Nobody can categorise them, but they were in Zoolander 2. The Japanese foursome Bo Ningen explore their roots, both in London and in Japan and explain why the London music scene is so important internationally.
Text by Amy Murphy
Photography by @mmmaqa
Approx reading time: 9 mins
Listening time: 09:16
The acid punk four piece are already making a name for themselves alongside the avant-garde luminaries of Japanese underground culture they so ardently revere, and the self-proclaimed enlightenment activists continue to thrill.
Known in equal measure for incendiary theatrical performances and unfathomably intricate, technically proficient music, Bo Ningen’s recent foray into fashion, namely Zoolander 2 and the recent Alexander AW16 campaign, has undoubtedly broadened their appeal.
“I like it when we are shocking,” says Taigen - the band fresh from a photoshoot, reclining and now looking thoroughly out of place in an Elephant and Castle greasy spoon.
“For us it’s better if people come away from a gig and really experience something, than for everyone to enjoy it.”
Taigen Kawabe (bass/vocals), Yuki Tsujii (guitar), Kohhei Matsuda (guitar) and Monchan Monna (drums) met in east London, where they eventually formed Bo Ningen three years after moving from Japan. They were brought together by a mutual appreciation of underground Japanese subculture. Though, as with any meeting of great musical minds played out in the right place and right time, one could be forgiven for thinking that their assembly was guided by the hand of fate.
“We came here when we were 18. We uncovered the alternative Japanese movement over here. We got on well and formed the band. It was definitely Japanese underground music that brought us together.”
The band’s time in London has been integral in defining their east-meets-west appeal. As Taigen explains, being taken out of the environment in which they grew up, allowed them to appreciate the value of Japanese music through Western ears.
“I didn't notice this when I was in Japan, but after I came here, I found that even pop music is so different. I don’t really listen to much of it, but Japanese pop is even more complicated than British pop, and it’s more extreme in a way. British music is more straight.”
If there is one thing Bo Ningen is not, it’s straight. Not content to anaesthetise their audience with a remastered regurgitation of any kind, the band have painstakingly laboured in their Hackney studio to master an authentic sound devoid of duplication. Though Taigen can appreciate that their musical exploits has the propensity to alienate.
“When I was a kid and watched something extreme, I remembered being really shocked at the time. Now l get it. Something doesn’t have to be understandable straight away.
“We like to share and educate. We don’t tell people what to do or what listen to. But we can give them an idea of something new.
“Personally l like a different reaction. I don’t mind if people are too unsettled listening to our music and watching our show. Music should be open to everyone.”
I take the laughter that follows as a subtle acknowledgment of the irony in the statement as their niche nature appeals to a more discerning and musically-educated band of followers.
“Psych is definitely pretentious. I am bored with it, actually. Everyone is into the seventies now, it’s all about that era of seventies psych. It’s been done a million times before. So many bands out there are just copying a beat like in Krautrock, or in psych just copying the pedal. It’s so shallow, it’s just too straight.”
The band sound is crafted with a precision; jaw dropping production and complex structures rife with calculated idiosyncrasies that weave in and out of consciousness, yet still manage to follow a melodic direction.
“If we make music and it comes out sounding too straight, we fix it and make something new. We want to make the balance of something in between. Use psychedelia as the filter. We listen to different types of music, put it into the Bo Ningen filter and it comes out as something else.”
The Bo Ningen filter is a thing of beauty; a visceral chamber where influences go and percolate out the other side. Much like the art that has impacted them, like Kusama Yayoi's Infinity Room; a vast expanse of dots captured in narratives of organised chaos, only to explode again.
Bo Ningen’s live performance is an experimental orgy of sound that dislocates from any expected trajectory into unfolding tangents of scattered distortion, reverb and rifts conducted by the confusion of Taigen’s possessed gesticulations.
Audience and live engagement is a large part of the Bo Ningen experience. For them, performing goes beyond just playing to a room of people. Taigen is affected by the notion of soundscape and how sound and environment marry. He cites a Japanese book on the subject amongst his favourites, having studied the concept at university and choosing to further explore it in his own choice recreational exploits.
“It’s interesting to think of a space in terms of sound rather than in a visual way”, he says.
They cite many left-field influences, drawn from outside the hazy world of psych music, informing the band’s creative output. Camera Lucida, a work by French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes that explores the effects of photography on the spectator, is among Yuki’s favourites.
Their curiosity of various art forms and the audience experience manifests itself in their provocative performances, as Yuki says: “We like realism.”
The bandmates’ need for engagement is evident in their choice of favourite venue; Cafe OTO in Dalston as Yuki details their fondness of the dynamic and somewhat unconventional hideout.
“It’s got all this space, and these chairs… Every time we play there people actually sit down and just listen. That’s a new experience for us. It’s not your conventional live space.
“We are interested in the audience, they are part of our daily lives. That’s how we can actually cross over.”
All of the influences they cite share a similar penchant for the subversion of music and live performance, such as singer songwriter Keiji Haino, whose expansive repertoire ranges from psychedelic experimental rock to jazz, classical and everything in between.
Likewise, Otomo Yoshihide, the multi-instrumentalist frontman of experimental rock outfit Ground Zero, is in Kohhei’s words, “a class guy”. He has won the band’s affection for being one of the very few Japanese underground musicians to successfully cross over to a mainstream audience, which they explain, “doesn’t really happen in Japan”. Something which the band themselves have successfully managed to do.
“There is a healthier connection between the underground and mainstream in the UK.”
In the world of psych world, there is a natural curiosity behind the motivations of the musicians whose modus operandi is often fuelled by a desire to go beyond the usual confines of the norm.
Yet off the stage, Bo Ningen’s motivations are less easily discerned. They have consciously avoided the usual trappings that has distracted many of their predecessors viewing drugs as a hindrance on creativity rather than a catalyst.
"When you take drugs you’re more easily excited and you become more happy. We don’t want to get like that. It spoils the creativity for us, when people are getting excited and happy on drugs when it’s not just because of the music.
“We don’t want to be blinded by drugs.”
If anything, Bo Ningen’s live performance is testament to this. The music and performance to induce a mind altering state.
There is an air of dignity to the band, a dispossessed grace and charm which instantly arrests you. They would forgo fame and return to a ten hour jam session in the studio if notoriety ever sought to compromise their music. In a world becoming increasingly saturated with malign self-promotion and awareness, their refusal to conform to the unashamedly egotistical brand of rock and roll that can derail many, makes them more interesting, dare say it, cooler; it exemplifies that they are musicians first and foremost.
Text by Amy Murphy
Photography by @mmmaqa