NOT WONK Reaches a New Frontier with dimen Their Experimental Approach that Led Them to Their Evolution Shuhei Kato Interview Part 1

NOT WONK is a three-piece band based in Tomakomai, Hokkaido. The band was formed by Shuhei Kato (Vo.&Gt.) in 2010. Ever since the band released its first album, Laughing Nerds And A Wallflower, it has been attracting, not only rock fans, but various musicians with its live performances. 

On January 27th of this year, the band has put out its fourth album, dimen. For the album, the band took a new experimental approach of cross-pollinating diverse genres from US indie rock, melodic rock, punk, to guitar-pop. 

This interview of NOT WONK’s Shuhei Kato, who writes all the lyrics and songs of the band, is consisted of two parts. For this first installment, we share the stories about him welcoming the engineer, illicit tsuboi, on board for the recording, and the experimental details embodied in each song of the band’s new album.  

Appointing the engineer, illicit tsuboi 

——I think one of the biggest credits in dimen is illicit tsuboi (from hereunder, tsuboi), who joined to work for this album. tsuboi co-worked on all the songs except “slow burning”—so, that would be nine songs in total. Tell me how you met him. 

Shuhei Kato (from hereunder, Kato): tsuboi did mixing for odd eyes’s album, which was released from KiliKiliVilla, so I knew of him from that record. Back then, I wasn’t considering much about working with tsuboi, but one day, when I read tsuboi’s interview, which was one of Natalie’s exclusive articles highlighting various engineers,I thought, “What an interesting guy,” and it greatly inspired me to work with him. Also, I was fascinated by the fact that he’d worked with SUPER STUPID and he’s now working with Hakushi Hasegawa—I had a feeling that we’d communicate well. 

——How did you approach tsuboi to ask to work with you? 

Kato: For dimen, I was initially considering on having a different engineer for each song. So, for the first song, “slow burning,” we had Hyuga Kashiwai (from hereunder, Kashiwai), who had worked for our previous album, Down the Valley; however, as soon as we started discussing on “How we should proceed with the album production”, the pandemic occurred. Our timeline and budget have been significantly affected by the circumstance, and in order to achieve the best outcome, we couldn’t think of anyone else but tsuboi. The basic flow of the project was: I made a solid demo, sent it to tsuboi, then we discussed carefully as we did the mixing together. 

——So, due to the pandemic, you had to alter your original plan, but that provided you the opportunity to commission tsuboi. Was the mixing done remotely? 

Kato: We were in the studio together for the mixing—we locked ourselves in the studio for a week. We started recording at the end of November 2020 and finished all our works together on the first week of December. It was for a short period, but we were together every single day.

——You seem to prefer working intensively with your client. 

Kato: Not really—normally, tsuboi is the type who does everything on his own and doesn’t like to take time on mixing. However, I’m the type who’s wired to my own vision and needs to explain it with my own words. One of the reasons why I asked tsuboi to work with me is because, in his interview with Natalie, he mentioned, “I don’t want to work with bands who give me orders. I can’t accept the offer if the artists have a specific image of the sound they want to achieve”, and that sparked my curiosity to find out what he would think if I abruptly presented my work to him. I thought we would be clashing more, but tsuboi is a mature guy, so we have been able to exchange our ideas efficiently.   

——I’m a little surprised that you guys actually shared your ideas while working together, because I can perceive tsuboi’s color strongly as in his other works, when listing to dimen

Kato: Everyone probably thinks: “tsuboi’s production style is coming out strong in this album,” but the sound concept is pretty much the same from what I was originally conceiving in my head. Working with tsuboi was, unequivocally, an imperative part of the whole process, however, the entire sound of dimen is very much influenced by Kashiwai. We had recorded “slow burning” in March 2020, and Kashiwai finished the song’s mixing in October; while we were going back and forth with the mixing, I studied quite a lot about post-production and finessing the sounds. I was trying out some audio techniques during the process—I was constantly tweaking like: “How would it sound if I did this?”  So, I think “slow burning” is the most inconsistent song in the album. The demo for the album was elaborated from this song, and by imagining what I wanted to achieve with tsuboi—so, it’s more like, tsuboi added colors to my original ideas.

——I see, the sounds are created from the synergies among you and the two engineers. Were there any parts of tsuboi where you felt in common with yourself, or that made you think you two share the same vibe? 

Kato: I first met tsuboi at the studio, and while doing the mixing together, we talked about how “Accuracy is no fun in sounds.” We also shared our minds about how balancing the sounds have a lower priority if we wanted to underline the uniqueness of the sounds of the instruments, room noise, and voice. 

——Tsuboi and Kashiwai seem to be completely different types. Please tell me about Kashiwai’s engineering style

Kato: Ultimately, Kashiwai likes the sounds of NOT WONK. He always tries to capture Me, Fuji (ba.) and Akimu (dr.)’s raw performances, as he thinks those sounds are the coolest. But I personally thought that with his style, we wouldn’t be able to grow out of our current state. And when recording “slow burning,” it took a bit of time for Kashiwai and I to be on the same page. On the other hand, essentially, tsuboi didn’t know about the band much, and his first impression of us was from the demo I handed him in the very beginning—I would say, it was easier for me to work with a clean slate. 

Our rule is “If done once, we never do it again”—Taking on a new challenge of implementing DTM 

——When did you make the demo? 

Kato: The song title “200530” came from the file name of the demo, which means I started making the demo on that date. I couldn’t write anything during summertime. And I finished up the demo within the month of October. I had all the songs ready, so basically, it took a whole month to wrap up the demo. In fact, the second to last track of the album, “the place where nothing’s ever born” and “dimensions” were written five years ago. When we made our previous album, Down the Valley, we were flooded with songs that we couldn’t fit them all in the album, so we carried on a lot of the tracks from back then to our latest album. One of the themes of Down the Valley was to keep it simple without adding too many details, and it was comprised of songs that are only meant to be performed by the band—the songs that didn’t make it in the previous album are in dimen. So, in other words, the songs in the latest album were the ones that needed garnishing.    

——So, I guess that would also mean, the songs in dimen were not intended to be performed by the band—is this because of Covid-19? 

Kato: It’s not necessarily because of the pandemic, but we have a policy of “Not doing something that we’ve already done in the past”—so, for this album, we went the opposite of what we did with Down the Valley. In 2019, when we hosted the event, Your Name, we’ve also recorded the song “your name” in Tomakomai”: but in the beginning, the song wasn’t played by the three of us, and it was formulated with the woman chorus, my piano, and multiple layers of guitar sounds.  So, we were planning on doing something similar to this song since the summer of 2019, thinking: “This should be our next step.” 

——So, you made your previous demo by yourself singing with the guitar, then for the next demo you used a DTM software—does that mean you’ve never written songs by jamming with the band? 

Kato: That’s right. Essentially, NOT WONK never writes songs by jamming together. However, there’s one exception, which is “spirit in the sun”—for this song, the entire track was written first, and the vocal melody was added afterwards. I’ve been making songs from vocal melodies, so I think it was the first song that I’ve ever wrote from the track. Basically, I didn’t want the song to sound bleak with just the guitar and singing—so, in order to avoid that, I thought it’s best at that time to complete all the guitar phrases first and add vocal melody on top.    

——I would like to know how you would define the aesthetics of the guitar & vocal. 

Kato: Ultimately, I think it’s about the art of syncing the first note of the guitar and vocal. Yet, I didn’t want that in our latest album. Also, I really like James Chance, and with “spirit in the sun” I wanted to adopt his ‘freaky’ guitar sound—and in order to achieve that sound, it was easier for me to separate the vocal and guitar, and rather make the vocal harmonize with the base and drum.  

‘The band gets distressed when there are no challenges”

——Since Down the Valley, the rhythm variety of your music has become more diverse. Also, around that time, it seems like the level of the band’s technical skills has elevated.   

Kato: I agree. Essentially, all the members like practicing, and the band gets more distressed when there’s nothing challenging. When I come up with a difficult phrase, at first, the other members are like, “No way”, but usually on the follow week, they learn to play it—that was a fun moment of making the previous album together as a band. For me, song themes are like, “Hitting the ghost notes beautifully”, “A song that preciously holds the long notes while feeling the back beat”, or “A slow half-tempo song that shuffles”—I like portraying the images of our performances in the songs. 

——Tell me if there are any musicians that have inspired you for the new album.

Kato: There are too many, but I’d say, “in our time” was influenced by The Byrds, “slow burning” and “spirit in the sun” were influenced by Frank Sinatra, and “the place where nothing’s ever born” is by Cindi Lauper. 

——That’s interesting—I wouldn’t have guessed that you were influenced by Cyndi Lauper.

Kato: Well, “the place where nothing’s ever born” is the only sheer eight-beat rhythm song. Songs with eight-beat or four-beat rhythm tend to be tedious, so we were originally avoiding to use eight-beat rhythm. However, at one point, we were discussing on “How to create a cool eight-beat rhythm song.” We wrote dimen with the solid idea of “Maintaining the groove”, but we thought it would be interesting to go for the complete opposite and include a song that has “No groove at all.” The eight-beat makes that “No groove” possible; so, we started editing the base and guitar a lot, and the song ended up sounding like the songs from the ‘80s—that’s when we began referring to the songs by Cyndi Lauper. 

——Please tell us about the song, “200530.” I feel like this song can only be achieved with tsuboi—did you decide to minimize the sound of the vocal upon discussion with tsuboi? I presume, the vocal was louder in the beginning.

Kato: In the beginning, the vocal was slightly louder, yet in my demo, it sounded more as if it were buried by other sounds. But, when it’s in the hands of an engineer like tsuboi, the vocal is brought back to life. Even if we went crazy with the other sounds, there’s a sound bandwidth just for the vocal—it’s like there’s a special space in the song made only for the vocal. When we played back the recorded tracks through tsuboi’s monitors, the subwoofers were going strong that the room was probably louder than in any clubs around. Also, we were mixing the songs late at night, so we were undeniably in an impish mood [laughs].

——Can you describe how you feel now that you’ve released dimen?

Kato: Last week, my members and I were saying: “We should make songs with more band-oriented sounds.” Since the album came out, we have been thinking, “What are band-oriented sounds?” You see, when playing as a band, we don’t read scores—and we want to showcase that in our song arrangements. dimen was mostly made with a DTM software—except for “spirit in the sun”—and built with an array of different types of blocks, which is also fun as it is; but since we are a band of three people, we were saying that in the future, we should come up with something that’s more fluid.  

NOT WONK was formed in 2010. It is a three-piece band consisted of Shuhei Kato (Vo. & Gt.), Fuji (Ba.), Akimu (Dr.)—based in Tomakomai Hokkaido. In 2015, the band released its first album, Laughing Nerds And A Wallflower. After the debut, the band has made appearances at music festivals including Rising Sun Rock Festival. In June 2019, the band released its third album, Down the Valley, which also became its first album on a major record label. In August 2020, the band carried out a solo live performance and live-stream event at Shibuya WWWX. On January 27th, 2021, its fourth album, dimen was released.

4th album, dimen
Track list (CD):
1. spirit in the sun 
2. in our time
3. slow burning
4. Shell
5. get off the car
6. 200530 
7. dimensions 
8. interlude 
9. the place where nothing’s ever born 
10. your name
Price: 2,800yen

Photography Takuroh Toyama
Translation Ai Kaneda

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Kohei Yagi

Yagi is active as a music critic and writer, while working as a science researcher in Kanto area. He has established a prolific career as a writer, contributing to a variety of media, including the likes of Mikiki, Eureka, men’s FUDGE, i-D JAPAN, Billboard JAPAN, and otherwise. He is also a fervent Rugby fan. Twitter:@lovesydbarrett