Nothing Personal: Babymetal Don't Like Answering Questions
I met up with the J-Pop infused metal group to try to understand the Babymetal phenomenon and had nearly all my questions cast aside.
The metal world, to everyone that isn't part of it, is best described with shrug face. Gwar's entire schtick revolves around the band being interplanetary warriors, Battlelore are inspired by J.R Tolkein’s Middle Earth, and a band called Power Glove - named after the Super Nintendo accessory - play wildy popular metal inspired cover versions of video game themes. Yet that's only on the surface. Metal isn't confusing and interesting just because a few bands wear prosthetics and have fantasy led backstories; it's the sheer amount of artists melding genres like Heston Blumenthal mixes chicken korma and dairy ice cream that make the genre perplexing.
Bands like Alestrom make Scottish pirate metal, Serj Tankian collected a Grammy after merging death metal with Armenian folk, and in the early 2000s a bunch of slightly-balding men opened their key-chain wallets, put on some baseball caps, and created nu-metal. But they're all in the past. The latest in the metal world's fornication with genre is led by three teenage girls from Japan, singing songs about chocolate, called Babymetal.
The group's single - "Gimme Chocolate" - sounds like a J-pop song after being sadomasochistically pleasured by death metal. The girl's have named their sound Kawaii metal; a new genre they've created. Some metalheads have dimissed Kawaii metal; others want to be buried in it's sugar-sweet choruses for an aeon. Either way - Babymetal's rise cannot be understated: they've recieved massive attention from the rock press, pop-fans who normally listen to Taylor Swift are aware of their existence, and last weekend they played Sonisphere.
Curious as to what goes on behind the veneer of novelty, I met with the band last Monday to find out more.
However - when I arrive a female manager tells me I’d only get 15 minutes with the girls (in reality that gets cut off at 8) and that they’d have to check all my questions beforehand. I read my questions to the band's manager while she translates to another woman, presumably a PR. Almost all my questions get thrown. “Nothing personal. Nothing political. Nothing to do with friends and family.”
The pre-interview interrogation smelt like the band had arrived with remnants of Japanese idol culture in tow - a scene where girl group's like AKB48 are not allowed to have relationships and generally, are controlled by the people in charge. Babymetal are a brand, after all; the metal version of Little Mix. Originally formed by a producer, most of their songs are written by Nobuki Narasaki, the frontman of post-hardcore/shoegaze/trash band Coaltar of the Deepers — a band with solid credibility. They’d never heard metal before being in the group - but their favourite band now is Cannibal Corpse. I had a question that involved idol culture in Japan and Babymetal's thoughts on it. "Nothing cultural", the manager replied. That's OK, I thought. I already have my answer.
I got taken upstairs to meet another manager/PR who would be my translator, as the girls dont speak English. We made awkward small talk and then the girls entered - dressed in full costume. They were unfalteringly polite, happy, each shaking my hand. But the room was also filled with tension - the girls faced me from their sofa but the rest of their team sat behind me, like they were keeping guard. Some questions, when relayed to the girls, triggered a flicker of recognition and they gave a part pre-rehearsed answer, words almost given in unison. Other questions made them look between each other and to the management behind.
Su-metal told me she’d brought her favourite cuddly toy over from home for the world tour as a comfort blanket. I ask about their songs. "Gimme Chocolate" is about the “inner conflict” of women. How so? “The girls like to eat chocolate,” the translator said. “But is it really good to me? It’s late at night, I might put on the weight if I eat.”
The group's other songs analyse the strength of women in a little more depth than the decision to eat a Dairy Milk after dinner. "Kitusune" is about women being tough enough to show a happy exterior when they’re sad. "Head Bangya!!" is an anthem about a 15-year-old girl going to concerts and headbanging but only seeing guys around her. “It’s a special song for the female fans to relate to,” Su-metal told me.
And then - that's it. My eight minutes are up and I'm ushered out the room. The curious, short and sweet interaction making me all the more intrigued to see them play later. All I’d heard from people who’d watched their UK debut at Sonisphere is that they were the best band of the weekend, and the sold out London leg of their world tour had been upgraded from Electric Ballroom to the 2,300 capacity Kentish Town Forum, testament to their blow up.
Plus I still wanted to know who the real Babymetal fans were. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu - another J-Pop star - played the Forum recently and was greeted by a huge crowd dressed in Lolita. Would this be the same? Were people there for the one-off novelty or did Babymetal really have a hardcore cult following of fans in London, ready to dress up and get involved? My questions were answered as soon as I stepped into The Forum.
The crowd was an ecletic mix of die-hard Babymetal fans - who had doused themselves in the entire merchandise stand and the fox masks the band wear - girls in Harajuku outfits and contact lenses posing for photos, and seasoned metal fans, those who had been caught under Babymetal's spell.
The show lasts an hour and a half. No support. Just Babymetal: starting at 8pm and over by 9.30pm for an early bedtime. Once the show begins, it's easy to see why so many metal-fans have pulled on a Babymetal t-shirt and come to the Forum.. A screen projected a Star Wars mock-up intro telling the legend of how the girls came together and birthed a new genre of metal. They play behind a smokey screen, the band lit like shadow puppets. The screen falls, mayhem descends, and we witness a fantasy metal dream.
They are metal - in their own charming and unique way. Their version of the wall of death is the two youngest girls running across the stage to each other. Their version of head-banging is tilting their heads side to side like a tiny human pendulum. The CO2 cannons, red streamers, and full production of an Idol show combines with the strobes and adrenaline of a great metal show. Everyone is smiling. A lot of people, somehow, are singing along.
Babymetal, when you cast aside the connotations of idol culture, are doing good things for the rock scene. They’re introducing more people to metal: pop and J-pop fans, girls, for example. They’re bringing a non-white presence to a mainstream scene that’s still predominantly white. They’re three women in a totally male-dominated genre (we’ll ignore for now that in order to participate, they’re in PVC and pigtails).
They’re desperate for metal fans to be on their side, too. “We are pioneers of creating a new genre of metal,” Su-metal told me. “It’s a new thing we created so we’d like them to support us". But will the novelty factor hold lasting value in the metal world? I don't know. There are weirder metal acts out there that have stayed the test of time. You only need to ask Nekrogoblikon - despite only practicing every other leap year on a full moon, they've been dressing up as goblins and performing for the last six millennia.
Follow Hannah on Twitter: @HannahRoseEwens