CHAI: “I want everyone to be prouder of themselves”

CHAI’s new album sees the band returning to their Japanese roots and reviving Tokyo’s lost soft rock genre, city pop, with characteristic joy and abandon. And yet whatever sound they choose to explore, the heart of the group appears to remain resolutely punk. We met the band to talk about their continual rejection of societal norms and expectations, and their desire for us all to love ourselves a bit more

CHAI are on the cover of Loud And Quiet 161. Purchase your copy now, or even better, subscribe to the magazine

Listening to their songs, you can tell that CHAI are super into their food. They talk about everything from doughnuts to matcha to chocolate chips – it’s all there! Even their name is a nod to Russian tea served with jam. Yet, halfway through our interview, when I ask the band to talk me through how the idea of food forms a significant part of their creative process, the band’s initial response is a chorus of riotous giggling.

Yuna, the band’s drummer, is the first to speak since she’s the first to stop laughing. “We love food, and we think it’s the most important: it’s a necessity for a healthy body, for a healthy heart, and for a healthy life. So it just comes naturally to us that we’d make music about food – why wouldn’t you?”

“Touring all over the world means that we’ve been able to experience food from all sorts of different cultures and traditions,” adds the band’s guitarist Kana, “and we’ve been able not just to eat it and take it in, but also experience it with our whole minds and bodies. It’s only right that all of that has inspired our music.”

“Also, Japanese food is obviously very popular abroad right now, and it’s another very important part of Japanese identity,” nods Mana, the band’s lead guitarist. Throughout our conversation, she stands out as CHAI’s intellectual core and is already poised to provide the last word on any philosophical or thematic talking point that comes up. It takes her a minute to articulate how the concept of food fits into the band’s art. 

“On the upcoming album, we have a song called ‘Matcha’, which is Japanese Tea, and we’ve also written songs about gyoza in the past, which, while not necessarily Japanese, is a big part of our lives,” she says thoughtfully as if juggling the variables in her mind. “I think it’s part of us reflecting on our Japanese identity. Food is a big part of that. In fact, it’s probably a necessity in our creative process. So I wouldn’t say that we write about food consciously; it’s a lot more automatic than that.”

This combination of goofiness and razor-sharp cultural insight lies at the heart of CHAI’s mystique. First gaining attention with their debut album PINK in 2017, the band’s rise to become one of the most talked-about groups in Japan and then on the global indie scene hasn’t just been down to a knack for crafting infectious melodies and irresistible rhythms. The band’s ability to world-build, shaping almost every aspect of their artistry and image to create their message, means that they’ve created an entire subculture that’s all their own. On the face of it, a lot of the band’s influences are about as bubblegum as bubblegum can be – a mix of teeny-bopper pop punk, ’90s summertime hip hop and smoothed-out soft rock. Mixed with the band’s signature fashion sense, all bright pops of pastel colour and chintzy patterns, it’s easy to peg them as a band making cutesy pop about boys, kissing and dancing. But while undeniably filled with hooks and bop-along choruses, their songs speak almost exclusively about self-love, empowerment and acceptance. Similarly, their mix-and-match style is designed to upend gender roles and kick back against the image of womanhood defined by men. In the middle lies CHAI’s complete rejection of the concept of ‘kawaii’, or cuteness. A cultural phenomenon in Japan that can be found in the most creative of art forms, from music videos all the way to advertising, it ostensibly idolises sweetness, vulnerability and innocence, yet is all too readily deployed by the patriarchy to put women in their place and trap them into traditional, ‘seen not heard’ role in society. Instead, the band promote an alternative vision that they’ve named ‘neo-kawaii’, a movement that keeps the creativity and eye-catching expressiveness of the original concept but aims to promote authenticity and inclusion in the place of enforced timidity and innocence.

“Neo-kawaii philosophy means no one gets to define the standards of beauty, you don’t have to allow others to define your beauty, and it’s OK to compliment yourself more!” explains bassist Yukki. “Neo-kawaii is about accepting everything and everyone. It does not leave anyone behind – not you nor anyone else! Music is an inevitable element when conveying this message. We want to spread the positive through the songs in a fun way, overcoming all sorts of boundaries.”

“The reason we thought of this concept is because we grew up feeling very kind of secluded from the Japanese nuance of the word kawaii,” adds Mana. “In Japan, it’s always been one of the biggest compliments a woman or girl can receive, but collectively we’ve never felt included in all of that. One of the reasons we bonded as a band was our experiences of having a lack of self-esteem growing up. With our music we want to ensure that we’re giving everybody that feeling of self-esteem, and that’s what the word neo-kawaii is meant to represent. It doesn’t matter about your gender; it doesn’t matter if you’re a human being. We’re all animals, and we all deserve to be taken seriously. That’s what neo-kawaii means; it’s an all-inclusive word.”

CHAI’s origins lie in the port city of Nagoya in the early 2010s. In high school, identical twins Mana and Kana began making music together and, looking to add some percussion to the mix, asked their friend Yuna to join and eventually added bassist Yukki soon after. They kept things low-key while they finished school, but as soon as the diplomas landed in their hands, the four-piece headed to Tokyo and took the band much more seriously. Moving into a house together, they toiled almost exclusively on the band for the next few years, making demos, playing shows, and eventually getting enough of their shit together to drop two EPs, 2015’s Hottaraka Series and 2016’s Homegrown Series. At the same time, the band honed their image, solidifying an instantly recognisable look through a series of self-produced music videos famed for lashings of Barbie pink and goofball dance moves. By the tail end of 2016, CHAI were the whole package, and things moved quickly from there. Sony Music Japan, apparently attracted by the visual style alone, signed the band in 2017, and CHAI headed over to Austin, Texas for SXSW and a handful of exclusive US shows. The UK cottoned on shortly after their debut album PINK was snapped up by Heavenly Records and promoted with a co-headline show with indie-pop collective Superorganism. Their next record PUNK followed soon after, further consolidating the band’s blend of post-punk and hip hop-inspired sounds and netting high-profile touring slots.

Then, the world stopped. Grounded by the pandemic, CHAI’s third studio album WINK was recorded while the band were stuck, like the rest of Planet Earth, in the COVID lockdown. As we speak, they keenly stress that while it was not a music-making experience the band cherished, they certainly learned a lot. “Until then, every album we’d released was very different and unique in terms of our sound and the taste of it,” explains Mana. “WINK was recorded all over the internet. Until then, our experience was all going into one studio and doing everything as a live session. It was the closest way to how we started making our songs.”

Yuna nods in agreement and picks up the story. “Obviously, the pandemic forced us to do everything online and, for the first time, led us to collaborate more with outside producers and songwriters, which totally changed our way of songwriting and recording. I think that’s why it ended up sounding so different.”

As alien as the recording experience was for the band, the results spoke for themselves; no one can deny that WINK has been a step change for CHAI. Unable to replicate the general in-your-face energy that comes from live recordings, the band instead decided to double down on the pop sounds that have always lurked in the margins. Working with Tokyo-based electronic producers Mndsgn and YMCK, WINK instead mined sleek modern pop for its inspiration; it still contained all the flawless pop songwriting that CHAI has made their name on but revealed a side to the band that was entirely at home with downtempo R&B, booty-shaking electro-pop and all manner of squelchy, laidback disco and lounge textures. Released in May 2021, just as the world looked to open up again, WINK‘s more focused pop sounds were exactly what people were looking for after a year of being locked inside. As soon as it was safe to fly, the band quickly found themselves back on the road and playing to packed houses, headlining their own US, South American and European tours and opening for the likes of Mitski and Whitney.

“Every audience enjoys our music in their own unique way, which is very interesting and exciting,” explains Yukki, describing the band’s last two years on the road. “Being able to play to international audiences means I’ve discovered new ways to enjoy music myself. It’s definitely helped me break out of my shell.”

“Being overseas for the last two years and playing to all these audiences abroad has really made us re-realise what it means to be Japanese,” adds Mana. “Being viewed as both a Japanese person and an Asian woman while on tour has made me wake up and re-recognise my own identity. I think it’s these experiences that we reflect on the new record.”

CHAI’s popularity has grown tremendously on the back of WINK’s success. However, with fame brings its challenges. Western commentators struggle to fully understand and appreciate Asian culture at the best of times, which sometimes means the band’s messages are lost, through a combination of lazy stereotyping and the Western media’s tendency to distort Asian and African stories into narratives that fit into their worldview. CHAI has definitely been on the receiving end of this kind of coverage in the past, with a lot of focus on the band’s fashion sense and party-friendly sound, and little-to-none really delving into the band’s background, reference points and underlying philosophy. When I ask the band how they feel about being viewed through the lens of Western culture, their answer is polite, but seasoned with a hint of frustration. “We grew up exposed to and loving Western pop; it still inspires a lot of what we do,” explains Yuna, speaking on behalf of the group. “However, every time we make an album, we are trying to challenge ourselves and say, ‘OK, this is who we are right now’.”

CHAI are way too diplomatic to say that their new self-titled record is a response to how they’ve been portrayed in the West, but it’s undeniable that the band have attempted to root their creativity in the musical culture of their home. The initial writing sessions involved the band listing words immediately associated with Japan, resulting in song titles like ‘MATCHA’ and ‘KARAOKE’, which carry cultural references and symbolic weight. Some terms are more obscure but no less authentic to the country’s cultural heritage. For example, the single ‘LIKE, I NEED’ mentions the “selfie”, a now-universal practice popularised by Japanese photographer Hiromix in the 1990s and the hugely popular photo booths found in communal places across the country. On ‘PARA PARA’, CHAI memorialise the bafflingly popular two-step dance trend that swept across Japan that same decade. 

“I think we were trying to get a sense of what Japan has that is unique compared to the rest of the world,” Mana tells me when I ask what made the band decide to mine such a vast and stylistically diverse range of influences. “We wanted to capture that appeal on the sound of the record and explore music that only we can create, and we can express: based on everything we’ve experienced up to this point.”

And it’s not just lyrically that CHAI’s new record calls home to their roots. Sonically, the band have also doubled down on influences of their homeland, not only drawing inspiration from J-pop and its older cousin Kayōkyoku, but aesthetically reaching back to city pop, an oft-forgotten Japanese strand of lounge and soft funk that was popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Undergoing something of a resurgence in recent years, thanks to the music-sharing community on the internet, the crunchy basslines and chiming synth lines have been something of a staple of Soundcloud rap songs for a while now. But thanks to producer Ryu Takashi, CHAI are putting these elements of laid-back pop back into the genre where, arguably, they’ve always belonged.

“As a Japanese person, I’m thrilled that a wider audience is discovering city pop,” says Mana when I ask her why CHAI decided to make the genre such a large part of the new record. “There are a lot of city pop fans all around the world right now, and I think that’s because, as music, it just sounds so fresh, no matter what generation you are. It’s music that has both sound and melody; it’s very comfortable to listen to.

“I don’t think we necessarily set out to incorporate city pop into our sound,” she adds. “It wasn’t a conscious decision. It was more about trying to recapture the kind of music that we grew up listening to, and city pop was one of them. Referencing this or that genre wasn’t our intention; expressing the sound that came naturally to us was more important.”

The demands of touring and the more collaborative processes trialled in making WINK meant that CHAI was recorded as the band bounced between different venues and studios. And despite the band saying that the new record was conceived as a love letter to Japan and Japanese culture, the sound of the road has nevertheless seeped into it. Speaking to Kana, Yuuki, Mana and Yuna, you quickly get the impression that touring means a lot to them, while new song ‘Driving22’ sums up their pure joy of being able to get out into the world, directly channeling the buzz of constantly meeting new and exciting people and navigating foreign cities with a blissed out, almost Balaeric-inspired, funk-infused rhythm section. “The people we met through touring the world, and the kindness they have shown us, have been such a help in CHAI’S journey as well as my own,” says Yukki, who penned the lyrics after reflecting on her time on the road. “That feeling of gratitude inspires our creativity, so it’s all an amazing cycle.”

“That song is kind of an homage and a thank you letter to our friends overseas. It’s about seeing fans overseas and meeting the people who’ve supported us over the years who we haven’t seen for a long time,” adds Mana. “It’s also about coming home after a long time on the road, so it kind of shows how travelling has inspired the whole spectrum of the album.”

But CHAI’s fourth album isn’t just a record of well-crafted nostalgia and callbacks to long-lost nuggets of Japanese youth culture. Throughout it, their lyrics challenge the idea of labelling people and pressuring them to conform. Instead, CHAI’s message is one of hope – an invitation to be true to yourself, persevere against adversity, have a voice, and use it. One song on the album that sums up the band’s inspiring message to the world is ‘GAME’. Intentionally blending elements of new wave, house synth lines and minimalistic production, it evokes Eurobeat influences reminiscent of Robyn’s Honey. It’s a track that perfectly articulates the band’s message to the world, grabbing listeners’ attention and calling on them to keep moving forward in life, embracing joy and finding their passion.

“It’s a song that’s very heavily influenced by ESG and Talking Heads and very much represents the new wave that we’re inspired by right now,” says Mana. “In terms of the lyrics, it’s about how playing games isn’t about winning or losing, but how you strategise to win the next game. Life is the same; just because you lose doesn’t mean it’s the end of everything; it’s more about what you take from that loss and use for the next challenge. It’s a song about always moving forward.”

This desire to constantly push both sonic and societal boundaries is, to me at least, the reason why CHAI are a punk band in the rawest sense of the term. Musically, they might not be as brash and furious as Fugazi, Bikini Kill or The Clash, but philosophically, they’re tracking the same trajectory. From the concept of neo-kawaii to the lyrical content of each song, CHAI’s music is in service of a mission to push back against societal norms and expectations, and although they’re cautious of describing their work as feminist, their keen to ensure that there’s a female-centric perspective to their approach. While tackling topics such as body image, beauty standards and the importance of individuality, the band’s politics are undeniably politicised, challenging the notion of conformity and encouraging women to find solidarity in self-acceptance. If this sounds radical, the band certainly doesn’t see it that way. When I ask the band if they see themselves as a political band, Mana shrugs. 

“Basically, we’re just being ourselves,” she answers like it’s not a big deal. “I guess we’re confident in living as females. We just want to get the message out, via song, that it doesn’t matter who you are, in terms of gender or how you identify; our message is that it’s just about being confident.”

“We’re all multifaceted people, and we think everyone is the same,” agrees Una. “By showing that women can be confident and overcome borders by shouting it out through song, we are saying to everyone else that it’s OK to be who they are, regardless of age or diversity.”

The reason CHAI’s radicalism feels different to Western eyes though, is because it’s not confrontational, in-your-face, or even that openly political. Instead, the four-piece’s want to change the world and people’s thinking hangs on the sheer power of positivity. If a trend has emerged from their last four albums, it’s the band’s self-declared mission to shape their music, image and community to create a safe space where their message can be heard, received and acted on. 

Earlier in this piece I mentioned that the secret to CHAI’s power lies in their ability to create their worlds, but it’s only now, with the release of their self-titled album, that the size and scale of what the band are building is starting to reveal itself. Like a team of terraformers creating lakes, rivers and forests out of barren rock, CHAI are carving out and defining a whole new ecosystem in indie rock where it’s okay to be whoever you want to be. It’s a space not just reserved for themselves, either, but also for their fans. From energetic live performances designed to create an atmosphere of joy and liberation to lyrics that empower their audience to express themselves freely, almost every facet of CHAI’s music points outward. 

In their words, the future world that their is building is something called “Chai Pop”. “We want to make our own genre and update it and evolve it in the future,” Mana tells me, almost triumphantly, describing her vision for the band’s next stage like an architect describing their next skyscraper. “I have no idea how it will sound, but it’s what we aspire to do in the future.”

“My hope is that it will keep inspiring people,” agrees Yuna. “Hopefully, people will continue to see a group of Japanese-Asian women being energetic on stage and performing with everything we can, and from that more and more people will say, ‘Okay, we can be confident in who we are and do whatever we want to do in life.’ This year, I want people to come and see this new version of CHAI 2.0 out on tour and come away feeling inspired.”

The final word falls to Yukki, returning the focus to the fans in typical CHAI fashion. “Every single conversation I have with the people I wouldn’t have met if I weren’t in this band, fans, as well as the people around us who support us, are so precious, and those experiences motivate me to want to share our message to more people. Every person I meet has something I don’t have, and because I am experiencing first-hand that everyone is amazing in their own way, I want everyone to be prouder of themselves. I hope that CHAI’s songs can let everyone realise that.”