How might typical Japanese music fans look if they stopped worrying about social norms? Take a look at British-based psychedelic-rock band Bo Ningen and you may find the answer.
I meet the band at a cafe after they’ve wrapped up a day in the studio rehearsing for an upcoming two-month tour to promote their new EP, “Henkan.” All four members sport long black hair that reaches down their chests and, despite one being dressed in tribal prints and another in a woman’s dress, they all look similar. Kind of like a bunch of metalheads from the 1970s … with a touch of goth.
“In England, you don’t have to care much about what people think about you,” says singer/bassist Taigen Kawabe. “I don’t think we’d have these hairstyles if we were studying at a Japanese university. I think we’ve achieved the exact look that we want.”
It’s not just Bo Ningen’s look that’s hard to pin down. Their sound has also stumped critics looking to define them. When asked what genre their music fits into, guitarist Kohhei Matsuda jokingly replies, “Future rock.” Guitarist Yuki Tsujii quickly follows that up with “Psychedelic future.” Kawabe takes a moment to organize their answers and decides the band is more or less psychedelic rock.
“There could be many interpretations for the term ‘psychedelic,’ but it comes down to theory,” he says. “Metal has a certain form, if you break its rules you’re not metal. And if you mix some other style into it, you’re more alternative rock. Psychedelic rock has a different meaning for each person, it doesn’t mean we’re into drugs or play 30-minute songs.”
Bo Ningen didn’t set out to be an all-Japanese group, but the members met each other by chance in London. Kawabe, Matsuda and Tsujii all went there for college, and drummer Akihide “Mon-chan” Monna went there to pursue a career in the fashion industry.
Kawabe and Matsuda started the band in 2007 after meeting at a Japanese expat event. Tsujii and Monna were introduced to the band shortly thereafter.
Monna says the band started out by never refusing an opportunity to play a gig. He credits the absence of noruma (the pay-to-play system that Japanese venues operate under) as making this possible. In Japan, bands pay live venues a deposit that equals an agreed-upon number of tickets. Once they sell past that number, the band can get a cut of the profits. In England though, the group says they were given more chances to play without having to pay anything to venues, just as long as the four of them didn’t care about when, where or with whom they’d share the billing.
“Since no one knew about us, we contacted any venue we could and performed,” Tsujii says. “We even performed after a folk singer who was really not that good. It was like something a dude would play at a wedding.”
Bo Ningen following a wedding singer would be a bit jarring for most crowds. The band’s shows consist of Kawabe’s high-pitched wails, noisy guitar riffs and their long hair thrashing the air. The band will often come crashing down on top of each other at the end of the show.
It was this kind of performance that caught the attention of Vice magazine, who recruited Bo Ningen for a show at London’s The Old Blue Last. Recalling the show, the band starts grinning and reminiscing about their first big payout of £50 (¥6,000). It was also their first performance in the trendy East London district.
“Since that party, we’ve been performing in East London with musicians who share a similar style, and who are trying new things,” says Kawabe. The people they met at the Vice show have since become the members’ friends and business partners, including the staff of record label, Stolen Recordings.
A place like London is filled with cutting-edge bands fighting for attention on the live circuit. Bo Ningen’s members agree that their Japanese nationality gives them a bit of exotic appeal at live shows, but they also consider themselves “London boys.” Kawabe says usually people assume they’re a British band, but they label themselves as “a band from the U.K. with Japanese origins.” When Bo Ningen’s eponymous debut album was released in Japan, Tower Records put it in both the domestic and international sections.
“That is one of our strengths,” Kawabe says. “Japanese audiences tend to listen to a narrow range of genres: domestic, international or underground. So we are lucky that we can appeal to them all. Being mentioned by (U.K. band) The Horrors in a magazine didn’t hurt either.”
Tsujii adds that audiences in London are also much more varied than in Japan.
“(In London) there are artists, young hipsters even drunk old men at our shows,” he says. “It’s like they’re all gathering as if they were at a pub.” That’s an enviable situation for bands based in Japan, who must work hard to attract new people to their events.
It could be easy for such a varied crowd to turn on Bo Ningen’s extreme performances, but they say the response is usually positive. This could be a result of their own musical tastes shining through. The members cite influences from electronic music to free jazz to underground Japanese music. If these tastes are evident to listeners, though, they are very subtle.
“I don’t like it when influences are easily recognizable,” Kawabe says. “I don’t mind people appreciating or honoring a form of music, but if a song or performance resembles an influence too closely then I think it’s more like a form of acting.”
This idea may explain why they titled their latest release, “Henkan”, which translates as “conversion” in English. It’s a sound they say cannot be achieved by solely British or Japanese bands, instead it stands in the middle of the two. The lyrics are in Japanese, sung so quickly that even motor-mouthed Tokyoites have trouble interpreting it, but that’s exactly what the band wants. Listening to the track “Henkan,” Kawabe’s vocals fly in various directions and intertwine with a flanged fuzzy guitar — it’s almost hypnotizing.
“The words are converted in my brain, but if it’s so fast that even my brain can’t catch up, then words I wasn’t even thinking of come out,” Kawabe says. “It’s even more interesting if the audience converts it differently in their own heads.”
Bo Ningen’s penchant for experimentation is apparent on the other new track on the EP, “Chitei Ningen Mogura,” which translates loosely as “Underground Human Mole.” In that song, the drum and bass are equalized heavier than on the other tracks and put on top of a continuous beat that gives the impression of footsteps echoing in the darkness of a cave.
The band members also see a lot of possibility for experimenting through remixes of their previously released tracks. On the EP, “Yurayura Kaeru” is remixed by The Horrors and “Sankaku” (“Triangle” which is stylized as an actual triangle) is remixed by Devil Man. Kawabe sees remixes as an important bridge between fans and the group’s own favorite musicians.
“I have the experience of knowing great musicians from remixes,” Kawabe says. “So I want our songs to be remixed by musicians and known by the average person who might not have had a chance to know them otherwise.”
Bo Ningen understand that there will be a certain crowd of dedicated fans following them while they are home for the holidays in Japan, but they maintain they’re not part of a specific scene.
“We must always be creative and try out new, things” Kawabe says. “But at the same time, we must maintain our definite identity. I guess it’s our job to keep an even balance.”
Bo Ningen’s Japan tour takes in Meromeropocchi in Kanezawa on Jan. 7 (6 p.m. start; ¥2,000 in advance, ¥2,500 at the door;  234-5556); Fandango in Osaka on Jan. 8 (6:20 p.m.; ¥2,800/¥3,300;  6308-1621); Apollo Theater in Nagoya on Jan. 9 (6:30 p.m.; ¥2,800/¥3,300;  261-5308); G-Side in Hamamatsu on Jan. 14 (TBA; ¥2,500/¥3,000;  541-5067); O-Nest in Shibuya, Tokyo, on Jan. 15 (6 p.m.; ¥2,800/¥3,300;  3462-4420); Sound Lab Mole in Sapporo on Jan. 20 (6:30 p.m.; ¥2,000/¥2,500;  207-5101); Club Shaft in Sendai on Jan. 22 (7 p.m.; ¥2,500/¥3,000;  722-5651); Club Asia in Shibuya, Tokyo, on Jan. 29 (4 p.m. doors open; ¥3,000/¥3,500;  5458-2551); Groove in Urasoe, Okinawa, on Feb. 4 (TBA;  879-4977); G-Shelter in Ginowan, Okinawa, on Feb. 5 (TBA;  7585-7598); Navaro in Kumamoto on Feb. 10 (8:30 p.m.; ¥2,000/¥2,500;  352-1200); Rag-G in Saga on Feb. 11 (5:30 p.m.; ¥2,000/¥2,500;  226-2687); Utero in Fukuoka on Feb. 12 (6 p.m.; ¥2,000/¥2,500;  201-0553).