Seeing CHAI perform live makes you instantly smile. They are a feel-good band, from their outfits to their melodies, their message, and dance moves. It is a thought-out effort on their part too. They perform in matching pink uniforms taking inspiration from DEVO. They have a mid-performance dance mash-up where they sing ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and The Ting Tings’ “Great DJ” in Japanese. They want people to have fun, and they want people to feel cute. Their defining goal is to expand the current boundaries of what it means to be “kawaii” in Japan. So, they have created the term, “NEOkawaii”, to include every shape and size. It is a message of body positivity coated in pink.
CHAI consists of MANA on keys and vocals, KANA on guitar, YUNA on drums, and YUUKI on bass. The four hail from Nagoya, Japan, and are hot off of their second album release, “PUNK”, which came out in March. KALTBLUT had the chance to ask the band about what goes into making their live shows, their favourite music videos, what “kawaii” means in Japan, meeting Charli XCX, and their international musical influences. More below.
KALTBLUT: When did you all start playing music together, and when did you decide to form CHAI?
MANA: We decided to become a band around 2015, but before that, we would all meet up and head to the studio to create music. We even performed here and there. When we decided on making this official, I remember us having the conversation on moving to Tokyo. We had always lived in Nagoya since we were children, but the centre of everything in Japan is Tokyo, so we said, “we gotta go to Tokyo!”, and made that move.
KALTBLUT: Your performances are coordinated from outfits to dance moves. What is band practice like when getting ready for live shows?
KANA: We do a lot of practice for our live shows. Not just the music but the performance as a whole. Because we want to make our shows loads of fun, you know?!
MANA: At the majority of our live show rehearsals, we practice in front of a mirror. Even our dance moves are original and something we think about and do. It’s more interesting to watch when you add a little something different!
Our matching pink outfits come from being influenced by DEVO. We always wear the colour pink, not only because we like the colour, but also because we want pink to become more of a colour that’s near and dear to oneself. Especially in Japan, people tend to stray away from wearing colours that stand out as they grow up. There really isn’t anyone wearing the colour pink. I always think about how much we used to wear pink when we were kids. I think in Japan it’s looked at as embarrassing and people don’t want to stand out.
YUUKI: We have so many things that we want to do so preparing is tough. But, we’ve been able to turn our ideas into reality. So, it’s been fun.
YUNA: Like MANA explained, we love DEVO! So we got our inspiration to wear matching outfits from them. We want our audience to watch, listen, feel, and have fun while at a CHAI show, so we always add our dance moves too. We also always have fun while prepping for a live show.
KALTBLUT: What was your favourite music video to make and why?
KANA: “Boyz Seco Men”! We made that music video with TEAM MIKANSEI, which is a creative team that we all love. I really love their outlook on the world and really love them. We laughed so much while creating this music video.
MANA: I love all of them, I think! They’re all different in their own way. We were able to do what we wanted to do in each one, and even though everyone we worked with was different, everyone is kawaii!
YUUKI: Shooting our latest music video, “CHOOSE GO!”, was especially fun. We are really close with TEAM MIKANSEI, who joined in the planning of the music video. We laughed the whole time we were shooting!
YUNA: I have fun memories from each music video shoot we did, but “CHOOSE GO!” might’ve been my favourite. We shot this with one of our favourite creative teams, but the message behind “CHOOSE GO”! itself is, “if you have something you want to do, do it! You only live once”, so we were able to become football players, cheerleaders, schoolgirls, and take on all positions in one video. This music video left me with a sense that I want to live the one life I have, as one that I can say was fun and great!
KALTBLUT: For me (and probably many others), the first introduction to Japanese “kawaii” was from Gwen Stefani’s music in the early 2000s. One of the defining elements of your music and message is to change the narrative surrounding the term “kawaii” to “NEOkawaii.” Can you tell me more about the stereotypical “kawaii” that you are responding against?
KANA: From the time we’re born, a lot of Japanese people tend to compare themselves with people they see on TV, models, and people around them. The word “kawaii” is constantly around you. Being told you are or not is the deciding factor for blaming yourself or bashing yourself. I always felt that there was something wrong with the idea that there is only one type of “kawaii,” and everything else outside of that is ugly. That’s why we created this word, “NEOkawaii”, to let everyone know that there is no such thing as being “not kawaii”. “Everyone is “NEOkawaii,” is the message we want to spread through our music.
MANA: What we want to do as a band is to change the values placed on the word “kawaii” through our music! I think overseas, it would be more for the word “beautiful”. The word “NEOKawaii” came from realizing that there were no words in Japanese to compliment anyone that didn’t fit into today’s standard of “kawaii”. Today’s definition of “kawaii” in Japan has a very narrow range, and the only words that exist to describe everyone else outside of that definition are disparaging. A lot of people are so dominated by the word “kawaii” that everyone has the same face, the same fashion style, the same figure, which made me feel uncomfortable. No one compliments you on your individuality, your originality. It’s a country where there isn’t a culture rooted in complimenting, so I thought so strongly about it since I was a kid. We don’t want to go out of our way to change the standards associated with “kawaii” today, but we felt that if we, CHAI, our music, became that of the world, CHAI would be considered “kawaii”, and that is the better way to do it. That way will help broaden the standards of what “kawaii” is.
YUNA: “Kawaii” today in Japan has been pretty much set to having larger eyes, being slim, having a smaller face, which has a very narrow range but I don’t believe that there are any unattractive people. I don’t think that just because you don’t fit into what society may define as “kawaii”, makes you not “kawaii”. This doesn’t just go for Japan, but in every country, there is some sort of set standards. There’s definitely a “kawaii” part of everyone, and for those who may not fit into what today’s definition of “kawaii” is, we wanted to let you all know that you all are “kawaii” with the word we created called “NEOkawaii!”
KALTBLUT: I saw on Instagram that Charli XCX attended one of your shows recently. I have two questions about this: first, what was that like?
KANA: I was simply so happy and so excited that I couldn’t sleep that night. Charli XCX is one of the artists that we want to collaborate with, her music is really cool, love her!
MANA: I was so happy. I was so happy that I was in disbelief! I was surprised! Never thought she’d come to actually see us.
YUUKI: I was shocked and happy all at the same time, overall excited!
YUNA: It was like a dream!
KALTBLUT: Second, was there ever a turning point when you started to realize that you were gaining international recognition?
KANA: When lots of people came to our solo shows and festival performances, I felt like, “oh! they’re expecting us!” That makes it so much more fun for us.
MANA: At our live shows, I think! Seeing more and more people come to see our shows, singing the lyrics to our songs while performing, even when it’s in Japanese! Also, media such as yourself, who take the time to write about and interview us makes me feel like our music is spreading, thank you!
YUUKI: It started from Charli XCX DMing us on Instagram! It was before we started our European Tour, so I think while we were still in Japan. There’s always a difference in the audience’s reaction and environment, but we never change what we do! Whether in Japan, or any other country, we always perform with the feeling of, “here we are! The outsiders!”.
YUNA: With Charli XCX included, a lot of people send us messages, and during our shows seeing people sing along makes me feel like, “wow, we’re reaching people!”
KALTBLUT: You cite Basement Jaxx and CSS among musical influences (as well as DEVO for the matching outfits). What drew you to international music as inspiration?
KANA: When I first heard Basement Jaxx, CSS, Justice, and DEVO, I was like, “huh?!” Music that’s so free, so fun, and the best exists! That was the first time I experienced a different type of excitement when hearing music, and the first time I realized how much of an art, music truly is.
MANA: Because we are Japanese! We get influenced by overseas music, and it’s probably because we want to try singing it in Japanese. So taking someone else’s sound and being able to ingest it is the way to creating something new!
YUNA: I was shocked in an amazing way when I first heard Basement Jaxx. It was the first time I experienced being moved by music. “This is the music of the world!” is how I felt. I plan on continuing expressing this sound through our band.