Spring 2020 was shaping up to be a busy period for Fukuoka rock quartet Yonawo (usually stylized as yonawo). Ahead of its first major-label mini album, “Lobster” the band had domestic shows and festival spots to look forward to, along with a trip to Texas for the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival.
Then, a global pandemic wiped out those plans and threw future Japan dates into question, too.
“What are you gonna do?” says guitarist Yuya Saito. It’s a fittingly placid answer from a group gaining momentum thanks to the breezy pace of its songs. The band — consisting of Saito, vocalist and primary composer Shota Aratani, bassist Satoshi Tanaka and drummer Takafumi Nomoto, all in their 20s — represents a third wave of mid-tempo rock-pop that often unfolds in no particular rush, reflecting a desire to chill from Japan’s young adults.
“We wanted to show different sides of Yonawo. We are often introduced as making chill music, but with ‘Lobster’ we hoped to highlight our funk and heavier sounds,” Aratani says. The bulk of the release strolls ahead, but includes moments of horn-assisted funkiness (“2 A.M.”), and intricacy revealing greater songwriting prowess (“Mademoiselle”). The record reflects a nascent band trying to find its own take on a sound that has enjoyed bursts of popularity over the past five years.
Aratani and Saito met while bands such as Suchmos and Yogee New Waves were just starting to turn this funk-adjacent rock sound into a cool, new wave.
“We were on the same junior high school soccer team,” Saito says. (Aratani played midfielder, Saito manned the goal).
They met Nomoto and Tanaka in high school, and a shared interest in the Beatles and Arctic Monkeys brought them closer together. Even being cooped up in a Fukuoka business hotel to conduct press interviews all day doesn’t chip away at their bond, as they spend our talk sharing convenience store snacks and poking fun at their first memory of meeting Aratani, who was wearing an all-denim outfit.
The band itself came together soon after, but Aratani says they’ve always felt a bit out of place in Fukuoka.
“We’re like outsiders,” he says, which makes sense — Kyushu’s biggest city is best-known for more aggressive rock acts such as Sheena Ringo and Number Girl. “We don’t really care if we fit into a physical community like Fukuoka, because social media and the internet in general is so much bigger.”
To that end, Yonawo’s earliest recordings in high school were uploaded straight to YouTube, where classmates discovered them. When the band performed its first live show at a school culture festival afterparty, it had its own fan community ready to go.
The four started playing beyond their hometown, releasing one self-recorded and now unavailable EP titled “Shrimp” in 2018 that made them an “artist to watch” on Apple Music and led to rock staple Enon Kawatani giving them a shout out. As a second wave of acts making music aimed at soundtracking young people’s lives in the city rose up — guided by bands such as Nulbarich and Wonk — Yonawo’s members were starting to polish their sound and challenge themselves.
“I get bored easily,” Aratani says of trying new approaches to songwriting. He handles almost all of the composition, bringing ideas to the studio to flesh out with his bandmates. He says “Lobster” is partially an introduction to Yonawo for new listeners, adding that he wants to show fans the group is capable of progressing. Since its release, the group has shared “Good Job,” a new single that leans toward sparser funk.
What comes next has become a bit more difficult. Yonawo has two release shows for “Lobster” still in the works, but it feels safe to speculate that they will be postponed or canceled.
Perhaps, then, the third wave sound Yonawo represents could take shape as an online-centric escape from a hectic world (the band has nodded to this on the video for “Shiawase,” which riffs on the “stay home” idea). “Lobster” sounds out of step with the mood of Japan and the world in 2020, but it also feels nice to retreat into something so relaxed and upbeat. Given the group’s attitude, it’ll be ready for whatever comes after.
For more information, visit https://yonawo.com.