J-pop band back number continue to enjoy lasting hits, with their 2016 album Encore still charting in the top 100 of Billboard Japan’s Hot Albums tally. The group’s recent hit song “Suiheisen” (“Horizon”) — created in the wake of the cancellation of the 2020 All Japan High School Sports Championships due to the pandemic — was released in August 2021 and finished at No. 9 on the 2022 year-end Billboard Japan Hot 100, becoming another signature song for the band that already has a long list of familiar hits under its belt.
The trio’s latest studio album, Humor, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Japan Hot Albums chart dated Jan, 25. The set contains a total of 12 tracks including “Suiheisen,” songs featured as themes for TV drama series, plus brand-new numbers. In this latest interview, Shimizu shares the creative process that went into the production of this album that reflects the band’s current state, written and recorded alongside the band’s domestic tour last year.
What was 2022 like for you? You caught COVID during the band’s tour last year and some shows had to be postponed, but you all managed to successfully wrap of the trek in September.
Iyori Shimizu: I wanted to have fun during that tour instead of putting too much pressure on myself. Until recently, I used to put pressure on myself by setting up goals, like, “I want to be a certain way when the tour is over, so I have to make this kind of effort and…” But after coming down with COVID, it really hit home how important it is to pamper myself and make time for fun.
Then on the final day of the tour, it was like seeing a completely different view from before. We’d intended to enjoy ourselves and be satisfied with the tour, but in the end it was like we became aware of a kind of thirst. It was a strange feeling, that we could do more. I contemplated what that feeling was as we were putting the finishing touches on the album, and worked through the meaning of “humor” all over again.
What do you think was the nature of that “thirst”?
It was like a kind of earnestness that encompasses both fun and stoicism. Being really ambitious while also being really natural, the sense that the things that I thought could never be placed side by side are being mixed together. The three of us went into the studio and experimented in a lot of ways.
How do you think those things influenced your new album?
I realized that somewhere along the way, I’d lost the ability to “think normally.” I’d forgotten what I’d felt like when I first got started. But around the time I wrote “Velvet no Uta” during the tour, I began to feel the power of just being able to straightforwardly do what’s “good enough, normally speaking.” It felt like I’d returned to my very natural state, singing what I think the way I think it. If I hadn’t gotten COVID and finished the tour without any incident, it probably would have been a completely different album.
You shared “Suiheisen” on YouTube in August 2020, then released it on streaming platforms a year later. It started going viral on TikTok and other social networking sites around this time. Did that lead to any new discoveries about how to deliver your music?
I thought, “People sure do listen to a lot of music.” TikTok is a great playground. I’m pretty sure artists are all trying to figure out how to provide a plaything for it.
Also, I really appreciate the fact that the concept of B-sides has all but disappeared. I’ve never wanted to make a song that’s considered second best.
Streaming has made it much easier to access music on a song-by-song basis.
I think there was a bit more of a “this is popular, so let’s listen to it” vibe until fairly recently. Of course, that way of listening to music isn’t bad at all, and I’m sure we’ve benefited from it. But the joy is great when people choose to listen to our music. We’d like to keep on embodying our style of valuing each and every song, and we’re thinking of doing something new in our next phase.
How do you feel about the way your new album Humor turned out?
I already have an idea of what I want to do after this, so I think we managed to do what we can with this one. I can’t say for sure if it’s a good album until people hear it and we tour with it, but I’m confident enough to at least look forward to those things.
When we started making this album, I was thinking how I wanted to see “back number Level 99.” That we had to make an album that we could call our very best. But while we were making it, I realized that that way of thinking was really egotistical and that I was just being conceited. Like, if you keep working out all the time, your basic physical fitness will improve, but the environment around you is constantly changing. There’s no point in becoming a band that only pleases your core fans by being stubborn about how you think you should be and falling into complacency. That would just halt our growth and it would also mean turning our backs on our fans who love and support us. There is no upper limit.
Your journey continues even after Level 99, you mean.
It’s just a new beginning. I’m sure there are people out there who don’t listen to back number, so I want to hang on to that desire to turn those people around. The people who listen to us now and “One Room” (back number’s fan club) are really important to me, but I also don’t think it’s right to only care about them. I want us to be a band that those people can be proud of and say, “Isn’t our captain pretty amazing?”
—This interview by Takuto Ueda first appeared on Billboard Japan