Photo Courtesy of J Storm
J-Pop Legends ARASHI Talk New Single "Whenever You Call," Working With Bruno Mars And The Exploding Asian Entertainment Industry
In their native homeland of Japan, ARASHI are chart-topping, stadium-headlining, genre-defining pop stars. Counting more than 50 No. 1 singles on the Japanese charts and millions upon millions of albums sold worldwide, the J-pop legends are one of the country's biggest and best-selling artists of all time. After conquering the Land of the Rising Sun time and time again, the group is now setting it sights on the West.
In August, ARASHI released "IN THE SUMMER," the band's debut single with U.S. audiences and the first track they are actively working in the American market in their two-decade-long career together. The track, produced by superproducer Rami (Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Britney Spears), follows another significant first for the group: In late 2019, ARASHI launched their first-ever official YouTube channel and social media accounts—a full 20 years after they first formed in 1999.
So why now?
"The decision to enter the U.S. market was really a byproduct of just the overall evolution of … the group getting involved in digital," original ARASHI member Jun Matsumoto tells GRAMMY.com via a video call from Tokyo. "As you may or may not know, physical CDs still sell extremely well in Japan … But the thing is, we have seen that things are starting to change, and it's part of how we want to make sure that even in the future, when even Japanese people are no longer listening to CDs as much, we want to make sure that our legacy [as ARASHI] stays with our fans, and people are able to enjoy our music years in the future when nobody listens to CDs. That seems to be more and more—the idea of leaving a digital legacy behind."
"IN THE SUMMER" is part of a series of strategic moves and releases that sees ARASHI expanding their musical footprint across international borders.
Next up: The group's latest single, "Whenever You Call," released earlier this month, is ARASHI's full-on blitz into Western markets. Produced by Bruno Mars, the song is also the band's first single sung entirely in English.
A soaring pop ballad about the cosmic power of love and connection, "Whenever You Call," which comes ahead of the group's forthcoming hiatus at the end of this year, has taken a new meaning in the COVID-19 era, Matsumoto says.
"While this was certainly not planned originally, I actually am really touched by the fact that ... not only is it a song for us and the story of us going on hiatus, saying that we'll still be with our fans," Matsumoto says, "but [it] also really speaks to what is happening right now—the fact that people aren't able to get together, people aren't able to meet, family is not able to come together for important celebrations, etcetera, due to what COVID is doing to everybody.
"So the song actually really speaks well to people who are stuck in those situations that, no matter what, there is a way to transcend those barriers, transcend physical distance, transcend racial divides and all of the things that are troubling people around the world. The spirit of togetherness and the spirit of being willing to actually come together is something that is universal. I'm very happy that the song can actually help communicate that message to people—not just in Japan, but around the world."
GRAMMY.com spoke with ARASHI's Jun Matsumoto about the group's expansion into the U.S. and Western markets, the exploding Asian entertainment scene around the world and the "mini-reinventions" that have evolved the band for more than 20 years.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. An interpreter translated all answers from Jun Matsumoto.
Your recent song, "IN THE SUMMER," marked your debut with U.S. audiences. How has the reaction been so far? Are your Japanese fans and U.S. fans reacting similarly or differently to the track?
The Japanese fans and the American fans have both had really positive reactions so far, at least from what we've noticed. We've been able to see these sorts of things [by reading] as many of the comments on our YouTube channel and our Instagram pages as we can, both the ones that are posted in Japanese and in English. One of the things that's really inspiring, actually, is that in these divisive times, people can all come together to just enjoy music and enjoy fun performances and that sort of thing. And it's really inspiring that these sorts of entertainment contents can bring people together in this way. It's really struck us that despite our differences, all people are really the same, and that's something that's really inspiring in this day and age.
I love that. So speaking about online comments, you launched the band's official social media channels for the first time ever last year—20 years into your career as a group. Why now? Do you feel like you missed out on the conversation by not "being online" all those years?
I don't feel that we've lost really anything. Cultural differences being what they are, we were able to do a lot in the span of time [when] we didn't really have any participation in social media, and not just us, but a lot of the other people who were represented by [Japanese talent agency Johnny & Associates]. So there was so much that we were able to do in the sense of actual physical connections with people and actually bringing a value to things that are not digital, to the point that there wasn't really any sense of loss by not having [social media]. Now that we are on this, it's a sense of just being able to do so much more than what we were able to do before, but in the sense of just our overall growth and evolution as a group.
"IN THE SUMMER" is the first time you're actively working a single in the U.S. during your 20-year career. Why did you decide to enter the U.S. market now?
The decision to enter the U.S. market was really a byproduct of just the overall evolution of what I mentioned before about the group getting involved in digital. As you may or may not know, physical CDs still sell extremely well in Japan. And it's part of the overall culture that not only us, but a lot of Japanese artists have to really deliver something of perceived value to their fans, kind of like delivering presents; the idea of something physical, having value, having something special and really making sure that it has lots of fun elements and really special features and that sort of thing, to really make sure that there's a sense of enjoyment in the product as well as the experience of listening to the music.
But the thing is, we have seen that things are starting to change, and it's part of how we want to make sure that even in the future, when even Japanese people are no longer listening to CDs as much, we want to make sure that our legacy [as ARASHI] stays with our fans, and people are able to enjoy our music years in the future when nobody listens to CDs. That seems to be more and more—the idea of leaving a digital legacy behind. Not only was that the impetus of opening our digital channels, which obviously then opened up the idea of how other countries and other markets around the world are consuming music, and the value that digital has in order to enjoy good music around the world, including but not limited to the United States.
In 2019, we were actually permitted to attend the GRAMMY Awards ceremony. What was really, really striking to us was the fact that there were artists who were winning GRAMMY awards and who had never actually sold a CD before, that the GRAMMYs were being evaluated now based on streams and that people were really enjoying in massive, massive numbers the music of people who were putting digital first. That really spoke to us in a way that in order to really make sure that our music is heard and enjoyed and that people who want to listen to us, but maybe don't have the resources for CDs or aren't in markets where CDs are as common can still actually partake and enjoy ARASHI's music.
I want to give thanks and a shout-out to the GRAMMYs for having awoken that sort of awareness in us and really held us towards all that's happened and all that we've been able to do this year.
Why did you choose "IN THE SUMMER" as your debut U.S. single? What is it about this track that you thought would speak to U.S. audiences and international audiences at large?
The idea of our debut U.S. single probably should be counted a little bit earlier than ["IN THE SUMMER."] Last year, corresponding to the [launch] of our digital channels, we released a song that did really, really well called "Turning Up." And since then, we've actually remixed a lot of our classic songs with the help of major mix artists and other American stars in order to give our songs that have been such hits in Japan a little bit more of a Western flavor, all of which have been posted to our YouTube channel.
But for "IN THE SUMMER" specifically, this was actually a mixed blessing in a sense. Because even before we opened our digital channels, we had been to Los Angeles and actually met [producer] Rami and really liked what he was able to do for other super-popular U.S. artists; we wanted to be able to work with him in order to help bridge the cultural gap, so to speak, between [us] having grown up in J-pop and then wanting to maybe appeal to a broader global audience.
Rami was very enthusiastic with the idea, and so we collaborated on this. Then of course, due to everything that has happened in this year, it's been really nice to have a little bit of a fun, lighthearted summer song in order to help people take their minds off of everything else that is going on in 2020 …
Based on all the experience we've had, not only with "Turning Up" as well as the other Reborn series remixes for our other songs, we've been able to actually continue that evolution of being able to feel out what works for more Western audiences and from a Western tastes perspective; that's something that's been really fun to work on.
What does the group want to gain or learn from entering the U.S. market so actively?
Originally, the ultimate goal would be [for us] to actually try to see the United States and maybe do a concert there or something like that, just to be able to take our music on the road. We've had such a vibrant and long and successful career here in Japan, and having the awareness, especially having opened the social channels, just to the level of our popularity outside of the islands of Japan—we were really looking forward to the opportunity to actually see those fans and actually share our music directly with them in the way that we would having a concert here.
Unfortunately, 2020 being what it is, that hasn't really been able to happen. But nonetheless, we have had a lot of fun still working with major U.S. musicians, such as Rami with "IN THE SUMMER" [and] Bruno Mars with "Whenever You Call," and being able to actually collaborate with such global personalities to be able to cross the borders, per se, still, even though we can't actually be there physically [and] be able to help spread our music and still be able to enable our fans to have something of our music in this year, especially with everything else going on.
Speaking of your new track, "Whenever You Call," when and where did the group record the song?
We were able to record [the song] last month. Originally, the plan was to actually go to Los Angeles and record at Bruno's studio directly with him. But unfortunately, due to COVID-19, those plans fell through. But instead, despite the fact that we still managed to record the song here in Japan at our own studios, we were able to share the song with him and get his support and advice and direction through the various recordings that we did. He was very kind to be able to give some of the advice and support and fine-tune the song based on his deep and thorough knowledge of what we were able to bring to the song and the vision that he had that we would be able to bring to the song that was the inspiration of why he wrote the song in the first place.
What is "Whenever You Call" about? What does the song mean to the group?
When I first heard it, I was actually a little surprised. Based on my own personal fandom of Bruno … my image of what Bruno was all about [and] what Bruno would be able to bring to the table—when we actually heard the first song as a medium ballad sort of style, I was actually quite surprised. But the more that I heard it, the more that I felt this actually spoke to Bruno's skill to be able to really capture ARASHI's image, and also what this particular year means to not only us but also our fans, especially given that at the end of this year, we're going to be going on hiatus.
The idea [within the song] really spoke to me, that this song is really a perfect way to close out the year. The theme ... [that] despite the distance and no matter what may seem, we and our fans are always going to be connected, that we as a group will always be connected. I have a lot of admiration for what Bruno was able to foresee in terms of what the song would actually become and how it would be a perfect fit for what ARASHI was doing in this year.
The song itself really shows how much Bruno is aware. Not only did Bruno, before writing the song, know that we were going on hiatus, but also he clearly had seen a lot of our performances, had listened to a lot of our music, and was able to tailor his own skills ... to what would be good for ARASHI and what would be really enjoyed by our fans. I definitely can't thank Bruno enough for everything that he did in putting the song together and really lending his own skills to one of our last songs for 2020.
While this was certainly not planned originally, I actually am really touched by the fact that ... not only is it a song for us and the story of us going on hiatus, saying that we'll still be with our fans, but [it] also really speaks to what is happening right now—the fact that people aren't able to get together, people aren't able to meet, family is not able to come together for important celebrations, etcetera, due to what COVID is doing to everybody.
So the song actually really speaks well to people who are stuck in those situations that, no matter what, there is a way to transcend those barriers, transcend physical distance, transcend racial divides and all of the things that are troubling people around the world. The spirit of togetherness and the spirit of being willing to actually come together is something that is universal. I'm very happy that the song can actually help communicate that message to people—not just in Japan, but around the world.
With films like Parasite and groups like BTS catching major attention and support in the U.S. and across the world, K-pop and Korean music and pop culture have become true global cultural phenomena. In your experience, has this growth in K-pop increased or impacted the popularity of J-pop? Are you seeing new fans discovering your music and J-pop music and culture through their exploration of K-pop?
I don't really feel that there's necessarily a level of influence that K-pop is having on J-pop, per se. I mean, obviously I listen to K-pop and have been really impressed by certain groups' level of skills, both [in] music and dance. But the thing is, more so than what specifically is happening now, I've really been almost inspired by being part of the legacy that has led to all of that. Being represented by Johnny & Associates—[founder and talent manager] Johnny [Kitagawa] has been producing boy bands that have danced and sang for over 50 years.
It's actually more touching that the legacy of everything that Johnny built up within the Asian entertainment scene is now taking off in other spaces as well. Not just Korea, but also around the world, people are all able to enjoy the kinds of things that, really, Johnny set in motion. It makes me very proud to have been part of that legacy and to see it continuing beyond. [There's] not really any sort of influence or rivalry between [J-pop and K-pop], but rather being connected to the overall whole that I can feel and see personally having been raised in this organization.
Last year, ARASHI celebrated its 20-year anniversary together as a band. How have you kept your interest in music alive throughout the years? What keeps you coming back, either as a group or an individual artist, year after year throughout the decades?
We've been doing this for now going on over 20 years. Despite the fact that it might seem [like] a routine by now, and doing "the same thing every year," one of the things that has really kept us going and really helped our adaption and evolution throughout this time has been the idea of just always trying to give our audience and our fans something new. Every year, we go through a mini-reinvention of sorts in order to ensure that not only are we staying fresh and relevant, but we're reacting to what new fans want and what the changing tastes of our fans are going to really adapt to.
Entering into the 21st year [as a group], what we just want to be able to do is really make some kind of music that can really transcend barriers of all types, whether it be reaching outside from Japan to the world, or from traditional to digital, or those sorts of transcendental elements to being able to actually create something new and really be able to touch people in new and exciting ways despite having done this for so long. It's really something that has taken the forefront focus of recent years, especially this year.
In an interview with The World, your bandmate Sho Sakurai spoke about the group's evolution from a "boy band" to a "man band" throughout the decades. Do you evaluate and adapt the ARASHI sound as the group and its individual members get older? How does age impact your music — what you sing about, what you write about, what you want your music to sound like?
For me, as I've gotten older and as the years start to pass by, what I've really been able to do is just get more out of my own experience and enjoyment of music. The melodies and the phrases that are used in various songs start to actually mean more just based on all of the experiences that I've had in my life and being able to put together different experiences that I've had in order to get more out of the experience of listening to music.
This really speaks to just what we as a group really want to be able to do ... what we've seen our music mean to so many legions of Japanese fans. We want to be able to pass that experience on to a new audience, a new generation of people, and really leave our mark behind in terms of everything that has meant so much to us, everything that has meant so much to our fans, and being able to allow for other people to be able to enjoy that as well; [that] has been really at the forefront of what we want to do with whatever comes next.