[Interview] yahyel at SXSW – “YMO Is Part Of Stereotype About Japanese Music”

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Tokyo electro-pop band yahyel consists of Shun Ikegai (vocals), Miru Shinoda (sampler & chorus), Kazuya Oi (drums), Kento Yamada (VJ), and Wataru Sugimoto (synthesizer & chorus). Their second album, “Human”, was released earlier this month and has received great acclaim.

After a few email exchanges with the lead singer Shun Ikegai, we met with yahyel at SXSW. Although I had prepared to dig deep knowing the controversial views from the band, I was still surprised by their forthright attitude when it came to really sensitive issues (maybe meeting at a café called “Forthright” had something to do with it. I don’t know). In this country that cares too much about being “political correct”, though I didn’t completely agree with some of the views the band expressed, I appreciated the passion and courage they displayed in pursuing what they think is right and necessary as young artists. Chatting over a couple of sandwiches and coffee, the band shared a little bit of their perspectives on the new album, stereotypes, interracial dating, and what being “Kawaii”, “Kakkoii” and “Sugoi” is to them. Read the interview below.

KKS: How has your SXSW experience been? How was the audience so far? Any shows you went to?

Shun Ikegai: This is our first time coming to Austin so not too sure what to expect but…it’s been really good. This whole thing (SXSW) is very organized. The thing is that people are losing attention to music if you know what I mean. Besides we are more British-influenced, things like James Blake, while here in the US it’s very Hip-Hop or rock music dominated.

Miru Shinoda: We went to see Dubfire, a famous DJ from the UK.

KKS: How did you get the chance to come here?

Shun Ikegai: We’ve been denying Japan Nite’s offer for so long. We hated it…finally, we were contacted by an American booking agent and decided to do it.

KKS: Your new album “Human” was released a few days ago. What kind of story did you want to tell?

Shun Ikegai: The main concept is that I resent it when people stereotype each other. Most people in our generation can speak English and relate to the western scene, but we are treated differently. The band’s name “yahyel” actually means “alien”. We feel we are just a bunch of aliens in this world. And when we started to sing in English, people would say we sounded “western” and look “alien” just because we are Asians. What we really want is just for people to focus on the contents of our music, not the look. We deny all Asian stereotypes that are forced on us.

KKS: How is it different from your debut album, “Flesh and Blood”?

Shun Ikegai: Ever since we released our first album, we kept ourselves mysterious image-wise because we wanted to escape from all the judgment on our looks. From the beginning, the protest of Asian stereotypes was the main idea, but we felt that we didn’t do a great job [of delivering the message]. For a lot of Japanese people, they simply thought what we are doing was cool but never actually wanted to get into a topic as big as race. So this time we went for something more personal. The debut album was more metaphorical in generalizing all humans as “flesh and blood”, but now we are more comfortable about ourselves as artists and care less about shutting out the noise from the outside world.

KKS: In an earlier email Shun Ikegai sent to me, you specifically emphasized that yahyel members are against the stereotypes of Japanese people/culture. You also frequently mentioned the concept of an “Asian stereotype”. Could you describe what exactly this kind of stereotype is, based on your understanding?

Shun Ikegai: To me, it’s more for Japanese people specifically.

Miru Shinoda: We are often pictured as “weird”.

Shun Ikegai: Like in the name of your media “kawaii” – basically the way foreign people see us as great only because we are “weird”. They ignore that fact that we are normal human beings, too.

Miru Shinoda: Right. We are not “kawaii” people.

Shun Ikegai: Isn’t it just about branding in there? It’s f*cked up that the Japanese government is pushing that image too hard. Think about it. We are Asian males. Our “ranking” is low.

KKS: “Ranking”? Are you talking about Asian males’ status in the dating market? I don’t think that’s always the case.

Shun Ikegai: That’s the worst part of the stereotype isn’t it? Of course you can say, “It’s not always like that” but come on. Face it. That’s the image. It does not change because of a few exceptions.

KKS: So, you feel that Asian males always need to make extra effort to break that image.

Shun Ikegai: Exactly.

KKS: And I read from one of your interviews that you don’t like the dynamics between Japanese girls and foreign guys.

Shun Ikegai: Wait, where did you get that information? (laughs) Well yeah, I did say that because I’ve seen that a lot. I support ethic diversity in the dating scene but it’s sad how Japanese people, especially in Tokyo, are obsessed with the western world. White guys coming from faraway are viewed as strong and masculine and Japanese girls become fanatics of them. Is it really a positive diversity? Those guys are not even serious, so why do these girls feel superior about dating them? We are not complaining but we don’t think these girls realize what kind of relationship they get themselves into. It’s super ironic that we see some of these girls dance to our song “Black Satin” which basically talks about this issue while completely being unaware of what the lyric means. Not that we have a preference for our fans though. Just thought it was interesting to observe. We still want people to simply enjoy our music, and if possible, maybe try to understand what we are talking about.

KKS: Back to music. Japanese bands that are known overseas such as YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra), Shonen Knife, Boris, and Cornelius…Do you think they are also part of the “stereotype” of Japanese music?

Miru Shinoda: YMO definitely is. They use oriental instruments.

Shun Ikegai: Let’s put it in a simple way. For example – Bjork. She is from Iceland, but have you heard any Icelandic instruments in her music? That’s what we are talking about. But you know what? We don’t care if some people do this and other people do that. I don’t think anyone is using that image intentionally, but what we are doing is intentionally hiding that image. It [how people utilize the Japanese image] does not matter anyway. We don’t care.

KKS: Forgive me for being straightforward, but if you really “don’t care”, then you just don’t talk about it, right? To me you guys are more like “We don’t want talk about it and the first thing we tell you is ‘we don’t want to talk about this’”. There is an implicit emphasis for that issue on your statement isn’t it?

Shun Ikegai: True. To be honest we felt we did it too much on the first album, when we were hiding our faces. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that we are ashamed of being Japanese. There’s simply too much focus on that aspect that’s all. From this second album, we feel more comfortable with [our appearance] and we just want to chill. Now we are happy to show our faces.

KKS: In an interview with Japan Times Shun Ikegai mentioned, “In this world at the moment, it’s impossible to deny that pre-existing stereotype. How we look already has too much meaning. We don’t want people to think that our music couldn’t be good because we’re Japanese.” – Were you indicating that the stereotype of Japanese is that there’s no good music?

Shun Ikegai: I think yes. Just think about all those major acts in Japan now. Even in the indie scene, it’s the same. I remember when we played in France, at the beginning people just stood there grinning and looking at us with distrust. Then we started playing. We could see the change in the audience.

KKS: Do you think that’s because you are Japanese or you are a new band that people don’t know very well over there?

Shun Ikegai: People feel distant from us. As an Asian, when you walk into a crowd full of white people and black people, their attitude all of a sudden gets reserved.

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KKS: Here is a question for the VJ. The use of visual effects in your live shows and music videos is a very important part of your work. Where do you get your ideas?

Kento Yamada: I just listen to the sound and get a vibe out of it. Nothing special. I feel the music. I don’t get my ideas from the lyrics.

KKS: Why did you choose music as the medium of delivering your ideas instead of, say, writing or making movies?

Shun Ikegai: The five of us were into music from the beginning. The video thing is just an extra.

KKS: Your music is clearly influenced a lot more by the western pop scene – I can definitely hear the xx, a little Ra Ra Riot and some other similar English-singing bands. But when we take on a worldly looking glass we should see other kind of music exist in this world too – Middle East, Africa, and South-eastern Asia…Have you ever dug anything from that part of the world?

Shun Ikegai: Our message is more towards the western world I must say. We try to reiterate our struggles and complaints through that channel. Isn’t it fun that we try to protest to the image that the western world impose on us by making a western sound? Of course we would love to add new music elements from other parts of the world but so far this (western style) is what we like. For example when making this second album, we listened to a lot of Tibetan chanting. It was inspirational.

KKS: Some musicians here in America do political shows and encourage people to vote. Would you do something like that?

Shun Ikegai: No. That’d be too bleached. Besides, Japanese people are too collective in their nature. We are sick of it. We just wish people could freely express their own views. That’s more important than people who just stand there and talk peacefully about votes and sh*t. Before asking people to go out and vote, Japanese people should form their own opinions first. It’s a long way down the road. To be honest with you, I have been uncomfortable because of that ever since I was a child. To encourage people to be more confident and individual, making your own choices is what we can do from an artist standpoint. We don’t want our music to become products. We just want to express ourselves. We are not doing our music for “our customers”. We are doing it for ourselves.

KKS: Tell us three things that you think are “Kawaii (Cute)”, “Kakkoii (Cool)”, “Sugoi (Awesome)” for each respectively.

Shun Ikegai: “Kawaii” is a marketing scheme. But being yourself is “Kakkoii”.

Miru Shinoda: Before the show, we always say, “Let’s kill these audiences” as an expression you know? If the audience actually “died”, that’s “Sugoi”.

Shun Ikegai: Dude let’s not be confusing (laughs). To me it’s about being challenging but I hate this word. It sounds half-ass. What I mean is to cross the line. Walking out of your comfort zone – That’s “Sugoi” to us.

After SXSW, yahyel will return to Japan and kick off their nationwide tour on the back of the release of their second album “Human”. If you live in Japan, check out the dates below in case you missed them at SXSW!

3/29 (THU) – TOKYO – LIQUIDROOM SOLD OUT

3/31 (SAT) – KYOTO – METRO

4/5 (THU) – SAPPORO – DUCE

4/6 (FRI) – NAGOYA – RAD HALL

4/7 (SAT) – OSAKA – “RETURN” NAMBA HATCH

4/8 (SUN) – KOCHI – CARAVAN SARY

4/11 (WED) – SENDAI – DARWIN

Photo by: Mena Ru

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