Somewhere beyond Shoreditch in the spring of last year, I met a trio of colorful, young J-Pop enthusiasts who dubbed themselves Kero Kero Bonito.
It was at this pub, over a cigarette and a spilled £3 pint, that I first talked to the newest member of Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled’s sparkly, neon-tinged project—the ineffably energetic Sarah Midori Perry, who donned a huge smile to match her shredded tights and multicolored kimono. Prepping to play one of their first shows together, she smiled nervously at our mutual friend, her sunny demeanor matched only by the primary colors of her gorgeous, stained glass-esque face paint.
And while this was a while back, I’ve been keeping tabs on the gregarious, genre-defying group of global hip-pop producers ever since. A smart move too, as the trio of young twenty-somethings have just released their debut album via the avant-poppers at Double Denim Records and become one of the centerpieces of what has been called London’s revamp of the outré-underground pop scene.
But that’s not their main goal, as they like to fancy themselves more as “manifestations of playfulness” and “nods to the transglobal world” they grew up engulfed in. Dedicated to the concept, it’s all a result of the Internet chatrooms and message boards they learned from. The places where a mere mouse click meant everything from Japanese hardcore to Ghanaian hiplife, or having physical access to something academically inaccessible to the average 11 year-old Bromley-bred schoolboy.
“It’s a unifying concept, ironically, because it’s quite specific,” Gus laughs when I prod them about their unique bilingual approach. “And something completely different.”
Take the first 30 seconds of “Bonito Intro”, the opener for Intro Bonito, where Japanese rap, video game compositions, air horns, and spit samples all combine into one crazed hodge-podge mélange of musical influences and stylings. To some a headache, to most a return to original, joyous function of dance pop.
“It’s just going back to the absolute basics,” Gus explains. “All this other [independent] music was really semantic. You really had to try and draw this meaning from it. So we tried to strike out in the most the extreme way we could really.”
And they did this by utilizing smiley Japanese rap-singing and concocting what they describe as a series of addictive “toy town beats.” In other words, a focus on strong melody and idea, or as Gus says while rolling his eyes, “What a lot of music in the last five years has lacked.”
Finding Sarah was the hardest part. In search for something fresh, the trio met via an ex-pat posting board, which is more often utilized for things like rooms and jobs, rather than rappers who actually know the acute differences between a sensei and senpai.
“I think we wanted to do something with someone who could speak Japanese, because the sound of that language really appealed to us,” Gus pauses to think. “But really it would have been really difficult to do something with someone who didn’t speak English. Sarah meant we had both.”
Another convenient collaboration born from a cable connection.
Both bred in the suburban area south of London, Gus and Jamie grew up on the edges of a city known for being one of the world’s most metropolitan. And though they may not have consciously been aware of it, they were surrounded by a multitude of multicultural influences thanks to both technology and their proximity to the Thames.
“It’s funny because I do think my dad being into reggae was a bit of a holdover geographically because he grew up near Peckings, the famous reggae record store,” Gus mentions. “Even though Bromley and Croyden are kind of near there, we don’t feel that kind of geographic connection. I think it trickled down from my dad.”
Which isn’t surprising as school friends Jamie and Gus listened to the customized reggae compilations Gus’s father created from his substantial archives.
“One of the biggest reggae record collections in South London apparently,” they laugh. “That’s always been there.”
But thanks to dad, the duo couldn’t help but infuse some riddim (sans any inkling of the blues) into their new brand of hyperactive hip-pop.
“We kind of had the luxury of hearing some instrumentals and the production of those records really struck me as very similar in some ways to things like PC Music or video game music,” Gus explained. “The synthesis is really simple, the arrangements are really sparse and the rhythms are really upbeat and syncopated. But what’s funny is that in dancehall the frontman or woman is often quite aggressive and I just felt like that juxtaposition was really funny.”
So then what about making it even weirder by introducing something like Japanese rap and chiptune-inspired glitch into the picture? Cue Sarah, video game talk and colorful, power-packed performances that could induce even the twattiest of assholes to crack a tiny, bonito-sized smile.
And while everything from their auditory to visual aesthetic screams quirk, it’s not in the manufactured indie-bhindi sense. After all, there’s nothing cookie-cutter Coachella about pocket-sized Sarah prancing around stage in a multicolored crinkle headdress.
“I can’t wear the outfits more than twice,” Sarah giggles. “When I do I start to get a new idea and spend all my time making that outfit and then it’s our next gig and…”
Moving a mile a minute, she continues to chirp that it’s all DIY, which makes sense as handmade fashion runs in the family.
“My mom used to study fashion,” she explains playfully. “Last time I bought a kimono and asked my mom really nicely to make me a t-shirt kimono and then I added all the decorations on top.”
She pauses to think for a second, a finger resting on her chin, “It’s just kind of a mash-up.”
But mash-up is definitely a good way to describe KKB’s entire globe-trotting aesthetic. A savory metaphor that aptly describes the way they cherry-pick and combine everything into one big melting pot-style stew of bubbly, candy-colored pop.
It’s an aesthetic that isn’t unfamiliar to those acquainted with the odd mystery culture surrounding future-kitsch production collective PC Music, who KKB play with from time to time.
“I think generally we’re quite bored with this cerebral indie aesthetic,” Gus shakes his head. “We just wanted to do something different. You can boil down all of PC Music and KKB down to that. A kind of step away from textural think music.”
And even though most of PC Music’s critics attack what they presume is a “lack of substance” within the music, it’s much more than just bubblegum, energy drinks and baby pink gloss.
“I try and use these fun things, talking about horses, Tomb Raider or babies, and like then put a deep meaning behind it,” Sarah explains simply when prompted about her writing process. “I just kind of want to hide them behind fun topics and build it up from there.”
Gus nods and chimes in, “It doesn’t compromise the fun vibe, but it still means something.”
The same ethos applies to the group’s lack of concern for what’s trendy in the blogosphere at the moment. It’s more that they’re focused on combining what hasn’t been combined before. Exploring, shape-shifting and creating. Because while they may seem like physical manifestations of Internet culture and a group that stubbornly eschews side-eyed judgement, they don’t think it’s meant in the snarky, #sadwave way that cues smirks and cans of Arizona iced tea.
“There’s a big Tumblr culture that we’re not plugged into, but can appreciate,” Gus shrugs. “It represents this kind of hyper-pollination of culture and media. And Tumblr is the manifestation of that, but I think that’s just true of all new media.”
Instead, they like to think of it as a reference to their love of everything from pandza to pentatonic scales.
“I think one of them is that me and Jamie are interested in trans-global rap, as ridiculous as that sounds,” Gus apologizes. “But we’re also interested in like Chinese stuff. Like we went through the Chinese equivalent of Myspace looking for rappers. We’re really into like African stuff. Korean music definitely. Just international.”
The Japan-centric vibe of KKB just happened to mostly be the product of circumstance. Before Sarah’s arrival, the group was also helped by longtime friend and collaborator Ken Kobayashi, who helped the duo with translations and navigating the cultural sphere of Japan.
This was all just bolstered by the fact that both Jamie and Gus felt a distinct affinity with the Japanese consumer culture that was so prevalent for any self-proclaimed “child of the nineties.”
“We grew up when that stuff was everywhere,” Gus explains. “Nintendo, Pokémon and all that.”
The timing also just happened to work out alright as, “Our generation now is reacting to this quite serious music with playfulness.” Gus pauses to ponder the idea for a second. “We’re looking back to our childhood as a source of playfulness and it just so happens that it’s very Japanese influenced.”
And it’s how the affable trio has managed to connect to a wider community of chiptune-loving, anime-watching, Ramune-guzzling musicians from around the world, such as Brooklyn-based chordslayer Maxo and Canadian electro-hunk Ryan Hemsworth.
“These things are just linked up in this way,” Gus laughs. “What’s craziest is that I’ll talk to people like Spazzkid or Meishi Smile in LA and we can have the same conversation about Snowboard Kids or Super Mario 64. We’re in America and the UK, but we share that culture.”
He and Jamie pause to look at each other, and then at Sarah. It’s a moment of silent agreement between the three of them. A group of friends brought together over a love of the weird, wonderful and wacky idea of the world wide web.
“You can ask questions like, ‘Oh you’re really into Japanese rap or Burmese rap,’ but if you’ve been listening to it for a year or two, it’s just so ordinary to you,” Jamie demurs as the other two nod, a smile slowly creeping in from the corner of his mouth. “It becomes not so strange.”