Kero Kero Bonito at Meltdown Festival 2019
This performance, part of the legendary Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre, this year curated by Nile Rodgers, is opened by Liverpudlian trio Stealing Sheep. They deserve a mention for their superior synth pop, enthusiasm and heavenly voices.
Main act Kero Kero Bonito are a left-field pop band who released their debut mixtape, Intro Bonito, in 2014. As may be evident from their name, derived from the onomatopoeic Japanese word for frog croaks and a fish, or Portuguese for “I want, I want, beautiful”, this is a kitsch, quirky group. Their music encompasses many genres and is inspired by J-pop and video game themes. Lead singer Sarah Bonito sings and raps in both English and Japanese. Producers and multi-instrumentalists Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled drive the sound, though for live shows they are joined by Jennifer Walton on drums and sampler and Jamie Rowland on guitar. The band are clearly loving the chance to play Meltdown and put in a heroic and committed set. The sound is loud and the lighting (tubes of lights, strobes, car crash reds and greens) is bombastic
As the singer comes on stage with jeans more rip than fabric, green/blue hair and a skull and crossbones top, it is a contrast to hear Bonito’s high, clear, childlike voice. There is something soothing in it, with sugary tones as she raps on the opener, the words seemingly plucked from free association: “Build up! Infinity!… Gun crime!… Spaghetti! Soda!… Arigato! Banana!” The video game influence is clear in this group’s sound, with glitches and Casio keyboards turned to Hammond organ (and at times xylophone and pan pipes); it is both retro and completely out of any time at once. Everything about the trio’s music is slightly off-kilter and unexpected, from the prog rock and death metal influences to the doorbells and other effects that pepper the songs. Even an ostensibly straight slow jam is somehow poured through a left-field blender. They are like a band playing at a pub disco in a 1980s Japan in Philip K Dick’s imagination.
Only Acting, from second album Time ‘n’ Place, has lilting guitar licks and sees the frontwoman head-banging and letting out a death metal roar at one stage, putting in mind Netflix anime series Aggretsuko, about the cutest little red panda who loves to sing shredding death metal at night. More of this sound would have been cool, but it does shred the vocal cords so it’s understandable that Bonito wants to preserve her voice.
Single Flamingo sees a stuffed toy bird held aloft to wild cheers and the crowd singing along joyously. The young audience is having the time of its life, dancing wildly. The band’s style is androgynous and inclusive; their gig feels like a safe, warm place full of in-jokes and support. This is music that sounds like a feature-length viral video, like modern-day nursery rhymes. Bonito is a clear draw here for many fans: beautiful, quirky, non-threatening and cute. Kero Kero Bonito takes influences like death metal, dancehall and rap and transforms them into sanitised versions of themselves. Their lyrics are introspective with a feel of self care; Break, in praise of staying in and looking after yourself, gets a huge cheer. They follow this track with My Party and new single Swimming has beauty in the melody and some arresting lyrics – “I was treading on the beach, summer underneath my feet” – about nostalgia and reflecting on childhood.
In a world that is often bewildering and unpredictable, Kero Kero Bonito offers a soothing ethos that makes the fans feel included and understood. Those who are old enough to remember a time when a face full of botulin was not de rigueur, however, may have been mystified and unsettled by their performance. But for those who weren’t, this is the sound of the future.
Photos: Victor Frankowski
For further information and future events visit Kero Kero Bonito’s website here.
Watch the video for Swimming here: