Kenshi Yonezu, Representative of the Unbelievers
Kenshi Yonezu is releasing his new single Unbelievers on September 2nd.
Introducing a more electronic sound, the title song takes a new guitarless direction. A melody full of swells, lyrics that are simple but have a strong message - they reflect his will to change. We asked Yonezu about the circumstances leading up to this album's completion.
Q. It feels to me that Unbelievers is a real turning point among all your songs.
A. I didn't think of it being a turning point, but it was a a song which I made very much imposing limitations on myself.
Q. Imposing limitations?
A. To put it simply, not using guitar. I mostly finished everything by inputting it manually, then made the song with piano as a basis. That's something I hadn't done prior, and it was a song based in limitations.
Q. But it's not as if those limitations were something you were asked to do, or imposed on you by someone else.
A. I suppose so. (laughs)
Q. Why did you think to put limitations on yourself?
A. The mindset that I need to keep changing has gotten really big - it's increased in size ever since Santa Maria (single from May 2013). Unbelievers was also a song made with that idea. So then, once I listened to the finished product, I felt that it was something totally different from my previous songs. Though right now, I can't have that much of an objective view to say whether it's a turning point or what.
Q. During the Flowerwall interview, you said that after doing concerts, you stopped being picky about bands. Was there anything like that as far as the circumstances of your change in sound?
A. There was. Making an album recorded with a band, doing concerts, it made me sort of indifferent to them. Though I always looked up to band music, and eventually came to do it because I wanted to, actually getting to do it certainly gave me the feeling that I didn't have to cling to them so much. So, among all the music I listen to and input, I find I like electronic music, say. I no longer think as much about "band or not."
Q. Even in concerts, you dropped the typical group of four - you with guitar, bass, and drums.
A. Indeed. What we're doing now is very hard to replace, I think, and I have the sense that they've helped me so very much in reaching this point. I trust them a lot, and I think they're indispensible, but even so, I'm still not sure yet about whether I'll keep going on with this format. I have a premonition, even, that I'll do something totally different again.
Q. When did the motif for the new song, Unbelievers, first come about?
A. The chords and melody have been there since I was making my second album YANKEE, and I wondered whether I should put it on the album or not. As a result, it was left in storage... Afterward, I had trouble making good songs, so I packed up and moved. Then I became able to write them just like that. Unbelievers was a song made in that time.
Q. You've mentioned that before, moving and then being able to write songs. Looking back again, how do you think your circumstances have changed?
A. Well, first, there was a change of scenery. I've moved somewhere that's extremely vast. Where I lived before was more downtown. Kind of a messy place. Where I moved to has lots of half-built buildings, and not that many people live there.
Q. Like an area under construction?
A. Right. It's a very strange town. Looking at the buildings under construction gives me an odd feeling. "Under construction" is a state in which you're waiting for completion, or in other words, you're waiting for hope that isn't here yet. But when you actually look at it in that state, all you can see is what looks like a corpse. Foundations laid bare, nothing functioning, nobody there - as if it's only natural.
Q. As "dead" as a building can be.
A. Right, right. The iron bars are rusty, even, so it's hard to imagine you're waiting for hope to come. There are tons of buildings and parking lots with that look in the area. Walking around such a town put me in a strange mood that stayed in my memory. It may be promising hope for later, for the near future, but at present, all that's on display is a corpse - I felt that brought to mind and represented a phenomenal amount of things. I even thought it was a very beautiful town; it really left an impression.
Q. I think most normal people who see things under construction or in development think "Ah, they're working on it," or "I wonder what'll be here?", or "That construction work sure is loud," and not much more than that. But you took it to be a state that overlaps "the promise of hope" and "something dead."
Q. And that became an inspiration for the songs you make?
A. That's because it's contrary elements existing in one thing. And I think humans are the same. The skull that humans have inside them as long as they live is considered a symbol of death; it signifies both hope for the future, and the end that is death. This move makes me feel like I've wandered into a town where that kind of thing crops up a lot. They're here, there, and everywhere. A town of seemingly contradictory entities, neither fully black nor fully white, lined up. Thus, I just feel it's a strange town, and I think that feeling connects to Unbelievers. With this song, I wanted to express "affirmation by negation."
Q. Affirmation by negation?
A. I think that to affirm something, it's necessary to deny everything but that. I'm a born contrarian, so unless I go through the routine of denying something to affirm something else, I can't strongly trust in anything. Because "affirmation by negation" can't happen if there aren't two opposing things.
Q. Unbelievers is upbeat, with a lot of sparkly electronic sounds, so I think it's really brimming with an encouraging feeling. But it certainly depicts the backside of "hope" just as well.
A. Indeed. Things which are only one side are inherently shady, and including the songs I've made previously, I feel you need to have both. Well, but it was pretty tough while making the song.
Q. It was tough?
A. Since it's a song of affirmation by negation, I felt like a misstep could get emotions like extreme anger and unease to eat into the affirmation part. It was very difficult to keep that balance. I've been thinking for a little while now that I want to make songs with language even grade-schoolers would understand, so I wondered how much personal anger and unease I'd want to include given that. There were... very much moments where I lost track of what it all meant.
Q. What personal anger and unease do you mean?
A. Let's see... Well, there's the Olympics. There are thoughts like "What's going to happen after this?", aren't there? The stadium and the emblem and all is a huge ordeal, and people are saying "Once the Olympics are over, is an absurd debt all Japan will be left with?" So there's anxiety going forward, and more personal anger toward the circumstances you've lived through. That kind of thing really feels like you're being hit in the back of the head with an ashtray. But I don't want to make things which are entirely made of that stuff.
Q. You don't want to be powered entirely by anger and unease.
A. Or really, because I've been making things entirely made of that. But that didn't help me any, as far as my life goes. I've realized that by now. So I want to do things full of hope, and I think I should be saying to children in the future, "It's rough, but there are lots of good things too." I really, really think that.
Q. So you willfully chose such a means of expression.
A. Yes. I think so.
Q. I think that's probably why you were able to extract those positive thoughts into song.
A. Indeed. I suppose I've always been a pessimistic sort, and rarely get angry at anything. Looking at myself objectively, it felt kind of hollow. I think I'm a person who's nearly been eaten alive by nihilism due to the repetition of such things. That's nothing but empty, surely. Anything you do, as soon as you lose focus, you think things like "Well, nobody now will be alive in 100 years!" You can't live like that, can you? You have to believe in something. You need to actively move toward something. Given that thinking, I suppose people like me are "unbelievers."
Q. And an "unbeliever" is?
A. In essense, someone who won't believe something. They won't believe it, but by denying everything else, they can make it so they "might as well" believe it. I made this song based on the title "Unbelievers," and I think the song very accurately depicts essential parts of myself.
Q. If I could ask about the coupling songs, too... First, track 2, "Traveler's Lamp." Sound-wise, it seems contrasting to Unbelievers. What kind of place did it come from?
A. This is a song about the town I live in, too. When walking around at 3 or 4 AM, there's literally no one around. There hardly are even in the day, so even moreso when it's night. It's a truly, truly quiet town. But even if no one's around, the streetlights shine. I sadly thought to myself about their reason to be - for who, for what in the world are they shining? But thinking about it more deeply, I thought they must be shining for me, who's looking at them right now. When I was a kid, in middle school and such, there were quite a few moments I thought I was all alone in the world. That if I died right now, no one would cry. Looking at those streetlights reminded me of my past self. And I thought, maybe I should make that into a song.
Q. There's mention of "graves" in the lyrics.
A. Like I said before, the town I live in is full of hope, yet still looks like ruins as of now. I've thought of it as a dead town. There are all these cranes, and they look abandoned. I even feel like there's a smell of death to it.
Q. The third song is Fruit for the Heart. Where did this come from? It feels a bit like a nursery rhyme, with such cute lyrics.
A. This song came together absurdly quickly. And I'm extremely fond of it, considering that. I made it while digging up my own personal memories. Lately, I think a lot about the past. Events from when I was a kid, the town I lived in back then; I even have dreams about them. And I think, so much has changed since then. Everything I saw as a kid was fresh, the world I lived in was small, so I had a lot of curiosity about things around me. But I lose more and more of that now, and looking at new things, I've come to say "This is just a repeat of something old," or see them as commonplace. I made it with thoughts like that in mind.
Q. It's nice how you put names of fruits in the lyrics. The "apple, lemon, grape, melon, strawberry, banana, mandarin, kiwi."
A. Fruits are somehow similar to people, I think. They have skin, meat, and seeds. It occurred to me that the human body has a similar makeup.
Q. Lastly, let's return to talking about Unbelievers. There's one more important aspect in the lyrics: they use the word "we." It's not "I'm an unbeliever," it's "we're unbelievers." I think this is something significant, and not a choice the pre-Santa Maria Yonezu would have made.
A. That's true. I wonder how I should put it. The word "we" was around in YANKEE too, but like I've said before, I think I'm a very isolated person. It's always been such that I didn't sympathize much with people, and in many instances, the things I said weren't understood. Those experiences kept piling up, and I think of myself as someone who's come to like silence. Yet, while I couldn't even imagine it back then, there certainly were people with similar circumstances. You can see it on the internet, so now I don't think I was particularly unique in that way. There are lots of people who sympathize with me.
Q. Do you really feel that way?
A. I do. And I've wondered if I can do something to speak for those people's feelings, their "intents." That could turn out to be very presumptuous thinking if I mess it up, but I think maybe I'm able. At the very least, I have an aptitude for making music. I can weave melodies better than most people. And I can weave words better than most. So I've thought more and more lately how with all that, maybe I can do something. Choosing to say "we" might be one indication of that.
Q. Personally, I think you've made songs that can be seen as "reaching your hand out to somebody." Santa Maria, Eine Kleine, Flowerwall, all of those. But the song Unbelievers is a song of "showing your back." Showing your back, and raising a banner. In the sense of making a song that forms a relationship like that with listeners, I think it's a turning point.
A. Indeed. This song has a lot packed into it which, long ago, my lips would be sealed about. Music that cuddles up to listeners in that way has saved me throughout my life. Seeing the backs of people who make music, adults around me, all kinds of people, I think "I want to be like that" and live. Turning 24, I've learned about the world to an extent. So I've come to think that maybe that's the kind of role I should be taking on from now on.