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Wednesday Campanella
KOM_I of Wednesday CampanellaCourtesy of Warner Music Japan

The uniquely beautiful Japanese pop band you need to know

We meet KOM_I of oddball Japanese group Wednesday Campanella before they play Hong Kong’s Clockenflap and Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw festivals

If KOM_I were a creature of myth, she’d likely be Euterpe, the Greek Muse of music. The “giver of much delight,” as she was called, Euterpe would entertain and inspire the gods with her lyrical poetry atop Mount Olympus – much like how the breezy 25-year-old lead vocalist of Wednesday Campanella inspires her bandmates and entertains their legions of global fans. But KOM_I (pronounced "koh-mu-eye") is no Grecian myth: she’s flesh and blood and Japanese.

One-third of the EDM pop act known as Suiyoubi no Campanella in their native Japan, KOM_I – who prefers to keep her real name hidden in an effort to preserve some anonymity – presents a far cry from the stereotypical idol image that the term “J-pop” tends to conjure amongst casual Western listeners. There are no highly stylised, cutesy stage costumes or sleek choreography, and their songs contain joyfully nonsensical lyrics about Hawaiian kings and anime unicorns. Onstage and in their music videos, the trio becomes a frenetic solo act, with KOM_I’s bandmates Kenmochi and Dir.F receding into the shadows (they prefer it that way) while their muse lets loose.

“Kenmochi-san is the most conservative one, though he makes all the music and lyrics,” KOM_I explains of her collaborators, who she first met at a house party in Tokyo back in 2012. “Dir.F is the one who always stops me when I try to do too much crazy stuff, to keep it balanced. Both of them are almost ten years older than me so they are spoiling me in a way, by doing what I’m not good at. Nowadays I offer ideas for a name of song, parts of the lyrics or just a brief idea of what kind of song I want to create.”

Since making their indie debut five years ago, Wednesday Campanella have been slowly but surely building a foreign audience outside of Japan, playing festivals like South by Southwest in Austin and J-pop Summit in San Francisco in 2016. Next month they’ll head to Clockenflap, a music festival in Hong Kong uniting artists from across East Asia and the West.

They’re also the sole Japanese act set to perform at Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw gathering in Los Angeles. “I see the way how Tyler expresses himself is like pulling a rubber band with seriousness on one end, and silliness on the other, but never breaking it,” KOM_I shares of the rapper. “That’s what I like about him the most.” When it comes to Wednesday Campanella, however, the band snaps squarely on the silly side: Featuring delightful and ridiculous titles based on myths and deities (“Onyankopon”, “Ame-no-Uzume”), folktales and pop culture legends (“Audrey”, “Aladdin”), the group’s lyrics are more concerned with wordplay and rhyming than reason or narrative. The juxtaposition of booming electro, glossy pop and imaginary themes crafts a sort of blissful sonic Xanadu.

“I see the way how Tyler expresses himself is like pulling a rubber band with seriousness on one end, and silliness on the other, but never breaking it” – KOM_I

In February, the group released their first major label studio album, Superman, a collection of unusual, undeniable dance floor bangers spanning tropical house, future garage and stranger corners of EDM. Connecting each genre-busting track is KOM_I’s playful, feathery voice – an airy burst that floats like a zephyr on some songs and crashes like a powerful gale on others, particularly when she flexes her rap chops. No matter how hard the wind blows, however, it’s refreshing: Wednesday Campanella doesn’t sound like any other Japanese act out there.

Much of your group’s music is inspired by Japanese folklore, as well as other mythologies. Which Japanese folk tale is your favourite?

KOM_I: One of my favourite Japanese folk tales is called ‘Chikara Taro’. As the story goes, there was once an old couple with little money and no kids. They had not taken a bath for a long time, but at one point, they bathed and scurf (dead skin) fell off from their bodies. Since they had no kids, they rolled that scurf into a baby doll and wished that the doll would become a real baby. One day the doll made of scurf turned into a real boy, and they named him Chikara Taro. When he turned 15-years-old, he became very powerful. He wiped out an ogre that was trying to kidnap young girls, and became a saviour for his village! That story has been stuck in my head, since I felt very gross that so much scurf fell off that they could roll it into a doll.

Do you think that a band creates its own mythology, in a way?

KOM_I: I don’t think so... But sometimes I do feel like I’m part of a bigger story, the same as some of the gods from mythology. My favourite myth is about Amano-Iwato, from the story of Tenson kōrin chronicled in Kojiki, which is believed to be the oldest book on mythology in Japan.

Amaterasu-ōmikami, the sun god whom Susanoo, the storm god, had been harsh on, was hiding in a cave when she realized the world had become very dark. The Shinto gods, Yaoyorozu-no-kami, were so confused with the situation that they all made a plan: Ame-no-uzume, the god of entertainment, started dancing in front of rock door, to make the other gods laugh. Amaterasu-ōmikami heard them having fun time, so she opened the rock door a little bit to see what was going on outside. Then Ame-no-uzume started reflecting the light of the sun onto a mirror, to fake the outside being bright, and the powerful Ame-no-tajikarao pulled Amaterasu-ōmikami out from the cave. That’s why the world is bright and safe now.

I like this story because it shows how singing and dancing will awaken people. I went to a party in Oregon to watch the total solar eclipse back in August. I saw people dancing and having fun, and the moon looked like that rock door. That made me think that the story of Amano-Iwato might be based on a solar eclipse.

One of the most exciting elements about Wednesday Campanella is the eccentricity of your music videos, including your wild, free-spirited dancing. How does that type of movement supplement the music and mood of the songs?

KOM_I: My unique dancing is based on my disadvantage! I’m so poor at remembering choreography and doing the same thing perfectly and repeatedly. But since people around me tolerate it, I never realised I was bad at dancing! While filming music videos, the crew is always nervous because they can’t predict what I will do. They always struggle to not be on camera, running and hiding on the set as I move around. You might catch this nervousness and tension both in the music videos and the songs.

I heard you can salsa dance. Do you think dance music can connect humans as it is a common emotional language?

KOM_I: I used to go attend an international exchange program back in high school, which is where I first learned about Cuban salsa dancing since they were offering classes. I also used to go to a salsa club in Roppongi in Tokyo. And I do! I do like that everyone can be as one when listening to dance music. There is a sense of unity.

Where’s the best place to hear new music in Tokyo?

KOM_I: WWW nightclub might be the best one. Emerging Japanese artists you should check out are CASIO Turkey Onsen and CHAI.

What has been your favourite experience filming a video?

KOM_I: ‘Unico’ is very special to me. When I was at the hawker centre in Singapore, I started dancing because the mutton soup I had was so good, and the director travelling with me happened to have a camera at the time and he just started filming. Later, we added the music for ‘Unico’ in the background and made it into a music video. I’m glad we created something unintentionally. If we already had Instagram Stories back then, we wouldn’t have used the camera, though. That means there would be no ‘Unico’ music video.

I grew up watching The Fantastic Adventures of Unico and Osamu Tezuka’s work, so ‘Unico’ is very special to me as well. I always thought that Unico was a beautiful but sad story, and I can feel that nostalgic melancholy in the melody of your song.

KOM_I: Unico shows a variety of issues caused by people’s greed. It looks like it’s just a normal story for kids but it actually holds a lot of lessons. I read (Tezuka’s) work when I was already grown up, but I’m pretty sure it would feel painful for me, too. I think I would never forget that feeling if I had read the manga when I was little, as I still remember a sad picture book that I read back in the day, which was about getting lost in the middle of a dessert.

Your concerts are very unusual in terms of set pieces and energy. How do you conceptualize what will happen on stage? Do you plan carefully?

KOM_I: We’re so poor at planning ahead, but we’re very flexible. We can’t really plan ahead in details when performing at big festivals since we can’t do any rehearsals. So what we do is make a list of what we can do onstage before the show, and then try to do what we want on the real stage spontaneously while performing.

How does the energy of the crowd differ between your gigs in Japan and in the West?

KOM_I: Crowds in America are usually already enjoying themselves even before the show starts. They act crazier than I do, and that makes me want to act much crazier myself. Also, there are more people who want to talk to me after the show and I really appreciate it since each one of them gives me unique feedback, which rarely happens with the shy audiences in Japan. Japanese audiences may not be as good at listening or feeling the music with their bodies, but they do love going to see the show.

What are some major misconceptions about J-pop?

KOM_I: A lot of people still buy physical CDs in Japan. Normally idols or folk singers (enka) can make enough money on their physical CD sales, though not those of us who only recently began their careers. Since physical CDs only sell well in Japan, some artists believe Japan is their main market and don’t think about expanding their boundaries. When I talk about J-pop with people from other countries, they’re usually like, ‘Oh, is there a genre called J-pop? Is it like K-pop?’ So that makes me realize how J-pop is still largely unknown.

Also, I think J-pop is not really a genre of music, but just Japanese music that is popular at that moment. That’s part of the reason why artists may act more J-pop-ish when they are on TV. I personally don’t really care if they call me J-pop or an idol, because I never define myself. They can define me.

Speaking of Japan, you said during an interview with The Japan Times that ‘there are a lot of things...that are too conservative.’ This made me think of the dancing ban (fueiho), which was lifted in recent years. In which other areas of Japanese culture or government would you like to see a change?

KOM_I: It was unfortunate to see a lot of clubs get shut down, but since fueiho is now amended, I hope it will get better. Japan has freedom and safety. However, people are so consumed with worry even though they don’t need to be. I believe that living a life is about trying things we want to do, one by one. Only human beings can ‘try’, ‘intend’ and ‘play’. But I can tell people (in Japan) are unable to do so, for instance, when I see the crowded trains in Tokyo. I believe music and dance can influence people. I wish I could make them feel less worried.

How would you define your place in music culture during the Heisei age? How do you hope to be remembered years from now?

KOM_I: I want to be in a position of intersection, with many genres and cultures crossing paths – which makes it even harder to catch a true image of myself. I don’t believe I’ve done anything to be remembered for yet, so I’ll do my best.

Wednesday Campanella play Camp Flog Gnaw in Los Angeles (28-29 Oct) and Clockenflap in Hong Kong (17-19 Nov)