It’s CHAI week here at Stereogum, where we just named the rising Japanese punk band’s new LP PUNK our reigning Album Of The Week. It’s also CHAI week here at SXSW in Austin, Texas, where the rising Japanese punk band are playing eight shows over the course of three days. I caught their set at Dr. Martens’ day party at Container Bar yesterday afternoon, and you should be jealous if you didn’t.
At SXSW, you see so many indie rock bands that even the good indie rock bands tend to blend together. CHAI don’t have that problem. I can’t imagine them blending in anywhere, with anyone. Love them or hate them, CHAI stand out. As SXSW becomes increasingly corporate and tech-oriented, you keep hearing words like “activation” and “disruption.” Well, CHAI are here to show you what “disruption” really means.
Mostly, it seems to involve a lot of noise and a lot of color. Their music is a fizzy, funky cocktail of pounding drums, squelching synthesizers, and sugar-sweet vocal melodies, combining pop, punk, rock, electronic, and even hip-hop — yes, there is both rapping and chanting — into a weirdly cohesive sound. Their songs shapeshift, ping-ponging from one idea to the next with dizzying speed, leaving you no choice but to hang on for dear life and go along for the ride.
The infectious hyperactivity of their music translates directly to their stage presence. CHAI — made up of twin sisters Mana (lead singer/keyboardist) and Kana (guitarist) alongside Yuki (bassist) and Yuna (drummer) — came out to their own entrance music, dressed in matching orange crop tops and pink pants. They all seemed absolutely delighted to be there the entire time, grinning while they switched instruments and diving into synchronized choreographed cheerleader dance moves.
At one point, they all stood next to each other to sing an a cappella cover of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” in Japanese. At another, Mana paused the show to explain the subversive reclamation of their “neo-kawaii” ethos as seen in the lyrics from “N.E.O.,” a list of her own supposed flaws that doubles as a mission statement from their debut album PINK: “Small eyes/ Flat nose/ No shape/ Fat legs!” And they concluded with PUNK’s closing track and highlight “Future,” in which CHAI lay out their foolproof plan to take over the world: “Yes!/ We don’t stop!/ So, nothing stopping me!/ We have dreams!/ We have a lot of friends!”
They deserve it. If you can make it through CHAI’s entire set without cracking a smile, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. SXSW can feel like work, and to some of us, it is. But it’s ostensibly supposed to be a party — a festival! — and for about 30 minutes in the sweaty afternoon sun, CHAI made it feel like one.