Calum Bowen is a British composer and musician based in London. He launched his career in soundtracking video games while still studying Music at the University of Sussex, starting shortly after to produce music for himself under a second alias, bo en. Just a few months after the online release of his first track as bo en, he found himself celebrating it at a party in Shibuya, Tokyo, and the song was later released with the Japanese net label 1 Maltine Records. This personal project, beginning with Calum making music in his bedroom, became much bigger than he could have imagined, and has continued to grow through his collaborations with Japanese idols 2 and work on adverts. 3 Calum’s unique sound can be attributed to his very constructed thought process, giving a meaning to every aspect of his work, from the way he makes music to his relationship with Japan. This in-depth interview explores the reasons behind his engagement with Japanese culture and takes us through Calum’s upbringing, influences and vision as a musician and composer.
When did you actually start making music?
It’s hard to pinpoint but I’ve probably been making music really informally since I was around fourteen. Being in a bunch of bands and stuff. I had a chiptune project as well around that time!
How did you get into chiptune, which is probably closer to what you’re doing now?
Just through the internet I think. I was really into game music and that was obviously closely connected to the chiptune scene. I think it was around the time when that kinda stuff was getting big. I remember ordering a nanoloop cartridge 4 and hooking my gameboy up to Audacity 5 and then uploading it to 8bc. 6 Do you remember when I supported Anamanaguchi 7 and Sabrepulse 8 at Heaven? 9 So, I was listening to Sabrepulse when I was fifteen, sixteen, back when I was first making music, so it felt really weird to play with him like ten years later.
Were you learning music at school?
I studied music for GCSE and A-Level. 10 When I started GCSE, I couldn’t read music so I was a bit behind everyone else and I actually only did it because all my friends were doing it. Then, I got piano lessons after my GCSEs, and I slowly taught myself after that.
Calum Bowen and Video Game Music
How did the ‘Calum Bowen’ project start?
So I went to Sussex University to study Music. In my first year, I made two albums under the name World Map, 11 which are still on bandcamp somewhere, but I had no ambitions really with it. As far as game music stuff went, on a random day in second year, I kinda just told myself “if I’m ever going to do it, I just need to do it now.” So the first thing I did was to take a game trailer, take all the sounds off and redo them. Before I had anything to be like, “here is some previous work”, instead I could be like, “here is what I could do”. Then things gradually built up through second and third year, it was a lot of working for free…
How did you go from there to what ‘Calum Bowen’ is now?
You just have to build it up really. Super Ubie Land, 12 in my last year of university, was sort of the first official thing but it took ages so after that, I started looking for games with a much shorter development cycle.
From Calum Bowen to bo en
How did the transition from Calum Bowen to bo en take place?
While I was still at university, I was following Make Believe Melodies, 15 Patrick St. Michel’s blog. Through following him, I got into people from Maltine Records, 16 but mostly Avec Avec, particularly the song “Netokano”. 17 That’s when I started to transition from making game music to making music for its own sake as bo en. The song “every day” 18 was my first attempt to do something in the vein of those artists I was looking up to.
What struck you most when you discovered artists like Avec Avec?
I think that Avec Avec in particular represented a link between dance music and the stuff I’d been into before and was studying. I had the notion that dance music was very minimal and typically not as focused harmony, but hearing his work was kind of like a bridge to that world, where I discovered I could work with the kind of harmony and arrangements I was into in this context.
When would the official start of bo en be then?
There were a few unofficial starts. Tracks like “winter valentine” 19 and “every day” were actually released under Calum Bowen initially, but I think the official start was probably when I made “miss you” 20 for FOGPAK 21 in April 2013. I was living at my parents’ house at this point, which I think was a really good opportunity to stick my head down and just do music. Like, when will you ever have so much free time? All I was doing all day everyday was working on bo en. I wouldn’t move home again, but it’s kind of like, “you just gotta store up your nuts”.
Was it your release on FOGPAK which led you to connect with Maltine?
Yeah, straight after the FOGPAK release, I got a message on Twitter from tomad, 22 asking me if I wanted to release on Maltine Records. My reaction was “oh, that’s where Avec Avec releases his stuff – yes I’ll do it!”, so between May and August 2013, I was making the rest of the album, pale machine, just track by track. Quite luckily I had actually planned to go to Japan in September 2013 so I asked tomad if we could do something and he suggested a release party at 2.5D, 23 in Tokyo – it was all really quick!
How did it feel to play one of your first gigs in Tokyo?
It was amazing because at that point, I only had done two or three gigs so I really had no confidence in what I was doing. It was very much like “I made all these songs in my bedroom and I don’t know what’s going to happen.” I was totally surprised because the whole space was packed out and the crowd was amazingly supportive.
Shortly after your trip to Japan, you released pale machine [expansion pack]. Can you remind us what it entailed?
There were two parts to it. The first part was a series of games/interactive music videos for all the songs on the album which were released about once a week between December 2013 and February 2014. 24 That also coincided with the release of a physical version with a bunch of new tracks and remixes. 25
Relationship with Japanese Culture
I now would like to delve into your ties with Japan. Firstly, can you tell us how your engagement with the country’s culture initially took place?
I think it started off in a pretty basic way. Similar to most other people who grew up at the same time as me, soaking up exported Japanese media as a child – all the most popular games came from Japan at that time. I think I held some vague notion that, one day, I wanted to work in the Japanese games industry, just because I loved the music so much. So I guess I started to take the engagement more seriously. I started learning the language and also kind of expanded my listening outward to a lot of shibuya-kei stuff like Cymbals, Pizzicato Five and Fantastic Plastic Machine. 26
How did your engagement with the more generic exports of Japanese culture lead you into more niche tastes in Japanese music?
I think it was quite simple for game music to lead me to other music from Japan. For example, there are a lot of games that use songs from Japanese artists instead of just bespoke background music - Katamari Damacy 27 or Vib-Ribbon 28 are good examples. Also, game music was less of an autonomous musical sphere – a lot of the composers had other projects before and after their video game work. Masaya Matsuura is a good example of this – he worked on all the PaRappa the Rapper 29 games but was also in a band called PSY・S 30 before that. So it was kind of easy to go down some of these rabbit holes just using the internet.
Can you feel a considerable difference in how music is created between Japan and Western countries?
This may be a generalisation but I think the thing that drew me to some Japanese music was the combination of craft with a lack of self-seriousness which was a good antidote to a lot of mainstream western pop. I think there’s also a maximalist/minimalist split geographically where, obviously, the former appeals a lot more to me. Like, it’s quite typical to have just one chord sequence in a western pop track where the structure isn’t articulated by a change in harmony but more in changes in instrumentation. I think a lot of western pop strives toward consistency and authenticity through being minimal in their approach. There’s definitely expansive maximalist stuff out there but it feels like there isn’t a welcoming climate for that kinda stuff in the West yet.
I should definitely say that the Japanese Oricon charts 31 have a lot of trash. But there is definitely a lot of stuff that appeals to me in both the content and the context – in Japan you don’t have to be in a serious prog-rock band to do ridiculous stuff in music.
I think the thing that drew me to some Japanese music was the combination of craft with a lack of self-seriousness which was a good antidote to a lot of mainstream western pop.
How do you think that brand and style are conveyed depending on the country?
I feel like there’s a lot of music that relies on certain sounds to signify ‘good’ or ‘respectable’ music. A lot of those methods of displaying authenticity seem a little shallow – an obvious one is like ‘real’ vs. ‘fake’ instruments but there are all sorts of subtle signifiers which, to me, rarely affect the content of the music, but exist more to place a blanket of respectability over the music. A massive generalisation, but still, Japanese music seems less hung up on convincing you of the respectability of the music you’re listening to through those kind of stylistic features – I feel like they get to the point a lot quicker. At least, that’s within my definition of the ‘point’ of music.
Do you feel like the Japanese music industry fits in better with what you make?
Perhaps! All the positive things that I’ve expressed about Japanese music are benchmarks for my own music-making for sure. I definitely get more offers for songwriting/producing/CM 32 work from Japan than I do anywhere else, but, from a practical perspective, I have a few points of conflict with the industry itself. For example, my work is predominantly released online for free which is particularly rare for the Japanese industry, which still values physical CDs and tries to keep a lot of music off YouTube and streaming services. 33
It sounds like you want to differentiate yourself from the kind of music that you deem shallow. Do you think there is something which drives you to do so?
I think there is a part of me which is striving to be understood. We each have a kind of hierarchy of all the constituent parts of the process of making and listening to music, and one naturally wants to feel that the parts they value are equally valued by those who listen to their work. Another part is that kind of cultural and stylistic propaganda which is readily accepted by listeners, and which I aim to challenge. Let me explain: a friend, quite recently, played me fifteen seconds of a song and he asked me if I liked it. While it was way too short for me to have an opinion, that snapshot was enough for him take in the cultural associations of the sounds being presented and judge whether that fit into his identity or not. That mode of listening is super prevalent, and I think I have spent some time trying to distance myself from it, or kinda place enough spikes on each stylistic seat that you never have a chance to comfortably sink into the identity of the music. Looking back, I think a lot of my songs have been characterised by their incoherence.
Do you sometimes need to face this with your own followers?
I try not to stress myself out controlling the minds of people who listen to my music but there was certainly a time when the use of Japanese in my songs and its reception was a concern of mine. I think I underestimated how much people would latch onto that facet of my music. In my head, I was far more concerned with structure, harmony and production. There are both positives and negatives – certainly some people are put off unnecessarily and see any association with Japan as like “this is some western otaku 34 bullshit”, or people who are drawn to anything related to Japan, who hear the Japanese and that becomes the main draw for their enjoyment of my music. I’m never gonna shit on anyone who’s supporting my music but I have experienced feeling a little out of sync with other people’s interpretations of my work. 35 These considerations kind of marked a shift in my writing with this next album coming – it’s far more focused on the simple task of songwriting.
I want to make complexity enjoyable. I want the perfect balance between intelligibility and complexity and I don’t think they have to be opposing forces.
In terms of musical content, how would you describe the ideal music you would want to compose?
There’s a lot of really complex music that doesn’t present itself in an accessible way. It often takes a while to get into it and to understand it – it may be symptomatic of this generation, but I’m too impatient to wait and see whether I’ll like something or not, so if it wastes a lot of time hiding the good stuff, then I won’t wait to find out.
I want to make complexity enjoyable. I want the perfect balance between intelligibility and complexity and I don’t think they have to be opposing forces. The perfect thing for me is to be so interested in what’s going on from the very first listen, but at the same time, to be able to listen to it over and over again and get loads of new stuff. I think what I’m striving for is a way to make prog 36 within the vocabulary of pop. I’ve been very interested in ideas about what constitutes progressiveness in prog and what constitutes poppiness in pop. For me, there’s a sort of personal utopia – I don’t know if it’s what everyone wants to hear – a personal utopia which embraces the best bits of both of those strains of thought.
Apart from Japanese music that seems to value accessibility, is there another type of music that has influenced you for the same reason?
I love a lot of Latin and jazz music. 37 Actually it’s not that distant from shibuya-kei, which takes influence from both of those. I played in a jazz band at secondary school which I think influenced me a lot. I feel like pretty much all the music I like has some kind of foundation in jazz but usually presents it in some kind of condensed song form – anything that follows on from the lineage of classic soul, gospel, R&B 38 is bound to enthrall me.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on my next album at the moment which has been in the works for ages. I think I’ve taken a long time to reassess after shifting from having no audience at all to having some amount of pressure surrounding me. Given that responsibility, I wanted to be sure that I was making something I’d truly be happy with. Having no audience is a freedom of sorts but it doesn’t really push you to find out what you want from music. I think it’s a pretty classic second album affair. My first album was also an attempt to answer the question “what can a song be?” but where my approach then was to construct these kind of non-repeating non-structures where you fly from A to B to C and never go back again, the approach this time is a little more considered. I’m taking a lot of influence from artists like Donald Fagen 39 and Brian Wilson 40 who looked at song structures in a much more ambitious way. I’m aiming to make more expansive structures rather than the pale machine approach, which was more like rushing through structures and forgetting what had come before.
You previously said you were into orchestration, would you be keen on having your music played by an orchestra?
I’ve only ever had that experience once and it was really great, I’d love to again but yeah, money definitely stands in the way. I’ve got a lot more live stuff on this next album so I’ve definitely gotten my fix of arranging and orchestration.
With regards to your future as a musician, how do you see yourself evolving?
I definitely want to branch out into writing for other people a lot more, on top of doing stuff for myself. 41 Musically, it’s hard to say where I’ll go next. I’m very embedded in the world of this current album at the moment. I’m putting together a live band right now so that’ll definitely be a new addition for the future and I’m curious to see how it changes the way I write.
- A net label is a record label which distributes its music online through digital audio formats and, very often, for free. ↩
- bo en had the opportunity to produce “Dancing*” for Yun*chi, released in late 2014 on the EP Wonderful Wonder World*. Listen to part of it here (from 2’55’’): In mid-2015, he also remixed one of Negicco’s songs “Let’s Meet at the Festival” which you can listen to here: ↩
- Calum produced a thirty-second track for an online-only advert for a credit card company called MICARD. ↩
- A nanoloop is a Game Boy cartridge that lets the user produce music from a Game Boy. It was made by Oliver Wittchow when studying at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg. While initially made for the original Game Boy, it is now available on iOS and Android. ↩
- Audacity is a free open source software application which can be used to record and edit audio. ↩
- 8bc (8-bit collective) used to be a website which called itself the “first completely open chiptune-related file-sharing community”. The website closed down in December 2011. An archive is available here. ↩
- Anamanaguchi is an American electronic band from New York City influenced by J-Pop and French electro, combining digital and electronic sounds such as Chiptune and Bitpop with traditional band instrumentation. Feel free to listen to one of their most famous songs, “Pop It”. ↩
- Sabrepulse is a British musician from Yorkshire who’s often cited as being one of the pioneers of chipbreak, a fusion of chiptune and breakcore. ↩
- Heaven is a gay club in Charing Cross, in the heart of London. Anamanaguchi, Sabrepulse and bo en played at Heaven on 5 February 2014. ↩
- GCSE and A-Level refer to qualifications taken by most UK teenagers take as part of their secondary education. GCSEs take place between Year 10 and 11 (from age 14 – 16) and are followed by A-Levels, taken by students before their graduation (from age 16 – 18). ↩
- World Map’s songs are indeed still available on Bandcamp here. There is even a World Map Facebook fan page if you are keen on liking yet another inactive fan page. ↩
- Super Ubie Land is a Kickstarter-funded video game heavily inspired by Super Mario World, Kirby’s Dreamland and Donkey Kong Country. You can listen to the soundtrack, produced by Calum Bowen here: ↩
- Lovely Planet is a first-person shooter game “set in a cutesy abstract world”, available to play on Windows, iOS and distributed on Steam. The soundtrack, composed by Calum Bowen, is fully available here: ↩
- PewDiePie is a Swedish YouTuber, who is known for his Let’s Play videos. His channel is the most subscribed on YouTube since December 2013, with more than 44 million subscribers as of end May 2016. He published a Let’s Play video of Lovely Planet on 1 August 2014: ↩
- Make Believe Melodies is a music blog run by Patrick St. Michel, an American writer currently based in Tokyo. His website is a reference for English-speaking people interested in Japanese music, “especially smaller artists that often get ignored”, he says. ↩
- Maltine Records is a Japanese net label co-founded and currently run by tomad. If you would like to find out more about Maltine Records, do watch the following mini-documentary (featuring the aforementioned Patrick St. Michel from Make Believe Melodies): ↩
- “Netokano” is a song by Sugar’s Campaign (pictured below), a duo made up of Avec Avec and Seiho. Calum cited Avec Avec instead of Sugar’s Campaign, as the song is mostly produced by Avec Avec. ↩
- You can listen to bo en’s “every day” here: ↩
- “winter valentine” is a collaboration between bo en and Japanese producer mus.hiba. ↩
- “miss you” is, by far, bo en’s most listened track, totalling 633K plays on Soundcloud as of 29 May 2016. ↩
- FOGPAK is a “collaborative compilation project” run by Redcompass. They’ve released sixteen themed compilations so far (as of 18 July 2016), and bo en contributed to the sixth one (cover image below), whose subject was the celebration of the Japanese uguisu bird. Calum told us that this is actually the reason why the song starts with a bird whistling. ↩
- tomad is the co-founder and owner of Maltine Records. For more information about Maltine Records, go back to the sixteenth footnote. ↩
- 2.5D is described by Resident Advisor as a social TV station aiming to reconstruct new Japanese pop culture. To this end, many events are held in their studio located in Shibuya, Tokyo – where bo en’s release party also took place. ↩
- The last interactive music video, made by Ben Esposito, is still available to play here. ↩
- The “bunch of new tracks and remixes” included in pale machine is available to listen to here: ↩
- Calum named “Hippie Day” and “Beautiful Days” as his favourite songs from Pizzicato Five and Fantastic Plastic Machine. As for Cymbals, his favourite is “My Brave Face”: ↩
- Katamari Damacy is a PlayStation 2 game where the player keeps rolling a highly adhesive ball to collect increasingly larger objects until the ball has grown big enough to become an actual star. No wonder Calum enjoyed the music, as the soundtrack composed by Yuu Miyake (pictured above) featured elements of traditional electronic video game music, as well as heavy jazz and shibuya-kei. ↩
- Vib-Ribbon is a Japanese rhythm video game which was pretty unique at the time of its release, since it let the player use any music s/he wanted, allowing them to load a CD which would generate a unique level from any track. The soundtrack was composed by a Japanese duo called Laugh and Peace. ↩
- PaRappa the Rapper is another rhythm video game which is remembered for its unique graphic design, its quirky soundtrack and its bizarre plot. ↩
- PSY・S was a Japanese progressive pop/rock band formed in 1983 by Masaya Matsuura alongside female vocalist Chaka. After success in Japan throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, they disbanded in 1996. Feel free to listen to one of their most famous songs, “Friends or Lovers”: ↩
- Oricon is the company which publishes not only the CD rankings but also the DVD, Blu-Ray, book and many other charts in Japan. ↩
- In Japan, CM stands for commercials and advertisements. ↩
- Indeed, in Japan, artists have very little control over what they can do with their own work – instead, labels have full control. It’s no coincidence that Japan is one of the rare developed countries where CD sales still dominate downloads and streaming, according to Forbes. tofubeats (pictured below), previously with Maltine Records, is a rare exception to the rule, showing considerable autonomy even while signed to a major label, Warner Music. ↩
- Otaku is a Japanese word for people with obsessive interests. While most commonly associated with anime and manga superfans, the term can be applied to any kind of enthusiast, from smartphone to transport otaku. The picture below is a stereotypical representation. ↩
- Surprisingly, bo en is very much appreciated by some furry communities, as you can see in the following video: ↩
- Prog or progressive pop refers to attempts to break with standard pop music formulas, through extended instrumentation, personalised lyrics and individual improvisation. ↩
- Calum likes Charles Mingus’ “Taurus in the Arena of Life”, Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s “Corcovado”, Astor Piazzolla’s “Revirado” and Ivan Lins’ “Corpos”: ↩
- Some of Calum’s all-time favourite songs are Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”, Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and Native New Yorker’s “Odyssey”: ↩
- Donald Fagen is an American musician and songwriter, best known as the co-founder (along with Walter Becker) and lead singer of the rock band Steely Dan. ↩
- Brian Wilson is an American musician, singer, songwriter, and producer best known for being the multi-tasking leader and co-founder of the Beach Boys. ↩
- Some time after our interview, Calum told us “I’ve nearly finished working on an EP with Keita Hatada [a.k.a. Akio, pictured below], the singer from Sugar’s Campaign, which will likely come out before my next album.” ↩
This interview was posted on 31 July 2016.
Interview (Us Blah) & Footnotes (Me Blah):
Translation (English to Japanese):
Special Thanks to Naoko Ishinabe and to Kan Motoyasu.