Calum Bowen’s music career under the moniker bo en started thanks to a Tokyo label, and the 24-year-old English producer has collaborated with many Japanese electronic musicians since 2013. In the past year, he has worked on songs for rising J-pop singers, and is currently on a mini-tour in the country, set to finish with a show at Akihabara club Mogra on April 11.
To some Western listeners, however, his J-pop-inspired body of work sounds problematic.
“It has been a little later after releasing a song that I’ve been accused of cultural appropriation,” Bowen says. “At the time of doing the song, my main focus was a Japanese crowd.”
“I had this guy on Tumblr who said, ‘No matter what he does, he’ll always just be a white guy with cat ears on.’ “
Bowen walks a wire many young Western artists inspired by Japanese music find themselves balanced on, potentially facing claims of using another culture for his own gain with little regard for context. He says his colorful mix of dance, funk and pop music owes a lot to Japanese acts, and sometimes he sings in Japanese. But, thanks to the Internet, he’s been listening and working directly with artists here before releasing anything as bo en, putting him in a unique position in an online music scene with a growing interest in Japan.
Video games served as Bowen’s gateway into Japanese music. The 2004 roll-the-world-up-into-a-ball title “Katamari Damacy” linked him to mainstream Japanese music (“the soundtrack was, effectively, J-pop”). Bowen began making background music for video games under his real name, which he continues to do.
He used the Web to learn more, from Shibuya-kei to contemporary electronic producers, eventually discovering the online electronic music compilation “Fogpak,” for the sixth edition of which he contributed the song “miss you.”
“The same day that was released, Tomohiro Konuta (founder of online label Maltine Records) messaged me on Twitter asking if I wanted to release something through them. I was like, 100 percent yes, because I loved Avec Avec, who worked with them.”
The subsequent album, 2013’s “pale machine,” featured Avec Avec and electronic music producer mus.hiba, and opened up many opportunities here for Bowen. He has recently expanded to producing songs for other Japanese artists, highlighted by his jittery track “Dancing” for model-turned-pop-star Yun*chi, a surprisingly easy experience: “It wasn’t that strict in the end, they were very accepting of what I did.”
Bowen recognizes his frantic approach to pop can be off-putting to some, especially as his listenership became more Western.
“Maybe putting out some of the things I’ve done could come off as pandering to Western images of Japan. Fundamentally, however, I was comfortable in my intentions,” he says.
Despite the criticism, Bowen’s music has mostly received praise . . . particularly from the Japanese fans he set off to court from the beginning. When asked if he has any advice for artists taking cues from J-pop, such as U.K. pop star Charli XCX, he says, “You have to be up front about your motives, and self-analyze a lot.”