Their music might sound simple to some – pigeon holed on paper as just another Japanese acid-punk band; but hear ye the roaring avalanche of heady guitars suffused with the idiosyncratic vocals of frontman Taigen, and be forever changed. Bo Ningen have something very near transcendental going on with their unique sound, and Australia were lucky enough to have them recently on the national Big Day Out Tour. Bernie Burke sat down with the mysterious four in Sydney to pick their brains.
Heading towards the meeting spot where I would be introduced to Bo Ningen, I spotted Yuki the lead guitarist, outside having a quiet cigarette and a phone conversation. With straight black hair past his hipbones, under a wide, soft hat, he was gracefully androgynous; yet wantonly rock too, in a baggy trench coat and boots. There was one other thing: I did not hear a shy japanese voice emanating from his spot on the concrete; rather a cool, collected british accent.
It was roughly seven years ago in London that a bassist named Taigen met Kohhei, another guitarist. At the time in other bands, soon after they drafted Yuki and Monchan, and the electric beast we now know as Bo Ningen was born.
It was then that Taigen took up lead vocals for the first time. “Bass guitar is my instrument; [before then] I only went to karaoke, like other Japanese people,” he tells casually, with a warm smile and twinkling eyes, and a cute little giggle when he glances at his bandmates. This perfectly skinned, long black-haired, childishly joyful soul in front of me seems a mismatch to the discordant high-pitched shrieks and deep booming voice that leads crashing numbers such as ‘Koroshitai Kimochi’ or ‘Henkan’. But you’ve only to check out some of the performances on YouTube, and what you’ll see puts any doubt to rest that this is he – the very same.
Guitarist Kohhei and the drummer Monchan have more of a don’t-give-a-shit alt-rock look, less polished than the other two. But they have the same pure aura when they smile, giggling at pauses, and murmuring polite answers. Like Taigen, they don’t tell their musical history like it’s any big deal.
“I bought a guitar first, but no one had a drum kit. My cousin had one, so that’s why I started,” says Monchan.
“My flatmate had a guitar. She taught me the basics,” says Kohhei. And Yuki?
“I never learned anything about music properly. Guitar I started playing when I was in high school, but like properly…probably this band. So that’s it pretty much.”
It seems that the simplicity of four friends jamming to the point of insanity is what produced this creature, which is now two albums old, and known around London as an unparalleled act in the live scene. Despite Taigen’s two degrees majoring in sound art and sound design – “Sound installation, noise kind of stuff. Mainly music, but like kinda between art and music – experimental,” he explains helpfully – Bo Ningen’s music really isn’t about anything elitist. “I mean music wise, we make music by jamming in a rehearsal studio. Just playing,” he continues. He writes lyrics, but other than that, songs are simply composed by Bo Ningen collectively.
Perhaps it’s their individual tastes which gives more of a hint at where such synergy can develop from. They all have a good think before committing to who they’ll name as an influence or favourite artist.
“Yeah, I can say the composer called Steve Reich,” Taigen says finally. Considered a minimalist genius of the 60’s, Reich creates music using sounds as simple as hand clapping, and as weird as tape loops. “Not the band sound [though],” clarifies Taigen. “I get influence from his compositions.” Um, ok then?
Yuki has a more familiar, excited nostalgia about his choice. “The German band Can, one of the pioneers of German rock in the 70s. I feel like they’re still new…when I was 14, like even now, every time I listen to it I get a different perspective. It’s great…like it never fades. ” Can were doing some pretty far-out experimental stuff too though, which made them stand out even more for gaining mainstream attention.
Monchan chooses the Japanese band Downy, citing their drumming as an influence on his style. They certainly do pack a punch live – much like Bo Ningen.
It’s Brian Eno for Kohhei, but only because “I was gonna say the same as Yuki, but yeah maybe Brian Eno. We like his older stuff, really experimental.” Said with a disarming smile, of course.
There’s diversity in that mix, yet a common thread – a taste for the left of centre, the eccentric. Bo Ningen have certainly got punters captivated though, in all different corners of the world. The boys are able to describe vastly different audience cultures they’ve experienced, having played gigs as offbeat and diverse as Yoko Ono’s 2013 Meltdown Festival, The Frieze Art Fair, Branchage Film Festival, and supports to Damo Suzuki and The Cult to name just a few. They all agree that the Japanese are the quietist.
“It’s really scary,” laughs Kohhei.
“Yeah, literally silence,” adds Yuki.
” [We] do respect Japanese audience too,” says Taigen, more seriously than at any other time during the interview. “Because they do respect the artist and performer.” It’s understood, of course, that the Japanese just give kudos very differently to us loud mouthed Aussies.
In fact, in Bo Ningen’s opinion we’re even rowdier than a European crowd – in a good way. “You wanna be crazy. U.K. is something similar, but I feel Australia is more, like kinda just up to yourself. If you wanna have fun you do. It’s great, more like straight feedback.” Cool! We shouldn’t have any problem keeping that up.
And what have lucky festival goers been treated to on this particular tour? Something that’s agreed unanimously by all four members.
” ‘Daikaisei’. That’s [the] last song, quite a long one. We do change the set list all the time, but the last song is set – almost every time. That’s my favourite song I’d say,” offers Taigen, although it had been “quite difficult” to make the decision about favourites from their own list of songs.
” ‘Daikaisei’ part two and three,” he adds, and on cue they all giggle at the expression on my face.
A three part song? No wonder it goes for a while. (Turns out, ‘Daikaisei Part 1’ is separated from Parts II and III by five songs on the latest album Line the Wall.)
In all honesty, the written word is a pallid introduction to Bo Ningen. Their sound is outside the predictable or merely describable. Somehow they go beyond hearing, crossing into some bizarre world of feeling you’d be best calling psychedelic. Whatever that really means, they’ve captured some of it and made it their own.
No need for groupie-ish awe as we part ways though. More laughter, a smile, a ‘bye and a thanks is all it ends on. Simple beauty.