Kero Kero Bonito make playful, saccharine-sweet earworms that mix J-Pop, dancehall, and video games with a healthy amount of positivity.
KKB's singer Sarah Midori Perry half-sings, half-raps songs about flamingos, trampolines, and taking photos—often segueing into Japanese verses without warning. Her simple, bilingual lyricism meshes with the band's upbeat style of dancehall to create something that could just as easily be the soundtrack of a totally bizarre children's cartoon as it could a night out dancing with friends.
Perry, who is half-Japanese, half-British, spent her childhood years in Hokkaido, spending her time wandering the port city of Otaru and eating flowers.
"In spring there wasn't much stuff to do as a kid so we used to go to this field and there was flowers," she said. "Me and my friends liked to, I don't know, hangout and walk around while eating flowers. It's not like you swallow it, you kinda suck on the tip and it's kinda a sweet honey taste. And off course when we were kids we always wanted sweet things."
She met Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled when she responded to an ad on a popular Japanese expat message board in the U.K. Together, the London-based trio try to answer the big questions. Questions like…
VICE: So, how many shrimp does it take to make your skin turn pink?
Kero Kero Bonito: [laughs]
Are you guys tired of that question?
Kero Kero Bonito: No, no, no.
Gus: It's actually a great question because it's just one for me because I'm allergic.
Sarah: Gus is allergic to shrimp.
Gus: Shellfish, yeah.
So it's not because flamingos eat shrimp…
Gus: Well it is.
Sarah: It is.
Gus: It's about everything and nothing. But one of the inspirations for that lyric is that I can't eat shrimp. For me, shrimp are inherently rich because I get sick whenever I eat them.
I didn't expect that.
Gus: Yeah, you can go anywhere with KKB. It's all in there.
So what's the meaning of KKB, Kero Kero Bonito?
Sarah: Kero kero is the sound, like onomatopoeia for a frog in Japanese
Gus: In Japan
Sarah: In Japanese, like kero kero, and bonito is a type of fish but also it means different things in like Spanish …
Gus: Yeah, in Portuguese Quero Quero—which is spelled with a Q instead of a K, Q-U, it sounds the same—is a kind of bird and it's also like 'I want' and bonito is 'beautiful.' So 'beautiful Quero Quero'—the bird—or 'I want, I want beautiful.' It means a few things. but basically what it comes down to is it's meant to be a band name that you can't tell, you can't decide from the origin of.
Sarah, why did you decide to sing in both Japanese and English?
Sarah: I grow up in Japan until I was thirteen and my mum's Japanese, my dad's English so it's kind of natural for me to want to use two languages. Some things definitely can't be described by only one language, like you can't really translate it completely, so it's kinda natural for me.
How do you feel about this discussion about culture appropriation right now? Back in the day, Gwen Stefani got some heat for basically using Japanese girls as props in her videos. and now we have Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. Does it bother you at all?
Sarah: It's weird because if you start saying that, then it means your parents have to be from there or you have to have grown up in Japan, so it's kinda of a… the line is not straight forward…
Gus: It is complicated. It's interesting, we had some totally clueless comments actually about KKB's music. If you want it authentic but also completely modern…
Sarah: It's really strange because just because I'm half-Japanese, doesn't mean it's authentic or not. It's just how it is. I could have lived all my life in the U.K., never been able to speak Japanese and with the Pokemon thing, it's not that you have to go to Japan to experience Japan. You can experience it on your TV or like going shopping, in fashion… I think there is not much wrong with that.
Gus: It's used as a blanket term, but there are definite real issues, that there is now an awareness of. You mentioned Ghost in the Shell one, and the real problem there is that there are far fewer roles for Asian American actors than white American actors. And the awareness of that kind of thing is great. I think this generation is more aware of than ever.
So totally unrelated, but Rich Chigga did a video with one of your songs. What was your reaction to it?
Gus: I was very pleased because I'm a fan.
Did you know him before that?
Gus: Of course! I even watched the reaction video and I was pleased when ODB came through with the remix. Or was it Ghostface? Sorry Wu Tang. It was Ghostface. ODB, he's dead right?
Gus: Of course. I'm jet lagged.
Are you into any other Indonesian music?
Gus: Oh yeah! I think Isyana Sarasvati made one of the best pop songs of the last decade—like her breakthrough song [starts singing] 'Give me love/Give me love baby' thats one of the best pop song of the last 10 years. I'm not playing around. But also there is also really cool indie stuff like The Upstairs and one subculture that me and Jamie are really interested in is this stuff funkot… it's really fast EDM, basically, but I don't know enough about the background. If you just Google it and click on the first couple of links there are these great mixes and you know it's the sort of mix where there will be a couple of Indonesian girls like in make-up and I will be like OK, should I be watching this? But the music is really cool and out there and it's like just completely unknown in the U.K.
In a way, people see that specific genre as a lower-class thing, so the fact that it's going to be brought up here is amazing.
Gus: I think it's a shame when people delineate stuff like that. So much cool music, at some point, was considered and I hate using this term, but like as working class
Jamie: Reggae, dub, punk, all of it.
Gus: It all seeps into the mainstream consciousness eventually. Like whether it's rave music, original house music, northern soul, whatever it is, if it's not like the sort of liberal elite consciousness, it's probably worth paying attention to, you know.
I read an interview with you guys where you talked about radical positivity.
Gus: It is definitely radical. KKB isn't necessarily 100% only positivity, but at the same time to even have an iota of positivity especially when we started KKB, there weren't many people doing positive music or demonstrating that there can be such a thing as a positive perspective. It felt super radical.
Jamie: It came to a point where if you sound sad or offensive you're a band, and if you sound positive, you're joking, you're obviously having a laugh.
Gus: And one thing that freaks me out is when an aesthetic choice in pop music kind of becomes something that defines its quality. So you know Radiohead is more serious than the B-52s but honestly they are about as seminal as each other. You could pick out specific records, like that first B-52s record is easily a seminal work, like I can't compete with something like that. But you know Radiohead is often upheld as a crazy, you know, absolute masterpiece-makers and the groups like B-52s are often dismissed as pop kitsch, when it's actually an aesthetic. In terms of what they mean culturally the B-52s are right fucking up there. There's a lot of very vital stuff that aesthetically just isn't very serious.
Jamie: It's the same in films …
Gus: There are people who will say I enjoy that, but it's a pop album. Well culture's culture, culture doesn't have to be serious.
Sarah: When we do shows, sometimes there will be like mosh-pits and people be going crazy, it's almost doing a punk show.
Gus: People are realizing something they couldn't with other music.
Jamie: I was in a punk band before this band and this is more punk. the people in the crowd are more punk.
Gus: In an authentic way.
Jamie: And I have become more punk [laughs]
Kero Kero Bonito will perform at Good Diner, in SCBD, South Jakarta, on Friday, Nov. 18 and at Rossi Musik, in Fatmawati, South Jakarta, on Saturday, Nov. 19. Both shows are sponsored by the British Council.