Opening CHAI’s official website is like diving into a unicorn’s wet dream. Everything is slathered in sugary pastel hues as glitchy graphics flicker on-screen with inspirational messages and the Japanese group’s high-octane brand of kawaii punk blasts at full volume, like a hyperactive YouTube advert. It’s safe to say that CHAI – an eclectic four-piece band whose music skirts the lines of punk, electronica and pure, unabashed pop – don’t exactly aim for minimalism.
Scroll through the site and you’ll get the chance to learn more about Chai’s four members. First up are identical twins Mana and Kana, who met drummer Yuna at their school music club. Though Yuna moved away and the twins chose to stay closer to their hometown of Nagoya, they all stayed in touch and decided to, in their own words, “take this music thing seriously.” That’s where fourth and final member Yuuki came in, who plays bass and also manages the band’s visual output.
What bound them together was not only a love of music, but also a shared passion for a concept which they’ve termed “NEOkawaii” – essentially a regeneration of the Japanese word for ‘cute’. In their eyes it’s about more than just tulle, frills and pretty accessories: it’s about self-love.
“It’s such an important message to us, because none of us ever fit society’s beauty standards,” Yuuki says. “We were never told that we were ‘cute’ and we were never complimented, so we wanted to send the message that everyone is cute in their own way!” Yuna agrees enthusiastically, adding: “There are no standards. You are cute the way you are!” This message rings loud and clear through their single ’N.E.O.’, essentially a riot grrrl anthem dipped in shimmer and buoyed by a chirpy, infectious chorus: “You are so cute / nice face, come on yeah!”
It’s one of the more straightforward tracks on debut mini-album PINK, but that’s exactly what makes it so damn charming. It’s the aural equivalent of that drunk girl in the club toilet; you know, the new best friend that’s complimenting your outfit while politely ignoring the WKD stains on your jumpsuit. They follow through with this #mood on ‘Boyz Seco Men’, in which they use Japanese slang to shit-talk all the boys you should have definitely swiped left on – “if he’s stingy, unfair or cheap,” they sing, “don’t go for it!” Surprisingly the next track is a love song, but it’s one dedicated to delicious, fried gyoza dumplings. “We want our music to feel like you’re wrapped up in a delicious gyoza,” confirms Mana. This track nails it.
You might not be able to understand the lyrics, but this never stopped CHAI from developing an emotional connection with their favourite bands. “We would all listen to Western music and sometimes have no idea what the lyrics meant,” recalls Yuuki. “But we were still so touched by the sound that we would shed tears of joy at times.”
CHAI achieves this same effect by harnessing the power of melody and creating soundscapes which seem to drip with euphoria, like grease trickling out of a fried dumpling. The frenetic synth breakdown in “Fried” is uplifting, while “Hi Hi Baby” whilst resisting the urge to jump and sing along with the chants. “We incorporated so many genres into PINK that you’ll never have time to get bored,” claims Yuuki boldly. “We just wanted to create a world where you’re constantly feeling good, wanting to dance and being positive.” “One where you don’t even have time t think about going to the bathroom,” jokes Mana. “No,” replies Yuuki: “We want you to listen to it even WHILE you’re using the bathroom!”
These kind of tongue-in-cheek answers crop up regularly throughout the interview; there’s a sense of playfulness about the band which can only really come from close camaraderie. This also translates into electricity on-stage. CHAI has already played a few shows in the US, and they’re about to tour the UK with indie group Superorganism. “We’ve had comments from people in the States and all over the world,” says Yuna, seemingly in disbelief. “Sometimes people tell us to come to places in Europe, Mexico – even Brazil!”
Their appeal works on several levels. They veer between pop and punk in a way that makes them an important addition to the musical landscape. It’s even better that they make music specifically to spread messages of body-positivity – and not in a disingenuous, ‘woke’ way. “‘Kawaii’ is used to define a woman’s beauty in Japan,” Yuuki says. “Well, it’s also used for cute dogs and babies as well, but I think it’s the same in Western culture? I think we can all relate!” Mana concurs, and says that it’s important to seize control of these standards and fuck them up. “We ourselves are far from perfect,” explain Mana and Kana. “We want everyone to feel comfortable in their own skin and be able to see that their imperfections are what make them cute.”
This might not sound particularly revolutionary on paper – especially when body-positivity has been co-opted and “self-care” has popped up on so many Pinterest boards that Audre Lorde must be turning in her grave – but there’s one crucial detail that changes everything: CHAI have creative control. Yuuki’s nonchalant response when I ask how important it was to create their artwork in-house exemplifies this: “Well, as a member of CHAI, I feel like I understand the image we want and the type of look we want to put out. It’s like when I write the lyrics; I want the illustrations to tell you exactly what the story of the song is! So I think, rather than outsourcing our artwork, it’s best to handle it from within.”
Everything about CHAI seems to indicate that they’re destined for success. They have a strong message, an arresting aesthetic and a short but sweet back catalogue that’s both infectious and experimental. Part of this stems from their no-nonsense approach to creation (Yuuki says that the songwriting process can take literally ten minutes, and that lyrical non-starters are like “rotten carrots – they’re the worst!”) but another element stems from their own diverse musical tastes.
So, before we went our separate ways, I asked the band about which tracks have particularly influenced them. Sure, they might not make you feel like you’re wrapped inside a giant gyoza but they’ll at least allow you a glimpse into CHAI’s sonic world. Think of it as preparation to plunge yourself into PINK when it drops later this month.
Not only the lyrics, but the melody in this song really set the standard for us when we started making our own music. Whenever we want to create a melody or write catchy lyrics, we turn to this song.
JUSTICE – “D.A.N.C.E.”
This track has really simple lyrics which send out a really simple message: have fun and get up now! On top of that there’s a really cool mixture of rhythm, feeling and noise. As a band, we always strive to incorporate that balance into our own songs: that lyrically simple, noisy, rhythmic feel!
Tune-Yards – "Water Fountain"
This is another song which has simple, catchy lyrics – in that sense it’s influenced us by making us write songs that are not only relatable, but also easy to understand. We also take a lot of our stage presence, our image and the feel of our live shows from this song.
Basement Jaxx – "Jump N Shout"
Last but not least! The main chorus of this gets stuck in your head so easily, and we love how Basement Jaxx always tends to have a mechanical sound. With this song in particular the rhythm and sound are super groovy, and as a band we wanted to be able to create this feel and this energy at our live performances. It just has this energy which is so strong; it seeps into your skin and opens you up. It forces you to dance, and in that sense it really became a cornerstone for what we wanted to put out into the world.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.