“You! Are! So! Cute! Nice face, c’mon, yeah!” exclaim CHAI on ‘N.E.O’, the galvanising single from the Japanese quartet’s 2017 debut album, ‘PINK’. The lyric is not just an instant festival chant, but also an anthemic expression of the Nagoya-via-Tokyo group’s neo-kawaii philosophy: their stance against Japan’s narrow beauty standards that embraces the body with boundless joy.
Over the past four years, CHAI have brought their neo-kawaii manifesto to stages in Japan and beyond. As they toured in support of ‘PINK’ and 2019 follow-up ‘PUNK’, crowds at Pitchfork Festival and NPR’s Tiny Desk found themselves won over by their live ebullience. Wherever they went, the four delivered their winning worldview all clad in bright orange and pink, anchored by an airtight rhythm section in bassist Yuuki and drummer Yuna, and punctuated by the presence of exuberant twins Kana, on guitar, and Mana, the band’s lead vocalist and proclaimed “engine”.
The formula? Self-love, immaculate grooves, synchronised dances, glittery costumes – but most importantly, a lot of fun.
That fun-loving philosophy of self-love made CHAI a perfect match for Spanish all-girl compatriots, Hinds, with whom they recorded the single ‘United Girls Rock N’ Roll Club’ in 2019. “It was eight girls in a room, so the power in the room was unstoppable,” Mana recalls the ecstatic experience to NME with a wide grin.
“We had two drummers and two bassists, so we went: ‘Let’s just add both!’ Spanish, Japanese, English – we added and recorded everything. It was overflowing!”
CHAI have grown a lot in those relentless four years, especially after touring far beyond the Japanese live circuit. Domestic audiences are usually characterised by timeliness and politeness, CHAI say, which is not necessarily the case abroad. The band encountered cultural differences at venues and airports, not to mention classic touring mishaps: there was one incident where Yuna’s snare drum mysteriously disappeared for three days. But CHAI made adventures of their difficult experiences.
“More than anything, we became way tougher as a band,” Yuuki says.
CHAI faced another trial as they prepared to write their new record, ‘WINK’. As COVID-19 descended on Tokyo in 2020, studios were shuttered, and the band’s members were locked down at home. Robbed of their usual jam-based songwriting process, CHAI could no longer access their communal energy and channel it into their next effort.
“All of the ways that we made music changed, but everything about the world had changed,” Mana reflects. “We thought, if we couldn’t do it as a band properly, we just wouldn’t do it as a band.”
Instead, CHAI opted to present a completely different side of themselves, stepping away from their signature dance-punk intensity. “We were particular that we did it together as the four of us – but for the first time, we weren’t limited by raw sounds created by live instruments,” Mana continues. The band seized the opportunity to dabble with styles they were always fans of, but never previously explored.
“We thought, if we couldn’t do it as a band properly, we just wouldn’t do it as a band”
Galvanised by signing to renowned rock label Sub Pop, the band dove into half a year of work on ‘WINK’. For the first time, the four wrote on Garageband, while also maintaining a constant stream of Zoom calls and LINE messages with their producer, Ryu Takahashi. Following a vision collectively decided by the band, Mana and Kana built the chords and melodies, while other members individually contributed to arrangements. Yuuki, the band’s lyricist, would finish the songs off with her words.
“Because we made it at home without thinking of that live context, we came to think of ‘WINK’ as our best friend,” Mana explains. “We wanted it to be the friend closest by your side when you needed them most: what would cry together with you, what would be angry together with you, and what would scream along with you.”
‘WINK’, as a result, showcases CHAI at their most intimate, intricate and stylistically eclectic. “We always loved hip-hop and songs in those genres,” Yuuki says of the album’s inspirations. “But actualising what you like into a tangible form takes a different mindset, and working with those ideas were difficult in their own ways.”
“It felt like the horizons of CHAI’s world really broadened,” Mana adds.
One song that became a spiritual touchstone for ‘WINK’ was Mac Miller’s ‘Good News’, whose honest lyricism and sonic detail the band came to admire. “We wanted to make music that could honestly express our negative emotions of rage and sadness – to help you get through the day,” Mana says. That honesty and vulnerability also reveal themselves in ‘WINK’’s starker arrangements: from the bedtime balladry of ‘Wish Upon A Star’, influenced by Kana’s insomnia, to Mana’s nostalgic contemplations on ‘Salty’.
Another critical influence was Brockhampton’s ‘Sugar’. “You can feel the power of their strength in numbers, and that was something that resonated with us,” Mana explains. “There’s something really important about us four being together, and that’s something that I will never break up.”
The band tap on that unity on the album’s more dynamic cuts. On the furious, Beastie Boys-tinged ‘END’, CHAI’s members trade lines and take on irritating characters together. ‘Nobody Knows We Are Fun’ – which was inspired by the 2019 movie Booksmart – evokes a club-ready girls’ night out. But it’s also palpable in ‘WINK’’s more delicate moments, like the lush harmonies on lead single ‘Donuts Mind If I Do,’ where they celebrate self-indulgence together.
Besides embracing their influences, CHAI also invite external collaborators into their world on ‘WINK’. Los Angeles producer Mndsgn contributed to ‘IN PINK’, while guest verses from Chicago rapper Ric Wilson, whom the band befriended at Pitchfork Festival, provided Yuuki with new lyrical perspectives, and marked the first time CHAI “had a male voice”.
Others were sonically left-field, like with electronic unit YMCK, who brought ‘PING PONG!’’s playful chiptune to life. As game-styled music was an alien concept to CHAI, the band actively sought out the collaboration as a melodic and lyrical challenge – one they eventually conquered and transformed into a bubbly tribute to the band’s post-onsen ping-pong sessions. “We used to play doubles, but everybody sucked,” Yuuki elaborates, laughing as she proclaims herself as CHAI’s best paddler.
Trading in their signature live energy, however, doesn’t mean the band’s changed in focus or drive. Asked whether they’ve redefined or reassessed neo-kawaii, CHAI emphatically state that their message is no different from the one that’s fuelled them since inception.
They continue embracing physical flaws as strengths on ‘WINK’ – the sweet ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips,’ for example, is about embracing the moles on one’s body – but Yuuki emphasises ‘WINK’’s take on neo-kawaii is less about complexes of the body than of the mind.
“When we made the word neo-kawaii, it was all about self-love,” she explains. “The only difference is that until now, we’ve been talking about appearances that we can perceive with the eye. But in ‘WINK’, it’s about the mind: complexes, negative emotions and bad habits. We wanted to talk about parts of our mind that become negative, and find ways where we could think and feel more positively. There’s so many things where if we look at things from another way, things can feel so different.”
“We wanted ‘WINK’ to be the friend closest by your side when you needed them most”
During lockdown, CHAI have grown in their own ways as well. Yuuki kickstarted her own fashion brand, dabbled with pottery and reconnected with illustration. Yuna began uploading her own cooking videos, while Kana began “fixing” her diet, as she made meals with her sister. Mana began exercising more frequently and started properly reflecting upon herself, “physically and mentally” – though, living with Kana, sibling squabbles were unavoidable.
CHAI have shifted gears on ‘WINK’, which in some ways is what the band is all about. “We always want to excite ourselves, and become the CHAI that no one’s ever seen,” Yuuki concludes. She’s more than ready for their next challenge, with over 300 notes stored on her phone, waiting to become lyrics for new CHAI songs.
When asked what styles CHAI want to challenge next, the quartet express an open mind.
“Genres don’t matter – as long as it’s cool,” Mana says, with a smile.
CHAI’s ‘WINK’ is out now on Sub Pop