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Jul 21

CHEMISTRY 101: Intro to Japanese R&B Science

R&B is a fickle genre. For the past few decades it’s been a chimera of all things popular music needs to be:  technical skill, voice, good looks, attitude, and just plain luck.

Now the kings of Japanese R&B are about to show convention-goers at Otakon how they not only rule the charts, but bring their own flavor to this tricky style of music.

CHEMISTRY sat down with me in Tokyo for a conversation on the genre that exploded them to stardom.

pSKY: In English, the word ‘chemistry’ has two meanings: chemistry the science and some kind of relationship. Which one does it mean to you?

Kaname Kawabata: Chemistry the science. Our producer wanted it to be “a voice to voice chemical reaction.”

pSKY: Americans have a TV show called American Idol. Americans generally understand the audition process you went through with the TV show Asayan, but can you tell us a little about it? How was your audition different from the American Idol auditions?

Kaname Kawabata: There are a lot of seasons of American Idol, right? Our audition didn’t really have that time frame. One difference is that our audition only had male singers. First we had to sing solo. Then the audition changed to duo performances. The whole process took about a year. Our audition wasn’t like American Idol in the sense that everything was so exciting and quick. Rather, ours was like, “Let’s start the men’s audition!” and from there it gradually built up. It was a big audition for all of Japan.

pSKY: What do you think of American Idol?

Kaname Kawabata: Compared to us, the talent level is higher. It’s the American dream. Like Ruben  Studdard, there’s no one else quite like him.

pSKY: Ruben Studdard isn’t really that famous nowadays. People who win American Idol aren’t necessarily guaranteed to become popular, you know? There are people like Kelly Clarkson, but then Jennifer Hudson, who didn’t even win, is more successful than those who did win.


Kaname Kawabata: Of course, in the US, there were probably more people who auditioned, right? Do you know how many?

pSKY: I’m not really sure. In the thousands…

Yoshikuni Douchin: Ours had 20,000.

pSKY: 20,000? That’s a lot! The competition must have been fierce. Were you nervous?

Kaname Kawabata: We were nervous at first, but as it went on our feelings changed. We thought, “Well, we can only keep going.”

Yoshikuni Douchin:  Of course I was nervous, but the thought of debuting as a singer made an impression on the way I thought. And it was fun. Since the process was so long, I made a lot of friends. For those reasons I tried my hardest.

pSKY: Your debut was in 2001. That’s quite a long time for an artist in the pop world, don’t you think? Typical artists last for two, maybe three years. How have things changed over the last 10 years?

Kaname Kawabata: The music scene has really changed over time. When we made our debut Japan had a taste for R&B. We were doing the J-R&B style. But since then there have been fewer and fewer R&B singers. Of course there are a lot of J-pop singers, and more and more Korean artists are coming over here, and then there’s dance and electronic music too. And yeah, American music has a huge influence on that. Overall, the style’s really changed.

Yoshikuni Douchin: Also, our lyrics have really important meanings in Japanese. We also do some lines in English, but we feel the Japanese lyrics are the most important.

pSKY: How would you describe your music from 2001? So for example, American R&B and hip hop music before 2001 was more about the “party.” But things changed after 9/11. Music got a little darker. Did CHEMISTRY’s music style change in that sense?

Yoshikuni Douchin: You have to take into account a lot of different factors. There are a lot of different things in our albums: R&B, rock, some of the rhythms are like reggae, pop, remixes… Well, our remixes are more for fun. Like house, dub. The two of us have completely different characters. Our voices are also different. That’s what makes us. So we sing with different tastes in music, and since we’re always together as CHEMISTRY, that doesn’t really change.  We had that constant for so long that in 2009 we decided to add a dance group. During that time we made something new. Other than that there isn’t really another example.

pSKY: There are a lot of similarities between Japanese and American R&B, but can you explain some of the differences between the two?

Kaname Kawabata: They are deliberately similar in sound, but the way the words fit into the song is different. There are some things that fit with Japanese and some that don’t. This is the same for Jpop, but it’s mostly how the words fit in with the melody. You can hear the biggest difference in the chorus.

pSKY: What about the contents of the lyrics?

Kaname Kawabata: American lyrics are quite straight-forward. We don’t really speak that directly in Japanese.

pSKY: I totally agree. CHEMISTRY’s music seems to have more euphemisms and metaphors.

Yoshikuni Douchin: That’s kind of the beauty of Japanese.

pSKY: You did a lot of collaborations with various Japanese, Korean, and American artists in the past. Who do you want to collaborate with next?

Kaname Kawabata: Personally, Ne-Yo. My favorite artists are Usher, Omarion, Ne-Yo, R. Kelly, and a bunch of other artists.

pSKY: You’ve done performances in Asia and you’re doing one in the US soon. What other countries do you want to go to? Maybe Europe?

Kaname Kawabata: The US seems like the most fun.

Yoshikuni Douchin: Not just America, but we want to do concerts in a lot of different countries. It would be interesting for CHEMISTRY. There are a lot of things we want to do.

pSKY: Well, the US is the homeland of R&B. Anyway, what do you think about Kpop becoming increasingly popular in Japan?

Kaname Kawabata: K-pop is K-pop. Compared to Japanese pop, it’s really different. K-pop was really influenced by American music. Their R&B is closer to American R&B. The kind of K-pop that’s famous in Japan now is really oriented toward dance. Their song pattern is more about repeating the chorus, so it’s really catchy music.

pSKY: I checked the Oricon charts today, and there were a lot of K-pop artists in the Top 10. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but do you think this could be end of lot of Japanese music in Japan?

Kaname Kawabata: I don’t think so! It’s not just K-pop that’s popular in Japan. It’s the whole Korean guy image. They’re supposed to be stronger and nicer than Japanese guys, and the dramas are more interesting. Music is just a part of it. Like Touhoushinki. When a drama becomes popular, so does the music.

Yoshikuni Douchin: It’s not really the same thing. We’re doing our own thing.

pSKY: Let’s talk about your first American performance. Have you been to the US?

Yoshikuni Douchin: Part of our audition was in New York. We had to do a performance. We also went to Atlanta where we performed in front of Arrested Development.

pSKY: Arrested Development? That’s random!

Yoshikuni Douchin: We were told to sing in front of them. Other than that, I did a home stay when I was a student in Santa Monica.

Kaname Kawabata: I went to New York – Harlem specifically – to listen to some gospel. I took the subway to Harlem. But it’s been awhile. It was my first time there and it was a lot of fun.

pSKY: Did that have any impact on you?

Kaname Kawabata: America is huge. It was really impressive and the power behind it is different from Japan.

pSKY: Japanese R&B isn’t really that popular in the US and Europe compared to Japanese visual kei. Why do you think that is?

Yoshikuni Douchin: One reason might be that there are lots of different types of people in the US: black, white, basically everyone from around the world. There’s a lot of sex appeal to that, compared to East Asians. I think it’s hard for Americans to see the charm in Asians. It’s American culture to have ladies first, and people are open with saying things like, “I love you.” R&B, especially now, has to have that kind of sex appeal.

Kaname Kawabata: On the other hand, visual kei is all about the fashion. In rock, it’s fine to have a skinny body like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You have to have that punk look. It’s easy for Japanese people to try to take on the American style of rock, so that’s probably why.

Yoshikuni Douchin: There’s a big rock community. There’s one for R&B too, but there isn’t much sex appeal.

Kaname Kawabata: Their assessment of Japanese R&B might be lower than what they think of rock. And there aren’t a lot of Japanese R&B artists that go over to the US, so Japanese music must seem like it’s just visual kei. And then there are all the tie-ins with things like anime, so maybe that image of Japanese music is really strong.

pSKY: Douchin, you’re about to have your first performance in a play. Are you nervous?

Yoshikuni Douchin: I’m not nervous yet. It’ll be fun. I watch a lot of musicals, and whether a musical is good or bad, I always have fun. The musical starts soon, but I need a lot of concentration for this. There’s a lot I need to study too. Plays are different from music performance in that the story is the feature, so your voice has to be the main thing. Of course there are some similarities, but I need to concentrate more. So when I return to the stage for music, it’ll be more fun.

pSKY: What kind of musicals do you like?

Yoshikuni Douchin: I like stories made for people. Not so much that it looks cool, but that it makes you think. I want to laugh and cry, a lot of things happen, and I want it to end happy. There’s a lot of risk involved with that.

pSKY: If you have time, try going to Broadway.

Yoshikuni Douchin: I think I’m going to go.

pSKY: What do you want to see?

Yoshikuni Douchin: I haven’t looked up what’s playing yet, but I figure I’ll walk around and see if anything catches my attention.

pSKY: Other than musicals, you should go see some shows in the US. Who do you want to see?

Kaname Kawabata: R. Kelly. He hasn’t been to Japan in awhile, so I want to see him. And Usher. I’ve seen Ne-Yo here in Japan. I want to go to the Apollo Theater.

pSKY: Since you like Usher, what do you think about Justin Bieber?

Kaname Kawabata: He’s really just a kid, but I saw that movie documentary about him, and you can see that he’s a real genius. He can dance, play drums, piano, guitar… And all this genius started when he was 5 or 6 with playing drums. After seeing him do all that, I kind of changed my mind about him. I listened to all his albums.

pSKY: You’re going to perform at Otakon soon, so what do you want to see there? Maybe cosplayers?

Kaname Kawabata: I want to see cosplayers!

pSKY: Do you have anything you would like to say to your fans?

Yoshikuni Douchin: Of course our performance is in relation to an anime, and we’re going with our dancers, so we want everyone to have fun with us. We want you to get interested in CHEMISTRY’s music style. But more than anything, we want our audience to come with an open mind. We want all of you to have fun just like we’re going to have fun.

Kaname Kawabata: Have fun like the people who cosplay. This is our first time performing in the US since our debut 10 years ago and it’s been a long time coming. So have fun!

CHEMISTRY Sony Music Japan Website – http://www.sonymusic.co.jp/Music/Arch/DF/CHEMISTRY/
CHEMISTRY Official Website – http://www.chemistryclub.net/pc/top.jsp
Otakon Website – http://www.otakon.com/

2 comments

1 ping

  1. Kathy D

    I LOVE YOU CHEMISTRY!!! Please bring them back again, Otakon!

    1. Kathy Chee

      I completely missed them because of the overlap with the fashion show. They better come back!

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