Though seasoned music festival veterans overseas, the four members of British rock band Bo Ningen had never been to a Japanese event until Fuji Rock in 2013.
“It was really fun compared to festivals in other countries,” says singer and bassist Taigen Kawabe. “It’s clean, safe, the food is good and the sound was great. I’m really looking forward to playing there again.”
Kawabe and his band mates — guitarists Kohhei Matsuda and Yuki Tsujii, and drummer Akihide “Mon-chan” Monna — are all originally from various regions in Japan. However, they all met in London while Kawabe was there studying art. The band is part of this year’s Fuji Rock Festival and will perform on June 24, the festival’s third day, on the White Stage, which is the second-largest. The performance will be the group’s second appearance at the festival and, for the quartet, it feels a bit like homecoming.
“We love touring Japan. It’s our home. We get to come back and see our families,” Kawabe says.
Formed in 2006, the psychedelic quartet has since gained critical acclaim both here and abroad. While they’re all Japanese, the group has come to self-identify itself as a British band.
“It’s a fact,” shrugs guitarist Matsuda. “We met in London, and we’ve lived there for nine years now. We’re Japanese, but I think we’re a London band.”
Kawabe says that their London background definitely influenced the group’s sound. On the band’s latest track, “Kizetsu no Uta,” Bo Ningen weaves together an upbeat psychedelic number that features a catchy, walking bass riff and eerie vocal delivery by Kawabe. The track was released in June as part of the “Kizetsu no Uta/Live in Paris” EP, which also includes a complete live set that was recorded at La Cigale in March.
That show was part of a joint tour with British punk band Savages. They have frequently collaborated with Bo Ningen, including on the 2014 album “Words To The Blind,” which was credited to both bands.
“In Japan, bands can’t play gigs as soon as they form; you just end up spending money. You don’t have to worry about that overseas,” he says, referring to this country’s noruma (pay-to-play) system. “Even songwriting, we would play shows without really having everything decided. It’s easier to try things (in Britain). Even the studio environment is different. Japan is very clean, like karaoke places. But overseas it’s very dirty and you bring in your own amps. You can play anywhere.”
Unlike other bands with Japanese members who have gone on to receive attention outside the country, the guys in Bo Ningen never really played shows in the underground music scene here, and only discovered stalwarts such as Merzbow and Keiji Haino after forming in London. Perhaps because of this unique background, the group seems to have a different grasp and perception of Japan’s scene and other internationally known Japanese acts.
“In Japan they’re seen as these underground artists, but over there, they’re much more well-known and received differently critically,” Kawabe says. “I’m glad that I was exposed to these artists while overseas from an outside perspective. I think I would have seen them differently had I been in Japan.”
But what about Bo Ningen?
“It’s different for each area,” Matsuda says. “People who’ve known us since we started in London will see us as a London band, but, because we’re all Japanese, when we go somewhere else people will think we’re coming from Japan.”
“It’s not like that bothers us though,” Kawabe adds. “When we played at (Austin music festival) South by Southwest, they put us on a British band showcase, and we were treated as a foreign band when we played at Summer Sonic, and to us it was all very natural. But we don’t mind being called hōgaku (domestic music) either. I think in Japan there are music fans who only listen to hōgaku or yōgaku (overseas music) or even only underground music, and I think it’s up to us to mix those people together.”
Which makes the band’s inclusion on the Fuji Rock roster, which is known for an eclectic lineup that mixes Japanese and international artists, all the more interesting. The festival won’t be the band’s only opportunity to mingle with the locals; Bo Ningen has also organized a series of “vs.” events that have them playing with other up-and-coming acts from Japan, from the instrumental progressive Mouse on the Keys, guitar rock band Tricot and minimal mellow pop collective D.A.N.
“We get really nervous when we play at venues in Japan, because everything is so nice,” Kawabe says. “The buildings are designed for shows, ticket prices are more expensive and the staff are there specifically for the event. The audience, too, is there for the show and pays attention. I love it.”
The band’s activities within Japan suggest a desire to expand its audience and not only cater to the familiar underground and psychedelic crowd, which perhaps reflects the nature and trappings of the Japanese music scene more than the band itself.
“In Britain the underground and mainstream are connected. I think the Japanese music scene and industry is very unique. It’s a true Galapagos,” Kawabe says referring to the isolated quality of the business here. “When looking at it from the outside, it’s interesting. But when we are actually in the middle of it, we feel a bit out of our element. If we just did what we wanted, people would only see us as an underground band. We have to find balance with what we want to do and what’s good for the band’s activities in Japan. I think these upcoming shows reflect that.”
“I think the Japanese music scene is just built in a way that makes things hard to see,” Matsuda adds.
With home bases in both Tokyo and London, it seems as though the group has created a space for itself that many bands would kill to be in, with a fluidity and perspective only attainable through vigorous touring spanning countries, oceans and continents.
“I’m grateful to be in the position we’re in,” Kawabe says. “We’re able to see all scenes — U.S., U.K. and Japan — from inside and outside. We want to be that connecting tissue, of not being hōgaku or yōgaku. We want to be able to cause a chemical reaction.”
Bo Ningen plays with Tricot at Daikanyama Unit in Tokyo on July 12 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥3,800 in advance; 03-5459-8630); with D.A.N. at Shibuya WWW in Tokyo on July 20 (7:30 p.m.; ¥3,500 in adv.; 03-5458-7685); on the White Stage at Fuji Rock Festival in Niigata Pref. on July 24 and at ShinDaita Fever in Tokyo on July 26 (7 p.m.; ¥2,500; 03-6304-7899). For more information, visit www.boningen.info.