Last year in 2018, we got the chance to speak with Kenbo, the former drummer of the now-disbanded Art Elicia. As Kenbo is Japanese born Australian, we were able to hold a full interview in English where we explored the differences between the western music scene and the Japanese one, as well as many other interesting questions that we always wanted to ask a visual kei musician. Some of those are about money, make-up, sacrifices, and also the most fragile part of being in a band, the relationship between the members.
You can read the interview below or listen to the entire interview on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcast, and YouTube, or on your favorite podcast app. We also put timecode for every question to make it easier to skip to a specific question.
Today we have a very special guest. Please go ahead and introduce yourself. (0:10)
Hi, my name is Kenbo. I used to play in a band called Art Elicia based in Kansai, I used to play the drums and was the main composer of the band. It’s nice to be here.
What made you interested in playing for a visual kei band in the first place? (0:41)
Interesting question. Well actually the band Art Elicia started off just like a rock band but we did have makeup on. We had a couple of gigs and the people [the audience, our fans] just kept recognizing us as a visual kei band. Just only because we had the makeup. There was a point where we had to make a decision whether we were sticking with the rock gigs or the visual kei gigs and we had a bit of a meeting. Well, Kei the former vocalist he pretty much wanted to play in the visual kei scene and so I thought “Right, let’s give it a shot”.
What’s the actual difference between the kind of crowd that you get from the visual kei scene compared to the regular rock scene? (1:52)
I guess the regular rock scene would be pretty much similar to what you would see in any other countries like it was quite similar to what I used to see back in Australia when I was living there. The vibes you get it was kind of similar. The first time I saw a visual kei gig was quite shocking in a lot of ways for me. They all had the same movements. You know, I guess you might know some of it but they have some sort of specific moves that everyone follows [furitsuke]. So, that for me was really new. Was surprising to see.
What clashes with being in a visual kei band and a rock band. Is there anything that doesn’t go well together? (2:54)
To me, I don’t see much difference. I mean music is music. We would play rock. We should be free to do whatever we want. We should be able to express ourselves in the way that we really want to. But the way people see in Japan is they try to sort of like fit things in certain groups. There are some bands which do wear their makeup—but I don’t know. What I heard from people back then was that they had the impression they didn’t know what we are. Like what we wanted to do. They thought we are visual kei, but they are playing regular normal rock band events and it was ok for me, but thinking about what people would think about us. We had to make that decision.
If you weren’t going to go visual kei, would you remove all that makeup and try to stick with the rock scene that way? (4:13)
I never had the idea of removing the makeup anyway, but it wasn’t only my decision to make, I had my vocalist to share the ideas to and I was pretty much new to Japan with the live scenes, so maybe I thought I needed to compromise a bit.
You mentioned you had a vocalist in your band, how did you guys meet? (4:51)
Soon after I came to Japan, I guess it was six years ago . I was looking for members and then I found a guitarist on the internet and we got along pretty well. Kei, the vocalist was a friend of his, the guitarist’s. The first time I heard Kei’s voice was, I mean I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this but he couldn’t sing a tune—like in a melody—but the potential that he had was really amazing. So I thought I wanted to do it with him.
How would you compare the live scene in Japan to that in Australia? (5:43)
I guess seeing some popular rock bands talking about gigs in Japan, they get positive impressions from the interviews. It doesn’t just regard the visual kei or the rock scene but they try to create unity. They do the same actions and movements. Whereas, in Australia, the crowd would go crazy spontaneously, like the way they feel.
You mean like furi (“furisuke”, choreographed movements)? (6:48)
Kenbo: Ah “furi”, yes.
Sizergyia (JROCK NEWS): I also have gone to gigs in the U.K. and gone to gigs in Japan and I do see that difference. I mean, it’s obvious for somebody who’s western, it’s really I guess odd if you’re new to visual kei but it’s also very interesting and uplifting because, normally the fans are controlled in Japan, but the western audience, everybody’s everywhere.
NBT (JROCK NEWS): Yeah, I like that approach better, to be honest, the western approach, because the gigs get more lively and as Sizergyia said, people are more genuine to their feelings and stuff like that.
Being in a band is not an easy feat by any means, were there any sacrifices you had to make during that time? (7:52)
Yes, I can pick up some. First of all, on stage and on any social networks like Twitter, we try to… not pretend, but be fancy like as if we are having a good life, but when we are not on stage or in front of people, off the internet, it’s like we are always earning money and have to think about how to live the month because we have to pay for the equipment and for the studios.
So the sacrifice I made for me, I used to collect CDs like everyday. I would go to the CD store and find something new, but I had to give that all up because I needed to save money for the band. To me, it was quite—what’s the word? I was playing music but I wasn’t able to listen to the music that I wanted to.
A bit ironic? (9:17)
Was the only thing you gave up in the financial department or was there anything else? (9:20)
Timewise too. Well, especially when we were making our records or trying to make the records I was pretty much sacrificing my sleeping patterns. I would do the mix or arrangements until the morning and would have a couple of hours of sleep. The next day was tough. Also, I wanted to go back to Australia every now and then but timewise or moneywise I wasn’t able to do that.
You hear all these visual kei band men having a part-time job, was that the same thing for you? (10:13)
Yes, sort of. I guess the listeners would be non-japanese so I think I’m okay to say this, but I was teaching English. I don’t know if it’s a part-time job, it could be a part-time job, but yeah.
Going back to your CD buying, what bands are you into? (10:45)
Any bands that got into my eyes. I would look for some new band that is not popular yet. Since you’re from the U.K., you know Ellie Goulding?
I actually heard her song at a CD store when she released her first album and she wasn’t popular at all but I fell in love with it so I just bought it on the day. Also, I would do some study of old rock. We have YouTube now so I would search some bands and if I find it quite intriguing I would just buy that CD. I used to collect a lot of King Crimson, that’s another U.K. band, I guess. I collected all their studio albums.
Would you say visual kei is popular in Japan? Because we have a hard time perceiving how popular things are from an outsider view if you’re not living in Japan. Sometimes we think Japanese bands are really really big but in fact they’re just like an indie band that plays in small live houses. (11:56)
I don’t know. The genre itself, visual kei is popular of course. Everybody knows who X JAPAN is, most people know who LUNA SEA is. When you follow the history of who was the first visual kei and who was the second and third and fourth, I don’t know what generation we are at now but I think the popularity is sort of decaying, and sort of becoming back to the underground scene.
There are tonnes of indie visual kei bands but not so many on the ranking charts, like in Japan we have Oricon. We don’t see much visual kei bands on the list of Oricon.
You have all these mainstream visual kei bands like the GazettE appearing from time to time. (13:31)
Kenbo: Yes, the GazettE, I think they have established their status up to the point a lot of people know [them]. But the generation after that, I don’t think people in general would know them.
Sizergyia (JROCK NEWS): Yeah, it’s hard to tell because obviously there are so many indie bands and not a lot of those indie bands will hit mainstream because of the kind of music they play. If that makes sense. So for example, SID was a visual kei band—and I guess they still consider themselves that, I’m not quite sure. They have done anime openings and what not and have reached a popularity that, I guess, nobody would have thought that would be the case. And their music is quite digestible as well.
Are there any visual kei bands that you follow right now that is part of the indie scene? (14:48)
I was really close to the band “Holy Clock”. They are in a hiatus now  and I don’t know when they are coming back. Their music really got me into… not only because they’re my friends but their music was purely great and beautiful.
What kind of music did they play? (15:24)
They had the essence of the ‘90s visual kei.
Every visual kei band has new costumes when something new is on the horizon. How are these costumes made? Does somebody draw them? Is there a company that specializes in making them? (11:53)
Yes. I only know about the Kansai region so I don’t know how different it is in Tokyo, Kanto area. We did have a costume company [making our costumes]. You see a lot of costumes in different bands that are made in the same place, by the same company in the Kansai region. There’s a popular one but I think they moved to Tokyo though. So, I don’t know what other options there are now. Yeah, we would just give them a call, have some meetings, give them ideas, what sort of image we have in mind for the next release and sort of make it together.
That’s interesting. Are they focusing on visual kei or are they a general clothing manufacturer? (17:14)
The one I was talking about was mostly focused on visual kei.
Do you know the name of the company? (17:30)
I forgot [laughs]. The costume we had, the company made for Rides In Revellion, possibly Deviloof. By the way, Ray from Devilroof he used to be our support guitarist. He’s like a little brother to me.
It’s fun to hear that the visual kei scene is just like one big family. (18:00)
Yes. In the end, we’re all connected somehow.
Regarding live houses, is it difficult to book a live house? And is it expensive? (18:42)
When we are a part of an event. Once we get into this scene, we get offers every now and then. We don’t have trouble seeking for a gig opportunity. To be honest, we have this system we have noruma. I think it refers to “norm” in English where you have to pay a certain amount of money or sell a certain amount of tickets which usually is 10 tickets in general. If you get 10 people watching your gig as your fans, then you don’t have to pay anything. Sometimes, they ask us to pay for the equipment fee. So yeah, it’s not like it’s free to have a gig. Also when we want to host a gig, it depends on the size of the venue, whether if it’s on weekdays or weekends. Roughly it has a range of about 100,000 yen or less [roughly $900].
When there are events of multiple bands in one venue, there are occasions where the person on the door will ask what band are you coming to see. What is that system about? (20:10)
That is to work with the noruma I was talking about.
Did you guys host any events on your own in the past? (20:38)
We hosted three or four times. We give our guests, oh, I shouldn’t call them guests because guests we don’t ask them to pay us any. But the bands I gathered for the host, we would just have this system, where for them, it’s like playing at a usual event where there are multiple bands. For us, we get to manage all that money. Let’s say if we have four bands other than us, so that’s 40 tickets together whether or not they get that amount of people coming in, but that’s the amount they have to pay at the end of the day. So we collect the money and then we’d be able to pay off the actual rental fee.
Usually, does the cost just evens out? (21:36)
Possibly [on the] plus [side], just looking at that day’s rent. When we host a gig it usually means we have made some records or did some sort of work before that. So, yes thinking about that in total would be plus? Or minus. Might be minus. Never did a full calculation.
Is it compulsory to have these events every so often or can you just choose to have these events? (22:09)
We can choose. Seeing other bands when they have their release or something new coming up, they would have that kind of thing, like hosting a gig or one-man gig.
How much effort goes in on your end if you were hosting a gig? (22:30)
We have a production [a music release] before that and then in the meantime, we have to collect the bands and that is quite tough. There aren’t many bands in the Kansai region and not all bands would be available to play on that day or would like to play with us. So we get a lot of declines.
We try to get bands that are more acknowledged by more people to make the events be more successful, but in reality, it’s not that easy. In the end, you get your friends’ bands, the bands that we got along well with. I’m really thankful for those bands that participated in our hosted gigs.
Back to the story, it really takes a lot of time and effort finding the bands, working on our production, it’s quite sleepless.
Did you ever go on tours and how was it going on these tours? Like the mental effort and the physical effort. (23:52)
We had a tour, twice, not so many compared to other bands. We hired a car, it was only me and Kei who could drive the car, so it was just the two of us who could switch the drivers. It was okay when we went to Nagoya because it’s about three hours of driving, so one driver is enough. When we went to Tokyo—oh my God—the Shizuoka Prefecture is endless. I mean, you’re driving overnight, you would leave Osaka the night before the gig, maybe 22:00 and around four, five, or six [in the morning] you’re in Shizuoka and you want to sleep, but you can’t and it never gets to Tokyo. I don’t know how many hours.
In connection with tour life, I know we already spoke about costumes but makeup is also a very important part of visual kei. Who would be in charge of that job? Do you do it yourself? Or is there somebody you get for each gig to do it? (25:28)
We normally have someone to do it for us. There are makeup artists. I don’t think any bands would do makeup by themselves, so we hire people to do makeup.
Not even smaller bands? Even they hire people to do their makeup? (26:04)
Would you have the same makeup artist? Or would you take on different makeup artists to recreate a similar look? (26:11)
It’s better to have the same makeup artist and that’s the usual case. We have two or three regular makeup artists, when one isn’t available we would ask the other one. So we could have that routine and keep up the same look, but some bands wouldn’t be so fussed about it, maybe they are quite flexible.
Would the makeup artist travel with you guys? Or would they travel separately? (26:56)
If we are to take the makeup artist from the Kansai region together, we would travel together.
You chose a more feminine kind of look for your band
. How do you make the decision in choosing who’s gonna be the feminine member? (27:10)
Because a lot of bands obviously, they always have the token feminine one and it’s a thing that keeps happening. (27:26)
To be honest, I never wanted to be the one [laughs]. But I always wanted to be quite a neutral type but never a girly feminine type. Feminine is okay but not the girly type.
How did you end up with that part then? (28:00)
When Kairi the guitarist joined the band, and when we were making our next production and having the meeting with the makeup artist and the costume designers, about the new outfit. They thought if I would keep the style that I had, it would sort of blur the whole contrast of the members. They’re all quite neutral types so it sort of wasn’t forced, but they wanted me to be the girly type in the end to outstand each member.
We were just wondering about the chekis (polaroid photograph) that you sell during your lives. What’s the importance of these chekis as bandmen? (28:58)
I have no idea to be honest [laugh], and again, I never thought my band would be playing in a visual kei scene and you know, I didn’t even know the Japanese music scene, so I didn’t know what a cheki was. I couldn’t believe how we could sell them to the fans and earn money from it. It was unbelievable to me.
A lot of people do buy them? (29:46)
How much is a cheki usually? (30:25)
About $5 each.
That’s quite expensive actually. (30:42)
Yeah, it is. Some bands would sell it for $10.
That’s the more established bands, I guess? (30:51)
What would you say has been your most positive experience of being involved in such a scene or movement? (30:56)
I was able to meet my fanbase. That’s something I can not have it anywhere else and also I was able to meet some of the people that, you know, I used to watch them on YouTube. I was never a fan of them but someone I would admire in certain points, like the final recording I worked with Art Elicia, the recording engineer used to work with Gackt. So he showed us how Gackt’s old songs were on his computer, like the session files. It was amazing to see, it was pretty cool.
Are there any negatives you’ve experienced during that time? (39:17)
Everything was quite overwhelming. I was physically and mentally not so well. Like I said, the reason I came to Japan was that I had some sort of fault, physical issue. It was at a point it was getting better, but again, it was sort of getting worse. Actually, I had a shoulder problem, once I wasn’t able to play drums and it was sort of coming back and the members didn’t really care much about it. So it was quite sad.
Wouldn’t band members you’re close to be more understanding? (33:16)
My members didn’t know about my issues. They would help me when I need help, but… I don’t know if they really did. I think being in a visual kei there’s a thing where you get too busy and you can’t think about other people very much. I think I was the same to the others too in some ways. So it’s like you got to protect yourself while you can.
I think it is really important to have that spare space somewhere inside you to be able to care for the others and if you don’t have that, then you see a lot of bands disbanding. I think in most cases it’s mostly the human relationships.
Without going into details, but were there typical topics that caused disagreements between the band members? (34:33)
The focus we had was not all the same. Some members would think we need to do more tour, gigs, and have more releases, whereas other members would think we need to keep the balance of the members, in order to have all that gigs and productions. When those different ideas stayed for some time, it sort of clashes and it’s really hard to go back to the point where we could really understand each other.
I guess this puts everyone on a bad mood as well? (36:12)
Band members are constantly using social media to keep in touch with fans and they post photos, videos, and talk about recent events. How do you think it has changed the way members communicate with fans and also themselves? (36:17)
I think it’s great to be able to expose the communication between the members or the fans because, when we didn’t have the internet it was all under the scene. At the same time, it’s not always obvious, they could be communicating on direct messages and you don’t know what’s behind it. I enjoy communicating with the fans, but at the same time, I feel like I’ve got to be careful because some people might come [on] too much, not having certain distance at all.
Would you reply to your fans directly? (37:30)
When I first started using Twitter, yes, I was always replying to their messages. I don’t know, there’s a point where I stopped doing that and I’m sort of not replying to the messages, only sometimes. My band disbanded so now I don’t have anything to protect.
You mean you don’t have to worry about accidentally saying the wrong thing to hurt your band? (38:02)
Yes, but I think there needs to be some distance—it doesn’t have to be between the fans and musicians—but some people are very unique and can be quite harmful at times.
Did all these messages and tweets make you want to carry on making music? (38:36)
That was one of the driving forces then? (38:50)
How did all these social media help you expand your band during your time with
Art Elicia? (38:55)
See, it’s not like we were chatting like we’re good friends with the fans but we were able to communicate somehow. In my case when they give me some sort of comments or anything, I would always put a like button to let them know I have read it and appreciate it. It’s like we have an obvious connection as a person, but that’s sort of this new way of communication, I guess.
The people close to you, what did they think of you being in a visual kei band?
All my close people never thought it looked good on me. Being in the visual kei, my family and friends were really supportive about it. I never had anything against my will in terms of that.
You mentioned that they think it didn’t look good on you. (40:42)
Just the girly appearance.
For people who know you for a long time, like your parents, it’s quite a contrast to see you in a totally different light. Were they still okay with all that? (40:54)
Yeah. My mother, she lives in Australia but whenever she travels to Japan, she would go to one of those CD stores. I could give her the CD but she would go and buy it. [laughs].
That sounds like a very supportive relationship you have with your mom. (41:37)
That leads us on to our next question, so obviously, people buy CDs, they’ll buy merch, whatever you’re selling. How sustainable is it being an indie visual kei band? (41:41)
I think most people have their part-time jobs and we somehow have to make it work right? It’s not like we are getting individual incomes from the CDs and merchandise, it all goes back to the band. I don’t know how I was able to do that. Of course, then again, there’s my family’s support and all that, so maybe that’s the way I was able to sustain the activity.
I think it’s more hard for visual kei because you gotta make things constantly, you got to have new outfits in a certain amount of time, maybe three to four months. It’s like the money is draining away every half a year and as long as the band members agree with that, I think it’s okay, but when someone thinks that’s the essential and it’s the must thing we have to do. Some person might be sacrificing a little and the other person sacrificing a massive amount of money and time. That could cause the bad balance of the routine.
If you’re the typical visual kei band, you usually have these fancy clothing but if you’re more into the “casual kei”. Then you would just dress up a bit less pricey. In that way, you could save money? (44:23)
Yeah. You know what, I think we’re all greedy in a way so if we don’t have to put our money on our costumes, we would put more money into something else like making flyers or for the CD productions. If we didn’t have to spend on one thing, we always had to spend on something else.
You would spend all that money anyway, doesn’t matter how? (45:24)
Yeah. For me, whenever I thought I could save some money, some of my instruments would break and I have to replace with a new one.
You mentioned flyers, those are the kind of stuff as a fan maybe you would disregard as just a piece of paper. Are those expensive to produce? (45:47)
Flyers aren’t expensive. If you want to print maybe a couple of hundreds maybe it’s only less than 100 bucks. So that’s not too expensive.
When being in a band, and you’re not doing music. Were there actually time to do other things or did you just have to focus on music? (46:20)
Basically, no time to do anything else. I wasn’t able to hang out with my friends. I was quite under pressure that I had to always do something for the band.
Because you were the main composer as well. (46:45)
Yes and I was okay with being the main composer, that’s what I wanted to be, but the intentional requirements I was feeling from the members was that I had to make everything perfect—which was quite a pressure. I would be in front of the computer every night and then I see some of the members hanging out with some other people. Especially when during the busy moments, I don’t have time to even get out of the room and do stuff like hanging out with friends, but I would see some tweets with a glass of beer and I would feel “I’m stuck with all this work, why are you doing that”?
How did you find yourself playing the drums? What made you want to be a drummer in the first place? (47:59)
I was never into music until I was in Junior High or maybe just before that. I have a sister and a brother, they both used to go to piano lessons. My father was a conductor for a choir team when he was a student so I was raised in a more classical music environment. They never intrigued me and I was never interested in music, but then, I started listening to some sort of anime songs which was “TWO-MIX”, the voice actress of Detective Conan. That was the first music that really got me into [music], but still, I wasn’t imagining myself playing any instruments.
A couple of years later, maybe when I was about 15, my friend made me a copy of a compilation album with all these club music. I was listening to it over and over again. Club music doesn’t really have drums, the rhythms are all done by computers, but there was something that made me want to play drums from that music. That was the first reason I started playing drums and even back then, I didn’t like rock music in general.
At that time what kind of music were you listening to? (50:02)
I was listening to radio-friendly pop, some anime songs, and some club music. Do you know a group called “Hybrid”? Maybe they’re Swedish? Maybe not? I was listening to that kind of music.
Then there was a time I was about to come to Japan for High School for two years, and then I saw B’z, the rock duo, on the TV. That was another wave of… something, that was the starting point when I started listening to rock music.
As you’re the main composer, you also know how to play the other instruments a little bit as well? (51:09)
Yes, the following year I started playing the drums I started playing the guitar. So actually, if you have seen Art Elicia’s credit before Kairi joined, it was actually Kei on vocals and me being on instruments. So I wasn’t actually just the drummer but the guitarist and the bassist as well.
If you were gonna put together another band and it had to be a perfect visual kei band. Who would you include and why? (51:50)
Is it for myself? Or is that the imaginary band?
Ah right! So I can pick up anybody. I like thinking that kind of things. For the drummer… can I include myself?
Yeah of course! (52:22)
No, actually I’ll put myself aside. If not me, I would have Shinya from LUNA SEA for the drummer, could be the DIR EN GREY Shinya as well, but I prefer LUNA SEA’s. For the bass, Toshiya from DIR EN GREY. For guitar, Sugizo from LUNA SEA and for the vocalist I would pick up Kyo from DIR EN GREY again.
What kind of music would this band make? I mean, we see so many side projects from DIR EN GREY so it could be anything. (53:08)
Yeah, it was half LUNA SEA and half DIR EN GREY band wasn’t it? But to me, I think they both have a similar sort of aesthetics in my opinion so I think it would make a good collaboration if those people worked together.
That would be like a super band. (53:52)
I mean, I know Kyo and Sugizo have worked together in Sugizo’s album and on sukekiyo’s album too.
Is that “ONENESS M” for Sugizo? (54:09)
Any band you see potential in that you would like to recommend? (54:15)
I wasn’t really able to keep up my music library and to be honest, I think the music isn’t really giving me the drive at the moment, I mean the new stuff. They kind of sound quite similar to one another. There isn’t a band I can pick up and say “you guys should listen to them right now”. Well, it’s not my cup of tea, but do you know “CLACK inc.”? They make something cool.
We’ve come to the end of our question time so just to finish off, where do you see yourself in five years time? And what do you hope you can achieve in the next five years? (55:15)
I really didn’t see my band Art Elicia coming to an end so I’m actually at the point where I’m quite in a huge loss moment. I really don’t know what I want to do now. But at the same time, I can finally have some time for myself, to be able to explore a bit more, listen to new music and I have been talking with people who are asking me to help them with their compositions, arrangements, and recordings. I don’t know if I will be coming back on stage, maybe if I find the right members again, so it’s really hard to think ahead for a promising future, but I think I will keep doing music somehow.
At the current state, are you more interested in being in the background when it comes to making music? (56:36)
I hate being in the background, I want to be on stage. I love to, but for now, I just don’t want to rush into that scene again to give myself more pressure. I think I need to release myself for a while and I think I need some time to relax and maintain myself.
Thank you Kenbo for joining us today. It’s really been interesting listening to your opinions and comments about all kinds of stuff on visual kei. (57:12)
Yeah, it was really nice having this time with you guys. Thanks for having me.
We’re so grateful to Kenbo for spending such a large amount of his precious time and enlighten us about visual kei. If you want to know more about Kenbo and keep up with his activities, follow him on Twitter!