Just like everyone else, I’m pretty bored of COVID talk, so let’s bring you back in time to a wonderful world where words like ‘social distancing’ and ‘R rates’ meant nothing to us. Where we could roam the pubs and streets at our own free will and pace. That magical time was Feburary 2020.
Kiki Hitomi has had an incredible career since bursting onto the scene in the early 2010’s. Most of her output has centered around dub, whether crazy hybrid Japanese dub in Dokkebi Q, lending her voice for dark heavy dub in King Midas Sound or animated 8-bit inspired dub through her solo work.
Essaka Hoi, released last November on Phantom Limb, is a melting pot of both traditional Japanese minyo sounds and modern day dance music. The label may be ‘Minyo Footwork’ but the music goes much deeper than that.
The whole mantra around Waq Waq Kingdom is positivity. The front cover depicts both Kiki and Shigeru as kago carriers, used in feudal Japan as a means of human transportation. In the picture, the pair are carrying their life experiences and sadness but still going through life. In the album description Kiki writes “No matter what, I am carrying on my life. I won’t give up and I keep on going, keep on making, keep on learning and hollering the word Essaka Hoisa”. In a post COVID world, such optimism is more needed than ever.
Kiki Hitomi joined me on Skype from her home in Leipzig (back in the days where we didn’t have to communicate with everyone on Skype and Zoom) and she spoke about Waq Waq Kingdom.
When did you and Shigeru first meet and how did Waq Waq Kingdom form?
Kiki: I met Shigeru about 12 years ago when I was still living in London doing my first Japanese punk, dubstep/breakcore project with my friend Gorgonn called Dokkebi Q. Shigeru listened to our tune and really liked it and booked us on his friend’s festival in Brighton. I met him there and we’ve been friends since.
I’ve seen many DJ Scotch Egg’s sets which are incredible and I got so inspired but never knew we would be working together.
Shige moved to Berlin 7 years ago and I moved to Leipzig 2 years later. He had a business selling Okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) and joked “I’m now making family music”. At the time I was in King Midas Sound and told him to send me some music. I thought his music was amazing and I did a voice track in 5 minutes which developed into the first track ‘I Would Like to Let You Go’.
Andrea Belfi, who contributed the drums and Shigeru really liked my vocals and asked me to contribute more, which is how it started in 2014. We didn’t know what Waq Waq Kingdom were about, the three of us just had chemistry. After 6 years I finally feel what Waq Waq Kingdom is about and since Andrea has left to concentrate on his solo project, it’s just me and Shigeru working hard on it.
What I like most from the project is that it’s really hard to pin down exactly what genre your music is which makes it really exciting. One of the genre titles your label Phantom Limb puts on your music is ‘Minyo Footwork’, so what does that term mean?
Minyo is traditional Japanese music that we’ve grown up together with. We have a traditional Japanese dance festival called Bon Odori where they play minyo all the time. It’s always around that, it’s in our blood and I wanted to bring that minyo sound and vibe into our second album ‘Essaka Hoisa’. I wanted to sing a lot in Japanese and bring that minyo vibe in it.
I don’t know why our label called it minyo footwork as we didn’t use footwork all the time, footwork was just one element like trap or gamelan. The footwork vibe is probably more linked to how we dance. Maybe we will call the next album minyo gabber because that’s what we are into at the moment!
I feel design is very strong to the image of Waq Waq Kingdom, as you studied design at Goldsmiths in London. The cover on the latest album is really striking, where did this come from?
It was based on Kuniyoshi, a quite famous artist who has artwork with a giant skull in it. I took that element and wanted to apply the concept that me and Shigeru are stealing the third eye from the skull, which I thought was the universal justice. It’s important that I wanted to do an old Japanese artwork because the music has well had the minyo sound as well as old Japanese philosophy in the lyrics.
Going back to Footwork, it feels like an exciting new genre that you are exploring. What makes footwork so exciting for you and how did that match up with the traditional Japanese sounds you were going for?
As we are getting older, we’ve been trying to catch up on the new world too. It could be anything, doesn’t have to be footwork. I like hardcore and industrial sounds.
Shigeru wants to bring in the happier, positive vibes but I was like ‘Let’s do some dark shit (Laughs)!’. We never plan, we always make, make, make. I then have to rationalize or trace what I’ve been thinking at that time. Essaka Hoisa was exactly like that, we just made a lot of songs and they we had to trace where were our heads were at, what space were we on, what planet were we on. We then trace my subconscious and thinking and then it was put together as a concept.
Shigeru was in Uganda for two months doing a residency and I think that experience, life in Uganda made him a different person a little bit. It was really hard.
Do you get influenced by other Japanese artists doing similar things to you?
Yes, apparently there is a minyo group coming back. Japan Blues an amazing EP from Kufuki called Dodome, that was really nice. I asked my friend in Japan what was going on and she said minyo was making a comeback in Japan.
What do fans in Japan make of your music and your interpretation of minyo music?
We played in January and we went to China and Tokyo and played shows. I didn’t think they were going to like it, as we project a lot of footage from these Japanese festivals behind us. I thought for them it would be too Japanese. When we play in Europe, the audience are like ‘Wow what is that’ by Japanese people already know it. But some people really like it.
There have been some Japanese record shops featuring us and saying how they’ve been looking forward to seeing us.
Some people said to us we are a hippy band (Laughter). To be honest I was shocked. Maybe it was due to the lyrics about not wasting food, I don’t know.
Some of the context and themes within your music will be lost on a western audience that doesn’t know Japanese. What do you think about language barriers? When you go into a project, do you begin by thinking what language am I going to write in?
I still sometimes wonder shall I say this in English or shall I say it in Japanese. I’ve still got a very heavy Japanese accent when I speak in English and I still struggle when I sing in English. I have to do a lot of takes.
For people to understand my accent speaking English is hard probably but it will also be hard for them to understand me speaking Japanese without a subtitle music video.
But I’m not making fast food music, I’m not making music to get famous, I am making music for people appreciating my music. If they are bothered about what I am trying to say, they will search for that.
I do that too, for example I love M.I.A. I don’t always catch what she is saying, but I will search up her lyrics and realise she’s saying some really deep and political stuff, on a really banger beat.
In your solo work and in Japanese music more broadly, artists would sing most of the song in English and then throw in a line in English. Is that due to it being easier to insert a line in English or does it just sound cool?
I guess it’s both. A lot of Japanese people use English words already, like we say ‘happy’. I also really like people to be able to sing along with a catchy line like ‘Doggy Bag’. It’s nice to share the passion and to sing a-long.
You and Shigeru have both moved out of the UK after quite a long time and you said in an interview that was due to gentrification in London. How did it feel as an artist being on the financial edge?
I felt like I was just surviving in London. Then I visited my friend in Berlin and they had a huge flat. For German’s they think it’s normal but for me it was like wow, this is massive!
It’s good feeling survival in one way because you are on the edge and you really feel that stress and you have a lot of output. I used to make hardcore, punk, breakcore just loads of hard music.
But I got older and got really tired of that. I visited Berlin and the weather has been super nice. I was thinking now it’s time to move somewhere that I can have a decent life as a musician. That wasn’t possible in London.
Do you think then Waq Waq Kingdom wouldn’t have existed had you stayed in London?
No, I don’t think so (Laughing). We would have never named our group Waq Waq as that means passion. I would probably make something darker or heavier.
Finally, I could think about other people’s happiness. I was so busy for myself in London but I thought about my daughter’s life when she grows up bigger. I was thinking about political, environmental issues. I also have fear of later life and losing parents as well. All those issues were in my mind. Even though there is still suffering, I have to live lighter.
I think Waq Waq Kingdom is about making people happier. Of course, the core of the life is hard but how can we encourage each other and make them happier.
There was an announcement that Brexit was going to mean artists from Europe are now required to have a visa to tour the UK (with some really outrageous and destructive policies attached to it). How will that effect the amount of time touring the UK?
UK is still central to music. There is still a lot of good music and really influential music blogs and magazines. It would be amazing to tour and I still love the UK, as I lived there for such a long time. I eat Sunday roast and Jamaican food every time I go back and my blood is made of Yorkshire tea or Tetley’s. I will still go even if we still need a visa.
The audiences are also great, especially if you go North. There’s a lot of music places in one country, so it’s very easy to put a tour together.
What’s going to be next for you and Waq Waq Kingdom?
I like working with Shigeru. He is a very honest guy. I want to keep the Waq Waq energy and passion until I die. I probably won’t retire, there’s not word for retirement for me. Waq Waq can be anything, making art or making vegetables. I just keep going.
Words by Sean Redmond. Listen to our interview with Kiki Hitomi on our Mixcloud.