Yoshii Kazuya’s Lyrical Composition: Searching For the Sources of His Literariness

Yoshii - Indie Days 1

Do you remember when you wrote your first song?

(Yoshii) Well, the first time I remember really writing lyrics was when I formed The Yellow Monkey, with the song “Lovers On Backstreet”. At first The Yellow Monkey had a different vocalist, and he wrote the lyrics. Then Heesey wrote some lyrics for it as well, but back then I never really said “What if it was more like this?”. Either way I didn’t write any songs, and just said that I wasn’t any good at it.

So when you were a kid you didn’t write lyrics or poems in your notebooks, or carry around books from your favorite writers, and that sort of thing?

(Yoshii) Not at all, I only drew. When I was in grade school I drew manga all the time, and even though I tried to make manga that had stories, I hated thinking up and writing dialogue, so I just left it at drawing (laughs).

When you were in your teens and started getting into western rock music, did you stare at the lyric sheets and memorize them all?

Yoshii - Indie Days 2
A shot of what looks to be Yoshii, Heesey, and Emma from the very early days

(Yoshii) I definitely memorized a lot of KISS songs! With lyrics like “Put your hand in my pocket, grab onto my rocket” I’d think “These foreign guys sure do sing about some interesting stuff!” (laughs), but that’s the level I was at. It didn’t register with me that “Oh, THIS is what lyrics are!”. And I felt that the lyrics in Japanese rock music where only vaguely similar, but that it was okay that there can be different kinds of rock songs. I felt like they were mostly about either being young or women and booze. But when I sing, I can’t just keep it at that. Those songs make me think “I can’t just sing a song this straightforwardly!”, and when I look at lyrics from people like David Bowie or Lou Reed I think “They’re singing about such ridiculous things!” (laughs). But I could never quite write like that, so I just started writing things in a way that was unique to me.

So when you switched from bass to vocals and really sung for yourself, you became more aware of lyrics for the first time?

(Yoshii) Yeah. Because the band I was in before mainly did very rock-like songs. It was a lot of stuff like “I’m drinkin’ booze” or “That girl with the nice ass”, so that’s the sort of reaction I had. I felt like I had to write different lyrics than that. So that’s why “Lovers on Backstreet”, the first song that I wrote, was a song about a prostitute who lost her family. There’s a song called “Kegawa no Coat” that I debated whether or not to put in here, but it’s not very good lyrically. There’s a movie called “Dead Ringers”, and it’s what you might call visceral. I felt like it was “an innards party”, not to mention “the ultimate expression of love!”. At the time I was influenced by the Marquis de Sade. Even though I’d not read very many books at that point, I read one of his all of the sudden and thought “Oh my god! This is really interesting”, so that wasn’t good! And the world of glam rock isn’t all that far from that. It’s kind of a degenerate world like in “The 120 Days of Sodom” (Laughs).

You must have had the intention of trying to interpret that world of glam rock in a more Japanese way, right?

(Yoshii) Yeah. At that time, there was this popular group at La.mama called the London Boots Army. In fishing terms they were like wild carp with long life-spans, and their lyrics really influenced me. They had qualities that reminded me of Cockney Rebel. Then there was Akima (Tsuneo) from Marchosias Vamp. I was influenced by those around me.

Since we’re particularly interested in lyrics here, when you take a look at your early lyrics they had a lot of English phrases in them.

Yoshii - Indie Days 3

(Yoshii) My linguistic abilities weren’t as developed back then. When I couldn’t get something out in Japanese, I’d say “Alright, I’ll put some English in here!”. I had an English dictionary with katakana, but there were just so many citations! For example, if I’d come up with something made-up like “hangoroherafu” just from doing word play, I’d look into the dictionary to see if there were any words in English that sounded similar. I’d find “Androgynous” and say “Okay, let’s go with that!”, but that doesn’t make for very convincing lyrics. It sure sounds amusing though (Laughs)

Ha ha ha ha ha.

(Yoshii) Of the two, I put more importance on the melody. I’d say that it was fine, as long as the melody was interesting. So we’d always play things live that I hadn’t really written lyrics for. And I’d just sing them in made-up words……ha ha ha ha. And you know how pointless that is in lyrics, right? That changed for me with “4000 tsubu no koi no namida” or “Silk Scarf ni boushi no Madam”. I wanted to move on from Western music lyrics, and when I wondered if I could convey those lyrics in beautiful Japanese, I read some of Morio Agata’s lyrics and saw the light. Then I listened to Yoshio Hayakawa’s “kono yo de ichiban kirei na mono” (“The Most Beautiful Thing in the World”) and I was hit with a megaton punch! I was influenced by those guys’ genuine lyrics. But I couldn’t be quite that domestic and liked being a bit gaudy, so it was still troubling.

(A performance of “kono yo de ichiban kirei na mono” by Yoshio Hayakawa)

In what sorts of places and in what sorts of ways do you write your lyrics?

Yoshii - Indie Days 4
Yoshii reapplying

(Yoshii) Back in our amateur days I wrote them at MOS Burger, at dawn. Ever since we’ve debuted I’ve written them at home, at night. And ever since maybe “JAM” it’s become more me scribbling down what I want, like in a diary, in a sketchbook made from plain, high quality coarse paper. Though the hand-written lyrics in this book are ones that I wrote around “SICKS” and “Punch Drunkard”. Sometimes I was drunk, sometimes I was depressed, sometimes I was happy, and sometimes I was letting out frustrations. Up until that point I was writing thinking things like “I can probably release this” and “I’ve got to let people hear this”, and it was a lot of pressure. Actually around “smile” I was really starting to hate writing lyrics. But ever since I began scribbling them down, I’ve gradually been getting carried away writing and it’s gotten a lot more interesting.

Do you have rules for yourself when you write? Like “I don’t like this” or “I at least want to uphold this”?

(Yoshii) I have some criteria. Yeah, I definitely have some…..Yeah, what would they be? Feelings something close to proposing? Maybe it’s more like having someone right in front of you for an arranged marriage interview, for some reason……I definitely won’t use words that don’t suit me, no matter how strong they may be. And I don’t like using words outside of my own range, no matter how well they suit the melody. So it’s like I’m saying that I’m waiting for someone on my same wavelength to read them. But there may be some things that I want to convey very simply as well, but using strange words. It’s a tricky thing. (Laughs)

So wanting to convey lyrics to someone else has a very vague base.

(Yoshii) Right. You’re aware that making a CD means showing it to the world after all, and there’s just no getting around that. You don’t think that maybe this time you’ll show them to someone with random scribbles or unpublished lyrics, but songs are completely different. It depends on the person. There may be a person who says “Just put a melody to that”, but no matter how strong the poetry I don’t want to just make it into a song and sing it. I can’t do it that way.

For instance, there are those who think “Pouring my heart out through singing is rock, so the more raw the better!”, but you’re different.

Yoshii - Indie Days 5

(Yoshii) Doing things that way is fine too. It’s just that’s not what the kind rock I like is. To me doing that is just the opposite: it’s awkward. I have Cool Five and Shinichi Mori CDs in my car right now. I listen to rock mostly only when I’m backstage or something. So for me, enka is very alternative right now! (Laughs). There are times when especially people who write rock or pop songs also write enka though, right? Songs that Eiichi Ootaki wrote for Shinichi Mori, or enka written by jazz musicians or people who listen to Western music, those are all really interesting cases. It was like a really great feeling came over me when I got over thinking “But it’s enka!”. I think “BURN” was born as a direct result from having that realization about enka.

Wow! So can you name some songs that you think of as “The Yellow Monkey’s version of enka”?

(Yoshii) “BURN” and “4000 tsubu no koi no namida”. I’d also say “Hanareru na”, “Kyuukon” and “So Young” as well. It looks like a lot of our recent songs have been. But calling them enka isn’t really appropriate, they’re more like Japanese blues. So when I think “Yeah, when I start to get passionate, it turns into enka! I want to get really passionate with these songs!”, the songs just come out as enka. It was the same with “Second Cry” and other stuff on “Jaguar Hard Pain”. It was a code pattern or something, I think most of the choruses on that album ended up being very enka. In a very paper thin kind of way, like if they were performed by Takao Yoshizawa or Takayuki Inoue.

Ahh, I see.

(Yoshii) It has me thinking all over again that in a way, I’m not really a rock guy. It’s a bit of a weird term, but I think I’m more of a pop song enthusiast.

But “Kyuukon” is like…the definition of rock, isn’t it?

Yoshii at La.Mama
Yoshii standing on stage at La.mama more recently (Taken by Mikio Ariga)

(Yoshii) “Kyuukon” is a very rock song to me, but from a bird’s eye view I think it’s a pop song after all. In “Kyuukon” there’s a lyric that’s “This bright red passion” (“kono makka na jounetsu ga”), which was originally “This bright red fresh blood” (“kono makka na senketsu ga”). But the staff told me “I don’t think they’ll play that on the radio if some sort of violent incident happens”, and so I recognized that would be a bad thing. There’s no point in putting a song that won’t be played out into the world, so I decided to change it to “passion”. But to the people who call it rock, wouldn’t they say “You’ve gotta be kidding me, This is supposed to be “fresh blood”! If it’s not “fresh blood”, then don’t bother putting it out!”. But in the end I want a lot of people to listen to it, and I don’t like rock when it’s lonely.

I understand. By the way, which lyrics did you agonize over the most as you were writing them?

(Yoshii) It’s not featured here in this book, but “Tsuioku no Mermaid”! (Laughs) That was just the worst period for me. I felt like I’d peaked with the songs on “smile”. I felt like saying “Let’s just have some composer write the lyrics from now on!”. But of course “So Young” is being written because of that period. I think it was a very important point for me. Simply put, it was me hitting a wall.

So since we’re making this lyrics compilation book, you’ve re-read your lyrics rather recently. Is there anything new that you’ve discovered in doing so?

(Yoshii) Yeah, I thought to myself that I was very cute. I didn’t get any impressions of being kind, scary, or anything else like that. Just cute. When I look back on these songs now that I really took responsibility for in singing, all I can think is that they were cute.

Which song would you choose as the ultimate love song that you’ve written?

(Yoshii) The ultimate love song….hmm, which one would that be? There are so many. Almost all of them are, in one way or another. The first one that jumps out at me though is “So Young”. I wasn’t aiming for anything particular with it, I wasn’t trying to make anyone feel grateful with it, and I don’t have any bitterness about it.

But since “So Young” isn’t just a love song, but rather you looking back at yourself, could it be that you’re being narcissistic by choosing this as a love song?

(Yoshii) Huh!? (Laughs) You may be right… Maybe it’s because most of the others aren’t particularly great love songs.

So then, which one of your songs would you like to play at your funeral if you were to die?

(Yoshii) If I were to die right now? If I were to die right now…it probably probably be the newest one that I’ve written, “So Young”! Sorry! It’s just the song that I like the best right now.