Interview: Bo Ningen

Bo Ningen - Photo by Claire Shilland

Bo Ningen – Photo by Claire Shilland

“It’s all in the hair. I’m tired of people looking at us as a psych band,” Kohhei Matsuda complained, mock-serious. “My hair is just not psych-rock at all—it’s Neil Young, actually.”

Enthusiasts claim to find traces of psychedelia, prog, metal, punk, and acid within Bo Ningen’s cavernous sound, but pinning the band down to a single genre or intention is no easy task. Matsuda and band mates Taigen Kawabe, Yuki Tsujii, and Monchan Monna—individually from four different Japanese cities—met in London back in 2007. Since then, they four have been putting out incendiary, complex records with the loyal help of Stolen Recordings.

That said, Bo Ningen’s distinctive aesthetic does little to dissuade the psychedelic tag it often receives: all skinny limbs, long hair, and an imposing, theatrical stage presence. The band carries a formidable reputation for explosive live shows, but in person the members of Bo Ningen are charming—softly spoken and hugely modest.

Sitting down with Matsuda and drummer Monna ahead of their Magnet show, they eyed up a Club Mate left on the table, asking if that stuff ‘really’ works?

It turns out the band is a little tired—for good reason. The four opened the main stage at the M’era Luna Festival just earlier that day: “We woke up at like, 4 a.m.? Well, he didn’t…” yawned Matsuda, gesturing to a sheepish Monna who’d found “some club” near Moritzplatz. “Got too drunk… Yuki and I, yeah we woke up… a little later.”

“We stayed in Berlin last night, then drove to the festival site—and straight back again,” explained Matsuda. “It was this Goth festival in Hamburg and the audience looked amazing. Everyone, literally everyone. The view from the main stage was just everyone in black. So strange.”

“And we played at 11 a.m.!” interjected Monna. “To play a festival on a Sunday morning? Really difficult. They seemed to like us though.”

Being well-liked seems to be the only easily definable feature of Bo Ningen. The band has shared a stage with a genuinely bizarre range of artists (try Yoko Ono, Marilyn Manson, and Arcade Fire) this year and played festivals as diverse as SXSW and Black Sabbath’s London Hyde Park show. In September the band will open for Kasabian on a US coast-to-coast tour, and then support the indie swag of Band of Skulls for a country-wide UK excursion. Bo Ningen’s acidity is far from mainstream, so what’s the secret?

Matsuda nodded vigorously, “[variety] is such a strength when playing music. We don’t play metal, we don’t play punk—in that sense, we don’t play any genre really, we just play… music? Those boundaries don’t really exist for us.”

“III,” the quartet’s newest LP, came out in May to a plethora of contradictory but overwhelmingly positive reviews. Described by some as Bo Ningen’s most complicated work to date, and by others as a record that’s lighter and more accessible, when asked, Monna and Matsuda unanimously agree that it’s “both.”

“There’s an undercurrent of much more complex stuff, then we sort of… cover it with accessible stuff I guess” shrugged Matsuda. “If you really dig, you can find the complexity in the composition.”

Monna agreed: “Compared to previous albums, it’s much tighter—the bass and the rhythm [are] much more intense.”

The two went on to describe, very enthusiastically, how the band worked to create a sound they could only best describe as a “funny rhythmic effect.” Matsuda gestured exuberantly, meshing his hands together, trying to explain how they created a layered rhythm section for a “really weird-sounding situation” that ultimately hangs together, creating a deceptively “smoother” sound.

Artistic, avant-garde, and incisive, “III” is a record that yields new secrets on every extra listen. Where tracks like “Slider” (watch the super trippy video here) are more immediately user-friendly, the unexpectedly softer moments on the record are where Bo Ningen really shines. “Inu,” in particular, translates beautifully live: a (very) minor respite from the band’s otherwise breathless attack.

Another new weapon in Bo Ningen’s armory is “CC,” a track on which Taigen sings in English rather than band’s usual Japanese, and features extra vocals from Savages’ Jehnny Beth. Caustic and urgent, it’s a perfect blend between Savages’ echoing post-punk and Bo Ningen’s trademark complexity—but as it turns out, Beth didn’t have a hand in writing it.

Monna explained: “We sent her two or three options to choose from—then it just went so smoothly, so naturally. [“CC”] really does sound like it was written to be sung by both Taigen and Jehnny.” Clearly an inspired match, as, since the interview, the two bands have announced further collaborative work: a one-track dada-inspired piece called “Words to the Blind,” expected in November.

A night with Bo Ningen is not for the faint-hearted. Within minutes of beginning to play, a pit opened and bodies were thrown, but there were just as many blissed-out, swaying listeners hanging on to every intricacy. Vocalist Kawabe conducted the heaving crowd with the grace and hypnotic charm of a preacher, and as the set thundered to a close—with a blinding, intense celebration of older track “Daikasiei”—guitars were lassoed around heads with perilous abandon. Electric and vital, the show felt anything but the second slot of a very long day.

Earlier, Monna described the band’s hometown following as a mixture of teenage hipsters and “middle-aged ex punks” who bring their kids to the merch table: “So sweet!” And it was a truly diverse audience that piled out of Magnet, elated and sweaty, into the first drops of a suitably ferocious summer storm.

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