In the four years since their formation, Wagakki Band have toured the world and reached millions via YouTube. Metropolis spoke to Yuko Suzuhana, vocalist for the neo-traditional J-pop juggernaut, about Wagakki’s relentless drive to bring obscure and ancient sounds to a worldwide audience.

When did you first meet? What was your impression of each other?

All Wagakki members are friends I met at various places. The first ones I met were Kiyoshi Ibukuro and Daisuke Kaminaga, when I was looking for koto and shakuhachi players in 2012.  The three of us started an acoustic unit, Kafugetsu. We definitely met by fate. I feel very comfortable being around those two and I knew that we would work together for a long time. I then met Wasabi [drums], Machiya [guitar], and Asa [bass] at an event organized by a Japanese video site; they were already popular on the internet. We got along right away and became friends. Machiya was someone whom I had never met before. He seemed like a dangerous type, from a woman’s point of view. I got along with Wasabi and Asa easily, and went out for a drink. I met Kurona [wadaiko] through Kaminaga and Ibukuro, and the moment we met, we hit it off. Beni [tsugaru shamisen] came to see the concert of Kafugetsu, and showed interest in doing something together. First, she seemed like a difficult person, but it was only because she was shy around new people. We get along very well now.

Who are some important musical influences?

I have to say it was classical music, which I studied for a long time, followed by Disney music. I listened to jazz, J-pop, and the Western pop music of my mother’s generation.

How did you discover traditional Japanese music and shigin?

I think shigin fits Japanese music and the vocal cords of Japanese people. Japanese music was cherished in the beautiful seasons of Japan. You can feel stasis and dynamism in its sounds.  You can feel Japanese history in a timeless way.

What are the challenges of fusing traditional Japanese music with pop and rock?

Wagakki instruments were made to pursue the tone of each sound. Therefore, we need to be creative to enhance the tone in pop or rock ensembles. We are careful with the arrangement of the tracks and selection of mics and gear. It is also difficult to sing using shigin techniques in rock tempos. I’m trying to use different vocal methods also so that listeners can enjoy more than just the shigin style.

What do traditional sensei think about Wagakki Band?

Many were resentful at first. As we became more active, those people started to change the way they think. They started to understand the way we are approaching the music, even though we don’t play in a straightforward traditional style.

What is your songwriting process like?

Suzuhana, Machiya, and Asa write songs. Basically, the composer is in charge of the arrangement, creating solos and adding sounds. First, we start with rhythm sections: wadaiko, drums, and bass; then wagakki, such as koto, shamisen, shakuhachi, and guitar to finish up. As we have many instruments, we do more subtraction than addition.

Tell us about your fashion approach.

Wagakki Band expresses the current Japan, flexibly accepting overseas cultures. Not only in our sound, we try to fuse Japan and other cultures in our costumes. There are some members who are more Japanese-style, and [others] more Western. I dance during the performance as well, so I try to find how to do that more effectively.

Tell us about your SXSW and New York shows.

As American audiences are more exposed to entertainment, it was challenging. First, we were nervous, but we felt at one with the audience as we performed. We enjoy playing for American audiences, as their reaction is more direct than Japanese. I could find a new self. 

What is something people don’t yet know about Wagakki Band?

I think we can make an announcement soon, but our song was chosen as a theme song for an event. I hope this opens up more opportunities for our international activities.

Wagakki Band.