If you ever wanted to know more about London producer Calum Bowen aka bo en, then you've come to the right place. Equally, if you've ever wanted to read some words from a guy who really seems to know exactly what he's talking about when it comes to pop music, you should look no further.
Although, when I say 'pop music' I'm not talking corporate-sponsored campaigns gifted to various singers around the world, I'm talking about the producers of pop music – those composers of incredible hooks, polishers of sound, conjurers of moods and atmospheres, often working in the background without much recognition; in short, the actual creators of pop music.
When I first stumbled across the music of bo en I was surprised, joyous and confused all at the same time: here's a guy who makes (and quite rightly so) "maximalist introverted pop" and constructs cultural bridges at the same time, singing in a mix of Japanese and English whilst taking many of his influences from Japanese music in general. What's more, he also creates videogame music, which you can check out on his other SoundCloud page. I mean, to get a better idea of his sound in general, it'd be a good idea to check out bo en's debut album Pale Machine, which was released on v cool Japanese netlabel Maltine Records – you can download it for free.
Talking about his influences, his process, Japanese music, and his philosophy of pop music as a whole, the quite interesting Mr Bowen approached my "lazy interview" questions with a refreshing sparkle, showing that his talent and vision with the music he makes as bo en go hand in hand with his thoughts on the music world as a whole. On top of this, the most basic silhouette of him as an artist – an English guy living in London with such deep ties to Japan – demonstrates a utopian internationalism made buoyant by our ever-connected digital world. I apologise for my waffle: please just make yourself a cup of tea or something and keep reading.
Who are you? Where are you from? What do you do?
I'm Calum Bowen. I live in London. I make video game music and experimental pop music under the name 'bo en'.
Why did you decide to start creating music?
I think most people create some form of art because they're unable or unwilling to express themselves directly. So, as a shy child, I imagine it was quite appealing to be able to carefully consider and control my expression in this way. However, my first decision to study music at school was kind of driven by the fact that all of my friends were doing it. So, in that way, it was kind of the result of happenstance.
How would you describe your sound? What makes you and your style stand out?
Shibuya-kei was a huge influence for me. Taking the tenets of pop music to their extreme is kind of the general approach but stylistically, I take my lead from a big nostalgia for R&B which in turn led me onto a whole lot of soul/jazz. The surface aesthetic makes references to current trends in dance music but fundamentally I'm writing neo-soulish jazz-pop tracks.
A big part of my music is an attempt to rid people of the perception that style/genre should be the basis for value judgements. So, in using different timbres and rhythms (which are mostly the varying factors that define specific genres) as freely as possible I want to encourage people to free themselves of placing value judgements on genres alone. A lot of Shibuya-kei fits into this genre-hopping theme but I mainly take my inspiration from Kiyohiko Senba's project Haniwa. It definitely inspired my approach of treating different genres/stylistic tropes as a dramaturgical toolkit – that these could be used as elements within one coherent whole rather than borders to split different songs or even artists into camps and judge them accordingly.
Is there a perfect time and place for listening to your music?
I'm not sure. In a way, I think it relies on the attention of the audience quite heavily. For example, It wouldn't work well as background dinner party music. It can be pretty disruptive at times. So, I suppose some free time or place that you have to jump into the world. I don't think it particularly sits anywhere geographically or temporally.
What inspires you most when writing a song?
Now that I'm writing my new album, I have new objectives but when I was writing Pale Machine, I had a clear set of rules (except I broke them a few times) which led the writing. In that way, experimentation within those rules was the main inspiration. While I draw from my own experiences lyrically and want to engage with people in a frank and open way, the more dominant factor for me is creating something musically interesting and compelling which can support my emotional opening up.
The most inspiring specific moments are almost always accidents, as cliché as it sounds. So often, when writing or producing, you get locked into the sound or direction of what you've started because you go through a process of listening to it over and over again and solidifying the contents in your mind. However, there's been times where my hands have slipped and I landed on a chord that felt great and that has led the rest of my writing. Or I might mute a track by accident and realise that, in fact, this section should be a lot more sparse. In that way, accidents help me break out of the cyclic determined writing process I usually go through.
What is your most memorable musical experience?
I think the most memorable would be the Pale Machine album launch at 2.5D in Japan last year. I've played a few more times since and it's been absolutely amazing but the first time was kind of just a big surprise. Having worked only online for a really long time and kind of putting all my eggs in one basket and hoping things would work out, I was so happy to see 2.5D fill up and everyone singing along so encouragingly. I'm kind of used to going to shows as a bit of a skeptic, waiting to be won over but it was completely the other way around at this show and in Japan in general which, while it's not particularly critical, is very comforting for a performer.
What are your favourite three songs at the moment?
It might not seem like these are very “at the moment” but these are the main songs that are currently inspiring my new album. I think the common thread is that these are people who are trying to make what is most interesting to them through the lens of pop. I take my definition of pop as clearly presented works of brevity and seemingly visceral pleasure. It's easy to be skeptical of pop because it is so often the product of corporations detached from direct human emotion and that much desired quality, 'authenticity'.
Fundamentally, these are people who engage creatively with accessibility and recognise that 'pop' as an approach to writing music is not analogous with the 'rounding of corners' approach that aims at being appealing to the largest amount of people.
Who do you most admire in the music world?
I think part of my musical identity falls on the fact that I don't have any clear musical idols. If pushed, I'd say I admire the persistence of Nakata Yasutaka's approach in an increasingly mainstream context. I admire those who make the music they want to hear and don't make any excuses for themselves.
As far as people in my immediate vicinity who inspire me and who's work I admire – Maxo's huge output and really fluid approach to harmony is very inspiring to me and Wave Racer's incredibly glossy production is particularly admirable. I absolutely love Sugar's Campaign but everyone already knows that.
In your opinion, what is the future of music?
I think (and hope) the future of music will mark a shift in focus towards producers and songwriters over the (vocal) performer who currently stands symbolically in the place of everyone who makes their product possible. People seem a lot more interested in producers and producers also seem a lot more interested in pop so it's only really a matter of time, I think.
What's the future of your music - what do you hope to do next?
I love the chance that bo en gives me to allow room for emotional reflection and expression in a very personal way but ultimately, I'd love to work with other singers and really push them to their limits. My voice is something I find can often restrict the way I write so I feel like I'd like to slowly move into primarily writing for other singers. Whether that'll still be 'bo en' or not, I don't know. I suppose it'd be nice to be perceived in a similar way to Yasutaka in that he's able to work with varying artists but it's always clear that he is the author of the work.
In terms of the not-so-distant future, I'm working on a short EP with two other secret people ;~) and, after that, my next album. Of course, I'm going to be working on game soundtracks as well during these periods.
What, aside from music, is most important to you?
In a broad sense hobbies are the most important thing to me. To be able to maintain genuine interest and intrigue outside of music is what'll really keep me sane and enjoying my life. To be able to return to that state where you're constantly acquiring new knowledge like a child is incredibly enjoyable. Right now, my two main hobbies are gardening and web design.
- Most recently, bo en released the Pale Machine: Expansion Pack 2, an extremely tactile (it's pink & fluffy, as u can see) and collectible version of his debut of the same name, without the expansion pack bit obviously. On it you'll find some lovely new songs, a couple of collaborations and some remixes by the likes of Giraffage and Seiho. Get it here (CLICK).
Like bo en on Facebook
Listen to bo en on SoundCloud
Follow bo en on Twitter
Check bo en's self-designed site