Kero Kero Bonito talks pop, boring pop and Linkin Park

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“Track and hook (songwriting) sounds so f—— gauche to me,” said Gus Lobban of Kero Kero Bonito, or KKB, in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s like, we’ve heard this sound — it’s not cool. So who cares?”

It’s a strong statement considering how the band’s early works perfected that and other pop formulas. But KKB eschews bubblegum poptimism for an unhinged new sound on its latest two records, EP TOTEP and album Time ‘n’ Place.

The band’s new influences are varied: Lobban credits acts such as Judy and Mary, Sweet Trip and Citrus. Scottish duo Strawberry Switchblade and English rockers Lush make the cut, too.

To help shape its new sound, the band brought in guitarist James Rowland and drummer Jennifer Walton, for whom Lobban had nothing but praise.

“We were able to do things we couldn’t do technically (before) but were exactly what we wanted to do,” he said of the band’s creative process after the addition of the new collaborators.

Fans will have a chance to experience that magic at KKB’s live shows — such as the one at The Fillmore on Nov. 5 — as Rowland and Walton join the band for its tour. “It definitely feels … bigger than it felt as a three-piece,” said frontwoman and lead vocalist Sarah Midori Perry of her live shows. “We’re making something bigger than us.”

Artistic freedom is a theme to which Lobban keeps returning when talking about the drive behind this new “moment in KKB history.” “Actually, we were a bit bored,” he said about leaving behind traditional pop structure.

“I don’t think poptimism is the most interesting place to start now,” he continued. “And the fact is: I’m not convinced any of that music is going to achieve the pop goals that I think we’ve all at some point craved.”

The producer is quick to recognize contemporaries, such as Charli XCX and SOPHIE, who are doing poptimism right. But a record such as Charli XCX’s Pop 2 is interesting because it’s unafraid to “compromise (its) pop functionality,” Lobban said. “The thing on Pop 2 of having features every 30 seconds and the structures being insane,” he noted, “it actually does free itself from the restraints of pop music.”

To Lobban, streaming is part of the problem. “It’s always kind of been a thing (for) indie acts (to become) distracted by the promises of pop music and playlists and all that stuff and (to end) up compromising to fit the arbitrary standards set by those platforms,” he said.

The limitations of streaming services have even affected fans’ enjoyment of Time ‘n’ Place according to Lobban. “Streaming services almost inevitably put gaps in the streaming buffering, which actually totally f—- up the flow of the album,” he complained. “We have people say, ‘What’s with all the abrupt stops in the tracks?’ It’s like, they’re not abrupt stops. It flows into the next track, but you can’t hear that because the streaming service is buffering.”

Nevertheless, the band disregarded the flaws of playlist streaming when designing Time ‘n’ Place. Lobban said “When you listen to an album start to finish and it doesn’t let go, it keeps you engaged; it keeps having a conversation with you and keeps showing you what it can do — that’s the best thing. That’s better than a playlist of random tracks.”

On Time ‘n’ Place, much of the conversation is about grief and mental health. “There’s a certain kind of anxiety in 2018, which is pervasive,” Lobban noted. “One idea I like about listening to music isn’t that listening to music expresses grief, but that it lets you express grief.”

Speaking on Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me, a record he admitted he hadn’t heard, he said, “It’s an example of a record by an artist who is exploring darker themes in front of a wider audience, defining this zeitgeist of people talking about depression. Time ‘n’ Place is informed by similar things to a record like that.”

“It’s not this dramatic artist thing,” he said about the writing process for a record motivated by grief. “It just sort of happens because it’s in your psyche and it’s what you’re motivated to do. It’s almost a weird un-emotion.”

For Perry, grief comes through re-experiencing artists from her childhood. “Hybrid Theory and Meteora got me through a lot of things when I was 14, 15,” she said of Linkin Park and the late Chester Bennington. “It’s crazy how … when you look back at (the artists you listened to growing up) you’re revisiting your childhood as well.”

The primary school Perry attended recently closed. “Where I grew up, there (weren’t) much kids in the village, and they’d always tell us (the school’s) gonna close this year; it’s gonna close this year,” she said. “But it managed to stay (open) until recently. I don’t know the exact reason (it closed). I think there’s not really kids left in the village, I guess.”

And so, with its new sound, Kero Kero Bonito leaves childhood behind.

Contact Seiji Sakiyama at [email protected].