Q&A: Envy on 20 years of hardcore

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One of the most respected names in Japan’s underground music scene, Envy have been forging a path through hardcore and post-rock for more than 20 years. Guitarist Nobukata Kawai talks through the band’s career with Douglas Parkes and reveals the little dreams that keep them going

 
With its legions of idol groups and flamboyant visual-kei stars, Japan seems an unlikely home for one of modern hardcore’s pioneering forces. Had Envy emerged from New York, DC or LA, that would seem fitting, and the group would probably be less the niche interest.  
 
Not that any of this has stopped the Tokyo five-piece over the years. Always one step of their imitators and competitors, the band in 1992 and have released more than 20 seven-inches, EPs and LPs combined. Starting with an overtly hardcore sound, Envy have gradually adapted elements of screamo, classical and post-rock into their skillset, creating a wide-ranging sound that’s eclectic but distinctly their own. If the band comes across as less innovative to new listeners, it’s only because others have borrowed so many aspects of their sound.
 
2015 saw the band release their first album in five years, Atheist's Cornea. Ironically, in true hipster fashion, the band have been touted and name-dropped more in their fallow period than during their productive peak. Regardless, the album was yet another slice of blistering hardcore and melodic aural pyrotechnics. Before their eagerly anticipated show at Hidden Agenda on Tuesday December 15, guitarist Nobukata Kawai reminisces about the band’s long career…

Starting from the top, how did the band first form?
The original band was formed around 1992 by Tetsu [Tetsuya Fukagawa, vocals], Nakagawa [bass] and Tobita [guitar] who were all friends. I joined that band in 93, and in 95 we disbanded that band and at the same time formed Envy.
 
And what was the original inspiration?
New York hardcore was very much the initial source of inspiration. I think the biggest impetus for forming Envy was the influence we received from groups like Born Against or bands on [hardcore record label] Ebullition. Those sorts of bands, their performances were something crazy – but they were also so full of passion. I found myself amazed that guys this badass could even exist!
 
Did you have to trawl through record stores in the early 90s looking for hardcore albums? What was it like finding obscure foreign music in Tokyo in the pre-internet era?
Tetsu was very knowledgeable about hardcore bands, and so I learnt a lot from him. He had lots of records, too. Of all the stuff he introduced me to, it was Union of Uranus that had the biggest impact on me. I don’t think any sort of music in the future will have the same impact on me as that band did.
 
At what point did the band feel comfortable tinkering with its original hardcore style for something that incorporated different elements of music?
Even before the release of All The Footprints (2001) I had been telling the other band members that I wanted to try some kind of fusion of hardcore and classical. I think that as time went on, the resulting style just organically evolved into more of a post-rock-ish one. 
 
I mean, until Mogwai first toured Japan and we received the offer from Rock Action Records to release our music abroad, I personally didn’t even know there was a ‘post-rock’ genre. Of course, others in the band did! But nowadays post-rock or post-hardcore are just labels. They’re terms without much meaning, so we don’t care for genres any more.
 
Your output prior to 2010 is pretty astonishing. How did you manage to release so much music?
Ha, I think it’s because we were still young and didn’t have so many responsibilities like work or family before 2010.
 
What changed after that year?
The next five years [between albums Recitation and Atheist's Cornea] passed so quickly as, like I alluded to, we had children and were getting busy with our jobs. We may be in a band, but our first responsibility is always to take care of our family and careers. Musical activities have to come second.
 
Having said that, it’s easier now to balance our music with work and family commitments, so it might not take so long to release our next album.

What are the jobs you do to make things viable for the band?

We all work as freelancers. The work is not really related to music, but we all enjoy our jobs.

You always seemed to operate on your own terms, how has the band been able to resist commercial pressures?
It’s not we don’t have our own dreams regarding music, but from the start we’ve never made our living through music. If anyone decides to make a living through music, they need to make fantastically popular songs in order to earn enough. And if I’d decided to make music my entire life, I wouldn't choose to make the kind of music Envy does! It’s too difficult [with our songs] to appeal to the general public.
 
Let me state for the record that I’m absolutely not saying people who write pop songs are bad; I rather respect them. Whether you’re one of those big bands that everyone knows or the unheralded band that continues to make music based on a DIY ethic or a rebel spirit – it’s difficult either way to stick to what you’re doing.
 
We just like the feeling of having made our own choices, of having a ‘frontier spirit’ and feeling our own sense of value. Our music might not appeal to the general public, but we want to test various sounds if we can afford to look after our jobs and families at the same time. 
 
We want to tell young people that, “It is possible to share your music with other people despite cultural and linguistic barriers.” “Asian bands can tour Western countries!” “It is possible to join famous festivals with big name bands.” “You don’t need to give up music if you can’t sell many records.” “Money isn’t everything, there’s fun to be had which doesn’t depend on that.” Recognising and achieving these sorts of small dreams, they became our motivation to keep going as we have done for the last 20 years.

Given the long gap between the last two albums, what was the mood like in the recording studio? Was it one of frustration, or were you relaxed since more time was being taken?
It was quite hard work… though that’s the same with all bands. At one point during the recording I thought I didn’t want to make a new album ever again, but once it was complete I started wanting to make another one! I changed my mind about it after we finished – those are good memories now. When you create something, it’s always tough, right?
 
Fukagawa has said the band intentionally placed the aggressive songs at the beginning of Atheist’s Cornea. What was the thinking behind this?
We wanted to screw with listeners, in a fun way. We had been hearing people say that Envy had recently turned post-rock or post-hardcore, or something like that. We just wanted to show them not that’s not true, that we can still do fierce songs.

What are you implying with the new album’s name Atheist's Cornea?
There’s a meaning if you can perceive world affairs… But I believe it isn’t something that requires explanation since you can find an explanation in our lyrics and music. Ultimately we’re just happy if you feel it.
 
Throughout Envy’s career there seems to run a certain ‘spiritual’ theme, at least if you go by song and album titles. Is that something conscious and deliberate? 
Yes, that’s true if you look at those aspects of our music, and one of our worldviews is definitely ‘spiritual’. But the ‘why’ is difficult to explain since it’s hard to talk about this sort of abstract thought.

Give your large back catalogue, can the band agree on a favourite album you’ve created together?
It’s a difficult question because they all have different styles. We’re strongly attached to each album because we worked equally hard on each. Hopefully we can keep creating music whilst preserving our individuality as a band.

Outside of music – we talked about Born Against earlier – what are the band’s other influences?
It depends on each member, really. The others in the band, except me, like movies and books, so I learn a lot about those things from the other guys.
 
If anything, it’s more about making art without suffering an impact from other artists. It’s rare for me to make music whilst under the influence of other artists. I’m happier expressing my own feelings or the thoughts that I experience in my everyday life.

You said many years ago you don’t think a ‘community exists for a band like us’. Are things better now for the kind of scene Envy belongs to?
It’s a difficult question to answer. There are many good bands in Japan, and although it’s not like there are zero communities to support our kind of band, there aren’t many.
 
But we’re planning to do something about that since nothing will change if all we do is wait. I can’t reveal the details at the moment, but when they do happen we’ll be very happy if news of it reaches Hong Kong. It would be very cool if we can create a solid, enjoyable underground music scene with everyone in Asia that’s better than the one we’ve got now.

Additional reporting by Geoff Egerton.
 
Envy Tue Dec 15, Hidden Agenda, Ngau Tau Kok. Tickets: $350 (adv), $400 (door); ticketflap.com.

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