Fusing East and West with Old and New
WagakkiBand is an intriguing act that fuses rock music with wagakki (traditional Japanese musical instruments), shigin (Japanese poetry recitation) and Vocaloid songs (a Vocaloid is a singing voice synthesizer allowing users to input their own lyrics). Singer Yuko Suzuhana, who won the Grand Prize at Nippon Columbia’s nationwide shigin contest in Japan, is joined by seven others playing traditional instruments including the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), tsugaru-jamisen (Japanese three-string guitar-like instrument), koto (Japanese harp) and wadaiko (Japanese drum). Their hit song “Senbonzakura” has over 22 million views on YouTube and their single “Ikusa / Nadeshiko Sakura” is the theme song for the anime TV show adaptation of Koei’s Samurai Warriors video game series. They played their first U.S. show on July 4, 2015 as part of Anime Expo at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, and their new album Yasou Emaki is scheduled for a September 2, 2015 release. Tokyo Journal’s Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke with vocalist Yuko Suzuhana, shakuhachi player Daisuke Kaminaga, koto player Kiyoshi Ibukuro, tsugaru-jamisen player Beni Ninagawa, guitarist and backing vocalist Machiya, bass player Asa, drummer Wasabi and wadaiko player Kurona at Anime Expo 2015 in Los Angeles.
TJ: Who named your band and how did you come to choose traditional Japanese instruments for your music?
SUZUHANA: We decided the name together. We wanted to spread the word wagakki all over the world. First, we were thinking about something different, but by simply fusing the words wagakki and “band,” we thought WagakkiBand would be easier to spread. Shigin is accompanied by the koto and shakuhachi. The shakuhachi and koto players and I met first. We wanted traditional Japanese musical instruments to be more familiar to people, so we decided to make popular music. We asked our guitar player, Machiya-san, and our friends who play shamisen and wadaiko to join. We wanted to make our music catchy, so we started a rock band with a guitarist, bassist, drummer and traditional Japanese musical instruments to show the coolness of Japanese culture.
TJ: Why did you start singing Vocaloid songs?
SUZUHANA: Vocaloids are very popular in Japan right now, and they are becoming part of Japanese culture. By covering Vocaloid songs with our band that uses traditional Japanese instruments and modern instruments, we are hoping to create music that many people of all ages can appreciate. Keeping our tradition is important, but it is also important to keep up with new cultural changes. That is why we decided to combine the two.
TJ: Who creates your music? Isn’t it complicated to make music with eight people?
SUZUHANA: Mostly me, Machiya and Asa. But some other members also write lyrics and try to write music too. We use both electric and acoustic instruments, so it’s difficult to balance the sound and to make some sound audible depending on the arrangement. I think that’s the most difficult thing in this band.
KAMINAGA: Yes, it’s complicated. Each member arranges his or her own instrument. We overdub our own part one-by-one when we record.
TJ: What do you like the most about the band?
SUZUHANA: Everything. I really like the fact that all eight of us are friends even in private.
KAMINAGA: I really like that each mem- ber can show his or her own color.
MACHIYA: I used to play rock music for a long time and had never done music with traditional Japanese musical instruments, so I enjoy playing with them in this band.
TJ: Where have you played overseas and where would you like to play?
SUZUHANA: We’ve been to France, Singapore and Taiwan. There isn’t one particular place [we’d like to play] but I hope to make this band loved by people all over the world, like Michael Jackson. We don’t really have a band like that from Japan. I would like to perform for the Olympics.
KAMINAGA: Carnegie Hall in New York.
TJ: What’s the difference between performing overseas and in Japan? Can you feel any difference from the audience?
SUZUHANA: Yes. Our first performance outside Japan was in France. One thing I noticed is that there was a big response from the audience. Japanese people are reacting more nowadays, but usually they are shy at first. Even though it was our first performance outside Japan, everybody responded to us. The way they do an encore is different also. In Japan, we clap our hands saying, “Encore! Encore!” but in France, the audience started singing together. Their voices became louder and louder and when I was told that that means encore, I felt an excitement that I had never experienced in Japan.
TJ: What kind of music do you usually listen to?
MACHIYA: I listen to fusion.
SUZUHANA: We all listen to different kinds of music. I originally learned classical piano, so I played European classical music, but I like Japanese music like J-pop and jazz. I like Disney music too.
KAMINAGA: I originally liked the music of Japanese video games and came to like Irish Celtic music later.
IBUKURO: Bon Jovi, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead.
TJ: Would you like to collaborate with another band?
ASA: We have a lot of members already, so if it won’t cause too much noise then we would love to.
IBUKURO: It will be a lot of work, but I think it will be fun.
MACHIYA: The stage needs to be fairly big. We already pack the stage.
SUZUHANA: I want to play alongside an orchestra.
KAMINAGA: It’s as if we are already collaborating with each other anyways. Maybe for one song during our gig we could collaborate with somebody that plays a folk instrument in the region when we visit somewhere for our concert. That would be interesting.
TJ: Are you working with any other anime or movies to make music?
SUZUHANA: They are making the live action drama of Attack on Titan and our song that Machiya made is the theme song for the drama exclusively for the Japanese video streaming service called dTV.
TJ: Wasabi, how often do the kanji [Chinese characters] that are written on WagakkiBand at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, California your back change? Who writes it?
WASABI: It changes every day. Today it says “America.” We have a calligraphy specialist.
TJ: Can you tell us about your new album?
SUZUHANA: In our second album, almost all of the songs are original. Most of us are capable of composing music and songwriting. is new album has its own originality, different from our previous album.
TJ: Who makes your music videos?
IBUKURO: We have a different director every time and our producer works with these directors by giving them our ideas.
SUZUHANA: When we first started, we informed the director of how we wanted to be presented in the music video. We wanted every member to be able to show his or her personal uniqueness. Normally, only vocalists get the majority of camera time, but we don’t want that. We want to show them the band’s cool performance in the music video.
TJ: Is there any big news you want to tell us about?
SUZUHANA: Our global fan club Yae-ryu just launched. To celebrate our one-year anniversary, our fans outside Japan can now join too. We have special presents, update our blog everyday and so on. Fans can join through our website at www.wagakkiband.jp
TJ: What are your goals for the future?
SUZUHANA: I want to spread the J-rock sound and I’d like this band to be known as Japan’s signature band. When people think of Japanese bands, I want them to think of WagakkiBand.
NINAGAWA: We want to do a world tour.
IBUKURO: Since our band uses different types of instruments, I believe our band is great at creating music that brings the world together. Therefore, if we get to create something like a theme song for a movie or even anime, we may be the best in the world to do it.
KAMINAGA: Our dream is to get a Grammy Award for the theme song (laughs). tj
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