Guitarist MEMI, in grayscale, plays guitar on a stage with a drum set and drummer behind her.

Meet the South Korean queen of guitar

MEMI, and her band 24Hours, are set to bring their inspired rock stateside for the first time this week

MEMI lead guitarist for the band 24hours, recently released her solo EP, "M3MI."

Courtesy of MEMI

Words by Cielo Perez

Despite the overwhelming prevalence of pop music in the public discourse, rock is alive and not just a relic of the past. MEMI, a Seoul-based guitarist and singer-songwriter, embodies that rock lives on. Thanks in no small part to her skills on the guitar—which rival the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins, Korn, and Two Door Cinema Club—she maintains nearly one million followers across her social media platforms.

MEMI’s first-ever U.S. performance, with band 24Hours for which she is the lead guitarist, will be at SXSW 2024's two-day event FRIENDS:FOREVER on March 14 and 15. On a recent video call from Seoul, she mentions that she and 24Hours are “preparing lots of songs together” and finding ways to give their best overseas performance.

While balancing her role as lead guitarist for the band, she released her solo EP M3MI in December 2023. Its main track “Guitar Pick,” a hard-hitting song with a catchy chorus, substantially grew her online presence. The other two tracks, “NY(f)C” and “Waikiki” were inspired by her travels and current sounds being heard in underground rock music scenes. Her goals for this EP? She wants to showcase her abilities to play all kinds of rock and its subgenres. "That's why all the tracks are all different from each other,” MEMI says. “My first track is metal, the second track is garage rock, and the rest of the tracks are grungy.”

She sat on this EP for about a year while fulfilling her duties with 24Hours. This five-track album is an introduction to who she is as an artist and her confidence to finally release it played a factor.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

A closeup of South Korean guitarist MEMI, in grayscale, playing guitar against a gray backdrop.

MEMI started playing the guitar in high school.

Courtesy of MEMI

MEMI started playing the guitar in high school. But without a guitar at home, she had to creatively use what was available to her. “I was 16 years old when I started to play guitar,” she says. "I remember at school, I drew on paper and put it on my pencil case as a guitar fret. I had this image that this is a guitar and its notes."

But studying a diagram could only get her so far. MEMI’s number one musical inspiration is her uncle, who she didn’t realize was a guitarist until her teen years. Mastering the art of guitar from her uncle paved MEMI's way to choose the music path. "He [played the guitar] as a hobby, and he gave me his old guitar," she says. "It was a Fender guitar! He was a good teacher in my life." Musicophile that she is, she's been asked how many guitars she has now. "I never counted! But in my room right now, there's eight guitars I can see,” MEMI says. One of them is that first guitar she played, gifted by her uncle. It serves as a visual reminder of her musical roots.

Eventually, this led her to study music at university with a focus on guitar. It's no easy feat studying music, as there are countless hours of practice and dedication. The lines get blurred when the art becomes technical and no longer a fascinating skill. But MEMI reminds herself that art comes first before anything. “Practice or technical things can be important. I learned so many technical things or music theory [through university]. Before, I thought that was important," she admits. "Now, when I play and make songs, I realize it's not too important to do technical things. The vibes, the guitarist's identity, and inspiration are very important."

All Day and All of the Night

It’s no secret that the ‘00s are back in a big way, in both fashion and music. An emo kid at heart, MEMI still prefers band T-shirts, beanies, and dark accessories, and she feels nostalgic for the rock music and style she grew up on.

This year, MEMI sees a re-emergence in indie sleaze. “I feel like people this year are getting more excited about that vibe and music,” she says, referencing the danceable era of indie pop that included the likes of MGMT, Arctic Monkeys, and The Strokes.

The evolution of guitars is just as important as the music scene changing. There’s something about older, vintage guitars that MEMI is attracted to over newer, modern guitars. "I love old guitars. Like, something is different [about them],” she says, picking up one from her collection to show on camera. “I think most guitarists like guitars that have already been used. When you touch [them], you can feel the difference. I can't explain." When she’s not in the studio, MEMI enjoys going to music stores, trying to find the next guitar to add to her collection.

Under Pressure

Guitarist MEMI, dressed in a black, white and red-patterned dress and plaid beret, strums a pink guitar against an orange background.

MEMI's biggest inspiration is her uncle, who gave her her first guitar.

Courtesy of MEMI

Idealistically, artists want to show their best work possible. But perfection can get in the way of how their music is being relayed to audiences. MEMI admits that she’s “a little bit picky when it comes to performing. Even when I started releasing music, I had [this idea that it had] to be perfect to make people feel satisfied.” Her robust social media presence puts pressure on her to get it right.

But after her first-ever solo show in South Korea, that pressure dissipated. “After my first performance, I learned to become chill," she says. "I'm trying to enjoy the moment...more important than trying to look perfect or needing to sound perfect."

Creating music for herself became easier over time since she's used to creating music with her band. She's never going to stop creating her own versions of guitar covers aside from playing original tracks with 24Hours. “But when I started to make my own music, I changed my mind a lot [on the kind of music I'm creating]," she laughs. "It's so much fun now, and I can show [people] what goes on in my mind."

Don't Stop Believin'

South Korean guitarist MEMI, in grayscale, plays guitar against a gray backdrop.

MEMI is an emo kid at heart.

Courtesy of MEMI

Still, it’s nice to be recognized by your peers. MEMI says she’s received praise from other rock musicians like Phoenix, Fred Durst, and beabadoobee. People asking her advice on how to master the guitar warms her heart. It’s about more than practicing every day. "Listening and trying all kinds of music," she suggests. "Making your own [musical] things on what you love matters."

The first song she played on the guitar? "I love Avril Lavigne, and my first song on the guitar by her was ‘Sk8er Boi,’" she says. Lavigne’s was one of the few concerts MEMI attended in her younger years. "I saw her perform in Korea when I was 18 years old. It was so crazy because I couldn't breathe, and there were so many people. I'll never forget the moment she performed ‘Girlfriend.’”

MEMI's on the way to making new songs and is scheduled to release newer music sometime this summer. As for her guitar collection, she plans on adding new guitars when she visits the States for her SXSW performance.

Guitarist MEMI, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, stands in an all-white room, with black curtains, holding a guitar, surrounded by sound equipment.

MEMI let go of perfection after her first solo performance.

Courtesy of MEMI

Published on March 13, 2024

Words by Cielo Perez

Cielo Perez grew up as a classically trained musician. She’s a firm believer in continuously learning the technical and creative aspects of music. Based out of Arizona, she's lived in three countries. Her focus in writing is amplifying the voices of Asian artists. You can find her on X @ItsCieloPerez or Instagram @cielo_perez.