Returning to their home ground after more than a year of touring the world, the members of Ateez seemed to be glowing with energy.
The eight members -- Hongjoong, Seonghwa, Yunho, Yeosang, San, Mingi, Wooyoung and Jongho -- sat down with local journalists at a cafe in Seoul on Wednesday to speak about their two consecutive series of concerts around the globe and share their anticipation for the remaining year.
From January to July 2022, Ateez conducted its first world tour after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, "The Fellowship: Beginning of the End," through which they traveled around Europe, the US and Japan to meet 180,000 fans. In October, the band kicked off a new global tour titled, "The Fellowship: Break the Wall." This tour started in Seoul and traveled to the US first and then to Europe. Over the past year and two months, they have met a whopping 430,000 fans globally through the two world tours.
"We've put out so many songs, and during the recent tours, we were able to showcase songs that we hadn't been able to perform in front of fans (during the earlier parts of the pandemic)," the group's leader Hongjoong said.
It was a year to release their longing to meet fans face-to-face, Seonghwa said.
"I felt the happiest seeing Atinys (members of Ateez's official fan club) in person at such huge venues. We’ve had so many dynamic experiences on various stages, and through them, we've gained the confidence that we'll be able to showcase better performances," said Seonghwa.
There is an excitement that comes only with live concerts, where artists and fans come together. This element, which had been snatched from the team over the two previous years of pandemic, was felt more deeply than ever by the members during their recent tour.
"Fans reacted louder to different songs in different countries. This is something we can experience through on-site gigs, and where we can learn what our fans' needs are," Hongjoong said.
"The set lists varied and our conditions differed for every show. Through all that, I think all the members expanded on our ranges of expression and performance levels, especially on the details we manifest for every song," Yunho said.
"It's not just onstage, but even offstage, the members have become more proficient in managing themselves. We often moved under a very tight schedule, and even then, they took care of their condition," the leader said, displaying confidence on his team.
San also noted the teamwork that had made the 14-month journey possible.
"Carrying out the performances isn't easy, and there were moments when we became tired. But we could push through with everything because the eight of us were always together. I think we matured in that aspect," San said.
Debuting in October 2018 as the first K-pop group launched by the fledgling label KQ Entertainment, Ateez quickly garnered a strong international following through its exceptional flair on stage and powerful hip-hop sound.
Pushing its limits further every year since its debut, Ateez marked an exceptional year in 2022 with its eighth EP, "The World EP.1: Movement." With the album, the group nabbed its first million-seller title and also won its first No. 1 spot on a local televised music show, a feat most idol groups strive to achieve.
The album also peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart, a new record for the group.
Backing Ateez as it made its way out into the world was KQ Entertainment, a novice label that improved and grew over the past five years or so with its first group.
"Since our debut, we've communicated frequently with the label chief. Even nowadays, he asks for our opinion first and accommodates them, and we know this is not something we should take for granted. We're always grateful," San said.
KQ is set to launch its second boy band, Xikers, this month. The members of Ateez expressed their joy at being able to pave the path for a rookie group.
"We feel a sense of accomplishment and pride that the younger trainees can train in a better environment and system that we created," Wooyoung said, to which Hongjoong added, "We hope that in such an environment, they can nurture their own talents and build their own system in which they can spread their wings as artists."
Since its debut, Ateez has rolled out the group's story through different series. The "Treasure" series marked the start, extending over four EPs and one LP. The next chapter opened with "Fever," under which three EPs and a repackage edition were released. With the eighth EP, the group started the latest series, "The World," in July.
From their expansive discography, Yunho picked "Treasure" as the act's signature series, while Yeosang recommended "Fever."
"I feel 'Treasure' reflects our identity the best," Yunho explained, while Yeosang said, "I personally like 'Fever' because it conveys a comforting message to youth."
In February 2020, Ateez also debuted in Japan and dropped several original Japanese records. On Wednesday, the group's new Japanese single, "Limitless," came out.
Now in their sixth year, the group members hope to show their colors more clearly.
"We're caught in the middle. We can't be called rookies any more, but we're not exactly a veteran group. But as a group looking to last for 10 years or more, this year will mark a significant period for Ateez," Hongjoong said.
A concern about making music that could appeal not just to fans but also to a larger listener base lingers, the members shared.
"It's always a dilemma for us, whether we should release a song that could become a hit or just focus on maintaining our originality," San said. "But we are a team which pursues our own music and we hope that, one day, the public will recognize us for our music."
Ateez is now ready to leap forward.
"Last year was mostly devoted to adapting to the changes that came with the pandemic era and catching up on what we had been missing out on," Hongjoong said. "We'll be showing who we are properly this time. This year, we have more songs and albums of good quality to release."
The leader continued: "There are moments when we don't feel so confident ahead of a tour or an album release. But this time we have a good feeling. Although I can't speak on behalf of the entire K-pop industry, at least for Ateez, it's a good time. This season is when we can prove to the world everything we're capable of."
Ateez is slated to hold two encore concerts of its world tour, "The Fellowship: Break the Wall," in Seoul on April 28-29, before flying to Japan where it is set to perform in Tokyo May 2-3 and in Kobe May 6-7.