Although South Korean boy band NCT DREAM (leader and eldest, 23-year-old Canadian-Korean Mark, Chinese-born Renjun and Chenle, and native Koreans Haechan, Jeno, Jaemin and Jisung, the youngest at 21 years old) are all self-confessed night owls, the only thing they want to do after a show, says Chenle with a grin, is “pass out”.
Their tour – The Dream Show 2: In A Dream – features a 22-track setlist spanning a seven-year, multi-million album-selling career: the bubblegum pop of their debut, harder-edged electronic pop of their late teens, and the glitchy, juddering bass of recent singles are all accompanied by strenuous choreography.
“The show starts at 8pm, we finish around 11.30pm, and we get back to the hotel about 12-ish,” says Mark, who is blond in London but black-haired two days later in Paris, with photos of the change trending on Twitter. “But the adrenaline stays in you, so I’ll stay up on my phone looking at YouTube, and you find yourself at three in the morning, like, ‘Oh, I gotta sleep.’” They’ll often monitor each night’s show via audience videos and reactions: “One fan posted a part in ‘Déjà Vu’ where we jump together, and we were very synchronised, very on point, and when I see those kinds of contents, I’m satisfied,” says Haechan, whose honeyed, nasal tones have made him one of K-pop’s most distinctive vocalists.
Each member, apart from Jisung, has a personal Instagram account but scroll across other platforms. Do they specifically search for NCT DREAM? “No, no,” Chenle says in English, the corners of his lips twitching. “I’m just using my name.” NCT DREAM wields a deft, dry humour. They’re sarcastic and teasing, more like siblings than teammates, with many of their interviews unravelling into a lively chaos. After their sold-out OVO Arena Wembley show, the members do an industry meet-and-greet, instantly putting the room at ease with a few situational one-liners and small talk, cheerfully posing for photos. This gregarious, earthy vibe is a beloved trait of their mostly female, but visibly age-diverse fandom who line up for hours outside the venues, many wearing at least one item in the band’s signature neon green.
In Paris, excitement ripples through the thousands outside the Zénith arena but, backstage, it’s the usual routine, albeit 30 minutes behind schedule. Touring staff are having dinner at two long trestle tables. NCT DREAM, already wearing pristine stage clothes, finish sound check and eat carefully before being ushered over to couches where we riff on their PVC trousers (not too uncomfortably hot to dance in, according to Chenle) and Mark’s hair (his go-to colours are black, blond or blue). There’s a gentle reminder from their PR that time is ticking away.
This murmured aside is poignant or maybe poetic, for time has fiercely pursued and played with NCT DREAM from the outset. The band’s original premise in 2016 featured a graduation system, whereby members would age out at 19, and new members added. Adhering to this, Mark left in late December 2018, a decision unpopular with the fandom who’d grown attached to the original line-up. Jaemin spent 2017-2018 on hiatus to recover from a back injury. Fans readied themselves for Jaemin, Haechan, Renjun and Jeno (all born in 2000) to graduate in 2019, an event that never materialised but which was also never addressed, plunging NCTzens (the fandom name) into confusion over the group’s fate. Instead, NCT DREAM would embark on their first major tour, only for it to be cut short in February 2020 due to COVID-19.
“Time did sort of feel like it was coming for us,” says Jisung with a small smile.
Blond and softly spoken Jeno laces his fingers: “I’d have to say that our path hasn’t been smooth sailing.”
If the joyous, boundless energy that infuses much of their output is one side of the NCT DREAM coin, the other is home to their discordant experience with time, which has impressed itself on everything from their career vision to their discography. ‘We Go Up’, released three months prior to Mark leaving in 2018, features the lyrics: “Look time flies / We fly, changes and timing / In an instant (We dream) / It becomes different everyday”. ‘Déjà Vu’ (2020) runs thus: “Good timing, look here / We’re all set, we ready / My team new age”. On ‘Rewind’, from last year’s Glitch Mode, they sing “Let’s go back to the time when it started, get up… / Let’s be together, be the seven that completes”. And their most recent EP, December’s Candy contains ‘Graduation’, a heart-wrenching reflection on their group bond and the system that tried to break it.
“The graduation system was traumatic but we had to endure it and go on,” says Mark. NCTzens petitioned tirelessly for NCT DREAM to be made a fixed unit, and April 2020 brought a fourth EP, Reload, but also a win for the fandom: confirmation that the graduation system was to be scrapped, and Mark’s imminent return to the line-up. “Coming back in, to be honest, I don’t think I was fully relieved [about it],” he admits. “I didn’t know how everyone, including the fans, were going to react and I didn’t know how I should react. I felt like it might complicate things too much, but it also meant we could do something as 7Dream that we’d always dreamed of. It felt like the destiny of NCT DREAM kinda, y’know, took a turn.”
In retrospect, Haechan views the first four years of NCT DREAM’s public existence “as a phase of preparation for our beginning.” He scrunches the can of Red Bull he’s been drinking. “I don’t think of NCT DREAM’s debut as our official start. I look further beyond, into all the obstacles and experiences we had that got us to where we’re at now. I feel like our unofficial starting date is ‘Déjà Vu’ because we were seven members again and we could say to fans, ‘This is our beginning.’”
Since that new release in October 2020, the band’s fractured relationship with time has, says Jisung, transformed into something positive, adding, “Now it’s something we really look forward to, it makes us excited to see what comes in the future.”
A renewed sense of direction underpinned their 2021 debut album, Hot Sauce, which Jeno says, “was a moment where all of us thought, ‘Let’s do all that we can, let’s experience more.’ I think it was an opportunity that pushed us to try new challenges.”
Its titular lead single amplified all that NCT DREAM is – bright, bold, humorous, with a constant friction between impish synths and warm melodies – while their sweeter, heartfelt cuts flourished with a sensitive maturation. Doubling down on this approach for 2022’s Glitch Mode created a slew of excellent tracks: ‘Fire Alarm’, ‘Teddy Bear’, ‘Better Than Gold’ and, a concert highlight, ‘Saturday Drip’ with its irreverent, time-hopping cultural nods to Julius Caesar, 60s slicked hair, and Jackson Pollock.
“What defines an NCT DREAM song is that it includes an element of brightness, our own stories or a message to our fans,” says Jaemin, whose wide smile shifts between utterly mischievous and improbably charming.
“Having a good album is what we care about more than having a good song,” adds Mark, who, along with Jaemin, Jeno and Jisung, has contributed lyrics since the band’s inception. “We put 100 per cent into our title tracks but we care a lot about our B-sides, so with those we’re as experimental and diverse as we can be. That freedom is important to us, and it really shows in our music.”
It’s been over a year since Glitch Mode, and although touring delivers longed-for contact with fans in Europe, the USA and Asia, NCT DREAM are also creatively restless. “We’re always, always thinking about the music,” stresses Chenle.
“It’s in the making,” Mark blurts. An album? “Something like that,” he smiles, making nearby staff splutter explosively.
In between shows, NCT DREAM makes the most of their travels. Tomorrow is their day off and they’ll take in the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, and Eiffel Tower, and go live to their 11.5 million Instagram followers from a boat ride on the Seine, during which they fake-fight, sing and get a little noisy. “There are moments where I feel I have matured,” says Chenle, “but when it comes to being with my members, I think we go back to being children.”
Mark laughs. “I feel like I’m 16, I swear to God.” He’s only half-joking. “I don’t want to rush into adulthood. For this occupation, there are a lot of sides to it where it’s beneficial for us to remain young. At least, in spirit.” It’s easy to understand why he feels this way – right now, they’re of an age where they still embody the youthful effervescence NCT DREAM was built upon, but are comfortable making forays into more grown-up content, such as the choreography that accompanies their performance of ‘Quiet Down’.
Perhaps more than that, the members, having charted their way through teenhood, appear to be at a point where they’re very much at ease with themselves, and enjoying it. Jisung, who turned 21 in February, remembers “times when I felt afraid to be standing in front of so many people”, a fear he’s since conquered.
Renjun recognised he needed to figure out “how to love myself. It made it easier to find inner peace and, more importantly, be able to show love to those around me”.
NCT DREAM was and still is, says Jaemin, who found himself in a similar situation to Renjun, a “safe haven. You experience the most when you’re in your teens and it’s more special because I spent it with my members. Even now, if I share any concerns I have with them, I’ll have a solution at hand and feel much more at ease,” he laughs.
The protective, reassuring insularity of NCT DREAM, however, is unlike fame’s cloistering tendencies, and it’s Mark who recently began unpicking the latter’s effect on his perspective of the world and place in it. “I don’t have many friends outside of the music industry that are the same age as me. But when I see them, [I realise] they see the world totally different from the way I do. I feel like they’re more mature, more [immersed] in society, they know the way the world moves more than me. There have been moments where I felt I needed to catch up, that I was being left behind,” he says.
Mulling it over brought to him an important realisation, particularly as he moves further along his chosen path. “There are so many values I hold that they might not even imagine, and it’s wiser for me to value that than the things I don’t have or that I couldn’t have. The experiences I have as an entertainer, I don’t think I would give that away for anything else right now.”
It’s getting late, and through the walls comes the sound of fans filling the arena; they’re chanting and singing, and the members’ eyes slide eagerly towards the nearby stage doors. There’s room for one more question: unencumbered by what once was, the last vestiges shaken loose as you, at last, tour the world as seven, how do the members see NCT DREAM in 2023? “The one thing that comes to my mind is how precious we are, and how happy that makes me feel,” says Jisung as a sound engineer hits play on the first pre-show record, and the thundering roar of the crowd drowns out everything else. NCT DREAM, amused, rises to their feet and head out into the spotlight.