Calum Bowen is no stranger to singing over his whirlwind pop, and the London-based artist who releases music as bo en figured his vocals were bound to pop up on his newest collaborative project with Japanese singer Keita Hatada. He says that, initially, the last song on the pair’s recently released Bokura No Irotoridori EP would be a duet, a back-and-forth affair.
“But he’s really good, and I sounded bad next to him,” Bowen says with a laugh from a yakitori restaurant in Ogikubo. “The blend just didn’t work that well.”
He’ll let Hatada—who performs under the name Akio—handle the microphone on October 12, when the duo make their official live performance debut at Ginza’s Agnes B. It’s a special event, considering the pair are normally separated by several thousand miles. The creation of their EP took place via email and marathon Skype sessions, during which the pair fussed over getting the delivery of lyrics just right.
Bowen has long had a deep interest in Japanese music, from the tight pop productions of Yasutaka Nakata (Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) to sleek ‘80s tunes loaded up with saxophone solos and squiggly synthesizer notes known as city pop. Bowen hooked up with Japanese online imprint Maltine Records to release his album pale machine in 2013, which featured appearances from Japanese electronic artists mus.hiba and Avec Avec, a personal favorite of Bowen. From there, he began working with other Japanese artists as a songwriter and producer, most notably for J-pop performer Yun*Chi.
“Despite the Yun*Chi thing having management and a label in place, it was pretty casual,” he says. “There was a lot of freedom in that. There wasn’t really much difference between that and this latest release, even though it was independent.”
Bowen had known about Hatada for some time, primarily through his role as vocalist in the pop outfit Sugar’s Campaign, which features Avec Avec as a member. “I’ve been a fan of them for a long time. It was always something in my mind, that it would be cool to do something with Akio.” He felt some guilt at the start, fearful it would look like he was trying to poach the group’s singer, but after meeting Hatada in person during a prior visit to Japan, he found out the vocalist was eager to do a solo album under his own name.
“There was a pretty long period where we were just kind of like vaguely discussing things. We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do. We were going to put out an album, but then this Japan trip came up. I thought it would be good if we could finish something when I came, so we could do stuff while I was here.”
The EP, a brief but hyperactive set drawing from new jack swing to light disco, revolves around the theme of “Akio’s life,” from his birth to a song called “Akio Owari,” or “The End of Akio.” “Not necessarily that he’s dead,” Bowen clarifies. Fittingly, he wanted the early songs on the EP to be the sort of cheery music that children and grandparents could enjoy (“kid era,” Bowen citing the funky theme to ‘90s Japanese kids show Hachi Pachi Station as a big inspiration), while later songs were “more grown up.”
That more “adult” song—which is to say it features a more club-oriented dance sound than the one shaped by children’s programming—started life as a number written for Swedish performer Jens Lekman. But Bowen ended up using it for himself.
That song will come to life on the 12th, and Bowen and Hatada have been practicing over the past week. The performance will also include a string quartet, a first for Bowen. “We are going to have one two-hour rehearsal, and then we will be doing it. Which is very scary to me,” he says. “But I have a feeling they are going to be ridiculously good. I sent them over parts, and I thought that it would be difficult. But they were like, ‘no, that’s not a problem.’ You guys are probably really good.”
AKIO & bo en feat. toridori Quartet. Oct 12. 18:30-20:00. Free. Agnes B. Ginza Rue du Jour. 3-7-1 Ginza, Matsuya Ginza Maronie Street Bldg, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3535-8660. Closest station: Ginza.