After coming back from their first world tour last year, Japan’s BURNOUT SYNDROMES recently dropped The World Is Mine, a collection of songs featured as the themes of various popular anime series such as Haikyu!! and Dr. Stone. The album includes tracks that blend Japanese and Western influences, for example the title track from the band’s indie days rearranged in a Western style, the English version of “FLY HIGH!!,” a collaborative number with FLOW called “I Don’t Wanna Die in the Paradise,” and “Mt. Wakakusa Starmine,” a song featuring traditional Japanese instruments renamed from the original Japanese title that means the same.
The three members of the band — frontman/gutarist and principal songwriter Kazu-umi Kumagai, bassist Taiyu Ishikawa, and drummer Takuya Hirose — spoke with Billboard Japan about their new set and elaborated on the kind of music they hope to share with their international audiences through these anime themes and live performances. They also chatted about what they’ve gained from their overseas treks and their current place as a band.
Your new album is characterized by its clear focus on global expansion, as the title, The World is Mine, unambiguously describes. Your first live performance outside of Japan was in 2017 in France. Why did you set your sights on the world at this current time?
Kazu-umi Kumagai: What we experienced in 2022 was a huge factor in realizing that I wanted us to go global. Starting from September, we played outside of Japan once every month.
Takuya Hirose: I think the reason why so many music festivals outside of Japan have reached out to us is because the number of people watching Japanese anime has increased globally as a result of the pandemic. Anime can be watched in just over 20 minutes each, unlike drama series and movies, so that probably fit with the times, too.
Taiyu Ishikawa: In fact, around the summer of 2020 we saw an huge influx of subscribers to our YouTube channel, and the number of monthly listeners on Spotify began to exceed a million. When I was in Japan, it didn’t feel like so many people were listening to our stuff, but it really hit home when we played overseas. In that sense, I think the fact that we’re in demand overseas has been reflected in the numbers for some time.
Kumagai: From an international perspective, Japan equals anime. The Riyadh Season 2022 event in Saudi Arabia where we performed last year was like an Expo featuring representative cultures from around the world, like bullfighting for Spain, King Kong for the U.S., and Shibuya and anime for Japan. Part of the reason for that was because the royal family of Saudi Arabia likes Japanese games and anime, but it seemed like no matter which country we visited, the impression people have of Japan is anime. It’s like Hollywood for the U.S. from our point of view, or soccer for Argentina.
That analogy really makes sense.
Kumagai: So the local audiences tend to be more in interested in artists linked to lots of anime theme songs. But we were told by a local agent that it’s rare for an act to be invited to perform overseas so much, even considering how many anime themes they’ve done. I guess there must be something about our music that strikes a chord with people everywhere.
I get what you’re saying, because BURNOUT SYNDROMES has been pursuing a musical style not limited to rock from the beginning.
Kumagai: Anime themes tend to lean towards rock songs, but I’ve always been the type that wants to do music that isn’t limited by the framework of a rock band, like tracks using traditional Japanese instruments or inspired by EDM. I think our music is being welcomed outside of Japan because we have such songs, and we’re able to compete on a global level with our sound and not necessarily because of the content of the lyrics. That’s something I sense during our live shows overseas.
You say that, but the lyrics are also a distinctive quality of BURNOUT SYNDROMES. Kazu-umi’s (Kumagai) narrative lyrics have been acclaimed since the band’s indie days, and for example, there’s a line in the FLOW collab “I Don’t Wanna Die in the Paradise” that goes, “I want to be world famous,” expressing strong determination and fighting spirit.
Ishikawa: We’ve both always loved Kumagai’s lyrics.
Hirose: I think every time, “The lyrics are so good again!” [Laughs]
Kumagai: For “I Don’t Wanna Die in the Paradise,” (the five-man band) FLOW and our band wanted to combine the elements that we consider to be the current styles in Western music with J-pop-like distortion guitar to come up with a number that we could present to the world as something born from our backgrounds. After I began to actually travel abroad, the way I see my home country has been changing. So for a while from here, I feel like I’ll be in a period of judging whether I should incorporate Western elements into a song or if sticking with J-pop ways is better, case by case. It’s fun because I’m gradually beginning to discern that. I’m hoping we can bring together the best of both worlds.
Hirose: At the Crunchyroll EXPO 2022 in the U.S., we did a set that mainly featured songs with traditional Japanese instruments, like (the original) “Mt. Wakakusa Starmine” and “Hanaichimonme,” and the local audience seemed to love it. It was nice to know that people enjoyed the sounds of traditional instruments and also our songs not connected to any anime works.
Ishikawa: Our band has a lot of songs not limited to rock, so when we say stuff to hype up the crowd during our shows like Western DJs do, it works really well. I think that’s why we can play in front of crowds in any country pretty smoothly.
Listening to your latest collection, it feels like the songs released within the last four or five years are the ones that have clearly evolved beyond the basic rock band format. Was there a reason why you decided to change so much?
Kumagai: The rise of Billy Eilish. She really made me feel, “Whoa, we really can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing.” The sound of each instrument in a rock band is so strong that you have to sing really loud to get your voice across, but her vocals don’t do that. That was a culture shock for me, and I also thought it was so cool. So I wanted to fuse together the best parts of a rock band and music that layers a narrow range of sounds like hers.
Ishikawa: When I play such songs onstage, I really feel that a single note played live can create a groove. I think that’s the good thing about being in a band.
Hirose: Another good thing about playing in a band is that you can connect songs by maintaining the tension of the moment.
Kumagai: Like they both said, notes played live is the best part of a concert. But if you do that in a recording, it turns out sounding like a regular rock band. That’s why for the past few years, we’ve been recording BURNOUT SYNDROMES’s songs by thinking of combinations like if live drums are used, the bass will be synths, or if the bass is live, the drums will be computerized.
Hearing you speak, I got the sense that “the fusion of opposites” is the concept that describes where BURNOUT SYNDROMES is at the moment. For example, “the world and Japan” and “computer and instrumental sounds.”
Kumagai: I’ve never intentionally done things thinking, “Lemme fuse this and that.” I’ve just been trying to let go of my habits all this time.
Ishikawa: Kumagai does things differently each time. So there are moments when I think, “What’s my real job?” and I have to learn something new each time. [Laughs] But I really enjoy that, too.
Hirose: Other drummers I know say to me, “You always have to do new things and it seems like a lot of work.” [Laughs] But I really enjoy those moments when I successfully pull off a difficult beat, and I also love it when I can go all out on tracks like “Hanaichimonme” upon Kumagai’s request.
Kumagai: We’ve been trying to create things that have never been done before, to include beats and sounds that we’ve never tried before. When we write music for anime, we study the works and try the ideas we come up with. We’ve faced each work carefully and have given everything we had at the time. It feels like the results of these efforts have led us to where we are now.
You said you try to let go of your habits. That’s like saying you’re letting go of the band’s essence, or character. Is there anything you’re unwilling to concede?
Kumagai: Well… After doing so many different things, the one thing our songs have in common is that Kazu-umi Kumagai is singing them. I have a kind of weird voice that gets drowned out in rock music. I’ve been grappling with this for a long time and began experimenting with various ways to make my voice heard in our songs. So it was this voice that led me to try out new things with our sound.
That explains why you were drawn to the way Billie Eilish sings without raising her voice. So BURNOUT SYNDROMES’s music evolved because of Kazu-umi Kumagai’s vocals.
Kumagai: That’s also the story behind the title track of the new album, which is a rearrangement of the original “The World is Mine.” I’d wanted to do a new arrangement for that track for a while and decided to include it this time because it happened to fit the theme of the collection. Thinking about the sound we create with this rather imperfect voice and how to make it resonate beautifully is what this band has been about, I guess.
The chorus of “FLY HIGH!!” also has elements of this. It has an explosive, instantly unforgettable melody. The opener for Haikyu!! Season 2 continues to enjoy a huge international following, and it’s the track that kicked off BURNOUT SYNDROMES’s collaborations with anime.
Kumagai: I think that song comes across that way because we were able to create the rhythm with a three-note refrain. For a long time, I’ve been thinking hard about how to place rhythm and refrain in the melody so the band can compete with this voice. I naturally began placing importance on rhythm, and I guess that turned out to suit international listeners. We want people outside of Japan to listen to our music the way Japanese people listen to Western music. (To make that happen,) it has to be music that can be enjoyed even if you can’t understand the lyrics. We included the English version of “FLY HIGH!!” in our new album, so I hope people enjoy it in a different way when they find out what it’s about.
Did you expect “FLY HIGH!!” to become so popular when you first wrote it?
Kumagai: Not at all. It was my first time writing a theme for an anime series, and I just did my best. But (music producer) Junji Ishiwatari once said to me that a debut song is really important, so while I was writing it I was sure it’d become a song that I’d sing for the rest of my life. It’s a number that I wrote with that kind of determination.
Hirose: “Hikariare” and “PHOENIX” were also featured as Haikyu!! themes after “FLY HIGH!!,” so lots of people probably think Haikyu!! when they hear BURNOUT SYNDROMES. Haikyu!! is an important work that helped us meet all kinds of people.
Ishikawa: I’ve always loved the original manga series and Haikyu!! is like my textbook for life. Whenever I take on a challenge, I read it over again to inspire myself. I’m really proud to be able to play with such an important work on my shoulders.
A band that’s been singing about “the world” is now breaking out on the global stage. That’s pretty dramatic.
Kumagai: ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION is probably why I often use the words “sekai” (world in Japanese) and “world” in my lyrics. I came across that band when I was in elementary school and “world” was input in my mind as a word that sounded cool in most contexts. [Laughs] I find it interesting that we’re being invited to places around the world almost 20 years later. We currently have three routes available to us: being heard in the Japanese market, being invited around the world through our anime collabs, and being heard by the fans of artists we collaborate with, so I’d like to write songs accordingly.
BURNOUT SYNDROMES has carved out an unprecedented path in the Japanese band scene, and will continue to blaze the trail it looks like.
Hirose: I like Kumagai’s songs. That’s the reason why I’ve been in this band all this time. So as long as this continues into the future, I don’t care how we do it or where, in Japan or elsewhere.
Ishikawa: Speaking of unprecedented, I’ve been trying to spread the J-pop culture of raising your hand during the chorus of a song at our performances abroad. It’s not going so well. [Laughs] I want to communicate to people around the world how to enjoy our culture, and I also want to pursue ways to convey the beauty of the Japanese language and Kumagai’s lyrics.
Kumagai: Recently, I’ve been feeling that we’ve reached a new starting point again. It’s really hard to write songs that will be appreciated both in Japan and abroad, so I think it’s our job to pave the way for that with the help of anime. It might be unprecedented, but there’s no point in following what everyone else is doing… I mean, we’re a band that has released only such songs. [Laughs] We hope to continue doing worthwhile work.
—This interview by Sayako Oki first appeared on Billboard Japan