The DNCE and Clean Bandit-collaborators's 'Insomnia Train' show would make a UK stadium gig look like a night down the Barfly
Think about the last big outdoor show you went to. Maybe everyone was given a light-up wristband on the way in. Maybe there was loads of pyro. Maybe there were wraparound video screens. Maybe – just maybe – there was a giant inflatable clown above the stage, an elaborately peopled immersive magical forest, a themed eating area with dishes and cocktails designed by the band, a stage made to look like a giant steam train, more vintage neon than the Las Vegas strip, a performance piece in which dancing bandits kidnap the lead singer and a set timed so that the sun goes down precisely halfway through the show meaning each night has a different start time.
Nah, thought not.
But that kitchen sink-and-all approach is one employed – to frankly jaw-dropping effect – by Japan’s End Of The World, the band doing possibly the most impressive live show in the world right now.
The four-piece – named Sekai No Owari in their home country – exist in a place where J-pop meets alt-rock meets trance meets Disney soundtracks meets My Chemical Romance rock pomp meets Beatles melodies meets literally anything. Lead singer Fukase has the handsome-yet-unthreatening looks of a J-pop idol – and has the young fans that go with it – but there’s a depth to their music too; the band formed after Fukase dropped out of medical school due to the intense pressure he was placing on himself, and mental health is a recurring theme in his lyrics. “If you asked people in Japan is there a band who talks about mental health, 100 out of 100 would pick us,” he says. The group is completed by pianist Saori, guitarist and producer Nakajin and the mysterious, mask-wearing DJ Love, whose role is brilliantly summed up on Wikipedia as being “DJ, sound choice, comedic talk”. The four met at nursery school, and have such a close bond they’ve lived together since they were able. “We were talking about making music all the way through junior high school, high school, and it kind of started to shape up when we were about 20,” says Saori.
End Of The World’s music employs an everything-goes approach that, since their formation in the mid 2000s, has seen them rise to superstardom in Japan, where NME witnesses the aforementioned Insomnia Train spectacle at the foot of Mount Fuji. Such is the level of their success, Fukase’s voice has been captured as a synthetic Vocaloid, meaning songwriters can have him sing – virtually – anything they wish. The process requires hours in a studio meticulously recording every possible sound; Fukase says he’s “erased it from [his] memory”. Pianist Saori isn’t so lucky: “It was a nightmare! I don’t know why but he wanted to have me there when he recorded the Vocaloid samples. Every sound, 100 times. Two weeks and I was just sitting there, it was actually a nightmare!” Another mark of their cred is that former Studio Ghibli man Hiromasa Yonebayashi chose them to supply the theme for his latest anime film, the well-received Mary and The Witch’s Flower. Household names, they’ve played Tokyo’s Nissan Stadium, Japan’s biggest venue, and have moved on to the kind of shows that require them to build their own festival ground especially for the purpose.
Though little known here in the UK and the English-speaking world, End Of The World are making in=roads via canny team-ups with likeminded bands DNCE and Clean Bandit, each of them groups with whom End Of The World shares some kinship: Britain’s Clean Bandit for their male-female make-up and classical background, the USA’s DNCE for their love of pop, the absurd and the outlandish. They’re also nearing completion of an English-language album, which sees them attempt more Western styles, inspired by Nakajin’s working trips to the UK, where he’s taken inspiration from the likes of PC Music’s AG Cook and made friends with some of East London’s coolest producers. Among the first tastes of this are recent single ‘Sleeping Beauty’, which you can hear below.
The day after the last of Tokyo’s big Insomnia Train shows, NME meets the band (very hung over, nursing coffees) at their Tokyo HQ, an Aladdin’s Cave of oddities and artefacts marking their ascent: there’s a meeting room with a fake tree in it from a former tour, a boardroom in which the walls are adorned with Fukase’s surrealist artwork, and maquettes of stage sets on shelves. Soon, you suspect, it will be full of neon signs too. The interviews take place via a translator (“We’re so braindead right now we’re struggling with Japanese, let alone English,” they say), and there’s a member here who even the most diehard End Of The World fans wouldn’t recognise – NME is in the privileged position of meeting samples master DJ Love without his clown mask on. We could tell you what he looks like, but we’re terrified he might be related to Pennywise.
So, DJ Love, not many people have seen your face. Do you miss out on the trappings of fame as a result?
DJ Love: “No! It means I can be as naked as I want in public hot springs, so that’s one good thing. The rest of them can’t do that. I’ve been in the same elevator as fans before and they have no idea who I am. I’m secretly finding the situation very funny every time.”
Are you aware that clowns are generally considered absolutely bloody terrifying in the western world?
DJ Love: “I’m very much aware. A few years back when I was visiting America, the killer clown craze was going on and that scared me.”
Having risen to the absolute toppermost of the poppermost in Japan, you guys have set your sights on success in the UK and USA too. Why chase world domination?
Fukase: “We’re not limiting ourselves to the UK and the US – we include all of Asia as well! But outside of Japan, people basically do understand English but not Japanese, so that is the whole reason we’ve started writing in English. So we thought, now we have English songs, why don’t we approach the people who speak English with the music we have?”
Japan’s got a thriving music scene. Why do you think there aren’t many Japanese artists who find success outside of Japan.
Fukase: “You tell me!”
You’re writing an English language album. Is it going to be very different from your Japanese work?
Nakajin: “English rhythms and Japanese rhythms are very different, so I think the translation is just not as simple as you think. Songs written in Japanese, if you tried to translate them into English, because of the language changes, the rhythm doesn’t work on the melody. You have to rebuild it from the start. So that’s the hardest thing – you can’t just bring the Japanese songs into English.”
You hooked up with Clean Bandit, and your collaborations include remixes of each other’s work. How did the collaboration come about?
Nakajin: “At first, I found them. We became fans and they started to be quite big in Japan. One day our manager contacted them and they replied saying they would collaborate, writing songs or doing a gig.”
Saori: “We do quite aggressive approaching! They were interested in doing something new and that’s how it came to be. Clean Bandit is a big fan of Japan, I think.”
Your Insomnia Train stage show is absolutely stunning. Where did the idea for such a large-scale, immersive event come from?
Fukase: “We built our own live venue, Club Earth, from scratch when we first formed, and we’re celebrating 10 years of it this year. Trying to create something with that space and sense of atmosphere is what we’ve been trying to do since the start. It’s all about trying to make our own world.”
You employ a few tricks we’ve seen in UK shows, like the light-up wristbands used by Coldplay and Taylor Swift. Do you take inspiration from UK or US artists?
Nakajin: “Not much, I think.”
Fukase: “I like Coldplay’s fashion, the military jackets, because it could be old fashioned but it’s cool.”
Is there a Japanese band you’d recommend to our readers?
Fukase: “Well, you have the problem with the language barrier. I’ll say a [Japanese nu-metal] band called Maximum The Hormone – they’re definitely blowing away the barrier of language in music, because it’s gibberish in Japanese too.”
We couldn’t help noticing that at your show, during a specific couple of songs, members of the audience whizz a towel around in the air. Should UK audiences get on board with that when you play over here?
Nakajin: “It’s a very Japanese thing – we do that at other concerts as well, and the baseball. There are all these little rules.”
Saori: “If British people want to swing their towels at us, that’s up to you, no pressure!”
You all live together. Does that not get a bit fractious, working and living in such close quarters?
Saori: “No, when we were building Club Earth, we were living in one space together, not even separate rooms. Now we have a house we own space for freedom and privacy – a better environment I think!”
Fukase, you write about mental health a lot. Does folding it into your art help you cope?
Fukase: “It’s not so much about me dealing with the issue, it’s more about me being on stage to show to the people who are also in the same condition, or who are in the same shoes, that I went through that and am now on stage doing this. In our music there’s some very pop stuff, and also a very dark side living in harmony. I’m not sure which one is dominant, personally.”
There’s a big movement to encourage talking about mental health in the UK. Is the same true of Japan?
Fukase: “Not much in music. If you asked people in Japan is there a band who talks about mental health, 100 out of 100 would pick us. But culturally there has been quite a lot of light shed on those issues recently, people talk about mental issues, just not really in song.
On the premise that we’re convinced you’ve never been asked this before, if it really was the end of the world, what would you do in the final hour?
Fukase: “Ha, well, that’s what our name is for, so at least journalists have one good question. We always try to give a good answer saying we would stick together, fight for a moment, try to save the world. But now I’m thinking maybe I’ll just pick up a girl.”
And with that, the band drift off to look at plans for their next big extravaganza, prep for the 10th anniversary of Club Earth and nurse those hangovers. DJ Love presents NME with one of his own range of kendama – a traditional Japanese toy, involving a wooden ball, a cup and string. Not the actions of a killer clown, you suspect. But End Of The World are a killer band. British bands: time to step up your game.