EnvyはEnvy: Interview with ENVY guitarist/songwriter NOBUKATA KAWAI

It was a hot day for November and it was the time of year when hotter than average days felt good.  At about 4pm, I was scheduled to interview Tetsu Fukagawa, the lead vocalist of the hardcore group, Envy, at Club Upset in Nagoya, Japan, a city of over two million people.

To get to the club from Nagoya Station, one has to take the subway to a little station called Ikeshita stationIkeshita station is a small subway station that contains a large bus station.  That day, it looked kind of dumpy, littered with cigarettes, Styrofoam noodle cups, and rustling brown leaves.  Pigeons waddled freely across the bricks, feeding on random morsels of refuse.  There is a large mural that is visible upon exiting the subway gates.  It is a highly textured, black and brown piece that appears to depict two long-necked birds facing each other.

I walked around the surrounding area looking for the club.  During my walk, I saw many cheap restaurants selling low quality chicken and cheap beer.  There was also an abundance of adult video arcades and openly publicized brothels. Suited men stood in front of the walls, which were plastered with large numbered photos of the young women working.  The defining features of the women’s faces were blurred out.

I eventually found Club Upset, which was located upstairs in a brick building, five floors above a pizza kitchen.  Once inside the door I came to a small lobby.  The walls were plastered with posters of shows past; almost exclusively Japanese acts.  There was also a small ticket booth, but nobody was in it, so I opened the thick black door opposite the unmanned station.  There was a small hallway that led to another thick black door; a sound proofing technique used by smaller clubs in Japan to avoid noise complaints.

The club was of modest size with a two-level, black and blue checkered board.  Envy’s two guitar players were on stage with their instruments.  The people in the room were surprised to see me and nobody seemed to know what I was talking about when I said that I was there for an interview.  Finally, after some discussion amongst various folks, the singer, Tetsu came out and said, “Hey.”  Then, in Japanese, he explained that he had to do a soundcheck, which might take about an hour, but that I could watch if I wanted, so that’s what I did.

It was nice to get to see the soundcheck.   Both guitar players and the bassist used many effects, primarily strumming their chords.  The drummer had about five microphones on his kit and, when he hit certain drums, it would make some of the lights above him shake.  Tetsu had his set-up in the middle of the stage, which consisted of one free standing microphone and another one that was positioned behind a small midi unite with a small keyboard.  During the more ambient parts of the songs, he played the keyboard and, primarily, spoke softly with his back to the floor.  As the songs picked up in volume and intensity, he would turn to face the floor and scream, while occasionally bending over to his left.  It was an effective technique; a simple staging that enhanced the arrangements of the music.

The entire sound check lasted about an hour.  After they were finished, they put their gear off to the side and the opening act, Nice View, began setting up for their sound check.  Somebody associated with the group informed me that Tetsu would be unable to do the interview, after all, but that guitarist, Nobukata Kawai would be available to take his place.  I told them that would be okay, although the questions that I had prepared for the interview were primarily about song writing and the use of both English and Japanese in Envy’s recordings.  Not only was it my first band interview, but it was my first interview done in Japanese, so I was a little bit nervous from the start.  Nobu had medium length hair and was dressed rather simply. Other than his hair, his appearance did not look particularly “rock”, or “hardcore”, or “scream”, or “emo”… or anything like that.  We began the interview in the main hall, sitting on a low standing area to the left of the stage.

D.W.Patton: Are you the lead guitarist?

Nobu: Yes I am

How long has Envy been together?

Envy started in 1995

Have you had any line up changes?

Back in 95, it was the singer Tetsu, the bassist Nakagawa, and a drummer, who ended up quitting.  Then, in 97, a second guitar player, Masahiro joined.  And, since 1997, we’ve had the same lineup.

How did you decide on the name “Envy”?

From the start, it was a tough decision.  And we took a long time coming up with something.  Then, at last, we looked at a dictionary, and saw the word ‘envy,’ and thought,*pointing a finger to an air dictionary* This is it!”  The meaning was not exactly good and a little bit negative.

Do you think that Envy’s music is negative?

Hmmm.   10 years ago, there were more negative parts, but in the years that followed, we’ve met many people and had many experiences and our way of thinking about music has changed.

So there was never any other band names before Envy?

From 1992, the bass player, Nakagawa, and Tetsu had a hardcore band for three years before starting Envy.  But, Envy is Envy.

Who writes the songs for Envy?

At first, I write all the music, then everybody arranges it together.  Every song is written like that.

Who writes the lyrics?

Tetsu writes all the lyrics.

Do Envy members have any side projects?

Not now.

Who is Metal Park?

He’s a friend who makes amazing music with only a sequencer, not a computer, just a sequencer and makes amazing music.

And he helped with the new album?

Yes, he helped a little with the new album.  Just with the ambient sounds.

Where was your first show in America?

Oh, where was it?  Our first tour…

*asking out to the other members who are doing things like checking their equipment and talking to the staff, roadies, and friends* Hey where was our first show in America!?

Tetsu: D.C.

Oh yea, it was in D.C., maybe.  With Malady.

How was the response?

oh…
[In English:. ..So fucking Crazy.]

Is the response to Envy in America different than that in Japan?

Yeah. *noticing that Nice View is about to do their soundcheck*
It’s going to get loud here, so let’s go upstairs.

[We head upstairs and continue the interview.
]

We were talking about the difference between the response to ENVY in America and Japan.

It’s totally different.  As expected, American people are more direct. If the show is good, then they give a great response. But if there’s a bad show, *sighs, and looks disappointed* [in English: fuck.].  Fuck Envy.  So it’s always either, [English: Envy is amazing,” or “Envy is fuck.But, you know, America is a music country and an entertainment country, so there is always a response and the crowd knows what they want.

Which do you like more, playing live or recording.

Of course, live.  Recording is, well- I want to make a good recording, but live is the best.

Do you have a favorite place to play in Japan?

My favorite… hmm… Japan… can I answer about the past?

Sure

A long time ago, there was a good one.  Now there aren’t any, but Shinjuku (area of Tokyo) Loft was good. Before they changed the location, it was the best.  There was history to it.

Like CBGB?

Yeah, it was that kind of club with a lot of history.

What are your favorite places to play over seas?  Country or City.

Country?  America is fun.  The West is good.   We went from Seattle to L.A. and that was really fun.  Everyone enjoyed the shows and many people turned out.  I also like playing Germany.

Oh, Germany?

German people are really intelligent.  During the songs, they are really quiet and thinking about the music.  Then, at the end, they cheer loudly.  And lots of people come to our shows.   Opposite of that, Spain is also good and they are loud throughout the shows.

How about Japanese?

Hmm.  Well, Japanese crowds are always quiet.  Very Quiet.  But, it’s a good quiet.  And, in my music, these days, there are more and more quiet parts, so, when the people in the crowd are quiet, they are enjoying the music.

Where did you play in Seattle?

I can’t remember the name of the place, but it was where the singer from undertow worked (El Corazon).

Do you meet many fans who can speak Japanese when you’re playing abroad?

Only a few.   But, we’re in English speaking countries for a long time and we can’t speak much English, so when people sometimes speak Japanese to us, we are very happy.

What are you plans for future tours?

Next May, we want to go to Europe.  We’re not sure yet, but if we do that, then we want to take a break after that tour, then do some recording.

Do you tour every year?

After the Europe tour, we have no plans and want to spend some time in Tokyo.

Is Tokyo your home town?

No.  I’m from Fukuoka (largest city on Kyushuu Island).  None of us are originally from Tokyo.  Now we all live in Tokyo.

When did you move to Tokyo?

Over fifteen years ago.

Did you move there to start a band?

No, I just moved there because of my dad.

Well, thank you for your time.  This was my first interview in Japanese, and I’m afraid I’ve run out of questions.

A couple of hours later, the show started and, after a kick-ass set by Nice View, it was time to see Envy’s performance. The sound was not much different than the sound check, but the musicians played their music with more exaggerated body movements and the addition of head banging.   The show was good and the crowd was as quiet and relatively non-responsive as Nobu had said that Japanese crowds were, but there was an overall vibe that people were really enjoying themselves.

Envy’s music is not exactly melodic, nor is it exactly noise.   It’s a lot like a sea or windy day, in the respect that there are quiet parts and loud parts, but seldom, if ever, a moment of silence.  During the set, the bassist and guitar players spend most of their time looking at their strings, which adds to the introverted aesthetic and can be a lesson to young musicians to focus on their instruments over their poses (or, at least, to integrate looking at their instruments into their poses).  Tetsu wore a baseball ca with the bill tilted low over his bent down face, further adding to that introverted feel of the band.   When he sang, he would face upward and expose his face, as if his words flew in an arc from his mouth, landing from above into the ears of the audience.  His movements also seemed deliberately self-conscious; always bending over to the left.

The crowd was really into the show, though there was a lack of any kind of slam dancing.  Most people stood and stared calmly, not trying to show too much emotion.   Halfway through the set, Tetsu addressed the crowd in a very soft voice, explaining that the band had just toured the States and was happy to be back in Japan, while thanking everyone for coming to the show.   It was not a short address, but it wasn’t too long, either.  While Tetsu’s spoke, I couldn’t help but observe the audience members listening quietly and attentively to his words.  It was exactly what Nobu had been talking about when he had described Japanese crowds as being “quiet” and it seemed like a moment of genuine communication from the stage to audience.

If Envy’s music can be described as a storm of sound, then the speech was a quiet moment right between when the rain seems like it’s about to stop and when it really begins to pour.  And, like a storm, there were captivating moments during Envy’s set and there were monotonous ones.  There was an element of danger, as well as of surprise, and there were calm spaces that provided shelter from the most intense elements.  I left the show unable to recall one song standing out from another, but simply contemplating the atmosphere of sound that I had just finished experiencing.   Trying to find the words to describe the music that I had just witnessed, I couldn’t help but think back to Nobu’s words from the interview, “EnvyはEnvy.” (“Envy is Envy”).

-D.W. Patton