Kero Kero Bonito: Lingua Franca for a Digital Daze
Kero Kero Bonito are a wonky U.K.-based music-making trio with ties to Japan by way of both influence and identification card, but their dizzying sounds can hardly be pinned to either island nation. Frontwoman Sarah Midori Perry is a British-Japanese binational who made the continental jump at the formative age of thirteen before, some time later, meeting producers Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled on none other than the World Wide Web. KKB songs bounce off ideas of “everyday kisch,” says Perry. Pink flamingos, 90s video games, and a pet dog on the heels of a housecat provide a useful sampling of the stuff from which the coed trio float lyrically. “At my mum’s house, the cat and dog just don’t get on,” Jamie Bulled tells with a grin. In the English version of “Cat Vs Dog,” Perry shames this canine bully, “I’ll bite you in the head, ’til you’re dead / Brains everywhere, but I won’t care / I’ll be hanging with my bitches, enjoying the riches of a multisensory life.” It’s not so much the delightfully cute chaos of a housepet chase but concepts of the “multisensory life” that’s important here. In a shared orbit with their flashy young contemporary Shamir, the globally venerated matriarch M.I.A., and English/Afrikaans bilingual rappers Die Antwoord, Kero Kero Bonito offer a cross-cultural pastiche of coded dreamweaving.
Gus Lobban and co-producer Jamie Bulled are a self-described synth nerds, which is soon illustrated by their tangential, esoteric sidebars about audio engineering during the question and answer session. On navigating the relationship between digital software and analog instruments, Lobban muses, “Digital can be a very controlled approach: hyperactive and detailed. Playing with analog stuff is more loose and vibey. It’s bringing them together that is the more interesting thing.” Dissecting the KKB single “Flamingo,” Lobban is hard-pressed to even spell the thing out verbally, “It has this, kind of languid, like…” he trails momentarily before completing the thought with an a capella melody. Perry helps him finish the thought with a matching decrescendo, “dá, daah naaah.” All three heads bob and curl to the unspoken rhythm.
Perry, Lobban, and Bulled grew up at a time in which video games offered a lingua franca that ignored border checkpoints, connecting kids from Japan to Britain To America—or Kuwait and New Zealand, for that matter. Gus Lobban remembers playing Zelda and purposefully walking in and out of the game’s “milk bar” to hear the pub jingle. The tune he’s referencing is a jovial finger-tapper stirred by harmonized toylike instruments; one could easily imagine a sharpened KBB remix—polished with the bilingual lyrical stylings of Perry—racking up a couple million plays on Soundcloud. For KKB, Nintendo and Sega nostalgia is more than aural inspiration. Sarah Perry culturally-appropriated (to use the buzzword for good) Tomb Raider, for example, as part of a broader vision. On “Sick Beat,” she hurls: “It’s often said, I should get some girly hobbies instead, but that thought fills me with dread / I’m not into sewing, baking, dressmaking, not eating, bitching, submitting.”
Video games played one of many hands in the globalization of counterculture. Today, decades of intergenerational youth culture—from music to art to fashion—is entangled on the internet. With Napster, Kazaa, Limewire and onwards to platforms like Spotify and Soundcloud today, nearly the entirety of 20th Century music can be found on the other end of a keyboard click. “It’s so easy to see what’s going on on the Korean charts, or in Brazil,” says Jamie Bulled. “There was a feeling in the late-90s, early-aughts that anything was possible—the internet was a black hole, but as time played out, music was not delineated as much as one might have speculated.” Bulled says he might Google “South African house music,” for example, to explore the sounds as a sort of path, but it would be impossible, he realizes, to fully assimilate every sub-genre of global music without having the lived experiences inherent in the music’s conception. Digital democratization, as it were, also seems to have fallen short with the rise of homogenized multimedia and cross-platform conglomerates. “With streamlined, targeted content,” Bulled expounds, “it’s a totally different way of thinking about media.” Nonetheless, he says, it’s important for Kero Kero Bonito to remember the idealistic, anything-goes spirit.
“Our generation, no matter where you were born,” says Sarah Perry, “grew up on the same video games—Pokémon, Crash Bandicoot, Sonic the Hedgehog. We grew up on the same TV shows and music. We all share the same childhood in a way.” Gus Lobban extrapolates, “It’s this global culture that took over everyone’s life,” he says. “And what that means is that there’s this bizarre common language.” Keeping this in mind helps to understand how Lobban, a British kid raised on Jamaican dancehall and 64-bit video game tunes could be so natural a fit to make futuristic music with Jamie Bulled, who constructs beats and melodies spatially, with a greater disposition towards visual art than music theory, and Sarah Perry, whose introduction to the music world was J-Pop, K-Pop, and a seat at the saxophone in Japanese primary school. During those years in Japan, she learned English through daily life with dad, a Brit whose hold on the Japanese tongue wasn’t so solid. This bilingual upbringing makes it more natural for Perry to write lyrics in both languages…“like Spanglish,” she giggles. Well, is there a word for Japanese-English? Japanglish? Jamie Bulled jumps in to settle the question: “yeah, it’s called Kero Kero Bonito!”