There’s a cacophony coming from behind a door, backstage at their first world tour. SuperM are recording greetings for fans and media. “Hi, we are…” begins Baekhyun, the group’s unofficial-official leader. The six other members cheerfully join in… “SuperM!” The cadence isn’t quite right and Baekhyun’s cackle, as distinctive as his singing voice, rises above the boyish shouts of genial failure. They repeat the line so many times it seems plausible that if you ever woke one of them abruptly, they’d sit up and shout the phrase automatically.
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SuperM are a bona fide K-pop supergroup, and like all supergroups, they’re not running to schedule. “We have to halve your time,” whispers a PR apologetically. SuperM’s greetings and gleaming smiles are casual and friendly, but little can distract from the extraordinary human wall of talent they present. Twenty-six-year-old Taemin, SHINee’s vocalist and legendary performer, sits between EXO’s Baekhyun, 27, and main dancer Kai, 26. Perched on a sofa behind them are members of SM Entertainment’s newer groups: WayV’s Ten, 24, and Lucas, 21, and NCT’s rappers Mark, 20, and Taeyong, 24.
From South Korea to the world
Last October, SuperM’s eponymous first EP entered the US album chart at number one, the cherry on top of a media blitz that included shutting down LA’s Vine Street to perform outside Capitol Records. They’re only the second South Korean group to have reached the top spot (BTS being the first), but that was always part of the goal—their record label, SM Entertainment, put the US in the crosshairs and SuperM was going to be its golden bullet. But although NCT 127 (an NCT sub-unit) have been promoting themselves in the US, it’s a first time for Taemin, Baekhyun and Kai.
“It felt like re-debuting,” Taemin says. “The fact that we’re targeting different audiences felt like a new challenge we were all taking on.” With bleached blond hair and a delicate build that belies a robust physical strength, it’s not just Taemin’s seniority as an artist in SuperM’s ranks that makes everyone listen intently—his manner is assertive without being overbearing, and his earnestness has you believe you’re not just one more addition to a blurry, months-long line of interviewers. “We’ve grown together, we’ve gained confidence and it gets easier as we see the fans’ reactions. It’s fun; it’s working.”
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It’s no secret that, in part, SuperM had their work cut out for them. Their union had Twitter fan groups up in arms, with calls for SM Entertainment to allow the members to concentrate on their respective groups or solo careers. When a hazy, distorted sliver of their debut single leaked, naysayers predicted a flop.
The single, Jopping, Taemin points out, showcases the label’s SM Performance dance project and in its fully remixed, remastered glory, it was a swaggering, audacious and riff-heavy bop that took itself as seriously as it didn’t. It was there to be danced to and though much of it was in English, its titanium-strong hooks refused to pander to western trends. SuperM’s style recalls the years before intricate concepts (such as EXO’s alien superpower origins story) came to cradle much of current K-pop. The album might revel in its layers of production, but it’s refreshingly escapist, and shifted 164,000 physical copies in its first week.
Breaking the stage, one continent at a time
With all this in mind, it’s unsurprising that one of Baekhyun’s goals is “for people to say only good things about SuperM”. Their fans, who’ve filled arenas in the US, Mexico and Europe, are noisily adoring and with good reason—SuperM’s stage show is compelling. Theirs is a punishing schedule—mid-interview, Taeyong is unable to smother an enormous yawn—but on stage, their energy lights up the cavernous space.
Choreographed numbers, such as I Can’t Stand The Rain, are mighty and aggressive. With You (a loose, routine-less chance to interact with the audience) and No Manners, where they slither around a simple elevated set, seem easy to emulate, but are completely reliant on mesmerising presence and cohesion. “There are so many different stages and performances at a SuperM concert,” says Taeyong, more matter-of-fact than boastful. “You’ll never get to see this chemistry or these members performing together [anywhere else].” Taemin adds: “The fans have shown so much support, and it pushes me to want to perform to even bigger audiences on an even larger scale.”
K-pop is relentlessly accused of being manufactured, with its performers supposedly just going through the motions, but SuperM subvert this idea with a warm spontaneity and rakishness on and off stage. They’re each other’s most fervent cheerleaders and bearers of the most merciless roasts—the atmosphere is more akin to a lads’ holiday than a multimillion-dollar music project. “Thank you for noticing that,” laughs Baekhyun, who puts it down to a “natural chemistry. If you saw us [just hanging out] you would get even more of that feeling!”
Sailing pop’s high seas
Mark, who was born in Canada—funny, and wise beyond his years—likens SuperM to a ship. “When I practised with these guys, the energy I absorbed was actually very interesting,” he says. “The knowledge and experience is incomparable to anything we [younger members] have. It’s not a competition or anything—it’s something we learn from.
“Taemin would be the ship’s wheel,” he continues, happily developing his theme. “He knows the direction we want to go in. The EXO-hyungs [older males] have a lot of talent—they’d be the sail and that’s where we get the boost. NCT and WayV, we’re like the hull, holding the talent [together]. That’s a pretty cool ship,” Mark grins. SuperM’s concert visuals might well be having a subliminal effect on Mark: during Jopping, a pirate ship bobs across the huge screen behind them.
Thailand-born Ten, known for his quick wit, adds: “Taemin sees stuff very differently to us. [He thinks about] what kind of make-up or uniform [costume] we need to wear, and we’ve never thought about that before.”
The hyungs get a sense of vitality from their younger bandmates, although Taemin and Baekhyun scrunch their faces at the prospect of being old enough to need a top-up. “They’re the foundation for whenever we feel tired,” Baekhyun laughs.
Off the back of touring, SuperM have developed a number of in-jokes and nicknames that, when asked about them, sets them off. “Lucas-tonkotsu?” mumbles Taemin with a sidelong smile, making Lucas—all long legs and big grin—double over. Mark slowly chants “B-A-E-K-hyung” which Baekhyun, the corners of his mouth curving upwards, tries to ignore. “There are secret names we like to call each other, but we want them to remain within the group,” he says. Mark nods, “Yeah, they’re just for us.”
Baekhyun raises his eyebrows and looks at his bandmates. “I love you!” he sing-songs with a smirk. Groans and laughter are the only replies.
SuperM — The 1st Mini Album is out now