Cover story: Starting the year with BamBam

Singing, dancing Thai phenomenon BamBam has been carving his own path in the industry. In a year of firsts, the star has launched a full length album Sour & Sweet and his first solo world tour. He talks to Zaneta Cheng about life after GOT7, geeks out about music making and why fighting to be himself is his key to longevity in show business

The last time I saw Kunpimook Bhuwakul, known more widely as BamBam, the Thai singer, dancer and much-loved member of South Korean boy band GOT7 was in Macau to headline the opening ceremony of a hotly anticipated hotel. The night before his performance, we had dinner with the star and his team, which is rare, given the usual isolationist policy of many celebrities – but this is not BamBam’s way. Anyone from the outside listening in on the meal would hear the kind of spirited gregarious din one usually associates with friends getting together. The singer and his team were eager to try the food and made conversation so easy, everyone couldn’t help but like him. Afterwards, we all followed him to his soundcheck. And that’s where the happy-go-lucky personality of the singing, dancing phenomenon made way for the professional performer.

Black Damoflage cropped jacket and pleated shorts, white shirt, black LV Lovers beret and LV Checker knee-high boots _ Louis Vuitton

A soundcheck with BamBam goes something like this: The set list is five songs long, covering tracks from Sour & Sweet, his first full-length solo album launched in March last year. On the stage is BamBam and a cohort of roughly 10 dancers. There’s respect, but it’s also clear from the easy rapport that everyone in the troupe is friendly with the star. There are multiple run-throughs to mark steps and, despite being old hands at adapting to an unfamiliar stage, the team discusses how BamBam should appear, where certain speakers should be placed and how to modify their usual dance number to the show space.

Black Damoflage cropped jacket and pleated shorts, white shirt, black LV Lovers beret and LV Checker knee-high boots _ Louis Vuitton

As usual, the bigwigs eventually begin to drop in – a good chance to survey the rehearsal for the big night but also an opportunity to flex that they were privy to a behind-the-scenes moment with the headline act. None of this phases BamBam, who continues to ask (very politely) for the panel to adjust the volume of his in-ear set and to tweak bass and amp. It’s not a one-and- done exercise. The Thai musician is as exacting as they come, requesting adjustments after the replaying of the same six or so bars of MMO. Once it’s right, he rehearses his opening and more amendments are made. The kind of dedication BamBam exhibits for what bystanders might assume to be a quick half-hour deal turns it into a one-and-a-half-hour affair, where the discipline and exactitude displayed transforms even the most confident “I could perform on stage as well, how hard could it be” naysayer into an appreciative audience.

When I recount this to BamBam on the set of our cover shoot in Seoul six months later, the 26-year-old K-pop phenomenon says, “That was the hardest stage this year.” I ask why, confused because the star made it look so easy and second-nature. “Because it’s not just my people, it’s a lot of new people,” he explains. “Some know me, some don’t but I need to create a show that everyone will enjoy, even if they’re not familiar with me or my music style. I tried to create rapport with everyone in the audience. I knew I needed to be formal for the occasion, but I wanted to be friendly at the same time. And then I just did my best, because, you know, if you do your best, I think even if they don’t like you, they’re going to be okay.”

What is BamBam’s solo music style given that GOT7’s oeuvre sits firmly in the K-pop genre? “I feel like I have two styles,” BamBam explains. The star perks up when he gets to talk about music. There’s true joy when he talks about his craft and it’s a pleasure to listen to a geek geek out about his favourite subject. “One is like a chill song, which you won’t really hear me perform on stage because it’s a song for listening or it’s a song to cheer other people up, or a song that you can switch on and play while you’re vibing with your friends and stuff. The other style is something like Sour & Sweet and stronger stuff that’s for performing – I feel like these days in K-pop they don’t really do strong stuff anymore because the focus is on topping the music charts and strong songs never really make it up the charts because people don’t tend to play them on repeat. These are much better performed live. But I feel like I have that strong side and that’s what draws people to my shows.”

Damoflage denim jacket and jeans, and black LV Checker derby shoes _ Louis Vuitton

It’s probably this sincerity that has seen BamBam rise to such stratospheric heights in both South Korea, where he trained and first found fame, and his native Thailand. There’s nary a stretch of billboard across Bangkok where one cannot find BamBam’s photograph. But this success, as well as his ability to be himself, was a privilege the star had to strive for.

Almost two decades ago, BamBam’s mother, a long-time Rain fan, took her son to a concert and it was there that the star realised performing was something he also wanted to pursue. “At first, I think I wanted to do it for fun because I wasn’t really someone who wanted to sit in school and read a book and study all the time,” he recalls. “The concert was the first time I realised, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy; I want to be on stage.’ I wanted attention like that, and then somehow I started doing it. My younger sister and I just started going to dance classes and participated in dance competitions.”

The siblings began building reputations for themselves, ultimately landing themselves in Thai dance crew “We Zaa Cool”, whose membership includes two other K-pop stars of Thai origin. It’s here that BamBam says his career really started. “At that time, they had a lot of people in the group – almost 30,” he says. “It was really a childhood moment where it felt like I had made it.”

Soon after, BamBam was recruited to be a trainee and moved to Seoul to focus on preparing for a life in entertainment. “I had to work on my language skills and my dancing and singing,” he remembers. It’s hard to imagine a time when BamBam wasn’t killing it, especially given the success he’s seen since his debut as part of K-pop group GOT7 in 2014, but the star says it wasn’t easy. “Dance is a strength of mine so I didn’t find that so hard. I’m not going to lie, the singing and language parts were difficult for me because I had never sung before. I was always very confident dancing but I wasn’t confident singing and letting others listen to my singing voice, so that was a difficult hurdle,” he says.

Damoflage denim jacket _ Louis Vuitton

Four or five years after the group’s debut, having pocketed a slew of music awards and worked on a few projects independent of the group – and having clearly conquered his initial set of challenges – BamBam decided to overcome another, slightly less tangible barrier. “How should I start? You know, in the K-pop world, people see what they want to see. I found myself becoming something that wasn’t me because I just wanted to be the person that other people wanted me to be and did what they wanted to see from me – all the time, but I think four or five years after I debuted, I felt a bit burnt out and I thought, ‘This isn’t me, why do I have to keep faking who I am and keep faking my personality in front of other people?’” the singer shares. “I began slowly to try and show others the real me and also to slowly express my own real opinions on things, and then fans started to see and understand why I wanted to slowly, slowly change my image.

“Some fans kind of didn’t like it but, you know, I feel like I really need to be myself so I can do this job for the long term. I think it started from small interviews to TV shows or spaces and platforms where I could be myself and show that to the fans. Looking back, I think it worked out and somehow, now, I can finally be myself both in front of and behind the camera. I didn’t need to fake being myself anymore.

“I think now, they just accept me for who I am. I like to hang out with friends. I drink sometimes. I express myself a little bit. I’ve even gotten some new fans because they feel like I’m more than just an artist and a K-pop idol. I think they feel like I’m just like one of their own friends, someone relatable. So yeah, it kind of worked out!”

Since 2021, the singer has been nurturing a solo career and persona that’s seen him on variety television like Master in the House or as a mentor on Seven Stars, a talent audition programme in Thailand. It all culminated in his first full-length album Sour & Sweet, which he released in March last year and a first solo world tour that the star is still in the thick of. All this marks a period of evolution for BamBam, who’s been adjusting to his solo work with trademark enthusiasm. “The only difference between GOT7 and my solo work is the style in which we work and the music style. GOT7 always operates as a group. We do our concerts as a group and when we sing, I only sing my parts because each member has their own part. The rest of the time we can rest while we perform,” he explains.

“As a soloist though, I need to do everything by myself, so there’s no one to step in and fill in so that I can take a break, which means I need to be more alert, making sure I’m ready for any situation that might happen on stage and generally make sure my work is as perfect as it can be. That’s the only thing that’s different really, which I feel is better for me because I need to grow up. If someone keeps helping me by stepping in when I mess up or cuts me some slack, then I wouldn’t find out which areas of my performance need improving and where I need to continue working hard.”

Grey Micro Damier PDP collar jacket and slim shorts, white shirt with pearl buttons, black LV Checker derby shoes and red Speedy 25 _ Louis Vuitton

It’s not just this aspect where BamBam is growing up. These days, his approach to fame has done a 180 since he was at the Rain concert. “When I started, I wanted attention. I wanted the crowds to love me, but it’s not like that for me these days. Attention is good. For celebrities, of course attention is good, but it’s not all about that kind of attention anymore,” he explains, thoughtfully. “I feel like now, I want to put my message out into the world. I want people to gain something from me – be it a smile on their face at the end of the day or maybe some meaning that spoke to them from my lyrics and it betters their life. I really hope to inspire other people now.”

BamBam’s lyrics do, he tells me, relate to himself and his life. But the hope is that people don’t listen and apply the lyrics just to the singer’s own life but that they’re able to get the universal takeaway. “It’s hard to explain but I think music is the best way for me to put my message out into the world because I feel like when things are spoken, it’s hard to get people to really feel it but when the words are sung through melody, through music, I feel like people can really feel what I’m trying to communicate,” says BamBam.

Take for example his song “Take it Easy”, which the star wrote when he was going through a hard time. “The lyrics are about working hard. We all live in a world where we have to work hard, but if we don’t know how to enjoy life as well, what’s the point of working hard?” he says gently. “The world is going to keep spinning with or without us so sometimes it’s ok for us to take our time and to take it easy.”

Green big Damier Pop nylon tailored jacket and trousers, white polo shirt, black leather loafers and blue Polochon PM Damier Pop bag _ Louis Vuitton

And while BamBam’s schedule is back-to-back, taking it easy and being himself seems to be a formula that’s working for him. The star is hotter than ever with his summer appearance in Macau landing him as the number one trending hashtag on Twitter that evening. His first solo release landed at number one across six countries in Asia, which was a surprise to BamBam himself because, “It was my first solo. I never thought that it would turn out that way.” Just this past menswear season, BamBam was invited as a guest to attend the Louis Vuitton menswear show in Paris. His appearance went viral on social media with the highest number of social media engagement across platforms, leading to his appointment as an ambassador for the French luxury house in Thailand.

But the star hasn’t let any of his success get to his head. Case in point: when asked who his #legend is, BamBam is the first cover star that’s come up with not one, not two but five industry titans he admires from Korea all the way to American shores. His respect for others in his industry is palpable even earlier when talking about his unexpected social media success at the Louis Vuitton show when he mentions the star-studded lineup of other attendees –“A$AP Rocky was there, Rihanna was there, my friend Jackson Wang was there – everyone was there! It was cool.”

Green big Damier Pop nylon tailored jacket and trousers, and white polo shirt _ Louis Vuitton

As for his #legends, BamBam has categorised them into those who inspired his career and those who inspired his music. The first category comprise Rain, Big Bang and Taeyeon from Girls’ Generation. “These three are the people who got me to fall in love with the entertainment business – they made me want to dance. Because of them I wanted to make music and explore this field. But you know, the world keeps changing. Times change. People change and my lifestyle has also changed. Right now, I’d say as a creator, Pharrell Williams for sure. Pharrell makes really good music too but for the music part, there’s this guy, who, after his debut, really helped me see a lot about what it is to make good music. He keeps everything really simple.”

At this point BamBam’s eyes gleam as they seem to do when he talks about music and what makes melodies and a song popular or not, or successful or not and how. It’s probably one of the first times in my life that I’ve been privy to someone so successful in the industry getting real about what makes him tick when it comes to his craft. “If you look at the files of K-pop songs in general, they’re usually quite complicated with many layers. I’d say K-pop songs tend to have like 50 to 100 layers but somehow you’re not really able to hear all of the layers. I always thought that was how music was done,” he says.

“But after I started making music in the US, I learned that songs could be made with four to five layers and still sound really good. The guy that’s doing that is Post Malone. His producer also does some work with me and it’s through him that I learned why his songs sound so good and why they can also sound so clean – because it’s just five layers. I really feel like, these days especially, the less complication there is in a song, the higher it goes on the charts.”

Black double-breasted tailored jacket, V-neck vest and flared trousers _ Louis Vuitton

Surprisingly (or not), the star’s new year’s resolution is simple: to finish his world tour, which is due to end in May this year. After that, his months have all been planned out so “2024 is actually going to go by really fast.” He’s hoping that his knee will hold out with no more falls and everything goes according to plan.

And in between, for the uninitiated, the star just wants to go home and clean – “When I’ve had a busy day and come back home, I always clean. It’s actually already clean because I’ve cleaned it the night before but I like to clean a little bit more. It empties my mind and helps me end the day. My favourite thing is to clean my table because you know I have a cat, right? When I leave my house in the morning, I come back and I’ll see paw prints everywhere but then I spray the table and wipe it clean. That’s my favourite feeling.”

Also see: Cover Story: Ryeoun on his steady ascent to stardom

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