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A Quietus Interview

Proof Positive: An Interview With CHAI
Patrick Clarke , May 27th, 2021 07:38

CHAI take Patrick Clarke through the development of their neo-kawaii philosophy on third album WINK, being their own role models, and why they love to make audiences laugh

Photos by Kodailkemitsu

In-store gigs are curious things. They’re at the wrong time of day, shelves rearranged to make space, set times and volume reduced, confused crate-diggers asking whether the shop’s open. While they’re often intimate, it’s rare that they might rank among the most enjoyable shows of one’s lifetime. All the rituals are just a little off. It was not so, however, when I saw Japanese four-piece CHAI play a short set at London’s Rough Trade East in the Autumn of 2018, in support of Heavenly Recordings’ UK release of their debut album PINK. Perhaps there was something in the air, but I left the building beaming, buzzing with joy. Through the gigless void of lockdown, it’s one of the shows I reminisce about the most. Such is the all-conquering positive power of CHAI’s music.

At the show the band’s mononymous four members, Yuna, Yuuki, and twin sisters Mana and Kana, were dressed all in pink, as they are for every gig, bursting into their opening track with an exuberant “Nice to meet you!”, fizzing with energy as they freewheeled into the next. Throughout they threw hectic shapes as they played, synchronised but only just, and occasionally stepped out from their instruments for chaotic a capella routines – most memorably a Japanese-language rendition of ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’. The whole thing was finished within half an hour, the rest of the evening still lying empty ahead, but I was left reeling from this bombardment of total energy for days, like I’d just been struck by lightning.

Beneath the tumultuous exterior, there’s a tightly-crafted message to CHAI’s work. Their aesthetic, bold and over the top, is all based around a core aim of subverting traditional Japanese beauty standards, particularly the notion of ‘kawaii’, or cuteness. As Mana and Yuuki tell tQ on a Zoom call (they speak through an interpreter who collates their answers into the collective voice): “Japanese people think it’s nice to be modest, not show off yourself, but we overdo that sometimes and start hiding, and then that can go to the negative side and we start criticising people who try acknowledge what they have. But we want to show the Japanese people that really, it’s OK to show yourself and be proud of yourself.”

That philosophy is most clearly expressed in the video for ‘N.E.O.’, the frantic breakout track from their debut LP, where sharp, shouted lyrics - ’YOU! ARE! SO! CUTE! NICE! FACE! C’MON! YEAH!’ - are set against images of matted chest hair, rashy skin and flabby bellies. ‘Isn’t being ‘boring’ weird? / Isn’t having the same face, weird?’ they go on to sing in Japanese. ’Too much, too much, pretty faces / Where’s the personality?’ The daft synchronised dancing at Rough Trade was a part of that too, the band revelling in their lack of coordination. The matching pink outfits were chosen as their trademark look because it’s a colour they don’t think suits them.

CHAI are not the only people in Japan speaking out publicly against repressive beauty standards – there is the plus-size comedian and influencer Naomi Watanabe, for example – but they are among the first to do so. Growing up in the coastal city of Nagoya there were no such inspirations. “Kawaii was always set in this particular definition,” they say. “Half-white celebrities were so well received, and that was the definition of beauty. We didn’t have a role model but we always had a question: whether that’s true or not. We realised that nobody had the right to define beauty. It’s a definition you have to make on your own.” It was when the four members found each other - Mana, Kana, and Yuna met through the music club at high school, and CHAI formed when Mana met Yuuki at university – that they became each other’s role models instead. “We pulled back and [told each other] ‘No, you’re good as you already are.’”

Combined with the quartet’s considerable musicianship – they write utterly fantastic pop songs that skip gleefully from one style to another – that ethos made them seem fully-formed from the off. PINK was a blast of technicolour pop-rock, then PUNK followed shortly afterwards, well-honed and a little sharper around the edges, but still overwhelmingly energetic. Now, on their third album WINK, they’re furthering the narrative. “We’ve been talking about self-assertion, self-affirmation and loving yourself, and that hasn’t changed,” they explain. “‘N.E.O.’ was all about looks, but this time it’s about the mind. The lyrics still follow the same theme but it’s not only about appearance any more. It’s about how you think.” Take woozy slow-jam ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips’, for example, on which Yuuki writes about accepting her moles, once a point of self-consciousness, by imagining them as chocolate chips. “Even if you’re the same person, you’ll be looking in the mirror differently if your mind’s different.”

Just as the ‘I’ in PINK referred to self-positivity, and the ‘U’ (you) in PUNK represented the spread of that message, WINK is all about the ‘we’ – the combination of the two. “A wink is something where you have to be conscious that someone’s there to wink to,” they say. “A wink is something you can only really do when you’re happy, when you’re so fulfilled, and you have so much to give. A wink is a way of communicating a very fulfilled state of mind.”

WINK is certainly a record that sounds full to the brim. As ever it’s extraordinarily musically diverse , a step up from even its multi-faceted predecessors. “The media always want to define and put us in a very understandable box so they can digest it better, but we always want to run around and escape from that,” they say. ‘END’ is a thrilling rush of old school breakbeat, ‘PING PONG!’ draws on the hyperactive chiptune of vintage video game soundtracks, ‘KARAAGE’ is a glistening slice of laid-back R&B, while ‘Miracle’ is a slick synth-pop banger.

That WINK’s got so much spirit is a subtle triumph, considering the means in which it was recorded. Like almost every other band, due to the coronavirus pandemic CHAI were forced to work remotely through Zoom, GarageBand and the Japanese messaging app LINE. Huge shows, including a massively anticipated Glastonbury performance, were all cancelled. As a project whose creative practice was primarily based around their gigs, it was particularly jarring. In keeping with their attitude, however, they embraced the opportunity. “We thought we’ll have another chance [to play Glastonbury] soon, we’ll save it for later. Covid was an opportunity, there was no colour to it. We could paint it black if we wanted to, but we didn’t,” they say. The wider darkness of that time, and the negativity it evoked, was acknowledged, “but we decided to embrace it rather than let it out with rage.”

It’s easy to draw links between lockdown introspection and WINK’s shift in focus from the physical to the mental. It’s mellow as often as it is high-octane; the richly atmospheric closing track ‘Salty’ is inspired by the depth of nostalgia evoked by biting into a rice ball. Yet it’s also a record that reaches outwards. It’s the first time they’ve embraced guest features – Chicago rapper Ric Wilson provides slick, laid-back bars on ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips’ – and outside producers – chiptune band YMCK on ‘PING PONG!’, and Stones Throw beatmaker Mndsgn on the gloriously funky ‘IN PINK’. Standout single ‘ACTION’ engages partly with the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was intensifying worldwide during the album’s writing.

The hypnotic ‘Nobody Knows We Are Fun’ and its accompanying video, meanwhile, was inspired by the 2019 coming-of-age film Booksmart, about two tightly wound high school seniors finally trying to loosen up and party on graduation night. It’s a narrative they feel parallels their own. “First [the characters in Booksmart] are afraid of exposing themselves to the world, because people always make a judgement, try and define who you are. You know you look good, you know you’re great, but you tend to stay in the safe zone where no one criticises you. But in the end, you have to realise that no matter how people criticise, you are good and you are great. We want to stay as unique as we can, we’re no longer afraid to be exposed. We don’t care who says what, we know who we are.”

CHAI’s message is so well-packaged and easily digested that it’s easy to overlook the craft that underpins it. They’re activists and thinkers, but more than anything else they’re performers of the highest calibre. WINK holds up as a fantastic pop record, as much as it does as an important statement. Looking back at that in-store show three years ago, perhaps the reason why it stuck with me so much is simply because they put on a show so joyous it transcended the limitations of its surroundings. More than anything, their chaotic energy left their audience laughing, which as the band explain “is a large majority element in our music. It’s not about laughing at yourself in a cynical way, the laugh we’re trying to give out is like pressing too hard on a ketchup bottle when it all spills out. We’re not trying to inspire people, we just want to make people laugh. That might lead to an inspiration, but that’s just a result, not what we’re aiming at. Initially we just want people to express themselves, spill out the happy that’s inside of them.”

The group’s real genius on WINK is to treat laughter, joy and lightness and daftness with the same reverence as they treat tenderness and seriousness. Lockdown has only intensified both of those extremes, between which their new record finds thrilling middle ground. What remains to be seen, after a year without shows, is how that will translate when they return to the stage. “We’re looking forward to it, but we don’t know where we’ll go with it,” they say. “But people are going to be surprised because things will get out of hand. We’ll go outside of the box.”

CHAI's new album WINK is out now via Sub Pop