From humble beginnings in Stockton, CA, MARZ has gone on to work with some of the biggest acts in K-pop. Producer, Paul Thompson, explains how he went from teaching English in Korea to writing songs for JYP and SM Entertainment.
KPN: How did you first get into music?
PT: Like most kids growing up, I just listened to whatever my parents listened to like, The Beatles or classic rock. But when I got into high school, I started listening to hip hop and R&B and fell in love with it. I loved it so much that I didn't want to just listen to it, but I wanted to actually create it. I would think about where I wanted the beat to go. Then, when it wouldn't, I'd get frustrated. So I thought, “Well why don't I just learn how to do it myself and I'll make what I want to hear.” But because I had no formal training or background in music, I teamed up with a partner, who's super musically talented. [Together] we started going down to Los Angeles together to network and work with other teams. That's how I kind of got my foot in the door.
KPN: How did you end up in Korea?
PK: Things didn't really pan out for us in the states. So, after college, I worked in sales and tech, but obviously the passion wasn't there. So, I initially moved to Korea to take a break from everything and save up some money teaching English. I never thought I'd end up living here for 4 years (laughs).
KPN: How did you get connected to the music scene in Korea?
PT: While I was out here teaching English, I just really missed making music. Then, one night, around 1AM, I started researching online and found this company called JYP Entertainment. Honestly, I knew nothing about K-pop at the time other than that PSY song and the fact that K-pop was huge. So, I knew it was a long shot, but I told myself I was going to figure out a way to get in touch with them. I emailed JYP publishing and one of the producers there, telling them that I was interested in making music for K-pop. I didn't send them a demo or anything and I was 99% sure they would read my email and be like, “Who is this random white guy emailing me at 1AM.” But they both responded. They asked me to send them a few songs and things just fell into place from there.
- Label YG Entertainment
- Debut Psy "Bird (새)", 2001
- Official Fanclub Psycho
KPN: What was your first placement in Korea?
PT: It's a song called 한번만 더 with G.Soul. We wrote it together, initially, for 2PM's No.5No.5album, but it got rejected and landed on G.Soul's debut album.
MARZ and G.Soul at the JYPE office in Seoul, Korea
KPN: You founded a company called MARZ Music Group. Tell me a little bit about what you guys do.
PT: We put together, what we call, song camps. We invite hand-picked producers and songwriters from all over world to participate in a week-long songwriting session. We divide them into teams, put them in different rooms, and have them create demos for specific artists. Sometimes I'll be involved in the writing process and other times I'm making sure things are running smoothly and directing the sessions to make sure we're getting the very best out of each of them. Then, we'll administer the songs that come out of those song camps. We've done 3 song camps, so far, and have placed over 35 songs.
KPN: Have any of those been released yet?
PT: The first song to get released by our company was Taemin's Drip Drop. We also have a song called 오늘까지만 (Until Today) on the same album, which was co-written by G.Soul.
- Label SM Entertainment
- Debut SHINee "누난 너무 예뻐 (Replay)", 2008
KPN: What can we look forward to this year from MARZ Music Group?
PT: The one I'm looking forward to the most is the debut single for NCT U called 일곱 번째 감각 (The 7th Sense) (Sung by 태용, 마크, 재현, 도영, 텐). I'm excited to see how this one does because it's very “Drake” — rap, but melodic at the same time. Everyone has told me for the last 3 years that dark, urban music can't be popular in Korea. But it's had a bit of a following recently with artists like DEAN, G.Soul, and Crush. There's been overwhelming support from international fans, but I'm still not 100% sold yet on the marketability within Korea. I personally love the song and I'm very happy with the final product, but I'm just to see how the Korean fans will react to this type of music, as a debut single for a new group, because it's definitely not “K-pop.”
KPN: A lot of people are confused by NCT's concept. Can you shed any light on that?
PT: Ok, so to be quite honest, I'm not 100% sure, myself. But my understanding is that there's roughly around 50 trainees who are under this “rookie” title and they're divided into subgroups that specialize in different things. For example, there will be an R&B group that'll feature the strong singers of the group, or an EDM group which will probably be more performance-based. Some of them cross over to different groups, so you can be a part of multiple subgroups. But you also have this 6 or 7 member “alpha” group — the main NCT guys who do the main promotions. And at least one member from this alpha group will also participate in a subgroup depending on their strengths. The main albums will primarily feature this alpha group while the mini albums will primarily feature a subgroup. The songs that have been released recently, WITHOUT YOU (Sung by 재현, 도영, 태일) and The Seventh Sense, are under the name, NCT U, which stands for NCT Unit. They're different subgroups promoting under one name.
- Label SM Entertainment
- Debut NCT U "The 7th Sense", 2016
- Official Fanclub Undecided
KPN: How did that song come together?
PT: The night before one of our camps was over, everyone was wrapping up, but we wanted to get one more song in. So, I went through and picked this track that one of my producers, Bos, had. It was just a loop, but I thought it was so dope. So, I gave it to one of my writers, Tay, and he just went into a room by himself and started writing to it. Eventually, the song was so dope that everyone jumped on it and contributed their own melodies and raps. I think the song has like 8 or 9 writers on it (laughs).
KPN: If you were to be remembered for just one song, which would you want to be remembered for?
PT: I think the song I'm most proud of is Beautiful Goodbye by G.Soul. It's not a single and not many people know it, but I think it's the most creative we've ever been when writing it. I was in a session at my apartment with G.Soul and our co-writer, RealMe, and we were just listening to random songs that we liked. One of the songs that RealMe played for us was Time Travel by Daley and we just got super inspired. So, we had RealMe laying down some chords, me laying down the drums, and G.Soul in the back just humming and thinking of melodies out loud. I think we made the whole thing from top to bottom in like 2-3 hours.
KPN: You also produced G.Soul's single, Love Me Again, correct?
PT: Yeah, but that one took 6 months to write (laughs). We had to make a lot of edits and none of them sat well with us compared to the original, so it took a while.
- Label JYP Entertainment
- Debut "You", 2015
- Official Fanclub Undecided
KPN: What's the most embarrassing thing that's happened to you in Korea?
PT: When I first got connected to JYPE, I was at their office going up the stairs and this girl walks by and asks, “Hey, are you Paul?” First of all, no one should know who I am (laughs). Secondly, I didn't know that many people spoke English at JYPE, so I was caught off guard. When I asked who she was, everyone started laughing. I happened to look up at that point and I see this huge poster behind her with this sort of vampire concept. That's when I realized I was talking to Sunmi from the Wonder Girls (laughs). I had kicked it with a few people from JYPE the previous week and I guess they had told a couple people about me.
KPN: Are there any artists that you haven't worked with yet but would like to in the future?
PT: I'd actually I'd like to write a song for GOT7. I dig their concept and vibe, and the guys are fun and super down to earth. JYP artists in general are all super chill.
KPN: Any tips for younger songwriters and producers?
PT: Foreign writers have a tendency to underestimate the quality of music in Korea. So, a lot of writers either come to Korea and don't take it seriously, or they send their B or C demos and save their good ones for the states. I would say that's the biggest [misconception]. The quality of K-pop music may have been a few yrs behind America up until about 3 years ago, but that's not the case anymore. It may sound different than America or the UK, but the quality of the product is top of the line. The trends might be different, but that doesn't mean that the mix isn't good or that the melody isn't as catchy or edgy as the States.
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