Introducing the London City Tour:
Hung La 00:10
I'm here with Bo Ningen with Yuki Tsujii and Taigen Kawabe. I'm a big fan of your work, really appreciate you spending time with us today. I was introduced to your music a couple of years ago and first, I wanted to say, I’m a huge fan. I know you guys have been together since 2007 since founding the group in London. You're an amazing live act and the best way that I can describe being at one of your shows is being transported through time and space. There's peaks and valleys and it's like this crazy carpet ride. I'm honored to be here with you. We can start with the both of you introducing yourselves and talking a little bit about where you're from and your early influences.
Taigen Kawabe 02:21
I'm Taigen Kawabe, the bass and lead singer for Bo Ningen. I grew up in Tokyo, Japan and lived there until I was 18 years old, at which time I moved to London after high school.
Yuki Tsujii 03:00
My name is Yuki Tsujii and I'm from Prefecture called Hyogo which is right next to Osaka. I grew up in a relatively wild family, went to school in Japan and then moved to London in 2004, the same year as Taigen did straight after high school.
Hung La 03:37
I know that you guys don't like labels in reference to your music. I think, Kierkegaard was famous for writing, "When you label me, you negate me." For the people who don't know your music, can you give us a quick little introduction to what you're about and the words that you choose to describe the band?
Taigen Kawabe 04:10
I think we used to be a bit more fussy about how people categorized us in terms of music genres. They used to refer to us as psychedelic, noise or acid punk a lot but since we’ve been together since 2007, we’ve seen that change.
Yuki Tsujii 05:48
Ultimately, we're a simple rock band with a simple setup. We got guitars, we got drums, we got a bass player singing, and one of the guitar players plays the synth. It's a rock band in the form of a rock band. What you hear is what you hear. Some people would think, “oh, well, they’re more like punkish metal,” or “wow, that's proper psychedelia,” or some people even call it post punk, but it’s endless. I think that people were just incapable of describing us and we can't even describe our general sound. When I introduce Bo Ningen, I describe us as, “Four Japanese guys, long hair, doing crazy shit on stage.” We play rock music– that’s it.
Hung La 07:08
I love that answer. I mean, it's very Lu’u Dan in a way. You guys obviously transcend many different kinds of genres and movements. Your identity really interests me because I don't think there are a lot of bands that do what you do and I think it's very special. When I look at special things, I look at the root of it all. How did growing up in Japan influence your identities? How did your collective energies come together to create Bo Ningen?
Yuki Tsujii 08:09
Kohhei and Monchan aren’t with us on this call but we all met in London but came from different parts of Japan and had different upbringings. I’m from the Kansai area near Osaka, the third largest city in Japan. Their people are known to be friendly and down to earth but some are known for being rough. I grew up in a relatively normal family, except one of my brothers was quite wild and used to be in a biker gang. As a kid, I grew up watching him wear all these crazy outfits. He would come home while I was sleeping and I would wake up to the loud noises of him showering, fighting with my father or the sound of their customized engines. I remember crying a lot because it was pretty terrifying but all of his friends were nice to me and looked after me. They still have a big impact on me visually because they all had crazy, fully customized, embroidered looks called Takkofuku. I think they’re amazing now but looking back, I was terrified of them. This all played a big part in creating my identity and my brother was the first sort of masculine character in my life.
Hung La 11:33
It’s bosozoku culture, which was motorcycle gang culture in Japan in the 70s and 80s, predominantly. What did you see those kids? Was it rebellion? Was it strength? They had this fierce pride, this loyalty and these flags. It was a nationalistic rebellion against the powers that be with a very punk rock spirit.
Yuki Tsujii 12:12
In my brother's case, it probably wasn’t as epic as you mentioned, moreso he was just unhappy with his life, his schooling and our family. I couldn’t ask him about it then because I was just a kid and I can't even describe how strong that impact was on me. The look, his attitude– I was even scared to talk to him. I couldn’t have a brotherly relationship with him until quite recently and it's definitely propelled me and empowered me on stage now. I've never even thought about this actually.
Hung La 13:36
Thank you for your honesty there.
Taigen Kawabe 13:44
It's quite interesting that Yuki mentioned that. We haven’t really talked about where we grew up and how it inspired us and our music. I grew up in a place called Shibuya and went to school an hour away from where I lived so I didn’t have a lot of local friends. When people think of Tokyo and gang culture, they think of Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro, which are the three places that were famous for it in the 80s and 90s. For two or three years, I lived in the same building as a Yakuza office. I could hear the shouts of them trying to get money from other people. Even though I didn’t relate to any gang culture, I could see both the dark sides and the really bright sides of Tokyo. People came to my school from all over Tokyo so I could see different sides of the city throughout my childhood. I grew up also in the era Another memory I had was of the cult religious group Aum Shinrikyo. They did a huge terrorism attack. I grew up really close to one of the main offices. My parents had a couple of friends who were in it and they would preach in front of the Shibuya station with really psychedelic outfits. It was a pink costume, not a pink suit–
Yuki Tsujii 20:09
A martial arts outfit.
Taigen Kawabe 20:10
Some of them would wear what I think was the icon, some kind of elephant. It was really psychedelic. People found out they would DIY acid LSD in a laboratory to use when initiating people and making them think they see God. When they would preach in front of Shibuya station, they would ask me what would happen to my life after I died. I questioned if this is what they should ask an eight or nine year old kid. I had no clue when I was a kid. Thinking back, Shibuya was really chaotic and all of this chaos really affected my taste in music and sound. My time in Shibuya definitely influenced me subconsciously.
Hung La 22:18
I can feel a lot of push and pull in both of your stories. There's a lot of tension growing up with your brother in the gangs, Yuki, and the chaos of Tokyo, Taigen. You can feel that energy when you guys perform, right? You can feel the channeling of all of those things and as a listener, you don’t need to understand the context, you can just feel it. From day one, you guys were on the moodboard for Lu’u Dan. Your identity spoke so loudly to me and another person who occupies this space that you’ve toured with is Damo Suzuki. How was he influential in your music as a role model and reference?
Taigen Kawabe 24:54
In Austria, we were talking about Asian stereotypes and stereotypes of Japanese people who lived outside of Japan, especially in Europe. We thought about how Damo Suzuki is the epitome of a Japanese guy who has lived outside of Japan for a long time, especially with his long hair.
He definitely created that.
Yeah, it's like an image for European people of what it means to be Japanese.
Yuki Tsujii 25:35
We ended up looking like him. If you look at his pictures back in the 70s when he was in Cannes, we all look like relatives.
Taigen Kawabe 25:51
Yeah long hair and quite skinny.
Yuki Tsujii 25:55
I mean we didn’t know Damo then, we only knew of him in the last 10-15 years. Damo san is musically very inspiring. Even since the 70s, his style hasn't changed. He carried a backpack with only his underwear and T-shirts. Today, he doesn't he doesn't play instruments, he just travels and collaborates with local musicians and artists. He’s a legend, he’s got just such a free soul and such a powerful aura. He’s a big senpai for us as both a musician and also simply as a person too. Every time we’re hanging out with him, he’s smiling, telling great stories and I always try to ask him about recording an album but he never listens to me.
Taigen Kawabe 27:36
He doesn't believe in the magic of the recording studio anymore and hasn’t made a studio album in more than 20 years. He believes in the magic of what is happening in real time, both for the audience and the artist. We believe in the same magic but also that it exists in the production process, including in the studio as well.
Hung: I wanted to ask you about identity and representation in terms of the journey we talked about with these two opposing tropes – the more Breakfast at Tiffany's, emasculated, nerdy guy and the villain – do you think there's enough representation of Asian masculinity? Do you feel represented?
Yuki: It's quite interesting because how we felt when we started back in 2007 or 2008 to how we think about our identity now is pretty different. When we started playing a lot of shows in East London when we were completely no one, we did an interview with this magazine called Loud and Quiet, it’s a free paper that you can find anywhere in pubs and venues, and someone drew a dick on our faces and said we couldn’t sing or play for shit. People would be booing or throwing water bottles and cans at us, saying to fuck off because we were Asian. At that time, people were not really understanding the adversity that came with racism. The general understanding for society and the music industry, especially if you’re a rock band, is that it’s a very white, male dominated image so when people see us, the crowds are asking why we’re in London and playing music and singing in Japanese? It didn’t make any sense to them. I felt quite shocked but felt this force which turned me on. Instead of thinking it was horrible, even though it was, I began to think about how we were representing ourselves. When they saw us they didn’t think we were fitted, we weren’t tall enough and we spoke a different language. We started creating our own identity without knowing entirely what it was. After those 10 or 15 years of living in London, calling it home, having friends and settling in, we essentially became Londoners. Our identity now as a band or individually has been divided into two parts, one is all this rage from 2009, and the other is a bit contradictory because we’ve become completely blended into this culture almost comfortably. I should be happy about this but I feel less and less Japanese.
Taigen: Right and as Yuki mentioned, people didn’t have an idea of what it was to be Asian or Japanese back in 2007. I think London was and maybe still is a bit behind when it comes to having an idea of what it was to be Japanese. Yet, this provided inspiration for us because it gave us insight into the counterculture of what was going on in that moment. London was home to so many legendary rock bands but I was really disappointed when I landed in London in 2004. They were calling music “indie rock” and I was against it because it was supposed to mean being independent, in opposition to mainstream culture but this kind of music had no energy and had more of a fashion, rock kind of vibe. People could look punk but they weren’t independent to me at all. When we formed Bo Ningen, that was one of the reasons why we sought out this kind of riotous feeling, out of anger and frustration. When you start something there are naturally feelings of frustration or a desire to create a kind of explosion.
Yuki: Obviously now things are different with Instagram, Tiktok and the Internet at large but back then, not many Asian artists, bands or musicians were touring the UK or Europe as they do now. There was just a lack of information so people really had no idea what we’d sound or look like so when we came on stage and blasted out the crazy stuff we normally play, it must’ve been quite a shock for everyone in the audience. Some people hated it and a tiny amount of people thought it was fantastic and wondered, who the fuck are these guys? There didn’t seem like there was actually enough room for this notion of Japanese identity, we just had to do it and it exploded almost.
Hung: I love this context guys, it's really a beautiful narrative. What I see is almost that in 2006 or 2007, you guys were on a comet and you just dropped into the scene with this culture clash, creating this rabid reaction to who you are and what you do. What you don't realize is that you guys paved the way for so many other kinds of creatives. You paved the way for what I do, you paved the way for TV shows and cinema because you guys were out in front, battling this racist energy. What is really beautiful about your story is that you transformed, you're more at peace now, you don't have that rage. In the same way, I kind of like it when people hate what I do because it fuels me and it's like, fuck you, I'll show you, I'm really good at what I do. I think there's something about that in the Asian spirit. We're not always getting all the attention but we're really talented, we have amazing culture, we work really hard and it's time for us to have more visibility.
Taigen: Wow, I felt exactly the same. When we formed the band, people thought we were more rough. They only saw us through the image we presented when we performed and that we were so crazy as Japanese people. Their idea of us was different than who we were but we didn't really exaggerate or anything, we just transformed our anger or frustration into the songs and performances. The extremeness of Asian music, fashion or culture, is something you can't explain, you can't see the output in your daily life but you can put it into artwork, music or performances and that’s what we did and what we're still doing. When I started playing music when I was 15, my mom who is also a musician, told me that I was too much of a good boy to do music. She warned me that you had to be a bit of an outsider to make music. She’s in her 70s now but when she started playing rock music in the 60s in Japan, there was a stigma to it. I had to show her that we can do this because we don’t need to explain everything and that being an outsider means something different to me. That’s why what you said, Hung, really resonates with me one-hundred percent. I feel truly happy to say this and to have the same attitude.
Hung: Well, thank you guys for paving the way. I wanted to talk a little bit about London because you guys moved to London in 2004, 2005 and maybe we can talk a little bit about home and what home means, wherever it is for you and what it’s meant for the evolution of your creative energies.
Yuki: I live in Stockholm at the moment but I still feel that London is my home too. I moved there when I was 18 and spent all of my 20s there. Those 10 years of being in your 20s are quite formative as a person and artistically as well. Home to me is where I can settle myself, of course, physically, but more so emotionally. After years and years of living and playing in London, connecting with people and exploring all the possibilities of pushing boundaries, it’s created a whole other world of home and reality to me and that still hasn't changed.
Hung: What was it about London that spoke to you at that age and which neighborhoods did you live in?
Yuki: When I first moved to London, I was living in North London near Camden because my university was close. It's funny how you can have such a wrong idea of what a city is like. In Japan, there are a lot of fashion and culture magazines that feature cities like Paris, London, New York. They tell you that this is where to hang out, this is where to go and there was a London feature in this magazine called Brutus and I bought it before I moved there. It said that this area called Shoreditch was really hot and I went there as a 19 year old and it looked like a shithole and that was a big shock to me. If you settle in London now, you have to know where to hang out because things are kind of hidden, most of it gets overlooked. After I lived in Camden, I moved to Bethnal Green which is in East London. Then I moved to Dalston and lived there for almost five or six years. At some point between 2012 and 2018, we were all based in Hackney as a band and that’s where the studio was. In early 2010, there were loads of fun stuff happening around East London or Hackney back then.
Taigen: My experience of London basically was the same as Yuki’s where my first impression was that it was quite rough and a shithole [laughs] and I expected it to be fashionable and trendy. The first place I lived in London was Dorsten in Hackney where my host family lived. Then I moved to West London near Edie, then to Angel, Bethnal Green, Clapton, close to the studio in Hackney where I lived for nine years, and now I live in <<___>> which is the first time I’m living in South London, it’s actually quite exciting. It's a bit far from things that are culturally trendy but it's kind of up and coming and I play in DJ shows around the area. All the things we didn't like about rock or indie music in London back in 2010 were happening in East London. South London is now taking a bit more of the power in creating a countercultural movement to East London and SoHo. When you’re talking about home, especially after COVID, I'm still asking myself where my home is. Our drummer, Monchan, and I were both in Japan for the longest time ever since we moved to London. Being home for this extended period made me question where we were from and where home was. I had to ask if I missed London? If I liked London and if I still wanted to live there? I’ve been asking these questions for two or three years and still can't figure it out. Because we travel quite a lot as a band, I can see London as home but I also see myself as an alien in both London and Japan. I still feel foreign as a Japanese person in Japan. During COVID in Japan I was able to make new friends, forming a new crew almost because we couldn't do any Bo Ningen shows so I performed as a DJ or a rapper. The culture surrounding those DJ and hip-hop culture pushed me into new environments that were totally different from how and where I grew up in Tokyo, they were people from different generations and backgrounds and that was inspiring for me.
Hung: You lead into the next question really well and I want to talk about feeling like an outsider in Japan. Because when we talk about home, for me, it's a kind of nourishment – the foods you eat, the family that you see, your room – it's this safe place. You have this duality to your story similar to my own. I've been in Europe and the UK for 20 something years and I'm not American, I'm not Vietnamese, I have floating origins at this point and I think it's fascinating to understand what makes us feel comfortable or at home.
Yuki: Probably in the last few years, I’ve started to feel more like an outsider in Japan. I’ve got family still there, I’ve only got Japanese citizenship, I go back once a year, I love Japanese food, it’s the best food in the world, I love Japanese music, so yeah, it's definitely comfortable being there. But I haven't been involved in any activities, movements and scenes there. I’ve been staying away from it, not intentionally, but sometimes I feel weird about being there. I still miss my family and it's always a great time but if I stay there for a long time, I start to suffocate a bit.
Hung: It sounds like you like to be an outsider, you like to be a foreigner?
Yuki: Maybe? Maybe because I don't belong there, I don't live there, not in the system, not registered in the social security. Basically I don’t exist there.
Hung: Do you feel like you were rebelling against Japan? What were those instincts that lead you away from home? Was it an attraction to the West in being able to do your own thing and that there wasn't enough of what you wanted to do in Japan?
Yuki: I don't know, it's a good question. I never actually thought about it but I don't know. Maybe what you’re saying is pretty spot on.
Hung: In my own experiences, I love to be a foreigner, I like to be different. I like getting those dirty looks when I would dress up crazy on the streets because it fed me in a way. For me, there was definitely a rebellion against Asian culture and later on in my life, I’ve come to embrace it and understand there's a lot of culture, heritage and history that's very important to who I am. It's coming full circle. I was into punk and rebellion, I didn't want my parents' life, I didn't want any of that, but now I'm coming back to it. I do Buddhist meditation, I read Asian history. As a teenager, it was almost like, fuck you, I don't want anything to do with you, I don't want your life. I'm leaving. Now I realize there are actually a lot of good things to it.
Yuki: I feel exactly the same. I've always appreciated Japanese literature, movies, music, fashion, people and food and the older I get, I definitely start appreciating all these things more. I see how humble, modest and caring the people are. It's kind of a weird thing to say but I still can't really see myself being there even though I am 100% one of them. Does that make sense?
Hung: It sounds like you’re searching for home in whatever sense that is. I think it's an important notion for anybody, especially Asians who are displaced all over the world. We're always searching for that and we've never found that place.
Yuki: Yeah I guess I'm in the process of finding home and it could be lots of places, it doesn't have to be one. I think you're quite right about that.
Taigen: Yeah for me, I'm still questioning myself about it. Talking about this has given me reassurance that it doesn’t have to be one place and this interview has reminded us to think about these things. London has become part of my identity as a musician and whenever I’m back in Japan, playing shows or seeing my family, people see me as a foreigner. I don't conform to one genre, one scene, one city or one area of Tokyo, I’m a bit more active than that and I don’t need to think too much about the politics of a situation. I feel like I shouldn’t limit myself to being in one city while I’m still figuring out my identity. When you guys mentioned being an outsider, I want to be an outsider so that I can be in different environments and experience different cultures so we can play more shows around the world. We’re going to Canada next month and we haven’t been to the states in fucking ages. We want to see the possibilities more and before we kind of just did things without thinking, which was liberating. We’re not good at planning because we’re not good at limiting ourselves. That’s why we formed Bo Ningen, that’s why we identify the way we do and why we look the way we do.
Hung: This is the point of these conversations, I know when you guys get interviewed you don't get asked these questions.
Taigen: Yeah that's why we are getting really excited about this.
Yuki: And why we’re really shit about explaining.
Hung: I want to also be sure to plug you guys and make sure that everybody who's reading or going to be listening or whatever can continue to follow your journey. It’s @bo_ningen_band and you said the Canada tour is up next?
Yuki: Yeah, Canada next and then we have a festival in Germany in August, some UK dates at the end of August and then a new album coming out this year. It’s about this 70s cult classic movie called The Holy Mountain. We basically reimagined the soundtrack by ourselves. We got asked to play a live score on the screen in the cinema in Dalston, London for two days and people started saying we should actually release it so we went into the studio, polished and recreated it. We’ll do a London launch once we have the details.
Hung: Amazing, I’ll be there. Taigen, did you want to talk about your experimentation with vocals and your exploration into rap music? Is it a natural evolution?
Taigen: When we started Bo Ningen, I didn't really listen to any rap or hip hop. I liked the sound of hip-hop, the beat was really strong but I didn’t feel like I resonated with the lyrics especially in Japanese hip-hop in the 90s and early 2000s. I didn’t understand the themes of what they were saying because I didn't grow surrounded by that kind of culture. When I listened to one group called MSC, they were talking about Shinjuku, drug, gang and hip-hop culture and that was the first group that I didn’t think was cosplaying the culture of US rap. For a lot of Japanese hip-hop, there was no originality to it. Now trap music changed everything and trap in Asia is breaking boundaries. One of my friends SHAKABOUT, a Japanese rapper, has long hair like us and his background is quite rough and everything. A lot of what he does is taboo and he’s had a rough time since he started in Japan because hip hop is totally opposite to this image. It reminds me of the kind of counterculture that we felt when we formed Bo Ningen. With culture at large things are a lot more open than they were 10 years ago. Everytime I go back to Japan, people used to look at me and say something about how weird our hair was or whatever it was but nowadays, it’s not so much of a surprise.
Hung: Yeah it’s changing in a sense and when you started, Asian creatives needed to be labeled and put in a box but today, there is so much more fluidity. People are pulling references from anywhere and everywhere. I find Bo Ningen to be so representative of what Lu’u Dan is about, your energy and what you guys have gone through. I’m sure people would love to hear what’s going on in your head and your ambitions for the future?
Yuki: I'm not sure if we call ambition but what we want to do is to continue what we’ve been doing as a rock band which is interweaving popular music with performance art, improvisation and experimentation, which sounds chaotic, but we want to keep polishing that. I don’t see ourselves being mainstream or trendy but it's all worth doing. With all due respect to the history of rock music, it should be wild and crazy but rock music these days is completely opposite of that to my eyes and ears. Everyone's very well-trained and it’s very nicely packaged but our role in the world of music is to be us, we’re not anyone else in how we look and how we sound and I’m pretty confident about that. We're gonna carry on.
Hung: I'm really encouraged to follow this beautiful journey that you guys have set out on as you continue to evolve as you each evolve as individuals. Your story is so beautiful for Lu’u Dan and for Asian creatives because it's creating space where there wasn't space before and it's important to acknowledge that. You guys deserve all the accolades and recognition because it's monumental what you guys have been able to do and thank you for inspiring us.
Taigen: That means a lot to us.
Yuki: Yeah it means the world.