Kero Kero Bonito on magic pop, Bugsnax, and the limits of poptimism
In the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, Kero Kero Bonito discuss their wildly ambitious new EP, Civilisation II.
Kero Kero Bonito on magic pop, <i>Bugsnax</i>, and the limits of poptimism

The FADER Interview is a brand new podcast series in which the world’s most exciting musicians talk with the staff of The FADER about their latest projects. We’ll hear from emerging pop artists on the verge of mainstream breakthroughs, underground rappers pushing boundaries, and icons from across the world who laid the foundations for today’s thriving scenes. Listen to this week’s episode of the podcast below, read a full transcript of this week’s episode after the jump, and follow The FADER Interview wherever you listen to podcasts.

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It’s been almost a decade since Kero Kero Bonito — the trio of Sarah Midori Perry, Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled — released their first single on SoundCloud. They picked up a cult following online in their early years, with fans locking into the band’s incisive and almost cartoonish proto hyperpop vision. Since then, they’ve built a large and committed fanbase, imagining new musical and thematic parameters without veering from their core principles. Their latest EP, Civilisation II, the sequel to 2019’s Civilisation I, pulls together ambitious dream pop, analog mythology, and urgent observations on humanity into three of their sharpest songs yet.

Ahead of its release, The FADER’s Salvatore Maicki caught up with the band remotely to discuss how the project came together, the thrill of revisiting their early aesthetic to soundtrack the video game Bugsnax, and the challenges of realizing pop potential.

The FADER: Guys, catch me up on the state of KKB, it’s been so long.

Gus Lobban: The last time we spoke was in the zone of Bonito Generation, I think, right? Since then, it’s been, there was Time ’n’ Place in 2018 and then we went on a big tour, and then we released Civilisation I, then COVID happened basically. So we’re here. So we were kind of like, “Well, what do we do now?” But Civilisation II has kind of been our savior project over the last year and a half more or less.

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Yeah. I was going to ask, how was the last year and a half? How did the pandemic change the routine of the band, if at all?

Jamie Bulled: We were quite lucky during 2020, when it comes to opportunities that we were offered: gigs to do and streams and stuff. So we were on it, but it was a different kind of work to what we had done before, where we would have just hung out and really gone at it. It’s very much setting up in our own front rooms and it’s quite different to what we’d done before, obviously.

Sarah Midori Perry: Yeah. My room has definitely changed. Before COVID, I would just go back to my room to just sleep, but now I completely changed my room. So, there’s the art section, there’s the recording section, there’s the green screen section. I brought the world in my room.

GL: I feel like it’s hitting two main ways. There’s the practical side, which is obviously [that] instead of being able to record all together, we had to do it all remotely. And Sarah actually basically sought out her own recording set up.

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SMP: I learned how to record my own vocals. So that’s the skill gained.

Were you guys able to link in person a bit over the past year?

SMP: A bit, yeah. When the rules kind of relaxed, we met up a bit, but yeah. Not really. We used to see each other every week and now it’s long-distance KKB.

GL: It’s weird because last summer everything was relaxed to an extent, but then it was just ramped up again. So there’s this weird thing of, obviously, we’re sort of nostalgic for pre-COVID, but we’re also almost a little bit nostalgic for that weird period when the COVID lockdown was just a little bit less intense. Now it’s like we’re almost pining for that stage again, which I think, hopefully, we’ll have soon. But yeah, really weird actually that there are these levels like that.

Yeah, and I think the Stockholm Syndrome of it all is kind of revealing itself where I don’t want to leave my captivity. I’m a little afraid, but we’re getting there.

GL: That’s totally a thing. It’s hard to imagine people just kind of going crazy and if gigs start happening again in a relatively normal way, someone just going to all the gigs that week and being like, “Yeah, I’m going crazy. So glad to have gigs back.” I feel like it’ll be more gradual, and it’d be like, “Oh, I’ve been to my gig. That’s that’s enough for two weeks.” I’m going to build myself back up again. And I think people maybe are a little bit apprehensive without even fully realizing it about the next stage. And even if we could, technically, I don’t think we will return to our pre-COVID sort of level of socializing straight away. I think we’re going to have to bet it in a bit. Definitely.

Well, I really appreciate you guys taking a minute out of this COVID era to talk with me about Civilisation II, because I fucking love this EP. I’m so excited about it and I really want to get into that. But first, this being part of an as yet numbered anthology, I was wondering what was the genesis point for even exploring Civilisation in these sort of installments?

GL: It all started with Civilisation I, and we made that sort of around mid 2019 and released it in September 2019. And actually what that was about, we were still touring off Time ’n’ Place and we felt like, “Well, let’s put out something cool that actually kind of continues some of the concepts and stories of Time ’n’ Place, but takes them to a new level, right?” So where Time ’n’ Place was sort of about mixing up the past, present and future on a personal scale, Civilisation does that, but on a much, much grander scale.

So whereas Time ’n’ Place was about, “Oh, my childhood in the suburbs / being in your mid twenties / what happens when I die. Civilisation, it’s more like, “Well, okay, now we’re in this context of ancient warfare and battles and conflict, but also climate change happening right now, but also in the distant, distant future, will humans even be on this Earth? Or what is going to happen to humanity? You know, how’s it going to change?”

So kind of really zooming out, even though it’s more or less the same basic concept. And the actual original idea was to do a four-track EP. That was maybe a little bit over ambitious. So we did the three-track EP and then we figured, well, actually, in 2019, we’re also going to be doing a few bits and pieces. So it makes sense to do something and release it then, and alongside the shows we’re doing in 20, sorry, 2020, not 2019. And of course we all know what happened there. Because we were going to go back and do some more American shows and play in Brazil, but then obviously all of that got canceled.

So the EP basically ended up getting delayed, but the result is that it’s become this sort of mini-album. When we conceived it, as I say, it was really just an EP that was going to expound upon some of the more fundamental Time ’n’ Place ideas and just tie that all up. But actually it’s ended up becoming an era of KKB in its own right. Which I think is good actually. I mean, I think that the EPs together are a distinct statement and yeah, bring something new to the KKB story

I’m really compelled by how both of these EPs are very absorbent of a lot of conflict that we’re all kind of reckoning with right now and sort of answering these questions with an almost primal mindset. I think that’s a really interesting way to tackle these subjects.

GL: It feels like almost every release in a weird way is trying to get to this sort of very fundamental heart of what it means to be, what it means to be, basically just in a different way. And with this one, I think all of the songs on Civilisation I and II, they grew from actually very sort of normal or at least very present ideas. So “When The Fires Come,” it was obviously about the wildfires that were sort of very, very high profile in around 2018 .

“Princess and the Clock” was actually written before Covid, but was sort of about friends of ours or people we know and the kind of strange relationship that maybe they have to audiences or to other people or kind of toxic relationships and all this kind of stuff. I mean, I think that every release also reacts to the one before it. So everything an artist does, maybe not all artists, but I think a lot of artists. For example like Bowie, right? So he has his crazy Berlin experimental phase. And then he’s like, “I’m actually pretty bored of experimental music. Now I’m going to make a proper pop record. Let’s get Nile Rogers and smash the hell out of the charts.” And I think that we definitely experience the creative process that way. So, we’d made our guitar record, our sort of personal sort of record.

I mean, it was like, “Well, no. Let’s max this out now, let’s get epic. We haven’t done that. And let’s switch to synths, because I think that we haven’t concentrated on just those for a little while. I think we can smash that.” So it’s definitely part of the ongoing self-reactivity of KKB’s discography. But the primal thing, I mean, I think that I was surprised that there weren’t more songs like “When the Fires Come” or I don’t know, it’s just when you look at humanity in this grand way, it’s hard to get away from that.

And certain objects we were sort of interested in with things like Codex Seraphinianus, which Sarah showed us — kind of Luigi Serafini’s really crazy encyclopedia, which is written in a sort of invented script and has all these surreal drawings that you can’t tell really what it’s trying to tell you, but you can discern that it is trying to tell you something. And these very fundamental ideas about semantics and human experience. And yeah, I think all that stuff is fascinating right now. And whether that’s because we feel like we’re at an important juncture or not, it’s hard to say, but I definitely think it’s big stuff. It’s very interesting stuff.

Yeah. “The Princess and the Clock.” I mean, the fact that that song was written before the pandemic really kicked in, I don’t know what you guys are on. I don’t know what’s what’s going on in –

SMP: We have a crystal ball that tells us. Yeah. The future.

GL: Sarah!

Tell me about how that song came together and how you guys kind of pieced together that fable.

GL: The process for that was really interesting. It started with the melodic figure that you hear at the start of the song that “Do do do do do, do do do…” That thing. So we had that, and actually originally I envisaged a song that was almost like a ballad song, a bit like “Swimming” off Time ’n’ Place. But then I was like, “Well, actually, our lost single from Time ’n’ Place was “Swimming.” So I don’t really want to just do that style again.” So I actually remember it very clearly. I was walking around in Tesco and I thought, “Why don’t we speed it up to a sort of booty bass speed, like 145 BPM. We’ve never really done a track like that. And that would actually sound pretty, pretty amazing. That sort of Aphex Twin-ish, mystical club sound.”

And then also I was like, “Well, I really want to have a song title that’s like a myth. The Princess and the something.” I think that the Logic file for the track is actually called ‘The Princess and the Something.’ I was like, “We want to write a myth because we were in the middle of Civilisations at this point.” And it was like, “Well, we’ve got to write a myth. We haven’t done that yet, but it’s so Civilisation, of course we have to do that.”

It kind of wrote itself when the idea to write a myth came up because it was, as I say, sort of actually inspired by people we know and relationships with people we know. And actually how can we sort of transcribe that into an ancient mythical song that actually sort of is convincing. Story songs are always quite hard because not only are you worrying about the meter of the lines and the melodic rhythm and so on, but you’re also trying to move a story on. It’s quite fiddly, there’s a lot of moving parts with that, but it comes together.

It did. And yeah, I don’t know. It almost sort of feels fully formed when you look back on it now. But no, it was definitely some creative work went into that.

I definitely wanted to talk about “Well Rested” because that song is like a smack in the face. It’s like a KKB uprising,

JB: A very long smack in the face.

How did that song come together? It just feels like such a turning point for KKB and maybe almost your mission in a way.

GL: That also has quite a slightly unusual creative gestation that song. It originally started as a very extreme remix of the song “Rest Stop” from Time ’n’ Place.

Wow.

GL: Yeah. This is the scoop. Yeah. Because that song also, maybe more than any other on Time ’n’ Place, actually does deal with massive sort of existential ideas. And there’s a drum rhythm in that song, drum machine rhythm in that song in the second half in the sort of collage-y section. And it’s this very slowed down sort of cheap sounding drum machine. And the rhythm track of “Well Rested” is based on that same drum loop, except that it’s been sped back up to its original tempo, which was 112, more sort of dance zone. And then the entire rhythm track was built around that. And then the whole track was just built from that. And it sort of thematically, it is maybe a bit of a follow up to the second part of “Rest Stop.”

Sarah, how did you piece together the sort of manifesto of this track? Because it seems a little different than how most KKB songs go. There’s definitely a call to arms in a way.

SMP: Yeah. I think it’s always related to what we’re experiencing as well and kind of this, I don’t know, the future and what could the future hold and how we’re living right now. And I think “Well Rested” is kind of, I don’t know, a vision of the future.

GL: And it’s got a chant as well. It’s I think one of the few moments where you, well, chant, I suppose in Japanese.

SMP: Yeah. There’s a chant about Mother Gaia and we need to keep peace with nature and things around us to live in harmony basically.

GL: I think one thing that inspired the mood of that track was this, I don’t know if this was a phenomenon in the US. But in sort of 2018, 2019, there was this vague trend of people kind of going on the radio and being like, “Oh, I don’t think we should have kids anymore because I think that we’re going to destroy the earth.” You just turn on BBC News and they’d have someone talking about this. And I felt like it got really irresponsible. It wasn’t nuanced at all. It was just people, just talking heads saying like, “We should stop having children.” It’s like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what? Let’s look into this a little bit more at least.”

Yeah. I do want to go back a little bit now that we’re in this Civilisation discourse, I want to talk about Bugsnax. How did that come together? Because the song in the game feels so symbiotic. How did you guys even take on this challenge of this franchise that didn’t exist and kind of putting your imprint on it?

GL: Yeah, it was really funny because actually also, the call came in just as Covid was hitting.

SMP: Yeah. It was all done in a lockdown really. I remember Gus calling me saying like, “Oh, we’re going to do this track for this game and it’s about bugs. And then you turn into whatever you eat, you turn into them.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Let’s do it.”

GL: When I had the first call with the developers and they were just kind of like, “Thanks so much for talking. So the game’s called Bugsnax and it’s about the Grumpuses and when they eat the Bugsnax, their limbs turn into the snacks.” And I was just kind of like, “Ah, okay.”

SMP: Sick. Okay.

GL: What was really helpful was that they knew they wanted something similar to “Flamingo” or “Picture This.” That kind of style of KKB trap. So it was really just about revisiting that era of KKB sort of creatively but applying the sort of lyrical process to the game Bugsnax. Which was great because there’s a lot going on in that game. And also, I think our lyric style in that zone is quite literal and quite say what you see, right? That was always our thing at that time. So we could just apply that to the game. We just played the game and we’re like, “Kind of bug and kind of snack, try to catch them in your trap” That is the game, that is what happens.

JB: The launch was really cool as well, especially maybe it’s kind of grand jury or something, but it was quite a big stream and they were announcing the PS5 and it was quite major really. And it felt we kind of, don’t know, Bugsnax kind of stood out a little bit that night in this funny way.

Yeah. Because it’s much bigger than yourself, but also it’s something that you’re so entwined with at this point.

JB: And it opened us up to a bunch of people all manner of responses. Loads of people who just knew us and knew the game. It’s wicked, it’s so funny. Lots of gaming communities hearing about us for the first time, that’s sick.

To kind of zoom out a little bit on a more pop existential level, Gus, I was on your Twitter and I saw that you were talking about the idea of pop potential and whether that’s a static goal. It feels like we’re living through a really, really exciting time for pop music. I think people are able to regard it as less of a guilty pleasure and more of just pleasure and not something that you have to kind of look down on. But going back to that idea of potential, I’m wondering what kinds of avenues do you think could be pursued more voraciously in terms of where pop music could go further?

GL: My favorite question maybe. I have this theory that I call magic pop, which is this idea that pop music is actually capable of more than it sometimes is used for, can be pushed to sort of extreme heights that we are used to but we don’t often think about it in that way. We don’t always think about it in that way. There’s often something else kind of leading our judgment in terms of creating, writing songs. Also, this idea that in a way, almost everything is kind of magic pop because it’s an expression of someone, it’s an expression of something, and it is made for some reason, which in itself is sort of beautiful and interesting.

But I think there might be a sort of new objectivity in pop music. Where as you say the sort of irony dichotomies has sort of dissolved a bit and what we have instead is people just saying, “Okay, well I want to express me, I want to express it in the most exciting way possible. None of that other stuff matters.” We’re totally still, I think, in a sort of meta-modern zone where it’s like, “Well, we acknowledge that there are some sort of goofy things about corporate pop music,” we appreciate some of that stuff, but also that there are very beautiful things about it and actually those two things are just happening at the same time.

And I think that, for example, that the poptimism movement sort of risks getting hung up on literally just the corporate side of pop music and kind of taking that at face value and not challenging what could be better about that. The best contemporary records take the good things about all the different spheres and zones of music and form a unique statement that is also well crafted and beautiful, exciting, danceable statement.

And this is definitely a thing where we’re working, what we’re working on as well going forward is just a dream vision of pop music. And one that takes the best bits of everything. Techniques and sort of presentation ideas. But it doesn’t get too hung up on the sort of semantics too much. And yeah, I mean, and I think you can see this in, as you know, a lot of the stuff that has gained ground more so over the last couple of years.

I mean, even something like 100 Gecs, right? I mean, there’s an extreme personality to that music but there’s also a kind of extreme virtuosity to that music as well. That this sort of genre shifts and the crazy production. And that also resonating really hard with a lot of people. It’s very cult in a way, but cult means something. It’s not just this one size fits all. There’s a beauty in that variety. There’s a beauty in the fact that we’ve got 100 Gecs records and Jessy Lanza records and all of these different things they’re all descendants of pop music, but they’re all also intensely personal. I think that’s the most interesting kind of pop music anyway.

JB: Yeah. Pop music, I guess, is an ideal society sometimes you know when people say that. So you kind of need it to keep moving. What I found quite interesting recently is, this is going to be weird to say almost, but it’s like Novelist, I’ve been listening to him recently and he’s someone’s pop star. He might not be on the BBC every day or whatever, he’s not that kind of pop as we imagined it in the nineties but he’s an X amount of people’s pop star. It’s hard to explain, but with everything going on with how we kind of portray ourselves, how we connect with fans and all that, you can kind of have this pop thing that’s going on without the masses even knowing basically. It’s still pop because it’s new, it’s popular music and it’s actually really catchy and it’s pop sentiment. And it means stuff to people and people invest in it. So that’s quite, I think, quite funny, cause pop in the sense of people’s relationship with it more than actually how it sounds or, you know.

This year marks 10 years since the first KKB song came out. Having been doing this for the past decade now and with the fan base that you guys have amassed in mind, how has the motive changed if at all?

SMP: I guess we always kind of make music that we want to make. I think that hasn’t changed. What’s changed is yeah, our fans. There’s people who want to listen to what we make. But yeah, I think the core hasn’t really changed. Yeah. It’s crazy. It’s 10 years though. It feels like yesterday.

JB: Yeah it does. Essentially, as we were saying earlier, it’s like, we change the kind of MO every time but that’s not what’s changes if you know what I mean. We always keep changing it and that’s the constant. We should keep challenging ourselves. So nothing’s changed in lots of ways, but we obviously grow and learn. Learning, man. 10 years. Wow.

GL: I think Jamie is totally right. It’s actually the sort of process of making Intro Bonito wouldn’t have been that different in a way to Civilisation. It’s about… we have this framework and this sort of conceptual playground, and then we explore that and fill that until we’ve made a record. And I can tell you now that the thing that follows Civilisation, it’s again a similar process. The differences, the big audience and so on, affect you in an almost subconscious way. For example, when we were conceiving the Time ’n’ Place live show, we sort of just were assuming in the back of our minds that we’d be playing to more people than we would have been when we were conceiving our sort of very, very DIY art school kind of Intro Bonito live show.

We never said, “Oh, well, we’ve got to step it up, guys, because we’re a big audience.” You just kind of like, “Well, okay, given those last few shows we played, this is what we’ll do.” And it’s just like you almost do that sort of automatically, but it’s one sort of slot machine or something. All these things are rotating at a different rate and the record you get at the end of these particular eras is just how the notches on the slot machine have lined up. I think we will just keep exploring that through our music careers forever because that is the most interesting thing. And fortunately, all that stuff is still moving which is really exciting.

The FADER Interview would like to thank Lauten Audio for providing our microphones and James Ivy, who wrote and performed our intro music. Our engineer is Tony Giambrone and our Associate Producer is Salvatore Maicki.

Kero Kero Bonito on magic pop, Bugsnax, and the limits of poptimism