WOODZ: K-pop idol turned pop-rock chameleon

Last December, WOODZ (Cho Seungyoun) performed at the Asia Artist Awards. Generally speaking, award ceremonies are an opportunity for artists to turn up the dial on their biggest hit of the year, adding more pyrotechnics and bigger dance breakdowns. WOODZ used his acclaimed 2021 single “Feel Like” merely as a walk-on, audaciously debuting “HIJACK” instead, a completely unheard song with a Vapours-esque hook and sneering chorus. “You wanted a new symbol,” ran its spoken intro, “aren’t you tired of the same old?”.

It was the single from his next project… until it wasn’t. WOODZ later decided that because he’d removed the element of anticipation, it’d be better to have a new lead track. So he scrapped his plans, sat down and wrote the old-school pop-punk banger, “I hate you” for his fifth EP entitled Colorful Trauma, released in early May. Sonically, it was familiar turf, at least, personally. “When I was younger I liked bands like Cherry Filter, No Brain, Muse and Imagine Dragons, and when I was a teenager I listened to a lot of Avril Lavigne,” he recalls. “I think she’s an inspiration.”

“I hate you” is yet another twist on the WOODZ sound (which began in an ambient R&B space), a move he briefly pondered over the undertaking. “When I’m making music, I focus on conveying honest feelings, emotions and stories. I understand that people who like my music from the past might not like my newer music, but I always remind myself that that was me then and this is me now,” he says. “I don’t need to be scared but to be bold with my decisions [because] I can always go back and release music similar to my old music.”

With a distinctive voice and a goosebump-inducing upper register that’s simultaneously surgically sharp, vulnerable and anguished, 25-year-old WOODZ has traversed a bumpy road to sit firmly in the driving seat of his career. “I didn’t know then I’d be this type of artist or be doing this kind of music,” he says of his early years during which he auditioned around 40 times before landing a trainee idol position. He debuted as a rapper in the boy group UNIQ in 2014 (who went on indefinite hiatus in 2018), then re-debuted in 2019 with the ill-fated survival show group X1. “I was just doing music, hoping that one day people would listen.”

He was both persistent and prolific throughout the ups and downs, releasing his first solo material in 2016 under the name of Luizy before adopting WOODZ in 2018. After X1 fizzled out in early 2020, he dropped the confident yet restrained pop of “Love Me Harder”, on which WOODZ was no longer just a stage name but a fully-formed alter ego. In the video, there are two of him – one being angry, lost and heartbroken, the second version a bemused, leather-wearing, eyeliner-smudged beacon of bad behaviour, invisible to all except his doppelganger. On “Feel Like” (“This song came out so naturally it almost felt like I was possessed,” he notes) WOODZ is seductive –prowling a bar, steaming up a telephone box – and enigmatic, seemingly a solid reality until the end where he’s shown as an imagined scenario evoked by the song’s bluesy, languorous power.

The further Cho develops WOODZ as a concept of the other, the more fascinating and challenging they become as entities. Cho performs as WOODZ, tapping deep into this forceful, fearless presence. But he also writes and produces as WOODZ, yet this part appears to think and create at a distance from the version the audience sees on stage. As the producer WOODZ, he “makes characters, almost like a film. I think, ‘Is this character a good guy or a bad guy? Are we in open nature or are we in a bar?’ Even for music without music videos, I have an image in mind.” Thus Cho steps into WOODZ who then embodies these various characters, a dizzying spiral staircase of identity.

Often he’ll quietly connect the personalities. “Strong songs have related characters.” He points to the character from the Americana-leaning “Trigger” (2020). “I think this would be the same character as the first two songs (“Dirt on my leather”, “HIJACK”) on Colorful Trauma. The “Sour Candy” (2021) character is related to “Love Me Harder” (2020), but “Love…” is like the future and “Sour Candy” is the past. There can be songs that have very different vibes, like a dark mood and a light mood, but can be the same character. The songs show their duality.”

WOODZ is fervently eloquent about this aspect of his art, and it thrills him that his fandom (known as MOODZ) have begun investing just as deeply in his kaleidoscopic storytelling in which human beings crave, love, lose, and fight each other and themselves. “Fans say, ‘Oh, this character is the boss of this one’, or they map out an organisational chart. Some even drew them and fleshed out the characters.” It’s gotten him thinking about the possibility of a fully realised, visual shared universe. “I have an idea that I love – a cartoon based around the characters. I’d love it to be an animation but it could be a webtoon (static comic) too,” he says with an enthusiasm that makes his cheeks glow.

The more we talk, the harder it is to know where Cho Seungyoun ends and WOODZ begins.  Perhaps they’re always inextricably entwined in a mutually beneficial embrace: I address him as WOODZ and he replies as WOODZ but also as Seungyoun, and yet speaks about both in the third person. Visually, he’s Seungyoun here in the meeting room of his label – barefaced, with his hair tucked under a beanie despite Seoul’s warm, muggy weather. He looks younger than his years. He describes being on stage as WOODZ as feeling “excited, with a high tension. I feel like I’m alive. When I’m Seungyoun, it’s not boring, but I feel more comfortable and chilled out.”

Unlike David Bowie who very purposefully created the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust, Cho is unsure of WOODZ’ beginnings. “If I think about it quickly then I’d say I made WOODZ,” he says, trailing off into thought. “But there’s also another feeling that WOODZ was always inside me. When I think about my childhood, when I was [focussed on] playing football [as a career], I always had the feeling I wanted to be an artist. And I’m wondering, is that the feeling of WOODZ inside me? So it’s really hard for me to say.”

He veers between placing his own personal experiences in the music, and drawing on external references, like film and TV. He’ll mould them into new stories, slivers of which resonate with him, and refuses to be constrained by any kind of linear narrative despite his increasingly interconnected characters. Last year’s Only Lovers Left contained six songs that made up one story, but Colorful Trauma, he says, consists of completely individual tracks. Much like 2020’s Equals, it’s an EP of mixed genres – from the AC/DC and Led Zeppelin influences that make “Dirt on my leather” a high-octane punch of stadium rock, to the sweet melodic K-pop of yesteryear on “Hope to be like you”, a track that Blackpink’s Jennie took to her Instagram to champion.

The record’s title derives from his belief that “trauma can be expressed and even thought of as colours”. Pink, neon green and black make up the album’s concept art but WOODZ is unable to pinpoint an overriding hue, “and that’s why I describe it as ‘colourful’. I want people to interpret this album in their own colours.” WOODZ hesitates over how parts of his life came to form the album’s premise, and to what extent. ”I’m using an impactful word like ‘trauma’ but I think this can be interpreted as an experience or memory. If there was one moment, it’d be when my dad passed away – I felt sad and I don’t actually know if he left comfortably or not,” he says slowly. “When I look back, I don’t necessarily interpret it as trauma, that’s up to me to decide [what it represents], but as I grow older I understand there’s now an empty seat, a role to fill. It’s not simply sadness but a maturing and feeling out and an understanding of that role.”

WOODZ often finds himself thinking about life experiences from his father’s perspective, a view gained by stepping back from himself, something he’s keen to extend right across his existence. It would, he thinks, invite a relaxedness that’d allow him to “maybe get rid of some greed or even experience a different direction in lifestyle”. He’s already making good on his word, approaching his mental health in a more objective, deliberate manner and steering away from his penchant for hyper-detailing that in the past has brought “chaos and indecisiveness” to his creative process.

Having previously struggled with depression – documented on 2018’s poignant “Meaningless” – WOODZ says he’s now “very good, it’s the best I’ve felt in a while. I thought about what to embrace and what to let go of, and that really helped a lot. I still have that stress of thinking about other people’s perception of me and I’m trying to overcome it,” he admits, rolling his plastic bracelets along his wrist in a soothing motion. “But, in a way, it makes me think, ‘Who am I? How do I present myself?’ That makes me want to be more honest and show my true self in a positive light. It’s a way to know what kind of person I am, what makes me happy or what I find difficult. There are sides of me I have to learn to accept.”

For WOODZ, all of this – his relentless work ethic, unflinching self-examination, and endless flow of ideas that now includes clothing design and film acting – derives from a singular motivation. “Why do I work so hard?” he says, with a grin. “Speaking very simply, I think even when I die, I want to die in a cool way. Even when I’m doing something lame, I want to do it in a cool way. Cool can mean many things but [for me] this isn’t an aesthetic, it’s an internal [state of being]. Currently, I don’t know what’s perfectly cool – you could say it’s being mature or having a relaxed attitude. Rather than desperately trying to achieve something, you’re able to look at the world and show yourself fully.” WOODZ laughs. “At this point, I don’t think I’ve achieved being a cool person but I’m trying.”

WOODZ new EP Colorful Trauma is out now