With 7.54 million YouTube subscribers and hundreds of millions of Spotify streams (and counting), the Korean-Australian K-pop megastars are cooking up a storm.
“Do you remember Maxibon? Golden Gaytime? What else is there, Icy Pole? That’s good stuff,” says Bang Chan, leader of K-pop group Stray Kids, to his Australian bandmate Felix Lee. They get carried away by memories of frosty treats from their childhood (Felix and Bang Chan both grew up in Australia). “I remember doing spiders in kindergarten,” says Felix of the popular soda and ice cream combination. “Oh wow!” Bang Chan says. “Spiders are amazing!”
Sitting side by side in a brick-walled conference room at their label’s headquarters in Seoul, the young duo talk and joke as if no one else is listening. Throughout our video call, my questions merely serve as prompts from which they veer off into unexpected tangents and themes. But food is a topic that consistently comes up—it’s part of Stray Kids’ essence.
Take their 2020 hit, “God’s Menu”, for example. Felix describes the track as “a fun way to check us out”. They compare their creative process to crafting a recipe, and the accompanying video furthers the metaphor with plenty of pots and pans, chopping and seasoning, and kitchen scenes. “Anything on the menu will satisfy all your five senses,” the lyrics go. It’s obviously hitting the spot: “God’s Menu” has clocked nearly 250 million views on YouTube and over 130 million Spotify streams to date.
“[Bang Chan] would take care of everyone. He’s just a big friend, a big hyung.”
Stray Kids were formed through a reality show of the same name in 2017. In it, the members went through a series of evaluations to prove they deserved to debut as a team. Bang Chan, Felix, Lee Know, Changbin, Hyunjin, HAN, Seungmin, and I.N became known for their teamwork and for producing their own songs—mostly led by 3RACHA, a subunit of the group formed by Bang Chan, Changbin, and HAN.
All aged between 20 to 23, they have already established themselves as a prominent name in K-pop, with a slew of awards from Asian shows, world tours, and millions of fans around the world, known as “Stays”.
“Stray Kids everywhere all around the world” is the group’s official slogan. Bang Chan explains that it means “it’s not just us”. Adds Felix: “We try to keep them on the same path as us. Just looking at the words ‘Stray Kids’ reminds me that I’ve been through a lot. I can humbly become a part of it with people who have been through a lot as well.”
“We talked a lot, we stayed up all night, we cried together. And I remember when I was at my hardest [moments], Felix took such great care of me too.”
Although all members are close, Bang Chan and Felix forged a special connection because of their Australian roots (a 2019 YouTube clip of them showcasing their Australian accents has garnered some 4.1 million views). They both listened to K-pop as kids and admired groups like 2PM. Their passion for music led them to audition for JYP Entertainment—their current label—when the company went to Australia, and they eventually became trainees.
K-pop trainees undergo an exhausting routine of classes (from singing and dancing to languages and other themes) and strict rules for years. Bang Chan, for example, trained for seven years before debuting. But he says that adapting to this new life wasn’t challenging. “When I got into the company, everyone took good care of me,” he says. “That helped me a lot, because really I didn’t know much.”
Felix, who trained for one year, found the lifestyle change more noticeable. “When I was in Australia, I’d go to school, come back home, do my homework, and that was it for the day,” he says. “And when I went to Korea, I was training and practising, it was a new experience.”
Overall, they both feel lucky to have grown up in Australia. “In order for us to interact with Stays around the world, English is essential,” says Bang Chan. “And because it’s one of our main languages, it’s in our blood, we feel it’s easier for us, and we are very thankful [for that].”
“I think that one of our biggest weapons is the brotherhood that we have.”
As the leader of Stray Kids, Bang Chan has taken on the role of primary carer for the group. “He would take care of everyone. He’s just a big friend, a big hyung,” says Felix, using the Korean honorific for males referring to older male friends or siblings. “He’s been taking care of our members, so I respect that. Everyone is always thankful.”
“Makes me feel weird, but yeah,” Bang Chan says, slightly embarrassed. “After [Felix] became a trainee, I kept trying to take care of him. I scolded him a lot as well, because I wanted more out of him. It was my own yogsim, I guess?” He asks Felix how to say it in English.
“Your greed,” Felix replies.
“It was a little bit of greed, because I wanted to get closer to him,” says Bang Chan. “We talked a lot, we stayed up all night, we cried together. And I remember when I was at my hardest [moments], Felix took such great care of me too.”
Bang Chan explains that this dynamic extends to the rest of Stray Kids. “We’re so close, we all live together,” he says. “Changbin is just so loud, HAN is loud as well, everyone is having a great time. But because we speak to each other a lot, communication plays a big role in our chemistry, […] I think that one of our biggest weapons is the brotherhood that we have.”
“With Stray Kids, you’ll always have a home. We just try to make everyone feel welcome.”
At time of writing, Stray Kids are the freshly-crowned winners of Kingdom: Legendary War, an Mnet (a Korean music TV channel) K-pop reality show. Through lavish performances, they competed against some of the biggest names in K-pop. Bang Chan credits Stays—who came out in droves to vote for the group to win the show—for their victory.
“Of course we did our role of preparing big performances and everything, but the result in general was given by Stays,” he says. “We’re really thankful.”
“We’re trying our best to take care of what we started, and of our Stays,” says Felix. “Stays are like the root of the tree, and we’re just trying to water [them].”
As “idols” (a common term to describe K-pop performers), there’s a certain pressure to be role models. But according to Bang Chan, Stray Kids approach it as a mission to “make everyone’s lives a little better”. Adds Felix: “We want to show that, with Stray Kids, you’ll always have a home. We just try to make everyone feel welcome.”
As Felix notes, their work “doesn’t always have to be about music, it can also be about creating content”. Whether that’s through daily messages on apps like Bubble and Twitter, vlogs on VLive, or songs released as surprise gifts, there’s always something cooking in Stray Kids’ kitchen. “We have been preparing a lot of stuff,” assures Bang Chan.
But while the world awaits Stray Kids’ next course, Bang Chan and Felix can’t help but to entertain more Australian-Korean fusion ideas “I would mix buldak myeon [fire chicken noodles] with barbecue steak,” suggests Felix. Bang Chan dares further: “Maybe lamington bingsu [Korean shaved ice cream]? Or Tim Tam bingsu? Or maybe…” He pauses for a moment, failing to contain his laughter. “Vegemite bingsu?”