Interview: Bo Ningen
A firm fixture on the East London scene, Bo Ningen played their first gig in Belgium last Sunday at Brussels’ Magasin 4. Their apocalyptic stage act, heavy riffs and psychedelic soundscapes have earned them the reputation of being the best live band around and, combined with their singular look, make for an unforgettable visual and sonic experience. The boys were kind enough to capture their tour adventures on a disposable camera and we caught up with the band between dinner and their routine pre-gig stretching session.
How did you guys meet?
Taigen: Kohei and I were in different bands and met four years ago at an event where we were both playing. After a friend in common introduced us, Yuki joined as second guitarist and finally Mon-Chan to take on drumming duty.
Yuki: Mon-Chan actually joined the band on the day we played our first gig together, back in March 2007. We just had one rehearsal in the afternoon before performing.
So you had already been in different bands before?
Taigen: I was in three or four different bands in London.
Kohei: Yeah, I was in a band.
Yuki: I’d never played with anyone before.
Mon-Chan: I was in a band with an English guitarist and Iranian bassist.
When you guys started playing, did you have a clear idea of the direction you wanted the music to take?
Taigen: Not really, we just jammed and it took form. We didn’t really want to copy anyone because most of the bands in London start with a very clear common influence and just tend to copy it. When we first formed, it was hard finding venues that suited us – something more open minded in a way. But after a year or two, it got easier, building up connections and the lot.
By now you’ve certainly managed to establish a name and solid live reputation for yourselves in London, to the point where everybody seems to know what to expect. You just started touring outside the country, how does it feel playing to completely new audiences?
Taigen: France was a bit different because we already played twice. Paris is quite similar to London, they probably saw us on TV or something. We just got back from a month-long Japan tour two weeks ago. It was so different – even within Tokyo – every single venue had a different atmosphere. So the audience reaction was completely different. But in Japan the audience’s reaction can be really quiet, even if they like the music. It’s an appreciation token. They pay attention. Some crowds can go crazy and wild. It’s really different from Europe. Of course the people who see us for the first time are probably more…
Taigan: Yeah, definitely surprised.
It is quite a shock experiencing it for the first time. Mine was at last year’s Stag and Dagger festival and it was probably the most intense and insane thing I’d ever seen.
(All laugh) Ah yeah, Stag and Dagger…
Yuki: Kohei was completely drunk and couldn’t play properly. Towards the end he was just lying down and generating noise.
There’s also that epic video from your performance at the 2009 Offset Festival that captures the madness of your finales. Is it something systematic or do you sometimes end the set in a more conventional way?
Taigen: I think we don’t want to just finish a concert the normal way. The end bit is the one that contains the most freedom. It is really different to each show. The outcome might be similar but our mood, motivation and actions are really very different for each show.
Yuki: Taking the extreme to the end, that’s what we do.
Did that ever lead to any serious injuries? Back to the Offset footage, Yuki, you seemed to get quite hurt…
Yuki: Yeah, well everyone thought I’d hit my face against that pole but it was in fact my chest. I couldn’t breathe at all. But I didn’t feel any pain because I was was in this strange state of trance and so high on adrenaline. Then I felt a whole lot of anger and just thought to myself “I have to break something”. I just ignored my guitar, got back on stage and trashed Mon-Chan’s drumkit.
Kohei: Well, it wasn’t even his drumkit…
Yuki: Yes. We’ve become quite infamous for our unpredictable on-stage behaviour. So the Offset people had warned us beforehand and asked that we not break anything because they had provided all the equipment.
Any other significant gear damage?
Taigen: All the time. My bass is missing two tuning pegs. Yuki’s guitar is almost dead now. We brought a spare one for this tour just in case. The drumkit has been damaged, as well as all the pedals. But to us, the live performance is more important than the equipment.
It’s about getting lost in the moment?
Taigen: And just not thinking too much. We always said – if we think while we’re on stage it can’t work. It has to be something quick and spontaneous, other wise we’d feel like we’re lying to ourselves.
Yuki: We’re just empty to start with. Nothingness is what I want to get out on stage.
Do you feel that certain venues or promoters are weary to book you because of that unpredictable element?
Taigen: Maybe before but not really these days. Well perhaps because we bring our own backlights now (all laugh).
You’ve recently played in Spain, opening for Lydia Lunch. How was that?
Taigen: We supported her a year ago in London, and she’s still so crazy. Really an amazing performer and artist. She’s crazy onstage and backstage, but in the good way. A bit like a witch, really mysterious, but really kind too. We also supported Faust, Damo Suzuki, British Sea Power and Liars in Japan. They’re really nice guys and make great music as well. Thanks to them we got to play really big venues in Japan, too.
Do you feel a certain recognition in your homeland?
Taigen: Kind of, it’s slowly starting. When we did the Japan tour in 2008 it was self-promoted – really DIY. This time, we did some promotion before; we had an EP and an album. It was great timing because record shops had just received our imported version. We seem to occupy a really weird position. We can’t be categorized in one scene. Our CD is in the import section – in the same rack as British Sea Power actually – which is funny because it’s very “reverse import”.
Yuki: That’s our only identity actually. Uncategorized except for being a British band.
Whereas in the UK you’re probably regarded as being a Japanese band?
Yuki: Yeah, exactly.
What other British bands have been exciting you recently?
Kohei: Lasers From Atlantis, they’re really young, around 21.
Taigen: They play heavy psyche. Kind of in the same direction as us, but not quite the same. It’s quite rare to find a band like them in London.
Yuki: It’s true that when you think of it, all these heavy riff bands are not really very popular.
Taigen: If it’s louder, it kind of becomes like metal. And that’s a whole other scene…
Any notable Japanese acts?
We could write down at least a hundred! But here are a few that are really good: 54-71, Merzbow, Masonna, Keiji Haino, Yura Yura Teikoku, Hisato Higuchi, Les Rallizes Dénudés, LSD March, Aburadako, Eddie Marcon, Gagakirise, Yolz In The Sky, Sakiko Kitamura and Zazen Boys.
Not understanding any Japanese, could you talk us through some of the main lyrical themes?
Taigen: Well, I change the lyrics for almost every show. I usually explore the connection between the past and now in most of the songs. I don’t write lyrics on paper, I just really sing anything I feel during a jam or concert and whatever. So it’s a bit abstract as well.
How would you describe your music, were it a painting?
(They all think and discuss in Japanese) Totally not composed or planned. If four painters paint one canvas – our way of doing it is: just start painting and see what will happen. It’s not really abstract. There is content.
Yuki: A bit of futurism in there?
Taigen: The mix of improvisation within something structured.
There’s something visually very strong about the way you guys look. Do you feel people might be intimidated?
Taigen: Maybe sometimes.
Kohei: On first impression.
Yuki: It depends, for example when we supported British Sea Power, who are more mainstream, it was a completely different audience. For them, these Japanese guys with massive hair doing really loud noise with weird movements might have seemed scarier.
Are people afraid to approach you?
Yuki: Not really, they will after the show. Even if we scare them, if they enjoyed the show, they will come and tell us. Japanese people are shyer, though.
Taigen: There’s more of a separation that occurs between the artist and audience. So we try to hang around the merchandising table, just to talk to people and show them we’re equal.
Could you guys ever imagine doing this without the hair?
Taigen: When we started it wasn’t this long.
Yuki: Without hair… No, I just can’t imagine it…
Bo Ningen’s self-titled debut is out on Stolen Recordings.