Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Nine Songs

Unstoppable girl gang CHAI talk Orla Foster through the songs that emboldened their inspirational neo kawaii mindset.

22 September 2023, 08:00 | Words by Orla Foster

Japanese four-piece CHAI are making the kind of music they wish they could have heard growing up.

Packed with chaotic synths and feelgood messages, the Sub Pop-signed quartet’s songs are an antidote to all the negative messaging they absorbed during adolescence. Now, they celebrate being unique – harnessing their combined powers for good while kitted out in candy-pink jumpsuits.

As two sets of identical twins, Mana, Kana, Yuuki and Yuna got together in their home city of Nagoya playing J-pop covers at after-school societies. Once their musical taste evolved, so did their band: soon they were trading pop standards for a sound that spliced garage-punk with new wave, disco and hip-hop. CHAI is tied together by the ethos of "neo kawaii": a reclamation of self-esteem and beauty standards.

Meeting me to discuss the band's favourite songs, lead singer Mana explains how CHAI place neo kawaii at the heart of all they do, their lyrics rejecting the pressure placed on women to be perfect. Their aesthetic embraces a sugary-sweet aesthetic, but with an edge: their lips might be pasted with glittery lipstick, but they'll frown or squint at the camera if they want to, and couldn't care less if a hair is out of place.

"With neo kawaii, we wanted to create a new compliment that includes everybody, that applies to everyone and anyone, ever since they were born," Mana explains. "We want to be very confident first of all in who we are, and the fact that we are neo kawaii. Then we can convey that message out to the fans."

This concept dominates their self-titled fourth album. Songs like "FROM 1992" laugh in the face of ageing ("More wrinkles than yesterday, I don't care!") while "LIKE, I NEED" reminds listeners that instead of coveting social media approval, you can simply "like" yourself. Elsewhere, "I Can’t Organize" resists the obligation to "grow up" and bin childhood keepsakes. Human connection, junk food and memories are what really sparks joy for the band.

While much of the new album was written on tour, home was never far from their thoughts: the tracks are strewn with Japanese cultural references such as the mindfulness required to prepare matcha tea, the catharsis of a good karaoke session, and nostalgic riffs off forgotten dance trends and songs they heard on the radio growing up. CHAI even takes its main musical cues from city pop, a genre originating in 1970s Tokyo.

Mana keeps these themes in mind when talking me through the band's selections. Their list is driven by disco beats but tempered with syrupy-smooth melodies and earnest, heartfelt lyrics. New wave classics sit comfortably alongside electronic cuts, while starry-eyed power ballads rub shoulders with recycled funk samples. It's an eclectic, endorphin-heavy list – and if the choruses are shoutable, it's all the better.

“Whip It” by Devo

"CHAI are very influenced by Devo, especially their visual aesthetics. You know how they all wear that same yellow boiler suit? That's what inspired us to all wear the same pink outfit when we're on stage," says Mana. "And with this song in particular, we loved the music video so much too. We thought it was really surrealistic but very funny the way they were going round whipping people, and that's the kind of nuance which is on our minds when we're making our own videos."

Not content to simply stand in a line playing instruments, CHAI also seized upon Devo's synchronised dance routines as a way of getting fans involved. Unlike some of the J-pop bands they grew up listening to, they've come to value a sense of amateurism over polished perfection. "Actually, none of CHAI are very good dancers, but we like to come up with our own choreography sometimes," she says. "A lot of the dances we do are two-step, like in 'Para Para', because we want the steps to be easy for people to replicate. The most important thing is to keep it simple."

Alongside the matching overalls, dance moves and appetite for surrealism, Mana was also fascinated by the concept of a band representing a single organism. "Devo's gang mentality, and the sense of being one group, a unified collective, has had a huge impact on the way we function as a band. Devo wouldn't be Devo with just one member, and it's exactly the same for CHAI."

“Jump n' Shout” by Basement Jaxx

CHAI are omnivorous and obsessive when it comes to music. Once they find a track they love, it'll go on repeat for the long haul. "Right before we go on stage, this is what I'll be listening to," Mana says of "Jump n' Shout". "It gets my adrenaline going. All four of us have loved Basement Jaxx right from the beginning. I remember someone saying to us, 'Oh, you guys sound like Basement Jaxx,' and from there we decided we wanted to create music like theirs, but as a full band. That happens a lot; someone close to us, or from one of the communities we're part of, will make a recommendation, and we'll look up the artist and listen to every song."

Long before the band were signed, this track was the lightning rod that drove them to take more risks with their sound, allowing their creativity to run riot after a high school career spent hashing out covers at talent shows. "Back when we were teenagers, we only played once a month inside the school, along with all the other bands from 'rock club', as we called it," she recalls. "A little later we entered a nationwide competition, but even by that stage we were still a J-pop group covering other people's songs, so it was nothing like the band we are now."

“Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads

"The first time I heard 'Psycho Killer' was right after COVID. Up until that point, we were all obsessed with Tom Tom Club so I was browsing similar artists on Spotify. This was obviously the first song that came up and I was shocked by how amazing it sounded. We're all huge fans of new wave, and we actually thought Tom Tom Club were the face of it, but after we discovered Talking Heads, we shifted to them. They're the most new wave band around! When I hear this, it takes me back to when COVID had just started and I was really struggling to think about what music we could do next once we were finally allowed to perform live for our friends again.

"But above anything, we're heavily inspired by the performance side. Since the first time I saw the movieStop Making Sense, I've been a huge fan of the way David Byrne presents himself on stage. For example, the eye contact that he makes, his outfits with the shoulder pads, the timings, and all those little details, like when he kind of shrugs his shoulders. The production and the whole staging aspect of those performances really make me think he's a genius." Showmanship is important for CHAI too. For their Tiny Desk concert, the band emerged in huge hooded teal smocks covered in tassels, only to fling them off to reveal pink cheerleader outfits underneath. She laughs at the memory. "We really do enjoy thinking of those little gimmicks on stage, and whenever we're planning it, we definitely have Talking Heads in mind!"

“How Deep Is Your Love” by Bee Gees

I'm curious to hear how CHAI went about whittling their list down to nine tracks – were there any selections that Mana had to fight for? She tells me that actually the band are pretty much in sync when it comes to merging their music collections. "We all have different tastes, but bands like Talking Heads, DEVO and Basement Jaxx unite all four of us, so it wasn't difficult compiling this list," she says. "There are so many bands we all really respect and love together.

"However, this track was chosen by me. 'How Deep Is Your Love' is my all-time favourite song ever. There's that beautiful melody which I really love and am heavily influenced by any time I'm writing. For example, 'Donuts Mind If I Do' from our WINK album came out of listening to the Bee Gees."

While 'Donuts Mind If I Do' might echo the woozy, lovestruck melodies of the Gibb brothers, there's a crucial difference: the object of desire here is a snack. "The two things we most enjoy writing about are 1) our insecurities, and 2) food," Mana says, laughing. In CHAI's world, romantic overtures to sugar-coated pastries are as valid as any schmaltzy serenade.

“My Love for You” by ESG

Besides digging deep into the archives, CHAI were just as keen to include tracks that remind them of their life together as a band: those moments of shared euphoria when, watching a festival set, they might catch each other's eye, aware that they are witnessing something special. ESG are a case in point. "We saw ESG for the first time at SXSW, and we all loved the funk vibe when they were performing. Also the fact they're a family as well as a band is really interesting to us," says Mana. Like CHAI, the Scroggins sisters were teenagers playing talent shows when they first started out.

The band members are also huge fans of ESG's experimental approach, and how they can arrive at a warm, expansive sound out of seemingly minimal arrangements. It's this dynamic which inspired the track "NEO KAWAII, K" on their new album. "With ESG, we especially like the fact that there are so few sounds in their entire sonic atmosphere. But the phrasing of the bass and drum, along with the melodies, have made a huge impression on us, so we listen to them a lot when writing our own material – a lot of those jump phrases and bass phrases. You know, after you hear it one time, you never forget it – especially on this track. It all starts with the bass."

“Sweet Memories” by Seiko Matsuda

"This is actually a very, very famous song in Japan. Even though it's from 1983, you still see comedians and impersonators on TV covering it, and whenever they show top tens from the 1980s this song will be included," Mana explains. "When I was younger, my mom used to always sing it in the car when we were driving somewhere. That's the biggest memory I have of it, from being a child. You know, it's a beautiful, cheesy kind of pop song, but the lyrics are about unrequited love. So it's a dated, sad song, but the chords make it timeless."

With gloopy synths and a music video dominated by diamond earrings and crisp ball gowns, the song captures a sense of decadence associated with Bubble Era Japan, when Tokyo's glittering skylines promised a sophisticated, upwardly-mobile future that can only feel curious and remote to millennials rewatching old clips on YouTube forty years later.

"'Sweet Memories' was released during a time when Japan's economy was good and the country was financially very active," Mana notes. "During that era, Japanese music was so sparkly. There was a popular genre called 'city pop' whose melodies we've been working to incorporate into our own songs. It comes from a city we weren't even born in (Tokyo), but we all grew up listening to this kind of music, so reflecting these influences into our new album came naturally. We're all really nostalgic people, so listening to Seiko Matsuda makes me contemplate that era in Japan, and what a glamorous generation she belonged to. But personally, it's also a song that makes me think of my mum yelling 'get in the car!!!'"

“Alala” by CSS

"CSS are another band that have had a huge influence on us since the beginning," says Mana. "When we released our first album, we used to open shows covering CSS. I've always been a huge fan of Lovefoxxx as a performer, and I remember when I saw them play this song live, she was wearing a rainbow bodysuit and had so much punk attitude. We also like the concept that someone could get 'tired of being sexy'." Body positivity and self-acceptance are, after all, what sparked CHAI to explore their 'neo-kawaii' concept.

"Growing up in Nagoya, the only people considered cute, popular or beautiful had big curly fancy hair, and make-up that made their eyes look really big," she explains, motioning a few inches above her head as if to pat a cascade of carefully-coiffed waves. "Strange city that Nagoya is! Well, in fact the whole country was like that. According to Japanese mass-media, girls can only be considered 'kawaii' if they have nice big eyes, a nice slender nose, and are really skinny. We were made to feel as if we were not kawaii, which had a really big effect on our self-esteem. But at the same time, we strongly felt there was a part of each of us that is kawaii, and that's what we want to express."

Lovefoxxx's vocals are stamped indelibly onto Mana's brain too. "This song in particular made a big impression on me. Whenever I write those kind of rap-style lyrics for CHAI, I'm usually referencing 'Alala'. Actually, when I first heard the song, I thought it was a little child singing – that's how fresh it sounded to my ears!"

“T.O.R.N.A.D.O” by The Go! Team

"The Go! Team is another band that has really influenced CHAI from when we first started out, especially since they have a lot of multiple vocals and it really sounds like there's a big group of people singing. That's a huge part of our music as well: when we're in the studio we always record multiple vocals, usually double, to make it sound like a big collective that's singing instead of just one single voice," Mana explains. "I started listening to this song when we were making our first album PINK. I realised this is exactly the kind of band we want to be. As for the lyrics, I have no idea what any of them mean! For me it's more about the way it sounds – like a crowd of cheerleaders, cheering you on.

"When we started writing our own songs, we weren't deliberately using a mixture of both English and Japanese – it was just about whichever language suited a word phonetically in the song. Whatever sounded good, we just went with it. We didn't make some conscious decision that because we're an international band, we should incorporate both Japanese and English.

"But for our new album, we were thinking about it a little more, because we really want to reach more of a global audience this time around. Maybe it's slowly becoming a conscious decision for us! Either way, I don't think it makes a difference if people don't understand exactly what every lyric means. I look at the expressions of people in the audience and I can already feel that there's a lot of energy there. Music is the universal language and it really doesn't matter whether it's in Japanese or English."

“Everyday People” by Sly & The Family Stone

It's that belief in a universal language which leads Mana to the band's final selection, Sly & the Family Stone's 1968 ode to equality, "Everyday People". The song's simplistic rhyme structure and appeal for people to forget their differences and come together add up to a message which Mana heavily relates to. With new track "Driving22", CHAI expresses a similar sentiment: "All skin colours gathering / Imperfect sing-along (That's so nice)".

"I first heard this song through the sample in the Arrested Development song 'People Everyday,'" she remembers. "But then I saw the Woodstock documentary. I was watching Sly & the Family Stone performing this song in the movie, and before I knew what was happening, I found myself in tears."

"It really moves me that the lyrics talk about no matter what you're doing, whoever you are, we're all everyday people," she continues. "And no matter what happens, we're all going to be moving on and living this life together. What an amazing message!"

CHAI’s new self-titled LP is out today via Sub Pop. Find CHAI on Instagram and catch them on their UK tour in November.

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