Rina Sawayama and End Of The World (Sekai No Owari) talk their collaborative ‘Bad Friend’ remix

The two artists chat about pop music, Japanese identity and much more

End Of The World (known as SEKAI NO OWARI) has remixed ‘Bad Friend’ from the debut album ‘SAWAYAMA’ by Rina Sawayama which was released in April this year. This collaboration with Rina Sawayama who moved to London at the age of five, and has been performing as a British Japanese, and End of The World who has been aggressively touring outside Japan since 2013 has become an unique collaboration in the sense that both artists have Japanese nationality and play pop music in the global music scene.

Rina had a chat on how she thinks about proceeding her career in the global market with an identity of Japanese with Nakajin from End of The World.

Advertisement

Would you start out by telling us how this remix came to be?

Nakajin: My first encounter with Rina’s music was last year at Vogue Japan’s Anniversary event in Tokyo. I saw Rina’s performance for the first time. I really enjoyed it. Your performance really stuck in my head. So I immediately wanted to work with you in some way. And we were talking about reaching out to her team about us remixing her song.

This was right when the COVID outbreak happened, so we wanted to do some remixing since we found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands. We heard back from Rina’s team that they wanted to work with us too. So that’s how this comes together.

Rina: Yeah ‘cause that one I remember was really hard to squeeze into the schedule because the day we got back – it was like a day trip to Japan basically, so we flew like 12, 13 hours to Tokyo and then we came back, and then we had to release ‘STFU’ which was my first single from the new record that came out on the same day so it was really, really crazy. It was like a trip that might not have happened because it was too busy but I’m really glad that I went and you saw it!

Actually, I first saw you guys perform on Kohaku like years ago because my mum, so she’s moved to Japan now, my mum but when she was living in the UK she would insist on doing New Year’s day by watching a recording of Kohaku. It was a tradition of ours.

So that’s when I (first) saw you guys and I was like, “What’s this?!” It was kind of Steam Punk visually, kind of Steam Punky like circus vibe. It was really cool, nothing I’d really seen from Japanese artists in a long time. Yeah, it’s more visually, it’s not the sound at all or anything like that, but the visuals were like very Steam – not Steam Punk but very like Wonderland vibe and I really liked it.

Advertisement

Nakajin, ‘Chosen Family’ was a track you really liked from the new album, right?

Nakajin: Yes, that right. But I really like the entire album. It really links together with things I loved as an adolescent. There’s just something about it. It’s a sophisticated modern pop album that’s just so wonderful and exciting. There are these snippets of incredibly Japanese sounds. Like the elevator sound samples, and then there’s a song with a lot of Japanese, there’s a radio-ish one as well. And like Akasaka Sad. Names of areas in Tokyo get mentioned. I was happy she added elements of her Japanese identity into the song by interspersing it with these sounds that are truly Japanese and finding such a cool way to do so.

Rina: Amazing. Thank you. ‘Cause Japan is – I moved from Japan, Tokyo to London when I was 5 and then ever since then I’ve been here. It was because, what’s the word? (My dad got) transferred. It was gonna be temporary basically so we were going to stay in London for only 5 years but they, my parents decided that I would stay here basically after that 5 years. So during those 5 years I went to Japanese school so my whole world was Japanese. Japanese textbooks and Japanese bento lunches, It was like all Japanese and J-Pop and stuff. I had an older half-sister who used to listen to stuff like Ringo Shiina and Utada so I got my more mature musical influences from her but really, if Utada didn’t exist I wouldn’t be a musician because watching her ‘Automatic’ video was like my reason why I wanted to do music I think.

Nakajin: You went through the same experiences we did then. I was probably in Junior High. She blew me away. It was just impressive how she wrote all her songs and even produced them at her young age, I couldn’t believe it.

Rina Sawayama
CREDIT: Zoe McConnell for NME

Let’s talk about the ‘Bad Friend’ Remix. Nakajin, if you would go first and then Rina.

Nakajin: Yes, sure. The melody to Bad Friend has a different vibe and groove to each section. In the first verse there’s this triplet that goes “du-du-du-dah” but the chorus has an 8th groove that goes “duh-duh-duh-duh-du” so I thought it would be really cool if I could highlight that in the remix. And then it’s kind of weird, but in the original version, the chorus that goes duh-duh-duh-duh-du is just the vocals and the vocoder and so initially I wasn’t sure what sort of groove I wanted in there. I really loved the end result, so it was a real fist pump moment when I figured it out.

Rina: So good. Honestly it’s like my favorite…’cause we have I think maybe 2 more? We had like other people wanting to remix Bad Friend but yours is like absolutely my favorite. It’ so good. You really listened to the song and you really understood what the song was trying to say and that’s so interesting that you noticed the triplets and like I don’t even, I don’t think about that stuff at all. I wish I was more theoretical but yeah I really like that you noticed that so thank you.

Nakajin: That’s really good to hear. I had so much fun too. I really enjoyed working on it.

Rina, can you tell us about the story to this track? What are you singing about here?

Rina: Sure, it was actually inspired by a trip to Japan. Because we decided to go on a trip to Tokyo after our graduation so 6 of my friends went to Tokyo and it was including one of my best friends. On that trip we fell out. We kind of had a fight and fell out and I really lost that best friendship. She was kind of my best friend all the way through secondary and senior school. So it’s kind of about that.

I noticed that I love to sing songs about friendships, songs about friends and put it in the context of like an external romantic relationship, if that makes sense. “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends” like kind of Spice Girls like I just wanna be friends. I just want a pure song about friends. I love a good wholesome, warm song.

I really wanted in that first verse to tell a story, and exactly visualize the sort of scenery of what was going on so I was talking about Tokyo and yeah, I guess it kind of leads to that chorus where it feels like you’re being dropped from a roller coaster kind of vibe and yeah, I guess I genuinely felt like a bad friend so I just wanted to write a very direct song about being a bad friend.

So from here I’d like to ask about your identity as a Japanese.

Rina: Yeah, I think it’s really, to me, Japanese people doing well abroad is really important to me. And not just for Japanese people but just in terms of the Western media, East Asian people unless it’s K-Pop, there’s still not that many people in pop, you know. So I really feel a lot of responsibility, especially since all my family live in Japan and I feel very Japanese.

On the other hand, there has been a British artist who lived in the US for a long time, whose label and team was from the US. I feel like I am more “British” than those people. The only difference between such people and myself is the passport.

This unique situation, my visa which I have as someone with Japanese citizenship, is the step before citizenship but it’s kind of for the people who cannot have two passports. It’s not a very common conversation in Japan maybe about citizenship and passports and Brexit and stuff but I don’t think a lot of Japanese people know that you can’t have two passports. A lot of other countries, it’s very common to have two passports but Japan is very strict on that. There’s been a lot of civil cases brought against the Japanese government to try and change that in the past but that hasn’t gone through. So I that’s an argument I’m always conscious of and am wanting to discuss.

Nakajin: There’s one thing I’d like to ask Rina about. “The concept of Britishness has been in the public discourse in the most negative way possible – it has become very, very narrow in these last five to six years,” she said. I’d like to ask what specifically made her think so.

Rina: Ummm. I think in general the world has become more like this – where there’s this side and that side and then there’s not much in the middle. And I think the UK has definitely become a part of that as well as America and I think I’m very much supported in my community on this side of the political spectrum but you can’t ignore that there is a very extreme sort of nationalism going along around the world. I think that’s what I meant is that – I mean I was really, really devastated when Brexit happened and again, because of my visa status I could not vote at that time.

And I think for me, the idea of Britishness has definitely changed. It was sometimes a positive connotation. I think around 2012, around the Olympics when the Olympics were really showcasing diversity and what it did to London was incredible as well but after that when it slid into Brexit and all this that the idea that I like to celebrate, my Britishness, definitely changed. It’s very separate. British is one thing, English is one thing. I don’t identify as English because to me, that is like … I guess if you are white English, like that would be someone who is English, you know, Welsh or Scottish. I don’t really identify with that.

British is something that a lot of immigrants can associate with and relate to and that’s the term that I like to say, I always like to say I’m Japanese British or British Japanese. But yeah, I do think growing up in London and really loving London and thinking that London was British – which is actually not you know. The UK is a very big country and it’s not – London is very, very diverse. I don’t know if you’ve been to, have you been to London?

Nakajin: Yes, many times. This February. That was the last time I was there.

Rina: Yeah, so it’s so diverse and so rich in culture and religion, all sorts of different people and that’s the Britishness I love but I think on the other side of the spectrum that’s not the Britishness that people are talking about. So, yeah, I think it’s important to highlight that definitely and that being an influence on people.

Rina Sawyama. Photo by Zoe McConnell for NME

As collaborations with Clean Bandit and Gabrielle Aplin indicate, End of the World have been actively branching out into the international scene since 2013. What is it like for Japanese artists pursuing their dreams in the international scene?

Nakajin: Well in Japan when Japanese artists want to get together and collaborate…well first off, collaborations and such are quite common overseas so we work with a lot of producers and songwriters but if we were to do that in Japan most times we’d go through management. We’d have management set things up for the most part, but I realized it was quite important for artists to get in touch with each other directly and move things along ourselves when working with people from abroad. We’re based in Japan so even in these times of the internet we’re physically so far away so communication’s so much easier if you can talk directly to the other person. It’s important for the artists themselves to take initiative.

I’ve been a huge fan of Clean Bandit and I’ve always been keen to work with them. We were able to hook up with them through management, so we had dinner with them when they came to Tokyo – we went for Yakitori. They were in Tokyo on tour. So we went for dinner with them and went to a club afterwards. Got the friendship going first and then from there we decided to go into the studio together. But then they went back so the demo we made on that day was just kind of sitting there for a while. But I talked about hooking up again, I’d leave comments if they released something new, actively stayed in touch because I really did want to make things happen because it’s been a dream of mine to work together with them. So yeah, I really understood how important it is for the artists themselves to take action.

Rina: Is it quite different in Japan then? So you go through management and stuff?

Nakajin: Yeah, that’s how it goes. Well both sides are very conscious about the other’s position so in the end we’re just kind of like “should we go through management then?” because Japanese tend to be very concerned about the other person, overly concerned in fact. So that’s why true collaborations are really difficult. Between Japanese (artists) anyway.

Next I’d like to ask about your thoughts on the fantastic success K-POP is enjoying all around the world, for example artists like BTS and BLACKPINK.

Rina: I think it’s so good because they sound really… kind of very basic, but on a basic level Western people seeing that kind of face succeed means that other people who kind of look like that face will also succeed underneath. So before BTS there was no one in pop that was Asian – that was East Asian. So just the fact the people like them succeed opens people’s minds and also the industry’s mind’s too that East Asian music is viable, that it is profitable, and I do remember like when I was going into different labels in the beginning, it was very, very hard to make people understand that I wanted to write English music or there was very much of a spectrum of things I wanted to do.

But since BTS and BLACKPINK and the fact that they do their songs – and most of it is in Korean and the fact they are still able to produce hits is really, really important for people to see because I think it’s just on a human level it’s almost just as dumb as, “yeah, I see that person and they look like that so the next person is not going to be a surprise”, you know.

And on a psychological level it’s been very, very important. And I met BTS, I met Namjoon (RM) and he was really, really lovely and they’re just all so hard working so yeah. They sold out O2 which is 15,000 people in hours or less than and now they’re doing a 90,000 capacity or something next year. It’s completely wild and to me, it makes me happy because in the western eyes, that kind of face -East Asian face succeeding is very symbolic and very important.

Nakajin: In our case we’ve been writing songs in English because we thought it was necessary to have English songs in order to break out into the international scene. So it was astonishing to see BTS top the charts with an album in Korean, in fact we might have been astonished to the point of a little jealousy getting mixed in there too (laughs). Many people have pointed out their savvy use of social media and how they really interact with their fans and build up fan loyalty (as reasons for their success). But of course, that alone doesn’t explain their success. Their music is in Korean but it’s really… it’s like their songs would still flow really well even if they were mixed into a playlist of Western pop songs.

One of the reasons for that is because Korean words tend to follow the same pronunciation pattern as English so the flow of Korean and English rap is quite similar whereas if you did it in Japanese it would sound totally different. So that’s one thing I guess. That the Korean language is accepted on its own. But then they also went off to collaborate with the big names in the Western pop world and they’ve really come up with some first rate production, the visuals they’ve come up with and their perfectly synchronized performance – the individual efforts they must be making is just astonishing, it’s a special kind of weapon they have that’s unique to BTS.

Rina: Yeah, a lot of the music is really Western (sounding). And I know that a lot of people have written for BTS are Western people – like Charli XCX wrote a song and a lot of huge producers in the US write for BTS so that’s why it sounds like that.

Nakajin: They also have a great understanding of what’s trending. It’s not just that they know what’s trending, they really know what kind of songs grab the hearts of Americans and the British. And the songs are the type of songs that you can easily admit to liking.

Rina Sawayama, you’re with Dirty Hit and End of the World are with Insanity Records. Are there times when your respective labels motivate you creatively? Rina, if you could go first.

Rina: Hmmm, like when I… So my first album deal I signed when I was 29 and before that I was independent and funding everything myself. Working so hard and 貯金and everything. I don’t think it looks that bad but I can see that it looks quite budget.

It’s honestly because I had heard so many bad things about female pop singers like signing too early and they don’t know who they are and the label don’t know who they are and then they can’t meet in the middle and then they have to terminate the contract. Whatever. I heard so many stories like that growing up so I really wanted to be careful.

And Dirty Hit were the only label who listened to the album at its 70% completion and completely understood what I wanted to do and didn’t want to touch it and they were just like “We just want to give you some money to make it sound better. Here’s some drummers” because up until then I used no live instruments. No drums, no piano, no nothing. No strings. The only thing was electric guitar. But even acoustic guitar we were using samples and stuff. It was all in a laptop until then.

So then we were able to, with the help of Dave here make Dynasty and Adam from 1975 did the guitars on a couple of the songs and it’s just a kind of community of amazing musicians that I had never even though about. So I think just they let me be who I am basically , and I’m really, really glad I waited until I was 29 to sign a deal and just stay independent even though it was just so hard. Trynna um money through modelling in between was really, really difficult but I’m really glad I did it.

Nakajin: It was a long road for us as well until we finally met Insanity but one of the things I really appreciate about Insanity is that even though we’re based in Tokyo, we still have a team in England which is really reassuring and great. There’s someone there we can really discuss things with when we go to England. When we first met Insanity they were really warm and welcoming and (it made us realize) how important it is to have staff – our team locally. Their opinions are invaluable and well… I really think it’s important to understand what things are like outside of Japan and to listen to the opinions of our team.

Our single “Over” that was released a little while back was a song we recorded and worked on when we went to England this year. The label was asking detailed production questions about the tempo and drum patterns so we were going back and forth on that. They gave us their solid opinions regarding what we were envisioning and that was wonderful. I’m grateful to have people that will say “no” if they feel like we’re not headed in the right direction.

Rina: Yeah, definitely. The world’s biggest stars have the most amazing team around them and I think A&R, I think you’re talking about A&R, right? Like a really good A&R person. And they’re so invaluable. They’re like have to fully understand what you are and then what your potential is and try and give the right advice but also encouraging you as an artist. Such a fine skill and I love my A&R. He’s called Chris. Shout out to Chris. I love him. He’s so great and it’s really important.

That’s when a label can be so good. Like you were independent in the beginning of your career and like knowing what you want, that is a privilege to sort of understand what your taste is, what you want your sound to be like, your visual to be like. But it’s really good to have that team to keep pushing you.

Nakajin: Yeah, they give you proper advice. So they really let us do what we want, but then it would be for nothing if the music didn’t speak to the people we’re writing for. So when they say things like “that might not really resonate on radio”, getting real advice like that from Londoners makes a world of a difference.

This is the last question as we’re running a bit over time. 2020 has turned into the year of COVID-19. What was the greatest lesson you learned from this experience?

Rina: To let things be was my big lesson because for me, touring is my favorite part in doing shows. I think a lot of musicians love performing and even for the wider music industry people enter the music industry because they love to watch performances, they love going to festivals and obviously we can’t do that. My US tour is now next September and October and all these festivals I wanted to do this year and you know, for me I wanted it to be a big year of my first album, you know, party, party. Couldn’t do any of that and rather than getting frustrated and sad which I did for a little bit, just letting things be and just being okay with being a bit still and trying to figure out what I do in this time.

So I’ve been reading a lot and because lockdown is sort of lifting slightly in the UK, I can so shoots now which is nice and trying to do some live performance shooting and stuff like that. Yeah, just letting things be and just being okay with being still, I think that’s my main goal. I think at the same time we’ve, I dunno if in Japan it’s been as much of a big thing but the Black Lives Matter movement has been a really big part during this lockdown as well. I’ve been sort of helping behind the scenes and trying to see how I can use my platform for that and you know, to raise awareness for that as well.

Nakajin: Well for me, one example of what I think really symbolizes what we are going through involves students having to take classes online. Obviously there are different types of students, but I heard stories of how some students who have been refusing to go to school were becoming more cheerful whereas some of the popular students became quite depressed. I thought this was something quite symbolic to the times we’re living in right now. Most corporations have been hit pretty hard but other types of businesses such as ones in sanitation and hygiene, teleworking and online shopping are doing incredibly well. It made me realize that values can change so quickly when we are suddenly pushed into circumstances beyond anyone’s predictions. And this is happening simultaneously around the world.

In Japan we experienced a mammoth earthquake called the Great East Japan earthquake. I don’t think we’ve experienced anything close to something of that scale happening all over the world at once. At the same time, the environment we live in has changed, daily life has changed and technology has become even more widespread. It’s spread so fast it seems like the future has arrived a little earlier than expected so… so much is being said about what’s been lost, but I think we were also able to realize there are some things which remain of value, regardless of changing circumstances.

I think the best example of that are music shows. It’s the easiest to understand. A lot of artists are going online and doing virtual concerts but it doesn’t compare to the real experience of live music, where the artist and fans are sharing the same large venue, becoming one in the loud music – you can’t get that experience online.

Rina: I totally agree. I think in terms of like working and business and stuff there’s so many efficiencies that we realize you don’t need to … yeah like a lot of people don’t like commuting to work and commuting is a big stress for a lot of people, like getting in the rush hour train and stuff and in the UK, definitely amongst my friends, there are some friends that are dying to get back into the office. They absolutely love it.

And then there are some people who love working from home now and they ever imagined so I think I’m really excited for people to understand – like not have this one blanket rule for everyone in terms of how they should work and live. I think it’s nice that certain people reconsider different options whether they want to stay at home and work or whether they want to be a bit more flexible with the hours, something like that.

I agree, live concerts. It’s just that connection you get when you perform and the connection between the fans is so important – that real human connection. We’ll just pray and make some music in the meantime I think to make people happy.

Advertisement
Advertisement