As many visitors to my almost award winning, world famous, now ex-food blog know, I have been writing a lot about Japanese music recently – well, mostly about Babymetal TBH – and have totally got into a lot of other Japanese bands. One of which is the fascinating Neconomidol (or Necronima).
Anyway, I had the opportunity to catch up with Ricky Wilson, the band’s producer, who explains what it’s like to run an idol unit and how the outer fringes of Japanese music work.
It’s very interesting, that’s all I can say.
The mix of traditional folk with black metal seems a good fit because they’re both dark and not as mutually exclusive as people might think. What are your thoughts?
Definitely – a lot of traditional Japanese music is pretty haunting and can be really atmospheric. For example, Toryanse (the song that forms the basis for Atai no Tsumeato) is a really creepy sort of Japanese version of “ring around the rosies”, right down to the associations with death. On its surface its about someone asking passage to a shrine to get blessings for their child during Shichi-Go-San festival but its got a lot of really ominous implications with lines like “The going is easy but returning is fearful” – an allusion that seems to refer more to shuffling off this moral coil than simply entering a shrine. I also thought it would work really well with the members’ uniforms, which are based off shrine maiden outfits.
There’s also been a real surge of folk metal coming out of Europe and some bands exploring similar themes in Japan like Gotsu Totsu Kotsu and Shikabane. Traditional Japanese culture has a lot of really cool, foreboding elements that definitely lend themselves to gloomy, atmospheric metal.
Are you frustrated about the lack of experimentation in the west or does this work in your favour?
There’s this really special element of Japanese musical culture that allows experimentation and genre melding and its especially prevalent in the idol world. Its not unusual to see a single idol unit go from krautrock to EDM to indie pop in the space of a single 30 minute set. That’s really fun because it frees you up to make interesting, bizarre set lists and jump tonally and stylistically from song to song within a single group.
I think in the West groups tend to be a little more set in their own genres but there are also tons of really intense sub-scenes and quasi-genres that germinate. So you’re not so likely to see as much variation in a single show or group but you do see a lot of experimentation inside specific genres. But the overall concepts of what a “band” should be as opposed to what an “idol unit” is can make it a little difficult to present idol groups to international fans. Units are based less around the genre of music they play than the thematic elements that bring them together.
How has your approach to making music changed over the evolution of the band?
I was a pretty hardcore idol wota going into the formation of the group so I had a very good idea what an idol show “should” look like and a lot of ideas about how to mess around with those preconceptions and subvert expectations. But once we actually got going and started playing shows I got a crash course in what exactly it means to put together an enjoyable show. So now I feel like I’m doing a much better job balancing my own ideas about throwing things off balance while also putting together something that the members and fans will enjoy. We’ve got some new songs that we’ll be debuting very soon that I think will play off elements of idol culture in really fun ways and hopefully also create a bit of chaos at the shows.
Are there any other Japanese bands that you particularly admire at the moment?
There are a ton of idol groups doing really, really amazing things right now with the forerunner easily being Bellring Girls Heart. They do an insane mix of psychedelic rock, britpop and weird lullabies that work
together so well its unbelievable. Yurumerumo is also doing crazy things with genre-bending space pop and noise rock lately and look like they’ll be completely on fire this year. I’m also really liking the whole Akiba metal/grind subgenre that Kiba of Akiba and Go-Zen are doing and we had a chance to play with the ambient death metal band Cohol a couple months back and I was totally blown away by how heavy they were. Maybe my expectations are just too low but its unusual for me to go to a show and not see at least a couple of groups that totally blow me away – its a huge motivating factor to keep pushing Necroma to progress as well because everyone else is moving forward full speed ahead.
What are you using to produce the tracks and how many collaborators do you have at any one time?
At the moment I’m working with Al-Kamar from Kanagawa, Japan and Dan Terminus from France to do our backing tracks. Musically my background is more in mixing live shows so with some of the new songs I’m trying my hand
at mixing down the tracks on this side – I’m not nearly good enough at any kind of instrument to do the actual instrumental parts for the songs. We’re also going to be collaborating with a few bands in the near future like Momoziri Tokyo Television and Disgunder. We’re going to hit 2015 running and are planning on introducing a bunch of new songs over the next month or two.
What have you learned from working with the girls?
The members are awesome to work with because they all bring their own experience and skills into the group – Kakizaki was in another idol group before she joined Necroma so she’s great at helping the other girls get
used to the whole concept of being in an idol group and what to expect at shows. She’s also really good at choreography and helps immensely when we’re working out dance routines. Sari did ballet as well as theater so she’s awesome at bringing non-standard idol choreography in to the mix and helping to push our overall performance level. But overall its been really humbling to be able to work with members who take the whole project so seriously – I know a lot of other guys who produce units or are involved in some aspect of the idol scene and I know from their experience how thankful I should be for such a great group of members.
Do the girls assist with songwriting?
Definitely – our overall song production process generally goes like this – I’ll talk with the songwriters and we’ll hammer out ideas for what the song should sound like, what the progression should be like, etc. Once we arrive at a more or less final version of the song itself I’ll put together a rough set of lyrics and vocal melodies and then run through it with the members to see how it all fits together. We’ll go through the vocals and improve the rough melodies, add some new elements and polish up the lyrics. Since Japanese is my second language there will usually be a few phrases or lyrics that could flow better or convey the image we’re trying to present more succinctly so the members are a huge help there. Almost all of the choreography is also done by the members themselves.
Traditionally in an idol unit the members are handed a totally complete song with complete choreography and basically told to copy what they’ve been handed. But what’s been most successful for us (and quite a few other groups, recently) has been for the members to be more involved in the process of putting the songs and performance together. The members are much happier because their own ideas and concepts can be brought into the performance and I’m happier because it leads to songs that are way better than anything I could have put together on my own.
How are the concepts for the videos arrived at?
Usually I’ll put together some ideas based around the theme of the song and try to find a location that would fit the overall concept. Locations can be really tricky – its not easy to get permission to shoot in Tokyo and if you go guerilla you need to be prepared to get booted from the location at any moment. On the other hand if you go out of town to shoot you need to juggle the logistics of getting the members and crew all out there and back within a reasonable amount of time. Since we’re not under a label or agency budget is always a concern and as we’re usually playing anywhere from 2~4 shows a week scheduling can also be tricky. So its all a balancing game – taking the themes and ideas you want to present and paring them down enough so that you can actually put the shoot together without breaking your budget and timetable.
But most of the themes are things I pick up from old horror novels, paranormal talk radio and vintage metal videos. I’ve got a pretty ambitious idea for the next MV that I think will be really cool and hopefully get international fans excited – just getting into the early planning stages on that now!
What are your expectations for 2015? (original question FTW!!)
2015 is really the make-or-break year for Necroma. You can do a band for 10 or 20 years if you want but there’s definitely a time limit on idol units – not necessarily imposed so much by the ages of the members (as could be implied) but moreso by the genre itself. An idol group can be anything but stagnant – if you’re not moving forward and doing new things you’re not going to have a group for long.
So for this year we’re rolling out a bunch of new stuff – first is our new member Hotaru Tsukumo. Her first show is on Jan 9th and I think she’s going to kill it. We’re all bummed out that Setsuko isn’t going to be able to continue but I couldn’t be happier with the inclusion of Hotaru, she’s a perfect fit for Necroma. The show on the 9th is actually a combination talk/live show and we’ve got some awesome guests coming out – Shizu Mizuno – a super interesting illustrator/model/idol, Yuuki Yoshida – one of the best Kwaidan (ghost story) tellers in Japan and the host of an awesome paranormal talk radio show, Kago Shintaro – master of ero-guro manga and illustration as well as a bunch more. I’d really love to do more events and projects that bring idols together with people involved in paranormal/horror/occult research and art so we’re similar events like that for further on in the year as well.
We’re also starting a campaign of monthly shows from January that I think will be totally awesome – they’ll be a way for us to bring some of the bands and musicians that we really love together with idol units and get an awesome mix of fans for the shows. All the venues we’re booking for the events are traditionally punk, hardcore or metal venues and I’d really love to see some events that could not possibly have happened a few years ago taking place.
Then in the summer we’ll have our first anniversary coming up and, while its still half a year off, I’m already planning some really big things for that. I 100% want to end our first year in a huge bang – anything less would be a slight to all the hard work and sacrifice the members have put into the group.
Are you planning on making an album or are you going to stick with releasing singles?
Personally I really like the freedom and speed you can get from releasing singles but we’ve got a ton of material that I want to get out early in the year so our next release is going to be a mini-album. It’ll be about 6 songs or so and should be out somewhere in February. I just received the rough design for the jacket in earlier this week and its going to be completely amazing. If nothing else I have complete confidence that our single/album jackets are the absolute best in the idol scene!
Fascinating stuff! But what are your thoughts? Are you a producer of a metal-idol unit? J-pop fan? Why not tell us in the comments, or even Twitter!