Photo by D. Cole
Article originally published in May 2013 issue of Groove Magazine and online.
Kevin Morrow has the crowd’s eyes. He’s halfway through an alcohol-fueled set and belting out his band’s song “White Lines,” a driving punk tune that stirs images of a beat-to-shit Chevy Nova barreling down a dusty desert highway. He kicks the performance into high gear by connecting a heavy booted foot with a small wooden chair in the cramped Seoul music venue Strange Fruit. But then, in a move uncharacteristic of most boozed-up rockers, he rights the chair with a sheepish grin before launching into the final chorus.
U.S. Army Sergeant Morrow arrived in Korea in 2011. The 29-year-old says it was depression that first drove him to join the military, enlisting as a medic in the Washington State Army National Guard in September 2004. He was born and raised in the Puget Sound area of the state and was attending Job Corps — a federally subsidized program that provides free education and job training for youths — when he decided to sign up.
“I kind of just wanted to go off to war and die,” he recalls.
He still harbored similar feelings 17 months later, accompanied by boredom and the desire to “just get away for a while.” Morrow decided to go into the active-duty Army.
Not long after making this decision, Morrow explains that he “realized he didn’t really care about saving people,” and that going Active Duty allowed him to change his military occupational specialty from Healthcare Specialist (aka combat medic) to Mortuary Affairs Specialist.
By the time the lit runways at Incheon International Airport first came into view, Morrow had wrapped up two tours in Iraq and one in Kuwait. During his first tour alone, he processed over 300 human remains.
A key difference between the Middle East and his then-current station, however, is that there is no active combat on the Korean Peninsula. A cease-fire has been in place since the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. But where there is any kind of community, there is also death, and at roughly 28,500 personnel, United States Forces Korea (USFK) is no exception.
Morrow says his job with the USFK Mortuary “involved working with human remains, assisting with autopsies and embalming.” He chooses not to describe the work any further due to its sensitive nature.
Of his field of expertise, he says that, in Iraq, he was surprised to learn that Mortuary Special Affairs has a higher rate of post-traumatic stress disorder than men in combat. “You’d think that killing people and clearing houses and seeing your friends die, that would be harder on them,” Morrow says.
If he’s struggling with “seeing the stuff” he encountered during deployments, Morrow doesn’t show it, though he describes his experiences as “subconsciously depressing.”
One of his coworkers who works for the civilian side of USFK Mortuary Special Affairs (and wishes not to be named in the article) says that Morrow handled the job well. “Kevin had a special nature to him and liked taking care of people,” she says. “He’s very mellow. You hardly ever get him upset.”
She also says she recognized Morrow’s reclusiveness early on, describing him as a “shy person who didn’t intermingle with others.” And he really didn’t, either on base or off. By July 2012, Morrow had barely ventured off the United States Army Yongsan Garrison, despite its location in the heart of Seoul.
“I didn’t leave my room. I went to McDonald’s like one time,” Morrow says. “There just wasn’t anything the military offered on post for recreation that I was interested in, resulting in eight months of depression and isolation on my part.”
Enter songwriter and guitarist Matthew Hamann — a political science degree-toting California country boy with a hint of Venice Beach boardwalk stoner and a mild enthusiasm for surfing. He says his band, Heisenberg — named after the alias of Walter White’s character on AMC’s Breaking Bad — was on the verge of hiatus that summer.
Fellow Americans Devon Weber (drums) and Sean Daily (bass), completed the singer-less trio of English-teaching expats. “Our music was all right,” Hamann says. “But it wasn’t geared to be an instrumental band.”
Morrow came into the picture by responding to a two-month-old, mostly-forgotten Craigslist ad. The call for a singer cited influences ranging from surf rock legend Dick Dale to American indie group Minus the Bear.
“I had never sung in a real band or anything with more than two people,” Morrow says. “My experience was all random, chance-encounter jam sessions with people I never saw again.”
Still, he left his concertina-wired confines to make the audition. It was his first time taking the Seoul Metro.
“That was an experience for me,” he says. “I didn’t know how to be in a big city like this. Taking the subway. It’s really cool. You can go anywhere for next to nothing.”
Hamann says Heisenberg’s sound was part of the reason why it was so difficult to find a singer, and he still can’t put his finger on it. “A combination of blues, rock and roll, surf rock, and punk,” he says, noting that the diversity is a reflection of being “unable to write an album’s worth of good songs in one genre.”
The rest of the band was equally lost in describing their sound, but they all agreed on one thing: Morrow.
“The first thing that struck me about Kevin was that the guy could write lyrics — that guy was a really good lyricist,” recounts Hamann.
Weber says it was easy bringing him into the fold. “He fit in at the first practice. I think we all wanted him to keep singing for us after the first song. He was the sixth or seventh guy that tried out so our standards may have been a bit high, but he was by far the best candidate.”
Daily is very to-the-point: “We found Kevin and everything changed.”
By the time the band fell into a routine of weekend gigging and boozing together, things had seriously started changing for Morrow, too. His coworker at USFK, who saw him on a daily basis, remembers that he started opening up around this time. “Kevin came here like a cocoon and then he opened like a big butterfly,” she says with a laugh, noting she never imagined him singing for a rock band.
She says his routine of simply shuffling between mortuary work and his barrack eventually transitioned into trying out Korean dishes and taking more frequent trips off base.
“He was very observant,” she says. “He would bring food to work and say, ‘I found this at the store.’ It would be some chips he thought were unique, and he would make a point of sharing them with us. I think he even tried dog meat.”
Eventually, the USFK’s rigid seven-day-a-week 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for soldiers was the only thing keeping Morrow on base.
“Curfew was always a factor, which was why we never played a show later than 11 p.m.,” he says, followed by a smirk hinting that a few gigs may have run a tad late.
Working around the military’s late-night restriction, the band’s stage presence strengthened following its first show at Club FF in the university district Hongdae, where Morrow donned sunglasses to combat stage fright. “I’m so shy, I’m rarely able to look anyone in the eye while singing,” he admits.
By the end of the band’s six-month run in January, it was impossible to tell if he still held any fear. Daily describes Heisenberg’s highly anticipated final performance at Strange Fruit on New Year’s Eve as “transcending time and space.”
“We were unstoppable. We played so well that we decided to do an encore show. So our real last show was at a bar that had become Kevin’s favorite watering hole: Woodstock in Itaewon,” Daily says.
Woodstock holds good memories for Heisenberg, Morrow especially. He loves the vibe there, and also the intimacy he would share with the crowd when he was onstage. It’s also where he met his girlfriend, who was tending bar. Daily introduced them after the two bandmates downed a round of Bacardi 151 shots.
“Honestly, I just wouldn’t have gone up randomly and hit on a girl,” Morrow says. “Sean threw that on me.”
Morrow shipped back to the U.S. on terminal leave in mid-January, but caught a military space flight for $16 just two weeks later to be with his girl. He wasn’t ready for it to be over yet, those long nights drinking Cass beer and smoking Marlboros at Woodstock.
His girlfriend chose not to be named for the story, but both say they are enjoying the time, uncertain of the future. Above all else, Morrow says he doesn’t dwell on the bulk of his deployment that was spent holed up on base and depressed.
“Singing in the band pulled me out of all of that,” he says. “It gave me a healthy outlet, and a reason to go off post and experience Korean culture eons beyond what I would have done otherwise.”