By Jon Dunbar
By day he’s a tech company executive. By night and on weekends, he’s the lead guitarist in one of Korea’s best cover bands.
Jaeson Yoo, lead guitarist of Jabroni, lives a double life for sure, walking between the two worlds confidently.
“There are some people at work who know this side of me and there are many others who don’t,” he told The Korea Times. “I just try to keep these two aspects of my life separate. As George Harrison once said, ‘You can take the horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink.’ So it’s not for everyone, if you know what I mean.”
Yoo is an American citizen, having been born in Korea but moving abroad at age 9. He returned to Korea in 2011.
“I was just really passionate about the guitar from a young age, but didn’t actually start learning it until I got to college,” he said. “I made a lot of home recordings over the years, but didn’t start looking for people to play with until 2018.”
That same year, he formed a Beatles tribute band called the Beagles. In 2019 he joined another Beatles tribute band, the Mentles.
But whereas those other projects were originally about bringing out the magic of the original British Invasion band on stage, Jabroni, formed in late 2021, is a more general cover band.
“I think most people would agree that The Beatles have a wonderful catalog of music,” Yoo said. “Add to this each member’s solo efforts through the years, and that’s more than enough songs for a cover band to focus on in one lifetime. Nonetheless, we had band members and audience members who wanted us to cover different songs. There were also hardcore Beatles fans who would ask us why we don’t dress like the Beatles, why we don’t have a certain Beatles guitar, why ‘Paul’ was singing a ‘George’ song, etc. I get it. Certain people want The Beatles fantasy. I, for one, however, wanted to play The Beatles music. I had no interest in being them. So I guess that’s where the transition to Jabroni gave way.”
According to Yoo, Jabroni’s repertoire includes 38 Beatles songs, and 73 songs by 58 other acts, which include anything from Elvis, Queen and Pink Floyd to Oasis, Coldplay and Lady Gaga.
“The spirit of inclusivity was important to us from the get-go,” Yoo said. “Every song that we have put on stage has been drafted in with a unanimous vote. Let’s say that I want to do a song. We get together, listen to the original track together, and if every member wants to learn their part, then my song would go on our setlists. If one person votes against it, then I would have to pick another one. Each member and close friends of the band gets to select songs this way. I recall there have been only three vetoes thus far ― I suppose this shows the wonderful sense of team play and cooperation that have driven the band to where it is today.”
Moving away from the Beatles songbook also led to the name change, from the Beatles-inspired Beagles to Jabroni, which Yoo explained means “fool.”
“We didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously, and focus on the fun we can have with this group, hence the name,” he said. “We also thought that the word itself sounded quite mellifluous. It’s just fun to say out loud. Third, it has ‘bro’ in it. Fourth, we thought there would be a cool double meaning in Korean. ‘Juh-bro-ni’ would mean something like ‘Is he/she THAT bro?’ Unfortunately, all Koreans tend to pronounce it as ‘Jah-bro-ni,’ so the double meaning never stuck.”
Over the years, the Beagles/Jabroni lineup has experienced an expected amount of turnover.
“I think one of the most painful parts of being in a band is seeing people go,” he said. “But each one will always stay in my heart, and I always try to remember the good times.”
Yoo was also quick to talk up his current bandmates, who have been with him since early this year.
“Mistarr Park provides guitar and vocals, and also often dresses in silly costumes, masks or makeup when he performs. “You know, I’m not sure why,” Yoo said. “Entertainment value? Most of us are pretty straight-laced people, so it’s nice to have that wacky element in the band. He once dressed up as Satan, which was pretty cool. Another time, he put on a pigeon mask. All I know is that I can look his way sometime during the second set, and get a good laugh. What a guy! And the audience adores him.”
“We are playing a unique style that you can’t see in other bands playing in Korea,” Park said. “Only one.”
Most of the regular Jabroni members are ethnically Korean, which makes the band’s French keyboardist, Yohan Lepoetre, stand out a little more.
“Jabroni is all about good vibes and great music,” Lepoetre said. “We’ve got a unique blend going on, with bandmates from different countries and backgrounds. It lets us experiment across various styles, and honestly, it’s just a blast playing together.”
Yoo mentioned how communication can be a little slow at times, but Yohan’s Korean language skills are still improving. “Basically, I have to say everything twice, once in English and once in Korean,” he said. “A small price to pay to gap the language barrier. Luckily, music has no such barriers.”
Yoo was also eager to shout out Jabroni’s rhythm section, which includes Jang Seok-won on drums and Lee Woo-young on bass, who he said “give Jabroni one of the best rhythm sections in all of Korea.”
“I believe this with all my heart,” he added.
“I’m thankful and happy to play with passionate members while listening to music that I spent my youth with,” Lee said. “It’s also a time to think about how I treat and enjoy music while looking at the members who love and enjoy music.”
“Like brothers, we share each other’s favorite music, play it together and have fun,” Jang added.
The band also includes a handful of regular guests. One of these is vocalist Jang Min-hwa, who Yoo called “an absolute songstress,” citing her rendition of “Midnight in Harlem” by Tedeschi Trucks Band.
He also shouted out Mike Choo, who plays rhythm and lead guitar on a number of songs, as well as the charismatic singer Steve Pearson.
“I’m so thankful to have this wonderful band family, and I hope we can continue to make great music for both Korean and expat audiences,” Yoo said.
At most of the band’s shows, it’s clear who Jabroni’s top fan is. That would be Yun Hai-young, Yoo’s wife, who acts as the band’s manager. “She doesn’t set up our gigs, but she does tell us to run through a song again in rehearsals if she thinks it sounds bad,” Yoo laughed. “It’s wonderful to have her support, and we all love her dearly. Hai is a New York gal. If she thought we sucked, she would steer clear of this band. I guess we’re doing something right.”
Many of the band members are hardworking, career-driven professionals, so Jabroni lives gig to gig rather than making any big plans. “One thing I’ve learned with bands is that planning is often fraught with danger,” Yoo said. “Things change all the time. I try to focus on preserving good relationships, and making sure that each person knows that they are loved and appreciated.”
Jabroni has two free shows this month. The first is this Saturday at Groove Jazz Club in southern Seoul’s Seocho District, and the second is at The Studio HBC on Nov. 25. They will also put on their second annual New Year’s party at the Beatles Live Pub in Hannam-dong. Follow @thejabroniband on Instagram for more information.