Where You End Up By Shooting For Bremen
Kenshi Yonezu has completed his third album, Bremen. This album marks a significant milestone for him, a person who entered via the online scene and, since beginning to do concerts, has acquired a broader audience.
The album's title originates from the Grimm fairy tale "The Town Musicians of Bremen." We asked Yonezu about what he aimed for with his new work.
Q. How do you feel, having finished up Bremen?
A. I feel it turned out to be a very good album, and at the same time, I succumbed to self-hatred the moment I was done.
Q. You said the same thing after your second album, YANKEE.
A. Yes. I didn't have any such feelings about my first album, diorama, so I experienced it for the first time when my second album was done. This time, I thought to make an album where I cleared out all the thoughts I'd picked up in my prior works, like "Let's make something weird like nobody's ever heard before," or "I'll make this as strange-sounding as I can." I think it worked out very well. But nobody's listened to it yet, so I still feel unease about whether it was really for the best, and if it'll be received positively.
Q. The album's title is "Bremen." And the tour following this album is "Kenshi Yonezu 2016 Tour: Town Musicians." Those two bring to mind the Grimm story of The Town Musicians of Bremen; did you come up with it based on that?
A. Precisely. I thought of the album title while making the sixth track, Will-O-Wisp. Will-O-Wisp's lyrics have parts that bring to mind that story.
Q. The part about "taking the dog, cat, and rooster, we slipped away from town."
A. I made it while clearly imagining the Musicians of Bremen, so yes. When writing the lyrics, I thought "what kind of story was that, again?" and looked into it. In the story, the animals grew tired of where they were living and ran away on a trip to Bremen. I felt quite a connection to my present self there, it really left an impression. At that moment, I decided I'd make the album title "Bremen."
Q. The last album's title was YANKEE, which you said had the meaning of "migrant." Referring to people who sought a new world and arrived in America. Is there a connection to that?
A. Yes. I think the islands of YANKEE and Bremen are connected in places. While working on Bremen, I thought back to what I did during YANKEE, and had the sense that maybe I was still halfway then.
Q. Still halfway?
A. Like I alluded to earlier, YANKEE was about half songs with bizarre sounds and unusual use of sound, and the other half was completely different and new creations. So for the next album, I considered how I wanted to sweep away all those thoughts about weirdo sounds and make something which took further steps from YANKEE.
Q. So, you had the desire to make a whole album that wasn't "curious yet oddly captivating," but just felt beautiful to anyone who listened to it?
A. Pretty much. This time, I tried to remove "myself" from the songs as much as I could, and try to make a universal album everyone could relate to. I'd worked all by myself for a long time, and I think there was still some of that shadow in YANKEE.
Q. I think there's something else symbolic about the title "Bremen." The gist of The Musicians of Bremen is that animals with no place of their own band together and cooperate. And the album which borrows that story's motif as its title starts with Unbelievers. Like you said in the previous interview, you used "we" to speak for the feelings of people in similar circumstances, so I thought that might tie into this album.
A. While in the process of making Unbelievers, the title Bremen didn't yet exist. But I certainly did use the word "we," made a song that pulled someone along. I think I got the impression that maybe I wanted to be such a figure. After that, I made Will-O-Wisp, and I felt like the pieces of the puzzle had come together. Thanks to the "Musicians of Bremen" idea, the feeling I had during Unbelievers but didn't quite understand yet - "I want to pull everyone along" - became apparent to me, I suppose. It was a very curious sensation.
Q. The album's 14 songs have varied melodies and viewpoints for the lyrics, but I felt that in all of them, you chose words and sounds that pictured the listener.
A. It's apparent that I felt the desire to make music "for someone." I wanted to affirm the people close to me. I used to have a stubborn method where I just thought about "this is what I think" and didn't take a single glance at anything outside. Not looking at what's around you, making only what's inside you is very shaky, I thought. I didn't want to be such a weak person. I didn't want to be a person who stayed inside a weak shell, beginning and ending everything within my own mind... I wanted to live more. In that sense, maybe I was living with a kind of machismo. Also, I've been saying this a lot lately, but people who make rice are the most remarkable of all.
Q. People who make rice are most remarkable?
A. I'm making music, but people don't need music to live socially. The people who provide life's necessities do the most important work. I think of myself as rather weak, as I'd die in no time if those people were gone. So when I was thinking about that, I wondered if I could do anything for people living their normal lives. That's the sort of thing I pondered while making the album.
Q. You said in the YANKEE interview that there was a motif of "curses." Is there a motif across the songs on this album?
A. I don't know if I could call it a motif like "curses," but I wanted to have the songs interact with one another.
A. Like having light things and dark things interact via an album. Though I may have said something this way in this song, the song that comes after sounds like the opposite and annihilates it. I wanted to drop the light parts and dark parts, the positive and negative parts of myself into one album, and see them interact.
Q. So the songs can contradict and be hostile toward one another?
A. That's right. Among them all, Metronome and Blue Jasmine feel the most opposing. Metronome is a farewell song, and Blue Jasmine is a frank love song. By putting these contrasting things together, I feel it sheds light on something else. I cut off a very limited face of myself to make one song, then another to make another. Then lock them in a single album together - that's what I did here.
Q. Are there other opposing songs?
A. Unbelievers and Hopeland, too. Both were born from negative emotions inside me, so they're even similar in places. I was thinking about making the album, facing from track 1 to track 14, keep proceeding in a darker direction. So track 13, Hopeland, is a fairly dark song. But the darker it gets, the more I'm reduced to only expressing myself with bright words and bright sounds.
Q. If you imagined the album as being "heading from a bright place to a place of darkness," does that mean you made the songs with some awareness of their ordering?
A. I wasn't conscious of that at all. The only one for which I was was Blue Jasmine. Blue Jasmine was a new song I made when I had 13 songs done and noticed I didn't have an appropriate song for the end. Other than that, I basically wasn't thinking about track order while making the songs.
Q. How did you picture "bright places and dark places"?
A. All these people and animals on a crumbling highway nobody uses anymore, their backs to the light of town, heading into the dark. Though I wasn't considering the track order, somewhere in the middle of making the album, that picture somehow came into being.
Q. There are many "things which shine in the dark" in the song names and lyrics. Will-O-Wisp, Fluorite, even Neon Sign and Night Bugs on a Rainy Street. I think that's a motif that's dotted around the album.
A. I said in the Unbelievers interview that I wrote a lot of songs after moving, and those are exactly the songs. In a town which looks like it's falling apart with half-built buildings all around, the scenes that left an impression on me were overwhelmingly during the night. Lights on the other side of a bridge, meagerly lighting the way. Sights like that. So I almost feel that "things which shine in the dark" is the essence of the town I'm living in.
Q. And the very first line of Unbelievers is "Crowded out by the headlights, we walked along, down the highway." It indicates to you that this is the beginning of a story of night, set on an abandoned highway.
A. Unbelievers is absolutely that kind of song. I think this album came about from that opening situation.
Q. Track 8, Neon Sign, is placed at a crucial midpoint of the album. Where did this song come from?
A. This song... How should I say it? Actually, I have hardly any memories from making this song. All I remember is reading the Bible.
Q. "Taking hand in hand, thinking of each other, we made a promise, yet you turned around - a pillar of salt" is referring to a famous scene from the Old Testament.
A. Indeed. I read a lot of scripture while making this album. I was thinking about a number of things. Oh, if you want me to dig deep, I remember thinking "I want to try Mahayana Buddhism."
Q. Mahayana Buddhism? That's intriguing. Can I ask to hear more?
A. What got me thinking about it was rewatching Isao Takahata's Studio Ghibli film "Pom Poko." The heroes of that film are tanuki being driven out of their home, and they want to scare the humans, so they transform into all these things and put on a ghost parade. But ultimately, it's pointless. So an air of hopelessness spreads among the downhearted tanuki. Then an elder prepares a big boat and takes tanuki on it across the sea. In essence, he chooses to take all the tanuki with no way to live to go die together. I thought that was somewhat like Mahayana Buddhism. When I watched it, I thought maybe I should be the boatman of a boat like that, guiding people along.
Q. Hearing that, I realize there are common points between Pom Poko and the Musicians of Bremen. Just like the tanuki put on a parade, in The Musicians of Bremen, the donkey, dog, cat, and rooster pretend to be ghosts to drive away robbers.
A. Oh, I see. There is that connection, yes.
Q. And that's how The Musicians of Bremen comes to a happy ending of "the four animals lived happily in that house." Putting on an illusion, pretending to be a ghost - for people or animals without a place to live, it becomes a plan to resurrect themselves. That's a way Pom Poko and The Musicians of Bremen are connected.
A. I see. That's certainly true. And hearing that reminded me, there was another impression I had.
Q. Which is?
A. The animals of The Musicians of Bremen don't reach Bremen in the end. They end up living in some strange hut in the woods. And in Pom Poko, the tanuki don't build any Tanuki Shangri-la; it ends with them having to pretend to be humans, barely managing to live. They find little joys in those things and live. And personally, I don't think there's any need to reach Shangri-la. Because just because you're tired of your problems and where you are, it doesn't mean there's anywhere you can actually go. Since a place with no hardships can't exist. You need to make compromises and live in tandem with other people. But, even if you know Shangri-la doesn't exist anywhere, trying to go there in itself is important. Even if it's a mythical thing, I've considered that the journey is important.
Q. Things like what you just talked about make me realize why you thought you needed the song Blue Jasmine at the end. Since it ends the story of an album full of motifs like ghosts and will-o-wisps with a symbol of ordinary happiness, an offer of jasmine tea.
A. Yes, I think that's very important. Track 13, Hopeland, is a song that has a very large, solemn reverberation. It ends in a very satisfying way, but I thought I couldn't end the entire album with that. In Hopeland, I'm saying "You can always come here," but for the listener, it becomes "Well, where should I go?" It's an emotional "come here," sure, but I can't indicate to the person listening to the song what physical place it is. I felt that was very irresponsible. I'd like for those who listen to the album to think of it like a place to belong, or something that soothes their heart, but ultimately there's only so much I can do. It's not like I can offer them employment, or feed them a meal. In other words, I can't make rice.
Q. That's why you got thinking about how people who make rice are remarkable.
A. Yes. But while I can't make rice, I needed to present something similar. That was Blue Jasmine. It's a trifling love song, so it's very lacking as an ending. But I thought I had to end it with a song like this. Clinging to a richness of emotion leaves you frail, and I've experienced failure and a lot of difficulty when I was thinking that way. So it's necessary to turn your eyes toward the things within a 5-meter radius of you; wanting to indicate that choice to the album's listeners, I made Blue Jasmine.
Q. Do you think this is the most "love song" of all your songs?
A. I suppose. I really finished it in a flash. The lyrics and melody came quickly, and even the arrangement only took about two days. It's also the easiest to sing - one that feels good to sing. I feel it's very close to my present feelings.
Q. I see. I think I may have said this, but I feel Bremen is an album that's like a new fairy tale. At first, you said you wanted to make something ubiquitous, but maybe it's not a pop song universality as much as it is a fairy tale universality.
A. Indeed. Wanting to have the songs interact may play into that, too. Having a person with one claim and a person with another claim come together and clear something up is a fundamental element of numerous stories. So I believe I wanted to make such a story myself.