sakong: Because we both stopped going to church, which was our cover.
It’s interesting because just the addition of violin alone makes it sound really huge. Like, it is five people but the record sounds like it could be 12 or something.
Sakong: Well, on the record there are us multiplied by —
— I mean, I understand there are overdubs, but live it still comes off that way.
Sakong: Yeah, that’s because we have little kids behind the curtain.
Your songs are at points very delicate, very atmospheric and quiet, but then they get very bombastic but with the same strength of melody behind the bombast — where did that come from?
Sakong: Well, I love dynamics and I love builds and I’m a huge fan of — it’s pretty obvious — Sigur Rós and Radiohead and Explosions in the Sky, and those bands are all about dynamics and builds. I love bands that can sound heavy and sound big without having to use the obvious tricks, without having to add more distortion. We were less ambitious in the beginning. Our songs in the beginning were more like early Coldplay.
You went to audio engineering school. What made you decide to do that?
Sakong: I just wanted to cut the middle man out of the recording process. From being in a band and hearing the finished product and never being satisfied, I wanted a situation where I’d have no one to blame but myself in those situations.
You guys self-released this. Was there no offer [from a label], or did you just decide you wanted to do it by yourself?
Sakong: There’s great freedom in doing it by yourself. No one has said, “You can’t have this song, you need a song that’s more like this on the record.” It would be nice to have the financial support. We’ve had a couple offers, but nothing that really made sense for us. So yeah, I mean especially in the day and age, it’s not a necessity to be on a label just to be on a label.
It’s impressive that you turned them down. A lot of bands jump on the first person who wants to help them out.
Sakong: When I was younger, I might have done that, but we’ve all heard the horror stories and seen them from our friends.
Park: Collectively, we have the know how to do it all DIY, so might as well do it. That is, until we get the offer of our lives.
So, lyrically, looking at this album, water and snow and freezing are the main things that keep occurring.
Sakong: Yeah, someone had said recently that it was very “elemental.”
Yeah, you got float, ocean, tide, burning house.
Sakong: I don’t know — I didn’t really — It wasn’t like a concept or something that I wanted to do or want to bring up constantly. Anyone who knows me knows I’m happiest next to a large body of water. It sounds so weird, but I just love being in it, looking at it — even a lake. I’ll look at it and be peaceful. I guess that somehow found its way [on to the record]. I keep using those things as metaphors for other things.
So, not to change the subject, but I read an interview that said you were training for the Modern Fighting Arts Academy?
Sakong: I was training, and had the same regimen as the guys who were training to be [MFA fighters] — just maybe not as hard. I was doing tournaments for Muay Thai and Ju Jitsu, but I just knew that I could never give that 100 percent, because music was always the most important thing, and I don’t know if I’d be any good at. I’m a little too scrawny for a 28-year-old, so I was like, “Maybe I should get a little bit bigger.” But I think I’ve always wanted to be a little bit scrawny because my favorite bands’ singers were always scrawny.
Well, Billy Corgan’s really into wrestling, so —
Sakong: Did you see that commercial?!
Yeah, I did.
Sakong: Oh my god. So awkward. He’s in a cage and he’s got this hoodie on and he’s reciting the words to “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” but he’s saying it so — he’s taking himself way too seriously for a wrestling commercial. Because he’s my hero, I’m like, “What are you doing?!”
I’m looking forward to hearing his album with Tommy Lee.
Sakong: Yeah, we’ll see. I mean, I don’t know, man.
I thought the last album a few years ago was pretty good, but —
Vargas: It’ll probably be one of those Guns N’ Roses thing with an all-star filling in and they’ll work for a year and they’ll go back to the original drummer. My reaction to that was when Ben Affleck was going to be Batman — I was like, “Ben Affleck Batman? That could work!” But Tommy Lee in Smashing Pumpkins, I was like “Noooo!”
I saw you guys a month ago and it was all these really delicate melodies and you were, like, looking jacked and it wasn’t what I was expecting.
Sakong: You’re the only person who ever said I look jacked!
Park: Jacked?! That’s what you’re going for these days, aren’t you?