Interviews

Published on September 7th, 2016 | by The Beige Baron

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Downy x Bo Ningen | The “Untitled 6” Interview

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Even when downy stopped playing in 2005, its music kept moving. With no promotion overseas, the sound had already spread outward in modem hum, from hand to hand and deck to deck in darkened clubs all over the world.

Five mercurial albums fusing glitchy android chill and warm blooms of color drew early comparisons to Radiohead. Their style of music is inevitably described as “post-rock”… something that has always frustrated downy.

日本語版はこちら / Read this Story in Japanese

Rarely granting interviews and avoiding the rock music scene altogether, even local fans knew little of downy’s inner life beyond cryptic lyrics in album sleeves. After forming in 2000, and during the five fruitful years that followed, awareness of downy’s rapidly evolving music outside Japan grew in parallel with the internet, yet the band was intent on developing their sound within Japan before establishing a presence overseas.

And then, just when the time seemed right for a breakthrough, they disappeared for almost 10 years. Most assumed they’d broken up.

The announcement of a fifth album in 2013 was met with great enthusiasm locally, but it seems that overseas, many fans are aware that the band is back together and releasing new music.

Perhaps for this reason, or from a desire to clear up certain misconceptions, vocalist and songwriter Robin Aoki began to respond to questions about their work from overseas media for the first time.

Downy’s sixth album – named, as all their albums have been, “無題” [Untitled] – has now been officially released. One fan excited more than most is Taigen Kawabe, bass player/vocalist for London-based psychedelic cyber-punks Bo Ningen.

Exclusive Song Stream: 海の静寂” [Umi No Shijima] from Untitled [6]

Taigen, who has been an avid downy fan since high school, forged an unlikely connection with Robin Aoki. It started with Taigen spinning a downy track in a London nightclub as part of a DJ set. An English fan approached and mentioned in conversation that downy had reactivated, which, kind of ironically, Taigen hadn’t yet heard.

Excited, he discovered an online downy fan remix competition. While recording Bo Ningen’s third album, he composed elements for his downy remix in the studio before boarding a plane to play Australia’s Big Day Out festival circuit.

He mixed the track on his laptop and headphones on the flight over…

He mixed the track on his laptop and headphones on the flight over, and after recording the sound of the surf on the beach outside his hotel room for the song’s center section, completed the track and submitted it.

The email announcing he’d won arrived while he was waiting in the green room to go on stage, much to the rest of Bo Ningen’s disbelief.

Unknown to Taigen, Robin Aoki was also a fan of Bo Ningen—he’d been leaving supportive messages on their YouTube videos anonymously, but didn’t realize it was Taigen who created the winning entry.


Different Plants from the Same Soil


Unlike downy—a band that ended up taking an indirect path to international recognition—Bo Ningen attacked it head-on, moving to London shortly after forming in 2007 to throw itself into being a full-time band.

Years of hard gigging and three full-length albums later, and Bo Ningen finds itself more or less constantly on tour, headlining major world festivals and supporting top-caliber acts (most recently Primal Scream) as one of the most dynamic and original rock bands today.

Yet despite their time spent in the UK, both Taigen and Robin agree that Bo Ningen’s sound remains distinctively Japanese. This sparks off a long conversation between the two just before they performed a joint live solo performance at Tokyo live music venue Moon Romantic, an interview that BNU facilitated ahead of downy’s album launch.

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Taigen performs at Moon Romantic in Tokyo in August.

It emerges that the wellspring of inspiration for both bands belongs not so much in rock music, but in underground EDM, house, techno, and hip-hop—in fact, Robin enthuses about Taigen’s electro unit KISEKI [Taigen x Shokuhin Matsuri], which he saw perform in the night before.

Both agree their own bands’ music is heavily influenced by translating DTM [desktop music] to a live-instrument format. Disappointed with London’s indie music scene, Taigen discovered “pre-American” dubstep, juke, and the Japanese style Gorge, which completely transformed his approach to playing bass, while also heavily influencing Bo Ningen’s drumming style.

Robin agrees, saying he spent his youth in Tokyo nightclubs, not rock venues, and that downy’s third album is an almost perfect representation of that influence: in fact, downy always played with DJs and respected hip-hop crews such as Tha Blue Herb, not other rock bands.

Taigen cites these early downy albums as paving the way for the creation of Bo Ningen’s sound.

Which brings up the thorny issue: the “post-rock” label.


Post What?


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Downy live, 2015

I have to say,” ventures Taigen, “I wouldn’t categorize downy as ‘post rock’, but it’s such a popular genre in the UK. And it’s a really surprising thing, but so many people in the UK seem to love Japanese post-rock.”

Robin: Yeah, I heard that.

Taigen: You know there’s American post-rock, like the Chicago style. People in the UK love American post-rock, but if anything, I’ve noticed they seem to prefer Japanese rather than American post-rock, bands like Toe and LITE are really popular. So downy’s music caught the attention of fans of Japanese post-rock, but I think the sound would have appealed to fans of other kinds of music.

“It’s difficult to do overseas shows if we can’t do our visuals properly.”

I don’t see downy as a post-rock band. So it’s like, I feel bad that downy has missed opportunities to extend their fanbase beyond that group.

I think that both downy and Bo Ningen’s music shouldn’t be categorized.

Robin: We actually had a lot of offers from overseas when we were active in the early days, for live shows and recording contracts. But if we had accepted them, I think we would be perceived as “overseas music” at home.

Plus, we needed to take a projector for our shows. It’s difficult to do overseas shows if we can’t do our visuals properly. And there wasn’t YouTube like there is now.

Taigen: That’s true.

Robin: And I heard that there was just one amp in a live venue we were asked to play at [laughs]. I just thought we needed to get a foothold in Japan, rather than to run the risk.

However, we scored a hit on a college radio station in Holland. And we were covered by a state-run broadcast station in Sweden, and got up close and personal! I thought, “What the hell is that?” [Laughs]

“Now that I think about it, we should have gone overseas…”

We just weren’t focused on going overseas at that moment.

Now that I think about it, we should have gone overseas. We have fewer offers now than when we were active before restarting. I’m like, why is that? Just like that? [Laughs]

Taigen: Probably the people who listened to downy’s music when downy was active don’t know that you’ve restarted.

Robin: I think so too. So I think it’s time we made a move, so we’re trying many new things on the sixth album. And you know, when we have a show in Japan, there are always a lot of foreign residents who come. I think they keep themselves open to Japanese music.


On Composition


Robin: I also think Bo Ningen also has typical Japanese sound. You guys have been in London for a long time, but it seems that you don’t want to be influenced by London at all [laughs]. That really appealed to me about you guys, it’s cool.

Taigen: I think downy is pretty distinctively Japanese too, though, right? In the lyrics especially, but because of the way people from overseas perceive the words, they can’t understand what language downy uses. Also I think for Japanese people, your lyrics don’t sound like Japanese, yeah?

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Photo: Takuya Okada for BNU

When I did sound art in university, I played a lot of downy songs for my classmates. The response was really interesting. In a way, downy sounds similar to Radiohead, but you know, Radiohead spawned so many copycat bands, and downy is totally different from them in that there is a strong exotic flavor, and there’s something Japanese in it.

“I think we have a Japanese aesthetic.”

Robin: I personally think we have a Japanese aesthetic.

Taigen: It creates this positive energy. It’s coming from somewhere different.

Robin: If downy had to be categorized, I personally think we are on the [Japanese punk band] Aburadako side.

Taigen: Hahaha!

Robin: It’s frustrating that we are not grasped in that way. I personally have an image that downy is from a genealogy of [the band] Yonin Bayashi, that sort of stuff.

Taigen: I agree with you. The category is different from Aburadako, but both do feature surrealism. [Laughs]

Robin: Exactly! It’s more important than “post rock”. I know there is no word to describe it except “post rock”, but I wish someone could give it a better name [Laughs].

“I personally have an image that downy is from a genealogy of Yonin Bayashi, that sort of stuff.”

Taigen: I think that’s the difference between downy and other bands; downy has a strong backbone. Many young bands use irregular time and effects, and in the playing style too. I think downy’s backbone is downy.

Robin: Somehow we work together. It just happens. I write the songs, basically, the rhythm too.

Taigen: Really? Rhythm too?

Robin: Yes. I live in Okinawa now. I send the music score to [drummer] Akiyama, and he rehearses it in his studio. Of course, he also has his own ideas of what he wants to do, so I figure out a balance between the differences of opinions.

Taigen: Are the exchange of ideas between Akiyama and you in the studio?

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Robin performing solo at Moon Romantic, August 2016

Robin: By e-mail. Basically, we exchange ideas continually.

Taigen: With Akiyama’s drumming, depending on song, he keeps playing at maximum velocity for the whole song. There are many bands that try to play dance music with live instruments. But I think downy is the greatest for me.

Robin: Thank you very much! Yes, we aim for that. I’m kinda frustrated that people focus on irregular time.

Taigen: In the production and show as well, so many bands don’t have that exquisite balance, except downy. When I worked on Bo Ningen’s first album, I was asked to bring a CD as reference for mastering in the studio, so I brought downy’s CD. That’s how much I love you guys.

Robin: Thank you very much.


On Production


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Recording “Untitled” [6]

Taigen: I want to talk about production. Your sound is new every time. It evolved on the third and fourth albums, even more on the fifth and sixth.

With downy, there’s definitely this inner strength to it. When a song is done, it’s set with all the members, right? Then, until you go into the studio, when you or any of the other members are recording, do you have an image of how it will sound like?

Robin: Well, basically I do the most of arrangement on my side and send them to Miyoshi [sound engineer/HAL STUDIO], then he maintains the balance to make them sounds the best.

“I like to create songs on my laptop, and downy makes it happen physically. In that sense, all of the members of downy are astonishing physical samplers.”

Taigen: Oh, so you have it arranged as is. Every time I listen to your new album, I always wonder how it was made.

Robin: Yeah, so every time I talk with Miyoshi, we always talk about effecters like, “That was good, but I’m disappointed it’s no longer available with recent updates [laughs].”

Hey, do you know [vocal software] Antares?

Taigen: Ah, yeah.

Robin: Kagen no Tsuki was done on Antares. We played around with it on Antares, and it turned out way better. Basically, rather than a band man, I’m a DTM guy, so I really like to create songs on my laptop, and downy is able to make it happen physically. In that sense, I feel all of the members of downy are astonishing physical samplers.

Taigen: Oh, yeah, I get it!

Robin: This time, Akiyama changed his kit. So from the start, it sounded great, and Akiyama got really into it. [For drum nerds: SAKAE Celestial Series Bass Drum 22 x 16″, Canops steel snare 14 x 6.5″, Paiste 2002 Power Ride 22, Paiste Rude Hi-hat 14]

For us, in the beginning, we met to discuss how far to lower the pitch, then after recording, stuff like whether to make the hardware even bigger, change mic’ing, whether to record something, and once it’s recorded, should we use it?

Taigen: In a way, since Akiyama came in, it definitely sounded most raw, which might sound weird, but the hardness of character up until then changed a bit.

Robin: Yeah, the feel of acoustic drums sounded kind of lo-fi, in a good way. The drum set, from the start, really sounded like an equalizer was used on it. It was great. Everyone thought it sounded really good when recording, and the drums were all recorded smoothly.

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Downy. Photo: supplied

Taigen: I hadn’t seen downy live since the new album came out, so I wondered how you would make your return. When I saw downy as a five-piece for the first time, you played old songs, but also many from fifth album, right? I was really interested in how such complex songs would make a comeback at that show.

“There’s this coldness reminiscent of the third album… it’s cold on the surface, but the inside is really hot.”

No matter what you do, it would sound somewhat different from the album. But I couldn’t tell the difference at all; or rather, it was an enhancement of it. There’s certainly a live presence and energy. It made me want to hear a song off the sixth album played as a band already.

Robin: This is usually what gives everyone nightmares [laughs]. Well, this time, there are songs we’re gradually adding to the setlist, so I think the live presence comes through.

There’s this coldness reminiscent of the third album, but really, we made it a kind of package that is cold on the surface, but the inside is really hot. While still keeping the feel of a live show, we play this cold, computer-made music as a live band.

Taigen: Other than downy, I haven’t really heard any bands successfully make the transition from computer music to playing live. Still no fill-ins up to now?

Robin: We basically don’t do them.

Taigen: Right. Including that, computer music played as a band… Even your albums, from when I first saw downy up until recently, it’s like, you can’t find this anywhere in the world.

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Downy live circa 2015. Photo: supplied

Robin: That’s just what I aim to do. Of course, there’s no such thing as “original music”, right? Playing in a band, in this formation, is naturally the next best thing. In saying that, I feel Bo Ningen has a lot of originality.

After all, I think originality is something that you should strive to show.


Vocals and Lyrics


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Downy live: Photo: Supplied

For the sixth album, I wanted it to have a “soul” feel. It’s soulful. Even now, in downy’s music, I see vocals as almost like an instrument, so from the start, I didn’t record as many vocal tracks [compared to some other albums].

Actually, normally after I finish and am satisfied with the tracks, I develop vocals for them to suit the arrangement. This time, though, I had an idea of the melody and lyrics beforehand.

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Downy performs in 2015

There are also cases where there were vocals from the start, like with Kagen no Tsuki. But for the new album, the vocal part is at the center of the music, and as well, the other members were trying to enhance that aspect. It was the first time we did it that way.

Taigen: I think I read somewhere that you turned up the volume on the vocal part a bit on the fifth album, right?

Robin: Yeah.

“I guess you could say it was part of me I hadn’t seen before…”

Taigen: Even when I was listening to the unfinished version, I felt the vocals were really strong.

Robin: Unusually strong, eh? [Laughs]

Taigen: Unusually! That’s because you were already on your fifth record? Or was there anything you became more confident in this time around?

Robin: Yeah, I certainly gained more confidence. I even started to sing to my own music. I guess you could say it was part of me I hadn’t seen before. I’m not the type that would practice singing, but you can’t sing along to your own music if you don’t practice, which is why I started.

I wanted to show more things that I could do, but hadn’t yet. I guess that’s another technique.

Taigen: Did that influence the lyrics too?

“The lyrics have meaning… Like, it’s a picture. I want to express that picture through poetry.”

Robin: I think so, since the lyrics are also derived from vocalization or pronunciation of sounds. But in my younger days, when I put everything I had into my singing, I thought it was lame, but that’s not the case anymore.

I’d rather experiment with different techniques, like voice distortion. I guess that’s where I want to go. I mean, the fifth album is like that too.

Taigen: Do the lyrics come after writing?

Robin: I write lyrics in one go, but if they don’t match the sound, I’ll change them. This is also really hard to explain, but basically the lyrics have meaning, but nobody understands [laughs]. Like, it’s a picture.

For example, there’s this moonlit person. I want to express that picture through poetry. But now the person the light shines on is different, and maybe I need to make this red part pinker…

The lyrics change according to the meaning, but the image in my head doesn’t change. I don’t think anyone will get it, though.

Taigen: Has that always been how you made music, even from the first album?

Robin: Yes, the way words come across is important, and what image they present in the lyric booklet, and sometimes I change the song structure to accommodate them. So in that sense, downy is total art.

Taigen: I like that. I sometimes also deliver straightforward lyrics, though…

Robin: I also like your straightforward lyrics! I liked yesterday [KISEKI performance] too… [Laughs]

Taigen: Thank you! Yesterday was just like… it is what it is. [Laughs]

Robin: I liked yesterday’s impromptu rap, though.

Taigen: Haha, I just said whatever I felt.


Finding a Voice


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Photo: Takuya Okada for BNU

Taigen: I was also shy at first, I was originally a bassist, and Bo Ningen was the first band I did vocals in. Even for that, I was influenced a lot by downy.

From the beginning, I always saw vocals as an instrument, part of the sound. I still think that, but it’s a source of inner conflict. Even though I’m just one member, we’re a noisy band, but the idea of making vocals the main thing is a recent transition.

Just like that, I’m exploring my abilities and constantly searching for my voice.

I can make a high voice, regular voice, falsetto, from inside. They’re vocal techniques, like an effecter. It’s like practicing a new instrument. Trying to sing in English is an example of that too.

Robin: Absolutely.

Taigen: Robin, it’s quite easy to tell your use of English loanwords had been increasing up until the fourth downy album. I haven’t read the new album’s lyrics sheet yet, so I couldn’t make out the words, but this time it sounds to me like you used more straightforward English. Is that a recent thing?

Robin: It’s probably just by chance. I don’t really think about it that much, but even with the influence of singing along to my own accompaniment. I can’t play just downy songs alone at my solo events because, you know, that’s impossible… playing downy on my guitar and singing along… that would be too boring!

“I hate my voice to the point that it follows me around like a comedian’s partner that you get sick of…”

Taigen: No, no! Even an incredibly simple approach is not just that. Through the song, composition, and the album’s content, the fifth album definitely had that feeling of you taking that other voice and using it as a different vocal instrument. It’s even more evident in the sixth.

Robin: Exactly, you got it. The members have always kept telling me to turn up the volume on the vocal part since apparently I have a nice voice [laughs]. But you don’t like the sound of your own voice, right?

Taigen: I don’t.

Robin: Exactly, I don’t like my voice either, so I don’t want to turn it up. I can’t stand it!

Taigen: I think we’re on the same page on this one, but you said you come up with ideas and change things up in the production stage, right? I also end up returning to the studio to do some production before mixing. What you listen to most, including the selected section, is your own voice, right?

Robin: Yeah, that’s true.

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Bo Ningen post Fuji Rock.

Taigen: I hate my voice to the point that it follows me around like a comedian’s partner that you get sick of. There are times I like it too, but because it’s my own voice, there are bound to be times I can’t hear it objectively and end up thinking, “Isn’t it too loud?”

Robin: I think mine is too loud, too. I thought it was loud on the sixth album, but got a message from the engineer saying not to make it any softer [laughs].

Miyoshi has also been saying, “Louder, louder!” from way back.

So this time I wrote it in such a way that there was a vocal spot from the start.

Taigen: I could really tell [when I listened to it]. That’s amazing! Even earlier, I felt like, I totally know what you mean. It’s something I’ve been concerned about, but this gives me motivation.

Robin: Nah, even now I feel embarrassed listening to it. But even so, I think about it like, I wonder if it would be good if I did it with a different technique…

Taigen: That is really encouraging.

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Downy: Untitled [6th]

Robin:

Lately I’ve learned to dirty some nice falsetto parts and make it a rough falsetto, and do harmonies. Being able to do those now makes me think, “Wow, I’ve been working hard.” [Laughs]

Robin: The song Umi No Shijima was recorded in one take.

Taigen: Whoa…

“I guess it’s okay to make it louder.”

Robin: Really, it was unusual that I was able to get it done in one take. When I let everyone hear the take, there will probably be some mistake or a bit to push back. I didn’t even have that kind of confidence in myself for one song. It was like… I … I did it in one take? [Laughs]

Taigen: Right.

Robin: Even with that, it was like… Since it was a rare one-take success, I guess it’s okay to make it louder.

Untitled is out now on Felicity Records and is available to purchase through iTunes. Please select your country’s region. Bo Ningen’s discography is available for purchase via their website or good record stores. Follow downy on Twitter and Facebook and Bo Ningen on Twitter and Facebook for news and tour information.

Story by Yoshi and The Beige Baron with Eri Shimazaki. Translation by Laura Chan and Umeki Yasutomo. Interview photography by Takuya Okada. With thanks to Mie.


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Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.



2 Responses to Downy x Bo Ningen | The “Untitled 6” Interview

  1. Jama Dumazu says:

    This isn’t just an interview, it’s a beautiful story. Thanks so much to everyone involved, especially those who took the time to translate. ❤❤❤❤

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