Chai, a band with an ethos, an aesthetic and a sound all its own

The members of Chai, from left: Yuna, Yuuki, Kana and Mana in Noborito, Japan, April 28, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
The Japanese band Chai is a professional purveyor of whimsy. In concert, its four members perform wearing an array of colorful, coordinated outfits — loads of pink, lots of orange, some reds and greens, but never black. Its lead singer and keyboardist, Mana, will sometimes deliver exuberant monologues about “Neo-Kawaii,” a band-created ethos meant to redefine modern ideals of cuteness. (The phrase translates directly to “new cute.”) The group has been known to cover Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon.” The refrain of one of its most popular songs, “N.E.O.,” goes “You are so cute! Nice face!”اضافة اعلان

“We’ve always been kind of energetic,” Mana said in a recent video interview from Tokyo, through the band’s translator. “It’s not that we decided to just go out and be extroverts.”

That said, the band ran into a minor problem when working on the follow-up to its 2019 breakout record, “Punk”: Channeling all that energy in the studio wasn’t so easy, and its attempts to “dumb it down” weren’t very fun.

“It’s actually harder for us than to go all out onstage,” Mana said.

But when the pandemic forced the group to remain in Japan rather than continue touring the world, its members found themselves with an unexpected moment to breathe. They pursued other interests — Mana started an Instagram account for dog lovers; bassist-lyricist Yuuki got into pottery — and more consciously considered the new music they wanted to make, now that they didn’t have to hunt for studio time in between global commitments.

Owing to the band’s growing debt to hip-hop, the drummer, Yuna, started experimenting with her playing technique in GarageBand. And Mana, who primarily drives the band’s music, worked on cultivating an album she described as “more than a human friend — someone you can go to when you’re upset, someone you go to when you’re happy, when you wake up first thing in the morning, when you want to cry.”

The result is “Wink,” out Friday, a record that doesn’t dim Chai’s enthusiasm so much as redirect it across genres and moods. Because Chai looks like a traditional four-piece band, it’s easy to see it as a rock group, when in reality its sound reflects a style-bending pool of influences. On “Wink,” the scrappiness of Chai’s early records is peeled back to reveal a dreamier collection of melodies driven by Yuna’s sprightly and varied drumming.

A song like “Nobody Knows We Are Fun” lingers in a hazy, whispered register before suddenly flowering into a chanted singalong, while “End” energetically toggles between rapping and singing. (Mana cited R&B group TLC and rapper Mac Miller as influences.) “Wink” will be released in Japan through Sony, but the band signed with the prestigious indie label Sub Pop — one of a handful of suitors — for its US release.

“As a listener, you never really know what to expect when you hear a new song,” said Julien Ehrlich of the band Whitney, who toured with Chai at the beginning of 2020. “It’s completely not formulaic, the way that they create things — and they’re always trying to change it, which is really exciting.”

Growing up, the members of Chai hadn’t been exposed to much Western music. That changed in college, when a friend of Yuna’s made them a playlist of eclectic artists who would become formative influences: Basement Jaxx, Tune-Yards, Justice. Very quickly, the band members formed a distinct identity — matching outfits, an obsession with food — and bonded over their alienation from the beauty standards of their native country.

“We didn’t fit into this definition of cute, which was considered the biggest form of accomplishment in Japan,” said Mana, wearing a basic red T-shirt reading “Overdressed.” “Once we started exchanging our insecurities, it gradually became a kind of comfort blanket.”

She pointed to their adoption of the color pink, widely considered a childish hue in Japan, as one such way of repudiating those expectations. Early on, the members also claimed they used stage names as a way of obscuring their identities. Over time they’ve admitted that Yuuki and Yuna are real names, while Mana and Kana are adopted from nicknames — it was just cooler to imagine otherwise, and definitely cooler when styled in all caps, as the band does.

Japan has pitched from one state of lockdown to another, but the band has started scheduling live concerts for the summer and beyond. Finding a way to perform these quieter songs in concert is a new challenge, as is resuming the band’s momentum, but the Chai members were sanguine about the future.

“It’s because it’s the four of us that we have a special message to say,” Mana said. “We never even really consider ourselves just a band — we dance, sometimes we do DJ sets, we do all different types of things. We consider our genre just ‘Chai.’”

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