Journey past musical abysses
To listen to Kukangendai is to move into uncharted territory. Since 2006, this experimental rock band from Japan has been building an impressive oeuvre of constantly developing acoustic music with electronic influences. Some call it math rock, others avant-jazz or minimalism, but they themselves are wary of such labels. What is certain is that they have an exciting, rather unconventional sound that puts your hearing to the test.
Their dedication and constant zeal for innovation has made the three band members lots of fans, which include well-known names like the theatre maker Gisèle Vienne and the composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, both Holland Festival associate artists. In recent years, the band regularly collaborated with theatre makers and could be seen in various pieces. For the Holland Festival, Kukangendai will play a set in the Bimhuis, which will be the first time the band performs in the Netherlands – not to be missed for musical adventurers.
Kukangendai consists of Junya Noguchi (guitar, vocals), Keisuke Koyano (bass) and Hideaki Yamada (drums). The three studied together in Tokyo and connected over their alternative musical tastes. None of them had any experience worth mentioning as musicians, nor did they feel this was necessary to start a band. They wanted to do something different from all those trained musicians, to break with conventions. The band prefers to approach music with the eyes of a conceptual artist.
What does Kukangendai sound like? Music journalists have struggled to answer the question, which is subject to vary depending on when it is asked. Initially, the band’s sound could best be described as that of a traditional three-man band (guitar, bass and drums) that uses semi-acoustic instruments to produce the kind of electronic rhythms found in genres like glitch, IDM and dubstep. The melodies, beats and breaks were stripped, rearranged, rehearsed and performed live. Kukangendai’s work is sometimes called math rock: a polyrhythmic, often instrumental form of rock. Others have described it as a strange and wonderful sounding form of Morse code.
In the early days, the band took inspiration from Japanese bands they knew: experimental electronic music and hip-hop, mainly. A breakthrough in the way they thought about music came when they discovered the work of German techno producer Oval, tells Junya Noguchi in an interview for the website Performing Arts Network Japan. ‘Oval’s music made me want to make music that is so different from everything I knew already that it would surprise even me, as the one who made it’. They were especially thrilled by a specific glitch technique Oval used: he would make small scratches in CDs that he would play to sample the ticking, glitching sounds of damaged CDs in order to make new tracks. Noguchi did not want to add electronica to his sound, though he did aim for this effect. ‘At one point, we decided, half as a joke, to deliberately try to produce the same kind of sound as when the needle on a record all of a sudden skips during playback’. This effect is one of the basis of Kukangendai’s sound.
Subsequently, unusual sonic experiments became the basis for the new sound the band wants to create with each new album. Another left-field concept they have upheld is to play in counter to each other. Noguchi: ‘Music tends to come together in a harmonious stream of sound. But we wanted to try to achieve the exact oppose. Put simply, we wanted to create a situation in which different sounds competed, even fought with each other. We did a performance based on this concept, during which we played completely different pieces.’ They no longer do this quite so literally, but their music is still abrasive as ever.
In recent years, the band has regularly worked with theatre makers, particularly with the Chiten company in Kyoto. They were in Japanese adaptations of pieces like Fatzer (Brecht), Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare) and Mystery-Bouffe (Majakovski). This experience with theatre helped further develop the band and was especially influential on their live performance, frontman Noguchi explains. ‘We learned a lot in theatre about our relationship with the audience. Chiten places high value on the interplay with the audience. Often, it seems like the group is making theatre together with the audience. This has changed the way we look at how we interact with our audience.’
These days, Kukangendai’s shows are described as ‘humorous’, which should be taken to mean a particularly dry sense of humour: the members tend to perform in an almost stoic manner. Consequently, the humour primarily lies in the unexpected turns and bizarre musical antics.
The Japanese band Kukangendai was founded in 2006 by guitarist and singer Junya Noguchi, bassist Keisuke Koyano and drummer Hideaki Yamada. The three play experimental rock. Some characterise their music as math rock or avant-jazz. Kukangendai’s songs take shape through a long and meticulous process in which melodies and rhythms are carefully constructed. Mistakes are welcomed and subsequently repeated so often that they become a part of the music. The result is the minimalist, polyrhythmic sound that Kukangendai is known for.
The band has a cult status in Japan, where the three played many concerts, always with that same stoic composure. In 2016, the band opened Soto, a studio cum concert venue in Kyoto where they invite other bands. In 2018, they released the EP Zureru, for which they collaborated with Ryuichi Sakamoto. In 2019, Palm was released on Stephen O’Malley’s label Ideologic Organ.
2012 Kukangendai 2
2016 RAP PHENOMENON (with Moe & Ghosts)
2018 Zureru (EP with Ryuichi Sakamoto)
- guitar, vocals
- Junya Noguchi
- Keisuke Koyano
- Hideaki Yamada