Home Interview: Wagakki Band - Creating New Japanese Culture Through Music

Interview: Wagakki Band - Creating New Japanese Culture Through Music

Ever since its formation in the early 2010s, Wagakki Band has been a unique presence on the Japanese music scene. Combining traditional Japanese instruments and rock music with the art of shigin (recitals) and Vocaloid songs, the band led by Yuko Suzuhana has managed to soar in popularity both in Japan and overseas. Their distinctive sound and fashion sense are difficult to miss and their most recent album, Vocalo Zanmai 2, was released last month.

Anime Corner got a chance to talk to the band members, Yuko Suzuhana (lead vocalist) Daisuke Kaminaga (shakuhachi), Kiyoshi Ibukuro (koto), Machiya (guitar, vocals), Beni Ninagawa (tsugaru shamisen), Asa (bass), Wasabi (drums) and Kurona (wadaiko), and ask them about their inspirations, beginnings, anime songs and more.

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about the beginnings of Wagakki Band and your first album?

Yuko Suzuhana: The “Vocalo-Zanmai” album was not planned from the beginning, but started out as a cover of a Vocaloid, which led to the formation of this band. Originally, I was working as a piano teacher and pianist, and from then on I had the desire to become a singer, but it didn’t come true, and I thought I would end up being a piano player for the rest of my life. Then, just as the Great East Japan Earthquake [2011 Touhoku Earthquake] happened, there was a recital contest, which is something I had been doing since I was a child, so I entered it and won. One week later, I participated in the Nico Nico Douga Miss Contest, and somehow I won that contest as well. That was a turning point in my life, and I began to receive offers from various places. At the time, I was thinking about the future: I won first place in the recital, but I knew that I couldn’t suddenly become a famous singer, and I wanted to do something unique. I wanted to create a band that would condense all the skills I had acquired up to that point.

However, when I sang at the recital, I had the koto [Japanese traditional and national instrument] and shakuhachi [flute-like instrument made of bamboo] as accompaniment instruments. No one would listen to my performances if I started playing my original songs. So, I thought it would be very interesting to gather a team of professionals and upload Vocaloid songs that were taking the Nico Nico Douga [Japanese streaming service] world by storm and forming a new culture in Japan as cover songs or utaite. Among the people I met at the event, I asked some of the more charming members to work with me, and the result was the WagakkiBand. I posted a video I made with them, and it received 100,000 views on the first day, even though their names were not well known at the time. And as we continued to post more and more videos, the number of views kept increasing. As a result, we caught the attention of a music label who asked us to do a project with them, and through a process of trial and error, we finally created our debut album, ” Vocalo-Zanmai”.

Q: What is the story behind the mix of instruments and traditional-rock outfits?

Yuko Suzuhana: Before forming this band, Daisuke Kaminaga, Kiyoshi Ibukuro, and Kurona were known as unorthodox Japanese instrumentalists, playing in rock bands and visual-kei bands. And I wanted to know what kind of performance they were capable of, so I went to several clubs to see their bands perform live. At that time, I met a girl who was a fan of their band and liked to sew: she is still making our outfits today. I told her, “I want to make this kind of band, so I want to wear clothes in this style!” We started working together from there. At first, I had my doubts. I like J-pop, but the person in charge at the music label was a huge visual kei fan. After a little bit of wrangling, we ended up somewhere in between. We didn’t yet have a form of what we thought it should be. Since then, we have found something better, and things have changed with the times, but at any rate, what we valued was “the art that is pleasing to the eyes” and that has not changed.

Q: What kind of music inspires you in your work? 

Daisuke Kaminaga: In my case, rather than a specific type of music, I get ideas from different sounds in songs like electronic sounds and then try to make something out of that. When I add a part that is not in the original song, I think something like “let me try adding a brass arrangement” or “maybe I’ll try a string arrangement” – that is a way of thinking that I picked up from listening to many different songs. This time, I learned a lot from the 13 songs [on the album] I listened to for the first time, there were so many sounds that I could use.

Kiyoshi Ibukuro: Every member has different tastes in music, and among them, I am different in that I don’t listen to J-pop or pop music. I like instrumental music, foreign artists who have not sold well, and world music.

While I listen to such music, I find it interesting to use other instruments in a way that makes me think, “So it makes that kind of sound?” I like to use techniques that other instruments find interesting. Also, in the past year or two, I have been shifting my practice to original koto and ancient music, so I have deepened my koto skills. There are pieces like “phony” which makes me imagine something digital with crisp sound, and there are pieces like “Akahitoha” in which I tried to bring out the quality of live instruments. So, “Akahitoha” could have been played 8 years ago, but I think the depth would have been totally different from now.

“phony” – Official Music Video

Q: What is the most important thing you keep in mind when covering songs?

Machiya: We place great importance on respecting the original music and taking inspiration from the lyrics, and we listen to the music to further deepen our understanding of it.

Q: Wagakki Band did theme songs for Twin Star Exorcists, Samurai Warriors, Holmes of Kyoto, and MARS RED anime. How was the song creation process different from what you usually do? Is there a series you’d like to do a theme song for in the future, perhaps for something that hasn’t been adapted yet?

Kurona : I think Dandadan.
Asa: There’s a manga with heavy content called Takopi’s Original Sin that might be good.
Kurona: Yeah, that one is crazy good too.
Wasabi: It has already been made into an anime and it is called Shigurui. It is set in the Edo period. I don’t think it will ever be animated again because the content is too violent, but I think our kind of sound would be suitable for it.

Q: You have an original song with Amy Lee of EVANESCENCE and you did live performances with her. Is there an artist you would like to collab with in the future?

Yuko Suzuhana: Even more than singers, I’d like to collaborate with a rapper. I would take the lead but in between, they would come in with intense rapping. I’d like to try doing that kind of music.

Q: Do you have a message for fans/our readers? Maybe something to add about your new album?

Yuko Suzuhana: The COVID-19 situation and prevention measures differ based on the country, and Japan’s situation is still difficult. The reality is that even if we wanted to hold a concert abroad, we wouldn’t be able to. But the thrill of performing in front of people is so great that we would love to go back for sure. Nowadays, we have to convey our music through the internet, but since we live in an age when the internet makes many things more accessible, we would like to deliver our music as it is to everyone, closing the distance between us. When the situation in Japan improves, we definitely want to visit various countries. For now, please watch us live online.

Machiya: A lot of people see us as a unique band, a part of a new culture due to the fact that we play Japanese instruments. However, I don’t really pay much attention to that. I don’t know if it is a coincidence or an inevitability, but here we are, the eight of us, each playing a different instrument as a band. I am currently working on how to create a great ensemble with our members, and I don’t want to be typecasted into a band that just plays Japanese instruments. That’s why, I want people to listen to our music without regard to whether we use Japanese instruments or guitars, but simply on the basis of whether our music is pleasant to listen to or not.

Beni Ninagawa: I’ve been saying this for the longest time but, to us, Vocaloid is a part of Japanese culture. So I think when overseas listeners hear the fusion of Vocaloid and Japanese instruments, it would be nice if they would think “This. This is Japanese culture” and enjoy it. Although what I want most is for people to watch us live, but for now, I want people to enjoy our videos.

Daisuke Kaminaga: I want to know everyone’s reactions! I often watch reaction videos because the reactions are so fresh. I’m interested in the impressions people have when they listen to the performances or ensembles of “Vocaloid Zanmai 2”. Vocaloid songs are usually based on Japanese-style, J-Pop-style music, right? But all kinds of elements are blended into Vocaloid. I wonder how people from different countries and regions react when listening to Vocaloids. So please keep sharing your reactions. I hope someday we can get wild on the live stage together!

Yī Èr Fanclub” – Lycris Video

Kiyoshi Ibukuro: The koto is an instrument that has not remained unchanged for the past 1,300 years. I think blending such an ancient instrument with current-era digital music creates a sound that can only be realized through 1,300 years of history. “Vocaloid Zanmai 2” has, through the internet, become this much closer to the world, being able to listen to songs from different countries and such. I think it’s because the cultural exchange is possible that all kinds of new music or works are born. I want not just the people in Japan but also everyone in the whole world to enjoy this fusion of modern and classical music.

Kurona: This album is a collection of Japanese Vocaloid hits. Just by listening to this album, I think you’ll have an idea of what’s trending in Japan. Wagakki Band uses traditional Japanese and Western instruments, and we respect the original songs while making their own original music with an avant-garde take in their live performances. I hope that people from all over the world will listen to the songs to learn more about Japanese instruments, bands, and hit songs.

Wasabi: The songs on this album are played everywhere you go in Japan. If you do not know this, you are just a pseudo-expert on Japan. So, if you ever come to Japan, be sure to listen to this album before coming to visit us. We are Japan!

Kurona: What’s that? (laughs)

Asa: We’re living in a good era. With Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, it is now much easier to access various kinds of music, right? But, if your knowledge of music is that deep, I think you’ll be able to enjoy it even more. I want Wagakki Band’s music to be the spark for people to become more interested in Japan. Japan is naturally pretty; the food is delicious… so come to Japan! I’m like some kind of Ambassador (laughs)

Ego Rock” – Official Music Video

Visit Wagakki Band’s official website for the latest updates.

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