Interview with Ningen Isu
How often have you found yourself mesmerised by new music lately? Yes, true, it’s important to listen to new music, whether it’s new bands or old stuff you didn’t know. Still... It’s been years I have not been so enthusiastic for an active band I didn’t know existed. One listens to a lot of new music, goes to gigs, but very seldom one feels the same emotions each one of us had “when it all started”.
As often happens, it all started by chance: I’ve never been a fan of Eastern culture, so there’s no way (or maybe there was?) I could have approached this band if not as a joke. And so it was. A friend of mine sent us a link in one of the very few useful WhatsApp groups I’m part of, and the link was to a song titled “Heartless Scat” from a band none of us had heard before. Yet this band has millions of views on YouTube, and my friend goes: “check it out, aren’t the bassist faces funny?”
Two months and counting since I got stuck with this band who’s been around for over 30 years and never gave up. No, I’m not talking about Anvil (although they do make an appearance in the post you’re reading), but about Ningen Isu, hailing from Japan.
“So f*cking what?” I heard you saying so. Nevertheless, I’ll carry on.
The band actually got some press in 2013 when they took part in OzzFest Japan (it couldn’t be otherwise as they’re referred to as “Japanese Black Sabbath”). But it was still a local thing, not an international phenomenon. The fact they don’t sing in English obviously doesn’t help.
What brings me, my friend and other millions of hard rock fans towards Ningen Isu is YouTube’s infamous algorithm which, for once, instead of recommending us some horrible stuff… did hit the target. If you read the comments to the video of “Heartless Scat”, the song that started my infatuation with Ningen Isu and still gives me chills when I listen to it, you’ll find out all users say more or less the same thing: thank you, YouTube, for bringing me here.
The video of the song was released in May 2019 and it has reached almost four million and a half views so far.
So, what’s so special about this song? First, we’re talking about a power trio devoted to the purest and most visceral hard rock and heavy metal. It’s not a coincidence we can hear direct connections (sometimes very direct: towards the end of the song one can clearly hear “Into the Void”) with the absolute masters Black Sabbath.
Here you won’t find flirts with stoner and psychedelic sounds, nor any type of modern contamination. It seems Ningen Isu have arrived straight from 1972 but… they don’t sound obvious nor old. Their songs are quite long for a band devoted to classic heavy rock, with an average of six-seven minutes each.
How do they remain fresh and interesting? Because, give or take, each song contains some unpredictable and very well placed changes in atmosphere, so the whole thing remains enthralling from start to finish. Riffs are almost always very powerful and the groove has a great impact.
My first reaction was a continuous surprise: how can you put TWO guitar solos in a eight-minute song based on three-four one-punchier-than-the-other riffs, whilst singing in Japanese (totally non-comprehensible of course) but adding an effective chorus where words seem to be uttered by kids?
But most importantly, how can you do all the above and be authoritative and not tacky in 2019? Such a big challenge.
The video itself is a treat: a very peculiar atmosphere for those who, like me, have never loved Eastern culture too much. Simple yet effective stage costumes and a pleasant sense of alienation guide you through the whole video.
We’ll talk about the mimics of the musicians later, especially the ones of the bassist, but I can say from the start that if you pick any of the videos they’ve released since 2015 you won’t be disappointed.
And since I recently landed at Mat2020, where I am lucky enough to be able to talk about a lot of different genres, interact with the bands I like, and most importantly, having noticed there’s no interview in Italian with our Japanese heroes… I got in contact with them and they accepted: the interview above is the first Italian interview with Ningen Isu ever published. What follows is the English translation of the interview.
Spoiler: there’s a hidden gem for those of you who love Italian prog rock from the ‘70s.
Let’s wrap up this (too) long intro by saying that, thanks to the success of their videos, Ningen Isu will be touring Europe for the first time in February 2020. This represents their first tour outside of Japan, and they’ll be in Germany and the UK for three dates.
A little milestone for a great band that never gave up and has a lesson for all of us: only those who persist and persevere in following their heart and their goals will get a reward at the end.
Interview with Ningen Isu
Shinji will be answering all the questions
Let’s get the usual round of presentations: Who are you, and what’s your role in the band?
Shinji Wajima, guitar and vocals. Kenichi Suzuki, bass and vocals. Nobu Nakajima, drums and backing vocals.
Another classic: What does your name, Ningen Isu, mean? Where does the idea come from?
From the beginning of the band, we decided the concept was to sound like Black Sabbath with Japanese lyrics. We wanted to use scary Japanese words for the band name, but in Japan we don’t have the concepts of God and Satan like Christian cultures have.
So we named our band after a novel of Ranpo Edogawa which both myself and Kenichi really like, called “The Human Chair”. Ranpo Edogawa is a writer of horror, fantasy and detective novels. “Ningen Isu” is a novel about a man who hides himself in a chair to feel the bodies on top of him.
A nerd question: How did you learn how to play your instruments? You’ve all been in music for the majority of your lives. What was the thing that started the fire and got you into playing at first, and how did you perfect your craft over the years?
We are all self-taught musicians, and have studied how to play the instruments by ourselves. We were impressed by the rock music from America and Europe and we wanted to play like them. Therefore, our playing style is similar to hard rock from the ‘70s. Even though music in general music has been changing a lot since then, we think the music of that period of time is the best, so we still try to play in that way.
Your lyrics are as important as your music, and for what I can understand it’s where your Japanese soul is best represented. Who writes them, and what’s in them?
The lyrics are written by myself and Suzuki, although I have been writing lyrics in greater amounts, generally speaking. Our lyrics deal with topics such as the incompatibility with reality, the pain of living, and extraordinary things in general, which occur in space or in hell, etc. Instead of talking about these topics in a negative way, I write about them to “save” and dignify them. Buddhist terms are often used as we’re from Asia.
Did you do any particular studies? One can guess there’s a certain “spiritual” aspect in your music and lyrics.
I read a lot of books, something which guides me as a sort of methodology when I write lyrics. Real experiences from life are also a big hint. So yes, there might be spiritual aspects in our lyrics. I’ve also had psychic and UFO experiences, so I do talk about these occult subjects too. Having studies Buddhism at university might also have influenced me.
I also read that you’re singing in “Tsugaru”, a Japanese dialect. How come? Why did you decide not to stick to “regular” Japanese? If singing in Japanese was not enough, this choice sets you apart even more stunningly (and even in your own country).
First of all, I decided not to sing in English because I thought that by singing in our native language we would have been more persuasive. The feeling is more sincere. Also, I thought it would have been more interesting to sing in “Tsugaru” even though we had an inferiority complex, thinking we might have been labelled as “country folk” for this. Using “Tsugaru” in everyday language would have been something to be ashamed of, but in rock music it was a cool thing to do. In other words, it’s also a way to celebrate our roots. Most of the songs are in Japanese and a few are in “Tsugaru”.
Shinji Wajima’s voice is quite unique. Not the usual heavy metal singer, yet his tone and extension gives your music that special feeling. How do you approach singing?
Thank you for calling it unique. I'm not that good at singing, but I want to sing with my heart. When Japanese rock singers sing songs in Japanese, they often use an English accent or tend to speak fast, but I try not to do so and speak “proper” Japanese. I also avoid extreme colloquial styles of lyrics as it becomes obsolete with the times.
Shinji is not the only singer in the band. What’s the role of Kenichi Suzuki (bass) and Nobu Nakajima (drums) when it comes to singing?
The person who came up with the idea for the backbone of the song sings it. Because each song is the cry of the person's heart, and it seems most natural for him to sing it.
Whilst your lyrics certainly draw from Japanese culture, and so does your stage outfits, your music doesn’t seem to contain a lot of folk or Japanese aspects. It’s bad-ass heavy-rock-proto-metal from the Western part of the world at its fullest (what once was simply referred to as hard rock before all kinds of sub-genres appeared…). Not to say it’s not good (quite the opposite!), just highlighting how the music doesn’t remind the listener of anything “Japanese”. Have you ever thought about adding some special culture-bound melodies to your music?
In general, our sound is similar to rock music, so it’s not so domestic. But sometimes we do use local instruments, if it’s an instrument that we can play.
I have used the yokobue (transverse flute), taishogoto (Japanese harp with three-stringed zither), mokugyo (a wind wooden bell), and so on. The taishogoto sounds like Japanese sitar, so I like it and use it sometimes.
Have you ever thought about singing in English? Will it happen in the coming future?
I decided to sing in Japanese from the very beginning, so that happened without hesitation. I think I will not sing in English in the future because it is natural to write and sing lyrics in Japanese.
How do your songs come together? What’s the writing process behind them? And has it changed over the years?
We think our music it's traditional hard rock. Of course, I am honored and happy to be called heavy metal. The song is composed of a riff first, then we build the rest of the song around it, the melody, and finally the lyrics. I write the lyrics to best suit the tune. About ten years ago, I started making songs with a clear image of what kind of song I wanted to sing and what kind of topic I wanted to talk about. That way, you don’t get lost in the composition process. I also try to stock fragments of the lyrics for the future.
In any case, the trend of adding lyrics at the end (once the music is finished) has not changed for many years.
Your songs are made up of a few riffs and themes which “seem” to be disconnected from each other, yet this deadly mixture keeps the listener entertained and curious until the end, in pure progressive music fashion. I listen to your music and think “what’s gonna happen now?”, the wait for a surprise is big and I know something cool is about to meet my ears. Each one of your songs contains material for at least three-four songs that a “normal” average rock/metal band would write and record. The presence of more than one guitar solo in the song is also quite interesting and very rare to be heard these days. Yet it’s not about showing off but… it really does fit with the moment and mood of that part of the song. I also noticed this has not changed much since the first album “Ningen Isu”, published in 1989 (!). I believe this is a constant characteristic of your music (Author: Ningen Isu have published 11 studio albums so far).
How did you develop such song structure? What comes first, and how do you decide which riffs “make it” into the final song?
Since I started a band influenced by British hard rock, I make music with riffs first. Once the riff with a punch is completed, we will develop the music around it. With trembling music in mind, I will devise tempo change, key change, etc. It's important to make sure you don't feel uncomfortable with the music, not just stick everything together as it comes. When there is a clear concept, it is expressed from various angles. When putting together a song, guitar solos are second only to songs themselves. In any case, I don't mean to show the technique in a mischievous way, but I try to match it to the music. There was a time when guitar solos disappeared from rock music, but we decided to include them in every song.
Another band that has a similar approach to music, at least on record, is Scotland’s NWOBHM legends Holocaust. Famous all over the world for the hymn “Heavy Metal Mania” and for the awesome cover of “The Small Hours” made by Metallica, John Mortimer’s Holocaust have actually released a few interesting although not-so-famous albums in the ‘90es and early 2000es, such as “Hypnosis of Birds”, “Covenant”, “The Courage To Be” and “Primal”.
Still active these days (check out the latest “Elder Gods”, a true heavy metal gem), Holocaust are one of my all-time favourite bands. Here you can find the Spotify profile of the band:
To my ears, you both share a common attitude of freedom that is not so common to be found in traditional heavy metal music. A very open-mind approach when it comes to composition and how the song is gonna end up.
Holocaust and you are similar to my ears in some way. For example, both bands have a unique attitude towards singing. Not the most impressive voices in terms of range or extension, yet very much “the only ones that fit the music perfectly”.
Another aspect that makes me think about this similarity is the sudden and unexpected change of atmosphere that you both have in your music. Their music is also heavy as f**k, same as yours really, with powerful doom-ish and groovy riffs that will have your head banging in no time.
Lastly, you both have no fear of making “unusual” choices in terms of song structure and length. A very open-minded approach to music.
Do you know Holocaust at all? Is there any other band you can think of when it comes to similarities (other than the obvious ones that are always associated with your music such as Black Sabbath, Budgie etc)?
I don't know the band Holocaust. Excuse me. It is a very interesting group, so I will listen to it. Thank you for calling our music unique. Essentially, expression is something that is free, and only that very person can express himself or herself in that very way.
For example, a picture can only be drawn by one very painter, and if someone else draws the same picture, it is only an imitation. I think rock is a very flexible form of expression in music. The true value of rock music is not a cover song but an original song played by that very person. We are aiming for a sound that only we can do while referring to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
You’ve seen a rise in popularity in recent years. Is that related to any particular events?
I think our appearance at OzzFest Japan in 2013 and 2015 gave us momentum. And I think that the fact that our music and videos are available on YouTube is a big trigger. I appreciate that there is such a medium on a global scale.
How have your lives changed since then?
I became able to live on music. I'm very happy about this, and I am happy that many fans come to see us at the concerts. Now people recognise me in the street and approach me! Still, I do my best not to be arrogant and forget my original intention.
Has this rise in popularity in the world been mirrored by a rise in popularity in Japan too, or were you already quite well known at home already?
We became famous at one time when we debuted, then we were forgotten, and the recognition has been increasing in recent years. We’re not as popular as a pop music band, but we think people who like rock know our name now.
As said, you also took part in the OzzFest Japan 2013 (here’s the video of the gig: https://youtu.be/c0a-U94x6EU. This must have helped you massively I suspect, getting a lot of new people to know your music. How did Ozzy get to notice you? How did the whole thing happen?
Perhaps Ozzy learned about us through his Japanese coordinator. In Japan, we are recognized as playing music that is very close to Black Sabbath, so I think the coordinator pushed us on it.
Who did you share the stage with back then? Any cool anecdotes to share?
At Ozzfest in 2013, I was a band member of Momoiro Clover Z, a Japanese idol group.
Your music videos are becoming increasingly popular. I got into your music for this very same reason: a friend of mine linked me your “Heartless Scat” video, and then I fell in love with you (the video reached 1.5 million views on YouTube in less than two months, and it’s almost at 4.5 million views at the time of writing this. Watch it here: https://youtu.be/CbI79e5iZKs). Is this a common story?
I believe the Internet has helped you massively, which is a good thing: we usually only hear about people complaining about music streaming services and the like, so we have a different story here.
I was surprised by the number of views of "Heartless Scat". This is the first time such a thing has happened to us. I'm really glad that people around the world who love rock can recognize us. We will finally perform overseas for the first time, and I think this video helped us a lot.
The most recent music videos you produced, let’s say from 2015 onwards, are all very similar: one can see the three of you playing with a different background or scenery for each video for the majority of the time, and doing some actions. They’re very simple yet very mesmerizing. I find myself waiting for your next move or expression and this goes together with an excellent musical offering which keeps me (and other YouTube users, if one reads the comments to your videos) entertained and curious for over 5 minutes, which is the average length of your songs. It’s a great achievement in these times of reduced attention span.
How are your videos structured? What’s the idea behind them?
We have been shooting music videos with the same director since 2015. It’s great that you noticed it! We tell the director about the music concept and have several meetings with him. Whether it is a studio or outdoor shooting, we do the music video while being careful not to be in the same background. As the director is always looking for new images, we enjoy working with him.
Your stage presence is nothing like the “usual” heavy metal imaginary we see in Western bands. One can clearly see you’re having the time of your life when you’re playing, still there’s something different if we compare you to “traditional” Western heavy metal bands when it comes to how you present yourself on stage. It almost seems you’re “very serious” about it, but I also suspect there’s a lot of self-irony behind it.
Is this something you thought about and is it part of your characters?
I love heavy rock and just do it, but we do have a complex. That means you can't do it the same way as overseas people. Western people have different looks and body shapes. Oriental people have short legs, so traditional heavy metal clothes don't really suit them. Even if Asians dress up in heavy metal fashion, there's something wrong with them. So we chose to play in traditional Japanese clothing.
Would you describe your three stage personas and outfits, and how did this come together in the first place?
First, the concept of the band is Japanese. I decided to wear the most traditional and common kimono. Even so, Japanese people don't wear kimonos in their daily lives, so they look like stage costumes.
Kenichi Suzuki, bass and vocals, is an evil monk. A depraved priest.
Nobu Nakajima, drummer and backing vocals, wears Koikuchi shirts and baggy pants which Japanese craftsmen wear at Japanese festivals. Wearing something with a design uniquely Japanese, I have an image of a stylish man that I see at Japanese festivals. Because a regent and sunglasses are basically his favorite styles.
Is the kimono something Japanese people use in their everyday life? How is your stage presence and outfit choice perceived in Japan?
Since the introduction of Western culture to Japan about 150 years ago, Japanese people have gradually stopped wearing kimonos. Nowadays, nobody wears kimonos in their daily lives, except for those in special occupations. I think most people don't even have a kimono anymore. On rare occasions, it is worn at New Year's, coming-of-age ceremonies, and weddings, but it is a minority of people doing so, and it is often rented.
In other words, the kimono is now an extraordinary thing. Since it flutters, it shines on stage, but it's not very functional for playing musical instruments, so I try to strip it somehow.
I personally LOVE Kenichi Suzuki’s faces and mimics when he plays. I’m always looking for the next one when watching your videos. Is there a hidden meaning behind them? It’s usually drummers doing crazy faces, but here we have a clear winner.
Kenichi is an ardent fan of Kiss. His performance is heavily influenced by Gene Simmons. In addition, he tries to show disgusting movements and scary expressions as much as possible. I think it's because he wants to express something thrilling in the performance as well as music.
(In the picture below: An overview of some of Kenichi’s best moments from the videos of “Heartless Scat” and “The Colour out of Space”... Can you find his inspiration?)
As said, you’ve gained a lot of popularity recently, and having the band existed since 1987, one cannot but think about another great band who got the recognition they deserved very late in their history. I’m talking about Canadian pioneers Anvil. And once again, it was thanks to some visuals: their former roadie Sacha Gervasi made a documentary about them, and it seems like YouTube and your videos have been helping you getting such popularity. Have you ever thought about this parallelism? What makes you and Anvil similar according to you? And most importantly: Will we ever see a movie or documentary about you?
Our story is similar to Anvil. Even if they didn't sell well, they continued to listen to music, or worked part-time to play their favorite rock. Their movie gave courage to a long-standing band like us (here’s a video of a very young version of Ningen Isu from 1991: https://youtu.be/jMfxLEqiJ3w). We also have movie plans. It is not a documentary, but a live concert held at a hall in Japan at the end of 2019 will be made into a movie with various images. Please check it out when it's done.
It seems very difficult for musicians to be full-time musicians nowadays and earn a living from this activity, and it might be the same for the three of you. What do you do in your “regular” life when not playing with Ningen Isu?
In recent years, I have finally been able to live on music alone. I'm not rich by any means, but I'm very happy to be able to live on my job. I can only thank those who are supporting me.
Your line-up has only seen changes for what concerns the drummers. What’s the secret of such a long-lasting relationship between Shinji Wajima and Kenichi Suzuki (bass and vocals)? I know you’ve been friends since the high school years. I can only say: WOW!
Kenichi and I have known each other since we were junior high school students. I went to a different school, but I got to know him because he liked rock music. After that, we became classmates and friends in high school. I mean, you know how it works.
Playing with him still brings me back to the freshness of my teenage years. Both of us have different personalities, but by playing in a band, we can feel that our youth is continuing.
What’s been driving you in choosing a new drummer each and every time?
I got to know Nakajima Nobu at a concert somewhere. I thought he was a good drummer because there was a groove on eight beats. Our music is also based on the repetition of one same riff (at the time), so I thought his style would suit the band. And Suzuki and I both live close to him!
You’ll be in Europe next February for a 3-date tour in Germany and the UK (check out the promo video: https://youtu.be/OOnm8ognESU). I wish I could fly and see you at one of my favorite all-time venues: the Underworld in London, but I will be traveling in those weeks. Are you excited about this mini-tour? Correct me if I’m wrong: is this the first time you’re touring Europe? What can your fans expect on these three dates? Are you planning to shoot a DVD or record a live CD for this special occasion, marking the 30th anniversary since the foundation of the band?
This is my first time touring abroad, not to mention Europe. For us, it is like playing in the home of rock music, so we are very excited. We want Europeans to listen to our music that adds Japanese taste to hard rock. I'm going to record the live performance on a TV camera. Stay tuned!
Your Black Sabbath influences are undeniable, yet your music is much more than that, of course. As a Sabbath nerd myself, what’s your favorite Black Sabbath album, and why?
“Master of Reality”. The reason is, of course, the coolness of the music, but it's also the first album where they tried downtuning one and a half notes down.
Japan has always been very receptive to a certain type of Italian music: I’m obviously talking about Italian prog rock from the ’70, an era in which we were on top of the world musically speaking. Do you know any great Italian prog rock bands?
Of course I know Italian Prog Music. PFM, Banco, Goblin... I was influenced by Goblin. The intro of "Heartless Scat" is an homage to them.
I’m wondering if you were influenced by any other Japanese metal (or rock, or whatever) band at all?
We are not so influenced by Japanese bands. I think we are quite unique. But I do have friends among Japanese musicians, of course. The bands Outrage and Kinniku Shōjo Tai are old friends.
One thinks about Japanese heavy metal and at least three bands come to mind: Loudness, X-Japan and BABYMETAL. What do you think about them?
I think Loudness is a heavy metal band that Japan is proud of. They gave other musicians a lot of courage, also related to advancing overseas. I had the honor of sharing the stage with Loudness once. The style of Takasaki Akira I could witness that night was wonderful. I have never seen a Japanese play the guitar in such a precise, punchy and rock way like that.
What’s the current status of the heavy metal scene in Japan? Any cool bands we should be checking out?
The success of BABYMETAL is remarkable. Whether you call them real heavy metal or not is up for debate, but it’s undeniable that they’ve been revitalizing Japan's heavy metal scene. I think heavy metal bands by women are very energetic.
There’s dozens of interviews you did online in recent years, and all of them end up containing, with different degrees of accuracy, more or less the same questions (this one makes no exception of course). I’m wondering: is there anything you always wanted people to ask you but never happened? This is your “I ask myself a question” moment!
If you ask about our favourite food… All of us love rice.
Did you think the band would have lasted this long when you started off?
I wanted to live my life doing what I liked, but I never thought I'd go this far. I really love to write and play music.
What would be the coronation of your career?
We were popular for about two years after our debut, and then it got stagnant. I was poor for about 20 years, and sales were not good. The number of fans started to increase around 2013, and finally it all got busy. It’s been the busiest and most fulfilling career in the last years.
What do you consider to be your best album? The one you’re most satisfied with?
The first album "Ningen Shikkaku" and "Sin Seinen", published in 2019. I am most satisfied with "Sin Seinen".
Last question: What does “shabadabadia shabadabadia babababa” mean? Sorry if I’m misspelling this! :-) Trusting YouTube’s translation’s entirely.
In “Heartless Scat”, I wanted to sing about the feelings of unrewarded people. When people are in deep distress, they have no words to say, but sigh and weep. I used the word “scat” (excrement) to express a situation where there is no word. And music is actually hope. People are humming when they do something (Author: such as “shabadabadia” and “lululu”), and that's the proof of life. In “Heartless Scat”, "I" sang a song about wanting to live even though I was left speechless.
Million thanks Ningen Isu!
(Pics credits: http://ningen-isu.com)