Wagakki Band recently released I vs I, its first album of original compositions in roughly three years. The album’s theme is battle, and it’s studded with songs that show the band’s distinctive style, fusing traditional Japanese music and rock. Songs range from tie-ups such as music created for the Baki Hanma Pickle Wars Saga, the full season of which is currently streaming on Netflix, and the TV anime MARS RED, whose story depicts the conflict between vampires and humans, to songs that focus on the aftermath of battle.
Wagakki Band’s previous album was TOKYO SINGING, released in August 2020. In the years since, the band has undergone several changes, but it’s never stopped playing live. We talked to Yuko Suzuhana (vocals), Kurona (wadaiko), Beni Ninagawa (Tsugaru-jamisen) and Machiya (guitar & vocals) about the spirit of this new album.
The intro to “The Beast,” the first track of the album and the opening theme to the Baki Hanma Pickle Wars Saga, has a startlingly fresh feel to it. Machiya, I hear you’re a huge fan of the Baki series. I’m sure that this must have been a particular pleasure for you. You must have put a lot of thought into it.
Machiya: That’s right. I’d already read the comics that the new season is based on, so a concept immediately sprang to mind. The series’ main character is Pickle, so in writing the lyrics I focused on him. We used kecak, folk music from Bali, Indonesia, to give the song a more exotic Asian feel. The rough demo version had a fresh, raw feel, so we kept the track that we recorded for the demo.
Yuko Suzuhana: The song was written to be the anime’s opening theme, so we actually recorded it two years ago. The anime just exudes masculinity, so I consulted with Machiya about how to express the feel of the anime in the song. We arrived at the idea that we should use a pitch range that feels like it’s supporting the music from below, serving as its foundation, so I sang in a key that was really low for me. In singing, I tried to reflect what Machida was trying to express through the lyrics and the music, which he wrote. The English parts of the chorus, the nuances of the lyrics, and the power of the music made a really strong impression on me.
Beni Ninagawa: The new album has songs with the classic Wagakki Band sound but also songs that go in new directions, like “Starlight,” which has a more digital sound. The second half of the album has songs without any anime tie-ins, and I think they also have the distinctive Wagakki Band sound. In last year’s release, Vocalo Zanmai 2, we played covers of Vocaloid songs using traditional Japanese instruments, and there were parts in registers where I couldn’t really shred, making them hard to play. “The Beast” didn’t have any parts that presented as much difficulty. Instead, there are a lot of phrases that were very natural to play on a shamisen (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument)– that were possible precisely because they were played on shamisen — and I think you can really hear the instrument’s qualities in the song.
Kurona: One of what makes Wagakki Band special is our use of traditional Japanese instruments in rock music, and I think “The Beast” makes really good use of that. One of the highlights of this heavy song is the way the power of the wadaiko (traditional Japanese drums) synchronizes with and boosts the rock drums. My older brother is on the team that makes the incidental music for the Baki anime, so actually when you hear wadaiko in the show itself, that’s my brother. So since Wagakki Band was going to be creating the theme song, I was like “no way I’m going to let my brother beat me.” This is the first time my brother and I have ever crossed paths in our work, so it was a deeply emotional experience, but it also spurred a sense of competitiveness and a strong desire to make something cool.
I’d like to ask you a bit about “Flower of Dusk” which you wrote, Suzuhana.
Yuko Suzuhana: This album has a lot of battle songs, so I wanted to write a kind of energetic song with a feeling of ephemerality. I also wanted to make the main focus of the song about one’s inside world. Last year, I took a bit of a break, and I wrote the song when I was struggling internally, taking a long, hard look at myself. I wanted to express the borderland between dream and reality, between the world of pitched competition and Mother Earth. The song is about putting one’s life on the line and fighting, but it also conveys a sense of motherly love.
That feeling of ephemerality is also expressed in the album’s ninth song, “Road to Utopia” It and the 10th song, “Ark of Time” depict the aftermath of defeat in battle.
Yuko Suzuhana: These songs share a sense of unity with the rest of the album in depicting what comes after defeat. That time, when one finds oneself drowning in sorrow, is also a time of healing. I wanted to write a song that resonated with the feelings of modern listeners — a song that would encourage them. My father died when I was quite young, and my own view of life in death is that, while I can’t see him, he’s out there. I want to live my life to the fullest while I’m alive, and then when we meet again I’ll tell him all about it. That’s how I pick myself up again when I experience failure, and I often reflect that view of life in my lyrics.
Machiya: From the very start, I wanted “Ark of Time” to be a sparsely instrumented song, without a rhythm section — no drums, wadaiko, or bass. I wanted to include natural, ambient sounds, like looking over the world after a battle had drawn to a close. “Road to Utopia” is also a slow song, but it goes in a totally different direction, and I think it flows smoothly into “BRAVE.”
The first half of the album contains all the battle songs, and then the second half looks to the future with a feeling of optimism and hope. We wanted to end the album on a beautiful note, so pretty early on we decided that “BRAVE” would be the closing song.
The last number, “BRAVE,” is a live show anthem, right? Your last album, TOKYO SINGING, ended with “Singin’ for…” and you can feel how much you’ve changed over the past three years.
Beni Ninagawa: When we first played “Singin’ for…” live, all the audience could do was put their hands in the air. The ability for the audience to make some noise at shows is a big part of the live music experience, and we’re making “BRAVE” into a song that everyone can sing along with together. We all recorded the chorus together. It was like “We’ll finally be able to do this at our shows!”
What kind of stage show are you putting on in your current I vs I tour?
Kurona: The audience finally doesn’t have to be silent anymore, and from the very start, one of the things that makes our shows great is the sense of unity, so it feels like the pieces are finally coming together — like we can finally put on our ideal show.
Yuko Suzuhana: Personally, I want to fully live up to everybody’s expectations. We’re singing about battle, so I want to be swinging around a sword.
The pandemic is finally winding down, and the number of overseas tourists is on the rise. When you think you’re ready, there will also probably be opportunities to play overseas, right?
Beni Ninagawa: I feel like now is the time for Wagakki Band to show what it’s truly capable of. We have a lot of fans in Taiwan and Indonesia, so I’d love to do an Asian tour. And in addition to doing shows for our fans outside Japan, I’d also like for us to express ourselves in lots of other ways, too.
After the pandemic hit, Wagakki Band was the first band in Japan to play an arena show with an audience, with restrictions, in August 2020. You’ve been putting on live shows ever since, without stopping, right?
Yuko Suzuhana: Even now, three years later, every time someone thanks us for putting on that first show I think about how putting on an arena show when we did created an unforgettable experience for me as an artist and as a person.
Beni Ninagawa: That’s just one of the ways that we’ve been keeping up the fight.
—This interview by Mariko Ikitake first appeared on Billboard Japan