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Origins - CHAI

We caught up with CHAI, a four-piece experimental ‘NEOkawaii’ band from Japan, ahead of their performances at SXSW in Austin, Texas, to talk about their live shows and powerful messaging

Read on to find out more about what you can expect at the band’s debut UK tour this May

How would you describe CHAI to someone who’s never heard of the band?

Mana: CHAI is a four-piece all-onna (female) band hailing from Japan.
Kana: CHAI is going to be the face of Asia and the 3rd best band in the world.
Yuuki: CHAI is going to take home a Grammy!
Yuna: CHAI is going to change the standards of what society considers kawaii (cute).

What are your earliest musical influences?

Yuna: Earliest musical influences? That’s a tough one! We have so many.
Kana: We can’t even count! Some of our earliest influences were J-pop Artists such as Orange Range, but others are Justice, Basement Jaxx, Phoenix, DEVO, N.E.R.D, to name a few.
Mana: For the most part, we all share a similar taste in music, but we really have been influenced by so many. We never stop being influenced either.  Every day we have random encounters with music that we take note of, whether it be via YouTube, Spotify, or a recommendation from someone.

Were you encouraged to play music growing up?

Mana: I wasn’t necessarily encouraged but I always loved music since I was a little kid.
Kana: For me and Mana, we always had dreams of becoming singers. Growing up, our parents would play J-pop while taking drives and we’d always watch different Artists perform on TV.  I guess you can say that we kind of encouraged ourselves.
Yuuki: When we were kids, we hadn’t encountered a lot of the music that we listen to now, most of which is Western music. We love and listen to all types though.
Yuna: Myself, Mana, and Kana were all in the same music club during our high school years, where we would do random jam sessions and play music just for the love of it. This definitely encouraged what we now call CHAI.

It’s obvious that you’re incredibly close! What does friendship mean to you? Is it important when collaborating and writing?

Mana: Friendship = Family. It’s very important. The vibe between us at a particular moment translates into song and if you don’t get along with your fellow bandmates, you can’t create.
Yuuki: Yes, the vibe between the four of us is really important. We’re always together and are constantly in each other’s presence every day.
Kana: Especially, myself and Mana. Since we are identical twins, we tend to think about the same things or imagine the same things; we’re really alike.  
Mana: Since Kana and I are twin sisters, we can tell each other things that you couldn’t tell your friends, it might even be more so in this case given that we are twin sisters and not brothers. We are straightforward with one another, so we tell one another “we don’t need this, or we definitely need this”, which ultimately plays a very important role in our activities as musicians. For example, when we’re discussing what direction we’re planning to go for a live show, we can honestly tell one another whether we think something is good or bad.
Yuuki: I call CHAI my ‘new family’ because it truly is. There’s a commonality between all of us that translates very well and results in the songs and visuals you’ve seen of CHAI up until this point.

A recurring topic in the band is the notion of ‘cute’ and how to subvert that by embracing imperfection – it’s really empowering! What does ‘cute’ mean to you? What can we, particularly as females, learn from CHAI’s ethos? Also, how do your experiences of growing up female influence your music?

Yuuki: In society today, the standards placed around the word ‘beauty’ are very narrow.  ‘You have to be skinny, your eyes have to be big, your skin has to be of a fairer tone, your nose should be pointier’ …are all very narrow standards that make up what kawaii or cute is.
As a woman, I particularly felt uncomfortable with this and always out of place. In reality, it should be that every and anyone is beautiful from birth.
Mana: All four of us have grown up having a lot of insecurities because we never felt like we fit into what society labels as kawaii.
Yuna: I used to be really insecure about the outline of my face. I would always find ways to hide it or make it appear smaller, with certain hairstyles, etc. but once I met the rest of the CHAI girls, they told me, “that’s what’s great about you!” and from there I gained confidence and found ways to show my facial outline more.
Yuuki: That is how ‘NEOkawaii’ was born.  We want to use this word to get this message out that you are fine the way you are and that is kawaii.

From PINK to PUNK, what does the evolution between these albums look and sound like?

Yuuki: Our second album, PUNK, fully encompasses exactly what mode CHAI is in right at this moment.
Mana: We tend to gravitate towards creating music based on the sounds we’re hearing at a given moment. When we were creating PUNK, we were listening to a lot of Honne, The Go! Team, Toploader, and Arrested Development.  
Kana: We tried new things with the PUNK album while still sticking to our overall concept of ‘being yourself’ and ‘NEOkawaii’.  We didn’t get too particular about the sound and had Curly Adventure engineered by Daniel Schlett from the US and Fashionista engineered by Marta Salogni, from the UK.  We even have a song called THIS IS CHAI in which the entire song features live drumming and we created [that sound] alongside an engineer.
Yuuki: We were able to perform overseas last year and received so much love which left us with so many different emotions. It’s those emotions that became PUNK.
CHAI: PINK is a colour that is often associated with adolescence and once you become of a certain age, it’s often frowned upon to wear. We wanted everyone to know that pink isn’t just a cute color for kids, but it’s actually a cool colour; a colour that exudes strength! A colour that has no limit on age or gender.
PUNK doesn’t mean the genre, but more so a feeling. PUNK was what we had been doing all along; not caring about what people think and doing what you want to do is what PUNK is. It’s the punch in PINK! PUNK represents a stronger sense of self.

I read in another interview that you like to build each other up with a chant before you perform. Do you think females do this enough for each other, and what’s the benefit of this?

Mana: I think it’s because we are all women that there’s things that only we can understand about one another. I think whether you’re female or male, building each other up is important. Your band is like another family and just as much as you want every family member to be their best, you also want the audience to see your family at their best.
Ultimately, being able to cheer yourself and your teammates on sparks camaraderie, trust, and you might even find yourselves laughing at the same time; crying, and even getting angry at the same time. I think this is actually amazing and very important. Teamwork makes the dream work.

This isn’t your first time at SXSW! What brings you back here? Who/what are you most looking forward to this time?

Kana: This year, we will be hitting a lot of new stages and are featured in new showcases.  We’ll also be performing at some showcases from last year, including Burgermania and Volcom, which were really awesome so we’re super excited to be able to be back there as well. There’s going to be a lot of people getting to watch CHAI for the first time, so I hope we have as many people as possible checking us out.

What has been your best memory of CHAI so far?

Mana: When it was the final day of our US tour last March, we had gotten so much love from the Burger Records staff and others that we didn’t want to leave. We all cried together!  Not just the four of us but also some of staff too.
Kana: Mine would have to be supporting Superorganism on the UK length of their tour. We really love their music so for them to have asked us to tour with them was like, “there can’t be anything more fulfilling than this.”  Them watching us perform every night and complimenting us really boosted our confidence as musicians.
Yuuki: I’d have to say touring with Superorganism for the UK length of their tour as well.
I truly respect them as Artists’ from the bottom of my heart and being able to be with them for three weeks’ touring, really showed me something that I hadn’t found in Japan. Simply speaking, my feelings of hope expanded. More than anything, being complimented by an Artist I admire really helped my confidence. They have influenced the CHAI that is to come, now and moving forward.
Yuna: I too, was ecstatic that we were asked to support Superorganism on their UK tour.  Watching them perform at such a close range and them being themselves on stage was really a sight to see. Everything you see while they perform, visuals, interactions, was all shocking in a great way. As Kana and Yuuki said, to top it all off their compliments on our performance encouraged us and have helped build our confidence.

What is the one decision, question, or piece of advice which changed your lives forever?

Mana: I would say our move to Tokyo was that one decision that changed our lives forever.  We are all from Nagoya, Japan, and prior to moving to Tokyo, we would perform locally in the Nagoya area, but it was more on a hobby-basis. We told ourselves that if we are going to do this musician thing for real, then we need to move to the centre of everything in Japan, we needed to move to Tokyo.
Kana: When we were still in Nagoya, we didn’t have a record deal or anything like that, but once we made that move the doors really opened for us. We had so many life changing encounters which all have brought us to this point.

You’re coming over to the UK in May! Your energy is noted in any review or interview that I read – what can we expect from a CHAI live show? Where does the energy come from?

Yuuki: This is our first time touring the UK and EU with us as the main act. The thought of having tons of people getting to know CHAI is super exciting.
Yuna: A CHAI show means you never know what to expect! We always get our motivation and energy from food. So we’re also super excited for the food.
Mana: I definitely want to eat chicken from Nandos again.
Kana: The last time we were in the UK and EU, we were opening for Superorganism and it was such an eye-opening experience. From the people, the food, the scenery, and even getting to watch Superorganism perform every night, we really learned a lot from that experience and are geared up for this upcoming May to show you all.

What is CHAI’s overall mission?

Mana: We’re going to change the standards placed on kawaii or ‘cute’ through song.
Kana: If we stand up for something, the result is everyone being happy.
Yuuki: As CHAI, we want to open the doors for all types of kawaii and beauty.
Yuna: Oh, and can’t forget wanting to performing live in a candy house like the one in Hansel and Gretel!

Do you have a final message for our readers?

CHAI: Everybody! Come see our live show! We’ll show you something you’ve never seen before. We’ll be waiting for ya ...

For more information on CHAI and the upcoming tour of the UK and Europe, visit their website here.

CHAI were talking to Sophie Porter.
Sophie Porter is a musician and artist living in Norwich, UK, and writes, interviews and publishes for Lush.


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