As the clock struck midnight in Japan, PENICILLIN’s new mini-album Kowloon Head has been released today on November 6. We had the pleasure to meet with HAKUEI recently—the frontman of the band—to talk about this mini-album back when it was still in early development. But of course, since HAKUEI is also active in the endeavors of revitalizing visual kei through club Zy., working as an honorary editor, we chose to further delve into this topic to follow-up on the previous club Zy.’s special interview.
Let’s talk about your role as an honorary editor at Japan’s leading visual kei magazine and website, club Zy. How is that so far?
Having over 25 years of experience in visual kei with PENICILLIN, I feel as though it’s time for a new chapter within the visual kei scene. My work with club Zy. is to revitalize the scene and help make visual kei popular again. Our work has only just begun, but I help out where I can—like promoting with guests on my niconico show and opening an apparel shop SHIBUYA Zy. in the MAGNET by SHIBUYA 109 department store.
MAGNET is filled with clothing stores, but what makes SHIBUYA Zy. stand out?
We’re actively putting out collaboration clothing with various artists, and going forward, I want to introduce more elements of general Japanese pop culture. For example, we’re currently in talks with Sanrio, the creator of Hello Kitty.
Do you think club Zy.’s work is important for the future of visual kei?
Definitely. I hope our efforts can encourage more growth in the scene by holding various events and other forms of promotion.
Do you have any interesting stories from your work so far?
There’s always something going on [laughs]! The most fun thing for me is my show on niconico called “Izakaya HAKUEI” (HAKUEI’s Bar) where I drink and talk with the guests. We always end up getting drunk and talking for a long time.
Can our readers watch your show?
The first half of every stream is free, but you need to register to watch until the end. We don’t have a fixed schedule, but I’m trying to do it at least once a month.
What made you want to start this kind of show?
I thought it sounded fun [laughs]! But on a more serious note, I think it’s very rare for fans to be able to see a more relaxed and casual format like this. Usually, those kinds of shows are quite formal and focus mostly on promotion. Also, any guests who appear on my show can feel free to drop in again at any time, so there are times when someone else will turn up in the middle of it!
PENICILLIN has a sold-out one-man live called “Matsuri” (Festival). Can we expect anything different from your usual shows?
Yes, since the theme is “summer festival”, we’ll be performing in yukata (summer kimono) and we’ve specially arranged some of our old songs to fit the theme. For example, there’s this song otoko no roman where I sing about the stag beetle, which is a summer insect. We’ve made a new arrangement where the rhythm is reminiscent of the sound of drums in a summer festival.
Will we be able to hear these special arrangements later, maybe on a new CD?
No, they’re just for the fans who come tomorrow to enjoy. We have no plans to record them for the time being.
Do you think the fans will also wear yukata?
There’s no special dress code, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many people came wearing one too.
We’ve heard that you have a reputation for drinking beer on stage. Is that something you still do?
Is beer your favorite alcoholic drink?
Actually, I don’t drink a lot of beer recently. I’ve been drinking whiskey and wine. In Japan, whiskey and soda are known as a highball, but people overseas don’t use that term so much, right? How should I order it?
If they don’t understand, maybe just ask for whiskey and soda?
But then they often take out something sweet like ginger ale. That’s not what I’m after.
So sparkling water then?
“Whiskey and sparkling water”. Thanks [laughs].
So PENICILLIN is releasing a new mini-album “Kowloon Head” in November. Can you tell us anything about that?
We literally just started working on it yesterday [laughs]! Since we’ve been making music for so long and we already have over 200 songs, I’m always thinking of how to make something new that we haven’t done before. But for this record, I don’t want to worry about any of that. Instead, I want to remember the passion we had when we started out and just make music on impulse again.
What’s the most difficult part of composing a new song?
I think there needs to be a balance between the melody, the rhythm, and the words you put to it. Without that balance, your feelings won’t be conveyed to the listener. So even if I come up with a great tune, it doesn’t work out if I can’t get my feelings across. If I can’t get excited about what I’m writing, then I’m confident it’s not going to make a good song.
Is that something you often struggle with?
Yes, it’s frustrating when I’m working hard on one part of a song but it just won’t click. Sometimes that flash of inspiration is crucial. I know when I find that balance because it just feels great.
Is there anyone you can talk to when you just hit a wall?
Not really. I turn to alcohol [laughs].
PENICILLIN is quite well-known overseas, but how do you think the foreign fans differ from those in Japan?
Sometimes the foreign fans seem even more passionate than the Japanese fans! Since it’s pretty rare for us to perform overseas, I guess they want to make the most of that opportunity. It really makes me think that there are no boundaries or borders in music.
Do you have any plans to perform overseas in the near future?
There’s nothing lined up right now, but I’d love to go again soon. The only problem is, guitarist Chisato hates flying… [Laughs].
Going back to your work with club Zy., can you tell us a bit more about your comment from your interview where you mention “it’s necessary to create a place that can serve as a source for visual kei”?
There used to be a number of visual kei magazines, and those companies also held events like sponsored lives, but recently those kinds of places are declining. I think we need to make a new platform for that kind of activity to help revitalize the scene. Supporting new bands, providing opportunities for them to perform together with veteran bands, that sort of thing.
Recently lots of visual kei CD stores are closing down or going out of business. Do you think that’s a sign of visual kei losing its popularity or more related to the recent digital trend in the industry?
I think digital media is an important factor. There’s plenty of people these days who are satisfied just listening to music on YouTube or downloading instead of buying CDs. Of course, that’s a trend for the whole industry, not just visual kei, but it’s definitely had an impact. I think it’s more common in Japan than other countries these days for fans to want some kind of physical representation of their favorite artists’ music, so we’re still hanging on, but only just.
How do you feel about that?
When I was young, we didn’t have a choice—if you didn’t go out and buy the record, there was no other way to hear it. I think my generation valued albums as physical goods more than people do now; thumbing through the booklets until they became creased, imagining how grateful the artist was that you bought their record. Honestly, I’m a little sad that this way of thinking has mostly disappeared. But I don’t think those kinds of people will ever disappear completely, so I want to continue producing physical CDs that the fans will be excited to get their hands on.
Vinyl is starting to become popular again in the west, but how about Japan?
It’s the same kind of feeling, right? The pictures are much bigger on records than a CD, you can use them to decorate your room—it’s like going to a concert and buying merch. Odds are people these days can’t even play records anymore, but they still want to own them, right?
We don’t often see visual kei bands on TV or other media recently like we used to. Do you think younger bands still have those kinds of opportunities?
There are less music shows these days. We used to have shows like “Utaban” or “Hey! Hey! Hey!” in primetime, but now the only one that comes to mind is “Music Station”. Even late-night TV is largely represented by Johnny’s, Avex, and idol groups these days, with maybe an appearance from someone like Golden Bomber.
Do you think there’s been any impact from the rising popularity of K-pop?
I don’t think that’s affected visual kei directly. Possibly some fans became more interested in Japanese idol music, but not really K-pop.
I think overseas visual kei has lost some fans due to K-pop. Asian music still isn’t that big in the west so visual kei is competing with not only other Japanese music but also music from other countries.
That’s very interesting. I don’t think the same can be said within Japan.
Is the overseas market also part of your plan with club Zy.?
Of course, but that’s still a way to go yet. Club Zy. is primarily focused on visual kei, but my hope for the future is that we can expand into other genres like mainstream Japanese rock, idol music, or anime songs, and get foreign fans more interested in Japanese music in general. Then maybe one day we can hold concerts and events overseas with all kinds of Japanese artists.
In the old days, a lot of visual kei bands found success with anime theme songs. Are those kinds of opportunities still available for new bands?
I guess those opportunities are still out there since the anime industry is so strong, but maybe there’s no point of contact for newcomers. If we work hard at club Zy., it would be great if we could reach out to anime companies directly to arrange that kind of thing.
You’re also producing a project called “The Brow Beat” that has Ryuji in focus. How did you help him to find his footing in the music industry? We’re of course talking about the actor Ryuji who is known for playing Zaizen Hikaru in The Prince of Tennis Musical, and recently taking the main role in the TV drama “Re: Follower”.
He actually used to be in a band, you know. Before he became successful as an actor, I heard he played drums in a visual kei band in high school. I first met him about four years ago when I was producing the theme song for a drama he was in. He told me he was still interested in music and that he listened to our stuff, so I asked if he wanted to do something together.
The visual kei scene is constantly changing and evolving, but what do you think will be the next big thing?
That’s a difficult question. I think it’s about time a new “monster band” appeared in the scene, one that is still young now but will be at the center of the next wave of visual kei.
Are there any new bands we should keep an eye out for?
The Brow Beat, of course [laughs]! But seriously, I’ve seen so much growth in Ryuji just in these two years, maybe because he’s still so young. I believe he could be someone who can help bring the visual kei scene forward alongside us.
Of course, visual kei is also about the visuals. Since the origin of the scene is “visual shock”, what do you think of the recent trend in young bands to have less extravagant outfits?
That is true now that you mention it. When we started out, visual kei was still a new term so even society didn’t really know how to define it. X Japan was called “okeshou kei” (make-up style) before visual kei came to be commonly used. Personally, I used to listen to punk rock and glam rock in high school, and those kinds of bands often had an aggressive appearance to match their music. I think visual kei has its roots in bands emulating that kind of music, but since the scene has been around for almost 30 years at this point, younger generations have their own interpretation of the term.
So was PENICILLIN always supposed to be a visual kei band?
We only started to be called visual kei part-way through our careers. It didn’t really exist as a term when PENICILLIN was formed, but by the time we went major, we were lumped in with other bands like that.
Do you identify as visual kei?
I think more so now than ever before. Back when the media jumped on the term “visual kei”, I had mixed feelings about the connotations. I never originally thought “I want to be visual kei”, but PENICILLIN got that label without any conscious choice on our part. At the time all the focus was on our outfits, and no-one seemed to take the time to actually listen to our music. However, now that visual kei has established itself as a recognizable music scene even abroad, we aren’t judged so much in the same way. I think now I have a kind of pride in being visual kei that I didn’t expect back then.
Since you’ve been at the center of the visual kei scene throughout its history, have you seen any changes in the fans?
Back in the day, there were a lot of cosplayers! Probably about 80% of the crowd were people who bought the same kind of outfits as the band members and copied their make-up or just wore a lot of black.
That’s actually still quite common at overseas concerts!
I noticed that too. I think the foreign fans are closer to the old image of visual kei than the Japanese fans now. Those kinds of people are still out there, but the vast majority of people in Japan wear more casual clothing. Also, about 80% of the fans are girls.
Finally, can you tell us how foreign fans can support your work with club Zy.?
The most important thing is to take an interest. It doesn’t matter how you start, maybe watching videos on YouTube or looking at our site, but I think once you take an interest you will naturally want to find out more. Things like going to a gig when a Japanese band perform overseas, or maybe even coming to Japan. Whatever the opportunity is, I want people to come into contact with our bands and music.
Please leave a message for our readers.
Visual kei has a long history, so I think you can find a band that interests you. Since it’s not really a genre in the same vein as rock or pop, you can experience several generations of music just within visual kei, be it veterans like X Japan, LUNA SEA, or newer bands. That’s the kind of scene that visual kei has grown to become, so please enjoy our history as you support our future.
HAKUEI is pushing visual kei in a modern direction that will hopefully lead to growth in the scene. We want to thank him for his continuous effort and wish him the best of luck!
Kowloon Head (九龍頭)
Buy at CDJapan
Buy at CDJapan