(The following article was written for ARTROCKER MAGAZINE, issue #124, October 2012)
His words are spoken softly and politely, but with a hint of devilment.
“When Kohhei & I started the band in 2006, we were both very thin; like stick-men drawings. We still are!” he laughs.
This proves to be not the only surprise of our forty-five minute long chat: surprise not only in the fact that his quiet and charming manner is the complete antithesis of his on-stage persona and his band’s music, but also in that it would seem like self-deprecating humour transcends national boundaries, and is not reserved exclusively for us Scots.
Taigen Kawabe is bass player / singer in Japanese band Bo Ningen. Three days previously they had returned to their London base following an eight-date tour of their homeland. Except …… Taigen didn’t stay put very long:
“Actually, I’m in Denmark right now?”
“Denmark?! I’m phoning bloody Denmark?!” (My hope: a quiet little thought to myself. My fear: an involuntary and rather embarrassing vocal exclamation!)
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” continues Taigen. “I’m here in Copenhagen with my side-project, Devilman. Did our manager not tell you?”
I take mental note to hide the phone-bill when it arrives, keep calm and carry on.
“Normally, we’d tour Japan once a year, but this year with the Olympics in London there was more reason to get out and do another tour, so this was our second visit!
It’s interesting you know, because when we go home we have like three different types of audience come see us play: there are those who are into western rock music and see us as a UK band; there are those who treat us as a Japanese band, and then there are those who see us as an underground band from nowhere! I’m pretty happy at that as it breaks the audience and genre boundaries.”
Bo Ningen are now widely regarded as a ‘psychedelic’ band, and a very loud and energetic one at that. But prior to Taigen joining forces with guitarist Kohhei, and later by Yuki (also guitar) and Mon-chan on drums, none of them were particularly into that style of music.
“No – each of us was more into ‘experimental’ and ‘noise’ music- ‘Japanoise.’ But we’re happy now to be classed as a ‘psych,’ band because unlike say ‘punk’ music, which has a defined sound, I don’t think there is any restriction to the ‘psychedelic’ music. Like in our live shows…. I choose to sing in Japanese partly because I can then change the lyrics to a song if I feel like it, just to keep it fresh for us. And though we don’t incorporate so much improvised music in our set these days, we do normally have about ten to twenty percent ‘free space’ to expand on the rehearsed sound.”
Although their early ‘free-form’ and ‘noise’ backgrounds are still evident in some of their songs, more particularly in the longer ‘epic’ tracks, Bo Ningen also manage to meld a quintessentially artrock feel and attitude to their work, with Taigen, Kohhei and Yuki all having studied various forms of art and music in London colleges before linking up. Taigen feels there is a distinct friendliness around that scene that has encouraged the band’s association with the art community in the city – a sort of camaraderie that has previously seen them play at various arts galleries / spaces and collaborated (and played) at an exhibition hosted by the young British art collective, Tim Noble and Sue Webster.
Actually, with Bo Ningen you get so much more than just one band and their music. Added to their various side-projects, they are gaining a burgeoning reputation for their collaborations and re-mixes.
The most notable of these of course is their recent work with Can legend, Damo Suzuki, with whom they again performed on their recent tour of Japan.
“We all loved Can as a band, and had met Damo in the past, so when the organiser of the album (‘Foreign Affair Confidential’) asked if we’d like to be involved, we jumped at the chance,” says Taigen. “You know – Damo now tours the world, playing with local musicians in totally improvised sets, so it kind of took us back to our roots in a way.”
And the Krautrock association doesn’t end there, although Taigen seems a little touchy on the present day overuse of the term!
“Many bands refer to the term ‘krautrock,’ as a means of explaining their love for repetitive riffs; maybe because it’s ‘cool’ to do so? But it’s bands like Can who managed to blend experimental music with Rock that are true to the sound. ‘Krautrock’ relates to the Sixties and Seventies.”
I would have used an exclamation mark just there, but Taigen sounds so polite, I interpret his dig as more of a playful jibe at what he perceives the current trend. After all, if it comes to points scoring there can’t be many who have not only worked with Damo, but also been requested to re-mix for giants of the scene like Faust.
Last month’s Artrocker New Blood subjects, Dark Horses have also benefited from the fresh interpretation of their music by Bo Ningen.
But by far, the most surprising collaboration was their link-up with Japanese band Denpagumi. This is a six-piece J-pop band (all female) whose music and image could not be further from that of Bo Ningen.
“It wasn’t planned as such,” says Taigen, “but I’ve always loved the ‘extreme’ sound of their J-pop; their passion and performance, and fast ‘bpm’ nature of the music. Through general discussions on art and music with a third party, we discovered that Denpagumi and ourselves had much in common and so it was suggested we play together. We ended up playing a half-acoustic set with them, and to be honest it was one of the most exciting shows we’ve played! I’m the only one in the band to like ‘idol’ music, but Kohhei, Yuki and Mon-chan were also very happy with what we did.”
It’s this willingness to experiment with sound and ideas that has gained Bo Ningen such a burgeoning reputation. While their core sound is built around big psych and Seventies space-rock type riffs, the more abrasive add-ons like Japanoise and freeform jazz influences are occasionally offset by a softer, more subtle side.
“Even before we recorded the new ‘Line the Wall’ album, we were playing and listening to this type of music,” Taigen mentions. “The slower songs on there, ‘Ten to Sen,’ and ‘Natsu No Nioi,’ go down well with the audience when we play them live – though the latter does kind of surprise the crowds back in Japan!”
‘Line The Wall,’ is the follow-up to 2010’s eponymous debut which received so much critical acclaim and brought them to the attention of gig-going, record-buying public. It contains re-workings of all three tracks from the highly sought-after limited release ‘Live at St. Leonard’s Church,’ 10” and was produced by the band themselves.
“Because we consider ourselves first and foremost a ‘live’ band, it’s really important that we capture the energy from our shows onto our recordings. With the first album, it was quite straight forward – we simply recorded ‘live’ in the studio. With this one though, because we’re all quite into Production ourselves, we took the vibe from our shows, played ‘live’ in the studio again, but then added some overdubs etc. I think if I were to consider the first album, I’d say it was like one or two colours. This one however has ten songs … and ten colours! Yet I like to think that people will see it as one ‘work’: one continuous piece.”
Bo Ningen will be hitting the roads of UK throughout October to ‘tour’ the ‘Line the Wall’ album which s scheduled for release early in the same month. Surprisingly, this will be their first headline tour, having previously played across Britain, Europe and Japan with the likes of Keiji Haino, Merzbow, Guitar Wolf, Toy and most recently The Horrors. They hope also to make their first sojourn to The States sometime in the New Year.
Sure – they may still be the ‘match men’ in appearance, but it looks as though their new album and various other works are set to see Bo Ningen destined to become real heavyweights of the worldwide ‘underground’ music scene.