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Wagakki Band Talks Being the First Act in Japan to Perform Arena Show Post-COVID & More

J-pop rockers Wagakki Band just releaseed their latest studio album called TOKYO SINGING on Oct. 14, a collection intended to be a message from the band to “a completely changed world,” created in a year when “everything that was ordinary was no longer ordinary,” as the band shares on its website.

The album features a variety of songs blending traditional Japanese sounds with Western rock and other influences, including a track featuring Evanescence’s Amy Lee called “Sakura Rising.”

Frontwoman Yuko Suzuhana, guitarist Machiya, and drummer Wasabi spoke with Tomokazu Nishibiro for Billboard Japan about writing their new album during the COVID-19 pandemic, their recent return to the stage and more in this latest interview.

Our daily lives changed drastically from around the end of February due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. After several months of big concerts being put on hold, Wagakki Band became the first act to resume performing live in an arena-class venue before an actual audience in the Tokyo region (Aug. 15 and 16 at Yokohama Arena). Tell us about those pioneering shows.

Yuko Suzuhana: Honestly, I was so nervous I could barely eat. When I stood in the middle of the stage, I got this feeling that when all is said and done, I can’t do anything just by myself. So I tried to sing and address our fans in-between songs with more emotion than ever. I sensed a level of energy like never before from the crowd, and felt that there are certain things we can empathize with because of the current circumstances, more opportunities for us to share empathy with each other because of the times.

Wasabi: All the band members and crew got tested before rehearsals, and we went ahead with the show because everyone tested negative. I happened to see the check list for the crew and it really sank in again just how many people are involved in making a single concert possible. When (the band) takes action to put on a show, we’re affecting so many people’s lives.

We were the first to pull off an arena-class concert in front of an actual audience since the pandemic began, and hope that our show will be used as a successful example for the music industry to spring back again.

I got the sense that TOKYO SINGING was created for the listeners first and foremost — more so than your past albums — at times inspiring them through powerful messages backed by strong sounds, or healing them with tender music in others. Could you elaborate on its themes?

Machiya: Personally, my underlying theme for the sound was “back to basics with our current level of experience.”

Suzuhana: The part where there are like six guitars layered on top of each other is similar to our debut album called Vocalo Zanmai (2014), so I guess it is back to basics in that sense. Along with that underlying theme, we did a lot of contemplating on “what Wagakki Band is,” and the result from that is the writing, composition, arrangement and performance you hear on the album.

To me, Tokyo is Japan, so I think the songs reflect how we see Japan — areas such as Asakusa, Shibuya, Roppongi, Harajuku, the Imperial Palace and so on — from our current standpoint, in a genre-defying mix. Wagakki Band symbolizes Japan from the way we look as well, so the main point of this album is that it’s a message from the band sent out from Tokyo in these times.

Wasabi, the lead single off the album, “Singin’ for…,” is a dramatic number that you wrote.

Wasabi: The Dai-shinnenkai concerts we had planned for the end of February and early March had to be cancelled, and I entered the period of self-quarantine with this kind of miserable feeling that I couldn’t vent anywhere. I felt so sad, thinking we would have been performing in front of a large crowd waving purple glow sticks for us. So the thinking that went into that song was, “I hope the day will come when we’ll see that sight again, that we’ll all be able to create a space like that together again,” and I imagined the kind of music I’d want to be playing when it happened.

We performed that song in front of an audience for the first time on the second day of our Yokohama Arena engagement. I felt so deeply emotional. Some crew members informed me after the show that I had this awesome expression on my face onstage. [laughs] Ideally, I wanted to sing that song together with everyone [the concerts adhered to coronavirus guidelines including no shouting], so I hope everyone who came sensed how I felt.

Machiya: We could feel the energy from the crowd, so on our side, we didn’t feel sad or anything like that because there were no cheers or singing.

Wasabi: But I kind wish people could have laughed out loud at our jokes. [laughs]

I hear you started working on the track featuring Evanescence’s Amy Lee, “Sakura Rising,” from before your collaborative concert at Osaka-Jo Hall in February.

Machiya: I went into the studio with Amy on the day before our show, and Yuko joined us on the day after to continue working on that song.

Suzuhana: Amy recorded the opening shamisen phrase as a voice memo and Machiya worked all night based on that. I’m pretty sure Amy must have thought, “Get some rest on the day before the show!” [laughs] After that, we had to communicate remotely, and combined with the language barrier, I think this track was the one that took the most time and effort to complete on this album.

It used to have a different title based on Amy’s suggestion, but we decided to include a message for the medical and other frontline workers who are going through some rough times, so the title changed as we developed the lyrics.

You digitally released a cover of the vocaloid track “Roki.” It’s been a while since you covered a vocaloid song.

Suzuhana: When we were trying to decide between “Sharuru (Charles)” and “Roki,” I thought “Roki” would be the one I’d be able to enjoy singing in my own way. Like the “back to basics” we mentioned earlier, we thought it
might be fun to cover a vocaloid track again at this point in our careers, and maybe we wanted to hark back to what it felt like when we were first starting out.

Machiya: Our debut album was a collection of vocaloid covers, so we spent a lot of time tackling the matter of trying to break away from that to find our original voice. But that period has long gone, and we’ve been discussing putting out another cover album for years now.

You must be looking forward to the reactions to your next album. How do you want people to enjoy it?

Wasabi: It’s a work that assembles the music that we wrote during the current state of affairs, and it’s inevitable that our thoughts are reflected in each song. Starting with “Calling” and ending with “Singing’ for…,” it creates a beautiful flow, a narrative. I hope everyone loves it as a single collection of our works.

Suzuhana: We intend to perform all the songs from TOKYO SINGING during our domestic tour kicking off Oct. 24. We don’t know what the coronavirus situation will be like when winter comes, but by living today knowing that we don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow, we’re able to reconfirm how precious each moment is.

Even if we rehearse all of the songs, we might not be able to do the shows. But a concert that is built upon each member’s joy of being able to play music with each other, in this moment, will surely be packed full of the distinctly different flavor that Wagakki Band has to offer.

Wagakki Band will live-stream the Tokyo show from its 2020 TOKYO SINGING Japan tour on Sunday, Oct. 25 from 4 p.m. JST. Fans with access to VIMEO can tune in to the stream from outside Japan. Tickets are available at ZAIKO.

This article was originally published in Billboard Japan.

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