Published on October 23rd, 2015 | by Yoshi2
Playing live used to feel like killing people by Katana for me.
Two years ago, Japanese band downy started playing again after nine years of silence.
Since they formed in 2000, downy has been blowing the minds of not only music listeners, but also a lot of respected musicians with their far-reaching, original vision and overwhelming musical skill. Locally, they’re regarded as a sort of isolated bolt of genius in the underground rock music scene.
The band has always been unconventional. They were one of the first to break the unwritten rule that “rock bands play in live houses, and electronic acts play in clubs” through the bonds they formed and collaborations they made with musicians from other scenes.
Somewhat ironically, this spirit of breaking the rules and doing their own thing made them probably one of the most “rock and roll” bands at the time despite the electronic flavors in their music. As a result of this, downy became a conduit to underground club music for a lot of rock kids.
So it was tremendously exciting to hear in 2013 that downy had started up again. I couldn’t wait to hear what direction they would take, and what influence it would have on the future of music. And the band did not disappoint—the quality of their new material and the freshness of vision far exceeded my expectations.
Two years have passed since the release of their fifth album—so we reached out to the band to see what’s been happening in that time. Vocalist and bandleader Robin Aoki was kind enough to talk to us about the evolution of downy’s music and what the future might hold…
BNU: Can you describe how you write a song? Your music is multi-layered and complex, is that a result of one person with a vision or many people fitting pieces of a jigsaw together?
We have various ways of writing songs. Sometimes I make a demo and then construct a song together with the other members, or sometimes a song arises naturally out of a jam session.
BNU: Every person from outside of Japan that I have played your music to has been blown away. Why are you not world famous? Was it a choice of the band not to pursue international recording contracts?
I don’t know why, someone please tell me! [Laughs] Before the reunion, as you know, we had always used our own projection system [and full-time VJ] to create a fully realized performance, and that system was hard to transport. So that was one thing that made it difficult to tour abroad.
But since the reunion we have been eyeing the possibility of touring overseas. We really want to do it. I believe negotiations are underway through our label, but you know, I don’t know why, offers to perform live overseas always seem to fall through for some reason. [Laughs]
If there’s a chance, I’d like to make an overseas tour happen.
BNU: Do you as a band get a bigger thrill from playing live or from making a record?
Personally I like recording more. That rush of creative energy is irreplaceable, and I can’t describe how happy I feel when I can create good songs. But recently, anyway, I’ve been trying to relax more when approaching playing live, and I’m really starting to enjoy it too.
Playing live used to feel like killing people by Katana for me. [Laughs]
BNU: Your music is full of the tension and pressure of Japanese life—an intensity and repetition, but also it captures some of its unique beauty. Your music can be punishing, but also very beautiful and gentle. What was it like growing up, when did you find music, and when did you realize you could express yourself with it?
When I was kid I started listening to the Beatles and the Doors, who my mother loved, and I was really into that. I was living in Hong Kong at the time, so I used to watch European music videos a lot on the TV.
After a while my family moved to Okinawa. I couldn’t find any friends who had same taste in music as me, so I decided to create songs by myself. I didn’t have any preference for a particular music genre. I just loved anything that was good. But I think probably encountering hip-hop was a very big influence on me.
Some of the live venues understood what we wanted to do with the music, and others just didn’t get it at all
Downy formed in 2000, but before that I had experienced conflict with record labels so—how can I put it—I was always pissed off. [Laughs]
And, you know, some of the live venues understood what we wanted to do with the music, and others just didn’t get it at all, so I always had a lot of doubts about genre-oriented categorization. Of course everyone has a right to judge what he or she listens to, but I just don’t get why people judge music on whether it’s bright or dark or not.
We aimed to create original stuff, but we take a lot of care in how it is expressed, so if you found gentleness in the sound, I think that’s just coming through from the love we have for music. We’ve always known we had to choose music, so maybe that’s what you’re feeling.
BNU: When you released your first album, it wasn’t only the music that felt new for me, it was how you acted. There was a separation between the rock venues and dance clubs, and it was so rare to see a rock band playing in a club. It felt like you wanted to remove that barrier, is that what you intended?
Yeah, I was really into club music at the time, and I really wanted to play with DJs or rappers rather than with bands that I didn’t have any interest in. I’ve always wanted to play in a band that escapes categorization.
BNU: I started coming to your live shows when you released your second album. What surprised me the most was the audience reaction—they were so overwhelmed and in shock because of the performance and atmosphere that they couldn’t even clap. It was like being at butoh or some other serious traditional performance. But social media hadn’t taken off for fans to share their thoughts, and it must have been difficult to gauge the audience reaction?
At the time, I was only interested in playing perfectly, so I totally didn’t mind the reaction of audience. [laughs] We actually thought we did a good show when everyone was quiet.
BNU: For your fourth album, you changed the pitch-black and gloomy blue images of your work up to the third album to molten crimson, with elements of hardcore and chaotic jazz. At the time, Radiohead’s Kid A was causing a lot of Japanese bands to incorporate electronics, but instead, you moved away from that and started playing music that was again totally different and original. This was kind of a shock for a lot of people and had a big impact on me. What prompted you to turn the rudder and change direction?
We discussed going back to our roots as a band, and talked about making an impulsive record. Every time we record, we just aim to exceed our last album. I also think that our music should sound like downy, whatever we do.
BNU: For the fifth album, you not only reached a level of overwhelmingly difficult playing, but you also packed it with a warmth for humanity that I never felt on your former albums. In the interval, members of downy had other individual projects. Do you think the influence of these projects has changed downy’s sound? Has singing and what it means to you changed before and after this record?
During the nine-year hiatus, the other members of the band kept approaching music primarily as musicians, whereas on the other hand, I was living life as just as a listener. After that interval, what became most important for us was acknowledging that all the members have aged and the experience they have gained over those years have become a part of downy’s sound.
With Downy, I always thought my voice was just an instrument, so I sang without passion, and also I didn’t have anything to say. Though, I’ve since became a father and found a new way to communicate with music, so possibly these kinds of experiences affected my singing in ways I didn’t expect.
BNU: The moon often appears as a theme in your music. Could you tell me what your fascination is with the moon?
The moon’s good, isn’t it? Gloomy, but it shines on people. And I like the transience of moon, and that it cannot shine by itself. I also used to enjoy reading stories about the moon. I especially love the Hindu tale about Ganesh and the moon. My father is Indian.
BNU: Can you recommend any musicians that you feel are going to influence the future of music?
Doldrums are awesome.
BNU: Downy is something of a pioneer in that you had and continue to have a permanent VJ member, at a time when most bands didn’t. Why did you choose to work this way rather than just having someone doing it for live performances?
Zakuro [VJ] participates in every stage of creating songs from the first rehearsals, so that musical and visual ideas can be exchanged interactively. We decide the direction of the video and its relationship with the music as we are writing the song. Like, I don’t want a song to be received as blue when it’s intended to be red, you know? I aim to decide, or perhaps I should say to share, the image of songs visually.
BNU: Dare I ask now, but could you tell me how you arrived at the band name “downy”?
There’s no meaning at all. When we formed the band, we needed a name so we could perform live, so we just gave it a name temporarily and it somehow stuck. [Laughs].