The Youtube algorithm can be both a blessing and a curse. But above all, it’s a mystery – just ask current indie darlings Clairo, Boy Pablo and Phum Viphurit, who’ve all had their music do inexplicably well on the platform.
Tokyo upstarts No Buses know the algorithm’s power well. The band first formed in 2016, naming themselves after an Arctic Monkeys deep cut. Like their Sheffield heroes, they exuded a raw, Strokesian swagger that threw back to the noughties heyday of indie guitar rock.
When No Buses put out their debut single ‘Tic’ on YouTube in 2018, their expectations were humble at first – after all, the band began simply as four friends in a university band club.
But to their surprise, YouTube views on ‘Tic’ began rocketing to the millions. When No Buses put out their 2019 album ‘Boys Loved Her’, their ensuing singles enjoyed the same raucous reception. How did No Buses strike viral gold? Speaking to NME over Zoom, frontman Taisei Kondo gives a self-effacing answer.
“Of course, I think there were people that genuinely liked our music, but I think there were also some people that just wanted to see something strange,” Kondo says. He’s referring to their early music videos, where a quirky lo-fi style helped No Buses stand out from the pack – think charmingly awkward dance moves, retro split-screen stylings and kooky space-themed backdrops. “A weird group suddenly appeared – like aliens – and there was a reaction to that,” he says with a chuckle.
No matter the reason for No Buses’ appeal, one thing was for certain: the response came faster than any of them could process. As ‘Tic’ began taking off, fans from Southeast Asia to South America came pouring in. Despite the band’s quiet swagger on camera, the sudden attention brought on a contrary response in Kondo, the band’s primary songwriter.
“Seeing that was terrifying,” he admits. “It was really the first music we had ever properly put out. For something we thought wasn’t very complete and weren’t satisfied with to spread so fast to different people – that feeling was really scary.” Today, No Buses’ official video for ‘Tic’ is private, the only public version of the clip uploaded by a fan who added Spanish subtitles – an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the success of ‘Tic’ and its implications for the band.
No Buses had achieved such success when they, in Kondo’s eyes, had hardly reached their full potential. He wanted them to do better, but he faced a barrier: the band’s foundational friendships.
“Because we began as friends, I didn’t want to break our bonds, and I didn’t want to get into any fights or arguments,” he confesses. Instead of expressing his own personal opinions or anxieties, Kondo withdrew. “I would never say anything, and I just kept in things I wasn’t able to say.”
“For something we thought wasn’t very much complete and weren’t satisfied with to spread so fast to different people – that feeling was really scary”
But the pressure and dissatisfaction that accumulated within him pushed Kondo to the brink. “There was something like an explosion, and it broke the balance we had as a band,” he shares. The incident prompted the frontman to seek better solutions with No Buses’ other members. Eventually, the band mutually agreed that they should speak up the moment they saw anything brewing. “I learned how to be more open to the band,” Kondo concludes.
And so No Buses headed into the year-long recording process of their second album, grounded by a newfound commitment to openness and unity. Kondo – who had previously written No Buses’ songs by himself – began opening up to more collaborative songwriting methods and entertaining new possibilities for their sound.
“Two guitars, one bass, drums, vocals – that conception of the band had formed within me, and I had set down those limits in advance,” Kondo explains. “From there, we consciously moved into indie and garage rock, and those were zones that we wouldn’t move too much outside of.” With ‘No Buses’, the band decided to leave those constraints behind, and added whatever they felt like into the songs, embracing freedom from arbitrary limits. “As long as it was with the five of us, and we didn’t force things to happen, anything else was game.”
Working from Kondo’s demos, No Buses would flesh out arrangements together, reaching a consensus by extensive discussion. That newfound openness aligned with the band’s desire to push beyond their limits as instrumentalists, which motivated the quintet to refine their abilities and interrogate their habits as performers.
The insistent post-punk of ‘Number Four or Five’, for example, was a technical leap for drummer Issei Ichikawa, who traded in his usual style of loose, hard-hitting grooves for ultra-mechanical rhythms. “It was like watching a machine gun – he was pretty much a robot,” Kondo recalls.
‘Alpena’, on the other hand, was a deliberate foil to ferocity, as Kondo attempted to dial back the instrumental intensity and embrace softer interplay with his band. “I had a very rough approach to the guitar, so I practised so much that I almost felt reborn,” he says.
From a creative standpoint, other members besides Kondo began contributing foundations for songs. Guitarist Shinya Goto helped craft the pounding noise of ‘Not Healthy’ and lullaby-esque ‘Surprise’, while new member Haruki Wada – who has formally joined No Buses after playing with them live – brought along fresh perspectives as a metalhead.
“The instant we felt like we were making something truly good, making the record started feeling truly fun”
Kondo also felt free to draw inspiration from more personal references. He dove into the video game soundtracks of his youth – particularly those of role-playing games, like composer Yasunori Mitsuda’s score for Chrono Trigger – as touchstones for melodies and atmospheres.
“There’s a nostalgic quality to the music, but there’s also a certain nervous energy,” he explains. Those qualities bled into ‘No Buses’, from the ephemeral instrumental ‘Biomega’ and winding arrangements of ‘Mate’ to ‘Yellow Card’ – a song dating back to the band’s early setlists and which No Buses have since transformed into an electro-tinged stomper.
Kondo also worked on his indietronica side project, Cwondo, while No Buses chipped away at their album. But when Kondo writes for No Buses, the collective is his focus. “I think a lot about how we can ride on a groove together as five, and things that make me feel ‘it’d definitely be fun if we were to play this together’,” he says.
And, yes, No Buses are releasing more music videos on YouTube – but productions that are better-planned. Seeking to leave an impression beyond sheer gimmicks and performance shots, No Buses took control of the process for the first time, building proper sets and crafting storylines that connect their two visuals for ‘Alpena’ and ‘Having a Headache’.
Despite the video strategy and album’s sonic diversity, No Buses haven’t abandoned their freewheeling rock roots. “There’s a lot of guitars, because I love guitars,” Kondo glibly says of the record. And you can tell as much from the video for ‘Alpena’: as the camera zooms wildly, Kondo indulges in some epic guitar theatrics, headbanging with his long blonde locks and a comically misfitted cap.
It was a no-brainer to name their new album ‘No Buses’: after all, the record helped the band find their identity, now a more confident and cohesive unit than ever. “It’s a more refined album with experimental tendencies, and one where you can truly feel us as a band and an ensemble,” Kondo says.
“As we came to understand ourselves and did things that we were satisfied with, that fear began dissipating,” he continues. “The instant we felt like we were making something truly good, making the record started feeling truly fun.”
Looking towards the future, No Buses don’t have any specific goals – but, as Kondo expresses, the band are always looking to scale new heights together, and are already working on fresh material to surpass ‘No Buses’. And although becoming closer with his bandmates did not come easily, Kondo thinks the change has been for the better.
“They became something closer than friends,” he concludes. “They’re more core to my life: something like brothers, something like family.”
‘No Buses’ is out now