Sarah Midori Perry remembers checking MixB, an online bulletin board for Japanese expats in London, almost every day … and feeling underwhelmed.
“It was usually like, ‘We are looking for a waitress,’ just really boring things. But sometimes there’s gold,” she says.
Her best discovery came in late 2012, when Perry found an ad seeking a singer for a music project. Two young London musicians, Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled, made the post.
“We got the best response, which was Sarah,” Lobban says.
Perry joined the group soon after, and her addition cemented the current line-up for Kero Kero Bonito, a playful trio who will embark on a brief tour of Japan at the end of this month. It’s an especially meaningful trip for the members, as Lobban and Bulled both cite Japanese pop culture and music as pivotal in their growth as artists, while it’s a bit of a homecoming for Perry, who lived near Nagoya until age 13.
This tour comes as the outfit has seen its profile rise in recent years. Kero Kero Bonito (often shortened to KKB) released a mixtape titled “Intro Bonito” last year that featured colorful tracks with both English and Japanese lyrics that touch on topics like doing your homework and how weird babies are.
“Sarah had these completely off-the-bat rap skills in the first rehearsal. And she’s bilingual which is really interesting from a songwriting point of view,” Lobban says. “We just built it around her.”
Lobban and Bulled have known each other since they were kids and began making music together while in school. They initially got into Japanese music via video games.
“There was also certainly a crossover with anime on British television, like on ITV when we were small,” Bulled says, with Lobban adding that in Britain at the time “Japanese pop culture was pretty much the dominant pop culture.”
Despite being immersed in Pokemon and Playstation, it took time for the two to really look into J-pop.
“We didn’t think there was a massive Japanese music scene, but then you go on HMV Japan, and it’s an avalanche,” Lobban says with a laugh. They were soon charmed by the likes of Plastics, Sheena Ringo and Perfume.
He also mentions Halcali, a rap duo whose heyday came in the early 2000s and are known for pop-rap that dips into other languages, such as Spanish. KKB, in particular, come across like descendents of that pair’s genre-jumping style. And Perry enjoyed them, too.
“In general, the first time I was involved with anything music-wise was when I was in a brass band playing saxophone while in Japan,” she says. Perry studied painting, but eventually felt motivated to express her visual style through sound.
“When I’m writing the rap, I’ve got two languages to work with and I have twice as much material,” she says, adding that she doesn’t like it when people hold her to one side or the other. “When it feels right, because it has the right meaning, I’ll use it.”
“I think there is a bit of a sad thing of people seeing Japanese — or any other languages from English — as a novelty,” Lobban says, adding that luckily the trio has managed to mostly avoid such criticism. He also points out they aren’t just singing about Japanese things, citing their song “Small Town” as capturing the feel of life in a U.K. suburb.
The use of Japanese has helped KKB make inroads in Japan, however. Lobban says the island is the group’s second-biggest market, and Perry has had the chance to rap over several local independent producers’ songs. Lobban says he’s most excited to check in on new music going on in the country (“people like Avec Avec, Pa’s Lam System … basically amazingly talented producers who, if they were on Mad Decent, would be massive”), while Bulled says he’s excited to physically meet people he’s only known through the Internet.
“I don’t know what’s going on in Japan right now,” Perry says, recalling that, when she lived in the country, Orange Range and Mr. Children were all the rage. “I can’t wait to get up to date.”
Kero Kero Bonito plays Sound Bar Mirai in Nagoya on Oct. 29 (7 p.m. start; ¥2,000 in advance); Compass in Osaka on Oct. 30 (5 p.m.; ¥3,000 in adv.); Lounge Neo in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Oct. 31 (11 p.m.; ¥2,500 in adv.); and Kurawood in Taito-ku, Tokyo, on Nov. 1 (7:30 p.m.; ¥2,500 in adv.). For more information, visit www.facebook.com/kerokerobonito