(A shorter version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post)
The 3 girls of Babymetal look as if they are en route to a friend’s fancy dress party. All frills and red and black and silver. This is what I am looking at just before they go on stage to deliver, some 2 hours and 15 minutes later, one of the best concerts I can remember. Never have stage persona and real person been so mutually exclusive.
I am Interviewing Babymetal backstage before their London Brixton show on November 8 2014 and the experience is odd. For starters you are aware they are children and prone to the habits of children. Moametal (Moa Kikuchi) keeps forgetting to look in the right direction and has to be corrected by one of the management staff. It’s all very adorable and very Not What Heavy Metal Should Be.
And another strange thing, or maybe slightly unsettling, is how polite they are. When I sit they remain standing, waiting for me to usher them down. Japanese etiquette followed to the letter.
And Babymetal are so tiny at times I feel I am interviewing 3 dolls. My point is this, Babymetal seem unreal, so I am going to try my best to construct something tangible for you.
A good place to start is with Key Kobayashi, the bands elusive producer, who I was lucky enough to catch up with just before the girls’ interview. Key muses about the appeal of the band:
Umm… how do you say this. The people on the receiving end, the people who listen to the songs… You have some who say they like the songs. You have some that say they like the three of them dancing. You have some say they like the live performances, including the [backing] band. It appeals to people in many ways. There isn’t a right answer, but I think that is the charm. There are many ways to reach and appeal to fans.
Key has quite the air of the bumbling professor and he looks like he can’t believe what’s happened with his little project. I ask him if he was surprised and how he accounts for all the sudden interest.
Yes, yes!! [I was surprised] I thought it was going to take a little longer… but the internet, web and Youtube, I think those influences were big. But for it to spread so fast… we hadn’t even done a show yet [in Europe, before the band’s debut concert in Paris] and people knew us.
Babymetal arrived on our shores in late February this year on the back of a very strange viral video, Gimmi Choco!!!!
The Gimme Choco!!!! video is an aural as well as visual assault and I wanted to know what he thought accounted for the success of the song.
There are nuances that make it sound English. And the song rhythm is very catchy. There is hardly any meaning to the Japanese lyrics; It’s [engineered] for one to enjoy the melody, so those parts were received well. Also the dance and song combination may look fun for people.
But why would anyone want to start a project as off-the-wall as this? I know Key is a die-hard metal fan but I also sensed there was a frustration at the lack of innovation within the heavy music scene.
I have listened to a lot of metal for 20 to 30 years now. How do I say this…this applies to all genres, but I felt it was difficult for a new style to come out. I like and respect Iron Maiden, Metallica and other big artists, but I started to think of what kind of Metal they can’t do. So right now, the thing I can do, in Japan is BABYMETAL, and that is how it started.
Be under no illusion that Babymetal is not a gimmick; listen a bit more and you realise there is a lot more to the band than three cute little girls and silly dance moves. One of their songs, Megitsune, took something in the region of 30 versions to get right. As Key explains, this was a necessity:
The “retake[s]” is not about vocals, but more about arrangements. We made different arrangements many times. Actually it is the same for all the songs. We keep on reworking the arrangements. Why? It is because BABYMETAL is different from other songs made in Japan. Like for idol [pop] songs, there is one track maker, who already has the track ready and gives it to the singer. The singer sings once, they record that and that is it.
In BABYMETAL’s case, songs are recorded with band sessions. The band members are not there in the studio, but as the sessions go along; we say let’s change a drum phrase to this, or lets change the guitar to this, and we go back and forth. So that is why. They come into the studio and record over and over.
So far, so fun, but the band have received a fair amount of negative attention either from folks that complain that it’s not ‘True Metal” (whatever that is) or that it somehow panders to the perverted minds of the average Daily Mail reader. As Metalsucks asks why is okay to be racist and misogynistic about Babymetal?
Key seems unfazed:
The fact that we catch people’s attention means that we made an impression on them. I think the biggest problem is if we do not make a impression, when people ignore us. We are successful because we made an impression on people.
As Dom Lawson from Metal Hammer puts it:
We [at Metal Hammer] have had quite a lot of online whingers say “it’s not metal, it’s not metal!”. You can’t even take those people seriously because it is metal on every level.
And it’s not sexualised at all. It’s very exotic … and it makes people laugh; that very British thing where we see something weird and we laugh at it!
By now I am several minutes into my chat with the girls and Su-metal is explaining what the band learned watching Lady Gaga perform during the summer (Babymetal acted as support during some of the star’s US shows).
So we got to see Lady Gaga a couple times, but every single time she would go up to the customers and interact with them, like when she would pick up stuffed animals that came her way, and comment on each one of them. She cares deeply for the fans who came to see her. So we want to work on communicating with our fans who come to our shows, since we can only meet them at our shows. I want to treasure those moments more.
During the last show I rather unintentionally wandered into something called a wall of death (WOD or ‘American football’ but, erm, without a ball) and wondered what the band’s perspective on this madness was.
I am emotionally moved every time I see the Wall of Death. I once saw this enormous Wall of Death. During that time, the audience section was dark. So from the stage I thought all the audience was gone. Everyone had moved to the sides. I was getting nervous, thinking everyone was gone. But as the song started everyone just raced out. I was so surprised, that is when I went “so this is the Wall of Death”
There have been many interviews with the girls and I am trying my best not to cover the same ground as other interviews I’ve read; questions about favourite metal bands and Kawaii are likely to bore the girls senseless so I decide to use my sketchy background in backbreaking as a tenuous excuse to explore the band’s unorthodox choreography.
Revisiting Megitsune, Yuimetal (Yui Mizuno) explains that it is a very challenging song to dance to:
So Megitsune is very different from other BABYMETAL songs. It has a Japanese feeling, Nichibu dance; since we don’t dance in this Japanese style normally, we did struggle with it.
Yuimetal and Moametal go on to explain how long it takes to learn each new routine and if they have a particular favourite:
For singing and dancing we have Mikiko Sensei [the band’s Japanese choreographer] who teaches us in a day. We refine it later, but the choreography we learn in a day.
[Our favourite song to dance to] is Catch Me If You Can or the remix version of Head Bangya!!
You do get caught up chatting to the girls and after chatting some more about pianos (Sumetal and Yuimetal both play) and Yuimetal’s generally tidy house (I have no idea how we arrived here) I am aware that I have over-run my time as the band’s PR in is the corner of the room gesticulating wildly for me to wrap up. And that is that.
I suppose I’m using this article to piece together exactly why Babymetal exist as a compelling thing and I still cannot quite fathom it out. But Dom Lawson makes this astute observation.
There’s a lot of really generic music and a lot of predictable, tame stuff, that’s popular, but if you’re looking for something a bit off the wall, then this is that to the power of ten (laughs).
And I’m inclined to agree. All hail the Metal Machine.
Babymetal’s debut album is available to buy on iTunes.
All photographs copyright Dana (Distortion) Yavin.