Dong Young-bae, or Taeyang to his legions of fans, has been in the music business since the tender age of 12. Now, at age 31 and after taking an enforced break to complete his two-year military service, the BigBang member tells Esquire all about his new-found understanding of himself and his desire to force closer relationships.
ESQ: Your first move after being discharged from military service was to hold a charity flea market and an auction to raise funds for Snail of Love, which helps people who suffer from hearing loss.
TAEYANG: Being in the service, I reflected on how the first meeting with fans should be. Since we can’t meet them on the stage right now as we used to do all the time, I thought of many ideas and, while serving, I realised that I had too many garments that I didn’t really need. I came up with the idea of holding a flea market to share good things and donate the profits. The initial intention was how to meet fans, but the idea answered different thoughts.
ESQ: Why did you pick Snail of Love?
TAEYANG: I looked into many charities and I found myself moved by them [Snail of Love] the most. As a singer and a musician, I value the very act of hearing beyond music. Seeing is important too, however, I think a word or some beautiful sound changes people the most. In that sense, I wanted to give special presents to hearing-impaired kids.
ESQ: You said you thought a lot about it while in the service. How was your life in there? As you enjoy and cherish your job as a singer so much, it must have felt strange to not officially perform on a stage for two years.
TAEYANG: I actually had a lot of fun. I think I really needed that time. Of course, I had some tough times there too, but overall, I needed that time so much and I think I would’ve been a less mature person without that time. I said it was fun and enjoyable because I had worked without a break since I starting my career, hence I used to suffer from mental fatigue all the time. Before entering the service, I had an endless chain of decisions to make, but in the military, I just needed to follow the given daily tasks. I found that kind of time so relaxing. It gave me great mental peace.
ESQ: It sounds like you took a break and cleared your head from the previous extremely busy life.
TAEYANG: Right. I got along with my colleagues, too. I wouldn’t have experienced staying with those who are at least 10 years younger than me and from all different places if it wasn’t for the military service. I think I learnt so much because I saw things from different perspectives. I felt and learnt a lot.
ESQ: What did you feel? How different was it?
TAEYANG: They are mostly in their early or mid-20s and they use totally different platforms for cultural experiences. For instance, I use YouTube only for watching something I like. But as I watched them enjoy huge amounts of content on different platforms, I realised for the first time that there are so many platforms where people feel, experience and get influenced by. I became more open-minded.
ESQ: It was like you had seen only a part of it so far.
TAEYANG: Right. Also, ever since I reached the peak, it had been a repetition of creating songs, releasing albums and performing on stage and that was it. So it felt different to me in many ways. I performed a lot at military events and learnt something fundamental, which I couldn’t feel from our own concerts. It felt like I was a real singer. The military events use audio equipment of poorer quality compared to our concerts. Still, I couldn’t complain about it on the stage because I was supposed to comfort other soldiers. The stages were imbued with the simplest equipment and the most basic structure. That made me feel more like a singer.
ESQ: It was all about the music and the audience. That was it.
TAEYANG: Exactly. I returned to the basics of doing such performances; I used to perform like this. Also, it was weirdly exciting to perform in front of military personnel and their families who are not likely to come to our concerts.
ESQ: You were excited? (laughs) Rather than being scared? You never know if the ordinary audience would like you or not, unlike your fans whom you can expect a positive response from.
TAEYANG: That led me to the basics even more. As you said, my fans like me and come to the concerts to see me. Performing for a ‘random’ audience made me excited, maybe nervous to be on the stage. It was a feeling I haven’t had recently.
ESQ: So you gained energy instead.
TAEYANG: A lot.
ESQ: I was told that you asked if we can skip this interview.
TAEYANG: Well, as a matter of fact, I enjoy having an interview very much. However, I’m not sure how to phrase it but I’d like to be more cautious about doing interviews for now and probably in the future. Even though I say things reflecting my thoughts of the moment, people change over time. I think it would be better to do interviews after I become more consistent.
ESQ: Agreed. The words of the moment last forever in the form of text. In the meantime, no one would say the same answers all the time.
TAEYANG: You’re right. No one would. You get to have a lot of time to think in the military. You always have time to think. When standing guard at dawn, you can easily become emotional and think of so many things. And it changes from moment to moment.
ESQ: What did you think about the most? Have you thought of any resolutions or goals, too?
TAEYANG: I have but there are too many resolutions and goals and they keep changing. I thought about myself the most. It was a chance to reflect on who I am. On the other hand, I began to be thankful for everyday life. For example, you don’t usually consider how precious a moment is. But being in the service, I felt that a lot and appreciated the time given to me. About people around me and fans, I thought about wanting to maintain good relationships more, I should talk about hard truths sometimes even though they’re tough, and I should be more matured and humble in order to do so. I don’t mean to pretend to be a better person though.
ESQ: Your words “I should talk about hard truths sometimes even though they’re tough” resonate with me.
TAEYANG: I don’t want to be seen ‘pretending’ to be a better, nice person. If there are people around you and you truly love them, you should be able to talk about hard truths even when it’s tough. It’s about how to deliver it. I think it was the most import thing back in the service because it wasn’t easy to communicate with colleagues from completely different environments, different worlds. We had to spend a long time together anyway, so I got to pick up on little by little that the most import thing to deliver my message and make others understand is to stay honest. It seems to work the best when you express that honesty on a level that people can understand and empathise with. In the end, the musical expression has to be empathised with and communicated as well.
ESQ: Then again, you were a person from a different world to your colleagues.
TAEYANG: That’s true. They found me mysterious at first. Those who were 10 years younger than me and grew up with our music were in their sixth or seventh grade when we made our debut. Kids at those ages are interested in the entertainment world the most. They got along with me. We ended up hanging out together and sharing each other’s concerns, instead of feeling mysterious or awkward. Concerns like ‘how can we get through this training safely’ or ‘let’s do this thing and receive time off’.
ESQ: So, you were granted time off?
TAEYANG: I tried so hard. (laughs) I was a gunner so I could receive vacations for carrying out missions like firing guns. I could get some after finishing basic training well without any accident and with great results. I mean, I couldn’t always take leave but my unit seemed to be generous about it as we willingly went through the training.
ESQ: You’ll be performing with BigBang at Coachella in the US in April.
TAEYANG: Right. It is the first stage after being discharged and maybe an opportunity to express many aspects of myself I couldn’t reveal so far. I’m looking forward to the festival as well as contemplating a lot. I should get through it successfully but it’s not something I can do all by myself. It is a great opportunity anyway. If I’m in a good place and give a great performance, it would be meaningful.
ESQ: Did Coachella suggest this first from their end?
TAEYANG: Yes, they did. Among the headliners are the legendary rap-metal band, Rage Against the Machine, which is reuniting for the first time in 10 years on this occasion. I think we were offered a proposal in the same sense.
ESQ: How do you see yourself?
TAEYANG: I don’t think I’m an issue maker either in a good or a bad way. That was why I once said I don’t fit the term ‘celebrity’. Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t enjoy doing something people can talk about. I’m just happy working on music and creating things. I think I was just born this way. I discovered a lot about who I am while in the service, too.
ESQ: It reminds me of the stage you had in the military. The sense of returning to the basics. Things you have forgotten.
TAEYANG: Exactly. Speaking of ‘who I am’, there are both good and bad sides of me which I couldn’t distinguish very well when I was younger. Now that I’m older and after spending time in the service, I got to acknowledge many aspects of me honestly and I think that I could be a better version of myself even though I’m not good enough at the moment.
ESQ: What is the bad aspect?
TAEYANG: There is a lot. I feel I’m not good enough in terms of keeping in touch and getting closer to others. Those things matter. I wish I could do better. I would like to take care of others sincerely, rather than against my will. I think I talked too much about the military story by the way…
ESQ: It was the most recent step you had. You seem to have learnt and regained a lot from it.
TAEYANG: In fact, I think I regained myself the most.
Words by Kim Eunhee
Fashion Editor: Ko Donghui
Photographer: Kim HeeJune
Make-up: Won Joyeon
Nail artist: Park Eunkyung
Prop styling: Kim Kyungmin
Assistant: Lee Giyeon
Art designer: Kim Daesup
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