What's Found Beyond the "Final Destination"
Kenshi Yonezu released his new single, "Flamingo / TEENAGE RIOT," on October 31st.
Yonezu made a hit with his March release "Lemon," which has dominated for more than half of 2018. Between many of the songs on last year's album BOOTLEG and the song Paprika (written as the "NHK 2020 Cheer Song" for Foorin, a five-person unit comprised of grade-schoolers), he's been making many tie-in and collaborative works as of late. His new work, however, was born from solely facing himself for the first time in a while.
Flamingo with its strange classically-Japanese style, and TEENAGE RIOT brimming over with impulsiveness. We discussed the background of each of these songs, and his vision for his current self.
Q. In what circumstances did you begin creation of your new single, Flamingo / TEENAGE RIOT?
A. Lately, I'd been doing all sorts of tie-ins, collaborating with others, inviting guest vocalists, providing composition to people, again and again with that sort of thing. And so then, I sprung back the other way. Basically, the things I'd been doing lately all had someone besides myself on the other side. My creative approach had been to search for something dead-center amongst our common points.
Q. That was how you operated for many songs on last year's album BOOTLEG, your single Lemon, and Paprika which you wrote for Foorin.
A. That's right. Then 2018 came along, and Lemon came out, and that song became such a huge thing. I felt like it served as an answer to all the things I'd been doing. I once did Vocaloid, then left there, and by way of Japanese rock, arrived at a destination of so-called J-pop - I see that as a long journey I've been taking, and I wondered if this was one of the final destinations of that journey.
Q. Ever since your major debut, you've spoken of wanting to make "ubiquitous pop" and "music anyone can pick up." With Lemon becoming such a representative song of this year, did you feel like you'd achieved exactly that?
A. Yes, I did. Though honestly, while I have always aimed to make something universal as I've carried on, I didn't think Lemon would be it. Like, my life doesn't have a movie synopsis or anything, so I don't know what'll happen next. But it turned out that the final destination in this concept of "making something universal," the place I've been trying to reach all this time, was Lemon - and in that moment, it felt like the credits started to roll to "Yume naraba... ♪" ["How good would it be... ♪"] I thought, "Ah, this marks the end of everything I've done up to now." Though it is a happy ending of sorts. I've been spending 2018 wondering "okay, so what should I do next?" A lot's happened during that time.
Q. Like what, might I ask?
A. One thing is how I've been able to meet people I've always admired since my childhood... or since my teens, in quick succession. Like the members of BUMP OF CHICKEN, or Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki of Studio Ghibli. And also, a Let's Player I always liked named Jack o' Lan-tan. Getting to meet people I could never meet before made me feel like I was in some kind of bonus stage. It indicated I'd become someone who could even catch the interest of people like them.
Q. What did you talk with Miyazaki-san about?
A. I'm afraid I only talked with Miyazaki-san for about 5 minutes, but when I told him I was 27 currently, he said "27, huh? 27 years ago was just the other day." He probably just said it as a casual thing, but it actually got me thinking. I've felt like I've endured a lot of hardships and done so much, but he got me feeling like there's so much more road ahead, and that a life even more worth living awaited me.
Q. So because of Miyazaki-san's casual remark, your feeling of "I've reached the final destination" became one of "I'm not even at the halfway point."
A. Whenever I thought things over after the release of Lemon, those words always came to mind, so I think that further reinforced it. It was an important experience for me.
Q. And what did you talk to BUMP OF CHICKEN about?
A. When I met them, I was with Enon (Kawatani) - and compared to the guys in BUMP OF CHICKEN, we've been in it for way less time, right? But they told me about how it simply made them really happy that even people a whole Zodiac cycle younger than them were listening to their music. That left a big impression on me.
Q. In the past, you've talked about picking up the baton from bands like BUMP OF CHICKEN, RADWIMPS, ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, and Spitz. So for that reason too, meeting the long-running artists who influenced you in person, and having a contemporary friend like Enon Kawatani to stimulate you and vice versa, are connections that provide you with energy.
A. That's true. I first encountered Enon at a festival about 3 years ago, then only met him again last year. But he and I really have matching tastes in music. He also listened to BUMP OF CHICKEN and the like as a kid, when I ask him "You heard that one?" he usually has, and he likes a lot of other things I like. I hardly had anyone my age to talk to about the music I'd listened to, like People In The Box and THE NOVEMBERS, so I'm glad for that too. He's a super weird guy, but he's fun. They say the older you get, the harder it is to have deep friendships with people. We were born and raised in different environments, but it feels like we're childhood friends who met late.
Q. With this new single coming from experiences like those, of course it wouldn't be a repeat of the past few years when Kenshi Yonezu was aiming for universality. I believe you've flipped a new, perilous switch. I especially felt that way hearing Flamingo. Indeed, from the song to the lyrics, it's clearly a "weird song."
A. It is a weird song.
Q. How did it end up this way?
A. There wasn't any firm sensation of "Okay, let's make this." It mostly just happened. At first, I wanted to make Andean music, or something like Spanish ethic music. I really enjoy that exotic feeling of like, strumming out triplets on guitar, and while I was wondering if I could make a song like that, it ended up connecting to Japanese folk music. The end result feels something like Shima Uta or Dodoitsu.
Q. So not necessarily made based on a concept, but sliding into such a form as you were making it.
A. For Flamingo, the lack of a person on the other side may have had a big impact. Before, I'd had DAOKO-chan there for Fireworks, or (Masaki) Suda-kun for Gray and Blue, or even the works themselves when it came to tie-ins. Not this time. When I made that change, I somehow began to think it'd be interesting to take these faltering feelings inside me, this indecency, and express it in a way no one had heard before.
Q. Flamingo contains a number of voice samples. There's trembling lips, purring, clearing throats, even what sound like fragments of a conversation like "ah, yep." Were these added after the song was complete?
A. No, they were a formative part. Initially, I created up to the first chorus in a simple, minimalistic form of just bass, kick, and snare, but the moment I added those voices, I was like "this is it." Along that axis, I dropped my voice into the song like a physical object in a way like never before.
Q. You've had various voice samples in your songs before, but those voices of yours aren't the spice this time, but the main course. How does that relate to the lack of collaborators and guests, and the approach of looking inward?
A. I made this song by remembering things from when I'd been drinking. One of my modes lately has been to do silly things and become a clown when I'm drinking, to cosplay as a pleasure-seeker - in doing this, I hope to head to different places than I've gone before. The voice clips contained in Flamingo were cultivated there. There are a number of them, but I had a concept in mind for every one. For instance, there's a cocky-sounding "ah, yep" voice, which is the "ah, yep" when someone's scolding and lecturing you, but you don't think you did a single thing wrong. Also, there's an "eh?" that sounds like asking someone to repeat themselves. That's the "eh?" when the other person's saying something that's definitely strange or off-kilter, so you pretend you didn't hear them. I do it all the time. Each and every one of those clips contains a kind of indecency.
Q. You say "indecency," but could it also be anger or irritation?
A. It can also be irritation, and having a devil-may-care attitude. Maybe anger as well, but if you trace back anger, it basically comes from a worthless feeling of "I'm gonna provoke this person." I wanted to bundle all that indecency up into one song.
Q. I believe the melody and the lyrics show a classical-Japanese style at the forefront. What do you have to say about that?
A. I think that's simply an issue of me being Japanese. I've always been making J-pop as a Japanese person. Thinking "what would Japanese people be able to sympathize with?" In searching through the history of Japanese music, I found that unsurprisingly, folk music was at the roots. Regardless of changes in the environment encircling Japan, or increased cognizance of musical scenes overseas, I arrived at the fact that I was just going to be a Japanese person. I've been trying to decide how to perceive that identity of mine since the Vocaloid days.
Q. Indeed, from my first impression, I was reminded of your Hachi-era "Close and Open, the Rakshasa and the Corpse." It has a completely different tone from Flamingo, but that song also has connections to folk music in places... It sings of nihilistic things to the playing of a festival band.
A. I think I've had that aspiration to Japanese oriental culture for a long time. When I was operating as Hachi and talked with other Vocaloid producers, I was often told "Isn't Rakshasa and the Corpse weird? Doesn't that song stick out?" And I couldn't come up with an answer for them. Like, "it's true, I'd never made or even listened to a song like that before this, so I wonder why it turned out that way?" But the simple answer is, it's because I can't be anything but a Japanese person.
Q. So you've always had these strange circuits in yourself, and by writing Flamingo without any thoughts of collaboration, it allowed that to bloom 100%.
Q. So then, how did you make the song TEENAGE RIOT?
A. It was originally made to be coupled with Lemon. Since Lemon was that kind of ballad-like song, I made the coupling song to be a polar opposite. But when the staff heard it, they told me "this is more fitting as a title song, so let's save it for next time," and I was like "yeah, you might be right." It's not like I'm the sole person who decides what's a title song, and I want to make all my songs pop songs; I endeavor to make every song with such intensity that any one could stand as the lead song. But the deadline was fast approaching, so I remember making its replacement in a hurry.
Q. This is another song that, like Gray and Blue, is themed around your past. But contrary to Gray and Blue or the happy childhood song that is Paprika, this is about a gloomy adolescence. What would you say about that?
A. To take things back, the melody from the chorus actually comes from a song I made at the end of middle school. I posted it to NicoNico Douga before I did Vocaloid, so if there's anyone who knew about that... I have to imagine there's very few of you, but you'll know it when you hear it.
Q. So a core element of the song is your adolescent self.
A. "Chuunibyou" ["second-year middle-schooler sickness," AKA "teen with an evil, super-powerful OC"] is a really handy word these days. I'm often described with it myself, because after all, I do have some of the notable qualities. And I have some thoughts about that. It's embarrassing to speak your mind about immediate, impulsive feelings without restraint, you know? Yes, it is embarrassing to do that - but still, in our age of social media, people are quick to poke fun at those things right away. For instance, if you write something opening up about your feelings on Twitter, people are like "cool poem" or "chuunibyou" or "nutjob." But that person had some really serious feelings, and had to vent them out through those words. The trend of dismissing them with careless words and using them as fodder to flaunt your superiority personally makes me think, "that sucks." And that's why I wanted to make a song that cherishes such impulsive... somewhat crude feelings, but ones that have to be let out regardless.
Q. The line "I'll sing it again and again, how I can't go anywhere" is also striking.
A. Lately, I feel like "Kenshi Yonezu" has started becoming his own character. There's a side to this of him becoming like a public-domain concept more than a single human being. Like "Oh yeah, Kenshi Yonezu? He's that guy who can't go anywhere, right?"
Q. That time when you acknowledged that on Twitter, it got a lot of retweets.
A. Yeah, yeah. But I'm happy about that for what it is. Part of me's been wanting to become something conceptual all my life, and it's natural in a sense that it'd happen, but I do also feel a bit hazy about it. Besides, currently everyone refers to impulsive things, the act of putting your embarrassing aspects out into the world without minding what anyone else thinks, as "chuunibyou," but I think that's also changing.
Q. Which is to say...?
A. Now, there's the trend of casually poking fun at people and acting superior to them. People take this attitude like, "I'm calm, and I look at things objectively, and I go about everything in the best possible way." Sometimes I feel like that attitude is the real chuunibyou.
Q. I myself really dislike the trend of dismissing awkwardness or over-the-top impulses with words like "nutjob" and "chuunibyou." I think addressing that trend with self-referential lyrics is a very creative counterattack.
A. Music can't be created just by heading to an objective in the shortest distance, hiding your shames, and living productively and efficiently. I think it should be something more earthy. I believe this song is one where I stirred together thoughts on how I've been treated lately and memories from middle school, and made it into a messy stew.
Q. So if Flamingo is condensed indecency, TEENAGE RIOT is condensed immaturity.
A. That's right. Probably everyone's afraid of exposing shameful parts of themselves. I know I am. But if I don't have those faltering, "is this guy dumb or what?" aspects, I can't move people's hearts. It doesn't constitute a pop song... in fact, it doesn't even constitute music without that. I think everyone tries to hide those things too much. I strongly feel like I have to speak out against that trend.
Q. The coupling song "I'm Sorry" is, sure enough, good enough to be a title song as well.
A. I like this song as well. While I was making it, I was like "Could we make this a triple A-side?" and made the staff sweat. It was a game that prompted me to make it. A super good game called UNDERTALE. Spoilers are strictly forbidden, so I really shouldn't say anything detailed, but it has a very good story. It's a game with pixel art made on a low budget, and there's a sense of immersion that comes from exactly that fact. Before I knew it, I was in deep with the game, and made this song with the notion that I was making my own theme for it.
Q. Understood. Well, lastly, what do you think your vision is past the release of this single?
A. Up until now, I've always had a complex telling me I could never just proceed as normal. That's been a very important part of me making pop songs. But in a way, that thought was purified away by Lemon. When I'm wondering, okay, so what do I do next?, I have no role model of any kind. I don't know what "Part 2" of my life should be. It feels like I'm in a similar mode as when Hayao Miyazaki is drawing storyboards and progressing with work, while no one on the production staff knows where the film is heading. My immediate future is dark, but I believe that allows me to do certain things. If there's anything I can say at this moment, it's that I want to do something unprecedented. I think I'd like to arrive somewhere which no one has even seen before. Currently, those ambitions and not much else are vaguely swirling around.