This interview was first published in the June 2016 issue of OVERTURE (Vol. 7). Thanks to Crests (@xiaoaishiteru) for providing me with screenshots!
Since Tsunku stepped down as general producer in 2014, different lyricists and composers have been working on Hello! Project songs. Among these are Nakajima Takui (ANGERME’s Taiki Bansei) and Maeyamada Kenichi, also known as Hyadain (Kobushi Factory’s Chotto Guchoku ni! Chototsu Moushin). The two musicians had an open discussion on their songwriting process and the source of Hello! Project-ness.
— Is this your first time meeting each other?
Nakajima: Yes, it is. I don’t really get called by media like this in the first place. I’m not on TV. I don’t even have a lot of friends. (laughs)
Maeyamada: Oh no, that’s… I’m looking forward to speaking to you today! When Taiki Bansei came out, I heard Takui-san’s version and I was like, “Ah, this is awesome, both versions are cool”. After hearing °C-ute’s Tsugi no Kado wo Magare, I thought you had an outstanding knack at creating melodies.
— Takui-san, what’s your impression of Maeyamada-san?
Nakajima: Usually, I write songs for myself to sing. I’m a solo artist, but my style is similar to a band’s. I’m not someone you could call a professional songwriter. As for Hyadain-san, he writes songs for a lot of different people and often appears on TV. In other words, I have this image of him being a celebrity.
Maeyamada: Thank you. (laughs)
— So, today we’d like to have a discussion on songwriting for Hello! Project. First, how do you get requests?
Nakajima: There are two different cases for me. When it comes to Taiki Bansei and Tsugi no Kado wo Magare, to tell you the truth, I wrote them for myself. They changed the key and the arrangement so they could be sung by Hello! Project groups. Last year, I got a request to write two songs for Juice=Juice (Ai Ai Gasa, GIRLS BE AMBITIOUS). I met with their manager, and they told me: “Here’s how the 5 members are feeling right now. Could you put this in the lyrics? This member likes this kind of food, and she’s into this stuff right now.” We had a chat and looked at the members’ profiles carefully. After that, I was asked to write about love from a girl’s perspective. But you know, I’m from an all-male household. I didn’t have a mom and was raised by my dad so I don’t know anything about girls’ feelings. (embarrassed) I only have experience with straightforward love.
Maeyamada: Straightforward love?
Nakajima: I moved to Tokyo directly after graduating from junior high and worked while playing in a band. I haven’t properly dated or even went to a party. I’ve never been through all the steps of love, it’s like, you’re into me, OK, if not, next! So I can’t write stuff you often hear in popular lyrics, like: “Secretly loving him, in the corner of the classroom”.
— Then, how did you do it?
Nakajima: Well, I love movies. I wrote what came to my mind while thinking about movies like Chiisana koi no uta. So when I write for Hello! Project, I have to change my mindset completely, especially when it comes to lyrics. In comparison, I only draw from my own experiences when I write songs for myself.
— Hyadain-san, what’s your process?
Maeyamada: So far this year, I’ve only been asked to write one song. Many years ago, I was involved in writing a few songs for Kirarin Revolution. It’s weird talking like an expert when I’ve only written one song…
Nakajima: Just say what you want. (laughs)
Maeyamada: You know, there’s this thing called Hello! Project-ness. I wrote the lyrics with set phrases in mind.
Nakajima: Did you learn this from studying Tsunku’s work?
Maeyamada: I’ve learned this naturally because I’m a fan of Hello! Project. It’s hard creating while thinking about how Tsunku-san would write something, but I can do it if I think about words that Tsunku-san wouldn’t use. I filter out words that wouldn’t appear in Tsunku-san and Hello! Project songs.
Nakajima: What do you mean by set phrases, expressions like “Chototsu Moushin”?
Maeyamada: That’s part of it, but also changing words like “tomodachi” (friend, casual) to “yuujin” (friend, formal) or “okaasan” (mom) to “ryoushin” (parents).
— What about the sound?
Maeyamada: I can’t go too hard in the chorus. The idol group I go the hardest with is Dempagumi.inc, and you can feel I’m going overboard in the chorus. If I were to do this in a Hello! Project song, Hashimoto Shin (UP-FRONT WORKS chief director) would cut it.
Nakajima: Oops, you name-dropped someone. (laughs)
Maeyamada: Hashimoto-san would probably say: “Tone it down a notch. This isn’t Hello! Project”. He has a very objective understanding of Hello! Project.
— There were people who thought Chotto Guchoku ni! Chototsu Moushin sounded like a “Hello! Project song,” but not like a “Hyadain song”. Did you consciously avoid using your signature sound?
Maeyamada: That’s funny, because I didn’t try to sound like Hello! Project. It’s just “Hello! Project magic,” as I think the production team played a huge part in it. I only created the melody and the lyrics, and the arrangement and demo vocals turned it into a Hello! Project song. The team are experts who have been doing this for decades. Technically speaking, they can turn anything into a Hello! Project song. Unlike what everyone thinks, I didn’t mean to write a Hello! Project-like song.
— Now that’s interesting. After writing the lyrics, the melody and the chord progression, how are you involved in the arrangement process?
Nakajima: Hmm, it depends on the song. In my own particular case, the recording data I create is often used as a basis. They raise the key of my demo vocals, cut out unnecessary sounds and then add some. Every time, they raise the key and the tempo for sure, and just by doing that, the song sounds quite different from the original.
— Basically, you’re not involved with the final arrangement process?
Nakajima: No, I’m not. I let them do it, but with LoVendoЯ, I was involved in launching a song. Another time, they asked me to make an accurate demo.
Maeyamada: Ah, that also happens in the process.
Nakajima: But I can’t do solo guitar shredding, because I don’t do metal. Then again, the girls aren’t doing hardcore hard rock. If they want a solo that’s full of nuances, I’ll just make a guitar sound with my mouth, like “werowerogwiiin”. You know, LoVendoЯ’s Uozumi Yuki and Miyazawa Marin are so serious, they copied my mouth guitar solo perfectly. (embarrassed) My mouth sounds were just there to tell them to play freely, in a nuanced way.
Maeyamada: So talented! If you can do that, it means you’re skilled, all three of you.
Nakajima: No, I’m not, I still can’t read a music score and I can’t use Pro Tools. At most, I can use Garage Band a bit, but when I’m in the studio, I’m basically telling musicians what I want with my mouth.
— Some musicians aren’t satisfied unless they do everything themselves from scratch…
Nakajima: I’m like that with my own music; I want to do everything myself. When you’re making music for someone else, you want to hand it over to them. If others were to complain about my music, I’d be upset, so I respect others’ work and don’t say anything. You know, deep down, I don’t want to care about what people feel.
Maeyamada: What do you mean by that?
Nakajima: People’s feelings are very hard to understand. If I start acting according to someone else’s feelings, I don’t know what the heck I’m actually doing. After all, if I don’t understand something myself, I can’t move others. Imagine if I were to go on stage and sing a song while thinking: “Man, I recorded this song, but I’m not satisfied with it.” I wouldn’t be able to stir emotions.
Maeyamada: I guess so.
Nakajima: I give my very best when I work on my part, but when I’m done, I let go and completely trust others with the rest. Earlier, Hyadain-san was saying that his songs are just turned into Hello! Project songs. I really feel the same for my own work.
— It seems that when external songwriters like you are writing songs for Hello! Project, a lot of them have a funky sound. Don’t you feel like writing kayoukyoku songs closer to Platinum era or Daite HOLD ON ME?
Nakajima: This funky sound is one element from Tsunku-san’s work. I’ve never been asked to write a funky song specifically. To put it this way, I just write good melodies and lyrics, and the team dresses up the songs with nice clothes. Sometimes, the clothes may be funky.
Maeyamada: Tsunku-san is also writing EDM-like songs. I don’t think we can do them better than him. Only Tsunku-san can pull off this fantastic sound.
— Maeyamada-san, you’re writing songs for a wide range of acts, from Johnny’s to anime. How is Hello! Project different in terms of direction?
Maeyamada: It’s very precise. I get a million requests for revising songs, but I absolutely don’t feel bad about that. I really agree with them. The team is full of genuine music lovers. They’re absurd, in a good way.
Nakajima: I couldn’t have said it better.
Maeyamada: One of my very first jobs was for Kirarin Revolution. It was a song for Milkyway, a unit with Kusumi Koharu. It was my first time being in charge of an entire song, down to the arrangement. I revised everything in that song over a hundred times. I kept rewriting the lyrics, the arrangement and the composition over and over again. It was such a rocky first experience that it made all of my next jobs look like a piece of cake. (laughs) That’s why I’m grateful to them. I would certainly get mad if I were asked to make unreasonable changes, though. Still, I’ve been working with teams for a long time, not only Hello! Project, but Dempagumi.inc, Momoiro Clover, Ebichu… and I always get reasonable requests. I could be asked to rewrite all the lyrics in the verse, for example, but I don’t take it badly at all. I agree with absolutely everything and do my part.
Nakajima: I’ve had to rewrite songs over and over too, but revising over a hundred times is out of this world.
Maeyamada: Towards the end, we were really running out of time, so Taisei-san came over to the rundown shoebox I used to live in. He waited for me patiently on the sofa, the kind that if you sit on it, you get bitten by mites. I was barely conscious, but I had fun. It was the first time I felt I was needed to create music. I don’t know if I would do it again today, though…
Is Tsunku a God? From a creator’s standpoint, he’s one-of-a-kind.
Nakajima: While he was producing Hello! Project, Tsunku-san was also running his company, TNX. He asked me to write songs for TNX idols. Like I said, I don’t use music software at all. So before I worked with Tsunku-san, I requested that he brought a guitar to our meeting. Then, I asked him: “What kind of song do you want?” and we played chords to check if it was right. This process left a big impression on me. We went back and forth, going like: “Should we add a minor here?” and “We don’t need a major 7th in the bridge”.
Maeyamada: Ah, it sounds like Tsunku-san would enjoy this process.
— According to you, what makes Tsunku-san special as a creator and producer?
Maeyamada: The biggest thing for me is that he’s always evolving. He works with new people, new genres, fresh arrangements… It’s not that he tries to be unique; he’s consistent at it. He’s craving freshness, but he’s also studying the past and exploring sounds like rockabilly and kayoukyoku. He’s not rehashing things.
Nakajima: So true! He’s embracing the punk way of life.
Maeyamada: He’s the kind of person you can imagine saying something like “let’s rock?” with a grin. Tsunku-san is always rocking. For example, Morning Musume released a single called Namida ga Tomaranai Houkago, which Konno Asami-san and Michishige Sayumi-san centered…
— Their vocals are…
Maeyamada: Exactly, they’re not good vocalists. Namida ga tomaranai houkago is also a medium tempo ballad (keeping their vocals in mind). When I met Tsunku-san, I told him: “You must have cut a lot for the single.” He replied with a smile: “I wanted to release the song without correcting the pitch, but when I listened to it, it was a bit too rock. Then, I might have released it as is.” (laughs) Anything works if it’s interesting, he’s refreshing like that. No doubt that, at his core, he loves and understands performers.
Nakajima: You can feel he’s always looking for new things. He’s someone who wants to create fresh stuff too, so to me, he’s just like a punk.
Maeyamada: Tsunku-san himself says he’s “rock”, but he’s doing “punk” things.
— Tsunku-san could release something a ton of songs like LOVE Machine if he wanted.
Maeyamada: He could, but it wouldn’t be interesting to him. He’s probably get tired of it.
— Still, normally, you’d be asked to follow a successful path. Maeyamada-san, do you often get requests like “make me a song that sounds like this”?
Maeyamada: I do. Inside, I’m thinking: “How can you do the same thing? “… but I do it for the money. (laughs)
Nakajima: Of course. (laughs) I worship the Beatles, and while they were only active for 7-8 years, they changed tremendously during that time. Look at the speed of their evolution, and at how they destroyed themselves, quickly overthrew the rules and reached a state of anarchy… No matter how you cut it, it’s punk. I think the path created by the Beatles’ leads to all genres. If I may say so, Tsunku-san’s creative energy is the Beatles themselves. Breaking yourself constantly is punk. But you know, you only live once. In my opinion, you had no choice when you’ve done something again on purpose.
— It’s like your character as a creator.
Nakajima: I guess. That’s why my music doesn’t sell! I don’t do what fans want. I can’t make the same popular song twice or thrice.
Maeyamada: I’m not that extreme. (laughs) Still, even idol groups that follow one path never ever say : “let’s make it like this again”. It’d be rude, even towards me.
— Do you mean they don’t go along with fans’ wishes?
Nakajima: If you go along with fans’ wishes, you’re not rocking… It’s just not it. When creators want to please fans, they’re not creating music. You know, classical music is very punk. It usually has a lot of modulation and tempo changes.
Maeyamada: True! I think the exact same thing. There’s no such thing as classical music “having to sound a certain way”.
— Let’s finish this off: where is Hello! Project headed now?
Maeyamada: I made it clear in this interview that if their team is involved, the songs will keep being quite Hello! Project-like. It was like this for Takui-san’s Taiki Bansei, and even for Tsuno Maisa-san’s Utakata Saturday Night. You can say that as long as they’re looking over the production process. This Hello! Project-ness can be created precisely because of Tsunku-san and the staff’s long experience with it. Conversely, someone else can write a song and it can become Hello! Project-like, as if it were an automated process. An important aspect is that Tsunku-san is pushing the team forward as a creator. Even now, this Hello! Project-ness is updated because of Tsunku-san. If I could ask him anything, it’d be: “Tsunku-san, please be active and keep working forever”. Just that. I want more weird songs like Oheso no Kuni Kara Konnichiwa. It’s also my wish as a fan.
Nakajima: I’ve had more opportunities to write songs for Hello! Project lately. Honestly, I thought that they were interested in having people from a different genre, like me, writing songs for them. Then, I understood that no matter what I did, their exceptional team would use their ability to make songs Hello! Project-like. Hello! Project isn’t so fragile that by having us write songs, Tsunku-san’s influence would decline. Hello! Project is unshakable. Tsunku-san wants to bring in new blood, and by following his idea, I believe Hello! Project will become even more interesting.
Source: OVERTURE No.007, June 2016.