Kenshi Yonezu will release his single Peace Sign on June 21th. The title song, written as an opening theme for the anime My Hero Academia, is a turnaround from his American-hip-hop-esque previous album, opting instead for fast-paced guitar rock. In addition to this, there's Neighbourhood, which has connections to both English rock and the working class, and Dreameater Girl, a remake of the Hachi song "Dreameater on the Sand" - all of them illustrating one of Yonezu's themes, "boyishness," in a variety of forms. In this interview, we talked about the "boyishness" in this single, and heard Yonezu speak on a variety of things, from his desire to "make music that's like Shonen Jump," to his reasons for aspiring to "universal music."
Real Sound: Your previous album "orion" did well to show the recent inclinations in your music's sound, but this one is closer to your roots, and I get the impression it was made with a consideration for the history of Japanese pop. You started making the title song Peace Sign after being asked to make an opening for the My Hero Academia anime, correct?
Kenshi Yonezu: Right. Just like March Comes In Like A Lion, it was based on a manga I already liked, so I couldn't ask for better than that. I had a prototype of the song since about last year, and when I was contacted about this, I thought "wouldn't that song be a perfect fit?", so then I reconstructed it, basically.
Real Sound: What elements of the manga drew you to it?
Yonezu: I've always liked Weekly Shonen Jump (in which the manga runs), and I've read it ever since elementary school. I also consider traditional shonen manga like Naruto and One Piece to be one of my roots. In my opinion, My Hero Academia carries on the lineage of manga like those, or you know, is determined to keep that tradition alive, so I guess I like it for that.
Real Sound: By the Shonen Jump tradition, of course you mean "friendship, effort, victory." I suppose those things are present in your work; not like they're being directly expressed, but in a deeper sense, like the essence of it.
Yonezu: I personally think "I want to make music like Shonen Jump," and that's been a consistent thought for a long time. Well, other than how I now realize that it probably hasn't been taken that way. Something that left an impression on me was, after I'd finished making "diorama," someone told me "In terms of manga, your music is like Monthly Afternoon." That was when I first realized there was that gap between my music as I understood it, and my music as other people understood it.
Real Sound: I see. I'd consider calling something Monthly-Afternoon-like to mean that it's not so much "shonen," but depicting something tough to describe, like complex post-adolescence feelings. It's true, your music has an impression of being delicate and complex, which doesn't immediately connect it to your typical shonen manga.
Yonezu: Right. Since "diorama" was made using the methodology I cultivated in the realm of Vocaloid, I thought of it as being like shonen manga. At least at the time I was in it, the Vocaloid scene had lots of elementary- and middle-school kids, so I always had an awareness like "I'm making music for children." "diorama" was adjacent to that, yet I guess by putting my own voice on it instead of Vocaloid, it turned into Monthly Afternoon.
Real Sound: Were you able to accept that gap?
Yonezu: No, not so much. I was stunned how changing just a single element could change perception so drastically. Though, when a person who used Vocaloid moves to having humans singing, people do go "it's a little different, huh?", but I didn't exactly pay much attention to that difference. So in that sense, I didn't understand either.
Real Sound: I get the sense that with this song, you were again making a song that feels like it's being sung to young boys and girls.
Yonezu: That's right. I'm singing this song to my past self. I've always liked the theme songs for anime based on shonen manga, and the one that sticks with me the most is Digimon Adventure. It's a monumental work that always comes up whenever my generation talks about anime, and its theme song was "Butter-Fly" (2001, Koji Wada). It's mainstream rock, and super emotional, so it deeply rooted itself in me, and I think had a huge effect on building my character. Naturally, when asked to make a theme for an anime like this, I couldn't possibly ignore it - I wanted to make something as powerful as it was.
Real Sound: I see. To you, the anime Digimon Adventure and the song Butter-Fly are an inseparable unit. With this project, did you also write the lyrics considering the context of the series?
Yonezu: Of course. I had a dialogue with not only my past self, but the characters of Hero Academia - Deku (Izuku Midoriya), Kacchan (Katsuki Bakugou), etcetera - and sort of looked for what linked them all together. That's also what I did for March Comes In Like A Lion.
Real Sound: When you're having a "dialogue," is it as a Yonezu who's returned to his childhood, or is it the present grown-up Yonezu?
Yonezu: It's the grown-up me. I have both my grown-up self and childhood self around; for example, my 26-year-old self would ask my 12-year-old self "I made a song like this, what do you think?" And he'd be like, "26-year-old you might say it's good, but 12-year-old me doesn't think it's that good."
Real Sound: How interesting. In terms of Peace Sign, I do suppose it shows a lot of your young side's memories. Even the sound of it gives a different impression from your other recent music.
Yonezu: That's a sign of the distance between myself and the anime. With March Comes In Like A Lion, it ended up being an experimental song even for myself. Or to rephrase that, the source material itself contained that kind of thing, and it could be adopted without issue. But this time with My Hero Academia, while there was lots of wandering and trial and error, now I couldn't imagine it taking any form other than this.
Real Sound: It has the flow of mainstream guitar rock, yet you expressed it with your personal sound, I felt.
Yonezu: Yeah. That's the way manga and anime are, and if you ask me my definition of "mainstream," this is it. Like I said, I was taking with my child self who was influenced by Butter-Fly. I did also have wicked thoughts telling me to twist things and add sounds to spice things up, but it all just sounded unrefined, distasteful even. It's like once you carve away the stone, in the end, it's just God there.
Real Sound: So you completed it by chipping everything away, then saying "It's inconceivable it'd be anything but this." You may have been addressing your past self, but the lyrics also seem like they're talking to a young boy, and perhaps encouraging him; it got me to think how I'd like to hear more songs like this. How did you go about writing the lyrics?
Yonezu: The first four lines came to me first. "One day, flying just above us, / there was an airplane going by; / it's strange how well I remember it - / even though it's meaningless, somehow..." That's an actual event that happened to me. When I was a kid, I heard a seriously loud jet engine, looked up, and there was a plane going by super close. It's actually a bit similar to my "orion" story where I looked up and saw Orion, but this one was unusual for how it really stuck with me even though it's such a nothing occurrence. A who-cares memory that you can't come up with a reason for remembering, no matter how hard you look for a meaning. But looking at it objectively at age 26, I do think it's a pretty remarkable sight. Just the very composition of it, a boy looking up at a plane going right overhead, felt like it had definite meaning. And starting from there, I wrote the lyrics with a sense like I was really drawing a manga.
Real Sound: So you had a clear story in mind.
Yonezu: The lyric "So long - throw up a peace sign, / for this story tumbling along" was important - I thought of it because I wanted to end on some memorable words. If it were a manga, the first panel would have the plane flying over, and the boy looking up at it... then a bunch more panels, and finally, at the very end of the chorus, there'd be a two-page spread of the boy from behind holding up a peace sign, like bam! Turning that image I had into words, I ended up with those lyrics. Making music from an image is something I always do, but I'd never had it planned out as a manga before.
Real Sound: Now then, speaking of talking with your childhood self, the coupling song Neighbourhood features that in a more straightforward way.
Yonezu: Indeed. With Peace Sign, I was talking to the self that laughed and cried and got really excited over manga and anime. Neighbourhood was different; it was like talking with a childhood self focused more on daily life.
Real Sound: And as for the composition, it has the flow of traditional guitar rock, but I also felt a nuance of English rock from a generation earlier.
Yonezu: I was picturing Oasis's "Don't Look Back In Anger" and The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever." And there's a good reason why. Those artists' stories were that they came from England's middle class, and with a single bound became national stars, right? I guess I felt a connection with that; there are moments I think "I never got a decent education, either." Of course, I have memories of fun times too, and it might make my parents mad to say things like this, but I think it was a really worthless place. We didn't have any sort of youth music in our area, and the concerts there were always lame bands. I despaired thinking about how I had to live in a place like this with people like this, and I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. This song came from thinking about that and conversing with my fuming past self.
But I know there are definitely people thinking the same things. Like "What am I doing in a place like this?" Luckily, in my case, I could become familiar with the internet - an environment that was really easy to access, that suited me, that I could live in - and I was able to survive with that as my foundation. So I also feel like I want to say "it'll be okay" to children who are thinking the same things.
Real Sound: And there's even a part where you're asking those children a question.
Yonezu: That's right. All like "What about you?"
Real Sound: I was struck by the line "There's a white dinner table, clouded with cigarette smoke." The word "white" is usually associated with cleanliness, but here it's used in a different sense.
Yonezu: That's a true story. I'd get home from school and open up the living room door, and it'd be sheer white. I could only describe it as "a white dinner table."
Real Sound: So it's describing a reality... The "Barbara Allen" that gets mentioned is a folk song in Scotland.
Yonezu: Right. It's actually one I only learned about after leaving Tokushima, but I like Judy Collins's Barbara Allen a whole lot. There's also Auld Lang Syne - I feel a real sense of nostalgia from Scottish folk songs. While I think back on my hometown and go "it sure was a worthless place," on the other hand, memories get wrapped up in deception as you age. The painful events get whittled away. You figure, it was a crappy place, but I guess it wasn't all bad, because I played with my friends and had some happy times. Those are the only parts you extract and dream about, and you wonder what your friends from back then are up to. That kind of nostalgia was an important theme.
Real Sound: I see. Yes, each and every line is pointed, and brings to mind the reality of being a young boy, yet there's a feeling of facing up to it and looking upon it with love.
Yonezu: It's a mixture of love and hate, I guess. You have to acknowledge how you came from there, and I feel like I want it to have that sort of position in my life.
Real Sound: You did say earlier how when you posted music online using Vocaloid, it was made for elementary- and middle-schoolers, yet simply singing it yourself caused it to be taken differently. I think you've made songs that pierce the hearts of children and adults alike, but when you decide whether you want to "sing to someone," do you tend to come back to the thought of "I want to give special care to children"?
Yonezu: That's also kind of a mixture. I think there are many different selves inside me. There's a part of me that's fond of children's sensibilities, but also a contrasting part of me who wants to make music for adults. There are times I think "I don't need to make stuff for 10-year-olds anymore," and things can change completely depending on my daily biorhythm. I don't try to hide that or anything, and the fact I'm going this way and that according to how I feel my can manifest in my music. Since Bremen, there have been times I looked back at what I've been doing and think "wow, this is super inconsistent," and from an objective standpoint, it's perfectly reasonable to say so. So then I wonder just what I am, and when I do that, what I tend to figure is that I want to make universal things. Wanting to love someone, wanting to always stay with a friend... anyone can picture these things, regardless of who they are. I have a strong desire to focus on things like that.
Real Sound: I see. That's the thing you can stand your ground on.
Yonezu: As long as I'm able to remember that core aspect, the other parts sort of don't matter. It can be rock, it can be electronic, there are all kinds of styles. But as long as I feel like it satisfies my idea of universal, any form will do. And if there's a universality for young boys, directed at young boys, then it would probably be that which results in Peace Sign.
Real Sound: When did it become clear to you that you wanted to try to make universal things?
Yonezu: I became clearly aware of it after my major debut, after making the song Santa Maria. Just looking back, I'm sure I always wanted to make that kind of music, I simply wasn't conscious of it. Like, I figure that it's my fundamental disposition.
Real Sound: I feel like there aren't many people nowadays who clearly say "I want to make universal music." In fact, the cultural consensus seems to be "We all have our own realities, so how about to each their own?" It feels reassuring to have you definitively talking about "universal things" amid that.
Yonezu: There's the phrase "true to your beliefs." Believing in the things within you and expressing them, regardless of the world around you... I think that's a beautiful thing in its own way. Although the world is always changing, and even if you look at the internet, that just feels like a jumbo jet soaring by over my head. At times I do wonder if it's rather passive to not have a good answer to that and just stick with "Who cares about the way society's going, this is what I believe in!"
Real Sound: In fact, aiming for the universal may cause more friction, and pose more obstacles you need to overcome. Also, I'd like to ask about the third track, Dreameater Girl. Could this be called a "remake"?
Yonezu: Yes. Up until now, I didn't want to do a remake of a song from my Vocaloid days. Though I'd perform them at concerts, I didn't see any point in releasing them as official tracks. I mean, I made those songs to be sung by Vocaloids, so I couldn't find any meaning to singing them with my own voice. But I gradually came to think "I guess it's fine if I do." The things I did with Vocaloid have become "past events" to me, in a good way.
In fact, before it came out that I was going to remake this song, I uploaded a picture to Twitter as a bit of a teaser. It was a photo of the lyrics for the chorus, and a lot of people replied "is this a new song?" There had gotten to be lots of people who didn't even know this song existed, which made me happy. In that case, yeah, it's fine to do this. Maybe it's my contrary personality, but I wouldn't want to do it if people sought it.
Real Sound: And once you went ahead and did it, it turned out excellent. Why did you pick this song out of all the ones you did?
Yonezu: I don't really know why myself, but I thought this should be the first one to remake if I did that. Ever since I made it using Vocaloid, I was thinking that it wouldn't be unusual for me to sing it, and when the song first came to me, it was fairly spontaneous.
Real Sound: I suppose it felt right to have these three songs together. Perhaps there's something universal about the song.
Yonezu: Maybe so.
Real Sound: At any rate, you've reached a point where you can look back on your Hachi-era songs in such a way.
Yonezu: It wasn't necessarily anything negative, I just thought "Vocaloid songs are fine as Vocaloid songs." They were finished up in their own beautiful way, so I felt no need to do anything to them with my voice. But I think it may have been inevitable that now, after enough time, I was able to find a necessity.
Real Sound: Well then, the word "universal" has been a recurring word in this interview. Is that the kind of mode you'll keep making music in through 2017?
Yonezu: Hmm. I'm not sure what I'll do next, or what things might happen to me, but I can at least say that I have zero intention of changing that method of creation, and that I'm thinking how I want to make songs that can embody the times.