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Kyary Pamyu Pamyu gets kawaii with SOPHIE

What's the cutest sound in the world? J-Pop’s sweetheart gives the 'Bipp' pop maestro a masterclass

TextAlex DenneyPhotographyMasha MelStylingTess von Yopp

There can be few people better placed to talk "kawaii" – the Japanese cultural phenomenon whose influence has been felt in everything from the country’s pop music to its politics – than 21-year-old J-pop star artist and former Dazed coverstar Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Kyary was appointed Harajuku Kawaii Ambassador by the Mayor of Tokyo’s fashion district Shibuya in 2012, and is a cult phenomenon worldwide for her unique and often curiously morbid take on kawaii, as expressed in the sensory overload of her videos ("PONPONPON", "Furisodation", "Family Party")

Along with producer A. G. Cook and his PC Music label, SOPHIE is at the vanguard of a new clutch of producers making hay with "cute" – a brightly coloured, hyperreal strain of music which, as dance culture critic Adam Harper points out, owes plenty to "kawaii" (which itself can be roughly translated as "cute"). The London producer cut a rainbow-coloured swath last year with "Bipp", released on Glasgow’s Numbers label. Building on the pitched-up exuberance of debut 12” Nothing More To Say the track took the insanely busy productions of Rustie, Hudson Mohawke et al and scooped out their innards completely, leaving a weird plastic shell that might easily pass for a new and avant-garde form of pop.

With SOPHIE currently writing a song for Kyary (as are arch French pop band Yelle), we met the pair for a kawaii pop masterclass in London. That’s not as straightforward as it sounds, though: non-Anglophone Kyary communicates via a translator, and arrives at Atlantic Records’ Kensington HQ with film crew and small army of publicists, stylists and managers in tow. To complicate matters further, SOPHIE has brought along a bizarre selection of objects — a car tyre, a beach ball, an actual octopus — for Kyary to peruse, so that she can decide whether they’re "cute" or not . “The fact that the objects are being judged on their immediate, surface-level, sensual qualities speaks a lot more about things I am interested in,” SOPHIE tells us over email before the interview,“ rather than discussing cuteness from a linguistic or cultural point of view.” Check out the gallery below for Kyary's verdicts – the sinister gloved hand appearing in the pictures is SOPHIE’s, of course.

SOPHIE: When you've spoken about kawaii culture, you talk about not only being interested in kawaii but also the opposite — the scary things, the grotesque things. When you make music, do you always try to have a mix of scary and cute things?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: My producer (Yasutaka Nakata) makes the music, but the whole idea is to mix the kawaii and the traumatic stuff.

Where does your interest in the grotesque come from? I read that when you were younger you had a pink bedroom with loads of grotesque things collected on a shelf... 

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: When I was first grade in elementary school I saw Jaws, and I saw the shark eat the captain! I was very shocked and surprised. Then I started watching things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and realised, ‘Oh, I really like that stuff!’

SOPHIE: So why combine the scary things with the ‘kawaii’ things? Is that important?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: You can find all the kawaii stuff everywhere. In idols, in character mascots. When I thought about what my strength was, I thought it would be good to have some kind of poison in everything, just to mix things up.

"My kawaii world is poisonous – it’s not straightforward" – Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

SOPHIE: If you could imagine the most exciting song, what would it be?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: My recent favourite is Avicii’s "Wake Me Up," I thought that was so strikingly interesting because you have this mix of country music and a 4/4 house beat, which is something that you don’t have in Japan.

SOPHIE: What about music in fifty years time, what do you think that might sound like? The music of the future?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: I think there’ll be more club music. All these new genres like house and dubstep have come into the scene, dance music will be the mainstream in the future. I think virtual and robotic artists like Hatsune Miku will appear more as well. Probably in a hundred years, there will be no bands.

SOPHIE: Yeah, I hope so... Do you always want to work with the same producer, or would you like the listen to music by other people?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu:  I’m a big fan of Yasutaka Nakata, I genuinely think I will team up with him in the future again. But sometimes I feel like I want to write lyrics as well. Probably in the future I will email him ideas for lyrics.

SOPHIE: Is there any song title you have in your head, or lyrics?

Kyary Pamyu PamyuI don’t have titles yet. But in general I like to write about things that are very ambiguous and bizarre, that create a very strange world and are hard for listeners to tell what the story is about.

You were appointed kawaii Harajuku ambassador in 2012 by the mayor of Shibuya, and yet sometimes your music is interpreted as a parody of kawaii. Do you think that’s a valid interpretation?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Well, my kawaii world is poisonous, so it’s not straightforward.

But why? Are there elements about kawaii that you find ridiculous, for example?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: I think the term kawaii, every single person has a different interpretation. I have often been mistaken to have an image that is 'kawaii', but what I want to do is express myself honestly through my songs.

So there’s no element of irony intended?

Kyary Pamyu PamyuI don’t see anything like that. You never know what’s right or wrong, because people have different interpretations of kawaii.

SOPHIE: I just wanted to ask one other question, because I was interested in sound specifically — what do you think is the most scary sound in the world?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: When I first heard Slipknot’s music that was very shocking, I found it scary. The same with Marilyn Manson, because I’d never heard that kind of music before.

What do you think of those artists now?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: I think they’re pioneers, because there are lots of other artists trying to copy them but they can never do it because they’re running way ahead of others. I respect their uniqueness.

SOPHIE: And is there a sound in the natural world that is scary? Like maybe the sound of someone screaming, or the sound of a dinosaur roaring or something like that?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: There are two things. One thing is high school girls laughing like crazy, it scares me because they’re out of their minds! The second is when I hear the sound of them running after me. That’s scary.

SOPHIE: And the cutest sound in the world?

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: The sound of a metallic xylophone, that’s the cutest. I used it in a couple of my songs, "Muttai Nightland" and "Tsukematsukeru."