The members of Chai aren’t content with “kawaii.” That word — meaning “cute,” but in a kind of pitiable way — gets tossed around a lot in Japan and by people overseas, who use it to refer to almost anything Japanese.
“The media defines it as a very specific attitude and look,” bassist Yuuki tells The Japan Times from the Shibuya O-nest venue, several hours before her band is scheduled to play. Vocalist and keyboard player Mana chimes in: “We were never really called ‘kawaii’ while we were growing up. We think people define it as something that’s quite uniform: skinny, big eyes, whiter skin. If you don’t have that, you can’t be kawaii. You immediately go to being ugly.”
“We want to change that,” Yuuki adds.
To that end, Chai pushes a concept called “neo kawaii” in its fidgety rock music, a guiding principle calling for inclusivity.
“Everyone has something about them that’s kawaii,” Mana says (the members don’t reveal their full names because they’re worried about their privacy). “Being different from other people is kawaii. Being unique is kawaii.” The video for the song “N.E.O.” visually sums these thoughts up, celebrating a wide array of body types.
The sentiment carries over to the rest of Chai’s music, which finds the quartet rejecting cliched Japanese rock trappings — songs about romantic love — in favor of odes to food, bartenders and psychological complexes. In the past year the band has gotten a lot of buzz, graduating to bigger stages and even hanging out with pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Chai has also made inroads into the States, having performed across the country as part of Japan Nite last year, and with a trip to this year’s South By Southwest Music Conference & Festivals preceded by a California tour. The band also has a new EP due out in May.
The band formed in 2012 in Nagoya, the city where Mana and her twin sister, guitarist and singer Kana, and drummer Yuna grew up.
“The three of us went to the same high school, but came together in college,” Mana says. Yuuki grew up in nearby Gifu, joining the group in university despite never having played an instrument before. She took up the bass, the only position that was left.
Mana and Yuuki say they grew up listening to J-pop acts such as Tokyo Jihen, but Chai draws its influence from a number of non-Japanese acts too. While names like Tom Tom Club, CSS and Tune-Yards sound like natural sources, the members cite more unexpected choices such as Justice and The xx. One place they don’t draw inspiration from? Nagoya’s music scene.
“Yeah, there’s nothing,” Mana says, before Yuuki quickly follows up. “To be honest, we kind of went against the Nagoya music scene.”
Mana explains that the bands they encountered in their hometown sounded like they were merely imitating whatever was trendy in J-pop.
Chai operates on its own path, though comparisons to other acts are legitimate. The group’s whimsical approach to lyrics (often about food) recall Shonen Knife and Cibo Matto, and their energy brings to mind ramshackle acts like Dotsuitarunen. The members approach songwriting almost like collage. Mana says she and her sister create the songs, setting aside a day to write. She says they try to combine elements from two or three songs they like into something they can make their own.
“I do everything using my voice and record it all on my phone’s voice memo app,” Mana says, often joined by Kana strumming the guitar next to her.
This approach may explain why the songs on Chai’s debut album, “Pink,” jump all over the place stylistically. The band gravitates toward start-and-stop rock melodies the most, such as on the twisty “Boyz Seco Men” and shouty “N.E.O.” Yet they also dabble in electro-pop propulsion on “Fried,” power pop on “Walking Star” and sparser playing on “Horechatta” (“Fallin Love”) which sounds as close as the group’s going to get to a ballad.
“That’s a love song, yeah, but it’s way too early for us to talk about loving someone else,” Yuuki says of “Horechatta.” (In addition to keeping their names a secret, they won’t divulge their ages either.) “But we could totally write a love song about gyoza, which is something all of us love. That’s the type of love song we can write.”
The tracks on “Pink” aren’t just about food, though; the group can get quite introspective, singing about psychological complexes or “something about yourself you don’t like, so you end up dwelling on it,” Yuuki says.
“Flat Girl” is about women with small breasts. “But the message is that sometimes less is more than OK, and lacking something can actually be more attractive,” Yuuki says.
“I think Chai’s music and style is so genuine that it resonates beyond just Japan and beyond any language barriers,” Sean Bohrman, co-founder of California’s Burger Records, says via email. He first came across the group while assembling a compilation of Japanese rock released late last year. He liked Chai’s music, but it was the videos — a mix of Instagram-inspired style and improv generated by the director pointing somewhere and telling the band to dance — that sold him.
“Their music is super-catchy and their videos are artistic and fun, and that is what sets them apart from bands in Japan and outside as well,” he says. Burger released “Pink” in the U.S. in February, positioning it as part of its garage rock universe — a stark contrast to where Chai stands at Sony Music Japan. “Fun music is hard to find!” he says.
The fun continues at Chai’s gig at O-nest later that day. The band performs songs from “Pink” with giddiness and self-assurance, mixing in sillier bits like a minute-long tune that implores fans to check out the merchandise table. The members are confident on stage, but it takes work.
“We give ourselves compliments in the mirror every day, to build up our confidence,” Yuuki says. Today, Mana told herself, “You can do this, you are a very good singer.” Yuuki, meanwhile says they’ll also adopt imagined scenarios.
“Like we pretend we are foreign talent. We’re from Hong Kong today, and the flight was so long and I feel a bit rough. But I have to perform better than ever, since I came all this way.”
It’s a cute idea, but it’s on Chai’s terms.
“Pink” is in stores now. Chai is currently on tour in the United States and will play Alex’s Bar in Long Beach, California, on March 11 at 8 p.m.; and The Casbah in San Diego on March 12 at 9 p.m. The band then moves to Austin, Texas, for SXSW and shows at Spider House and Maggie Mae’s on March 15; Hotel Vegas for Burgermania VII on March 17, and more. For more information, visit chai-band.com.