Great thanks to Moshi Moshi Nippon for letting us upload their interview here. Moshi Moshi Nippon is a multilingual project, which aim is to popularise Japanese culture: music, fashion, anime, food, etc.
ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION’s (AKFG/Ajikan) upcoming ninth studio album Home Town is their first in three-and-a-half years, and it’s truly a fantastic record. It’s interwoven elements of 90’s power pop and alternative rock―genres which the members have come to be influenced by―while still being firmly in tune with today’s trends. The masterpiece mobilises a musical battalion of distinguished names such as Rivers Cuomo of the American rock band Weezer and yet still is in every way a quintessentially AKFG record. The key to understanding this can be found in the changes to their music production environment. We spoke to the four members about the backstory of creating Home Town which they described as having been “so much fun” and about their connection to the rest of the world as having travelled around the world.
Interview & Text: Ato “DA” Daishi
Translation: Joshua Kitosi-Isanga
――You are soon to release ‘Home Town,’ your first studio album in three-and-a-half years. How has it been since then in producing this record?
Goto: Though it’s been three-and-a-half years, we’ve been up to all sorts of things.
Kita: We had our 20th-anniversary concert.
Goto: But if I were to describe the nature of the band in a word right now… Say, when we do a tribute [performance], people really notice, “Hey, so this is the kind of sound Ajikan has.” I feel it’s been a time for us to reflect once again on what we’re good at.
――I see. This album is different from your other records up to now. Was there something that had an influence on the production this time around?
Goto: The biggest influence came from the renovation of our studio. We began renting a basement three years prior and gradually began to update it by taking our equipment in. That’s let us manage our environment for recording and mixing over the past year and experiment with different things without any hesitations. I think being able to build a base where we can focus on our sound has been huge for us.
――Having no time or budget restrictions means you have more time to do as you please.
Goto: That’s right. Especially when recording guitar, it feels pretty good doing it now. We all get excited together testing out different effects, we can hook up to the amps right away, I can set up the mics myself. It’s had a big influence on vocals and guitar in particular.
――Even having been 20 years since you got together, changing your work environment has shown there’s still plenty of new things to be discovered.
Goto: The atmosphere can change depending on which studio we use. If it’s a good studio we’re in high spirits. A change of environment is the biggest influence no matter what you’re doing.
――How do you feel about the changes with this album, Kita?
Kita: Gocchi [Goto] had been doing his solo work and Kiyoshi [Ijichi] was part of his other band PHONO TONES. For the past four years, I’ve wondered what we as a band can do. In the end, I felt that what we’d been doing was the limit. We carried on feeling half-defiant about it, but making this album was fun because we felt relaxed. I believe we’ve been able to make pop, a genre we’ve always liked.
――The whole album calls to mind 90’s alternative rock. Is that a correct assumption?
Kita: Gocchi brought up those keywords during the songwriting and arrangement process, so half of the time we went back and listened back to that kind of music as a reference. It was fun. Truly.
――Why do you think those keywords came out?
Goto: I’ve always really liked that 90’s sound, especially guitars from that time. They were experimental back then, it was an interesting period. We had that kind of spirit in our early days too. So we thought if we took that guitar sound and added a contemporary beat to it we could make a new kind of alternative rock. Rap music is popular worldwide right now. The bass in it is really heavy. It’s hard to produce that kind of sound in rock because we use raw instruments, but our first thought was that it could be interesting to challenge ourselves to do it and create some interesting guitar sounds. We also listened to Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., Beck, and of course Weezer. We thought it would be good if we could harness the interesting parts of music from 90’s America.
――While it feels like new AKFG, that explains the reason why there are parts that feel nostalgic and tug on your heartstrings. Another highlight of the album is just how many guest musicians are on it.
Goto: We’ve done this for 20 years now and have established ourselves to a degree in some form, so we had talked about getting involved with producers from overseas, or doing it with someone new. That’s when we thought, “It’s free to ask, so let’s try.” We spoke with a bunch of people and to our surprise, they got on board.
Goto: We live in a time of playlists so we initially thought it would be fine to write an album with variety and spread our wings in every direction, but when we worked on the song with Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), we felt that that was the kind of music we wanted to make. That lit our inner fire for the power pop and alternative rock we loved. So there are parts where what we originally wanted to do changed as we pushed forward with writing.
――So that’s how things turned out.
Goto: We had decided relatively early on that we would collaborate with Rivers Cuomo, but there was a time I did think, “I asked him lightheartedly, but we might have just gone and started something huge” (laughs). We thought to ourselves, this is bad―compared to Rivers we have a considerably low number of gloomy songs, and if I start thinking other people’s songs are better my luck in songwriting is over (laughs)―so we psyched ourselves up and starting writing.
――But it’s not just Rivers you have on board either, is it? You have Butch Walker, Grant Nicholas of Feeder and others too.
Goto: You know, Rivers actually remembered about Butch Walker after the fact. He said, “By the way, I made this song with Butch Walker so be sure to credit him,” and we were like, “That’s dangerous! What if he turns us down later? (laughs).”
――That is certainly dangerous (laughs). On the other hand, you have Horie from ‘Straightener’ with whom you are longtime friends with, Shimoryo from ‘the chef cooks me’ who are support musicians for your live shows, and lots of other young musicians. I think you have a good balance of guests.
Goto: Well, they’re all from our neck of the woods so it was fun to do it with such good musicians.
――Despite so many other musicians being involved, you’ve stuck to your principles. It’s full circle, so much so that there would be no doubts if it was said that it was just the four of you who made it.
Goto: That’s true. These past three-and-a-half years that ‘sound’ we analysed ourselves has come out. I feel that the fact of us being ‘this kind of sound’ is much more visible. I think it’s an interesting discovery. It’s not that we were aiming for that, but when the four of us get together and cheerfully enjoy ourselves making music, it’s fundamentally us. There’s no running from that anymore. In a sense, it’s a sickness. A sickness called Ajikan. This is what we’ve become.
――Haha! But, your chord progressions are very simple, and each individual sound chips off. I think there’s a lot of elements that weren’t there before.
Ijichi: We’ve lowered the number of kick drums so we can up the low rhythms and better hear each sound. By seeking the quality of each individual sound the number of sounds you have in fact decreases naturally. A lot of music overseas is like that. There are young Japanese musicians out there who like to have lots of sounds though.
Goto: They can’t control their guitar playing and just go for it.
Kita: It’s worrying.
――It ends up getting buried in the crevices of the music.
Kita: That’s what happens when you’re young.
Goto: It’s like worrying about a shift not coming in for you at your part-time job.
Kita: Even though they’re told, “You can have the day off.”
Goto: “No! I can work today!” And they’ll go ahead and play but the result is you’ll end up losing the other parts of the music.
――What about the bass?
Yamada: Like the other parts, when you up the phrases of the bass your opportunity to play higher notes increases too. But if you go for lower tones like we did this time there’s no need for that. By doing that, the phrases naturally become simple. That’s why in parts we put more consideration into the sound than the arrangement.
――Goto, you mentioned some musicians’ names earlier. I really felt elements of Pavement in Circus. I think it’s cool that this record is littered with fun things that will make 90’s rock listeners smile.
Goto: Circus was originally a dull and plain mix. Our audio engineer Greg Calbi said, “This song is too plain. There aren’t enough highs so I’m going to jazz it up more.”
Kita: It was the plainest song on the album, wasn’t it.
――When I was going through the album I watched the music video for [the title track] ‘Home Town’ and wondered if it was a homage to The Rentals.
Goto: That was something the director did. We’re not really sure, but he’s often in touch with the Matt [Sharp, the vocalist]. During those three-and-a-half years, we had a barbecue at Matt’s house and stuff.
Goto: Matt said “I’m doing a barbecue,” so we went there but there weren’t any ingredients, he just put the charcoal in the barbecue and said, “Help yourselves.” I was like, “So it was a potluck dinner?!” (laughs)
――Tell us that sooner, right? (laughs)
Goto: In the end, we went home hungry. He had a mountain of beer but he didn’t have anything to eat. So we’re going to drink beer on empty stomachs? Well, he’s an amusing person in that way.
――Something I’ve felt while we’ve been talking up to now is that these three-and-a-half years have been really good for the four of you. Not just in terms of music but mentally as well.
Goto: It’s because we experienced a lot of things. We went on tour in South America, Europe and the US. We hadn’t intended to have a break at all.
――For sure, you don’t imagine going so long between albums. What’s more is that you even coupled the First Press edition of the album with the 5-track Can’t Sleep EP. What made you decide to do this?
Goto: We don’t want people to pay double the amount for separate CDs, and in this day and age I think the ones who would buy our albums are people who really like us, so we thought it would be a nice advantage for those people. There are probably people who listen to us on Spotify too so we wondered if we’d need to release them separately. But we felt that listening to one whole album for an hour doesn’t really fit with the times. So we split it into 10 songs and 5 songs and thought they would both be easier to listen to if they each hold their own meanings.
――Yamada, you provided the main vocals for the first time on the song Yellow from the Can’t Sleep EP.
Yamada: I’m trying to process if it’s even OK to call it the main vocals (laughs). Gocchi didn’t write this one, it was just us three. Although I think it has a different taste from the rest of the album, I’m glad it was included in the end. I’d be satisfied with that alone, but I never thought I’d be singing on my own (laughs).
――The First Press edition of your new album comes with a DVD of your tour in South America. You’re perceived as going to South America a lot.
Kita: And yet we’ve been twice, in 2015 and last year.
――What made you want to tour in South America?
Goto: At the beginning, we were invited to events like Japan Expo in Chile, so we decided to continue with that line of things and go on tour. We went to Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. We were surprised at how many fans we have in South America. It was fun, and a really wonderful experience. We want to try going to many more countries.
――How about an Asia tour?
Goto: Certainly, we want to go. Asian pop music seems rife these days. The younger generation [of musicians] especially, they work and interact without borders. A recent example is in one of Hikaru Utada’s songs where she was joined by an Asian rapper. I’m performing together with a songwriter called Phum Viphurit from Thailand in December too. But Asia is a region where bands can come and go easily and I think it will become more interesting in the future, so it’d be nice if us old guys can join in too.
――What are South American fans like? I’ve seen concerts from other [Japanese] artists in Mexico City before, and the fans leave a strong and enthusiastic impression.
Goto: They’re really amazing, just wonderful. They chant like soccer fans and sing all the verses.
Kita: They’re at it even before the concert starts.
――So much so that you’re surprised at how excited they are right from the get-go?
Goto: Exactly. Like, they’ll be singing our songs two hours before the show starts, and again for another whole two hours when we come on (laughs). Japanese people don’t express their emotions in that way very easily so I’d like them to join in too. This is something I thought when we travelled around the world, but I was shocked to find out Japanese people are the quietest. Any country we go to everyone is so energetic, but when we perform at a festival in Japan afterwards, I think, “We’re headlining, and yet are we not popular?” That’s how quiet they are. Japanese people are too shy, so we’ve got to change that.
――Do the songs that people enjoy differ from country to country?
Goto: They do. When we go to Europe it’s songs like Siren which is multilayered and played in minor key. The songs that sound like British rock are received well, but our less-known songs not so much. Though they’re well-received in South America.
――Is there anything that’s stuck with you from your overseas tours?
Goto: We were really nervous and moved when we first went to South Korea. Asian history is complicated, so we were a little tense at first. I had the silly thought in my head that there were lots of Korean people who hated Japanese people. But it wasn’t like that at all when we stepped on stage. They gave us a huge welcome. Even backstage after the show, Korean bands came up to us excitedly, and we got to exchange CDs with them. We were deeply moved by those exchanges and said to ourselves, “Ah, there’s plenty of things we’re able to do. It will be nice if we can continue connecting and getting along with everyone like this.” The bands we were acquainted with during that time are still our friends today. No matter how busy they are with work they will come to play when we go over there. It’s still a really vivid memory that’s stayed with me.
――Did you ever envision yourselves touring the world when you formed the band?
Goto: We had that mindset surprisingly early on. Our band name ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, for example. We felt we would stand out better when performing around the world if they thought of us as an Asian band. Also, when we debuted, our song Haruta Kanata was used as the opening theme for the anime Naruto. It was a time when there was still a strong air that questioned a rock band performing an anime song. But we all said to each other that by doing it together with a show like Naruto, our song would travel across the ocean and be shared throughout the world. That’s why from then on we purposely incorporated Asian melodies and it’s something we’re still conscious of. And it’s proven true that the people of the world enjoy that kind of melodies.
――You spoke about there being a time when there was a strong air of criticism towards rock bands doing anime songs. The fact that you were genuinely able to have that mindset back then is amazing.
Goto: Since forming the band we’ve wanted to go overseas, so we’re overjoyed by the fact it’s becoming a reality. Saying that though, I’m really shocked because I never thought we would reach the other side of the globe (laughs). Even now I still can’t believe we’ve performed in Peru. Chile too, I was so moved. I was like, “It’s that Chile, the long and narrow country!”
――All things considered, at the end of more than 20 years, it’s a dream to be able to make music with musicians you have looked up to since your early days.
Goto: It really is strange. I’m getting used to this situation and it scares me. But the musicians in the West are all humans just like us. So we won’t stiffen up, we’ll keep calm, and in doing so we’ll be happy if we can continue connecting with bands around the world.