Blue Peppers “Blue Peppers EP” Interview (2015)

Blue Peppers are a great two-member Tokyo band, consisting of Fukuda Naoki (left in the picture below) and Inoue Kaoru (right). If you don’t know them yet, definitely do check them out if you’re looking for some mature Japanese pop with strong AOR vibes and nods to city pop.

While their 2nd full album SYMPHONY is coming out in December 2021, here is an interview about their very first release: 2015’s Blue Peppers EP. Enjoy!

Interview & text: Kubota Taihei (original text)
English translation: Henkka
Blue Peppers on the web: website, Twitter, Twitter (Fukuda Naoki), Twitter (Inoue Kaoru), Instagram, Facebook, SoundCloud, YouTube

Note: You can buy Blue Peppers EP from CDJapan.

Blue Peppers is a unit consisting of Keio University boys Fukuda Naoki and Inoue Kaoru, and they are a tasty unit indeed. Their new release Blue Peppers EP came out on October 7, and its mellow sound sits somewhere in the borderline between a certain 90’s genre — which was itself built on top of a catalogue of great records — called “Shibuya-kei,” as well as another genre that has become a hot keyword in recent years: “city pop.”

Nonchalantly hinting at that “Keio Boys” image through their material which is both stylish and smart, their music has the sort of overwhelming originality which only the two of them could have created. If you’re looking for something that’s a little out of the ordinary, then here are two new faces you ought to keep your eye on!

— Let’s start with the basics. How did you two first meet?

Fukuda Naoki: We met in our third year of high school. I’d had to repeat a year though so while we were in the same grade, Inoue’s actually a year younger than me.

Inoue Kaoru: We kind of vaguely knew each other already. We had this mutual acquaintance, and when Fukuda found out through them that I’d gone to see Tomita Lab’s Blue Note show and I heard how he’d gone to see Tomita’s Apple Store show, that’s when we connected.

Fukuda: I knew of Inoue because I’d heard these rumors about him. “There’s this guy that’s crazy good on the keyboards!” So when I heard he liked Tomita Lab, that’s when I approached him.

Inoue: I think you asked me if I was making music on the computer. That was around the time I’d just gotten my hands on some composing software, so you were asking me about the sort of stuff I was making.

Fukuda: Right. You didn’t know a lot about it yet when we first met. You’d only just started out.

— There most likely aren’t a lot of high schoolers out there who like Tomita Lab. You two must have been happy to meet a like-minded individual.

Inoue: Yeah. It was like, “Wait, there’s someone else like me out there?!” In those days the people around me who were doing music were all into stuff like ONE OK ROCK, UVERworld, and UNISON SQUARE GARDEN. Of all the people I knew who played guitar, everyone was into band music. None of them had an interest in… “studio music,” I guess you’d call it.

— Well, AOR, fusion, and other studio music like that certainly isn’t accessible to your average high schooler. It’s not exactly cathartic music — on the contrary, it only gets more stress-inducing the more you do it! Regardless, you two then decided to start making music together.

Fukuda: Yeah, although I really can’t seem to remember the exact reason why. (laughs) I recall Inoue showing me this song fragment of his and I made an intro for it… I think that’s how it started, with us combining bits of songs we’d made.

Inoue: I have no recollection of that. (laughs)

Fukuda: I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened.

— So in the beginning it was all just for fun?

Fukuda: Right. We had no plans to actually release stuff or anything like that.

— Maybe the thought of releasing your material didn’t feel realistic owing to the fact that’s it so inaccessible?

Inoue: Maybe so.

Fukuda: And that was the case until just as of late. I was job hunting and everything — actually doing this for a living didn’t seem like a possibility until recently.

— Looking through your profile, you seem like two very different people. Inoue comes across as having more of a “musician’s temperament,” while Fukuda seems like someone whose main focus is listening to music.

Fukuda: Oh, I might go so far as to saying I enjoy listening to music more than I do making it. I’m always just listening to whatever happens to catch my interest. I’m not like an audiophile or anything though.

Inoue: You might not be an audiophile, but you’re still hunting after like all the original pressings and the digital remasters and whatnot.

Fukuda: I am. But I know if I ever started collecting records there’d be no end in sight, so I’ve drawn the line at just buying CD’s and ripping them without compression. Anyway, while the two of us have some things in common as far as the music we listen to, we do listen to completely different stuff as well.

Inoue: But even when it’s different stuff, we’re still paying attention to the same things when listening. I haven’t dug as deep into AOR as Fukuda — I’m more into Shibuya-kei and stuff like that — but whenever one of us finds something he likes and plays it for the other person, we pretty much always agree as to which bits about the music we find great.

Fukuda: And whenever we recommend songs to each other, we pretty much always agree that it’s a good song. I guess we have pretty similar tastes in that sense.

Inoue: If we were both super into AOR, it might be kind of… Our material might’ve turned out sounding totally unoriginal, like we were just mimicking other artists. The fact that we like somewhat different types of music actually works to our advantage.

Fukuda: Yeah. But since our tastes are still pretty similar anyway, we don’t get into arguments about the music we make. It’s always like, “Yeah, this is what it should sound like.”

— So you two resonate with each other not in a logical sense but in a more intuitive way. Similarly when it comes to your vocals, either one of you may take the lead vocal depending on the song, highlighting your respective personalities. If I had to describe the differences, I’d say Fukuda’s vocals are more “sweet” while Inoue’s vocals are “emotional.”

Inoue: We weren’t at all serious about our singing on the album though. Our thinking was… “If we’re picked up by a label and we get to record this thing under better circumstances, we’ll get someone else to sing the songs and re-record them. Let’s just sing them ourselves for the time being.” For example, the song “Omokage.” I just thought to sing that one like Hata Tomohiro — not trying to sound like him per se, but just thinking… “I bet this would sound great if it was Hata Tomohiro singing it.”

Fukuda: The first song “6gatsu no Yume” was sung by Sasaki Shiori (daughter of Sasaki Kumi, known as Yamashita Tatsuro’s backing vocalist) and the English lyrics in the sixth song “Calling” by Sanagi Taichi (who, like the members of Blue Peppers, is a student at Keio University, as well as a member of funk band Annie & The Funky Tank). The plan was for me to sing the rest of the songs apart from those two, but when it came to “Omokage” and Inoue telling me his thing about Hata Tomohiro, I felt it would be better for him to just sing it himself to get closer to that vision of what he wanted it to sound like.

— I see. A minute ago you were talking about how you two have similar tastes. In what circumstances do you especially feel that to be the case?

Inoue: It’s something that’s reflected in our own material as well… Let’s say you have the first verse and chorus, then it repeats, there’s an interlude, and you one last chorus. But you know how that last chorus is often just a tiny bit different than the ones before it? Well, we both love the same sort of subtle differences you get in the last chorus.

Fukuda: Coming up with ways to not bore the listener — we both like listening out for how the people making the music must’ve been trying to work that out.

Inoue: Also, Fukuda was originally a drummer…

Fukuda: I took lessons until about halfway through high school.

Inoue: And I love the drums, too. So most of the time it’s the drums that are at the center of our attention when we’re listening to music. We’re both always going like, “Did you hear that fill just now?!”

— By the way, at which point did you decide that you wanted others to hear your music, too?

Fukuda: I was coming up to that point where I had to start thinking about job hunting and I decided I wanted to pursue something in the music industry, so I figured I needed something that would serve as a kind of a substitute to a business card. I had all these things I’d created just as a hobby, so I decided to make them into something real.

Inoue: Prior to us meeting, I’d also been making demos that weren’t proper songs yet, and I just thought, “Maybe I ought to finish these.”

— Did you end up giving up on the job hunt?

Fukuda: Yes. Once we started recording, that was all I could think about. The most I ever did was going to like a job fair. (laughs)

— And the result of all that was Blue Peppers EP.

Fukuda: Right.

— Seeing as the album was supposed to be your “substitute to a business card,” even if you did want people to hear it, it’s not exactly like you were trying to “make it big” or anything, right?

Fukuda: Yeah. The plan was to just do an independent pressing of 300 copies or so, and then Inoue could sell some of them at shows of the other bands he plays in, and we could get some small CD shops to take in a few copies. If we got lucky, someone might actually hear it.

— Nonetheless, just as was intended with it being your “business card substitute,” the album does feature all sorts of different influences.

Inoue: We had other half-finished songs, too, but our feeling was that first we just wanted to kind of say, “This is the sort of unit we are, and here’s the sort of sound we’re going for.” We wanted to lay it all out there while also making it as compact as possible, with hopes that it would lead to future work.

— The songs are very competent, and yet there isn’t a sense of you being “jacks of all trades but masters of none.” While it is a diverse album, it’s all in perfect order — it sounds coherent.

Fukuda: We talked about how it wouldn’t be good if the album didn’t sound consistent throughout. In order to have it sound coherent, we did things like making the drums sound the same all the way through, as well as using similar kinds of chords in all songs — we really didn’t have that much variety in that sense.

Inoue: For our concept going forward, we want to make music that’s easy to listen to… Or, that is, music that is “pop” to an extent while still having some slightly more difficult ninth chords — stuff that might sound difficult depending on the listener. But then we don’t want to throw in a bunch of difficult chords just for the sake of it, only to make songs that are instantly forgettable. You need to have the right balance.

Fukuda: That’s something that applies to all our songs.

— So you always want to have some kind of a spice in your songs. The two of you first got together because of your shared love of Tomita Lab, and my feeling is that rather than his actual sound it’s more his process that you two use as a reference…

Inoue: He’s definitely a big influence.

Fukuda: His sound is an influence as well, but really I think the biggest thing is just his stance towards music. What made me decide in the first place that it was okay to even make this sort of music with Japanese lyrics was because I heard Tomita Lab’s material when I was in high school. I already liked Western music and stuff since junior high, but I hadn’t heard more sophisticated Japanese music yet. I had no idea there was even anyone doing Japanese-language AOR type stuff. So it’s not a bad feeling at all when people tell us our music sounds like Tomita Lab.

Inoue: Didn’t you say that up until discovering Tomita Lab the only Japanese-language music you’d been listening to was Yamashita Tatsuro and Southern All Stars?

Fukuda: I only started listening to Tatsuro after Tomita, just before I got into university. Southern All Stars I already liked in elementary school, but I stopped listening to them at some point. The first Tomita album I heard was Shiplaunching — I saw an an article on the internet or somewhere that said it sounded like Steely Dan.

— The fact that it was Tomita Lab who first motivated you to start making music, you must have been one highly ambitious high schooler indeed. But while that AOR sound has become trendy in recent times, it feels like it’s more the DJ types pursuing it — the people giving it a more “rock emotion” definitely feel like the minority.

Inoue: I often used to listen to stuff like BUMP OF CHICKEN and ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION back in junior high school, and while it’s one thing to understand “logically” how you can achieve certain emotions only through rock, what really matters is whether or not the “rock” actually permeates the music. That’s what determines if it sounds tight or if it just falls flat.

Fukuda: The first CD I bought was by the Doobie Brothers. I started listening to Western music around my first year of junior high, stuff like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and then my drum teacher told me about Jeff Porcaro and I got into Toto. That’s when I started digging up all the other releases Porcaro had been involved in, which is what finally led me to AOR. That was a major “Ah, this is it!” moment. Anyway, although our paths may have been different, rock was always the focal point for both of us, and from there we both went on to absorb many other influences. Recently I find myself thinking about how those early influences can be surprisingly formative. All that Southern All Stars I listened to in elementary school has actually been a huge influence on me. It could very well be because I was so familiar with Southern All Stars that I also came to like the Beach Boys, and then because I got interested in the Beach Boys’ harmonies, that was what led me to the Carpenters and so on.

Inoue: The fifth song, “Hoshizora to Kodoku no Masquerade,” was made entirely by Fukuda. The first time I heard it I thought it sounded a little Steely Dan-ish, but also mysterious and eerie in a way. I thought he’d sown those two elements together really well. That bit where it suddenly gets all poppy during the bridge, I thought that was a very Southern All Stars-y melody line. That ties into what we were just talking about, how it’s not all just AOR — there’s some J-pop catchiness sprinkled in, too.

— How about the reception for this release? Has it been better than you expected?

Fukuda: It’s definitely made us look forward to making the next one.

— By the way, you haven’t played live very much at all, have you?

Fukuda: We haven’t. There’s a lot of parts in the songs that would require other players besides us. There’s only like two or three songs that we could play just by the two of us.

Inoue: It’s something to think about after our next release.

Fukuda: The problem is that I’m very much an indoors kind of person. (laughs) If someone told us to play live, I’d be thinking, “But that means I’d have to leave the house…(laughs) Also, while I play the guitar in all the songs aside from the first, I don’t think of myself as possessing the ability to actually play in front of people. If we were to play live, I’d want to make sure I was personally satisfied with the quality of my playing.

Inoue: Even aside from the issue of us not having enough songs to perform, I don’t want to play live just for the sake of it.

Fukuda: With studio music like this, the bar for performing live is especially high. If we played live and it wasn’t fully-developed, the people watching would just think, “Oh… That’s it?”

— In that sense, it’s too early to predict what the future holds for Blue Peppers.

Inoue: I think we’re both satisfied with this album and we feel that we gave it our all. But in the future, for our next release, we’re thinking about what more we can do.


Special Playlist:
Ten Picks Forming the Blue Peppers’ Musical Basis

“Maxine”
DONALD FAGEN
The Nightfly

Fukuda: A track off Steely Dan member Donald Fagen’s first solo album. It’s one of the songs I consider to be the closest to my “ideal song.” I still remember the shock I felt hearing it for the first time, and I’m sure I’ll keep listening to this amazing track forever. Steely Dan’s masterpiece Aja is of course a great album as well, but simply in terms of vocal pop music I hear more innovation on The Nightfly, and Donald Fagen’s approach to music production really taught me a lot.

“For You”
DIONNE WARWICK
Friends In Love

Fukuda: Here’s a song involving a music producer I love: Jay Graydon. The sound is so pleasant, it just makes me sigh. The singer, the backing vocalists, every single musician on it is performing at the highest level, and it just makes me wish I could’ve been present to experience music like this in real time. The sound production which immediately tells you whose handiwork it is, the fantastic arrangement, the selection of musicians all showing clear intentions… There’s so much to be learned from just this one song.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
THE BEACH BOYS
Pet Sounds

Fukuda: Just as I got into junior high school, one of the earliest Western groups I was listening to were the Beach Boys. I was merely listening to their best-of at the time and this song was my favorite, but then afterwards when I actually heard Pet Sounds, I was even more shocked. It’s an album which obviously needs no introduction, and this is the first song on said album. While I would later start listening to music of all sorts of different genres in high school and in university, I always felt that I first discovered my love of music with beautiful harmonies with this song back in junior high school.

“Creepin'”
STEVIE WONDER
Fulfillingness’ First Finale

Fukuda: When I first got into Western music, my parents bought me these best-of albums from all sorts of big artists as a kind of “primer” of sorts. Stevie was included and my mother told me how “Creepin’” was her favorite song of his, but it turned out that particular song wasn’t actually on that best-of album and so I never gave it much thought. But then later on I remembered what she’d said and I bought this album, and to this day “Creepin’” is still my favorite out of all the Stevie songs I’ve heard. “Mother knows best,” right? That’s my connection to this particular song.

“Aquelas Coisas Todas”
TONINHO HORTA
Terra dos Passaros

Fukuda: I do think that the one artist I listened to the most throughout my university years was Brazilian guitarist Toninho Horta. Amongst all his material, I think my absolutely favorite is this song included on his first album. Compared to other Brazilian music he clearly has a totally different sense of harmony, and just listening to his music I feel as if I’m surrounded by nature and the tears start coming out. The pure beauty of his music was a great influence on Pat Metheny, and you can definitely hear the similarities in his music, too.

“Guild”
BUMP OF CHICKEN
Yggdrasil

Inoue: While I was only listening to big band jazz stuff in elementary school, later on it was BUMP OF CHICKEN who first got me interested in band music. I especially have an attachment to Yggdrasil, and this is a song off that album. The song had a huge story and such great potential that it was later made into a separate video production, but for me the greatest appeal has to be vocalist Fujiwara Motoo’s totally unique worldview and his vocal ability. The memorable lyrics that really make you think about what it means to be human and what it means to live were like an education in good taste for me as a junior high schooler. Especially that lyric in the last chorus: “hikizuri dashite yaru” (“I’ll drag you out“) — just the way he sings it in such a coarse way feels so human. It really touches me.

“Kinobori to Aoi Skirt”
SAKAMOTO MAAYA
Lucy

Inoue: I often find myself listening to this one in the winter. I live to the west outside of Tokyo’s 23 wards, and while it’s now mostly full of residential buildings, just four or five years ago there were still lots of fields around and the area still felt somewhat rural. I loved listening to this song in that sort of relatively desolate town under its low, cloudy skies, feeling the cold air and the warmth of my winter clothing as I’d be cheerfully heading to the station. Her works that were produced by Kanno Yoko — this album included — have this slightly old-fashioned, dark texture to them, and it’s paired with Maaya’s gentle, silky smooth voice. For gloomy people like me, it’s just right up my alley. On top of that her singing still has a bit of a childlike quality about it, there’s a subtle sense of “unrealism” about the lyrics, and you just feel like you’re floating because there’s this occasional unsteadiness in her singing like she’s this close to going off-key. All these components are a perfect match, and it’s just a very addictive, strange kind of song.

“Yume no Tsuzuki”
FURUUCHI TOKO
Yume no Tsuzuki

Inoue: Furuuchi Toko, “Goddess of Love.” Beginning with Toko’s perfect composition itself, along with Kono Shin’s arrangement and production as well as the indestructible rhythm section of Sano Yasuo, Okanda Tomohiko, and Ishinari Masato, the result stands in every way at the pinnacle of Japanese music. It’s completely flawless. The song is about how once a love has ended it will just never have the same sparkle again even if the parties involved try starting over, instead leading them only to misery that will repeat again and again. To me, it feels like the protagonist of the song is trying to tell herself just so and move forward, but she can’t seem to let go of that past happiness. The lyrics conveying the emotion of being unable to move on, together with the liveliness of the composition that sounds like one leaving it all behind — the feeling of heartache created by that combination is just enchanting.

“Drifter”
KIRINJI
FINE

Inoue: I feel like the Kirinji songs that get noticed and talked about the most are either the tunes that take a Steely Dan-ish approach, or the ones that are just totally off-the-wall. Meanwhile, this song is like the quintessential J-pop ballad, making it quite the rarity in comparison to the rest of their material. The chord progression and the song structure both sound very simple on first listen, but the more you listen to it the more you start to notice all the meticulous, carefully thought-out details, and even an atmosphere of frustration. There’s so much more I could say about this song that I just can’t possibly fit here, but I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the word usage in the lyrics. Instead of the usual “I love yous” that you’d expect from a love song, this song instead expresses the same thing with a simple “nigenai” (“I won’t run away“), directly conveying the song’s mood and forcefulness to the listener. I take my hat off to this song.

“And Then I Knew”
PAT METHENY GROUP
We Live Here

Inoue: The world’s greatest guitarist, Pat Metheny. My theory is that his work can be roughly divided into two categories: songs about the vastness of earth, the harshness of nature, and other things reminding us of life’s most fundamental aspects, and then the more heartfelt songs that feel closer to everyday life. This song is structured like one big, continuous composition that you often hear in the former category, but then it has the familiar-sounding, simple chords and melodies that you get in the latter category. Even the title — “And Then I Knew” — is just exquisite. When the song returns to the main theme after Pat’s guitar solo, it goes into that final chorus but this time with new elements. Listening to it, to me it sounds like a person grown old looking back on their youth, and it gives me this strangely warm feeling inside. It’s just lovely. I mentioned how I think his songs can be divided into two categories, but no matter what he does it’s always his music. I can not help but shed tears at his simply overwhelming power of expression which I myself could never hope to surpass.

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