On November 11, 2019, Japanese rock quartet THE NOVEMBERS hosted its annual special gig (previously called NEO TOKYO) and proved why the band is often described using adjectives such as “ceremonial” or “aesthetic.” Infused with influences from The Cure and My Bloody Valentine, singer Yusuke Kobayashi rolled onto the stage clad in Japanese seminal apparel brand LAD MUSICIAN, and kicked off an incredibly ambitious set with a scream to mark the start of 2016 album Hallelujah’s song “Kuroi Niji.”
The set showcased much of their seventh album ANGELS but also included “Dream of Venus,” which was inspired by Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí’s eponymous art. Also on the setlist was “NEO TOKYO,” which combines “TOKYO” from ANGELS with Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s “Kaneda,” one of the theme songs for the popular anime film Akira. To conclude the experimental set was a Nine Inch Nails-esque cathartic performance of “DOWN TO HEAVEN” and “BAD DREAM.”
After a monumental show, the band turned its gaze to the next phase. In an exclusive interview with Metropolis, Kobayashi says, “We feel our band was changing and growing a lot at a really fast speed last year, so we wanted to keep this good energy by putting it into a new album.”
In its 15-year-long career, the band has collaborated with a wide range of musicians including Japanese noise rock band Boris for the joint album unknown flowers (2018) and performed a collaborative live set with singer Chara at a music festival in Japan. The members also set their eyes on performing overseas and supported British shoegaze band RIDE’s Japan tour in 2018.
Growing up, Kobayashi’s brother first introduced him to Japanese visual kei (visual style) bands like X JAPAN, L’Arc~en~Ciel or DIR EN GREY. Later, Kobayashi explored other Japanese artists such as Number Girl and Art School, which led him and the other members to discover bands like Television, Joy Division, The Smiths when THE NOVEMBERS started.
At The Beginning
To release the band’s eighth album At The Beginning, THE NOVEMBERS teamed up with yukihiro, the drummer of Japanese band L’Arc~en~Ciel. While recording, the world was rapidly changing and the songs landed in an unexpected place. “We started working on this album at the end of last year and the initial theme was a positive, energetic beginning. We wanted listeners to feel that, after hearing the album, like something big was going to happen,” Kobayashi continues. “However, as we were experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought this original theme just wouldn’t fit the world’s current mood.”
In nine of the album’s songs, THE NOVEMBERS reinforce the previous album’s industrial, cyberpunk sound even further while maintaining essences of reclaimed pop.
In conversation with Yusuke Kobayashi
Metropolis: How have you been spending your time lately?
Yusuke Kobayashi: We were working on our album until early April but, since the album promotion and rehearsal for the upcoming tour got called off, I spent some time at home learning new things and reading books like Nietzsche, eastern philosophy like Zhuang Zi, or Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus”. We intended for this album to be a new soundtrack for our lives and there were some parts we had to change while recording due to the world crisis. I think the album was a good balance between our pre-pandemic positivity towards the future and how we feel now in the current situation. It’s been a few months since the album was released but I’m sure the ways in which we updated it were the right changes to make.
M: Could you tell us more about NEO TOKYO?
YK: NEO TOKYO was an extra show in the ANGELS tour, in which we performed at eight different places in Japan. The concept of that album was sci-fi or cyberpunk, which are quite deep themes compared to other J-pop music, but the feedback from our fans was very positive. Despite these themes, we actually had the impression that this album was interpreted as being more pop culture. I guess it’s probably because we were able to present the album in a “pop” way during the tour. I also realized our strengths as a band after 15 years since THE NOVEMBERS started.
M: It’s a bit surprising that it took 15 years for the band to realize its strengths.
YK: We were just friends before the band formed but we would have burned out by now if we had come to feel this way within the first five years. I think we are slow and laid back but we all still enjoy being together and creating music the way we did 15 years ago. It feels like our relationship as a band is strong enough to survive even if we challenge ourselves by doing what we did, speeding up and releasing another album right after ANGELS.
M: Most of the songs are in Japanese. Could you tell us what you sing about and how you write the lyrics?
YK: Lyrics usually come at the end of songwriting. I don’t have any specific themes but my songs are often about our feelings. Technology has improved a lot and we are living in such a convenient world, but we are still humans who have complicated feelings. Our feelings always cause troubles in our lives. We struggle with relationships with partners, friends or work colleagues. I’m not informing people about what to do to start any social movements but I hope my songs can lift people’s mood when they’re having a hard time, and that THE NOVEMBERS can bring something to people’s lives.
Also, when listening to Japanese music I sometimes find strong messages really distracting. I’m not really good at English but I really enjoy listening to English songs because the words don’t stand out too much to me, words are just one of the song’s elements and sounds. If someone wants to understand what I’m singing about, it would be fun for them to learn the language but I don’t think being able to understand lyrics is the only way to enjoy music.
M: What was it like working with yukihiro from L’Arc〜en〜Ciel/ACID ANDROID?
YK: There was lots to learn from his attitude. If I am being honest, I always wanted to create music in the most efficient way possible, whereas yukihiro carefully pays attention to every single process or sound he makes. Most people might not be able to notice this when listening to the album, but if he can approach music that way, he must be the same towards other things, too. His attitude taught me how important it is to give my all to things in general, in life.
M: The Japanese music scene has many genres. THE NOVEMBERS used to belong to the record label UK Project with other so-called J-Rock bands such as The Telephones or Polysicks. L’Arc〜en〜Ciel tends to be categorized as visual kei (visual style). At The Beginning seems to build a bridge these two genres.
YK: I think it’s a privilege when scenes or societies have such diversity. However, forcing our values on others is not how we should approach other people. For example, rock fans can’t force fans of soul music to like their favorite rock band, but the two groups might be able to understand each other if there was an album that blends these two different genres together. Acknowledging that we are all different is of course important, but the world would be an even better place when we can try to understand each other, when we have something we can share together.
I actually feel the same way about music festivals. People with different jobs, lifestyles and backgrounds spend a whole day together to enjoy music. They are all equal in the festival’s peaceful atmosphere. They go back to their lives when walking out of the festival venue. I think this is a very sophisticated way of harmonizing with one another. Technology can improve our lives but can’t encourage us to understand each other. Technology always divides us and filters things. I believe building a bridge between people is one of the roles of art and entertainment.
M: THE NOVEMBERS has released eight albums in 15 years and established its own style already. Did you guys need to have someone on board to create such an amazing new album?
YK: I believe that there will be a time for everyone to establish their own style without relying on others or to lose interest in artists they used to love, but we are not there yet. I still love Kurt Cobain as if I’m still a teenager but I’m also aware that THE NOVEMBERS could also be someone’s Nirvana. We are working in this music industry with other musicians we respect. It’s natural to ask them for help when they have what we want to achieve or gain in our band. Also, the internet offers us a tremendous amount of archives of live performances of music from the past. We will never run out of things to learn and ways to put these influences into our sound in our own ways.
THE NOVEMBERS Official Website: the-novembers.com