Usually when you hear a song about heartbreak and love lost, the singer is the one who has been wronged. They lament over what their now-former loved ones did to them, they take revenge, they cry over a photograph, so on and so forth.
That’s not the case when it comes to TWINKIDS. The J-pop-inspired duo, made up of Gene Fukui and Matt Young, are more interested in the storyline of what it’s like to be the one breaking hearts. “We were really interested in writing from the perspective of myself at my worst,” says Fukui. “It’s interesting to write from the perspective of somebody who may be doing the hurting, because that is just as much of a human experience.”
That spirit is evident on TWINKIDS’ new song, “Jigoku Tengoku,” premiering below. The song’s title translates to “Hell or Heaven” from Japanese, and follows a relationship where the protagonist is asking their lover to stay with them, even if they don’t even really mean it.
Fukui and Young talked to Billboard about their new song, their love for Sailor Moon, and going on tour with indie darlings Matt & Kim.
Billboard: I’m interested in the title of the song — it’s a translation from Japanese meaning “Hell or Heaven.” Can you explain that title a little bit?
Gene: Yeah, sure. So the song is kind of about a relationship where you’re stringing someone along, and you’re asking them for their companionship only when it’s convenient for you.
I think we were really interested in writing from the perspective of myself at my worst. Because a lot of romantic songs and heartbreak songs are kind of written from the victim’s perspective, and I think it’s interesting to write from the perspective of somebody who may be doing the hurting, because that is just as much of a human experience. The whole idea of “Jigoku Tengoku” is saying a lie, saying “I will follow you to hell or heaven because I care about you so much.” And it’s really just this hyperbolic thing that you say to try and get somebody to be with you, I guess.
Matt: Another thing, because Gene has turned me on to a lot of J-pop music, he’s showed me over time that it’s really in-style in J-pop songs to have one hooky moment that’s in English, and it’s usually in the chorus. So this is kind of the flip of that, where most of the song is English, and then the hooky moment is “jigoku tengoku” in Japanese. To have that be in there is kind of our way of interpreting that J-pop style and then using it for our pop music.
You guys actually covered a J-pop song on your last EP, “Love Story Wa Totsuzen Ni.” What is it about J-pop that influences you?
Gene: It’s just amazing. I mean, obviously like in all genres, I’m not vouching for every artist. Like there’s obviously a lot of bad J-pop out there, too. But I think the moments that work, especially in the J-pop that we try to reference, [are] from the ’70s & ’80s. That’s right around the time when Westernization was happening pretty rapidly, especially in the arts. So a lot of synthesizer music was coming into Japan as it was in the States. And it’s kind of a weird era, where it’s right in this weird mixture where it’s so Western, but the core of it is so Japanese — like the bittersweetness that is in a lot of classical Japanese folk music and pop music at the time.
Matt: I think that feeling of bittersweetness is at the core of J-pop, and it’s one of the reasons I love a lot of J-pop music. It’s that feeling of like, “Do I cry or do I smile when I’m listening to this?” And I love that feeling. It’s so embedded in other forms of Japanese entertainment.
A lot of books I’ve read by Japanese writers, and Miyazaki movies and stuff, all have that cry-smile feeling. But just with the music itself, it’s this perfect blend of pop chords, but also weird excursions into jazz, and even classical chords. I came up playing classical music for my whole life, and so for me, getting into the technicalities of these chords is so amazing. And I love how intricate the arrangements are, but then it all comes off so effortless. I really like that idea for our music; something that, inside, is really intricate and complex, but then to the listener, it’s just not too taxing to listen to and to come back to.
How does the songwriting process work between the two of you?
Gene: We always have a hard time answering this question [Laughs.] Because I think at the end of the day, it’s pretty collaborative. In general, the idea is that I write the lyrics in the song, and then Matt does the production and the sound design, but we work so closely together, that even if the idea starts from one person, it just goes through so many different versions and changes that it becomes unclear which ideas came from which person.
Matt: Yeah, in the past when we were working on the Boys Love EP that we put out last year, Gene would give me a little fragment of a verse and a chorus, or I would give Gene a beat that I was working on, and he would try singing something on top of it. So it’s a lot of, like, the idea starting from one person, and then just talking about it a lot, and then we pass it back and forth. But for this song specifically, Gene had written the whole song, more or less the way it is now. All of the core ideas were there, and then it was just a long period of figuring out the sound of the song. We went through so many other versions of the song before we landed on the tempo and the chords and we both felt like it actually was saying something.
If your social media tells me anything, it’s that you guys are big fans of Sailor Moon. What about the show speaks to you guys?
Gene: I don’t know, to me, Sailor Moon has been such a little outlook into how gay I was as I child. [Laughs.] I have such vivid memories of wanting to watch the show so badly, but I have a straight older brother, and I was just so afraid that he would make fun of me if he caught me watching it. So I would turn the show on, and then watch it from behind the couch, and then if anybody were to enter I would duck and hide behind the couch. [Laughs.]
I feel like it was the first time that I was like, starting to worship women. And obviously as a queer person, these strong feminine characters, especially in music, are like so much, if not all of what I listen to. Like, amazing female singers have always been our thing, and Sailor Moon was just the beginning of my worship of femininity.
Matt: Also, it was such a beautiful form of drag, like watching these transformation sequences. Their costumes are literally flying through cyberspace, and I don’t know, it’s so magical. There was just nothing like that, especially as a kid who grew up in Florida. It was so fresh. There is still nothing quite like that on TV.
The name “TWINKIDS” comes from something your friend called you guys in college, and it stuck because of the word “twink” being in there. As two men who identify as queer, does that kind of labeling ever bother you?
Matt: Yeah, kind of. It’s not so much a label to me, but just feeling like… I didn’t fit into a gay culture, you know what I mean? Like, we lived in Chicago for a little while before we moved to L.A., and going out in the gay areas, it was a feeling of being sized up all of the time by people, and being assessed as to whether or not I would fit in to this world. And so I was oftentimes left feeling like I was something else.
Gene: Yeah, a lot of gay bars and spaces that are known to be “gay,” kind of end up being very white masculine gay, and that is what is … I guess revered in the culture. And using the word “queer” is the new way to be more inclusive of everybody! Because obviously, being queer can kind of be anything, and then you’re not feeling like you’re not always wanted or needed in these spaces that are “gay.” Because in queer spaces, we’ve always been welcome.
Matt: Yes, like in a space that embraces femininity, and not giving a fuck about gender, not needing to be 6 foot 5 and masculine all of the time. [laughs]
You guys are going on tour with Matt & Kim! How excited are you? Have you gotten to work with them or meet them ahead of time?
Matt: We are so stoked. We haven’t met them yet, we’ve had a little bit of a back and forth on Twitter a bit, but beyond that it’s been pretty quiet for now. It’s a big step forward for us, and we’ve been working on our set and trying to change our setup a little bit so we can have the best show we could possible offer.
Gene: I don’t even really know, like, how this happened. [Laughs.] Maybe somebody in the band or somebody on their team found out about us and just reached out blindly? It wasn’t even a connection that we had, which is really cool that this was truly just them actually liking us. It’s really exciting, and we’re so stoked to be a part of it. We’ve listened to their music for years now, so this is crazy.