KCSB’s Finnegan Smith sat down with the genre-bending trio known as Kero Kero Bonito to discuss the band’s musical influences, exciting creative visions, and more. Read the interview below!
Finnegan: The past year and a half has been a roller coaster for everyone. How did the pandemic and the lockdowns affect Kero Kero Bonito’s artistic process?
Jamie: We were separate, and we have been working separately, almost throughout, and less so recently. Even out of lockdowns, we were meeting up, but we’re still working more at our own stations. Even filming and the way we approached performances and such as well. It was quite fun, doing B-roll and stuff like that. It became quite fun actually, more than just the pandemic.
Gus: Yeah, it necessitated a reliance on a state that we have sometimes inhabited before, a state that we’ve sometimes been in before, which is when we’re separate, you can still work together. It’s just different to bouncing ideas off each other in a room. For example, Sarah set up her own recording setup at home. Before that, all KKB recordings were done together, and vocal recordings anywhere. The tracks were done at home separately, often all together, as Jamie was saying. So that was a big change. But in terms of the creative process, as we’re writing songs, often it would be quite piecemeal anyway. It would be: “Alright, me and Jamie, have got a beat, Sarah, do you want to write a rap over this?”, or Sarah sends us some lyrics and we set it to music. That doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the same room. So that side of things did remain the same. But I would say, it’s, overall, slowed it down. Because the freewheeling nature of a normal life lived with people communicating without really thinking too hard about it is definitely not the world we’re in right now. Also, for example, even though it’s a massive new skill that we have in Sarah now being effectively a vocal producer, we, before, in sessions in person, would be able to give feedback very quickly, and you don’t even think about it. Someone would sing something, and you go, “Why don’t you try this instead?” or “Why don’t you try doing a bend on this note?”, whereas now, it’s a kind of feedback tennis match. If anyone’s anyone like me, sending an email back will take ages and ages, and I’ll be thinking about what the best feedback I can give them. That slows things down in a way that I hadn’t even imagined. But I do quite like working remotely. I think that it can be easier to work with people remotely than in person. Because if you’re in person, you feel on the spot, and you just rush out the first thing you can think of which might not be your best work. When you’re given something by someone else, because we’ve done some other collaborations which have been subject to this similar remote process recently, then you’re applying your solo creative process, which is good because you have time to consider it and you really get into it, and then what you’re handing back isn’t just something you dashed off in an hour in a session in some studio, it’s the thing that you really spend a lot of time considering. Which is almost always better, not always, but almost always better.
Finnegan: Are you guys still recording remotely now?
Sarah: Yeah, yeah, we’re still pretty much recording remotely. Most of the vocals are still from my room.
Gus: Well, here’s the interesting thing, now that Sarah has that skill, it might be something that sticks around to some extent, even if we don’t need to do it. In my experience, it depends on the song. I think there’s some songs where it makes more sense to have everyone in the room or at least in the zone, to be able to keep it going, keep it on the path to where it needs to go. But there are other songs were whoever’s singing it has a clear idea and you just get back what you get back and it’s fine. I think “Well Rested”, I think that was completely remote, the actual recordings. I don’t think we were in the same room at all when that song was recorded vocally, or at all, because of lockdown obviously.
Finnegan: Kero Kero Bonito has dabbled in a lot of different sounds and genres over the years, beginning with the sugary electropop of Intro Bonito and Bonito Generation, then the more rock influenced twee-pop sound of Time ‘n’ Place, then a transition back into electronica with Civilisation I and II, what do you think has informed the shift back into electronic instrumentation?
Gus: I think, artists, exploratory artists, because not all artists are like this, but ones that do shift and move sound and explore different territories, I think have a tendency to gravitate towards the inverse of what they’re overly familiar with. Using interesting guitar effects or recording weird old electronic gadgets, we’re talking pre-digital stuff that Time ‘n’ Place uses. I’m not saying that ever gets boring, but when you’ve made a whole album of that and spent a year and a half touring it, I think you do start to see the appeal of something a little different. Even though Time ‘n’ Place did use electronics, I think the world of pure synthesizers did seem appealing, simply because it was slightly novel again. Jamie and I as musicians both have a mixed background. But you know, Jamie has also always made tunes on Logic, or whatever. It’s especially inviting when it’s territory that in many ways plays your strengths and means that you have a refreshed perspective on something that you’re probably pretty good at, anyway, relative to other stuff. I personally do have a feeling that the thing I’m best at is using synths to make songs.
Jamie: I’d say when it comes to our whole catalogue, we are definitely inspired by artists of the past who have moved around, shall we say? I think we might have mentioned it before, but there is this Bowie quote, which is about, you’ve got to keep your toes just, you know, not too deep, not too shallow.
Gus: Just touching the floor of the swimming pool.
Jamie: Yeah. So that’s it really, we like challenging ourselves, but we’re not going to go and do something real silly. More specifically, with more recent things, like, Civilisation and Time ‘n’ Place, are more connected as well, because we go on to explore more of the hardware, electronic side of things, the dustier side of things there.
Gus: That’s true. It’s worth mentioning that almost all records in the career of an exploratory artist will be snapshots of these different elements of a record. Those different elements are changing at different rates to each other. An artist might get bored of synths after one album, but they might be interested in writing about existentialism for two albums, right? You can see how all of these things would layer up. As much as what there are shifts in KKB’s music, they are also things that are changing at a slower rate as well. As Jamie said, the Civilisation EPs are very much connected to Time ‘n’ Place, mainly in a thematic way, but also in their use of old equipment.
Finnegan: I love that Bowie quote as well. It could definitely be applied to what you guys have been doing lately.
Gus: Yeah, it’s a really handy thing to just bear in mind. It’s never put us wrong so far.
Finnegan: The Civilisation EPs both have cover art reminiscent of hieroglyphics and ancient cave paintings. This imagery is a major shift away from the bright and colorful aesthetics of Kero Kero Bonito’s earlier work. What are the origins of this shift in imagery?
Sarah: With the shift in imagery, for this Civilisation series, we were exploring a lost civilization that could have existed in the past or the future. And looking at stuff like the Egyptian writings, or there’s this book called “Codex Seraphiniaus” written by a Luigi Serafini. It’s like this encyclopedia of this alien world, and he used this writing that doesn’t have any meaning that we can identify. We were looking at a lot of things. That’s what inspired us.
Gus: The core idea that I remember us talking about that I think really relates to all of that, was… imagine if KKB were aliens, and we were marketing ourselves to humans. We had got some things right, but some things wrong, so it had a kind of uncanniness. On the flip side, imagine if in 1000 years time people are rediscovering KKB. They don’t use the Roman alphabet, or they use some other language. They recognize some aspects of the presentation of this thing, maybe they recognize it was a music ensemble, maybe they recognize some of the costume references, but they don’t really understand the full picture. We wanted to deliver that kind of feeling to people right now. The reason I think we did that was because it’s it like the “Codex Seraphiniaus”. It sends a message about semantics, about the way we understand the world and the way we understand ourselves and communicate with each other about that. Who’s to say exactly why that felt relevant, but I think it hasn’t stopped feeling relevant, which is quite interesting.
Finnegan: The Civilisation EPs also tackle a lot of contemporary issues through an apocalyptic and existential lens, meditating on the future of mankind and civilization at large on tracks like “Well Rested” and “The River”. What do you think drew KKB to discuss these issues?
Jamie: There’s certainly a few things. I mentioned one straight away, which was in 2018, we witnessed the Chico fire, the wildfire, we went underneath the cloud that was nearby and everything, so that certainly was something you’ll never forget as musicians. “When the Fires Come” is certainly inspired by that. I’m sure that other people will elaborate, but one of the things as well was Time ‘n’ Place was more looking at our personal narratives, where we’re at, where we might sit. Civilisation on the other hand can then be where humanities at, what the narrative is for humanity. Then obviously parallels and stuff like that as well.
Gus: I think that’s a really concise way of putting it. One thing that I think the discussion around the politics of identity has thrown up over the last decade, is that it pays to look inside yourself and understand what you’re about as much as, or almost certainly more, than the things that people are quick to exoticize, or judge, or hate, or fear. Only then can you really engage with those things on a level of engagement that really makes sense and is fair. I think it’s interesting, looking at different human cultures throughout history, because in a way, they are as different as different human cultures around the globe in the same moment. Reflecting it back on ourselves, we then get a better sense of who we are. That means we have a better way forward in terms of communicating with other people. I think starting from Time ‘n’ Place, I was really struck by how important it is to make things that have yourself prominently in them. Not that we didn’t do that before, I think as a producer, I think it’s very obvious that there’s tons of ourselves in Bonito Generation and Intro Bonito, but maybe on more of a hyper local level.
Finnegan: “21/04/20” is a track that details the state of everyday life at the beginning of the pandemic and is reminiscent of the Japanese city pop movement of the 70s and 80s in its day-in-the-life storytelling and funky instrumental. I know that KKB’s early work was heavily influenced by Japanese music, particularly the Japanese hip-hop of HALCALI, was it a conscious decision to try to make a KKB city pop song or where did that idea originate?
Gus: That’s an interesting question, because I would say that there was a prior song in the KKB discography, which I wouldn’t say was a purely calculated city pop imitation, but we had made an instrumental which was similar to tracks like Treat Her Like a Lady by The Temptations or maybe even Aleem or something like that, this very African American 80s electronic sort of soul boogie zone. Then Sarah came up with the idea of just generally, not tied to this instrumental, of making a song called “Big City” in response to the song “Small Town” from our first mixtape. “Big City”, that instrumental became attached to that title. It ended up becoming a city pop moment, even though it wasn’t really Kanako Wada or Miki Imai we were imitating, it was more almost more like D-Train, and I think The Temptations are a great example, “Treat Her Like a Lady” is clearly the influence for “Big City”. It goes to show how there’s something interesting to be said for the delineation of city pop as a star, which of course does have a very specific cultural context. What I think is sometimes lost in the discussion of that genre, which I love that style, and obviously, there are some incredible records in that style, it shouldn’t be divorced from it’s very specific context, which is different to the records I’m about to mention. I do think it is also not talked about enough how it is clearly a stylistic response to records that were coming out of America in the preceding years, and I think even by the time city pop was gathering steam, as a cultural force, a style that maybe wasn’t so hip, especially in America. As for 21/04/20, the genesis of that song was actually Arthur Russell, because he has a track called “You and Me Both”, which is like a lot of his posthumously released stuff. It feels very off the cuff, it feels like he’s improvising a song on his keyboard while a drum machine just plays and it’s a kind of swung drum machine loop, almost new jack or proto-new jack. I love that track, and I just wanted to do something a bit similar. The idea was to set up a drum loop and play some chords over the top. It ended up becoming a bit more tightly wound than “You and Me Both”, the beautiful thing about an exercise like this is it doesn’t have to sound you know, the exercise would have been a failure if we just recreated “You and Me Both”. It ended up being a more tightly wound song, with the beat changing a little bit more than it does in “You and Me Both” and the bars being way more defined and the different sections being way more defined and all of that. What’s interesting is that our songwriterly impulse to imitate “You and Me Both” ended up taking us down a more designed path that was probably more like Yumi Matsutoya or Cindy’s productions, which is quite funny. Maybe there’s just a kind of impulsive tendency within us to sound like city pop, for some reason. I don’t know. The other thing I would say that that song is influenced by is maybe the less funk driven, but also somewhat jazz and funk driven songwriting of 70s people like Todd Rundgren and the solo Carole King stuff, and indeed the Japanese funk scene, I mentioned Yumi Matsutoya and her earlier stuff. That’s a big influence in all of KKB’s stuff. So again, I would come back to the point that yes, city pop, I love that stuff. Unquestionably an influence in our melting pot, but also a lot of the predecessors for that kind of music. We might have just been copying the same things.
Finnegan: It’s funny you mentioned “Big City” because instrumentally, even more so, I can see city pop being applied there.
Gus: It’s funny because I think once we decided that the song was called “Big City”, even though the original instrumental was in that technical, funk, electronic, R&B zone already, when we knew it was going to be called “Big City”, I think we sort of made it a little bit more city pop. It was only after we’d written the lyrics that we put in the sort of D-50 style, Fantasia style, that happens in the chorus. And that is a bit more city pop than the more analog sound you get in “Treat Her Like a Lady”. It’s kind of funny how the mind takes you to those places.
Finnegan: I also wanted to talk about your collaboration with Bugsnax. It seems like Kero Kero Bonito has been influenced by video game music since the beginning, so it only makes sense you’d eventually make an original theme song for one. I think that Bugsnax was a suitable collaboration for KKB as the game’s artwork fits perfectly with your Bonito Generation-era sound. How did this collaboration come to be?
Jamie: Shout out Young Horses, the developers, they obviously saw the potential to have a tune that can work, you know? They approached us first, and it was just before the pandemic. I believe the turnaround was relatively quick.
Sarah: Yeah, “Bugsnax” was the first song I recorded by myself in lockdown with my new mic, so it was a big challenge for me figuring out the tech side of things. It was really fun to work on the track. Like, just trying to explain what the game is, it sounds very crazy, which I really like. It’s been really fun to work on something so interesting.
Finnegan: Do you guys see a future in more video game soundtracks?
Sarah: Yeah, definitely. We’d love to do more game soundtracks. We’re always up for it!
Jamie: Yeah, why not? It would be wicked.
Gus: Yeah, it’s definitely a bucket list item for me. I think the dream would be, my dream anyway, would be to do a soundtrack for a game that allowed a bit of, I guess every creative person wants this, but a bit of boundary pushing or something a little bit subversive, and definitely experimental. I think of the soundtracks for games like Earthbound, just as a soundtrack, that’s completely insane. The samplings insane, and it was really encouraging, and I think Shigesato Itoi really encouraged Tanaka and Suzuki to just go nuts and try and do things that the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) soundtracks hadn’t really done before, and to very consciously reference real music, but in this really surreal, crazy way. I think that’s, that’s a blueprint in so many ways. Also, things like Roomania #203, which is a really interesting game that was created by this composer, Tomoko Sasaki. In the game, there is a fictional idol group, or sort of pop idol group called Serani Poji, and the in-game protagonist is a fan of this pop act. She [Sasaki] made songs for Serani Poji, that function as fictional songs in the game, but then they made it real and Serani Poji was brought into the real world as a pop act, releasing albums, on real record labels and doing real stuff. It’s the same Serani Poji, and the songs are great, they’re a great band, but that very subversive concept is really appealing to me, I don’t think we would be the band that just make you a concept or to make you a couple of hours of orchestral music. There are enough people that can do that. There are so many interesting things that can be done with an art form like that.
Finnegan: I actually didn’t know about those origins. What was the game called?
Gus: it’s called Roomania #203. It was a weird Dreamcast game. Serani Poji were created for that created for that game, but then it was like, fuck it, we’re gonna release real albums and do real stuff.
Finnegan: I’m gonna have to check that out.
Gus: Their first couple of albums are very cool early-2000s sort of utopian club pop feelings, lots of poppy garage and poppy jazz house. What’s so appealing about that idea I think is that it blurs the line between the fantastical and the real. Because this band, which you conceived off as a fictional fantasy band, which is somehow more exciting than a real band, are now a real band. You can go and see the band or buy the CD of the band that your character in Romania likes. I mean, that’s just such a wonderful concept.
Jamie: So that’s it, that’s the standard for our collaborations.
Gus: (laughing) Yeah, it’s gotta be that good!
Finnegan: I’d love to see a KKB digital band or something in a game, I think that could be really cool.
Gus: There are crazy ways it could work now. I’m not even gonna go into the ways it could work, but just off the top of my head, I can think of some pretty bizarre things. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be that we were KKB, it could be something else. There’s so many things, even with video game history being pretty established. I think there’s a lot of interesting ideas you could pull off in that world.
Finnegan: Like an alter-ego, Gorillaz kind of thing.
Gus: Yeah, for sure, like a band that maybe does lots of different bands music, pretends to be several different bands or all kinds of things. I could go on forever.
Jamie: I guess we’d also take a GTA radio station or something as well. That would be pretty cool.
Gus: Yeah, and what’s so funny about stuff like that, like Need for Speed or FIFA, these kinds of games. Their music is iconic in a slightly different way. I mean, I would always say that the most iconic video game music is that which is made for the game, but at the same time, I got into The Jam because they’re on FIFA 2004. A lot of people know “Promised Land” by Joe Smooth because it was in GTA: San Andreas. That’s pretty iconic and in a totally different way.
Jamie: That’s what I mean, we take both sides, you know what I mean?
Finnegan: With a return to relative normalcy in sight, what can we expect from Kero Kero Bonito within the next few years? Aside from the video game soundtrack.
Jamie: We are certainly working on things that aren’t Civilisation III.
Sarah: We definitely want to start playing shows again.
Jamie: I guess on a more real note, it’d be more northern hemisphere for now. It’s stuff you got to work, sensitively with, you know what I mean?
Gus: It’s always a tricky question to answer without spoiling the surprise, at the same time, giving people enough of an idea that there are cool things happening. So that’s what I’ll say, expect something that we think is cool. (laughs)
Finnegan: Are you guys gonna tour the Civilisation EPs as well? Or I guess number two?
Gus: Well, the extent of anything like that would largely depend on the pretty immediate COVID situation which doesn’t look that great. But that said, we would like to try and make something happen if it could.
Finnegan: Definitely, yeah. And if you can say, is there going to be another shift in sound for KKB?
Gus: That’s a good question. I will say that, in my opinion, what we’re working on now is not territory we’ve worked in before. I would say this also is equally true for Time ‘n’ Place and Civilisation. there are clues that hint towards it in the old KKB discography. I was thinking the other day about how, even without realizing it, I think Intro Bonito has clues for all of the things we’ve done since. Obviously, it preceded Bonito Generation, but also the exact existential malaise in Time ‘n’ Place is exhibited in a song like “I’d Rather Sleep”, whereas the exploration of ancient traditional globe worldwide rhythms in songs like “Let’s Go to the Forest” preceded Civilisation. So, there might be something in that book that suggests what we’re about to do as well.
Jamie: Dust off your CD.
Gus: Yeah, get the expensive Japanese import.
Sarah: (laughing) The magnifying glass!
Finnegan: (laughs) I’m gonna be listening closely. I’m going to see what I can find.
Gus: Yeah, go do a bit of detective work.
Jamie: Is it going to be the neu-jazz? Free jazz?
Sarah: The country? (laughs)
Gus: Is it just gonna be a whole album of radio jingles like the little interlude “Bonito Jingle”