Few musicians seem so creatively unburdened as bo en, the 24-year-old London producer born Calum Bowen, who sings in multiple languages and often just hums over audacious, upbeat production that combines wacky prog-rock, sentimental video game soundtracks, and decades’ worth of Japanese pop. He’s as likely to deploy a hardcore techno beat as he is a farty MIDI tuba, probably on the same song. Whatever happens, the sounds will make you smile. Taking a break from work on his second, as-yet-unnamed album, he explained some of the philosophical underpinnings behind music’s genre-bending, global future.
bo en: Western music often imagines the individual at the center making their perfect, authentic expression of themselves: “I am my identity, I am this genre.” But no one can run naked in music, especially in recorded music—it’s such a contrived, performed, and planned activity that those who claim to run naked are often wearing nude suits. I think you can simultaneously be earnest and contrived as shit, you just have to acknowledge your intentions and choices, and take one step back from the surface-level game of pushing out desirable identities with sound.
That’s one reason I’ve always been attracted to Japanese music. Japanese music has historically been a lot more self-aware and playful with it’s genre-ization. Twenty years ago it was Cornelius’ Fantasma, and today it’s groups like Dempagumi.inc, who create absolute overwhelming joy with little concern for being sensible and maintaining some poise. You can do whatever, you can go to whatever extremes. Stylistic traits and instrumental selection are just part of the performance—another form to play with.
I try to make music where genres are something I “do,” not something I “am.” I’m just not convinced that there’s some essential, unchangeable me conveying a meaningful and unquestionable truth in music or anything else. So I try to make a big mess of signs, or make the signs so direct and culturally self-refuting that people give up on the game and realize that it’s a constructed performance.
By singing in Japanese on my first release, I may have misguided people a little bit, though. I thought Japanese could be this tiny additional part to what I do that hints at my influences and communicates with an audience and scene I cared about, like, “Oh yeah, he’s referencing Shibuya-kei, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Akiko Yano, Haniwa, hints of Yasutaka Nakata.” But it’s become a dominant and overwhelming way of categorizing me.
I care about writing interesting songs more than anything, and my next album is forefronting that. Although I have an inescapable debt to a lot of Japanese artists, this next album takes a lot more pointers from the ’70s singer/songwriter prog-pop world. Someone like Van Dyke Parks strikes a beautiful balance, I think—he never loses the engagingness and inventiveness whilst clearly being skilled and having a broad range of things under his belt.
For a long time, it seems that some people have had a sort of “I don’t get it, so it must be good” approach to unintelligible, dense music, but I think you can have your cake and eat it. You can make interesting things worth investigating for a long time while still drawing people in and giving them a really overwhelming, visceral experience on their first listen. You just have to be smart and work hard. It’s the ultimate challenge, really. It’s like a genetically modified carrot or something, trying to balance the formula to give people enjoyment and intrigue in equal measures. A carrot that’s good for you and tastes like a Big Mac.