After the awesome NINGEN ISU show we saw with Mr. Sato recently, we were exhausted but exhilarated. The band’s hard rock/heavy metal sound is great for getting the blood pumping and the performance felt like it ended as soon as it began—despite lasting well over an hour! It’s safe to say, these guys are the real deal.
So, when Mr. Sato asked if we wanted to come along for an interview with vocalist and guitarist Shinji Wajima, we didn’t hesitate in saying yes! Check out our fun (and fascinating) conversation with Wajima where we cover everything from camping and songwriting to being in a band with someone you’ve known nearly your entire life.
Shinji Wajima, who is 50 this year, was a kid when hard rock—British hard rock in particular—came to Japan. The way he describes it, the music wasn’t just different from the minyo (basically traditional folk songs) that were popular in his home prefecture of Aomori, it was full of passion. As a junior high school student, he immediately fell in love with this music, but he didn’t really have any friends with whom he could share it.
Fortunately, though, he met Kenichi Suzuki, the band’s bassist and fellow vocalist, through other friends. After entering the same high school, they played in a band together, but never really got the chance to play the music they loved most. So, when they both ended up in Tokyo for university, the pair decided to try again, playing exactly the kind of music they love: hard rock and heavy metal.
Like many bands, they started playing covers, and, like many bands, they eventually decided to try their hand at songwriting. However, while other Japanese bands were using English names and trying to adopt the fashion of Western bands, Ningen Isu decided to focus on what worked best for them—and that meant embracing their Japanese identity with a Japanese band name, Japanese lyrics, and Japanese fashion on stage.
▼ “Hari no yama”
While the traditional clothes they wear on stage are clearly from Japan, they’re also not the kind of clothes you see people wearing every day. The point, Wajima explains, is to create a special atmosphere, like the blues players who used to wear suits while performing.
In fact, as Wajima explains it, a Ningen Isu show is about sharing space and time with the audience—not a one-way performance as he thought when he was younger. When asked what the difference is between a good show and a great show, the guitarist explains that it’s the way the time flows. If, at the end of the set, it feels like time flew by and they were engaging with the audience, it was a great show. If he spends time worrying about messing up or with his thoughts all over the place, it’s a bad show.
▼ Video with clips from the band’s most recent live DVD/Blu-ray
However, Wajima also adds that he doesn’t think they’ve had any bad performances for several years. “I figured out the technique to a good performance,” he tells us. So, how long does it take for a band or musician to figure it out? “About 20 years,” he says before pausing and saying it may only be 10 or 15 years. Regardless, it’s clear that expertise comes with experience and time![tweet https://twitter.com/planetcaravan69/status/652014165394001920 align=center]
In fact, younger musicians probably have a lot they could learn from this veteran rocker. Wajima tells us that early in the band’s career, they approached songwriting primarily from a musical perspective, writing the refrains first. However, things have changed over the years, and now they start with the central concept they’re trying to express and mold the song to fit that concept. The guitarist says that since that change, he’s had little trouble coming up with new songs—though he does apparently like to go camping alone when writing! “I just take a small guitar and a multi-track recorder and go camping by myself,” Wajima says, adding that being close to nature gives him inspiration.
In fact, beyond just the lyrics and music, there’s a central guiding concept for the band. Wajima explains that they want to create a cohesive theme for each album, always something outside the everyday. The guitarist mentions the song “The Colour Out of Space” as one example, saying that horror stories are a great fit with hard rock and metal, but goes on to emphasize that the band writes albums—not singles. “There’s an art to arranging an album,” Wajima explains; even if they’re not producing full-blown concept albums, each disc takes the listener on a journey. In the same way, when touring, they arrange their set list so that the music meshes with the theme of the new album.
▼ “Konjaku Hijiri”
The band’s name is another good example. Wajima says they were looking for a scary name like their favorite band, Black Sabbath. Ningen Isu (literally “Human Chair”) was taken from the name of a short story by horror/mystery writer Edogawa Ranpo, fitting perfectly with the band’s emphasis on melding Japanese culture with Western rock music. This same mentality is reflected in their lyrics which are often based on Japanese literature. When asked why they focused so much on literature, Japanese or otherwise, Wajima mentions the legendary band Iron Maiden, citing their many songs based on famous books and movies.
▼ “Shinigami no Kyoen”
The band has been around for over two and a half decades, and Wajima has known Suzuki for even longer. We can’t help wondering what kind of effect that has on them. While you might imagine that this would result in the band members getting sick of each other, the guitarist tells us it’s never been a problem. In fact, after so much time working together, he says it would be nearly impossible to quit. There’s also the fact that their parents know each other as well—there’s a lot of pressure to keep things copacetic! But there’s another aspect of their long-lasting friendship that benefits the band. Wajima tells us that they understand each other, including their goals and what they’re thinking. For something like a band to work, we imagine being able to understand each other is pretty important.
Another benefit that the band has seen thanks to its long life is changes in technology. While there’s always someone complaining about stuff like auto-tune and ProTools, for Wajima, improved editing software and hardware makes it easier for him to realize the concepts floating around in his head. Of course, he’s not going in and tweaking each and every note—they always write with a mind to performing live—but it does make it easier for him to fix things that need to be fixed.
▼ “Sokoku no Ie”
Finally, we asked if Wajima had a message for our readers:
“We’re extremely happy about being able to perform at this year’s OzzFest. Our hope is to perform overseas in the future—a dream we’ve had for a while. So, we look forward to getting to play for our fans overseas someday!”
The band has also undertaken some interesting side projects as well. They’ve recorded an ending theme for the Ninja Slayer anime (the episode will be broadcast November 25) and produced instrumental music that will be used as a score for the new Japanese comedic drama JK ha Yuki-onna, a show about a high school girl who is also a yuki-onna, one of Japan’s many yokai.
In addition to all this, the band is hard at work on their next album, and Wajima is also writing a book about effects peddles. Also, for everyone who will be in Japan on November 22, don’t forget to buy your tickets to see Ningen Isu at OzzFest at Makuhari Messi!
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