London-based four-piece band, Bo Ningen is a welcome anomaly when it comes to defining musical categories. Japanese noisecore, sonically layered wall-of-sound drones, coruscating metal guitar solos, psychedelic flourishes and early Prog Rock all wrapped up in elements of experimentalist Butoh theatre. And that's just their live performance. In the midst of their current world tour, Tank invited the band in for a cup of Bencha tea to discuss singing in your mother tongue, the delicate politics of festival programming, cosmic enlightenment activism and their incredibly long hair.
Paul Davies Can you tell us how the band first came together. Were you in Japan first, then moved over here?Bo Ningen Actually, we are all from different part of Japan. Then we were studying in London and all met in 2007.
BN First of all, me [Taigen Kawabe, vocals/ bass] and Kohhei Matsuda [guitar] met at a Japanese music night. We were in different bands then kind of we joined up because we have one friend in common. We were introduced to each other and would talk about music. For both of us, that was the first time we'd each found another Japanese guy who can talk about music you're in to. Something like extreme noise.
PD Pushing it as far as possible… You definitely get that impression… there's no mistaking that when you are live. This is not a polite act, the sort of thing you would take your parents to. [general laughter]
BN Yeah, so it's at that point we started to talk about things we really wanted to do… a project together. Then we start and Yuki [Tsujii, guitar] joined. We met Mon Chang [drummer], and he joined. Then there were four of us. All quite naturally… it all happened in 3 months. We weren't really looking for band members - it just happened, really.
PD Was there a focus to keep it as a Japanese band, a specific aim?
BN Not really…. it was quite natural, really. All the members we met happened to be Japanese. That was it. And, some of us had long hair…
PD OK, so wasn't like it was a style statement. Or a condition of joining a band, to have your hair a certain length…
BN Not as long as this but longer than normal…
BN We hadn't talked about this, like, "we should grow our hair together." It wasn't like that.
PD You have this recognisable look on stage. Most of you are dressed in head-to-toe black. Everyone has long black hair. And then Yuki wears these floral pants with giant flares. And Yuki is wearing a floral shirt today. Yuki, is it a point of difference that you won't wear black whereas the others do?
NB We don't really talk about that kind of stuff. It's more automatic. They dress like that; I'm like this.
PD I can see a lot of journalists have used certain reference points to try and anchor you but it's so far removed from all those.
BN That's our aim.
BN That uniqueness… We always wanted to do something completely different from everyone else.
BN We can say the same thing for our performances as well. Cos we don't wanna copy from what we like or want to be. If you compose, perform, or play - if you're influenced too much by what you like, it's gonna be kind of fake, not true of yourself. So that's why we focus on live performance as well. But like to make music by jamming as well…it's the same thing to me [Taigen]. Just not pretending to be someone I wanna be, but be myself more. Focus on that point, and then make it more extreme.
PD The performance really is the ultimate expression of what you're about. How have the responses been. Have you had a situation where the crowd has been so shocked they didn't know how to react?
BN Especially when we're rolling around on the floor…
BN At the venues we haven't been to before.
BN Even in some parts of Japan or Europe we get that kind of reaction. They don't move. I hope they are shocked.
PD Is it an initial reaction before they begin to understand
BN I remember one particular night we were playing Paris the first time. Everyone remained seated, no one standing for the first 15 minutes. I turned my head up to see what was happening. And all the people move forward…
BN The security guys were making them sit back down.
PD And when promoters book you, what type of bands are they putting you next to. Are they representing you fairly?
BN Recently we've shared with good bands. It was a bit difficult before… we are hard to categorise in any one genre, I guess. Two or three years ago, we'd be with really random bands.
PD Like an electronica duo.
BN Or a folk guy with acoustic guitar.
BN If there's a strong theme for the festival, then it's OK. We did this festival, again in France. It was pretty ravey. But the stage we played was the only one with bands. Tortoise, from the States, played before us. And also the drummer from Can, Jaki Liebezeit. So, like, two legendary artists. Which made us nervous. Otherwise, it gets odd - and in a bad way.
PD I saw you at a Yohji Yamamoto night at the V&A museum with friends, we were mesmerised. Towards the end of the set, when it really got seriously loud, Taigen was giving off this energy forcefield, gesturing mysteriously towards Mon Chang whilst he was drumming. What was going on there?
BN There were some technical problems, the power wasn't stable, the mike didn't work so I was just shouting out. We like to connect to each space and that hall has a lot of echo. Acoustics were quite weird in there.
BN We just decided to improvise… do our own thing, really. And play louder to avoid the problem.
PD You have said, "being psychedelic means to stand quietly loudly in the middle of interzone to stare at both sides at once." There is this English expression, "in the eye of the storm" when there's a hurricane or a whirlwind. You can be in the centre of it and it's almost like there's nothing happening…
BN [vigorous nodding in approval]
PD And you described yourselves as, "we are cosmic lullaby enchant from the Far East enlightenment activists." Is this something that's constantly evolving as an idea?
BN [Group discussion in Japanese, then] At the time, back in 2007, 2008, we were still quite unknown, so we wanted to play a lot but only get a chance to playing just once a month. But having us play the music in front of the people its kinda like exactly the same as enlightenment activists do. Trying to tell people about what we're doing on stage. So that it's like playing with the mask.
PD I can see that's very useful. The song translations on the first album suggest that it's never about just one meaning, that it's quite layered. There are several different interpretations.
BN We keep our Japanese identity, of course. In look, even in sound as well. I'm singing in Japanese because it's easiest for me. If I were to sing in English, it changes the meaning of what I want to say. And I do like to change the lyrics quite often. I like to improvise a lot, so if I translate, I have to translate anyway from what I'm thinking to my mouth. Sometimes, even what I'm singing is not Japanese. I haven't even translated it yet. Then no one can translate it into Japanese words. Before I tried to translate it in to English from Japanese, which makes it difficult to improvise. Also, I do like the Japanese as a sound and way of singing.
PD What about collaborations. Do you swap mixes with other bands, or producers?
BN Yeah, for a Japanese version of our first album, released in April this year. It comes with a second disc, this has five remixes, including my own [Taigen]. There is [veteran] Japanese wall-of-noise artist, Merzbow - he did remix for us. One other UK producer, Dead Vader - a noise-step duo from Brighton. And two other Japanese guys, Arai Shu and Ena. It's all from different scenes. Like really underground goth-noise to dubstep. Then I do something like experimental ambient. And another does garage-electronic. Variation…
PD You're covering a lot of bases…
BN Yes, we like to have friends… mutual friends. Makes it diverse.
BN We like to crossover into different scenes.
PD The logo for the band. Is there a particular meaning with that? It looks like it originated as an anarchist emblem and then evolved into something else. Was it you designing it, Kohei?
BN I was studying illustration in Camberwell. Just wanted to make something special…
PD I like the idea of a crystal. A living element that can grow or it can disintegrate.
PD Let's finish up. Which year did you play Glastonbury?
BN That was last year.
PD A good year to be there.
BN Yes, it wasn't muddy. But it took us five hours to get all the wristband and security passes. It's just massive…
PD You formed in 2007 and within three years you were playing the Glastonbury festival. Pretty good…
The band releases a double A-sided single on 7" vinyl from Stolen Recordings in November.