Kero Kero Bonito’s Radical Positivity Pop
Appropriately enough, Kero Kero Bonito got their start on the internet. In 2013, school friends Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled posted an advertisement on an ex-pat message board in hopes of finding a Japanese singer in London who wanted to be in a band. They met their match in Sarah Perry, then a fellow university student who grew up in Japan and shared their omnivorous music taste, affection for video games, and pan-global pop vision. It’s a series of events that’s alluded to on “Big City,” a song from the trio’s official debut album, Bonito Generation, which comes out tomorrow: “It’s true/ I was kinda lonely at first,” Perry sings in her smooth, matter-of-fact cadence. “So I took life in my own hands/ Got a haircut, joined a band/ And it turned out alright.”
The group has been grounded by Perry’s level-headedness since the release of their first mixtape, Intro Bonito, in 2014. Those songs served as a proper introduction to the band’s bright, technicolor sound, and acted as a playground for the three of them to experiment with meshing together videogame-inspired beats, J-pop, ’90s bubblegum, and canonically lame cuts from the early ’00s. Kero Kero Bonito project an effortless cool, and on that first tape, Perry used her platform to rap about serious issues like gender roles (“Sick Beat“), societal expectations (“Homework“), and even death (“Pocket Crocodile,” by way of a sick Tamagotchi). But, above all that, the band has a propulsive sense of fun, and they avoid sounding preachy or melodramatic by injecting humor and playfulness into every aspect of their music.
But it’s that knowing streak that balances out the flightier side of the KKB equation, and it’s a combination that’s been perfected on Bonito Generation, which pairs the group’s penchant for easy-going hooks with songs that navigate what it means to be a young person in a world that has become increasingly jaded, pessimistic, and disenfranchised. Their music is self-aware but wholly unironic, and it’s anxious in a way that recognizes when things are wrong but feels powerless to enact change. But instead of feeling discouraged by that fact of life, Kero Kero Bonito manage to sound emboldened and determined to make the most out of everyday disappointments. Or, as they say on “Trampoline“: “First you fall down/ Then you jump back up again,” an easier-said-than-done mantra that KKB make sound infinitely appealing and possible.
The road to their debut has been a long one. I first talked to the trio in October 2015 when they were in the middle of their first-ever North American tour, and then again last month while they were shooting a video for “Trampoline” and prepping the release of the official debut. The first time we spoke, they were still figuring out what kind of statement they wanted to make with their first full-length, and grappling with what it even means to make an album in an age when music consumption culture is largely based around singles.
“The structure of an album feels so arbitrary nowadays when you could just release a new track every few weeks and everyone will listen to it, rather than putting out 10 cool tracks but not having people [listen to] those hit ones because they are only willing to take in so much at once,” Bulled said at the time. “I think precision is more important than ever. The pop infrastructure that’s in place now — with the video and the single and the campaign and all that other stuff — can be as deep and exciting as an album in some ways. It’s about making the most of the best.”
So that’s exactly what KKB did. They released a string of singles over the past two years — “Flamingo,” “Build It Up,” “Picture This,” “Chicken,” “Lipslap,” and “Break,” with memorable videos for the latter two — and each felt like its own event, complete with a fully realized concept, art direction, and message.
Their close, astute reading of the contemporary pop landscape and what makes it tick extends further than their precise rollout mechanisms. The trio are highly conscious of how their glossy aesthetic fits into a larger context: “We’re making ‘pop music,’ but it’s really just indie music,” Lobban explains. “It’s ‘technically good pop music’ by some crazy objective pop standard, but it’s not actually pop music at all. Indie people feel like they’re not validated unless they’re somehow subsumed into the pop marketplace. That’s why you have this trend of indie artists writing for other people — Tame Impala working with Lady Gaga, or Rostam [Batmanglij working with Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen].
“Maybe it’s a commercial thing — that you can’t actually make a living unless you do that — but it would be the most amazing thing in the world for a band like us to have a legit crossover hit in the way that Joy Division did when they broached the Top 20 when they were on Factory Records,” he continues. “But a band that is the equivalent of that now would be a Bandcamp underdog. It’s interesting… You’d think nowadays that it would be easier to accept a crossover, but I don’t think it is. It’s actually really hard. Pop music is totally delineated.”
Kero Kero Bonito use the trappings of pop excess and hyper-realism in a decidedly do-it-yourself fashion, in hopes of perhaps bridging the gap between the two spheres. “I’ve noticed this over the past year doing KKB stuff more than any other time: Fame, money, and actual quasi-measurable cultural contribution are almost entirely unrelated,” Lobban says. “The shows we get paid the most money for are weird, corporate shows. But the things we do that mean the most, like ‘Flamingo’ — that was just a free, cool song [included on one of Ryan Hemsworth’s Secret Songs compilations.] The most famous artists are probably the ones that have really nailed balancing all those things. I think KKB are dedicated to making a valuable cultural contribution, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.”
One of the best tracks on their new album, “Heard A Song,” serves as a meta-commentary on the mainstream pop world, specifically as it relates to radio. “The gap between pop as admired by connoisseurs and by the public is huge,” Lobban says. “For instance, “One Dance“: I don’t know anyone that would profess a love for that song, but it’s the biggest song in the UK right now by such a long distance.”
“Heard A Song” synthesizes pop’s recent obsession with dancehall house into KKB’s unique sound, turning radio’s homogeneity into a strength: “I just put the radio on/ Heard a song, I can’t stop thinking ’bout it/ Though it didn’t last very long/ It’s in my head,” Perry sings. “Plus I didn’t catch who it was/ But it sorta sounded like a big hit/ Are you gonna play it some more?/ Guess I’ll keep on listening…”
It’s that sort of smart songwriting that makes Kero Kero Bonito a step above the rest. Beyond a pitch-perfect collection of pop songs, Bonito Generation has larger aspirations. It aims to address the segment of the population that feels discouraged by a shrinking job market, the rising cost of living, and the bleak reality of a political system that is becoming more polarized worldwide. “There’s a lot of chat about our generation and what we’re up against,” Lobban says. “No one really hears it from the people. There’s a big conversation going on about how people live in big cities now, especially young people in London, but no one actually knows what it’s like. It really is a record for our people. I think people are quick to dismiss young people but, by quite some measure, we’re the most progressive generation that’s ever walked the face of the earth, so I wouldn’t be so quick to judge all of them.”
The generation that Kero Kero Bonito envisions is one based around radical positivity and inclusivity, brought together by the interconnectedness and accessibility of the internet. “Flamingo,” is about accepting people of all stripes and creeds; on “Picture This,” they make taking a selfie sound like an act of defiance. These messages are threaded throughout songs that sound light on the surface, and it’s only once you start to really dig into them that you realize how revolutionary the KKB ethos feels. And while they’re a pointedly political band, they never start with any agenda in mind: “We end up writing stuff that is very political, but if you start the other way around, you’re just leaving out the music and that sucks,” Bulled explains. “The best pop music is self-evident.”
And, indeed, Kero Kero Bonito’s music speaks for itself. They have an unfailing optimism that bleeds through at every corner, all while acknowledging the many ways in which society has set us up to fail. “I used to think that the world was so positive and that whatever adults tell you is the truth,” Perry says. “You watch cartoons and there’s good guys and a bad guy. But as you get older, you start to realize it’s more mixed up. There’s always negativity under positivity. It’s not all flowers, but it’s not all doom and gloom, either. Even bad guys have a good side, and even good people can have evil feelings.”
“Graduation” is the best example of them blending generational malaise with sparkling pop music. “Today’s my graduation/ So long to education/ Didn’t learn a thing anyway,” Perry sings flippantly in the chorus. “These are the best days of our lives/ That’s what the grown-ups told us, right?” She goes on to shrug off the careerist motivations that have been foisted upon us by society: “There’s so much you can do with a degree,” Perry raps tongue-in-cheek. “Now I can apply for a PhD, get a nice job with a high salary.” Those anxieties are echoed on “Try Me,” a song that acts as an open-ended résumé of all the skills she picked up in school: “Try me!/ Did you know I can do anything?/ Just witness this impressive list of my activities: Business! Dancing! Throwing a party … with you!”
While the three of them never actually ended up attending their own graduations (all for different reasons), the transitional, emblematic moment of throwing your cap up into the air holds heavy significance and is representative of something greater: a failed promise from the previous generation that we would be adequately prepared for the real world. That sense of disappointment pervades Bonito Generation, but the band makes an argument for self-reliance and determination, and that what makes their music truly radical.
10/20 Los Angeles, CA @ Echoplex
10/21 San Diego, CA @ Voodoo Room, House of Blues
10/26 Chicago, IL @ Subterranean
10/27- Detroit, MI @ Marble Bar
10/28 Toronto, ON @ Velvet Underground
10/29 Montreal, QC @ L’Astral
10/30 Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
11/02 Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
11/04 Philadelphia, PA @ Coda
11/05 Washington, DC @ U Street Music Hall
11/04-11/06 McDade, TX @ Sound on Sound Festival
Bonito Generation is out 10/21 via Double Denim Records.