Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

The members of Japanese rock band King Gnu spoke with Billboard Japan for its Monthly Feature interview series highlighting today’s leading artists and works. The hugely popular four-man group released THE GREATEST UNKNOWN on Nov. 29, its first new studio album in about four years.

King Gnu’s 2019 album CEREMONY swept the charts and made them one of the leading bands in Japan, and the group has since dominated the scene on a scale fit for a “King” — an arena tour, a two-day headliner at the Tokyo Dome, and a stadium tour. THE GREATEST UNKNOWN is an album bursting with King Gnu’s original creativity beyond their narrative of making it big as a band in the Japanese music scene.

What did the members want to express in this new album, which they say allowed them to zero in on a sound that only these four can make by becoming liberated from the basic band format? Billboard Japan asked King Gnu’s mastermind Daiki Tsuneta, drummer Yu Seki, bassist Kazuki Arai and vocalist / keyboardist Satoru Iguchi to elaborate on where the band stands today and what they have in store for the future.

THE GREATEST UNKNOWN is really an amazing album. Could you tell us how you all feel about it?

Satoru Iguchi: Well, we presented what we consider to be King Gnu’s “answer” to J-pop once with the previous album CEREMONY, and from there we wanted to make another album as a counter to that, and I think that has taken form in a solid way. 

Yu Seki: This time, I’m not just playing the drums like I did before. In fact, I hardly play the drums at all. It feels like I was able to try something new.

Kazuki Arai: A lot of the tracks were featured as tie-ins, and this band has considerable variation depending on the song, so during the production I was like, “Can these really become an album?” and was really worried. Once the project was completed, it really felt like something that could be listened to as a single piece of work. I think my strongest feeling is that of huge relief.

Daiki Tsuneta: I really sensed the growth of the band and each individual member. I feel relieved.

Is the sense of accomplishment different in nature from that of CEREMONY?

Tsuneta: Totally different. With CEREMONY, I was so caught up in the need to break out and make it big, so I had no emotional leeway and was short-sighted. This time, I made adjustments regarding such things. Of course, I feel strongly about all of our songs, but I carefully eradicated the things I didn’t like at the time and was able to create by focusing more on my way of production and on the things I’m making. 

Arai: Yeah. The production flow of the album was also definitely different between CEREMONY and this time. For CEREMONY, Tsuneta would sometimes share with the band a song that had to be finished before he was sure about how it should be done, so we’d have to record it on that day even though the arrangement hadn’t been finalized. But with the new album, it’s like each of us found common ground within ourselves in that sense. It felt like we made this album as an extension of our daily lives, and it’s still ongoing. So I feel really fulfilled, but not burnt out.

Where does the difference come from?

Arai: I think the biggest difference is that the production flow was different from the previous one. Specifically, Tsuneta built his own recording studio, and we began working on songs based on a division of labor system. Each of us was able to fully concentrate on our own parts, so we had more time to reflect on ourselves. Satoru’s way of approaching his singing and Yu’s way of approaching music programming take time, so I imagine our way of doing things before was obviously a bit hard for them to begin with.

Tsuneta: Yeah. There was a brief period when the four of us would get together in the studio and record a little bit at a time, starting with the rhythm section and somehow making the rest of it all add up in the end, but I thought that didn’t reflect everyone’s intrinsic creativity. This time, everyone adapted to the new flow. I think it was probably a good fit for all of us.

Seki: Yeah, a part of me wanted it. When we do it together, we have to record the drums first each time due to the nature of the instrument, but I always thought I could come up with something better if I could record my part later.

Mr. Iguchi, how did you approach the creative process of this work?

Iguchi: I think I have a really broad range this time. There are elements of myself from when I studied classical music, and the R&B that I’ve been listening to recently, and I also sing like I did on our first album (Tokyo Rendez-Vous). The songs of each of our eras make up a coherent album. Like the others mentioned, Daiki completed his studio and… Temperament-wise, playing in a sandbox by myself fits my personality the best. It occurred to me again that even if there are lots of people in that sandbox, making sand balls without worrying about what they think is what I prefer doing. It was easier for me to express myself, to put playfulness into the work. So there’s a lot that element of playfulness in this album that I couldn’t do in CEREMONY.

That’s so true, and not only the vocals but also the songs themselves are like that. That’s exactly how I feel about “SPECIALZ,” the first song that came out after your CLOSING CEREMONY stadium tour. It’s a pretty aggressive song that doesn’t worry about what people think. It doesn’t have a typical band sound and the beat and groove are weighty. But it turned out to be accepted by the masses as a pop song. I imagine you all must have felt a sense of accomplishment about that.

Tsuneta: You know what, I’m surprisingly calm about such things. I don’t really see myself as being a catchy kind of person fundamentally, so it was just good timing in a lot of ways. [Laughs]

Really?

Seki: Super calm. [Laughs]

Tsuneta: Well, I do think that the four of us have been able to nurture King Gnu into becoming a band can convincingly put out that kind of music.

That’s exactly what I mean. You were able to put out a song like that at that timing, and as the opener for the Shibuya Incident arc of the anime Jujutsu Kaisen.

Tsuneta: You’re right.

And people around the world are listening to “SPECIALZ,” not just in Japan. Billboard Japan launched its new Global Japan Songs Excl. Japan chart in September, and it’s the ranking of Japanese music being listened to outside of Japan obtained by omitting figures of the Japanese market. “SPECIALZ” has been charting in the top 3 ever since the launch of this new list. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

Tsuneta: Sounds like it’ll bring in some money. [Laughs] But it’s amazing. When I went overseas earlier this year from winter through spring to work with artists over there, people really seemed to like my tracks that sounded like this. I got the sense that this type of industrial music with such a beat is compelling and cool to people anywhere, so I figured King Gnu might as well do it since we all think it’s cool. So I’m putting out stuff that’s really close to how I feel about things at the moment, like the things I’m interested in or think are hip right now. I’m in this mode where I feel the need to reflect those sensations more directly and straightforwardly in the band’s music, and that it would be more fun to do so.

In that sense, what I really like about this album is that the middle section comprised of the new tracks “IKAROS,” “W●RKAHOLIC,” and “):Ashura:(” plus “Senryo Yakusha” that’s been greatly changed from the single version, is the solid highlight of the album. The set contains so many tracks previously released as singles, yet the songs that are the most personal and directly express what you want to do musically at the moment are the stars of this album. “):Ashura:(” is just so good.

Tsuneta: It’s a new line, isn’t it? It’s also a form that would never happen if we were recording as a band. It could be King Gnu’s mode from here on.

Arai: In terms of album production, it was really only towards the end of the last four years that we were able to incorporate that flow I mentioned earlier. The last five months or so.

Tsuneta: We considered the existing songs along that flow, too. That’s why we changed the arrangements.

Mr. Tsuneta, you’ve been saying things like you’re going to move your base and change the way you work after next year’s tour. Could you share why you feel that way?

Tsuneta: In the five years since we released our first album, we haven’t taken any breaks and I’ve been feeling it’s not healthy to live according to this workflow. I just think it’s better to review the cycle once. With CEREMONY, I deliberately decided to take that route and focused on selling as much music as possible, but outside of Japan, Beyoncé takes a year to rehearse and performs at Coachella. I mean, there’s no way I could compete with someone at that incredible level who works like that by living according to this current workflow. I think the time has come for us to fundamentally rethink our approach.

So, this isn’t about working in Japan or elsewhere, but about competing on the level of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance since you’re making music.

Tsuneta: I want to be on the same playing field… It doesn’t mean to sing like her or anything like that, but as a creator of art, I want to face (creating art) like her, that way of not being over-consumed. Putting aside whether or not I was able to do so with this album, it’s how I want to live my life.

This interview by Tomohiro Ogawa first appeared on Billboard Japan

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