KEY Shares the Family Stories & ‘Little Freaks’ That Inspired His ‘Gasoline’ Album: Exclusive

From the monster under the bed to clowns and bugs, most childhood fears become irrelevant — and laughable —a s we mature. For KEY‘s latest album, the boy band member revisits some of the freakiest parts of his adolescence with a playfulness and curiosity that inspired his latest collection of K-pop creations.

Released on Aug. 30, Gasoline is KEY’s second full-length album and the SHINee member’s first new body of work after his retro-tinged Bad Love EP from last fall. While Bad Love saw him taking creative lead by spotlighting his interest in sci-fi movies, the new LP also highlights a love of film but with his personal childhood stories and reflections mixed within.

Born in 1991, the core kids movies of KEY’s childhood came before the takeover of Toy StoryShrek and other computer-animation franchises. The star developed a love for vintage films from the early Disney days, as well as the animatronic and stop-motion movies prevalent in the ’80s and ’90s. While he fondly remembers the flicks, the moments of dark comedy and campy humor in productions like Gremlins and Mars Attack! weren’t lost on him and became an ingrained inspiration.

Perhaps best described through one of Gasoline‘s most stunning shots, KEY embraces an old-school movie villain as he sits for a meal in a haunted field where eyeballs grow from tree branches and a red moon shines behind an ominous house. It all feels very Halloween before one’s eyes focus on KEY’s slight grin while holding a book titled How to Be Scary and Cute.

“It’s a reflection of myself,” KEY says of the picture during an afternoon Zoom call from Seoul. “It’s something that came up when we were conceptualizing and working on the references for the album: I shared how movies that I saw back in the day that I thought were scary, kind of feel cute looking at them now. Those words that came out of my mouth were what the team turned into text form.”

Read on for more from KEY about the scary movie moments, the cute family members, and all the other experiences that went into creating his most personal music yet.

KEY

Why was now the right time for you to release your second studio album?

I feel like this album probably should have come a bit sooner. I did want to shorten the term in between my previous EP and this album, but as we were preparing it became summer and I just wanted to release when everything was ready. So I guess in a sense for myself it might have been that later than we might have like, but the perfect album came out.

“Gasoline” is quite different from your last records. Was the transformation from “Bad Love” to “Gasoline” what made the release later?

Even when I was promoting my previous album, Bad Love, I thought of doing something that’s very much in contrast and very different from Bad LoveSomething that only KEY can do. And I felt like the timing is now with this second album. So, you could say more so than the changes I’ve gone through; it’s kind of about the thoughts that I had back then to show off that more powerful side of myself. I already had the concept in mind so that’s why I said maybe we could have kind of shortened the time in between and it could have come sooner since I already had the thoughts back then. And you know, that doesn’t mean that I don’t like “Bad Love!” They’re all like my children.

I get it, it sounds like a lot of thought went into this album! Why was “Gasoline” the song to make the album’s title track single?

It was difficult to pick a title track [single]. While we were looking for and discussing songs, there wasn’t one that stood out to me so I spoke with the writers [and producers] Kenzie and Moonshine as well to ask them to write the title track. Everything was in my brain. I explained the instrumental that I wanted, literally, with my mouth [makes beat sounds] and imitated the sounds. I explained all the concepts of the music video. And they made it into “Gasoline.”

I think my favorite part is the concept and the visuals. I love that it’s a bit horror, a bit campy. Where did you come up with these inspirations?

Everything came from ’70s, ’80s or ’90s horror and adventure kinds of movies. I wanted to combine all of that in the album [photoshoot] and that’s how it came out.

Even the little creature in your photos reminds me of those movies where they have these little puppets.

What’s that movie? Gremlins, right? Like little goblins from kids’ movies, I’ve always wanted to express those kind of cute, little dolls in my album. I always wanted one of my own.

I see that because everyone knows you love your dogs.

Having my dogs, knowing their innocence and the a soft spot that I have for them and those, I guess the word that was previously used, “creatures.” That was something reflected in this concept as well.

KEY

KEY

I know you always call your fans the “little freaks.” Is this related at all? 

Yeah, it’s inspired by all the movies that I loved when I was young, focused on those sorts of alien creatures, scary monsters and such. Yeah, I think “freaks” is meant to be more about taking those individual creatures and presenting them as heroes. That’s kind of the meaning that stands behind the freaks for this [album] as well.

Beyond Gremlins or Nightmare on Elm Street, what other movies did you like?

Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorite movies. And, well, they’re not heroes, but Mars Attack is one of my favorites. And Freddy Krueger isn’t scary anymore. He’s cute!

Do your visual inspirations influence the music or does the music influence the concepts?

It can be vice versa, depending on the track being worked on, but for “Gasoline” we started with the concept for the images and photoshoot. From there, we built upon the outfits and the fashion I wanted to show off in the music video, and then we went to the track.

You’re also known for being boundaryless with your fashion and I see those elements here too. Tell us about the fashion in “Gasoline.”

Specifically talking about this track, it was about figuring out fashion that can go both ways, creating a look that can impact and influence all genders when it came to conceptualization. That’s something that I always think about. I’ve always wanted to be able to bring that influence on the world and that was reflected especially in this song’s fashion as well.

Talking about the music, I feel there’s a lot of meaning, especially in the songs you wrote. Let’s hear about “I Can’t Sleep” that you wrote all your own.

As you can probably tell from the title, it was based on what kind of thoughts individuals have when they’re not able to sleep that well. I take a bit of time to fall asleep myself, so, in that sense, you could say it’s half fiction but based on my own experiences. It’s a modern disease, you know what I mean? Insomnia.

What about “G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time)?”

It’s based upon thoughts around, “Am I an adult?” and if I’ll be able to consider myself an adult. When I was young, I had a vision of myself at this age being more like my father. But being at that age now, I feel like I’m not quite there. So it’s about stories that stem from that realization but also feeling like there isn’t a specific time when you become an adult. You’re always where you are at that moment, and it’s just continuing your life. The track’s title isn’t about anyone, it’s just saying that not everyone can always be at their greatest and not to worry where you are. It doesn’t mean that I am the greatest of all time; the lyrics say, “You’re the greatest of all time,” I want it to be a comforting message.

 

You shared how you wrote “Gasoline” with Kenzie. What did you want to show through its lyrics?

It’s about building upon confidence. Taking the word “Gasoline,” saying, “Hey, if you light a spark to me, I may explode.” If you’re confident, give it a try and see the reaction—that’s the message I wanted to share because I’ve never included my autobiographical stories and experiences within a title track.

So, you feel quite confident in yourself these days?

It’s really just a statement saying, “Hey, this is who I am. I am me.” Just being confident in that and not being bound by the thoughts or opinions of others. Standing strong on my own.

I’ve always appreciated the sincerity you show. Still, sometimes a musician’s persona can be purposely different, so it’s nice to hear that you’re comfortable putting yourself into the title track. That’s an excellent way to connect to the last song on the album, “Proud,” that you also wrote.

It’s about myself, taken from the diaries my mother wrote when I was a child, using stories from there and putting them into the track. My mom journaled about raising me as a kid every day and shared them with me. She even sends pictures to me too. But more so than saying, “Hey, I’ve grown, and I am now an adult,” it’s just proceeding with understanding and feeling that it’s a time where I can be very proud of myself, of all the accomplishments and things that I’ve done. I’ve spent probably a good 17 years or so at SM [Entertainment], including my pre-debut days. It’s a message of just saying, “You’ve done a great job.” It’s a message of comfort to myself.

Hearing what you’ve said about these songs, it sounds like this is a reflective moment for you?

It is very reflective. While you typically need the fictional elements involved in lyrics, having fictional stories in this current moment would kind of decrease the level of conviction when it comes to this album. Right now is when I should be able to express the things I like fully. The tracks that we spoke about, “Proud” and “I Can’t Sleep,” are the first two tracks that we worked on, lyrics-wise, to contain that story.

 

Do you think you needed to put the years you have to get to this place?

I think everything is truly just an experience that was needed to get to this position. When it came to my first album, Face, you could say it was prepared by the respective departments in conversation with myself as well. Because of that, I had a bit more experience going into Bad Love and then taking that to build up into Gasoline. So, everything was truly a cycle and quite an experience that was needed to get to this point.

It makes a lot of sense hearing what you’ve said, even hearing the frequent mentions of your family. Is family something on your mind a lot even when it comes to music?

I definitely believe that family plays a true role in it because they are the individuals with whom I grew up. They are the ones who raised me, the ones that I learned from, the ones that I’ve taken after when it comes to preferences in music, and the stories that they have; that is all that has made me into who I am today. Even being a true fan of Disney and space, all of that kind of comes from the culture that my family raised in me. So, I always feel like it’s always something that’s on my mind and very important.

You like Disney too?

A lot, but the classics. But even some of those classics were a bit scary back then! It’s true. Pinocchio was my first video, my first Disney video, my mother got it from my dad’s brother without subtitles. I was five or six, I think. I watched that like a million times. I still watch it sometimes if I want to; it’s also a little freaky.

What haven’t we seen from KEY yet? I’ve heard you’re a great cook. Is food ever part of your process?

I’m not quite sure what I’ll be inspired by or what will spark my creativity. “What else hasn’t been seen?” That’s something that I’m also curious about, but I think that everything that is around us, everything in pop culture, is something for future reference. Even when it comes to going to a wine bar, seeing the plating, the color of the dishes, and the foods on the plate, it’s something that can be a good point of reference when it comes to all this.

That’s another reason I enjoy attending exhibitions and seeing movies that might not even be my preference. If other people see it, there’s going to be something that can spark a sort of inspiration.

Is there anything else you want to make sure we know?

I’d like to say that music is something that I’m always going to continue doing. Something that I always keep in mind is that I can be an influence to others and have an impact on other individuals’ life. It’s my passion and I want to continue to show the better side of myself through various colors. Anyone that’s just getting into my music, don’t hesitate—please listen to it more.