Stray Kids on Touring, Connection, and Bringing “Genuine” Energy to the Stage

"We're creating memories together."
Stray Kids concept photo
Courtesy of JYP

Bang Chan, leader of the K-pop group Stray Kids, has a way of speaking that makes you feel like he's talking directly to you even when he's not. "This whole venue, this whole arena, we're all family," he says with a dimpled smile to the tens of thousands of people screaming inside Newark's Prudential Center. It's a Wednesday night in late June. Stray Kids are nearing the end of their electrifying Maniac U.S. tour opener, and the group's dutiful leader is in his feelings. But these are happy feelings — good, tender feelings. And they're conveyed so earnestly that for a moment, caught in the afterglow of a boisterous three-hour set, I allow myself to really, truly believe it.

Night after night, he delivers a similar sentiment. Always at the point, halfway into the encore, when the group gathers on stage with flushed faces and delirious smiles to say their goodbyes. "As someone who lived without family for a long time," he says to the crowd at their final tour stop in Anaheim, alluding to the years he spent as a trainee in South Korea, "I'm very glad to have you guys as my family." It's a saccharine confession, positively parasocial, and yet, in that moment he seems serious.

Courtesy of JYP

Ask any Stray Kids fan, and they'll tell you that beyond the bangers and fan service — two things the Korean octet are exceptionally good at producing — it's the group's deep-seated sincerity that can turn even the most casual spectator into a full-blown fanatic.

You'll find it in their music, their songs crafted primarily by Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han, who write and produce under the name 3RACHA. "If we’re going to be singing and dancing, we might as well sing and dance to our own music," the leader said during his opening remarks in Newark. (Later that evening, he will orchestrate the live band for a performance of Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours," demonstrating the depth of his group's musicality.) That openness is also integral to their performance, where they can make even the loudest, most riotous stage feel intimate, like an inside joke shared among friends. Following Seungmin's animated cover of Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber's "Stay" in Seattle — in which the diligent vocalist prompted fans to shout the expletive for him because, according to I.N, "Idols can't curse, sorry" — he turned to the audience and said, "It's like I'm singing with you guys in my room."

Even when they're on stage doing the things that pop stars do, shining under the lights the way that only pop stars can, Stray Kids make themselves accessible.

There's a word for that sense of interconnectedness, rapper Han tells Teen Vogue just days before kicking off their tour. It's called jeong (정). It has no direct translation in English. It's more of a Korean principle: a deep, unspoken bond that forms between people, an emotional attachment to places and things.

For Han, jeong is the warmth that permeates when he's on stage, taking in the swell of fan chants and screams. It blooms every time he can make someone laugh with a clever play on words. It seeps into every song he writes. "We connect through our lyrics," he says. "It's a personal connection that allows me to mature and also be comforted. Music is the only way I can show myself."

It's a similar sensation for Changbin, who refers to his lyrics as a diary. "I’m not a very expressive person," says the rapper, known for his gravelly flow and sharp pen. "I don’t share a lot about myself, but music is like a channel that unravels these stories within me." He thinks of these stories as intangible threads that tie his inner thoughts to whomever is listening. On stage, that feeling is magnified.

"This is the reason why Stay [their fans] like us," Han adds, "and the reason why Stray Kids and Stay can become closer."

Courtesy of JYP

I experienced that closeness at their shows in Newark, and again in Chicago and Seattle. I watched as their presence ignited entire arenas, no words needed, just the hum of heartbeats pulsing in time with the music. Their fans often refer to them as "the kids," a term of endearment that evokes familiarity and affection. In person, it's hard not to be endeared to them.

On the Thursday before their sold-out shows in Newark, I meet the kids in a Hell's Kitchen studio as it's being dismantled late into the afternoon. There's perhaps a metaphor to be made about stripping away the artifice of celebrity at the end of a long day; in reality, idols are in the business of time optimization. Stray Kids have spent the last four hours filming YouTube content for various outlets, and this interview is now the only thing standing in the way between them and their hotel rooms. However, they don't seem fazed. Han is especially chatty; he can barely contain his enthusiasm when we make small talk over Studio Ghibli films.

Here, in a makeshift sitting area, Changbin, Felix, and Hyunjin occupy one couch, Seungmin perched on the armrest, with Lee Know, Han, and I.N on the other. Bang Chan sits in a fold-out chair to the side, where he can observe everyone just the way he likes.

Of course they're tired. Seungmin's still recovering from the 14-hour flight from Seoul to New York City. Hyunjin is running on a few hours' sleep, having painted well into the morning hours. But the anticipation of their first arena tour is bubbling beneath the surface. "I can't imagine what the view [inside the venue] is going to be like," Bang Chan says. "I'm actually really kind of scared."

Behind the scenes shot of Stray Kids's performance costumes.Courtesy of JYP

Bang Chan and Felix, who were both raised in Australia, do much of the talking throughout the interview, helping the other members communicate their thoughts in both English and Korean. The latter, whose freckled, doll-like features and deep voice offer a beguiling contrast, is still processing the sheer magnitude of it all. "The last tour, we performed in a [concert] hall. And just thinking about then and comparing it to now, it's unimaginable."

Since their last tour in early 2020, the group's popularity has boomed internationally. A string of dynamic singles and eye-catching performances resonated with people looking for respite from pandemic fatigue. Stray Kids seized every opportunity, blitzing the scene with back-to-back-to-back releases, hundreds of hours of content, and daily social media updates. Last year, they won the competition series Kingdom: Legendary War, which highlighted their ingenuity. Take, for example, the riotous Deadpool-inspired stage that led to a social media kinship with Ryan Reynolds. And their most recent EP, Maniac, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 in March, joining an exclusive club that includes behemoths BTS and K-pop supergroup SuperM.

"That was a dream," Han calls their no. 1, nonplussed like he's calling upon an apparition and not an actual career milestone.

The thing is, all of this success isn't real to them — at least not yet, not when they haven't experienced it in any tangible way. I ask them how it feels to sell out an entire arena tour, and Bang Chan replies, "I don't know. I have no idea. That's why we're excited for the tour [so] we can see for ourselves." Seungmin, always observant, adds from his cushioned perch, "So we can feel it."

I will never know what it's like to perform in front of 20,000 people at once, but watching Hyunjin and Lee Know lose themselves in the seething intensity of fans' screams inside Chicago's United Center, dancing with such potency, I can imagine it feels transcendent. Lee Know, whose power and precision has prompted billions of views on TikTok, describes it as both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. "I’m able to enjoy it even more because everyone enjoys it with me," he says. On stage, Hyunjin is all limber lines and fluid motion, making brushstrokes with his body; the willowy dancer commands attention (and he receives plenty of it). In person, he makes himself smaller. Tucked away in the corner of the couch, his legs crossed, he lists the team's performance strengths: powerful energy, raw emotion, and ambition.

Han, as if sensing the need for levity, adds another key element of the Stray Kids live experience: "our perfect visuals!" (Exasperated, youngest member I.N huffs, "Oh my gosh.")

So they designed a live show that would underline their skills. Working with their company, JYP Entertainment, Stray Kids were involved in every detail, from curating a setlist that pushes the limits of their stamina ("all of our songs go way too hard," the leader laughs) to producing their own rearrangements. A particular tour highlight is "Red Lights," a sensual unit track from Bang Chan and Hyunjin that's been retooled to incorporate the whole group. The "sexy version" was Hyunjin's idea, and he helped stage direct the performance, in which all eight members don collars and appear tied up. ("[It's] nothing kinky," Bang Chan attests. Han adds, "It might look sexy, but we're sweating a lot.") The presence of a live band also makes reverberant songs like "God's Menu" and "Thunderous" even more volcanic. The atmosphere is relentlessly hype.

"I want fans to say, 'I want to come back to watch another Stray Kids concert' after they see us perform," I.N explains.

Beside him, Han pauses to contemplate. The characteristically quick-witted rapper is carefully attentive in moments like this. Then, he says he'd like the fans to recognize Stray Kids' "genuine emotion." On the opposite side of the room, Bang Chan elaborates. "'Genuine' is a good word to explain what we bring [to the stage]," he says. "Because we are the ones making our music, and we are the ones who are performing the music that we make. Every lyric that we sing, every performance that we show, every emotion that we express is very genuine."

The ease with which they articulate these emotions is always evolving. When Stray Kids debuted in 2018, I.N had just turned 17. He was still maturing, and vocally, he felt underdeveloped. Now, at 21, his voice is fuller and more agile; his tone is so luminescent it pierces through the Newark venue as he sings a snippet of Baek Yerin's "Square" — now comfortable owning the stage on his own. "I definitely feel that I am more relaxed than before," he says with a hint of a smile. "The more I perform, there are more things I learn." A vocal room can't replicate the stage. "I had a hard time practicing my vocal skills during the pandemic," Seungmin says. The powerful vocalist released a cover of Justin Bieber's "Ghost" amidst their hectic tour schedule. "On this tour, I'm trying to use the things that I've learned."

They all get a chance to exercise these lessons on stage. Roughly halfway through the show, individual members get a few minutes to perform whatever they'd like, from covers to their self-produced mixtape work, illustrating the group's proclivity for self-expression and controlled chaos. In Chicago, Lee Know and I.N teamed up for a gripping performance of Harry Styles' "Falling"; Seungmin’s take on Bieber's "Hold On" induced chills in Newark following Felix's delicate rendition of Finneas's "Break Your Heart Again"; and Bang Chan lived out his teenage fantasies with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in Seattle, where Changbin, a man of principles, also performed "Streetlight," his self-penned in which he compares someone who struggles quietly in darkness to a streetlight.

Other members, like Hyunjin, take to different mediums to express themselves more clearly. He turns his interior thoughts into vibrant works of art. "Painting was my hobby, but right now it's like my job," he smiles. "Hwangcasso!" Han shouts, pulling up his groupmate's latest piece on his phone; it's a lined watercolor of a New York City block. "He paints, and it gives something emotion and meaning," Han says. "I get inspiration from his paintings."

Members of the group on stage, and a behind the scenes shot of Stray Kids's performance boots.Courtesy of JYP

The pressure to be perfect and make an impact is always there, but they've also learned to quell those kinds of intrusive thoughts. "If you look at the word 'idol,' it's a word that implies someone looking up to someone else. That's what an idol is," Bang Chan explains. "We feel pressure to show the best of what we can do, so that Stays feel motivated to try their best." However, they know that "if we enjoy what we're doing, we know Stays are going to enjoy it too." They bring that mindset to the stage, cultivating a sense of security for their fans that the leader refers to as their "haven."

There's a vulnerability in opening yourself up in front of a crowd, in receiving their love and consuming their energy until it pours out of you. "It's a real roller coaster of emotions," Felix says. "The fact that we haven't seen [our fans] in such a long time… It's like we're back in reality. It puts life in perspective." During the group's tour opener in Seoul, the excessively cheerful rapper cried for nearly 40 minutes on stage, unable to contain his exaltation. "My goal [for this U.S. tour] would be to try not to cry," he laughs. "That's my little goal." Meanwhile, Bang Chan was so overcome, he did something uncharacteristic: He allowed himself to get emotional. His tears gave way to an outburst, in which he vehemently vowed to protect everyone. "I just had so many thoughts," he recalls, now embarrassed by the public display.

Han then reenacts the scene, standing up and dramatically pointing at everyone in the room, shouting, "I will protect you all! I will protect you! I will protect you!" The kids can't contain their laughter, erupting into cacophonous giggles. This is Stray Kids as their fans see them: loud, chaotic, brotherly, but always sincere. "You get emotional during every concert," Han tells their leader, "but that's lovely. I love you."

Though Bang Chan can find the humor in it now, it doesn't invalidate the way he felt in the moment. "I can't see my members having any trouble," he says. "And there have been times when they would feel very stressed or anxious, and having all of those thoughts…I was like, 'I am going to destroy everything that gets in my way.'" It was a necessary moment of catharsis. "Just hearing the voices [of the fans], I got really emotional," he adds. "Everyone got really emotional. It felt so overwhelming. It felt good. It felt like being alive again."

When you're talking to Bang Chan, you feel as though you are the only person in the world that matters to him. He's enthusiastic and attentive, yet constantly aware of the moving parts around him — a skill he imparts on the other members. It's the kind of vigilance you acquire when you come of age in the notoriously difficult K-pop trainee system. On the subject of their growth, as artists and performers, he flips the script. "That's a question that we want to ask you," he says, leaning forward. "You're the one who's seen us grow. So what do you think?"

The first time I saw Stray Kids perform was at KCON NY in 2018. They were the wide-eyed rookies on the all-star line-up, having just debuted a few months prior. Yet, so much of who they are now was present on that Prudential Center stage then. Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han opened with the aggressively in-your-face "Matryoshka," a brazen 3RACHA track off their 2017 Horizon project; songs like "Hellevator" and "YAYAYA" (which are still on their setlist today) emphasized their radical empathy; and their enthusiasm was so potent and palpable it engulfed the entire space.

It's the same warmth I felt just a few feet away from the stage in Seattle, where I stood amongst a group of young women from South America. "This song, these lyrics, mean so much to me," one of them said through tears after watching Changbin perform "Streetlight" for the first time. Another wrapped me in a side hug when Hyunjin sang the opening lyrics of his song "Little Star," as her Hyunjin-biased friend from Paraguay clung to her other side. I felt joy radiate from their bodies, the tingle of electricity on their skin, and I took it in. We held one another close, capturing the intimacy of the night in a series of photographs.

Afterwards, I thought of something Lee Know had said, how he described family to me as "someone who will always be beside me." I thought of jeong and the amorphous bond that had formed over the span of several hours, growing roots inside the whole arena. There are many words to describe this feeling, and yet they all mean the same thing, says Felix. "We're creating memories together."