Robby Kang, guitarist and vocalist for Help the Doctor, met his fellow bandmates at a Los Angeles hospital—where they are all surgeons. Here’s how they went from the operating room to The Viper Room.
by REBECCA U. CHO
On a recent summer night at The Roxy Theatre on the famous Sunset Strip, a band of four indie rockers decided to infuse a taste of pop into the night.
“Life is a mystery,” crooned the lead vocalist as the crowd began to hoot in recognition of the pop classic. “Everyone must stand alone. I hear you call my name. And it feels like home.”
An explosion of beats accompanied the next set of well-known lyrics as the packed, standing-room audience began to sing along in appreciation of the rock twist on the Madonna original.
Newcomers to the band probably could never have guessed that all its members, from the drummer thrashing out the beats to the lead vocalist clutching his guitar against sweat-slicked arms, were surgeons who met at the nearby UCLA Medical Center.
The band’s name, Help the Doctor, is no tongue-in-cheek reference to the guy with the stethoscope, but a wink at the band’s day jobs.
Robby Kang, 35, a Korean American vocalist and guitarist for the group, met his future band mates while a facial plastic and reconstructive surgery fellow at UCLA Medical Center. Between up to 16-hour procedures in the operating room and encounters in the hallways of the surgery unit, Kang and his band mates formed a plan for regular jam sessions around their common love for indie rock.
“We’d pick a night. Everyone would show up in scrubs,” Kang describes. “We’d stop to go out and answer pages from the hospital.”
If one of the band mates was running late to practice and still in the operating room, one or more of the others would scrub in to lend a hand, Kang says.
Kang, who goes by the stage name Rip Towns, says what started out as a much-needed musical outlet from their demanding day jobs became a full-fledged band when they received an opportunity to play this past spring at the Troubadour on Sunset Boulevard. The invitation came through a fellow musician friend of the band’s bassist, Jason Roostaeian, a plastic surgeon who grew up in Los Angeles.
“We didn’t exist as a band. We hadn’t recorded a single song,” Kang says.
Intense, daily practice sessions began, and the band invited all of their coworkers at the hospital and friends to cheer them. In their first performance, Help the Doctor played to a sold-out crowd at the Troubadour, a venue that’s hosted the likes of a young Elton John and James Brown.
The Troubadour show led to the rockers headlining for the venue and invitations to play at The Viper Room and The Roxy Theatre. With the catchy cool stylings reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins and pop punkiness of Weezer, Help the Doctor began making their way down the Sunset Strip.
“We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate,” says band front man Phuong Nguyen, 33, a plastic surgery fellow at UCLA Medical Center who goes by the stage name P. Danger. “We’ve bypassed all these stepping stones a lot of bands have to do.”
Over the summer, the quartet recorded three songs with Chris Testa, a Grammy Award-winning producer for acts such as the Dixie Chicks. The songs, which are available on the band’s Facebook page and soon to be available on iTunes, include “Boulevard,” “In the Veins,” and “West Side Story.” The band’s catchy tunes touch on California living with references to the L.A. Marathon, the ocean and forming relationships through a California lens.
Kang, a Christian, says the motivation behind several of the songs he writes is rooted in his faith. The lyrics of one song, “Old Comedy,” were based heavily on the Bible’s Psalm 139: “Where can I go wandering/ From your hand, your heartbeat/ And when the night comes falling/ Your presence, it’s blinding!”
The band was not out to make money off of their gigs, says Kang, so they looked for a cause to help. They decided on Facing Forward, a California foundation started by a fellow UCLA Medical Center surgeon providing support and care to children with facial and skull deformities, such as cleft lip. Help the Doctor donates all of their proceeds, after expenses for their performances, to Facing Forward.
Coordinating their schedules is a challenge, the band members admit. They have declined invitations to play at the House of Blues and a red carpet event due to their work responsibilities. Help the Doctor’s drummer Soloman Poyourow, an oral surgery resident at UCLA, is the father of two and the only married member of the band.
Despite their busy schedules, Nguyen says, the band works because of a common passion for the music.
“The bottom line is none of us are really that young anymore. We’ve invested a lot in our day jobs, which is fun, but I think all of us had a deep and long history of really loving music and playing music,” Nguyen says. “It’s a lucky thing to have an outlet, to have a catharsis.”
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the November issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)