We have been following this band for the past few years, while they slowly but surely went on releasing songs that, for some reason, were welcomed by a very special corner of the Internet. Kero Kero Bonito is formed by Sarah Midori Perry 'Bonito,' Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled and they're mostly known for their hit Flamingo, a song both in English and Japanese that lists off different coloured hues and is an ode to all things that diverge from the norm. While this fun, Tik Tok staple has consolidated the group, there's much more to unravel from their music.
Having just released their latest album Civilisation II, they are starting tackle subjects that have lately been on their minds, from anti-natalism, the exploration of past, present and the unknowable distant future and, in essence, existentialism. Read on if you want to find out more about their inspirations, the power of pop music and if life really changes after going viral.
Sarah, Gus, Jamie, would you like to describe each other in a sentence?
Gus: Sarah is the oracle of glitter, Jamie is the sage of the bassbin.
Sarah: Gus is the fortune teller and Jamie is the philosopher.
Jamie: Sarah is Bonito and Gus is Kero.
What inspired you to make your new album Civilisation II, was just an organic continuation to your previous album Civilisation I for you? Why did you decide to exclusively use vintage hardware to make this new album?
Gus: Our original plan was to release just one Civilisation EP but it got split in two – so Civilisation II can be considered Civilisation I's other half. We used old gear mainly to harness their timbres, which – especially in the case of dusty old samplers with their strangely tangible sound quality – never sound quite like software. It also encouraged a relatively distinctive songwriting workflow. I think our affinity for this process relates to our sense of what Svetlana Boym termed the off-modern: an approach to contemporary culture that involves exploring humanity's forgotten or suggested pathways to create new objects, instead of pure revivalism or bland modernisation for its own sake. We were trying to make fantastical pop music with the flotsam of eras past.
Kero Kero Bonito’s sound has evolved quite a lot in the past few years, from bubbly hyperpop with songs like Trampoline, to influences coming from shoegaze and nineties indie and now to alt-pop and what’s called fourth world pop. As time has gone by, you’ve escaped that ‘Internet sound’ that defined you, was it because it was tiring to keep up that constant state of apparent happiness?
Gus: We've explored different styles as we've felt like it; it can get boring treading the same territory constantly. That's true whether the territory is laptop electro-pop or haunted indie rock. That said, I do think a desire to explore something completely refreshing motivated our switch to the rock style of Time'n' Place. Making Only Acting, which we purposefully chose as our first guitar-based single because of its lyrical themes and aggressive sound, was a very different experience to making Lipslap, for example. You tend to gravitate towards the inverse of what you're overfamiliar with. We might've also wanted to demonstrate our range a bit too.
Sarah: I think we are all on a journey and the music we put out is whatever we wanted to make in that moment.
Your song Flamingo is somewhat of a sleeper hit – even though I and many other people were obsessed with this song over 5 years ago – as it blew up on Tik Tok a few months ago, what was that like? Did you just wake up one day with hundreds of notifications of old friends hitting you up talking about it?
Gus: Flamingo has had a life of its own for a long time now. As soon as it was released it was posted by Majestic Casual – which was a huge platform for a KKB song in 2014 – and then it became a viral song in its own right, all before TikTok was available outside of China. Boringly, I think I first found out about of its popularity by analysing our streaming statistics, but then friends got in touch and so on. I've learnt to expect the unexpected from that song, though the scale of the phenomenon was a total surprise.
Sarah: It feels like Flamingo has its own legs wandering around the Internet bringing back different coloured shrimps. My parents still call me now and again asking me, “Have you seen the YouTube views for Flamingo lately!?”
You have now entered a very fascinating territory, the Tik Tok community, and may I say even the videogame community with your song It’s Bugsnax. How does it feel? What’s it like being very well-known but just in a very specific side of the Internet? Did you think this would ever happen to you?
Gus: I can tell you that life doesn't change massively when you go viral; I didn't suddenly feel like a rockstar or something. I'm really pleased to have ticked that off my millennial bucket list, though, and it increased our audience significantly, which I'm still so grateful for because in this day and age their plays are the lifeblood of pop acts. I can remember how unobtainable a million-view YouTube video felt, and I would never have predicted the Flamingo story, but when you want a career in pop music you have to believe that something like this could happen.
Sarah: The best part is that the road is open for us. We are free to create whatever we like and we have amazing fans that want to be part of the KKB world.
Jamie: My nephews were showing me insane videos using Flamingo's drop quite early on. As for TikTok, the track's directness and personality is a good match.
Traditional pop artist Utada Hikaru made news in 2019 as she released with Skrillex's Face My Fears for Kingdom of Hearts III, however, 2 years later there are many rising stars whose music already seems straight out of a videogame, for example fellow collaborator of yours 100 Gecs. Your songs could also be described like this, what do you think is the appeal? Is just escapism or is there more to it?
Gus: Video games played a huge role for our generation. On a basic level, a huge proportion of the music we heard growing up was video game music, and both the requirements of the form and the primitive sound hardware they used engendered specific, identifiable musical styles.
Beyond the music, video games are pop art objects as much as TV shows or records, and some introduced us to ambitious and even avant-garde concepts other art forms weren't exposing us to; it's extraordinary that I was engaging with the existential themes of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask when I was 8 years old. Maybe video game music is mere escapism for some people, but it's part of my sonic identity the way new wave is part of my parents', and I associate it with major, life-affirming ideas.
21/04/21 is about a regular day in lockdown, however, the melody’s quite upbeat, this could perfectly be an inspiring anthem taken out of Steven Universe to me, and yet the quarantine wasn’t as joyful as this… When you were writing this song, was it a sort of therapy for you?
Gus: It was therapeutic in the way unaffected diaristic documentation is: "I woke up, I had lunch, I went for a walk, I spoke to a friend and then I went to bed." The lyrics themselves are prosaic and unsentimental – they were intended to simply recount a day in lockdown rather than romanticise it. We weren't feeling the bright side when we wrote about how "a private ambulance zooms off into the distance," private ambulances carry corpses, and were hard to miss when Covid hit. I would argue that tragic poignancy is only communicated when hope and despair are juxtaposed; the earnest plea of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is more heartbreaking than any dirge.
With Well Rested, why did you feel the need to re-work Rest Stop?
Gus: It was the development of ideas in Rest Stop that led to Well Rested in the first place. I wanted to make a track with the slowed-down drum machine loop in that song at normal speed, and it made sense to thematically link it with its parent – Well Rested was a good title for such a song.
When I read the title of the song, I thought it would talk about the rest that we all need, especially in a pandemic that has highlighted the precarious lives that we all need, (knowing that the previous song talked about the lockdown) and I was surprised to hear that it’s about resurrection, and the ambiguous morality around a population explosion. What led you to this? Was it also a meditation that came to you from how the pandemic unfolded itself?
Gus: Our lyrical starting point was the title and a vague awareness that it could connect lyrically to Rest Stop. The morality of anti-natalism was floating around as a theme, and the resurrection made a logical next step for our exploration; if the title was going to be Well Rested, what were we resting for? It wasn't consciously inspired by the pandemic – I'd say the doom-cult debate around the population explosion was a bigger presence in news media before Covid changed everything – but the lyrics were written during it, so it could've made its way in there.
What drew you to the medieval theme for Civilisation II? There is a clear dichotomy from being inspired by mythology in songs like The Princess and the Clock, and even in the aesthetic of the cover art, to then talking about our modern society. I think you lean a lot into ambiguity and opposite concepts in general, would you agree with me?
The timescale invoked by the Civilisation EPs is an extension of that on our album Time 'n' Place. Where that record conflated our personal past, present and future, Civilisation applies the same process to our ancient history, contemporary experience on an epic scale and the unknowable distant future. It's really existentialism. I think we lean into ambiguity because that's what our favourite art does – it's hard to summon emotional or conceptual tension through one dimension. Mystery is infinitely more evocative than didacticism, and the power of art is in its questions, not its answers.
What would you like for people to take from your newest EP? What would you like for this to say about you as a group?
Gus: I'd be especially happy if this EP reminds people of the vivid power pop music can have, and that we're a band who are trying to push where it can go.
Jamie: You can't stop civilisation!
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