Twin sisters Mana and Kana, along with their former high-school classmate Yuna and college friend Yuuki, formed Chai in 2012. The Japanese four-piece don’t like to divulge their full names or ages, but speaking to Broadsheet on Zoom via an interpreter, the group say they each “have unique characters and personalities that you can see on stage”.
Live, Chai is a coordinated extravaganza, with singing, dancing and instrument swapping throughout the performance. Trying to speak all at once, they say it’s “a show you’ve never seen before”, “unlike anything you’ve ever heard” and “100 per cent entertainment!”
The band toured Australia in January 2020, playing Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Tasmania’s Mona Foma. They enjoyed the experience so much that Kana and Yuuki say they’d “love to live [here] one day”. Yuna particularly remembers that in Australia she “got to touch a koala for the first time”.
Chai’s three studio albums – Pink, Punk and Wink – have garnered critical praise for their energy, themes of self-empowerment and colliding styles, from Shibuya-kei to disco. They tell us their shows at Vivid Sydney and Rising Festival in June will be “very different from our actual tracks that you hear on the recordings. It’s really going to be something else.”
On first listen, the band’s music is hyperactive and chaotic. Lyrics switch between Japanese and English, with a focus on the pleasures of games, table tennis and food. Especially food – song titles include Karaage, Maybe Chocolate Chips and Donuts Mind If I Do, and they were even signed to a label called Burger Records. “Everybody needs food,” explains Mana. “That’s why we choose to write about it.”
Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find an infectious positivity and a strong desire to promote inclusion – an ethos the band terms “neo-kawaii”.
“Basically, the traditional notion of ‘kawaii,’ meaning ‘cute’, is the biggest compliment any woman, and maybe some men, could ever get,” says Mana. “Chai wants to keep that special notion of the word ‘kawaii’, but [we] also want to make a ‘kawaii’ where anybody is able to fit into that word.
“There’s only a very, very small number of people that actually fit into that traditional notion of ‘kawaii’. [We] want to make a new meaning where everybody can be ‘kawaii’ in their own way.”
With each release, Chai has attracted more attention outside Japan. They’ve collaborated with Gorillaz, providing vocals, drums and keyboards for the track MLS. “[We’ve] been saying in interviews everywhere forever that [we are] huge fans of Gorillaz,” they say.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the group also collaborated with 1980s synthpop stalwarts Duran Duran on a track called More Joy!. To this day they say they don’t really know how it came together. “[We] got the offer out of the blue and couldn’t believe it. [We] thought there must be another band called Duran Duran,” they joke. Duran Duran say they knew exactly who they wanted to approach for the track (where the band cameo to shout the refrain “more joy!”).
When asked who they’d like to work with next, there are enthusiastic cries – “Thundercat!” “Lizzo!” “Tame Impala from Australia!” The interpreter has to ask them to take turns.
Much like their music, a conversation with Chai is packed with ideas, enthusiasm, humour – and a reference to food is never too far away. Taking a turn to talk about where Australian tourists should go when they visit Japan, Mana says they should try “real sushi”, before Kana praises the “good street food that you can get in Japan, which is probably very different to the Japanese food that you get in Australia”. Then they suggest exploring the anime culture of Tokyo’s Nakano neighbourhood, the shrines and temples of Kyoto, and the “beachy vibes” of Okinawa.
It’s a brief call, but it has us craving more of Chai’s explosive joy. Like with their album Wink, which leans into dance music, deep house and R’n’B, we expect their next live performances will be eclectic and cheeky, with a knowing wink to the crowd, too.
Chai’s Australian tour dates:
Fri Jun 10 – Carriageworks, as part of Vivid Sydney
Sat Jun 11 – Forum Melbourne, as part of Rising Festival
Tickets are on sale now.