MMN Interview: w-inds. discuss the difference between pop music in Japan and overseas – and their international approach to songwriting (Part 1)
Ever since their debut back in 2001, Japanese male pop group w-inds. have gained immense popularity not only in Japan but across East and Southeast Asia, their presence spreading through Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, China and Vietnam, which has in turn earned them many awards overseas. In recent years, lead vocalist Keita Tachibana has taken to self-producing the songs of the group, taking influence from worldwide trends with genres such as tropical house and future bass and tying them to an edgy sound in the style of Japanese pop, earning the trio new support form music fans. We spoke to the three members about their international approach to and intentions with their work.
Interview & Text: Mami Naruta / Translation: Joshua Kitosi-Isanga
■We begin our writing process by asking if “whatever we do next will be interesting”
――Would I be right in saying that w-inds. right now are taking an international approach to songwriting?
Keita Tachibana: I’ve been in charge of everything with our recent songs, from the lyrics, to the composition and the production. It’s the same process as overseas trackmakers in dance music. I like the idea of that forward-facing sound. Plus, it’s even better to dance to, right?
Ryohei Chiba: Yeah, that’s how the current trend of dance is right now.
Ryuichi Ogata: It’s more like, when we debuted, we faced way more occasions where it was difficult to dance to because it was J-pop. It was all trial and error as to whether it would be a hit or, whether in the beat, the lyrics, or the melody. But our new songs feel good to dance to, and our performances are made up of tracks that you can dance to.
――When you’re making a new song now, where do you begin?
Keita: With our image. We want w-inds.’ next piece to always be interesting. We’re currently working on our next release. We were able to incorporate feel-good into tracks like We Don’t Need To Talk Anymore and Time Has Gone, but doing the same thing isn’t interesting. We want something that still has that distinct w-inds. sound but with parts that will surprise the listeners on where we’ve come. So, our process begins with the notion of “whatever we do next will be interesting.” There are times when that’s what immediately comes to mind, but there are also times when it doesn’t, and when I’m not sure where we’ll go with something or if it’s the right thing to do.
Ryuichi: Keita is always thinking about that.
――So specifically, you regard the track itself as important in your process.
Keita: Yes. Of course, the face of a song is the vocals, but I’ve always been inclined to listen to the beat. The biggest difference in sound between J-pop and music overseas comes from how things like the kick drums and bass are delivered. The primarily low range sounds. A lot of music from overseas trackmakers doesn’t use a wide range of different sounds, but each and every sound that is there is solid, while J-pop trackmakers have a tendency to incorporate a lot of different sounds and make it flashy. That’s where the difference in audibility lies. That’s why we consider creating songs with solid sounds very important. They form the foundation. We’ll even spend an entire day to search for the right sound for the drums. We’ll drive in every small sound to combine with the music, one at a time like ‘bum… bum…’. (laughs)
――What are you conscious about when completing a track?
Keita: I have a pet theory that goes, “a song’s life is 10 seconds.” It doesn’t matter if it’s the intro or the chorus, I believe that if you don’t catch someone with your song in 10 seconds, then not many people are going to listen to it. For example, when a program comes on showing what’s in the charts, they generally show about 5 seconds of a song. What kind of sounds do they use to make you think in that one moment, “What song is that?!” I’m constantly thinking that when making our music.
――So you incorporate those core methods but also pursue catchiness for the pop side of things.
Keita: That’s correct. I really do love American pop music. In fact, whenever I listen to instrumentals, I can’t help myself in wanting to put them into my own melodies (laughs). I’ll think, “These chord progressions are really great,” take the keys and say, “If I’m so into this melody then it must be perfect!”
Ryohei: That’s an occupational disease, isn’t it?! (laughs)
Ryuichi: You’re not even “listening” to it anymore at that point.
Keita: Yeah, I haven’t been able to listen to music on the go recently. When I hear music, I’ll start analyzing it – the chords, what instruments are being used, how the melody plays out, things like that. Sadly, I don’t really have any memories of listening to a song to enjoy it from the past several years (laughs).
Ryuichi: You’ve been that type of person for a long time. You don’t go to parties, and when you go to other people’s shows you start analyzing them.
――Do you ever have those kinds of thoughts too, Chiba and Ogata? You listen to a song and start thinking how you would dance if it was you, or analyze choreography etc.
Ryohei: I don’t ever wonder “how should I dance?” But I do move my body from my own volition.
Ryuichi: When I watch a dance group on TV or live, I do wonder how I should respond. Should I be on the side of having fun, or should I be doing some analyzing?
Keita: You must think, “Ah, that guy messed up,” right?
Ryohei: I do think, “Oh dear, he slipped up… Well, it happens to the best of us” (laughs). I don’t actively look for flaws, but I do catch sight of them.
■Challenging ourselves and changing is our style
――Since around 2014, the edgy direction of your musicianship headed towards a soft landing. From a performance perspective, how has that affected your live performances and dancing?
Keita: On each occasion, our live performances are generally based on image and the album we’re making, but the performances also change one way or the other depending on the contents of the album. For example, with our albums Timeless (released July 2014) and Blue Blood (released July 2015), we had sounds that were closer to the original, raw sound. They took 80s soul & funk and revived them into a contemporary sound. During that time, we took it upon ourselves to not use any image projection at our shows. We made it feel unplugged and just performed with lights and the band. We also challenged ourselves to the absolute max with our dancing. For our following album INVISIBLE (March 2017) we did the absolute opposite. On the whole, we used a lot of digital tech for the shows. We always pick a path for that year with our albums. That goes for the music and fashion too. I feel we present our albums based on how we decide to go forward as w-inds’ for that year.
――It’s quite a conceptual group, isn’t it?
Keita: We are conceptual, but we change with each release (laughs). We’ve really had a lot of different concepts from our debut to the present, so deciding the setlist for our 15th anniversary concerts was tough. There were too many sounds.
――From everything you’ve talked about, what would you say is the main thing that hasn’t changed, or the thing you don’t want to change?
Keita: Perhaps… singing while dancing? But ultimately, even if we were to do it all with instruments, w-inds. is still w-inds. for me. Well, it all comes down to it being the three of us doing something.
Ryohei: That’s for sure. We’re a group with no rules (laughs).
Keita: On the contrary, our style is to challenge ourselves and go forward changing, and I think we’re strong because of that recently. We’re not tied down to just one idea. If we limit ourselves to just one genre, everything that w-inds. holds dear – “changing” and “challenging” – will disappear.
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