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‘Turn the rage into a bundle of flowers’: CHAI are the Japanese band serving up joy

Ahead of their new album WINK, two members of the four-piece CHAI talk hope, sexism, solidarity – and who's best at ping pong.

22 Apr

Yoshio Nakaiso

“CHAI equals friendship. Age doesn’t matter. It’s rare to find this kind of friendship and I wanted to give gratitude to that.”

YUUKI is the bassist and lyricist in Japanese four-piece band CHAI, and we’re talking about their music video for ‘DONUTS MIND IF I DO’ – the first release from their upcoming third album WINK. It carries a tranquil vibe that puts listeners at ease and, in the visual, the group indulge in doughnuts and frolic around a field. Part-way through, we see an aged-up version of the band who remain smiling and living freely.

The strength and longevity of CHAI’s friendship is central to what they’re all about. The other members are twins MANA (lead vocals/keys) and KANA (guitar), as well as YUNA (drums). They were in the same music club back in high school, and once they went to college they met YUUKI and decided to make a band. 

We’re speaking over Zoom and, when I enter the call with YUUKI, MANA and a translator, there are smiles all around. Both women are in rooms adorned in art – I later find out that one of the ways YUUKI has found calm during this year is by painting.  

“The pandemic was a great time to enforce ourselves as individuals and our own power and then gather again as four people”

Indeed, we’ve seen a lot of art come out of the year of isolation and unrest that was 2020. WINK absorbs all that life has had to offer during this time, releasing it in an invigorating wave of contagious positivity, reflecting on all that there is to be grateful for – such as their own relationship. 

Since their debut PINK which they released in 2018, CHAI have grown in popularity, becoming known for their maximalist rhythmic sounds and highly saturated visuals. They have also gained praise for deconstructing beauty standards in Japan, all while maintaining their energetic joyfulness. On WINK, this evolves into an enthusiastic message of solidarity. 

This year has forced us all to rethink our lives and adapt our plans. Long time fans of CHAI will know how mesmerising the bands live performances and visuals are and one might assume they’d be frustrated from not being on stage. But the band has been embracing this time to go beyond what they have been, and there is a sense of gratitude for the silver lining the pandemic provided. “It was a great time to enforce ourselves as individuals and our own power and then gather again as four people.” Through Garageband and Zoom calls, the band worked together and traded ideas, and while this could be seen as a limitation, CHAI saw it as a strength. 

While CHAI “don’t really give a damn about genres”, WINK is full of R&B and hip-hop influences. Their song ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips’, featuring Chicago rapper-singer Ric Wilson who they met at Pitchfork Festival, is a love song to their moles. This album is also the first time the group have collaborated with outside producers. ‘IN PINK’ featuring Mndsgn, a producer based in California, is an upbeat ode to the colour the group have been most associated with. ‘PING PONG!’ features YMCK, a 3-piece Japanese electropop band, and is a personal favourite of mine. It’s a playful song with nods to Chiptune – a synthesised electronic fusion of genres, filled with gamified sounds – and it brims with nostalgia for one of CHAI’s favourite past times. I’m curious to find out which of the band would most likely win in a game of ping pong and there is a lot of laughter at this as YUUKI says, “MANA and KANA might not be the most suitable for playing ping pong.”

“The writing of this album was about converting all the energy of this year into something positive. Not letting it go, not giving up, but being strong and saying it’s alright”

YUUKI wrote all the songs during the pandemic. Her inspirations range from everyday occurrences such as troubles sleeping to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Through seeing the events of the movement unfold in the midst of an already-difficult year, YUUKI knew she could do something. “The whole thing was about converting all the energy into something positive. Not letting it go, not giving up, but being strong and saying it’s alright.”

‘ACTION’ does manage to make an optimistic call for solidarity. But not even a year after the events that inspired the song, we are seeing more struggles for freedom. The message behind ‘ACTION’ resonates again with the #StopAsianHate movement. The band’s advice for their fans who might be struggling during this time is that positivity is something that humans can put into practice and make real. “Turn the rage into a bundle of flowers,” says YUUKI. “Transform that energy into something more beautiful.”

Throughout their musical careers, the band have gained popularity for their neo-“kawaii” [meaning cute in Japanese] ethos as well as their declarations of body positivity. We talk about how they remain so energised while tackling stereotypes of Japanese women, a subject they felt was timely due to the recent news relating to sexism and the Olympics in Japan: “We are facing the general idea of how a woman should be right now.” 

“The body positivity idea is still not here in Japan. You have to look good and be kawaii. In both the typical way of how guys think, but also how it sells. That is why we are led towards that way. But that’s when CHAI kicks in with the idea of saying, ‘is that something we should be following?’”

“Japanese people think there’s this concept of ugly that we are trying to convert to Neo-Kawaii. But from CHAI’s standpoint, we are saying there is no ugly”

Our conversation makes me curious to learn how the band is received in their home country. “Our idea is more global. We are from Japan, but our idea is not completely understood or received in Japan. But Japanese people are kind of glad that we are starting something. It’s like a wake up call for Japanese people”.

MANA adds, “Japanese people think there’s this concept of ugly that we are trying to convert to Neo-Kawaii. But from CHAI’s standpoint, we are saying there is no ugly. The existence of ugly is the misconception of the whole thing.”

Listening to WINK makes me feel the same way that speaking with CHAI has left me – hopeful. Even when I am feeling down, whether it’s nostalgia or current affairs, WINK lifts my spirits. The album offers solidarity, friendship and hope in abundance. What CHAI is doing is no easy feat, and they are successful at it, not just because of their skills as musicians and individuals, but also due to the strength of their friendship. They manage to continuously evolve their sound each year whilst tackling huge issues from gender norms to global movements – but they manage to do all this, whilst making it look fun. 

CHAI’s third album WINK is out 21 May on Subpop Records. You can pre-order on CHAI’s Bandcamp.