Think about the last time you felt truly well-rested. Not the kind of rest that comes with the recommended full eight hours sleep, but rather the type of serenity that occurs void of the devices, anxieties, and struggles — big and small — of everyday life. It’s probably been a while, right? That’s where Daniel Lee, otherwise known as rapper-producer Tablo of the South Korean hip-hop trio Epik High, found himself while he was working on the group’s latest album. Plagued by insomnia since childhood, he funneled his 3 a.m. thoughts, fears, and paranoia into seven independently-produced tracks, alongside his longtime groupmates Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz, and titled it Sleepless in __________.
Epik High has been making music for 16 years — a lifetime in the competitive Korean pop market — and with Sleepless in __________, the group reaches new creative heights. Tablo has always flirted with melancholy, but tracks like “No Different” (feat. Yuna) and “Eternal Sunshine” — composed and arranged by BTS’ Suga, who has cited Epik High as one of his earliest inspirations — find the lyricist uncovering the light in the darkness of his midnight musings and extending a comforting hand to weary souls who need it, including himself.
MTV News caught up with Tablo, who’s based in Seoul, over the phone ahead of the album’s release. Here’s what he had to say about his own insomnia, mental health themes in pop music today, the films that inspire him, and his somewhat fatalistic view of Epik High’s future.
MTV News: Where did the concept of this album come from, the idea of Sleepless in __________?
Tablo: I’ve always been an insomniac. Usually, I’ve been told that that’s a bad thing. So one day I sat and thought about it. There are two states that show the very nature of humans really well. One of them is love, and that’s why there are so many movies and books and films and songs about love. The other is sleeplessness. Like love, the sense of sleeplessness shows the good and bad of human nature and also of that individual.
When you observe somebody that’s sleepless, you end up figuring out that there are two things that make people sleepless. One is if they have this huge dream or something that drives them where they won’t let themselves fall asleep because they want to use that time to be able to develop their dreams. Hard-working people are usually sleepless. On the flip side, there are a ton of people that are sleepless because, as opposed to dreams, they’re dealing with literal nightmares. They can’t fall asleep. I thought that as love has so many songs written about it, sleeplessness deserves to be a muse as well. We came up with seven to add to that.
MTV News: When do you first remember putting a word to your sleeplessness? I think a lot of people justify it as, “Oh, I’m a night owl. I stay up late.” You often don’t think of it as what it could actually be, which is insomnia, and why you’re up so late.
Tablo: When I was growing up, I think it was forced on me. I grew up in a very strict family, growing up in Seoul, in Korea, where not sleeping to study was deemed a very noble thing. Literally, if you had a nosebleed, your parents or your teachers would deem you very worthy. In retrospect, that’s so horrible, right? It’s not a badge of honor to have a nosebleed when you’re a kid because you’re forcing your body into a situation where you’re not letting it get its necessary rest. I grew up that way, so I thought that there was a direct correlation between passion and insomnia. Then, what happened was when I got older and I was in college, I realized that that sleeplessness was a symptom of depression and also may have led to depression. College was when I found out from doctors that I have depression. That’s when I started thinking about it differently, but even after college, and I became a musician, I would always drive myself to the point where I would just faint every day almost.
That’s how I lived my whole life. I’m still dealing with it. There are beautiful elements to it as well, like the fact that we can choose when lights go out. But I would recommend that everyone gets their necessary amount of sleep.
MTV News: However you want to fit it into your day.
Tablo: Yes, just take a nap, siesta, whatever you can.
MTV News: Would you say that’s when your creativity sparks? In the middle of the night?
Tablo: That’s actually the way we’ve worked pretty much our entire career. We would wake up at 8 p.m. and then go to the studio and start really working from midnight to 3 or 4 a.m. The reason a lot of creatives work in that time space is because everyone else is logged off. The demands of the world just stop for a second where you can just focus on that creativity, but all three of us are now married and two of us have kids. We’ve had to realign our creative time to the mornings. We will work in the morning so that we can get sleep at night and wake up the next morning to take our kids to school. That was a difficult thing to do at first. We would get into the studio and we would sit there for like six hours just confused. You must know what it’s like to some days work in the morning, right?
MTV News: Absolutely. I am not a morning person.
Tablo: To come up with art in the morning is really difficult to do, but we’re in a basement deliberately so that we confuse ourselves into thinking it’s night time. We have no windows.
MTV News: This album opens with “Sleepless,” and this is a track that you just hear a bunch of symptoms of insomnia. Why did you want to open the album that way?
Tablo: One night I was at home. It was late night, I couldn’t sleep. All I had with me was my phone. In the modern day, the phone is the reason why a lot of people are sleepless. I hated this thing. I hated the fact that I’m attached to this thing, and I can’t get rid of it. I usually try to put it far away from me so that I can sleep. One night, I put it away, and I imagined my voice assistant, like Siri, asking me these questions because if anyone’s responsible [for my sleeplessness], that phone is. I imagined it asking me, “Do you have trouble sleeping? Are you heartbroken?”
From left to right: Tablo, DJ Tukutz, and Mithra Jin
MTV News: I was reading an interview you guys did last year, and at that time Mithra Jin said that you were “suffering with the creative process” of finishing up this album. Was it just this project in general, or is “suffering” how you’d always describe your process?
Tablo: It sounds so typical, like the tortured artist thing. But I have a different take on it. It is suffering personally for us, but the way I think of it for me, the suffering is much worse when I don’t create. It’s not the gift and the curse kind of thing. It’s the curse and a bigger curse kind of thing where I know that what’s required of me to make an album, especially with a family. I know the sacrifices I’m gonna have to make. But at the same time, I know that if I don’t make music and if I take a break away from it, I know how I suffer psychologically because of that.
I’ve stopped creating for a whole year. Not out of my choice. Seven, eight years ago there was this crazy thing that happened to me where I wasn’t allowed to do music anymore. I took a break from it, and it almost destroyed me. Psychologically, the way I overcame it was by creating again.
MTV News: For this album in particular, when it comes to your creative process, was it any different than your past albums? Was there a different vibe?
Tablo: For this album, it was very calming for some reason. I think it shows on a lot of the songs because the ending track on this album, for example, is probably the most peaceful song I’ve ever made.
MTV News: “Lullaby for a Cat.”
Tablo: Yeah, it’s just the mellowness of it… I was surprised when these songs were coming out. I was like, “Hey, this actually sounds serene.” Serenity is something that I am not known for. It was a great feeling, but it was this strange calm that was there when we were making this.
MTV News: I know you’re a person who loves film. Were there films that inspired you while making this album?
Tablo: Obviously, because it’s called Sleepless in __________, a lot of people are like, “Is this Sleepless in Seattle?” I don’t think I’ve ever seen that movie. I get it confused with You’ve Got Mail. That whole era of Tom Hanks romantic comedies really confused me. The song “Eternal Sunshine” literally has the title. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, if you watch it again, visually it seems like a visual representation of what goes through someone’s mind when they’re an insomniac. That whole thing about forgetting things and erasing someone from your mind, it naturally happens when you haven’t slept enough. Your memory is a jumble. You don’t know what’s reality and what’s fantasy. I also used to be a big fan of French New Wave. A lot of those films have these really calm scenes without music, where it’s just two people in bed just talking.
MTV News: “Eternal Sunshine” is a track that stuck with me because of that, because you are talking directly to the listener. There is that refrain of, “Do you feel lonely? Are you sick with anxiety?”
Tablo: That’s what I was feeling. That’s why I say, “Same here,” because I feel like a ton of people are feeling this way — having anxiety attacks or just very lonely, dealing with depression. I just wanted to say, well, same here. I’m also saying this for myself to remind me that I’m not the only one. There’s a world of people that can relate to me and vice versa. I’m hoping that they can find some comfort in knowing that I do too, which I think is a very important thing. It’s become a subject of a lot of popular music right now in the States, right?
MTV News: Yeah, it is.
Tablo: I don’t feel like it’s something that can be talked any less. I think it should be talked about constantly.
MTV News: Why do you think mental health is the subject of a lot of popular music now?
Tablo: I went back to my older albums from 15 years ago. What I noticed is that I’ve been talking about this since our first album. I’ve always had a song dealing with depression. The thing is, at the time I didn’t have the word anxiety for it. It was interesting that I had been speaking about it and all of a sudden in the recent couple of years, it was in a lot of music that I was hearing. I was glad that was happening. I’m glad that there’s a word, [that] there are certain words that we can all talk about.
MTV News: One of my favorite songs on the album is “Rain Again Tomorrow.” That beat was so unexpected. What was the genesis of that track?
Tablo: Because the album concept is sleeplessness, what was expected is probably a lot of songs that are really chill and down-tempo. But that’s not what sleeplessness is. Sleeplessness is not just those chill, steady beats. At times, it’s probably, emotion-wise, very up-tempo. A lot of people are sleepless in cars. A lot of people are sleepless at a club — it looks like everyone’s just dancing and enjoying themselves, but I guarantee that the majority of those people at the club are simply dealing with sleeplessness at 120 beats per minute.
When I first started making “Rain Again Tomorrow,” the first sketch of the song was a really danceable track. I wanted to create an up-tempo song that still sounds depressing. I try to imagine myself when I was much younger, like when I was at a club and I was awkward. I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I’m dancing, but in my mind, I’m not fully there, and I’m having depressing thoughts. I wanted to convey those contrasting moods.
MTV News: My favorite lyric on the album is, “We tried to build a future, all we got’s a broken past,” from “No Different.” I’ve been thinking about it a lot. What’s the story behind it?
Tablo: I think probably my entire life. When you try to build something, you’re gonna have a situation where it breaks. Nothing that you can build in this world is gonna last forever. Although the lyrics may sound depressing to somebody, to me it was a very optimistic thing to say because, yeah, we have a broken past. Things have not gone the way we wanted it to, but it was because we tried to build a better future. We tried. I think that is something that’s very important to me just overall, not just about love, but even outside of the song. I believe firmly that people should be allowed to make mistakes and that people should be allowed to break as long as we understand that they were trying to build something.
MTV News: Do you consider yourself to be a perfectionist?
Tablo: I am too experienced to believe that perfection is ever possible. I try to get it to a point where I can no longer do any better, but definitely as a kid or in my 20s I tried to be a perfectionist. That never worked out for me. That would actually be where I’d bring back those lyrics, “We tried to build a future. All we got’s a broken past.” That’s what happens when you try to be a perfectionist. I don’t strive to be perfect, but I do push myself to the point where I can no longer do any better because that’s just the best I can do.
MTV News: With the release of your previous album, you guys talked a lot about the possibility of that being the last Epik High album. Now that you’ve released another one, do you feel pressure to keep making more?
Tablo: The pressure that Epik High feels is probably very unique to us. We’ve been a group for 16 years, which in itself is a rare thing. At the same time, we’re in the K-pop industry, where the expected lifespan of a group is very short. There aren’t many musicians that go beyond 10 years and still do well enough to continue. That puts us into a unique position where we feel like every project could possibly be our last because I still don’t understand why people still care when we release stuff — things are so fast over here. Somebody will be beloved, they will be considered legends, but after a year or the next day, they won’t matter anymore.
We’ve been doing this so long that the pressure that we feel is not to constantly put out content, but the pressure we feel is outside of our control: Are we gonna be allowed to continue to do this?
MTV News: With the musical landscape becoming more diverse, and the way people around the world are finding music online, especially K-pop, is that easing some of your anxiety? Because more people can listen to Sleepless in __________ than ever before.
Tablo: That actually intensifies the pressure or the fear. Because the internet is the hyper-speed version of reality. The things will matter like crazy for one day and then people will completely forget about it the next. Plus, with the entry barrier being gone, that means there are so many different things that people can spend their time with. They don’t have to choose us. I totally understand that. It’s a constant fear of when is the end for us. I know for a fact that’s not gonna be decided by us. If people one day choose not to listen to us, that’s the end for us regardless of whether we want to continue to do it. I’m not afraid of getting older. I’m not even really afraid of death, honestly. But I am afraid of not being able to do what I do because there’s no one on the receiving end.