Last summer, the global visibility of a J-pop band called evening cinema was elevated to new heights after its collaborative single called “summertime” with J-pop trio cinnamons became a viral hit on TikTok. Hot on the heels of its newfound international recognition, the four-man band released a flurry of singles in succession this year — “Eien ni tsuite” (“About Eternity”), “Still Shine,” “See Off,” and “After All” — and recently added another new song called “Good Luck” to this list at the end of October.
Meanwhile, lead vocalist and principal songwriter Natsuki Harada has branched out as an individual composer and arranger who provides music for other acts, as his band continues to expand the breadth of its deliciously melodious sounds that draw from various musical influences. Harada and the other band members — Kazuaki Yamamoto on bass, isoken on guitar, and Mamoru Ishizawa on drums — sat down with Billboard Japan to elaborate on their inspirations, their songwriting style, the dynamics of the band and more in this new interview.
There was a period when “evening cinema” referred to Natsuki Harada’s solo project. When did you guys officially get together as a four-man band?
Natsuki Harada: We had an opportunity to tour China in the fall of 2018, and that prompted it. The other guys had been supporting me for about a year before that, and since we felt comfortable with each other by then, we decided to keep going as fixed members in 2019.
Ever since I started my career five years ago, I’ve been obsessed with the band format. I had this strong yearning to be in a band, and couldn’t see myself doing music as a solo singer-songwriter. It’s more of a spiritual thing than a musical thing.
evening cinema’s songs clearly convey the band’s aesthetic, concepts, and the direction of its sound. Could you tell us a bit about your production process?
Harada: I write all the parts during the demo stage, then ask the other members to arrange them. We performed live together for a year, so I now have a sense of how each guy operates, and seem to be able to write songs more easily than before. Even if elements that are different from what I originally had in mind are introduced to the track, I’ve begun to see that they can lead to something unexpectedly positive in that direction.
evening cinema’s music contains many influences, namely Japanese “city pop,” but it also respects the greats in Western pop music history, such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys. What are the roots of your songwriting?
Harada: I think it goes back to when I was in elementary school. The music I listened to because I liked it, and not the stuff I listened to to benefit my songwriting, is what I seem to end up drawing from today. I think that also means I can’t become a “pro” songwriter in the true sense of the word, because being a pro means you can give back more than what your client expects no matter what you’re asked to do. In our band, we just do what we like. The members have conversations like, “What have you been listening to lately?” and then we come up with ideas based on that, like, “Then why don’t we try something like this?” That’s the general image of how we do things.
When you decide what you will or won’t do, what do you base your decisions on?
Harada: I don’t want to hop on a trend right away, so our turn comes after about five years has passed and everyone has started to forget about it. I can’t digest a current trend right away even if I try to create something that incorporates it. I think it’s only after a certain level of evaluation that you can establish where the trend came from, what its influences were, and what context it can be placed in historically.
Last year, “summertime” by cinnamons x evening cinema became a hit thanks to TikTok. It first took off in Southeast Asia. Did you imagine that it would become popular in countries outside of Japan?
Harada: I didn’t anticipate that. But we intentionally set the theme of that song as 80’s J-pop, so I do think it matched the wavelength of the “city pop” revival in Japan and abroad. And the music video was animated, which I think is also a big factor.
There seems to be a consistency in the songs the band has released this year — “Still Shine,” “See Off,” “After All,” and “Good Luck” — including the cover artwork. What’s the concept behind these tracks?
Harada: We do consider them as a series. I also wanted to make things that left people with a clear-cut impression that we four members take this band really seriously. The reason why the cover art is consistent is because I wanted people to think that something in the band changed during this period.
What has changed in terms of songwriting, arrangements, and sound making?
Harada: I guess the most obvious one would be that we have more songs that have a lot of notes, especially the recent ones. Chill songs with fewer notes started becoming relatively popular from a few years back and we considered trying that kind of music, but… I suppose this is my contrary nature speaking, but I kind of wondered if we needed to be the ones to do that. Instead, I want to write songs that are free and not tied down by the band’s format. I think it’d be boring if the band structure became a kind of limitation. If necessary, I’ll call in support members, and add strings that the four of us can’t do. So the number of sounds has increased since last fall’s “Night Magic.” It can be hard to maintain a balance when you increase the number of sounds, and the arrangements tend to become saturated, but I’m hoping our music will be seen as an example of how to make songs work with so many sounds.
Mamoru Ishizawa: We do more chorus work now, too, which is significant.
isoken: I think the range of beats is wider than on the previous album. “After All” has a neo-soul beat, and “See Off” has a faster tempo. Ishizawa can also play percussion, so there are overlapping sounds there as well.
Kazuaki Yamamoto: As the bassist, on the other hand, I think I’ve come to keep the simple parts simple.
In April, you also released covers of Eiichi Ohtaki’s J-pop classics “Ame no Wednesday” (“Rainy Wednesday”) and “Canary Islands nite” (“In the Canary Islands”). How did this project come about?
Harada: The biggest reason was that it was the 40th anniversary of his album A LONG VACATION. We’d just been asked by the label if we’d like to do covers, and were granted permission when we asked to do those. I guess you could say used the band to fulfill my ego.
Could you tell us what you’ve inherited as a songwriter from Eiichi Ohtaki, and what you respect about him?
Harada: I don’t think I’m too influenced by him in terms of the way I come up with specific verses and melodies, but rather, it’s more about his attitude towards songwriting. I remember him saying something like this on the radio: “If you can collect 10 good songs as your source material, then you can surely come up with a good song.” That stance is something I look up to.
If you only have a vague vision of what you want to do, and only have what’s in your mind to draw from, then you’re bound to end up with something insufficient. I want to deeply investigate why I want to do that kind of music before going ahead with it. I want to know how that music originally evolved. A large part of Japanese pop music has developed based on how the original material was digested. I’ve become more conscious of those [original] artists.
Nowadays, though, there’s a huge range of places to dig, both in the past and present. In the 70’s and 80’s [when Otaki was writing songs], the reference points would have been the American and British hits of that era and the oldies before then. But now, even just in Japan there’s an entire history of Japanese pop music, and the J-pop and J-rock that you grew up on, and the music outside of the country is also becoming more diverse as well. I imagine it’d be difficult to decide what to choose as reference points. How do you navigate that?
Harada: The one thing that never changes for me is that I want to stay on the mainstream. I want to be mainstream and classic. If you go back 20 to 30 years in mainstream J-pop, you find the classics like Mr.Children, Spitz, B’z, and GLAY. I listened to those musicians when I was a kid, and they’ve become a part of me. Other things I’ve been consciously trying to listen to lately are the artists that Eiichi Ohtaki and Haruomi Hosono were influenced by. I’m also looking into [Japanese composers] Kyohei Tsutsumi and Ryoichi Hattori.
So you feel that when the mainstream sounds of various eras are folded together, something surprisingly new can come from it?
Harada: Yes. When I listen to songs from 50 to 60 years ago, I think that while the sound is still underdeveloped, the fundamentals haven’t changed much. Things that can sound acceptable today were already done in the 60’s and before. That’s how I see it.
–This interview by Tomonori Shiba first appeared on Billboard Japan