CHAI is a 4-piece Japanese pop group going against the conventions set up for them.. Often referred to as J-Pop, the Japanese pop scene often centers around idols, or girls with harsh beauty standards and plastic pop all around the cultural standard of being cute, or kawaii in Japanese. Playing with the formula of the commercialized, infamous scene of Japanese girl groups comes Chai’s band philosophy of Neo Kawaii, or new cute, as they stand up to Japanese (and subsequently global) beauty standards and asks what “kawaii” even means in an industry and society so set on marketing women & music as a product. The group released their first album “Pink” in 2017 to largely positive reactions. With a message of positivity, happiness, and self-love, CHAI sing about what they find more important in life like eating, playing, and just having fun.
The group played the 2018 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas and we had a chance to talk with them after the festival wrapped up.
You just finished a string of shows in the US including a few for SXSW. I understand this was your second time playing the festival, what’s been your favorite part about being in Austin?
Last year we only performed at the Japan Nite showcase but this year we joined the lineup for the Burger Records’ showcase which had nothing to do with being Japanese so we were happy to be able to perform simply as just “musicians”. It was so exciting!
Have you found that your music and live shows are perceived differently in the US than in Japan?
American audiences give more of a direct reaction! It makes us happy to see the audience dancing and enjoying themselves!
How did you all come together to form CHAI? What musical background did each of the members have before coming together?
When we were little, we loved Jpop (Japanese Pop Music) and Mana and Kana always wanted to be singers since they were young.
Before forming CHAI, we were all friends!
What have been some of the major influences for you four musical or otherwise?
We have sooo many!!! The XX, Basement Jaxx, Tom Tom Club, CSS, Passion Pit, Justice…too many to count!
When CHAI was formed, what vision did you have for the group, and how has that changed?
At first we were doing music as a “fun” thing and just playing around but 2 years ago is when we officially decided to do it on a full-scale professionally. It was during that time that our message of “NEOKawaii” and “Complexes Are Art” were born.
How did the dynamic of twins Mana and Kana affect the course of the group?
Our personalities are totally different so we never really thought about that～
However, the harmony between the twins is precise and amazing!
Japan has historically had a large gap between mainstream and underground artists. How do you view your place in the middle of this scene?
Actually, we’ve never really thought about that～
CHAI wants to be the 3rd most invincible band in the world!
In 2017 you released Pink, your first full-length release. How did you come to get involved with Burger Records, and how was it working with an American label?
Burger Records found us on YouTube and FB-messaged us asking if we’d like to join their Burger World Japan compilation.
Burger Records founders, Sean and Lee, are full of love and kept telling us that we were #1. We really love them! Once it was time for our US tour to come to an end, it was so hard to say goodbye, and we cried a lot!
How was your approach to this record different for you four from the previous two EPs?
Usually when we create music, we are influenced by music that is stimulating us the most at that particular moment.
This was our first time making an album, however, like a lead actor or lead part is to a movie, we really put all the songs that we felt were the best together in the record.
Pink focuses on female empowerment, through the philosophy of “neo kawaii”. How would you describe this message?
Society often defines “cute” as having lighter skin, larger eyes, or being slim…but we thought how narrow-minded this is…we wanted everyone to know that, “Not that! But that everyone is cute as they are!
Why is this issue important to you as a group?
In the past, we’ve also had many negative experiences but thinking to yourself, “I am cute!” makes you more confident in yourself.
Do you view this as an especially Japanese problem, or something more global?
Yes!!!!! A global issue!
Looking back a now few months after the release of “Pink”, how have you seen this message and the album as a whole received?
When we were on tour, we really felt like a lot of the people had already listened to our album and were waiting for us!
When we would say, “NEOKawaii” during our MC portion of the shows, everyone got really excited and we thought, “They get it! Transmitted!”
I understand that Yuuki designed all of the merch associated with “Pink”, how was it translating CHAI’s unique sound into visuals?
The cover for our PINK album is our theme, exactly, “woman”…we are the Goddesses’ of complexes.
Once you change your complexes into confidence, you become flexible or open enough to even pick your nose!
CHAI have a new EP coming soon which they’ve promised to be filled with “Today’s CHAI” In the meantime, check out their 2017 record “Pink”video for their latest single “Future” below, filled with all things Pink and neo-kawaii.
by Jackson Tucker
Photos by Christian Senf