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ATEEZ’s Guide to the Pirate Life

The eight-member K-pop group talks about the philosophy behind their elaborate performances, their bond, and what life on the (metaphorical) open seas brings

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The K-pop industry has never been afraid to commit to an elaborate, fantastical idea. Groups like EXO and LOONA look to the sky for inspiration, building discographies full of detailed planetary lore. The boys of Kingdom adopt medieval personas based on Arthurian legend. VIXX and Dreamcatcher, meanwhile, serve fans gothic bangers with a side of nightmare fuel.

But there’s no one quite like ATEEZ. KQ Entertainment’s performance-focused boy group has laid their claim not on the stars or scary stories, but on the open seas. ATEEZ’s calling? Piracy. And not the usual kind of music piracy you may be thinking of: ATEEZ are the corsairs of K-pop, with ships, swords, and sea monsters galore.

The eight members of ATEEZ crossed the Pacific in January to finally bring their worldwide tour, The Fellowship: The Beginning of the End, to American fans, conquering a slew of cities across the United States following a two-year postponement. The Ringer caught up with the swashbuckling superstars a few days after their final Los Angeles shows at the Forum to discuss everything from vocals and villains to dance breaks and downtime.

Once a Pirate, Always a Pirate

ATEEZ debuted in 2018 with the explosive singles “Pirate King” and “Treasure,” and as their career and popularity have evolved, so has their interpretation of the original pirate theme. They’ve been desert conquerors in “Treasure,” island explorers in “Wave,” and sky sailors in “Illusion.” Recent years saw a slight departure from the pirate prompt in songs like “Inception” and “Deja Vu,” but ATEEZ’s newly released video for “Don’t Stop” marks a return to marauding form, including burning ships, stolen treasure, and an eye patch for good measure.

No one is happier about the pivot back to piracy than the bearer of said eye patch, ATEEZ’s magnetic leader Hongjoong—their “captain,” as the group calls him. His crew consists of striking, graceful Seonghwa; affable dancer Yunho; intense, animated San; slinky, scene-stealing Wooyoung; warm, soft-spoken baritone Yeosang; growly, sweetly shy rapper Mingi; and prodigious power-belter Jongho. No matter how you look at ATEEZ—bow to stern, port to starboard—they bear an impressive roster.

“The pirate concept fits us so well. It can be mysterious, it can be powerful—we can say so many things and express so much within that theme. There are so many different types of pirates!” Hongjoong says, laughing lightly at his serious take on ATEEZ’s fictional exploits. “Not real pirates. But we can imagine the concept in so many different ways.” He hesitates, worried about spoiling upcoming plans. “It’s not official, but we want to do more with that in the future.”

It’s All About the Journey

It’s been nearly two years since ATEEZ’s previous tour was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but while their worldwide exploration was put on pause, ATEEZ’s personal discoveries continued. During the time ATEEZ’s ship was run aground, the crew stayed busy, releasing a new album and several EPs, competing in K-pop competition show Kingdom: Legendary War, and doing a lot of growing—internally and externally.

“Yeosang has grown a lot more muscles,” Yunho says with a laugh, as Yeosang (ever reserved, despite a newfound tendency to show off his hard-earned six-pack) blushes fiercely across the room. “He’s gotten a lot more confident in his performance, compared to two years ago.” Yeosang agrees, noting that Yunho and the other members have taught him a lot over their past few comebacks as they’ve all become stronger performers. San and Wooyoung also pipe up, remarking that each other’s energy onstage is more intense than ever before.

Hongjoong spent a lot of time during the pandemic studying English—he spoke entirely in English throughout the interview and helped translate for the other members. But Hongjoong’s English improvement is just one of many personal developments, according to Mingi: “I think he’s really grown in how he moves onstage as an artist, and the way he engages the audience and channels his passion. I have so much respect for him—we admire him more all the time.” Between the group’s two rappers, it’s a “give and take” relationship, Hongjoong says. “Mingi took a few months to rest, and he came back so much stronger than before. He’s much more powerful now.”

Here There Be Monsters

Never has ATEEZ committed more fully to their pirate roots than in 2021’s Kingdom rendition of “Symphony No. 9: From the Wonderland,” which sees the group defending a pirate ship and gunning down a massive onstage sea monster. The performance was a stunner, winning ATEEZ first place in that round of Kingdom, and deservedly so—the production value is reminiscent of a Broadway musical. (The Pirates of Penzance if they slayed.)

When it came time to put together the 2022 concert set list, ATEEZ knew an adapted version of that performance would be the perfect choice for kicking off their long-awaited tour. “‘Wonderland’ was the last song of our concert two years ago in Seoul,” says Hongjoong. “This concert is called The Beginning of the End, so we flipped it around and opened with ‘Wonderland.’”

Kingdom’s ‘Wonderland’ is a really precious stage to us, and we thought this would be a good opportunity to show it to fans in person,” Seonghwa says. But despite the group’s loyalty to the original performance, some changes had to be made. Seonghwa’s iconic kraken-killing moment wasn’t replicable on the concert stage—the tentacle prop was far too big to make the trip, and the concert spaces weren’t compatible with the previous setup.

Lest fans miss her too much, Wooyoung provides some helpful closure on the monster’s fate: “We ate her.”

In the kraken’s absence, “we had to make more impact with just one thing,” Hongjoong says. So instead of the old-school rifle that Seonghwa used to kill the beast, he appeared in the U.S. flourishing a sword. The gunshot moment was replaced with artful twirling and a dramatic slash. Seonghwa didn’t mind the change—he wanted to surprise fans with the updated weaponry, and he liked the “grandeur” that came with the sword. One problem: The sword was surprisingly heavy. “It’s actually really hard to swing it,” says Hongjoong, replicating Seonghwa’s movements from the song. “Holding the ending pose too—he had to practice a lot.”

Other standout moments from the Kingdom performance remained unchanged, including Jongho’s multilevel high note toward the end of “Wonderland.” Jongho said their Kingdom experience was vital for their development as a group. “It upgraded our identity as ATEEZ and expanded our perspective on stage.”

Keep an Eye on Your Enemies

Generally speaking, one does not simply walk into an ATEEZ concert in a band T-shirt and call it a day—it’s a fashion show, a costume party, a visual as much as an auditory experience. Across the run of ATEEZ’s U.S. concerts, pirate-inspired fashion reigned supreme, in addition to many fans who replicated outfits from music videos or performances. But not all costumed fans chose to imitate the group themselves—ATEEZ singled out one attendee who dressed as a recurring villain introduced in their 2020 music video for “Answer.”

The White Mask Man! That fan was very memorable,” Yunho exclaims. “So many other fans took pictures with them, that was really wonderful.” San agreed, but was quick to correct Yunho on his official ATEEZ lore. “He’s the Android Guardian—that’s what we decided to call him.”

It wasn’t just enemies in the crowd who caught the group’s eye. Yunho also loved seeing Spider-Man show up to their New York concert, and they applauded another fan who recreated Seonghwa’s corseted fit from the aforementioned Kingdom “Wonderland” performance.

“We’re incredibly pleased when we see fans in costume like that,” Wooyoung says. “Not only that they decided to do it, but it’s also fun to see how detailed the costumes are. It’s a reminder of their commitment, and how much they love what we do. I’d love to hear more about how they put them together.”

Hongjoong agrees. “Almost all of them are handmade, I think. I’m always amazed by them. I love that they get the inspiration from us, but put their own spin on it. We see them and get inspired all over again, so it’s a creative cycle.”

A Pirate Always Dresses the Part

The fans aren’t the only ones with a penchant for visual dramatics—after all, the difference between a pirate and your average sailor is basically just more earrings and better fashion. As a dance-focused group, the members of ATEEZ are intentional about every detail involved in a live performance, including not only the choreography, but their styling as well.

According to Hongjoong, it can be tricky to reconcile fashion with practicality onstage. “We dance really hard, and our choreography is really tough. I want to dress in a unique way, but it can be hard to move in those clothes. So it’s a mix between our individual styles and how we can make that fit within ATEEZ as a group.”

Hongjoong’s individual style, for one, is hard to miss—the day of the interview, the rapper’s bright red hair matched his single accent nail, and throughout the conversation he fiddled with numerous sparkly earrings. The recent return of his signature mullet prompted the question: Does ATEEZ put as much care into their hairstyle choices as they do their clothes?

“We talk about it a lot!” Hongjoong gestures at the other members, who bear an assortment of more muted hair colors. “We have eight members, so we have to keep balance as a group. If I switch back to black hair, someone has to change their hair. Has to!,” he emphasizes. He looks around, taking a hair census. “We have many black-haired members this time, so Yeosang and I changed our colors, and Mingi too.” Bright blond Yeosang and ashy gray Mingi gestured to their own ‘dos. “I want to try more hairstyles, but they’re too damaging,” Mingi says. But San has a solution in mind for fried follicles. “When I get a chance, I want to cut mine really short—shorter than ‘Deja Vu,’” he says, miming hair clippers as though giving himself a buzz cut. It would be a bold move as far as K-pop styling goes—not for the faint of heart or weak of cheekbones— but San’s safe on both counts. And if all else fails, perhaps the crew can plunder up some Olaplex.

A Pirate Is Always Ready to Improvise

During the three-hour concert, ATEEZ paused often to speak to fans in a mixture of prepared statements, casual conversations, and no shortage of endearing chaos. According to Yunho, they prefer the times when they can go off script and engage with the fans freely. “Sometimes we do a dance cover of other artists, or we do waves with the crowd. We get to communicate more with fans that way. I’m not the type to get directed around, so I like it.”

Despite the group’s tendency for perfectly synchronized choreography, Yunho’s easygoing mentality extended to performances in the second half of the show. Seonghwa’s favorite songs to perform were those from the Fever medley (“Good Lil Boy,” “The Leaders,” and “TO THE BEAT”), during which the group forewent official choreography in favor of bouncing around the stage and interacting with fans. “I like how we’re able to enjoy the uproar and just have fun together,” Seonghwa says.

Perhaps the most uproarious moment of the show came during ATEEZ’s lively performance of “The Real,” in which two rotating members took center stage every night for a surprise dance break. For the first Los Angeles show, Yeosang and Mingi got the spotlight; at the second show, it was San and Wooyoung. The dance breaks are often so entertaining and well-timed that they seem choreographed, but the group is insistent that they roll up with no plan—just vibes. “We roughly think about it in advance, but when I’m actually onstage, I just freestyle and go with the flow,” says Yeosang. San agrees. “Just feeling it!” he shouts, then sits back and marvels for a moment. “My mind … ”

No Man Left Behind

ATEEZ’s motto is “8 makes 1 team,” but through the past few years, several members took time off due to injuries or much-needed rest. During their final Los Angeles shows, hardworking vocalist Jongho missed segments of the concerts due to a tweaked ankle. But in large part, this tour served as a reminder of what ATEEZ can do when they’re at their strongest, with all members together in fighting form—especially Mingi, who was on hiatus during Kingdom as well as several 2021 comeback promotions.

“I didn’t get to perform ‘Fireworks’ before, so I was looking forward to finally getting to do it,” says the group’s deep-voiced rapper. “The fans really love Mingi’s rap,” San pipes up. Hongjoong adds that the group was surprised at the popularity of “Fireworks” in America—they couldn’t believe how well English-speaking fans knew even the Korean words by heart.

Boxing-inspired B-side “Rocky” was also a concert fan favorite, and again Mingi took center stage. “We added something to the song that put me in the spotlight, and the mood of the song is right up my alley, so I had a lot of fun,” he says. Ever-supportive San points at Mingi again: “Main character!”

As for Jongho, he powered through his injury to finish the tour the only way he knows how—with powerhouse vocals and no intention of taking it easy, despite the group’s demanding choreography. “I’ve learned the tactics for dancing while singing,” he says. “The pitches can go off because I lose my breath, but constant practice helps me maintain and keep pronunciation stable.” He assures fans that he’s getting enough rest, and with the help of a handy humidifier, he’s keeping those golden vocal chords fresh.

New Lands Await Discovery

After the completion of their U.S. tour, ATEEZ is spending some extra time in Los Angeles doing fan events, talking to pirate-obsessed press, and enjoying a little sunshine. With their limited time off, the group has big plans to explore L.A.—San, the romantic, wants to visit the sites from La La Land, namely Griffith Observatory; ever-chic Wooyoung intends to hit the shops; and bright, buoyant Yunho has his heart set on Disneyland. (Including, perhaps, a stop by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride?)

But upon their return to South Korea, it’s a short rest period, then back to the grind. “We’re planning our European tour already,” Hongjoong says, referring to their recently re-postponed slate of shows, initially planned for the tail end of February. ATEEZ has also announced a mysterious return to the U.S. by the end of 2022—perhaps another tour, or an appearance at what may be an in-person KCON? It’s anyone’s guess, and Hongjoong isn’t telling. But one thing is for sure—much like Peter Pan’s infamous Captain Hook, ATEEZ’s captain knows the clock is always ticking. “We never waste time.”