Don’t underestimate the power of Kero Kero Bonito

The London indie-pop trio are effervescent and polite and affable, but they are also brave and unpredictable

By Yeow Kai Chai

This may seem odd to describe Kero Kero Bonito (or KKB for short), but a quote by the ancient Greek statesman Pericles is apt: “Time is the wisest counsellor of all.”

Sure, it was easy in 2016 to peg KKB as one of those fizzy, gorgeously Instagrammable bands when they appeared on the horizon with their debut album, Bonito Generation, but things weren’t so simple with their 2018 follow-up titled, well, Time ‘n’ Place.

Whereas the first is a pop canister pumped with breezy riffs and ridiculous hooks –described as J-pop meets dancehall meets video game soundtrack – the second is rockier, rougher, and altogether tougher. It’s knowing, more scarred, and thus, more resilient.

As the members see it, they are merely reflecting the vicissitudes of the world order. On the phone from London, multi-instrumentalists and producers Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled, and vocalist Sarah Midori Perry (known by her stage name Sarah Bonito) are unfailingly affable, but there is something serious and focused which belie their demeanour and their evolving songcraft.

Their recent surprise EP Civilisation I, for one, touches on war, religion and climate change, fronted by the contemplative synth-pop single ‘When The Fires Come’, which yet signals another change in the musical direction. Hell, they even covered ‘I’ve Seen Footage’ by super-cool Sacramento experimental hip-hop group Death Grips at a gig in the latter’s hometown in October.

For Time ‘n’ Place, music nerd Gus has cited as influences – diverse acts such as defunct Japanese bands, namely Citrus, and Judy and Mary; American electro-experimental rock act Sweet Trip; Scottish duo Strawberry Switchblade; and English rockers Lush.

Why the risk-taking? Gus admits it’s a gamble: “We thought that people who love the old KKB were going to desert us, and that the people who like this kind of music were just not going to know who we were. I was really surprised by the response. It was really encouraging that people like it because it was bold musically, and because we make points not every band makes.”

Time ‘n’ Place captures personal and global undercurrents, including the loss of several family members. Sarah also dreamt of recurring images – a water park from her childhood, a hallway in her primary school. Then she received a text sent by her brother who visited their hometown Otaru in Hokkaido in 2017.

“My old house that I grew up in was demolished. It was gone,” she recalls. “He sent me a black-and-white picture of where the house was. It is a field now. My old primary school got closed down as well. The past is disappearing. It’s a weird time – we’re not going to school anymore, we’re adults, and then there’s the future… And that really inspires Time ‘n’ Place.”

For Gus, one song ‘Visiting Hours’ from the album was especially meaningful. It was written after his father ended up in the intensive care unit due to a health scare. The lyrics were lifted from the seemingly humdrum conversation between his parents. “I should let you go to bed/Brush your teeth take it easy get some rest/I’ll be back here again tomorrow morning/I’ll see you then,” Sarah sings, before offering a “night, night.”

Gus shares a private moment: “One day, just before the record came out, my mum came up the stairs in tears, and she said, ‘Gus, I know what ‘Visiting Hours’ is all about.’ We hugged it out. It was crazy, to be honest. It was a beautiful moment. When we played that song for our first show after the album release, Dad was out since that incident. That was pretty emotional.”

Jamie agrees: “It was embracing the chaos of such situations. We have to embrace that, and come out from the other side.”

Inevitably, the spectre of Brexit hangs over everything. Sarah, who is half-British and half-Japanese, says it has made her more open-minded. “I realise that because I grew up in Japan and in the UK, I have two ways of thinking, which is fun to play around with when I create. It’s knowing that there are different ways of living, depending on where you are in the world.”

Gus says it is “a drag, to be honest,” but asserts: “It’s important not to get too caught up in the tit-for-tat story. Brexit is omnipresent, and it’s impossible not to make music by what you are passionate about, motivated by, worried by, and have a point of view about. We just have to ride it.”

One thing is crystal clear: Based on their simpatico vibes, it’s clear KKB isn’t going down the route of Brexit any time soon.

Asked to describe one another in three words, the three ribbed and laughed, and struggled to come up with succinct epithets. Gus says Jamie is “Swag, Coolest Wordsmith” and that Sarah is “International Pop Star.” Sarah hee-haws before offering that Jamie is secretly “Good at Sports”, and that “Gus Loves Fruits” (to which Gus says he likes that “one of the words is my name.”)  Jamie jumps in and declares: “I’ve got the same three words for both of them. And these three words are: ‘My Best Friend’.”

This ignites whoops of “awwww” all around, and for a while, time stands still, and you know everything would be alright.

Kero Kero Bonito performs at The Alex Blake Charlie Sessions on Saturday, 7 Dec, at the Pasir Panjang Power Station. Get tickets here: http://bit.ly/ABCapactix