A day with P1Harmony, K-pop's fearless next generation

Intak stares at his victim with delighted intensity, poised for attack. Even though this is the 18-year-old’s first time indulging in such a bounty, and the list of unknowns that may unfold after this decision would intimidate any other attacker, Intak is undaunted.

“That’s dis-gus-ting,” Keeho shouts from across the table over the noise of New York City's bustling Chelsea Market. The 20-year-old charismatic leader of K-pop group P1Harmony stares with mock horror as his bandmate shovels a forkful of yellowish, gloopy lobster innards into his mouth. “This is so good, you guys need to try it,” Intak tells the group in Korean. (Well, technically not the whole table — Japanese member Soul, he knows, is not big on sharing food — “It’s a saliva thing,” Keeho explains.) The five other members look on, a mix of amusement and curiosity playing on their faces. They’ve gotten to used to this kind of thing now — after all, the fledgling K-pop starlets have staked their careers thus far on plunging into the unknown.

It started with “Siren,” the group’s debut single, released in October 2020 as the global pandemic was in full swing. Despite it being a relatively unexpected time to begin a performing career, the sextet — Keeho, Theo, Jiung, Intak, Soul, and Jongseob — nevertheless began to attract a wide audience impressed by a seasoned attitude and fierce sound not normally captured by rookie groups. Some of that maturity can likely be attributed to genes — Intak fell in love with dance at his mother’s dance studio growing up; Jongseob’s parents were both jazz and contemporary dancers; Keeho took after his musically-inclined mother and trained at a vocal academy back in Toronto. The following April came their second EP, Break Out: Disharmony, and with it, lead single “Scared,” an intense, upbeat declaration of war against any challenges that will inevitably befall them. But in truth, from the moment they stepped on the scene, P1H had already been in battle, trying to be a band in a time when doing so normally was nearly impossible — especially in K-pop. The industry is built on frequent fan interactions, not just through concerts but also many other types of live events. As much as groups, including P1H, tried to bring the vibrant, intimate experience of K-pop to fans virtually, it’s hard to feel like a band when your fans are cheering you on through a screen.

Instead of letting this challenge get best of them, however, the sextet made good on their promise of fearlessly forging ahead — and came here, across the world to New York City. Keeho will be the first to admit that mixed up in their excitement to do interviews and meet fans for the first time — basically, be a band out in the world — was perhaps was a tinge of nervousness. “We honestly didn’t know what to expect, coming here and promoting ourselves,” the Toronto-born vocalist says. “But we’ve been so surprised that people actually know us.” And "knowing" is an understatement. Earlier in the week, fans had found out a stop the band was making for an interview and camped outside for hours to see them. Footage taken by excited fans who had followed the sextet on the street was making the rounds on social media. “It’s totally unreal, and I’m so grateful,” Keeho says. A week or so later, the group would stage their first U.S. performance at a Major League Soccer match for Korean Culture Night in Los Angeles, and find the kind of packed, ravenous audience usually reserved for groups many years their senior.

So far on this trip, P1H has been Band That Gets Interviewed, Band That Gets Recognized On The Street, Band That Makes It On Local New York Morning TV. Right now, for at least a few hours, they’re Band That Tries To Retain An Ounce of Teenage Normalcy. With the lobster (completely cleaned out, thanks to Intak and Theo) conquered, the group pops into a bookstore, filled with an array of quirky knickknacks. Soul makes a beeline for an emu stuffed animal, which he says looks like Theo. The others disagree: “He looks like Soul in the morning,” Jiung jokes. Theo is talking K-dramas with a nearby staff member, who shares his love of melodramatic romances. Intak hovers by the children’s books as he contemplates buying one about dinosaurs for his younger brother. Jiung also pages through a few books about animals, as he had planned to become a vet before he found his way into K-pop stardom. “I especially love reptiles,” he says, pointing at a book with a snake on the cover. “I like leopard geckos, rose tarantulas, scorpions, frogs.” He’s a big fan of cat videos too, despite being allergic. Jongseob casually browses through a rack little sticker sheets, repeating a word he'd picked up earlier. “You said spit, right?” the rapper asks, chuckling. “Fire? Spit fire. I spit fire.”

Keeho walks around the bookshelves at the front of the store, completely unaware that a woman at the checkout aisle is sneakily trying to snap his picture (“I’m going to look them up as soon as I get home,” she tells me on her way out). Keeho says he wants to get back into reading, and asks for a book recommendation. I hand him The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, a fantasy novel about a place in-between life and death where you have the opportunity to try every iteration of your life if you had made different decisions. Would Keeho ever want to page through another version of his life? “Maybe at some point,” he says, turning over the idea in his mind. “But to be honest, right now, I’m too excited to see where this story goes.”

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