Kenshi Yonezu's Past, Present, and Future of Music Expression; "I'm Like a Miscellaneous Collection of Scrap"
Kenshi Yonezu has released his double A-side single "LOSER / Number Nine" on September 28th. Following the last release in October 2015, his 3rd album Bremen, it could be called a pivotal album and indicative of new developments for Kenshi Yonezu. The title songs are LOSER, an upbeat song with hip-hoppy elements, and Number Nine, the official theme song for the special exhibit "Louvre No. 9 ~Manga, the Ninth Art~" with an aural approach that brings to mind electro. Furthermore, the third song "amen," written with a holy sound and theme of "prayer," has stimulating lyrics that give a sense of "digging deep into the author." Real Sound has conducted an interview in search of Kenshi Yonezu's current location as a creator.
Real Sound: LOSER and Number Nine have contrasting tones, but both can be called innovations for you. What process did you go through to create them?
Yonezu: Around winter last year, I was asked to do a song for the exhibition "Louvre No. 9 ~Manga, the Ninth Art~", so first I made Number Nine for that. Then I thought I would go for an entirely different innovation from that song, which resulted in LOSER.
Real Sound: Number Nine has the multi-instrumentalist mabanua involved, so it has a sort of floating electro feel. Did you build the concept within yourself based on the exhibition?
Yonezu: That's right. The exhibition was a collection of famous people from "bande dessinée," a comics culture centered in France, so they requested I more or less do whatever I pleased. I've really liked bande dessinée since my teens, so the first image that came to mind was "desert." There's a master of bande dessinée named Mœbius, and he often used deserts as a motif. So while I don't think there's a general impression of "bande dessinée = deserts," they're strongly linked in my mind. From there I just expanded that image, more or less.
Real Sound: Do you remember your first encounter with bande dessinée in your teens?
Yonezu: I believe it was started off by Ghibli's "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind." Because Nausicaä was created with tons of influence from Mœbius.
Real Sound: What impression do you have of deserts, which became a motif for Number Nine?
Yonezu: They're simple places. Because they're so simple, they make lots of other things stand out. It's not an environment people can easily live in, so there's also an impression of cruelty.
Real Sound: You depict a kind of imaginary world, yet it's set in Tokyo.
Yonezu: I don't know if it would really happen or what, but I theorized "would Tokyo someday become like a desert?", and imagined how people living and clinging on to that desert would think. Like, what would become of art in a totally changed world. I mean, there are people who were drawing pictures many centuries ago, and that's exactly what places like the Louvre preserve, so art is being passed on in an unbroken succession. The newest field of it, only recently recognized by the Louvre as the ninth art, is "manga." As a result of that unbroken succession, don't we get to live enjoying what's at the forefront of it all? So perhaps later on, in the same way, the music and art I made, for instance, will be passed on, and people will still be making new things. So even if Tokyo becomes a desert, I think that some fragments will still remain for the people living in that barren landscape. The Tokyo Tower (mentioned in the lyrics) would be one, too. Buildings are also made with various ideas and purposes. I gave some thought to the people who would recognize that fact.
Real Sound: Creating things passed on from the past to the present, and projected further into the future. Do you feel like you're also passing things down yourself?
Yonezu: Of course I do. I think of myself like a miscellaneous collection of scrap. I mean, surely I've learned a lot of things by imitating my parents' every action from birth. You chew pieces from your mother and father, make them into your own, and live, so strictly speaking, no solid "self" exists. I think your self is what you make by taking various essences from various people and making them into a collage.
Real Sound: Well, about the style of expression that came from that. In your Bremen interview, you discussed how you were initially engrossed with "things I think are beautiful," and in later works, you focused on "universal things everyone can enjoy." Was there a mode shift in this album as well?
Yonezu: I wonder if the shift from "what I think is beautiful" to "universal things" was a kind of recoil. And now, the feeling of "I just want to go far" has been strong. If I'm here, then I want to go afar to somewhere that isn't here, wherever that may be. And I think that does in fact connect to making universal things.
It's difficult to find the right words, but I want to make productive things. I want them to be positive things for those who listen to them, if only the slightest bit. I don't want them to make listeners feel gloomy or want to die, but instead serve as food for living.
Real Sound: Speaking of which, LOSER, which also had Koichi Tsutaya's involvement, differs from prior elaborately-constructed compositions by having a good kind of roughness, or a sense of band-like desperation.
Yonezu: Self-hatred, or hating people like you... That's the place this song was born from. Wanting to go far away from where you are now means there's a prerequisite of "I hate this place because of the person I am." So I made it with a sense of me striking myself on the butt.
Real Sound: The names of famous "rebels" in the history of rock, "Ian" and "Curt," also appear in the lyrics. While listening, I wondered if there was a message of "I can't help if I sympathize with them and do the same thing."
Yonezu: If I had to say, I'm more that kind of person as well, so I sympathize with those two in a bunch of ways. But lately I've thought it's lame to do the same thing as them. I do think it is a kind of rebellion still, but to be healthier and more productive - for instance, eating three meals a day, exercising when possible, getting to bed at 11 at the latest... maybe that's the cooler way to live? It's more interesting in practice, I think. There are various reasons, like to invert self-hatred, but I really feel like going in that direction right now.
Real Sound: The phrase "If you want to be loved, go ahead and say so" left a real impression. I think this might also be a line the old Yonezu wouldn't say.
Yonezu: My essential nature is that of a usually-sullen person, so I often get mad at things, and think "this is messed up, right?" a bunch. But getting impulsively angry, and trying to sink things with that anger, is kind of a wretched method. I think I want to settle things in a more clever way than that. Relentless shouting won't change anything, so I want to express myself as cheerfully as I can, I think.
Real Sound: In terms of sound, rather than a continuation of your music style on display in Bremen - your "finishing move" of strong singing and melody, dramaticness, and well-worked arrangement - I instead felt a passion to try something new.
Yonezu: Lately I've liked easy-to-understand hip-hop and listen to a lot of it, and I wondered about what trying it for myself would be like. That said, I wasn't intending to do all-out hip-hop; I thought of it as strictly Japanese rock-and-roll with an added nuance of hip-hop.
Real Sound: Hip-hop spans a long range, new and old. About where would you place it?
Yonezu: I like old things and I like new things, but Kanye West is number one. I think he has an incredible sense for balance. While doing outrageous things, he ultimately brings it all together, like someone who can win a neck-and-neck chicken race. I greatly respect that, and thought it'd be nice to make that kind of thing myself.
Real Sound: So it's not just the music style, you also sympathize with Kanye's methods of expression. I think you're very skilled and familiar with hip-hop rhythm and putting lyrics to it, but how do you feel personally?
Yonezu: I feel like I may have had an affinity for hip-hop for a while, actually. It wasn't in the form of hip-hop, but as far as emphasizing the choice of words sounding good and twisting them to the music, I've been doing that since quite a while ago - "Go Go Ghost Ship" was absolutely that kind of song. I definitely gave a lot of thought to how to place the lyrics, so surprisingly enough, I guess I have been doing this all along. However, if I don't do a really good job placing the lyrics, I think I won't get across what I'm trying to. And listening to other music, I sometimes think "this sound doesn't know what to do with itself" or "surely you can stretch that out to fill things up," so when I make my own, I won't be satisfied if I don't match the words to the right sounds exactly.
Real Sound: Do you ever replace words to match the sound?
Yonezu: I often change things at the last second, yes.
Real Sound: I see. In LOSER, I can perceive the pleasant sound I've heard for a while now and those new developments, but the very construction of Number Nine is something so far unseen.
Yonezu: mabanua came in as a producer, and basically asked if I could take an electro-like approach like what's popular in America now, which started it off. It's fine to make it alone, but it's more fun to do with others, and I feel like it probably improves the quality - so I went looking around, and mabanua was the person I felt properly understood me. I made my decision by listening to music he'd helped produce, like Chara's, and we really did get each other quickly - it was very much the right choice. I said "I want to make something like this" and he immediately understood.
Real Sound: Has your interest in electro deepened in the past few years?
Yonezu: It has. Lately I've been listening to almost nothing but, so that's the most fun for me right now. Who knows what'll happen later, though.
Real Sound: The coupling song "amen" is wonderful. The sound assembled like a collage combined with the world portrayed by the lyrics gave me the impression that it was a direct conversion of your mental image. When exactly did you make this song?
Yonezu: I made it last after deciding to make this a double A-side. Typically, when I listen to other people's songs on YouTube or such, almost like a game, I think "What kind of melody and words would I use?" While doing that, the melody and words of "Please, mom, dad, the reason I was born into this world" came to me simultaneously. I'd never had such a long sentence come up before, so I attempted to expand it into this song. Kind of like "this is what I made when I didn't think about it."
I feel like it ended up being the darkest of the songs I've made, but basically, when I thought "what exactly is prayer, anyway?", I concluded it's "the last thing left after you exhaust various options for dealing with a problem." Such "things that there's nothing to be done about" are fairly universal, and I think everyone has them. You can't help the environment you were born and raised in, and there are probably parts of it that formed your personality. There's no point in lamenting that stuff now, and knowing that, what can you do but live positively? I guess because I have a lot of opportunities to look at such things when making music, occasionally, sort of like a pimple, a song like this comes out.
Real Sound: Probably because of the "prayer" theme, it has a very holy mood, and ultimately doesn't fall in a dark direction.
Yonezu: That's true. I didn't necessarily mean to make it that way, but I'll be glad if there are a fair number of people who feel "saved" by listening to it or sympathize.
Real Sound: Through all three songs, I sense a heightened desire to create. Is that true?
Yonezu: Right now, they're putting together a book for "Monster Encyclopedia," a serialization I do for a music magazine (Rockin'On Japan) where I draw fictional monsters and explain their way of life. I'm making a theme song of sorts for that right now, and it's really fun. So my "creation" is more in art mode than music mode right now.
Monster Encyclopedia was a personal thing for me, so after finishing Bremen, I thought "It's not at that stage anymore" and stopped. But it's getting fun again lately. Maybe there's been a change in my mindset.
Real Sound: While intending to make universal things, your thoughts turn to things you like, and you make songs without thinking about it - maybe some of your origins are appearing in your recent works. On the other hand, the LOSER video where you danced was very impactful and new.
Yonezu: Those were hellish days. (laughs) I practiced dancing for about a month, but someone who hasn't exercised at all since being in a middle-school tennis club can't just suddenly dance now... It was severe. Tomohiko Tsujimoto, the first Japanese dancer for Cirque du Soleil, who did choreography for Tao Tsuchiya in the Japanese video for Sia's "Alive" - he was my teacher, and taught me various things.
Real Sound: I found your smooth movements quite beautiful and cool.
Yonezu: I gave it a bunch of thought, but after talking with the director, I got the sense of "you're an artist, so dance how you want to dance," and ultimately I just sort of moved how I felt like moving.
Real Sound: The dancing matches the flippant nature of the song. This video included, there's a lot that's new here. You had a lot of appearances in this year's summer festival. What did you think of it, looking back?
Yonezu: I've had a lot of collaborations this year, so I think it's shaping up to be a fulfilling one. But there was a major incident at the summer festival - at the final "Sweet Love Shower," my voice wouldn't work at all. I've always been bad with concerts, and the frustration of "I want to do this, but can't" built up, so for something like this to happen at the end, I feel like someone's telling me "you need to change already." My task for the last part of the year will be to re-evaluate my body and mode as I make music.
Real Sound: And what kind of music do you want to bring to listeners next?
Yonezu: I'm keeping a consistent idea of "I want to go afar," so I may be swinging those who enjoy my music around. Well, all I can say is "please follow me." I think a lot about "what should I do to be liked by people?", but as a maker of music, I can't just be doing that. First, I want to make what I like, and I'm sure that'll depend on myself at the time, but maybe it'll be for the good of those who listen as well.