What does it mean to carve a unique space for your voice in the idol industry? For SixTONES, it appears to be achieving a balance between how they envision themselves as artists and what it means for them to inspire their fans.
The six-member boyband from Johnny & Associates debuted in January 2020, to incredible hype. Their single ‘Imitation Rain’, released as a split debut with friendly rival group Snow Man’s ‘D.D.’, sold over a million physical units in the first week. X Japan’s Yoshiki, who had composed the song, declared that SixTONES had “the potential to renew the image of J-Pop overseas”, and many praised their ability to bring a fresh and modern sound to the genre while maintaining its roots in Japanese pop culture. This came five years after they officially became a unit — by their own choice, no less, something that had been unprecedented in the agency where group formations were typically initiated by management or more senior artists. It's the very sort of assertiveness and ownership that would eventually define SixTONES.
Since then, Jesse, Taiga Kyomoto, Hokuto Matsumura, Yugo Kochi, Shintaro Morimoto, and Juri Tanaka would go on to make their mark as their generation's most daring act, known especially for their forward approach to exploring idol music, leading to works that consistently achieve both commercial and critical acclaim. The aptly named 1ST was an explosive introduction to the world of SixTONES and the album strengthened the industry’s belief in their potential to represent J-Pop in the global stage; meanwhile CITY, released a year later, offered a seamless departure from the previous record in a unique format that emphasized the six guys’ commitment to their music and further proved them to be one of Japan’s most exciting acts.
Their latest full-length album, Koe (‘voice’ in English), puts them even further out of their comfort zone. It’s somehow symbolic of how letting our voices be heard can feel like a heavily daunting experience, but one that is ultimately rewarding in the catharsis a delivered message brings. It can probably be said that the discomfort, the exploration of the unfamiliar, is what SixTONES finds most comforting.
This dedication to pushing the boundaries of their craft surely makes SixTONES an intriguing act, but what makes them even more admirable is the awareness they have for their status as idols and the openness with which they embrace it. Almost every in-depth SixTONES interview has them speaking about the desire to do new exciting things equally for themselves as artists and their fans, and it's clear they’re able to achieve so much precisely because, as unorthodox as their approach to it may be, they have a lot of respect for what it means to to serve as symbols of hope, inspiration and comfort for ordinary people at various points in their lives. They often talk about how different they are as far as idols go, but what they may not realise yet is that they have also inadvertently helped open more doors for others in the industry to explore and also discover their own voice.
Bandwagon had the chance to ask SixTONES about Koe, their process and relationship to their craft, and what it feels like to be back on tour and be greeted once again by the resounding cheers of their fans.
* This interview was conducted via email through a Johnny & Associates representative on 22 January 2023.
You’ve always been heavily involved in producing your albums. Could you tell us what your process is like, and whether your approach has changed from the first album to this latest one? Furthermore, your first two albums had English titles; what was the reason behind choosing a Japanese title for this one?
Juri Tanaka: We’ve been so blessed to have so many people helping us produce each album, including staff from our record company (SONY Music Entertainment) who constantly engage us on what we want to do and what makes the most sense. We do, however, choose the songs mostly by ourselves. Each of us listen to all the various options, and then get together with each other and the label personnel to choose the final track list. Of course, sometimes it takes a few meetings to cull it down to a manageable number, but leaving some on the cutting room floor to come back to is a great source of inspiration for future singles and other efforts.
Yugo Kochi: As for why we went with a Japanese title this time, it was less a conscious choice about language and more just a response to our concert coming at a time when audiences are finally getting to enjoy the lifting of COVID-19 regulations, including being able to scream and shout at live shows again. This renewed sense of voice and being able to hear our fans again is a big deal for both us and them, so it felt like a natural fit to kick off not just this tour but 2023 overall. Plus, the album tracks themselves are peppered with all kinds of shouts and even animal noises, amplifying the bigger sense of “voice” in our musical style.
Taiga Kyomoto: In terms of our approach for Koe, I see it more as a gradual evolution as we continue to develop as musical artists. On our first album (1ST) we just packed in all the songs we personally liked and thought were cool, and in the second album (CITY) we did the opposite; starting with a concept and designing songs to match. For this third album, which comes just as we celebrate our third debut anniversary, there was a desire among us to compete with ourselves and do something totally new and different. The theme, if you can even really call it that, is “genre-less,” since we wanted to give both our current fans and listeners just now starting to get to know us a chance to sample a wide variety of what we can do and get an instant, overall sense of who we are. In short, it’s a current snapshot of where we are right now.
You had said about 1ST that it was an album which expressed who SixTONES were, and it was an album that you made for your own sake; meanwhile, CITY was more like an offering to your listeners, something which you wanted to blend in their lives. What about Koe? How do you want people to perceive it?
Hokuto Matsumura: For me, the message of Koe is exactly as Taiga said. The first album was for our own good and set the stage for what we wanted for ourselves as a debuted group. The second one was for the listeners, based on the feedback felt and seen from the first album and simply everything we had done up to that point. So I guess for this third one, it could be SixTONES’ answer to both, a hybrid or balance imbued with the combined strength of what really worked from both of the previous. And because of that, looking forward to our fourth album, I think we’ll want to do something for ourselves again, completely new and different.
As for the specific “voice” concept, it’s open to a lot of different interpretations, even between the six of us. Sign language is voice, sound is voice, etc., and I hope no matter which song grabs your attention you can take something unique away from it and the album holistically can expand the conversation about what is music, what is our music, and what music our fans like to share amongst themselves. Basically, I just want everyone to listen and enjoy these songs as they please.
Yugo Kochi: In my spare time while preparing and recording for this album, I would go home and play the chorus parts alone, and came to realise that this album, despite being a group effort, contains—even unconsciously—a great deal of us as individuals throughout the track list. While in harmony, it’s easy to pick out who is singing which part, and of course each of our unit songs have a lot of individuality as well. I like that it’s a good opportunity for our listeners to get to know us in new musical ways.
A big part of your inspiration for Koe is how much you’ve missed hearing your fans’ cheers during concerts and wanting to connect your voices with them again. What does it feel like to be back on tour where your audience can make some noise again, following the ease of live performance restrictions in Japan?
Shintaro Morimoto: As someone else mentioned a moment ago, this new period since the lifting of COVID restrictions feels like a new chapter for us. So much of what we took for granted was taken from us and our fans these past three years, so it’s not enough to just return to normal; we’ve got to do more to make up for lost time. What we want to do is go one step beyond where we would naturally be, and create a new live show together as the “new Team SixTONES.” Personally, I’ve been looking forward to this show so much, especially as I’ve watched live concerts from the United States and elsewhere where they’re allowed to scream and shout already, so I can’t wait to see how the dynamic of our concert changes as those same restrictions continue to lift here.
Jesse: This is the first show we’ve been able to perform to audience cheers since our debut, and the impact has been incredible. It truly feels like a live show, just like we did in our Junior days, and thanks to everyone’s cheers and shouts our own excitement has risen as well. (As of this interview) We’ve only just been able to do a few shows at the Yokohama Arena, but it’s more than we’ve done before and honestly I feel like I could do even more. Our fans empower us by the strength and number of their voices, and at levels beyond what we do on stage. We’re up there on stage with all eyes on us, but I would imagine the fans have felt restricted and constrained so far. The lesson here, for me, is to cherish that voice on both ends, and really put everything into the time we have together lest it disappear again someday.
Juri Tanaka: During the period of heaviest restrictions, we worked tirelessly with the staff of Johnny & Associates to deliver live performances that were fun and safe even if they were different than we used to be able to do, but having heard the voices of our fans for the first time in so long I know in my heart there was something missing. I felt, once again, like I was the one watching a performance by the audience even if it were the other way around in reality. People were singing, people were dancing along with us in their seats, and I can’t wait for COVID to continue to abate, and that energy to come back full force for real and for the quality of our live show to go up and up even more. It lit a fire under me to really want to make our next show even more worth it.
You’re very serious about your music and artistry, but you’re also known for your silly and somehow chaotically funny sides. For this album and tour, you’ve made some very creative and unexpected choices for your promos and merch – the mannequins, tissue boxes, and rainbow pop-up card in particular come to mind. Could you tell us more about the thought process behind those?
Taiga Kyomoto: As idols, we always put our best foot forward when it comes to performance, but we try to make that same love and care for our worldwide Team SixTONES comes through in the little details as well. Just like our last concert, the goods we produced this time can be enjoyed even by people who can’t come see the show in person [through Johnny & Associates’ official partnership with international forwarding service Neokyo.com], and we’ve been having a lot of fun filming behind the scenes content we hope to share at some point. For the goods, we incorporated things like tissue boxes that could be used every day, as well as custom treasures like the rainbow pop-up cards and other little presents to remind our fans of the time they spend with us. As the title of the album is “Koe (voice),” with the concert tour name itself related to voice, we also thought it would be fun to put out merch that was made under the guidance and advice (voice) of our fans. Early on, we shared an online survey with our fans to find out what would make them happy and did our best to capture as much of the feedback as we could. We are especially confident in the rainbow pop-up cards, as we were very particular about the details. For example, having them say “congratulations” instead of "happy birthday" makes their use more flexible and universal. We always want to share what we have with everyone, and work to invite the love and support of our fans as freely as possible.
Shintaro Morimoto: I really liked that survey, because it felt like we were having a meeting with our fans themselves seeing all their words and suggestions written out in front of us. Our fans are an extension of us, and we’d like to think we share the same values and interests when it comes to what we should do next. We are both greedy – in a good way! – for the next interesting thing, and eagerly strive to uncover the creativity in every little thing. It’s one of SixTONES’ strongest points, as well as a key strength of the worldwide Team SixTONES community, so we wanted to bring everyone together to create the concert memorabilia as one.
SixTONES is also known for strongly valuing your uniqueness as individuals and a group, and carving your own paths even within Johnny’s. What kind of “voice” do you want to have in the entertainment industry, and how do you want people around the world to see SixTONES?
Hokuto Matsumura: Nowadays, it's really easy for artists from all over the world to release anything on social media so it’s easier than ever to see trends and find inspiration from the collective experiences of humanity, but we try to never consciously chase something we’ve seen already. Our goal, possible or impossible, is to create something new or at the very least guided by our fans and other artists we look up to. For example, our music label will share something with us with a comment like “this kind of song is cool” or our dance coaches and choreographers we work with will show us something currently hot, but at the end of the day we don’t want people to see us and simply say “oh, they were like such-and-such,” but rather we want them to see us for us. Whether they end up as a fan or not, or whether they are more amenable to our cool versus cute side, I want everyone to just see “SixTONES”.
Jesse: It’s human nature to want more so of course there are times when we’re like “why can’t we do this,” or “we really want to do that,” but at the end of the day SixTONES is in a blessedly free position within Johnny’s, and there’s rarely if ever resistance to something we just want to do. For example, we were fortunate to have a lot of individual work last year, but this year we want to focus on SixTONES as a group; or, rather, how to leverage our collective unique points to help people understand the whole better. Like, we dance together, but we’re not always in sync, but that allows people to see someone’s solo side a bit better while still being in the context of what we all do together. Hearing people say, “I like this guy, so I’m going to get more into the group,” is a very special moment because it reinforces what we can do together and the unique mixture and combination of personalities that make us who we are. Beyond our concerts and performances, I also love doing variety shows because you get to see the gap SixTONES has such as the cute side and can understand there’s always more even if some of it’s hard to understand, especially for fans who don’t speak Japanese or live overseas. I’m half-joking, but we would love to become as well known as the Rolling Stones someday, maybe even more known!
Juri Tanaka: As Jesse said, we have our individuality and are free to choose our own path, whether or not it’s fully aligned with each other. Through us, I want people to feel the sense that only comes by expressing yourself freely through the entertainment we transmit through our live shows, YouTube, or wherever you may find us.
You’ve collaborated with some highly respected artists, such as Yoshiki-san and Daiki Tsuneta-san. Who are other artists you hope to create songs with in the future? Any international names on your wishlist?
Juri Tanaka: I could never choose! There are so many wonderful artists, including many of our juniors and seniors within Johnny’s, that I would love to collaborate with to say nothing of the many I look up to around the world. We are confident and believe in our own music, of course, so we would conversely love to hear from anyone around the world interested in working with us and what kind of amazing songs could come out of such chemistry. Furthermore, we love music, plain and simple, so we want to keep creating as much and for as long as we can. We have an immense amount of respect and admiration for anyone who shares that value, so our wishlist is pretty open-ended!
Yugo Kochi: First and foremost, we want to be artists that inspire others to write songs for, and as Juri said, we would be happy for anyone to answer that call. I want to be that kind of artist that people I look up to genuinely want to collaborate with, and it’s really difficult to narrow it down any more than that, at least for me.
Jesse: A few of our seniors, including Kazunari Ninomiya (of ARASHI), have released albums where every track was written and produced by someone really famous. I would love to eventually do something like that too!
Since we’re already talking about the future, as a final note, what more can we look forward to from SixTONES?
Shintaro Morimoto: One of my biggest regrets is that due to the pandemic we had to cancel our live performance in Indonesia for YouTube FanFest. I of course can’t read any of it, but I love seeing all the comments in Indonesian and other languages left on our channel and really hope that one day soon we can do a redo of that opportunity, and others like it if possible. Plus, we were told just before this interview about all the viewers we have in the Philippines, so while our current tour is limited to Japan we really want to one day be able to go there and other places overseas to enjoy music together.
Jesse: SixTONES, as a group, tends to keep our own expectations low, so we were more shocked than anyone to hear that this album had so quickly passed the “half million” mark and hear so many people both in Japan and overseas talk about how amazing they thought it was. We’re also excited that we’re getting an extension to our tour at dome-class venues in Osaka and Tokyo, which of course is really daunting to play just by ourselves. We’re going to do our best, and as a result want everyone to have high expectations for what they’ll get to see, but on the other hand I kind of want our fans to keep their expectations low so the “wow factor” is even more pronounced. Basically, don’t get your hopes up…but in a good way!
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