Kenshi Yonezu on the Relation Between Music's "Mold" and Freedom: "I'm an Imitation, and I Think That's Beautiful"
Kenshi Yonezu will release his album BOOTLEG on November 1st. He describes it as "born out of a variety of connections," and indeed, it's made of many partnerships and collaborations, as well as new songs written for the album.
With an understanding of trendy pop music overseas, BOOTLEG is lyrical and beautiful J-pop - how did it come to be? In this interview, we were able to hear him share some deeply interesting things: about the changes in his creation process up to the album's completion, why he brought in guest artists like Elaiza Ikeda and Masaki Suda, and the mindset he has about music's "mold."
- The Pop Scene Unfolding Outside Japan is Fun to Watch
Real Sound: I feel this album, BOOTLEG, is a masterpiece that's in no way a step down from your previous, Bremen. The title gives a casual impression, which could be interpreted as a declaration that it's not a concept album like before.
Yonezu: At first, I was thinking of calling it "Dune." After making Sand Planet (+ Hatsune Miku) and a number of other songs, I went back and listened to them, and they all had desert themes. So I thought "If I put all of these on, maybe it'll end up being a desert album."
However, as I kept going with making songs, I found myself with a group of songs that paid various homages, and songs born out of connections. Like Number Nine was the official theme for "Louvre No. 9 ~Manga, the Ninth Art~", orion was an ending theme for the anime of March Comes In Like A Lion. Peace Sign was the opening theme for the My Hero Academia anime, Sand Planet was the theme song for Hatsune Miku Magical Mirai 2017. And after those, I did a self-cover of Fireworks (theme song of the film Do You View Fireworks From Below, Or From the Side?).
It's hard to put in words, but ironically, my self is made from a mish-mash of many other things, and when I was thinking of what words could clearly express that "even so, I can create something this beautiful," the word "BOOTLEG" came to mind.
Real Sound: That's true, the words "desert" and "sand" also show up in Monster's March and Number Nine. Having that as one motif while also having beautiful things like light and rainbows was a nice contrast.
Yonezu: I just really like deserts. They're wide open, with no people, nothing but sand - they're extremely simple spaces, and it feels good to look at them. Though sometimes I wonder if I long for that because I live in a cramped place crowded with people, bothered by the sounds of people living nearby.
Real Sound: So you also have a positive impression of the desert motif?
Yonezu: Yes, I guess it's like... the feeling of there being no salvation. For instance, Number Nine came from the title of "what if in the distant future, Tokyo became a desert?" That's not a negative scene in my mind, but more of a comfortable, refreshing sight. And while my own self would be gone without a trace, the influence of my genes growing steadily smaller, even in this desert Tokyo, I'd want something of myself to survive, however small. That's a sort of salvation for me. Especially while making this album, it really felt like it was deserts, deserts, deserts... I'm super into them right now. (laughs)
Real Sound: There's also Sand Planet (+ Hatsune Miku), which carries a message and has sent out strong ripples - but the "sand" and "desert" in this song aren't necessarily negative, and also paint a refreshing image.
Yonezu: It's true that I feel freshness and a certain abundance from deserts, but for this song, I kind of don't want to make those excuses. Because there's no doubt I thought of NicoNico Douga's Vocaloid scene, or else NicoNico itself, as a desert in a negative sense.
Real Sound: You started on NicoNico, and have operated on many platforms since. How has the relationship between platforms and expression changed for you?
Yonezu: It may be changing quite a bit as we speak, but there's a "mold" for the music made on NicoNico Douga. For example, I think fast-paced, 200 BPM Vocaloid rock like what was made by wowaka (Hitorie) is a wonderful thing to come out of NicoNico Douga. However, I think that's something that comes from the platform itself having power, and can't arise without that power. Without such chaotic overflowing power, beautiful things can't come to the surface.
I think it's a bit like Princess Mononoke. There was a forest where the gods lived, it was cultivated, the gods were driven out, and the chaotic forest turned into a burnt field. Ashitaka and San's earnest actions at the end cause new life to bud, and the movie ends showing a Kodama standing there... It's kind of like that. And the forest that buds at the end isn't the forest where the gods live. The former chaotic beauty no longer exists in the regular healthy forest. It's healthy, but not interesting. Sure, if you ask "It's healthy, so isn't that fine?", I'd have to say yes, but I guess I just want it to be interesting. If it's not, and this is what I really think, incredibly beautiful things will never be born there. I personally want NicoNico Douga to be a zone where you can feel like you're getting picked up in that environment.
Real Sound: I see. Over the whole album, I got the impression that "desert" imagery resulted in a modern US hip-hop and R&B sound, and "light" imagery is present in the melody and lyrics. First of all, what did you set out to make sound-wise?
Yonezu: The concept for the sound differed for every song, but the root of that is that I want to do something different for each album. I think I've succeeded at that once more. It's fun to watch the pop scene unfolding outside Japan. However, not many people around me had their eyes on those places. I think the "Galápagos syndrome," often used to describe Japan, has a decent beauty of its own, but I do feel like "but there are more interesting things..."
Still, I was born and raised in Japan, and want to make J-pop as a Japanese person, so I thought about doing something for the people around me. That push-and-pull has always been a constant in my work. I make myself think about how to arrive at a median point, borrowing from what's happening across the ocean while balancing it with the nostalgia I have from growing up Japanese.
Real Sound: I think that methodology was a great success in LOSER and orion, for instance. You keep coming up with new songs; is keeping the balance of the two axes becoming natural?
Yonezu: When making this album, I did have moments where I thought "it's missing something." When I was making Sand Planet, I constructed and destroyed sounds at my computer, over and over, and was soon in a state of not knowing what I should do. Still I tried again and again, and still felt something missing. I don't think I've found a particular answer to finding the median between what's going on overseas and what's going on in Japan, but I did feel like I'd finally found an approach to creating that suited me. Save for Monster's March, most of the new album songs came about after that moment.
Real Sound: I'd like to ask about a specific song. Track 1, Flying Swallow, is very fantastical and impactful. About when did you make it?
Yonezu: Around the middle of the album's creation, maybe. It's acoustic, but also a little exotic, like you don't know what country it's supposed to be from. To me, it's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It's another "desert" thing, but, uh... (laughs) I've always loved that manga. I grew up looking up to Nausicaä, and I actually made this while watching the movie. It's basically an homage to Nausicaä.
Real Sound: Are there parts of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind's dystopic world that overlap with your view of the real world?
Yonezu: I think about that sometimes. I don't know if it's right to call it a "dystopia," but I definitely think sometimes that things are degrading, like "is anything going to get better?" I think you might be right to call me a pessimist. But really, I think NicoNico Douga might be that way, maybe I could say it about Japan, even a bunch of my friends I want to say "How are you gonna live your lives?" to. There's a lot that I can see a decline in.
Real Sound: And despite that, this song has imagery of flapping wings and taking flight.
Yonezu: That's right. It's no use to anyone to just be like "it's all over." If you're living, you have to live facing forward. It's harder, but I don't want to just go the easy way.
Real Sound: Especially lately, have you insisted on taking the hard way?
Yonezu: The hard way is more interesting. To put it the other way, doing what's easy is boring. If I'm making something, I'd prefer it to be beautiful and something with meaning.
- I Hate This "Cult of Originality"
Real Sound: The album starts with Flying Swallow and LOSER, then exciting songs from singles like Peace Sign, then Monster's March and Moonlight, then some melancholic but beautiful new songs. This part of the tracklist is an important one for setting the album's mood.
Yonezu: I made Moonlight last. I planned on 13 songs at first, but thought "I need one more" in the last week or so. Which is exactly the same as with Bremen; I thought I needed a final song to clearly represent the album, so I made Blue Jasmine. Making Moonlight, too, felt like putting the eye on the daruma to finish it up.
Real Sound: Moonlight's lyric "Nothing is the real deal, but it's comfortable" resonates with the title of BOOTLEG. Its post-Frank-Ocean R&B sound is also very striking.
Yonezu: The sound is basically all made of sampled tracks. I hate this sort of "cult of originality," with people who say they'll only accept things that no one has ever seen or heard before. If you pursue things that no one's seen or heard in the truest sense, you'll just end up with like, static music. That's beautiful in its own right, and I could even like it, but that's just not what I want to do.
Music is all about format, right? It's undeniably constructed in a "mold," and you see how freely you can swim within it. The music I essentially want to make is universal. Universal things are things that flow through the roots of many people, communities, countries, and regions; I think it can be considered akin to "nostalgia." In short, I believe they're things you've heard somewhere before, seen somewhere before. How much can I make these things resound with my current self? I think that's my own form of originality, and I think people's faith in extreme originality is highly questionable. As I made these songs, I thought a lot about how to show respect to the source and how to make an homage on top of that.
Real Sound: Music does have a format, and without a proper understanding of it, you can't arrive at new things. In that sense, you've studied and analyzed a variety of music.
Yonezu: It's just an obvious fact to me. But there are people who will look at other musicians, but not give any thought to analysis and study of them. They trust in living just the way they are... trust in their own good senses. I think talking like that is pretty miserable. Just sticking to the way things already are isn't going to be interesting. Even the parts of yourself you think are "the way you are," or "the real me," were influenced by others if you just trace it back. Looking at it that way, I think "original" and "the genuine article" don't actually exist, and my own self is an imitation. And I carry on thinking that's the most beautiful thing.
I think I've learned this from analyzing and studying beautiful things. To not really understand and just put out nice-sounding words like "just the way I am" and "my raw self" shows you aren't thinking about where you came form. I think, "man, that's boring." "What "raw self"?"
Real Sound: Both with what you're saying here, and your statement on NicoNico Douga expressed by Sand Planet, you don't put any limits on your words. I feel you're prepared to express a strong message.
Yonezu: I think I've always been that kind of person, saying unnecessary things on Twitter and setting things ablaze. It's easier to just stay silent, and I'm the sort who people would call mysterious, someone who you can't tell what they're thinking, so sometimes I do think I should just stay put there. However... Maybe if I had been doing music in Japan ten years ago, I wouldn't have imagined this, but I wonder if it's really fine to just put what's happening around you into music, and let everyone interpret it the way they like. Maybe it's important to say some more words about it.
Of course, explaining everything I'm trying to express in my lyrics in plain words would be putting the cart before the horse; that's what the realm of music is about. But as long as it narrowly avoids interfering with the music, I think it might be fine to explain in words what it is I want to express. Though there are times it's better to have nothing at all, and I need to use careful judgement when I do it.
Real Sound: I get the impression your words are coming to the front through the album. Track 11, 爱丽丝 (Alice), is accented by an Eastern feeling and a band-like sound. You made it with King Gnu's Daiki Tsuneta; do you feel stimulated by communicating with contemporary musicians?
Yonezu: I do. He's a drinking buddy I met via a friend, and I think he's really talented and stylish, and has things that I don't have. So I think by working together, we can supply each other with the things we lack. It really did end up being a good song. This song came about around the same time as Sand Planet, so I think there's a mood that they share. I met Tsuneta-kun around the end of last year, so it's still been less than a year we've known each other, but it was fun, and I'd like to do it again sometime.
Real Sound: The last song, Gray and Blue (+ Masaki Suda), was very striking. What thoughts went into this song?
Yonezu: I love Takeshi Kitano's movies, and always had the idea to make a song like Kids Return. And for instance, when I'm talking or playing with a friend, there are moments where I think "we just connected 120% there." Like if we're thinking the exact same thing, or say the exact same words. Besides just friends, I could be walking outside, and the person in front of me is walking at the same tempo as the song I'm listening to on my earphones. Personally, those moments make me really happy - miraculous moments where I can feel like we have a real mutual understanding, moments that make me think I was born for this very day. I've always wondered if I could express the beauty of those moments in music. It only lasts a moment, and come the next, you're totally different people again, but those moments strongly tie you together.
My thoughts about how to express that sort of thing led me to the approach of "two people singing together." Maybe this came into my head as a result of Fireworks, but when singing with another, you can express a difference in perspective or a misalignment. And when thinking of who to sing with, Masaki Suda-kun was the only only one who came to mind. I don't know why, myself. He's an actor, I'm a musician, and I believe we've lived our lives in totally different environments. However, I personally thought that we had some things in common, and saw the same things at times. So I met with him, talked with him, asked him, and he did it. It's different from doing it with another musician. Walking different paths, but perhaps being connected in places, was the perfect level of distance for this. With the three elements of Kids Return, the beauty of moments, and Suda-kun, this song came together with some truly miraculous timing.
Real Sound: How was it recording with him?
Yonezu: He really has a super good voice. It's very rich, with a real presence. His voice has a power and expressiveness that I lack. It was ideal for this song, a 120% fit. I don't think I could've done it without him. Also, I don't think it could've possibly come about at any other time. Though he's a busy guy too, so I worry that I bothered him.
Real Sound: All told, I think it's a wonderful album. What would you like to tell listeners, as Yonezu?
Yonezu: I'd like you to listen without thinking about much in particular. I went about it wanting to make pop, so if you just listen to it and feel good, that's fine by me. At times you might think "I don't know what this song's saying," but if even that has kind of a good feel to it, that's perfect. Because I made it so you'll be alright without having to overthink it.