When he speaks, EJ carefully stitches his thoughts together piece by piece into one complete tapestry. The way he forms his responses—spreading out in all directions with a thunderous echo left in their wake—is just like the approach he takes to being an idol.
​What’s been your biggest hobby lately?
EJ: I used to be into movies and TV dramas but now it seems like I’m more into reading. I was going to see this movie called Even If This Love Disappears Tonight but I wasn’t able to. Then I was in a bookstore and happened to see the book it’s based on by chance so I started reading it. I enjoyed it so I started reading other books too. I read a slice-of-life novel called Uncanny Convenience Store too and now I’m reading a fantasy novel. Reading hasn’t been a hobby of mine for very long (laughs) but I read a few pages when I’m moving between places or when I get home, before I go to bed.

You come across as something of a foodie too. We saw you eating at a restaurant by yourself in Japan in &DAY_OFF. Do you have any good places you like to frequent?
EJ: There’s a barbecue place in Japan near our home that I went to with TAKI and FUMA. It was so good that I went back by myself and then again with YUMA and FUMA. (laughs) I used to be the type to stay in a lot but now, when I’m in Japan and I have time, I pretend like I’m on vacation and go looking for new places. When I’m out walking around, I’ll pop into a restaurant if it looks good, and I’ll try eating things I have never heard of before. I like going out there without any plans and just finding something really good to eat.

You and the other members teach each other about different food and cultures. Is there anything you’re looking forward to while you’re promoting in Korea?
EJ: There’s actually a lot of things I’ve never tried while in Korea. I want to go to a valley, go to the top of Namsan Tower, see a movie in theaters. But I’m half excited, half nervous for the promotions. (laughs) We’ve all seen videos and “fancams” from other artists so we’re excited for it but it’s not something we’ve actually done before, so I’m sort of scared too. But I hope the promotion helps spread the word about &TEAM to lots of people. I don’t know how much I can help the other members as a Korean (laughs) but they’re all strong when it comes down to the actual performances so I’m not too worried.
​I’m guessing you’re a big help to them when it comes to studying Korean. What kind of things are you teaching them?
EJ: I mostly help them out when they ask things like, “Am I pronouncing this right?” or, “When do you use this word?” I still wasn’t used to speaking Japanese when I was going on &AUDITION - The Howling so I could understand what people were saying but I couldn’t convey my own thoughts. But I think I improved once the show started since I had to talk in Japanese. That’s why I tell the others that expressing your own thoughts in Korean is the key to improving quickly.

You’re so good at Japanese now that you can host your own videos and crack jokes too.
EJ: I didn’t talk at first because I didn’t know if what I was saying was right or if my timing was off, but it was frustrating not being able to speak my mind (laughs) so I just started saying what I wanted, even if it was wrong, and that helped me get things right. It’s normal for me to just say whatever’s on the tip of my tongue. (laughs) I still make mistakes in Japanese, and when I do, the other members say something and help me correct it. It’s been helpful keeping their tips in mind next time I say it again.

There’s both a Korean and a Japanese version of “FIREWORK,” the lead single off your new album, First Howling: WE.
EJ: I always ask the members when I’m singing if I’m using the right pronunciation, but this time they asked me the same thing a lot when we were singing in Korean. But even I use Korean differently between when I speak and when I sing. So I started to look into how you can make Korean sound cooler when you sing.

How did recording the vocals for “FIREWORK” go?
EJ: “FIREWORK” made me full of emotions and feel like I should just run forward. I usually look at the lyrics first before I sing and think about what they mean. Our debut album was about realizing you might not be perfect the way you are and wanting to change things but not acting on it yet. This new one’s about making moves to find someone and putting those thoughts from before into action. That’s how I saw it. It made me feel like I had grown up somewhat when I was singing it. There were a lot of things about the debut album that I felt I could’ve done better when we were practicing for it so I really focused on practicing my vocals this time. That’s not to say I’m completely happy with how I’m doing now (laughs) but it made me feel like I grew somewhere and it made me want to keep working hard toward that goal.
​What was it like singing “Road Not Taken”? You had to sing in a voice that’s tougher than your usual soft image.
EJ: Whenever I record, our producer, Soma, always says, “More! Give it more, more!” (laughs) But “Running with the pack” and “Scent of you” both had parts where I sang a little stronger so I think I was already used to it. I’m not an assertive type when it comes to talking to other people, but it’s surprisingly fun to go into the recording studio and sing like I’m angry or sort of annoyed. It’s even like a kind of stress reliever sometimes. It makes me think, I can’t believe that was me. I had no idea I had that kind of voice in me.

“Road Not Taken” also has intense choreography.
EJ: Yes. It’s huge! (laughs) I got used to it over time while practicing all the cues with the other members. There’s parts of the song with a ton of movement, and other parts where we’re more still but still have to look fierce, so I worked really hard to be able to get that across properly. “FIREWORK” is one big tight group dance, and there really isn’t any downtime, making it physically demanding. But “Road Not Taken” is hard because for some parts we create one big shape with our bodies together, then at other points someone has to jump into the air, or get up on top of the others and sing while leaning back. (laughs) Those parts were hard. But we’re always talking with each other to make sure we’re all able to do it without issue. It ends up working out because while we practice the person who’s jumping or getting lifted up checks that they aren’t hurting anybody, and the others say things like, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt—just jump,” and, “Don’t worry, it’s not scary—just get on.”

&TEAM’s performances come from a place of great practice and deep trust among all the group members. As the leader, how do you see your role in that?
EJ: I worried a lot at first about what I should do and felt like being the leader was really hard. Instead of being the kind of leader who tells them what to do, I try to create an atmosphere where they’re free to throw out their own ideas and help them focus when they’re having trouble concentrating. It still isn’t easy but I think I’m doing what I can. I think I was scared of being the leader because it requires things of me that I find challenging, but it also made me realize how important the position is. But the other members and everyone else still trusted me with the job. I was really thankful for that. The fact that they believed in me made me feel more confident about it and helped me to be able to lead.
​It sounds like you found your way to being a leader in your own way. How was that, exactly?
EJ: I encountered a lot of difficulties along the way, but whenever that happened, I turned it around and I asked the other members instead because I didn’t know much about being a leader or what to do and they were the only ones I could turn to. They actively chime in when I ask things like, “What should my timing be like when I introduce us?” And FUMA is the subleader so I had no problem going to him to ask him things either. When there’s something I’m not sure of, I don’t just think through it by myself—I seek him out. Then he says, “Okay, then what should we do?” And just talking things over with him makes me feel better and gives me some sense of relief.

How did you come up with the idea to get ideas from the other members and share your concerns?
EJ: I like hearing different opinions, which was helpful for making sure the members were free to chime in with their ideas and for me to listen to them. But it was also hard because I wasn’t used to talking about my own opinions with people. I used to prefer to spend time thinking things through by myself, but it was all new for me to think things through with the other members, tell them what I was thinking, and for them to tell me, “Sounds like a plan.” That made me feel more confident in my decisions. So I rely on them when I’m trying to figure out how we can do better as a group.

Do you rely on any of the members in particular? (laughs)
EJ: If there’s something I’m not sure about, I bring it up with the two older members. I also rely on NICHOLAS since we’re the same age and it’s always chill whenever we’re together. I feel like I want to take care of the younger members and act polite to the older ones (laughs) but NICHOLAS knows what I’m thinking without having to say anything and we joke around a lot. So I go to FUMA when I have concerns about the team, and NICHOLAS when I need advice about what to do as an artist or as an idol: This makes you look cool, and you’re good at that, so why don’t you try to show off that side of yourself more? We can be teachers or friends to each other as needed.

What about the younger members? What kind of person would you like to be for them?
EJ: It actually doesn’t matter how much I tell them to feel free to speak their mind—I’ll always be in a position of authority to them because of the age difference. (laughs) I try to make sure they’re comfortable speaking their minds and I’ll ask MAKI and TAKI and HARUA what they think, even for small things. There’s so much I can learn from the younger members. Sometimes they’re even more mature than I am. I don’t think I actually contribute that much to the group as their leader but I’m still thankful when they give me priority. (laughs) I’m also thankful that they ask me if I’m okay going alone to some places or even go with me, since I’m living in a foreign country.
​What kind of influence has being a part of &TEAM with all of the other members had on you?
EJ: I realized during &AUDITION that I could never do what I’m doing alone. I feel like talking with and relying on others has helped me to grow as a person. You can’t always look at yourself objectively or be on your A game, you know. The other members catch when I’m taking things in the wrong direction. That way I can take another look at myself and decide for myself which direction I should be taking. We’re a team, so I can’t stop and go at will. Being a part of a team means you all have to stop and go together; there’s no room for being lazy—as a leader, as an artist, or as a person. I think being a team is all about making sure you don’t stay still and always keep moving. &TEAM is what keeps me growing.

You were on two audition shows before landing as a part of your team: I-LAND and &AUDITION. It must not have been an easy decision to make. How do you feel, looking back on it all now?
EJ: I think it took a lot of courage to go through with—so much so that it makes me wonder where it all came from. (laughs) But it was a big opportunity for me at the time, so there was no reason for me to turn it down. And besides, it was an opportunity to debut with the same people I’d been with all along, so I think that’s why I decided to do it. I didn’t give it much of a second thought. It was a great opportunity, and I didn’t want to let it slip away, so I grabbed hold. It was hard working toward it, but looking back, it was the foundation for major growth.

When you were on I-LAND, you seemed to be burdened by the fact that they kept telling you you had a lot of potential. Then, when you were on &AUDITION, you were the one leading everyone else.
EJ: I was kind of frustrated with myself on I-LAND and hearing that I had room for growth really started to weigh on me. I can see how young I was back then. All those concerns helped me get where I am today, but I also think it’s because I worked hard. Now I’m thinking about what I should do to keep moving forward.
​I guess you found the job so alluring that you were willing to put in all the time and effort. How are things now that you’ve debuted?
EJ: Before I debuted, I always thought of idols as these bright, shiny people that couldn’t exist in the real world. Then I joined the label, met other trainees, debuted and promoted, and now I realize there’s a whole process behind it all. But that only makes it more exciting for me. I love a job where the final product is the result of blood, sweat and tears (laughs) all going into things that are behind the scenes. When I was a trainee, I just practiced something, presented that and got evaluated based on that, so I assumed it wouldn’t be much different after debuting. I got used to the idea that I just had to show what I worked on and do a good job with that. But once I made it to the stage, I could see how much the fans loved it, so I started to like the process, even though it felt like a lot of pressure before. I want to show the fans a good time and put on a good show for them so I’m even more determined when I practice now.

Then it’s LUNÉ who makes you want to do that. What does LUNÉ mean to you?
EJ: I ended up realizing during our fan tour just how many people there are that love me and &TEAM. I get more strength and comfort from LUNÉ’s support and love than I ever could’ve imagined. So I’m going to keep working hard so I can repay them and so I can meet LUNÉ from all the different places they cheer us on. I still have big goals for things like concerts and tours but my dream is to show improvement step by step. (laugh)
Article. Yoon Haein
Interview. Yoon Haein
Visual Director. Jeon Yurim
Coordinator. Lee Yejin
Visual Creative Team. Jang Yeaseul, UEDA SAEKO
Photography. LESS / Assist. Lee Sujeong, Park Sunseok, Jeon Junseo
Hair. Lim Jungho, Kim Minyoung, Kim Minwook
Makeup. Baek Hyuna, Lee Jimin
Stylist. Kim Beungkyu