Many years ago (probably around 2010), I came across some YouTube videos of an incredible classical music duo called Igudesman & Joo showing absolute virtuosity and top-notch prowess while incorporating some of the funniest theatrical material I’d ever seen. The clips were from a show called A Little Nightmare Music (a play on Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusic , or A Little Night Music or A Little Serenade). It was one of those nights where you spend 2-3 hours going down the YouTube rabbit hole finding every video you can about someone. Borderline creepy, I know.
They played in my hometown of Mesa, Arizona for the first time in 2013 and then returned in 2014. The concert in 2013 was hilarious because my wife and I sat in the front row and Aleksey Igudesman flirted with her all night from the stage. We did not get to sit so close in 2014, but two of my friends sat in the front row and were chosen as participants in the show. It was hysterical and we all had a blast. I brought them two shirts and they sent me an awesome photo afterward.
I’m not going to say I’m their #1 fan or anything, but I’m definitely a big fan of their work. So, it is a sincere and ridiculous privilege and pleasure to be able to present this interview.
Interview Audio (Podcast)
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AG: This is Anthony…
HJ: Wait, before we start, I feel like we have to do this… [Gives me a noogie reminiscent of our Steve Vai interview] You should have every guest do that. That should be the start.
AG: All right.
AG: This is Anthony with MakeWeirdMusic.com and I have a very special guest with me. We are here in Germany and I’m really privileged to be here with him. It’s Hyung-ki Joo from Igudesman & Joo. Thank you so, so much.
HJ: It’s a pleasure to be here. Good hair by the way.
AG: Thank you so much. I just had it done.
HJ: Oh right!
AG: So, tell us who you are and what you do.
HJ: Right. Well, my name is Hyung-ki Joo. I’m one of the rare Korean Joos [“Jews”] in the world. It’s spelled “J-O-O.” My parents are Korean, hence the Asian look, but I was born in England and I guess I’m a musician. I’m a pianist, I’m a composer, arranger, and one of the reasons why we’re here is because you got to know me through my duo, Igudesman & Joo. We are a duo of violinist and pianist. We are classically trained, but we make concerts-slash-shows that combine humor and theatricality with music.
AG: Awesome. So, I found out about you years ago through a YouTube video and you guys have found a lot of YouTube success. For me, when I look at what you’re doing, it’s clear that you have a mission of turning classical music into something more accessible and entertaining. Can you talk a little about that mission? And how do you feel you’ve done in executing that mission?
HJ: The mission is a byproduct. “Mission” always sounds very self-aggrandizing. I mean, yes, it would be a lie to say that it wasn’t a mission and it would be a lie to say that the mission wasn’t in the back of our heads. What I mean by that is that our first goal was to be creative as we were when we were teenagers. We wanted to create a concert that we’d want to go to ourselves. We couldn’t understand why a classical concert–let alone jazz or rock concerts…
Actually, if you think about it, the concert format, regardless of genre, is quite square. Even rock music… There’s so little humor and so little fun. I mean, the music is “yeah yeah yeah,” whatever, but they’re actually quite serious and it’s quite uptight in a weird sort of rock way. They’re on drugs and whatever, but there’s a certain type of rigidity, it’s a certain type of format. Of course, not all the groups, but most. And same in the world of classical and jazz.
There seems to be certain formulas and rigidity and some people have become very comfortable with that, just accepting that as, “Oh, that’s what it is.” We couldn’t understand why. Who said that? Where’s the rule book? Show us the book–the book of laws, the ten commandments where it has to look like “this.” Who said?
It wasn’t that we wanted to be radical or rebels, we just felt that there could be more done. And because we were people that were fascinated by comedy, theater, literature, and other types of art forms, we couldn’t understand why these things couldn’t exist side by side, next to each other.
We from a very early age just experimented and put on concerts our own way and then about 13 years ago, we sat down and said, “Okay, why don’t we actually really do what we’ve always wanted to do and create this show/concert?”
We didn’t always live in the same city and we spent a few years apart, I was studying in New York, he was studying in Vienna. Of course we’d see each other almost once every year. Most of the times, we’d end up doing something together. But now that I’ve moved to Vienna and he lived in Vienna, we’re both living in the same city, we said, “Okay, come on, let’s do this.” And so, A Little Nightmare Music by Igudesman & Joo was born.
AG: For those who don’t know what that is, could you describe it briefly?
HJ: Well, that’s the name of our first show officially as Igudesman & Joo. It’s crazy because I’ve been trying to describe this show for 14 years and now, being put on the spot again, you would have thought by now I’d have some perfect press statement. You know, “It is…” and just have it rehearsed. I think it’s impossible to describe because in a way there’s nothing like it. On the other hand, you could say that what we do is very retro because if you study the historical documents and you look at how concerts would happen in the times of Mozart , Beethoven , and Liszt , they were much more open.
There are very famous documented examples. For example, the world premiere of Beethoven’s violin concerto–this is quite a well-known story in the classical world. The violinist who was performing, his name was Franz Clemen –in between movements he was performing tricks with his bow, like playing the violin upside-down, undoing the hair [in the bow], doing tricks with his bow–the kind of thing that would be just frowned upon today. It would be just scandalous, but this was authentic. People talk about “authenticity” and the “authentic movement,” but that was authentic. Also, people stank. They didn’t take showers. You know, there’s this whole movement, at least in the classical world, about authentic period instruments and playing…
AG: Right, romanticizing everything…
HJ: Sure, fine, but then don’t shave for a month and don’t shower and then put on a concert because that’s authentic. Another document is Mozart when one of his piano concertos was premiered. People started applauding after 16 measures, which–he was so proud of it that he wrote a letter to his father, that’s how we know this. “Papa, papa, you won’t believe it, but just now they clapped after 16 measures and we had to stop and start again. What a success!” So he was bathing in this glory that he had to stop for people clapping.
NOTE: The Rest is Noise has the content of Mozart’s letter: Right in the middle of the First Allegro came a Passage that I knew would please, and the entire audience was sent into raptures—there was a big applaudißement;—and as I knew, when I wrote the passage, what good effect it would make, I brought it once more at the end of the movement—and they went again, Da capo. The Andante was well received as well, but the final Allegro pleased especially—because I had heard that here the final Allegros begin like first Allegros, namely with all instruments playing and mostly unisono; therefore, I began the movement with just 2 violins playing softly for 8 bars—then suddenly comes a forte—but the audience had, because of the quiet beginning, shushed each other, as I expected they would, and then came the forte—well, hearing it and clapping was one and the same. I was so delighted, I went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royal—bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged—and went home.
If today, if that happened, it would be a scandal. It would be like, “Shh! What are you doing?! How dare you clap?! The composer will be pissed off!” If I was the composer of a work, especially one of those where it’s, “Bee ahh off pfbfbtbtbt” [atonal], and people were clapping after 16 measures, I’d be like, “Thank you, God!” You know? “Wow! Great! I made it!” You should be fucking happy! Instead of being like, “Ugh, how dare you interrupt my work with applause?!”
Liszt! Franz Liszt! The inventor of the recital! He, apparently, would play a piece, he would stop, he would go into the audience–Franz Liszt, the great–have a chuckle with someone sitting there, have a swig of wine and then go back and play something. This was The Great Franz Liszt! The one who invented the recital. That’s what they were doing.
So, this was the times, and there was less of this elitist, snobbish divide between the artist and the audience. There was more interactivity and we lost that toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. And then with the 2nd world war, it was just, pfbtbtbt. And things just got ultra-serious, at least in the classical world.
But, as I said, even with jazz and rock, this music that’s so groovy and makes you want to dance, the musicians are actually quite serious. How many rock groups do you know–because that’s your world–do you know who actually would crack a joke on stage or write songs, which are funny?
AG: Well, Frank Zappa has an album called Does Humor Belong in Music?
HJ: Of course, Frank Zappa is one of the rare exceptions, but he doesn’t quite fit in the mold of anything.
AG: You’re right. It’s usually, “I can’t hear you! Are you guys having a good time?” Trying to get the audience into it.
AG: Fat-Bottomed Girls …
HJ: Right! Yeah. And there’s a sort of humor in the orchestration and the sound. The Beatles had humor in the stagecraft, in their introductions, especially Lennon . But also in the songs, you hear it. There’s a sense of fun. Not trying to say that things have to be funny, but there’s a sense of fun. One of my favorite groups is 10cc . I don’t know if you’ve heard of 10cc.
AG: I’ve heard of them, but I don’t know their stuff.
HJ: Oh, they’re fantastic. I love their songs. They have this humoristic element, the fun element. A lot of jazz musicians became ultra-serious. If you look at jazz in the beginning, a lot of these guys have so much humor. Duke Ellington , Errol Garner , Ella Fitzgerald . When they’re scatting, there’s humor, there’s a sense of fun, they’re quoting. Then these guys came around with this very ultra-serious movement in jazz.
So, I saw this interesting video the other day. It was a lecture that John Cleese gave on creativity. Of course, John Cleese, the whole Monty Python gang is a huge influence on Igudesman & Joo, as they are on comedy and many things. John Cleese was giving a very serious talk about creativity.
One of the things he talks about is that there’s a very big difference between serious and solemn. He also says that in order to be creative, you need to open the portal of humor. Just because you’re talking about something serious, it doesn’t mean that if you make a joke or find humor in it, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less serious.
It is entirely possible to have a conversation about a serious subject, but with humor. He was even saying that there’s no room for solemnity. He said something like, two of the funerals he’s been to in his life were just full of humor and they were the most moving ceremonies that he’d ever been to. So, in this world, somehow humor is laughed upon, it’s not taken seriously, it’s kind of put aside. But, it’s key!
AG: It’s human.
HJ: It’s human! When you ask holocaust survivors what kept them going, because they basically had death staring them in the face all the time–how did they, for 5 or 6 years, keep on going? Most of them say music and humor. We’re very lucky that we do both. We do music and humor.
AG: I love your shows, everyone I’ve brought to your shows loves them–whether they know anything about classical music or not–but there have to be musicians that do not love what you do. That don’t appreciate you removing the solemnity in classical music that seems to have taken hold since, as you said, WWII.
HJ: You know, we’ve never come across these people, but it doesn’t meant these people don’t exist. And I know these people exist because sometimes I read the comments on our YouTube videos. We believe in free speech, so if you go to our video clips, there are some shitty comments. We leave them. We don’t delete them or paint this image that we are “holier than thou” and only that people love us.
There are one or two really horrible messages in the comments. We leave them. We have a saying, which is “not everybody loves chocolate.” It’s something we really believe in. It’s true, not everybody does love chocolate. Do you love chocolate?
AG: I love chocolate.
HJ: Okay, you love it, I love it, but I know plenty of people who don’t like chocolate. And even those who do, they only like milk, or they like plain, or–so not everybody likes chocolate. And you have to accept that. So, there’s no reason why everybody should like what we do, but usually people who come to our show end up liking it if they didn’t know what they were in for. And those one or two that didn’t, we don’t hear about it, unless they are the ones that go home later and write online, “It was the worst thing I ever saw in my life!”
Not to be defensive, but I find that those comments actually say a lot about the commenter, because there are some comments that say it’s disrespectful or that it’s tasteless. I really do not believe we are disrespectful. This is the last thing that we are. I can understand how people might see it that way, but we’re not.
We trained at the Yehudi Menuhin school , which is like an elite Harry Potter school for menta–er, musicians. We’re very passionate about music. I think that–orchestras, these institutions like the New York Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony or the London Philharmonic–they wouldn’t play with us if they didn’t think we were serious musicians. They wouldn’t!
If we were just clowns, they’d be, “Oh yeah, those guys are funny. Let’s watch them on YouTube.” But they’d never lend us the keys to their Ferrari. I mean, come on. And people like Joshua Bell , Emmanuel Ax , Billy Joel , performing with us. They undestand that we’re serious musicians. Always for us, everything that we do, the number one priority is the music. And then numbers two and three are the humor and theatricality. And if people laugh, great. If they don’t, well…
It’s not our aim to make people laugh or to do something that’s completely out of–let’s just do something weird, just for the sake of being weird. That’s really not what we do. It’s not disrespectful. If you grew up in a very puritan, rigid upbringing, then anything that goes outside of the box is gonna be like, “Whoa! Those radicals! Those punks!”
AG: I saw a comment just recently on your Chandeliers piece , which was a beautiful piece, but somebody said, “A serious piece of music from Hyung-ki Joo!” And I thought, “Everything is a serious piece of music.” Even the music police sketch, you’re playing serious music.
HJ: That’s true. Yes, that’s true.
AG: Really, really difficult, complex music.
HJ: You see, that comes down to–nothing against that person in particular, but it comes down to our general human inability or need for everything to be in boxes. To put things in categories. And that’s why people struggle with things like Frank Zappa and Nina Simone . “Where are they? What genre?” Who cares?! Do you like it or do you not? Are you moved by them or are you not?
If you look at people like Glenn Gould or Leonard Bernstein or Freddie Mercury or Jacques Brel . These are guys that are not just singers or just composers, they’re bigger. They’re more varied. You can’t just put them in one slot. It’s like, “Oh, Bernstein wrote a musical, oh he wrote a serious symphony, oh he…” Who cares?!
Why can’t someone have many different facets? It’s like Woody Allen , whenever he tried to do something that was a bit more serious, he was torn apart. Why? It’s like, “Oh wait, you’re that comedy guy! You’re that funny guy with the glasses that goes uh-da-bi-bi-bi-duh… You can’t do serious stuff. It doesn’t make sense.” Roald Dahl ! Do you know Roald Dahl?
AG: Oh I love Roald Dahl. I’ve read almost everything!
HJ: Have you read the adult stuff?
AG: Some of it!
HJ: Okay, so when you say you’ve read everything, you meant the children’s stuff.
AG: All the children’s stuff when I was a kid, but then when I grew up, I was like, “Oh, no I can find those adult books!” But he wrote great stories for grownups!
HJ: But the adult stuff is like, whooooaaa… It’s screwed up.
AG: What’s the one about childhood? [NOTE: It’s called Boy ]
HJ: Yeahhh, isn’t that his autobiography?
AG: Yeah, it’s brutal, but it’s wonderful.
AG: Shel Silverstein , you ever read his stuff?
HJ: No, I don’t know him.
AG: He did A Light in the Attic , a lot of these children’s poems. But then he has other stuff that’s about smoking weed. It’s fantastic and not for kids, but even I’m like, “Whoa, who is this guy? Where did he come from?” But he’s a human being with interests.
AG: Which you have a video of.
HJ: Oh, whoa you’ve really seen my stuff.
AG: Yes! Performing the music…
HJ: Performing the music. That’s right. Just to be clear! He saw the video of me performing the music, not actually performing the…
AG: That’s another channel. The adult channel.
HJ: That’s the Roald Dahl adult channel. Yeah. [Laughter]
AG: So, can you tell us about your creative process and your inspirations that you haven’t mentioned already? I saw you have a Prokofiev piece , Shostakovich … You’ve done a lot of out-of-the-box stuff and I know you compose and you educate. Can you talk about your influences and your creative process?
HJ: Wow, influences. I mean, we’re going to be here all night.
AG: I’ve probably got 4 hours of storage on the camera.
HJ: From the classical world…
AG: It doesn’t matter. Just your influences.
HJ: My influences? Well, definitely the greats like Beethoven, Debussy , Ravel , Mozart, Rossini . Then some of the early guys like Gesualdo . Then from performers, already mentioned Glenn Gould, Bernstein. Then figures like, of course, Yehudi Menuhin , Stéphane Grapelli , Jacques Brel.
Very interesting thing about Jacques Brel is I fell in love with a French girl when I was 15 years old, as one does, right? I don’t think she knows about it. No, she does know about it.
AG: Right, as every Korean British child does.
HJ: And one day she sent me as a gift, a tape of Jacques Brel’s 20 greatest hits. I didn’t know who he was. I listened to this tape and loved it. I listened to this tape for many many years and back then, there was no YouTube, no easy access, no Spotify, so I was pretty much stuck with that tape.
Years later, I started to listen to other stuff, but I would say there was a gap of about 13 years until I actually saw him perform. He’s been dead for a long time, but I actually saw video footage of him. I never even thought to think, “Oh what does he look like? What is he like on stage?” I just loved him. And then one day I was watching TV and there was a documentary about him. I was just mesmerized by this guy because there was an animal. It was like, this guy was not just a singer, he was like an actor animal, something beyond. A real genuine performer.
I happen to understand French, but even if you don’t understand French, there’s no way that you can’t be compelled by this guy. You see him and it’s like, “Augh! He’s so in it.” Certain performers are like that. There’s a lot of jazz musicians that have influenced me, or at least turned me on, people like Errol Garner, Herbie Hancock , Keith Jarrett … I recently heard a guy called Brad Mehldau .
HJ: Of course I’ve known about him for many years. I’ve heard him here and there. But, actually going live to listen to him. It was just a few months ago.
AG: At the Blue Note?
HJ: No, it was in Vienna. The main program was his kind of arrangements, improvisations based on Bach. That was the main course of the program. Very good, very interesting, no question. In fact, I was thinking that every single pianist that studies in Vienna should have been there because it was a masterclass in piano playing. Pedaling, articulation, phrasing, sound, sound quality, production. Everything.
Even his Bach was wonderful and he’s not a classical player. I was like, “Where is every single student here? They should be just lapping this up.” He played two encores, which were like… He went into his thing. He did jazz standards. He played two jazz standards and I shit you not, I was just like a little kid. I was in between that emotional experience of wanting to cry and wanting to laugh. Not really knowing how to react because it was like, “Ohh hahahaha ohhhh hahaha!” Just amazing. And there’s been very few experiences like that in my life.
So definitely Brad Mehldau is now on my giants list. There’s a guitarist. Actually, you’re a guitarist. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this guy. His name is Wolfgang Muthspiel , jazz guitarist. Fantastic. Check him out. Austrian dude. Just recorded a CD with Brad Mehldau. He is definitely a big inspiration. We hung out a lot in New York when I was studying there. He opened up my world to a lot of jazz music that I didn’t know about before. Certainly I’m a fan of Pink Floyd , also like Pink .
AG: She’s very creative.
HJ: Yeah! She’s very creative. And she’s also like one of those people that’s like, ugh! She’s there. She’s in the moment. You believe in her. Even if you don’t like what she does. I think that some musicians, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether I like them or not. Glenn Gould is one of my favorite artists. I don’t like everything he does, but when he plays, I just shut the fuck up.
And people like Pink or Jacques Brel, they’re those type of people that not everything they do I like, but I stop to pay attention. Brad is the same thing. Just listen because these people are not screwing around. They basically–this is what they do. They’re dedicating their whole lives to this and they are hooking into something.
AG: I feel like they’re superhuman. I see musicians like that and it’s almost like they forget who they are, they just exist for this music and it’s their identity. That song, that performance is who they are.
HJ: Yes. Boom!
AG: Right. You can’t deny it. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t ignore it.
HJ: I love a lot of things like we spoke earlier off camera about King Crimson. I love those guys. Obviously I’m a huge fan of the Beatles. Probably not a day goes by without some Beatles earworm in my head. I love a lot of Simon and Garfunkel . I’m open to all kinds of music. I love Public Enemy , Beastie Boys I think are fantastic.
It’s not the music I listen to every day, but when I listen to them, it’s also like, “Shut up, pay attention. These are not some dudes in a garage. They’re onto something.” It’s fantastically crafted music. They have fun. There’s a sense of fun and creativity in there. They’re not just out there to make a hit. They’re there to make music, they’re there to make weird music. A lot of Radiohead .
AG: Have you heard Brad Mehldau’s Radiohead stuff ?
HJ: Yes, of course. Ooh! There’s something I discovered quite recently, Postmodern Jukebox .
AG: Oh yeah, very creative! Very fun.
HJ: I love those guys. A lot of those singers are fantastic. Then there are people who are not musicians, but have been incredible influences on me. Certainly people like Charlie Chaplin , Marx Brothers (although they are kind of musicians as well, a lot of them). In today’s world, I’m also intrigued by–you know what? I’m intrigued by anybody that is passionate about what they do.
Sometimes it’s a nameless street performer that I also just shut up and listen. Pay attention to this guy or this girl. They’re playing there on the street and they’re not doing it for fun. They’re doing it because–of course to get a little bit of money, but this is what they do. Some of them are just amazing. There’s no reason why some of those people on the street should not have huge record deals.
I once saw a guy–and you see these guys everywhere, but you find one that’s like the golden child. It was one of those dudes doing this wine glass thing. You see that usually and it’s like, “Yeah, it’s just a party trick and it’s woooooeaeaea wowooooooahaha WOOOOOHHOOO.” It’s like, whatever!
AG: I thought I was standing in front of wine glasses just now!
HJ: [Laughter, continued wine glass sounds] But this one guy I saw. I even made a video clip of him. I’m so stupid, I should have asked for his name, got his number, his contact because we would have invited him to a show or something because this guy was something. He was a genius. An absolute genius.
AG: So you like everything!
HJ: I do! For example, also dance. There’s a dancer called Tamara Rojo . She’s now the Artistic Director of the English Ballet. I actually flew to London to watch her perform. Twice. I’m not a major ballet freak, but for her, yes. There’s also a guy called James Thiérrée , who happens to be the grandson of Chaplin, and he does these amazing theatrical shows. His sister too, Aurelia, actually. Both of them. They created this type of–again, this genre that doesn’t really exist. It’s this type of circus/theater/performance art/contortion/magic fun comedy.
AG: Do you know Barbara Hannigan?
HJ: OH MY GOD. I wrote a huge–my first blog, one of my first blogs I wrote was basically a love letter to Barbara Hannigan.
AG: She’s incredible.
HJ: She’s absolutely incredible.
AG: Talk about serious music. She’s doing the Ligeti stuff in crazy outfits. People are laughing, but it’s that stunned, “I don’t know what to make of this, whether to laugh or cry” thing because you’re so shocked.
HJ: But Ligeti would have been very happy with this. Ligeti is considered to be one of the greatest composers of the 20th century and he’s also considered to be one of the most serious composers. However, his music is full of fun and humor. He wrote a piece for 100 metronomes. Come on. You know?
The guy is full of fun! He has pieces where the percussionists have to drop plates and stuff. He uses a lot of the types of techniques that those avant garde guys were doing, but because he’s a good musician and he has that sense of humor and creativity, it’s compelling. Then you get someone like Barbara Hannigan, who again is like a golden child, and she puts her approach onto this music. Wow. It’s explosive.
AG: So we never got to your creative process.
HJ: Oh my God, yes. Well I told you this was going to take forever! But you know, it’s very rare… This is a gift. It’s a gift to be able to just talk about people that one likes. And to share that with someone who understands. It’s very rare. I’ll tell you something, and this is going to sound weird. I’ll tell you something, and I know I’m going off subject here.
AG: No, go for it. This is your interview.
HJ: Something I realized recently in my world, which is mostly classical. Of course, I know a lot musicians outside of the classical world, but I noticed something a little disheartening, to be honest. It dawned on me just a few weeks ago that a lot of musicians, my colleagues, people in my world, they rarely talk about music.
And it just hit me, like, “Wait a second… We’re calling ourselves musicians. This is what we do. We work our asses off. Our parents spent shitloads of money so we could have expensive lessons and go to music schools. And this is supposedly what we’re passionate about, yet when we site down we don’t talk about music.”
AG: You talk about business, right?
HJ: How did you know this?!
AG: I’m in an industry, too. It’s what people do. They talk about the industry.
HJ: They talk about the business! This is the last thing I want to talk about. It’s business. It’s the least interesting part of music. It’s the business! That’s why it’s got that horrible term, “The business!” And if we’re lucky enough to be in the business, then okay we have to deal with it. But, I want to talk about music! I want to talk about the C major chord, or King Crimson, or lyrics. I want to talk about Mendelssohn !
And I realize that very few musicians want to talk about that. In fact, there are even some musicians that will deliberately sabotage and stop you right there when they see you’re starting to talk, and they say, “You know, I don’t want to talk about music. Let’s not talk about music.” …Okay?
I could kind of forgive them if the conversation steered toward something at least as interesting, but it either goes to a very low level, which–fine, that’s okay, that’s cool. But, it’s like, “Let’s not talk about music! Let’s talk about very low stuff or let’s talk about the business of music.” That doesn’t make sense to me. So, I don’t really understand. It just dawned on me, so…
Meeting you and being able to talk about music is, like, a rare treat. I can tell you that, unfortunately, very few people that I come across really want to talk about music. And I find that sad because what are we doing this for? Anyway, back to your question. What is my creative process? By the way, you can cut this however you want…
AG: No, I’m just looking at my cameras to make sure everything’s still rolling.
HJ: You can cut out all…
AG: This is the best stuff!
HJ: [Laughter] Creative process. Well, of course I’m very, very lucky that a lot of my creative process is done with my friend and partner, Aleksey Igudesman, who today is in the form of fruit [arranged on a small table next to Hyung-ki]. It actually kind of looks like him. We did a pretty good… If Jacopetti or Basquiat did a high fruit sculpture of Aleksey Igudesman, this would be it! Two apples and a bunch of bananas. This apple represents his sort of chi, and this banana represents his mental state. I know he’d prefer it the other way around. I hate to say it, but it’s more like this.
So, yeah, so anyway I’m very fortunate that a lot of my creative process is shared with this guy. Actually, even though we’re doing our own thing a lot of the times, we’ll show it to the other. So if I’m writing a piece, which might be a serious piece or a funny piece or whatever, it’s outside of the I&J umbrella, he will very often make some wonderful contribution and remarks.
We do that for each other. When we are working together, we call our relationship a ping-pong relationship because I ping stuff to him and he smells, so he pongs. That’s what it is. No, it’s ping-pong because one of us says, “What about this?” Boom. And the other says, “Okay, but then we do this?” Boom. And it just goes back and forth and there’s a nice rally going on.
AG: And it always makes it better.
HJ: Always. Yes we do disagree and yes we do argue and yes we do fight. We fight less and less because we’re trying to be more Om about life and more holistic and spiritual and more about love and forgiveness. But it doesn’t always work, so… [Punches fruit scuplture.]
AG: Man, Aleksey was doing really well until…
HJ: To be fair, he bullied me. No, this is true.
AG: When you were younger?
HJ: Yeah! He actually punched me in the nether regions. It’s actually true. It’s a miracle that I can be reproductive down there because I really thought, “I’m cut off. There can be no Joo dynasty.”
AG: I wouldn’t have thought he was strong enough to make a difference.
HJ: Oh, he’s strong. He is strong. He is much stronger. He’s always been stronger than me and he still is. [To the fruit] I’m sorry about that. Yes, that’s… yes. There’s no frustration there at all. No issues that need to be resolved. Of course, we have our differences and we have two very strong personalities, but we believe and we work toward the fact that to try and come to a consensus.
Sometimes the fact that you have this friction leads to something better, actually. Through arguing and through contesting, then you actually go, “Wait a minute. How about this?” So, I’m very lucky that I have that. I think that some people who are just working as solo artists maybe don’t have that resource.
I know that a lot of the Monty Pythons, their creative process was having little writing teams. I think Eric Idle did his own thing, Terry Gilliam of course did animations, and Cleese was with Chapman, and Terry Jones with Michael Palin. But when they got together, they would then give the stuff to the other person and the other person would say, “Oh, I know how to finish that.” Or, “Give that to me.” So then it became a collaborative process.
I’d actually love to know how–you know, a lot of these rock groups that stay together like U2 or Radiohead or Queen, if you look at their song credits, it’s all shared. It’s actually a smart thing to do, also, just for the general harmony of the group because a lot of rock groups split up basically because somebody’s houses were bigger than theirs. There is that aspect, but I am much more someone that likes to take time.
I think it’s partly because I’m slow [laughs], but it’s also because I believe in the magic of editing. I believe in the power of time and editing. Have you ever had this–I’m sure you’ve had this happen to you and to whoever’s watching this–Um, hi–that you’ve written something, like an essay or homework or something creative, a song, a birthday card, whatever, and the coffee spills on it and you’ve lost it.
AG: Oh yeah. You try recreating it.
HJ: Yeah, and then you’re like “AAAHHH!” But I think 9 times out of 10, or 99 times out of 100, when you try to recreate it or do it again, it’s usually better. So what does that mean? It means that subconsciously, with the passing of time, your subconscious has been working on it. You put it down. Boom, enter, save. While the computer’s stored it, or the handwriting has stored it, or whatever, your creative subconscious is still continuing to work on it.
So actually, it’s a blessing in disguise, while bloody annoying, that you’ve lost the first draft. Let’s say sometimes I do that consciously. It’s not like I give it to a dog to chew up, but consciously I kind of will let time sit on it and then think about it and come back to it and somehow there’s a natural editing that’s just been done. I just say, “Okay, let’s get rid of this, and let’s get rid of that.”
I don’t have–I’m not one of those child geniuses that just–I don’t have perfect pitch, I can’t write down something on one hearing. There are people like that. In fact, when I went to the Menuhin school, I was 10 years old and I thought I really didn’t belong there. I thought I’d get kicked out, besides getting kicked in the balls by people like Aleksey, I actually thought I’d get kicked out, also.
Because I arrived after playing the piano for about two years, I was certainly one of the lowest on the food chain. There were people there who were a lot younger than me that were already writing symphonies, they were playing Rachmaninoff, and my audition piece was Bach’s first prelude [sings it]. That was my audition piece and somehow they accepted me, but when I got there, I thought, “Oh, they made a mistake.”
Fortunately, year after year, I was still there and I thought, “Oh I’m still here.” And the thing that kept me going was that I believed that I loved music more than anybody else. Of course, it’s a very subjective thing, but that’s what I felt. Looking around at everybody, I thought, “They’re much more talented than me, they’re much more naturally gifted, they’ve been given gifts from God and they’re more trained.”
But the thing that I have over them is that I love music more than they do. I’m sure of it because I just love music so much and I felt that this love of music was lacking in a lot of them. So I felt like, “Okay, if you just give me a chance, just keep giving me a chance, I’ll get there. I’ll get there.” And after a while, I guess I did. So there’s a part of me that–you know, insecurities lie strong. Things that you feel as a child, so even today there’s a part of me that feels like I’m not a qualified musician.
AG: Because of?
HJ: Because things don’t come easy to me. Because everything I do has to be worked on.
AG: Is Aleksey the kind of guy you’re talking about?
HJ: I would say Aleksey is a natural talent. Absolutely. In fact, it’s a miracle he’s such a good musician because he’s had such shitty teachers, in my opinion. He left the Menuhin school when he was 16 and in a way had arrested development. So it’s a miracle for me that he’s such a great musician, because–if he was here, he would probably argue that, but that’s not true.
He learned his things in other ways. He probably has a right to say that, but I always felt from the moment I met him, even though he was kicking me in the balls, it still made me realize when he was playing that this guy was absolutely a natural talent. Exceptional. The way he played was unlike anything else. And the sound that he has is unlike anybody else. The sound, it’s a unique approach and an unique inflection of expression.
Seriously, he’s kind of not here, but he kind of is, and I’m not just saying this because I’m on camera, but I really feel like I’m one of the luckiest people to play with one of my favorite violinists. I’m just so lucky to play with a guy like that.
AG: So you look at yourself and–do you ever compare yourself to his capabilities? Or is it a, “Thank God he is the way he is?”
HJ: No I don’t really compare. I’ve never been envious of anybody, I’ve never been competitive with anybody. I’ve had relationships with pianists. A lot of people go, “Oh my God, how can you go out with a pianist?” I don’t have any–I have wonderful friends who are pianists. I’ve never felt anything like a sort of competitiveness or rivalry.
The older I get, I have enormous respect for anyone who plays the piano. From one side, it’s a very simple thing to do. Every 5-year-old kid can just go play Twinkle Twinkle. And yes, it’s true, there is a certain simplicity to playing the piano, but when you get to a certain level, when you get to the last level of the video game, that’s not simple stuff.
If you talk about these funky pianists, these jazz pianists, these people who have to improvise–any other instrument, like electric guitar, saxophone, violin, I’m sorry, but with all due respect, they just have to play one line. It’s just one line.
AG: Or just one scale!
HJ: One scale! Yeah, so you can do Dah-dah! Whatever, sure go nuts, man! But when you’re playing a keyboard, most of the time, you have to play the rhythm, the harmony, and that’s usually with the left hand and a bit of right, but then you have to be totally free and inventive with the right and have at least 3 things going on at the same time and be polyrhythmic and polyharmonic.
I’m sorry, but big respect has to be done for those guys. Not taking anything away from the instrumentalists who improvise, but when you look at somebody like these guys like Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea . Brad. What they’re doing is on another level. I guess I feel that I’m still a student.
AG: Like a beginner’s mind , always learning?
HJ: Yeah, I know that sounds cliche and zen and all that bullshit, but it’s true. A few years ago, a student–well, she’s not really a student of mine, but she’s someone that used to come play for me quite regularly, and then there was a hiatus, but–she called me again and she said, “I’d like to come again and play for you.”
And I was not trying to be modest or funny or blow her off, I said, “You know? I don’t think I’d actually be good to teach you.”
She said, “Why?”
I said, “Well, because I’m doubting everything that I’ve ever done before and I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing myself. I’m reinvestigating everything and this would be just terrible for me. All those lessons and all that jargon trash I told you before, just throw it away because that’s what I’m doing. And so I really don’t think I’d be a suitable teacher for you.”
And she said, “That’s exactly why I want to come to you!”
AG: Did you teach her?
HJ: I did, yes. How could I not after such a cute comment as that? It’s genuinely how I felt! “I don’t know myself, and I don’t have the answers myself. How can I give an answer to someone who’s looking up to me expecting the answer?” I said, “Uuuuuuh, I don’t know.” I really thought I’d be wasting her time.
It’s not a “complex” thing, it’s not an insecurity, I just feel that–yes, I know I have an access to music and I know that I have a special approach to music. I know that I see music differently. I know that I feel music very passionately. I know those things. I’m not going to be modest about those things and I know that I can put on a good performance. But, because I know for myself how much work I need to get to even do that and I know that some people can just go and pick up the instrument. They haven’t played for a year and they’re drunk and the magic happens. Or they just sit down and write something or improvise something and they have a piece done. Aleksey is more like that. He’s a faster writer than me because he doesn’t really think. He doesn’t think anyway.
AG: Well, he is fruit.
HJ: He is a fruitcake. I think that’s also a blessing in disguise. It’s his strength and his weakness that he doesn’t give much thought to thought and he’s more impulsive and just letting it in and just doing it and kind of hit and miss. There’s not that quality control. “It’s good enough.” Boom.
He has that midas touch. He’ll write pieces that–and they’re pieces that I listen to and, look, he’s one of my best friends. I love him. I admire him hugely. I listen to a piece and I’m like, “Really? Yeah? Again? The same trick?” But then I go away and I’m humming it and it’s in my head. Well, that’s the midas touch.
I can objectively analyze it as much as I want and scrutinize and be critical, but at the end of the day, I’ve walked away and hours later, I’m humming it. It’s in my mind. In that sense, it must be a good piece of music. It must be an infectious piece of music, right? So, he has that. And I’m a lot more, like I said, I like to tweak things and sit. It’s not so easy for me to say, “Yeah! That’s done! Next!” It’s very hard for me to do that.
AG: The drummer Bill Bruford talks about this. He says some people are producers, some people are musicians. Some people can go into a studio and lay down an album in 2 hours. Some people, like Peter Gabriel , it takes 8 or 10 years to put out an album. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s great. But one guy can put out an album and another can put out 100 albums.
HJ: Right! I do sometimes write songs and, again, I don’t consider myself a natural born songwriter. I’m not your Ira and George Gershwin . I’m not your Irving Berlin , but I love the form of the art of song and I’ve written a few songs. But, phew, it’s tough. Really tough.
I must say I was a little bit heartened, but a friend of mine is Billy Joel. I said, “Man, it’s so hard to write a song. I just feel like giving up.” I even showed him a piece, and said, “I don’t know. Should I do this?” And he’s like, “What are you talking about, man? It’s like giving birth!” He’s one of those people that will just take forever and really struggle with music and lyrics. He’s considered one of the world’s greatest songwriters, right? If he can struggle, then I can too.
AG: Back to being human, right?
HJ: I guess I can identify more with Beethoven than Mozart. I love Mozart, of course I love Mozart. But the thing with Mozart is he just literally defecated a piece. Maybe that’s why a lot of his pieces were scatalogical.
AG: Maybe that’s why there’s so much Mozart chocolate.
HJ: That’s right! Mozart chocolate balls. But, Mozart, he really just thought it and it was done. A whole opera. Boom. With Mozart, there’s hardly any sketch. It’s like Picasso drawing a perfect circle. That’s basically Mozart. The equivalent. Picasso didn’t have any sketches where he’s trying to draw a circle. He’d just go boom. Perfect circle. Straight line. He had that God-given talent.
Beethoven, on the other hand, sketches like this [gesticulates a huge pile of papers]. He would cross out stuff, try stuff, try different keys, and there’s like 32 or 64 versions of just 4 notes. Probably before he came to da-da-da-DAAAAA [5th symphony], he did da-da-da-DEEEE, da-da-doooo, da-DI-da-daaa, da-DAAA. It’s not that piece, but you actually see that. Sketches and sketches and sketches. And you feel the struggle. I guess maybe that’s why I identify more with him.
AG: Okay, so… We’ve talked a lot.
HJ: Yes! I’ve probably not answered one sigle question.
AG: No, this is great! But, you’ve got a CD with you.
AG: And I want to make sure we talk about it because it’s great.
HJ: It’s called You Just Have to Laugh . [Promotional zooming and smiling.]
AG: Where can someone procure said CD?
HJ: Umm, here. If you have that Willy Wonka ability if they can just reach into the camera and pick up the disc. It’s certainly available after our shows. It’s available in the one CD store that still exists in the world. Somewhere in Mesa, Arizona or something like that, because CD stores are relics. But, mostly ordered through Amazon . You can also download it on iTunes .
AG: Tell us about the album. You’ve got a whole Malkovich thing going on.
HJ: Yes, there’s some actor called John Malkovich on there and he plays our agent. The thing is, because we’re traditional guys, we grew up in the world of radio shows and LPs and concept albums, which now don’t really exist. We’ve been a duo officially for 14 years and only last year did we make this CD. It’s our first and only.
When we were at the drawing board, we were thinking, “Okay, what should we do?” And we were looking at current trends, what do people do? The concept album doesn’t exist anymore, but we’ve always loved things like Sgt. Pepper’s and all those great concept albums from the 60s and 70s, but CDs… So we wrestled with all these conflicting things. At the end of the day, we said, “Why are we doing what we do? Is it to win a grammy?” [In promotional voice] We hope to win a grammy. [Back to normal] But, is that what we’re doing this for? No.
We’re doing it because it’s our creative desire and if we’re lucky enough to do it, let’s just do what we love doing. If it’s a success, great. If not, then too bad. At least we’re doing something we believe in. So we said, “Screw it. Screw whether people care about the concept album. We’re just going to do our own thing.” So we said, “Let’s make an album that has a line, a kind of shape, and a drama to it.”
We had all these pieces in motion and thought, “Okay, how do we string these together?” Because that’s the thing. Our genre is many genres. We are classically trained, yet we love to mix rap, country and western, electronic, heavy metal, funk, 30s/40s songwriting styles. In this CD, there must be a ton of styles. Film music, cabaret. Just a lot. Even Latin. Something for the Latin grammys. The song Uruguay. Latin grammy nomination.
So, great, we want to do a concept album, but how do we make all these things tie together? To us, this is our world. If you’re a black or Asian kid, like I was growing up in Norwich full of white, anglosaxons, you don’t think twice. That’s your world. But, actually, if you look at it from another angle, it’s like, “Whoa, I’m the black sheep.” So, these pieces are like our kids. They belong here, but to somebody else, they’re like, “Why? This is already 27 different iTunes categories. The computer’s going to go nuts.”
AG: You don’t fit in the box!
HJ: We don’t fit in the box. That’s right. So, one way we thought was, “Okay, well let’s create this character of an agent.” We called this guy Agent Sir and he’s a kind of persoflage mockup of all the kinds of agents that we’ve come across with the kind of traits that basically in this business that a lot of these people out there have no idea about music. The people that are “up there.”
AG: Oh yeah. They “make decisions.”
HJ: People who make decisions about who will play next season.
AG: It’s finance.
HJ: They have no idea about music! Which I could forgive if they had a passion for it, but they don’t. They couldn’t care less.
AG: Obviously with streaming services…
HJ: They don’t give a shit. They don’t care, so they have no emotional connection to the job they’re supposed to be working on. Also, those who have some kind of influence over the artist, a lot of them really don’t give a shit about the artist. They’re just there to rape and profit from them. If they get burnt out, it doesn’t matter. They’ll just move on.
AG: Find another one.
HJ: Find another one. Yep. This character’s not as evil, but let’s say that’s the background of our agent. We wanted someone to play this, so who better to ask than John Malkovich?
AG: Who suffers from the same problems in his industry.
HJ: Yes, of course. He’s and out-of-the-box guy. You’ll see him in Transformers, but that’s not his thing. His thing is doing French theater and weird projects like this.
AG: Being John Malkovich.
HJ: Being John Malkovich! That’s him. So, that’s where we’re kindred spirits and he’s always so gracious and supportive. He said, “Yeah, sure I’ll do this.” So, he’s kind of the string, the thread. He sends us off to record all the things. He sends us off to Istanbul because he wants a Turkish lamp. He’s like, “I’m flying into Paris. Got some friends over for some wine and cheese. So, maybe you could record some Chopin to go with our wine and cheese.”
He doesn’t care. “Whatever. Just do something while I’m flying around the world making money from you guys. Or not from you guys, but something else.” He even sends us to outer space for some reason. He sends us to Uranus.
I have to say it was one of the most fun things to get him to say “Yer-anus.” Not that he had any trouble doing that, but we were like little kids writing the script like, “He’s going to say that! He’s going to say that! And I’m sending it to yer-anus!” And he’s reading it! It’s kind of like a mixture of not greatest hits, but songs that people love, like From Mozart with Love, which is a mashup of Mozart and James Bond. There’s our kind of version of the disco hit, I Will Survive.
A lot of people say, “Oh, but does your stuff work on radio? How can you make a CD because your stuff is so visual?” So we said, “All right. Let’s prove it to you.” So not only did we create a kind of concept for it, but we also rethought every single number to see how it could translate into an audio format. I know you know quite a lot of our stuff, but you’ll see that a lot of things are different.
AG: Oh I love the disc!
HJ: We made a 3D space for the 2D listener.
AG: And it’s fresh! If you watch the YouTube things, that’s one version of it, but then you get the CD, and you say, “Oh, I see how they twisted this.”
HJ: Right. It’s totally different. They’re all totally different versions. So, please, You Just Have to Laugh by Igudesman and Joo. The unmaking of, featuring John Malkovich.
AG: Thank you so much, man. What a treat.
HJ: Shameless plugging.
AG: It’s not shameless. That’s why we’re here!
HJ: That is why we’re here. It’s shameful. It’s full of no shame!
AG: All right, thanks a lot.
HJ: Thank you so much. I feel like I didn’t answer one single question.
AG: Then it’s a good interview.