World Rhythm: CHAI
CHAI members like to think they managed to make at least one new “friend” during the pandemic: their new album WINK.
“During that time, it was good to be home and not to be surrounded by so many people – when we go out we stop focusing on our music,” said Japanese singer and keyboardist MANA, s ‘voicing through a home based translator in Tokyo. “It was one of the toughest albums we’ve ever made. The biggest challenge was the sound – we had to create this album with “work from home” status. Sometimes these feelings of not seeing anyone are sad, but I can also channel these feelings into making great music. This album was a friend.
It might sound like a weird way to think of a record, but in reality its metaphor isn’t that crazy. CHAI spent the early days of the global lockdown writing and recording WINK using Garageband and video chat, exchanging music over the internet and reducing those feelings of isolation with a sense of purpose. And the result is unlike anything they’ve done before, which is apparently their model for success.
Since its formation in 2015, CHAI has found a remarkable following outside of Japan – they have toured the United States and Europe frequently over the past few years, focusing on a live performance filled with cheerful expressions, colorful costumes. and choreography. But at the same time, the underlying mission of CHAI is that of subversion. The group’s mission is to challenge the Japanese concept of “Kawaii”, or the aesthetic quality of cuteness. On the band’s first two albums, PINK and PUNK, their songs were imbued with what they call neo-Kawaii, or a movement to go beyond a certain look and accept people for who they are and what they look like – the imperfections and all.
The thing is, it’s easy to miss it all: CHAI has a knack for making music that feels fun and light on the surface. Their lyrics, spoken in English, often repeat phrases – little meditations on life that sometimes seem like fleeting thoughts. On WINK, the group’s debut LP for legendary Seattle label Sub Pop, CHAI drew inspiration from a disparate number of sources, such as the 2019 Coming of Age movie Booksmart to the song “Nobody Knows We Are Fun “. The story behind the playful opening “Donuts Mind If I Do” comes from a sign the band saw at a hotel that offered free donuts, but the band’s bassist and lyricist YUUKI turned that little moment into something more stimulating, after learning that it was a play. on the phrase “I don’t mind if I do”.
CHAI’s origin story begins when identical twins MANA and guitarist KANA met drummer YUNA in high school; a few years later, in college, the three met YUUKI, who would complete the group on bass. (All four musicians perform under stage names – they deliberately want to keep their identities private.) They’ve bonded around Western music – artists like the Beastie Boys and Devo.
On WINK, CHAI successfully goes beyond the punk-pop sound that characterizes its first two albums, weaving an eclectic set of musical influences. Their latest songs are more infused with classic 80s pop sounds, a retro aesthetic that shines on tracks like “PING PONG!” and “ACTION,” the latter inspired by the Black Lives Matter 2020 movement. They also broadened their ranks to include outside producers, as well as guest collaborators: “Maybe Chocolate Chips” stars Chicago rapper Ric Wilson.
“This album was inspired by a time we weren’t alive for,” MANA said, referring to the ’80s vibes that were overflowing. “It was about channeling those feelings of nostalgia and saying to yourself, ‘What if we were in this period?’ ”
“Even though we are a group, we always wanted to be a artist», Adds YUUKI. “We’ve had a lot of beat production and production, which shows a new take on us.”
The band received another unexpected boost in 2020, when they appeared on Gorillaz’s latest album, Song Machine, Season 1: Strange Timez. (Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn first turned to the band after a member of Gorillaz’s internal string section, the Demon Strings, came to a CHAI show in London.) C It’s a perfect fit: Both bands blend their pop sensibility with an equally strong visual hook set.
“Obviously we were big fans,” MANA said of Gorillaz, adding that she saw them when she was younger at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. “They asked if we could do a collaboration and we said yes right away, it was a dream come true.”
As the world opens up, the CHAI secret could spill over into Japan. They were recently featured in an advertisement for an energy bar, but it’s difficult for them to determine how much of an impact they made in their home country. There are many more photo ops planned and the group is hoping their neo-Kawaii movement will spread.
“This album has proven to us that our songs are what we can do if we think about it,” YUUKI says. “It wasn’t the process of creating this album during the pandemic that was difficult – the pandemic was necessary to create this album.”