The UK pop trio reflect on how old-world mythology, Jon Hassell’s concept of ‘fourth world’ music, and the present day influenced their latest offering
Blending together old-world mythology with futuristic synth-pop, Kero Kero Bonito’s latest EP, Civilisation II, sees the London trio (Sarah Midori Perry, Gus Lobban, and Jamie Bulled) imagine themselves as representatives of an alien society who have come down to earth to market themselves to humans. A follow-up to 2019’s similarly fantastical Civilisation I, the EP shrugs off any distinct markers of time and place. The record, produced using an old Korg DSS-1 sampler, filters decidedly analogue sounds through modern software to create a familiar yet uncanny sound.
“The relationship between fantasy and reality in art is magical; when balanced well, they boost each other’s impact,” the band says. “The best pop music blasts you into the loftiest corners of your imagination and resounds with your most personal memories at the same time.”
The EP was loosely inspired by American trumpeter Jon Hassell’s concept of ‘fourth world’ music, which brings together primitive and modern sounds, to bring forth “fantastical fictional cultures”, or imagined worlds that feel real. The three tracks are divided into past, present, and future. Opening track “The Princess and the Clock” is a peppy, 8-bit fairytale about a kidnapped protagonist who’s trapped in a castle, while “21/04/20” recounts a day in Bromley during the first lockdown: needing to go for a walk, seeing ambulances pass, scheduling in a call with a friend. Delivered in an unaffected tone, Perry’s lyrics are matter-of-fact, like a diary entry or a shopping list: “I set a call up with a friend/ A means towards an end, ’til we can meet again/ Hey, so, how are you doing?/ I’m okay, you know, the usual kinda weird.” When put together with Lobban and Bulled’s sunny yet quietly melancholic instrumentals, the result is strangely unsettling.
The closing track “Well Rested” is a seven-minute, acid house epic about humanity. Synths whizz and whir like a spaceship taking flight, as Perry delivers a spoken-word sermon about modern life: “False prophets proclaim that the end is nigh and that humanity is not worth existence.” High priestess-like, she reminds us that “this is a trap laid to ensnare the living”. Her hollow and echoey voice is offset by the track’s frenetic melody, which only adds to the feeling of being neither here nor there.
Incorporating rigidly pentatonic passages, repetitive chants, and synthesised metallophones to conjure otherworldly soundscapes, the band explain, “By bringing ancient techniques into our work, we want to both refresh pop music and situate it within the grand scheme of humanity”.
Below, Kero Kero Bonito expand on five things that inspired the EP.
THE OFF-MODERN MANIFESTO
Kero Kero Bonito: The term ‘off-modern’ was coined by Svetlana Boym, an artist and cultural theorist who postulated a realistic alternative to both arbitrary modernisation and insatiable nostalgia: exploring ‘the side alleys and lateral potentialities of the project of critical modernity’. In other words, tracing cultural evolution, seizing upon unrealised ‘what if’ moments – those hypothetical fantasies every bit as plausible as the established narrative performed by error-prone humans – and investigating them ourselves; moving sideways, instead of backwards or forwards. Such an approach acknowledges modern society’s inescapable sense of longing, the inevitable enclosure of revivalism, and the complex, unexplainable subjectivity that defines art (and the human race) all at once.
Off-modernism is a stance that fires our imagination with the cultural tools at our disposal now. On Civilisation I and II, we aimed to make the most fantastical pop music we could using only old hardware synthesisers – coveted commercial flotsam from another era. To an extent, songs like ‘The Princess and the Clock’ and ‘When the Fires Come’ could have existed 35 years ago, but crucially (and unlike everyone’s favourite Italo-disco records) they definitely did not. They’re also informed by our modern perspective and comparatively recent innovations, like DAWs and online collaboration; the result is a unique product of our time and place, but with associations transcending both. We use an old sampler, the Korg DSS-1, on all of the Civilisation tracks. It easily generates dusty, broken, and decidedly non-modern sounds that are hard to wrangle from software, and with Logic X's multi-tracking and MIDI sequencing facilities these can be spun into glistening mechanical constellations you swear you can touch.
The Off-Modern Manifesto still has poignant implications today. It answers both mindless traditionalism and bland, unrelatable modernisation-for-its-own-sake. Even better, if we follow these parallel timelines where they lead, we end up creating our own new modernities; ones that reflect our personal priorities and could even offer lessons for the reality we find ourselves in.
FOURTH WORLD MUSIC
Kero Kero Bonito: Fourth World is ‘a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques’ according to its creator, American trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell. Its appeal is neatly summarised by the title of Hassell’s first Fourth World album (made with Brian Eno): Possible Musics.
Hassell’s music shows that by bending, combining, and subverting the rules of various disparate real cultures we can create cultural objects that imply fantastical fictional cultures: imagined worlds that feel real. This is exciting from a creative perspective, as such untested combinations yield new styles which nonetheless retain some kind of familiar, graspable quality through their human roots.
Though Hassell is very self-aware about it, Fourth World is a dated philosophy in some ways. The term ‘Fourth World’ is a play on the colonially jarring terminology of the ‘First’ and ‘Third World’ (i.e. 1 + 3), and the application of unfamiliar practices out of context risks disrespecting their origins. However, on top of its exploratory potential, the thought experiment Fourth World encourages helps us see the boundaries between cultures – what they share, how they differ, where their identities lie – and indeed the basic components that make up human cultures in general. The latter is a particularly useful starting point for anyone interested in seeding new cultures.
Kero Kero Bonito: Sarah introduced this to us. Created by Luigi Serafini and originally published in 1981, Codex Seraphinianus is a 360-page book laid out like an encyclopedia, comprising text and drawings. However, all of the content is bizarre and inscrutable – the writing is in a unique and impenetrable script, while the pictures encompass absurd surrealism (like pairs of fish resembling eyeballs or umbrellas with human legs), detailed anatomical illustrations of fantasy objects and totally abstract forms.
Serafini wanted to convey ‘the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand’. The book’s (apparently) regular alphabet and logical layout imply the communication of theoretical and technical information, yet the content itself is an unknowable mystery. When we conceived Civilisation, we imagined how Kero Kero Bonito would appear if we were representatives of an alien society marketing ourselves to humans, or an ancient band rediscovered in thousands of years' time by people with different languages, customs and reference points. The artwork for the Civilisation EPs features our own original alphabet and diagrams, while the music itself (both lyrically and compositionally) alludes variously to religion, technology and history, though its precise motivations are intentionally never explained.
“The best pop music blasts you into the loftiest corners of your imagination and resounds with your most personal memories at the same time“ – Kero Kero Bonito
Codex Seraphinianus and Civilisation are partially about semantics – the frameworks we observe, learn, and deploy without even realising in order to communicate with one another. In this information age we are all master semantic navigators, but we can only begin to appreciate what that means when our gestures are shorn of raw data and we’re forced to confront the unknown. Whether traversing different communities or time itself, we’re inspired to find new solutions, embrace unfamiliar (and potentially beautifying) perspectives, and understand ourselves better through our relative similarities and differences. This process is a key step to knowing humanity, and perhaps the most elegant aspect of Codex Seraphinianus is that whether you grew up reading the Roman alphabet in Dorning Kindersley books or scratching hieroglyphics into papyrus, it offers everyone a similar experience.
ANCIENT NARRATIVE ART
Kero Kero Bonito: Narrative art is really any artwork that tells a story. It’s a very broad cross section, but in visual media the term is generally associated with art that literally depicts events, continuously, in series or as individual scenes. Crucially, this likely includes some of the very earliest human art we’re aware of today (like certain cave paintings) as well as historic pieces like the Bayeux Tapestry and Trajan’s Column.
Though we can’t be certain how these ancient works were used, it’s obvious that as media technology evolved, the role of narrative art changed – printing, photography, and video all transformed the way we record history and present ourselves. However, pre-modern pictorial examples represent arguably the purest fusion of artistic craft and historical record. While narrative art isn’t unheard of today, modern information media has largely displaced art as a means of commemorating or simply retelling our recent history.
It is what it is, but the most Civilisation thing we could do was write a song that functions as our own narrative artwork, combining the techniques of dynasties past and bedroom songwriters present. “21/04/20” from Civilisation II recounts the unglamorous tale of the titular date (which happened to be an early day in England's Covid lockdown) in Bromley from start to finish. Such unaffected description is unusual in a contemporary pop song, but mirrors the oddly prosaic nature of classic narrative art, which through mere statement lends its events a far greater weight than warped sentimentality would. By framing our own experience with obsolete devices, we want to bring our society's relative position in history into sharp focus and reveal what makes our culture now so distinctive and special.
THE PRESENT DAY
Kero Kero Bonito: Throughout our discography, mundane everyday experiences are rendered fantastical. “Cat vs. Dog“ expresses the eternal struggle between domesticated animals via comic book violence. “Try Me” is a job application delivered as a disco brag. Time n Place turns Bromley into a playground of existential reckoning. Civilisation, despite appearances, is yet another manifestation of this technique.
Every song on the Civilisation EPs grew from a simple recent experience. “Battle Lines” considers the social effects of the technology we take for granted; “When the Fires Come” was inspired by the horror of literally witnessing the Camp Fire as we drove though California on tour in 2018. “21/04/20” covers a day in lockdown, while “Well Rested” was formed as a response to the ‘we shouldn't have children’ doom cult logic that airs on talk radio in the face of alarming climate change. Though we‘ve looked at human history on a massive scale to figure out how to present these ideas, they‘re all very real, well known, and happening right now.