Babymetal: When Worlds Collide

We snake around the dressing rooms in the artist area of Download festival on Friday afternoon, and there they are: lead singer Su-metal, flanked by backing singers Yuimetal and Moametal, dressed in their signature red-and-black outfits. The disarmingly kawaii Marmite band of metal. They’re the biggest thing to have hit our scene in the last two years, yet they’ve split the vote on whether they actually belong. And all those arguments come down to these three, smiling girls, eager to meet us. We extend our hand in greeting, and ask how they’re doing.

“We are very good!” they exclaim in unison, faces lighting up. And, after a brief pause to find the right words, “We are looking forward to The Golden Gods!”

Babymetal aren’t officially playing Download today, but they’ll be making a surprise appearance during Dragonforce’s set, where the guys will take the place of the girls’ usual backing musicians, The Kami Band, in a real-life rehearsal for Metal Hammer’s awards ceremony on Monday.

Of course, this won’t be Babymetal’s first UK festival appearance. On July 5 last year, they made their debut on Sonisphere’s main stage, appearing higher up the bill than critically lauded tech metallers Tesseract. Two days later, they sold out London’s Forum, and a triumphant Brixton Academy show followed in November. By the time you read this, they will have played their biggest-ever show in Japan, at the 25,000-capacity Makuhari Messe venue in Chiba, and they’ll be hitting Reading and Leeds in August. And then there are the rockstar selfies: Limp Bizkit, Kiss, Metallica and countless more have appeared with the girls on snaps plastered all over Twitter. Like it or not, Babymetal are a seismic event in our world, rocking its core with riffs and cracking its tough facade with spin-kicks and smiles. This weekend, Metal Hammer will become the first magazine to spend 72 hours up close with the band, observing the Babymetal phenomenon first-hand as they continue their journey of global domination…

But first, we ask who they’d like to see today, and their answer is a decidedly metal: “Judas Priest!” Their founder and manager, Kobametal, excitedly produces a Babymetal t-shirt that parodies the artwork of 1990 album Painkiller, with all three girls riding on the bike. The trio pose with it, flashing their Fox God horns sign (like normal horns, but with middle fingers pointing out to make a fox face, obviously), and we obligingly snap the moment on our iPhone.

Signs of fame are all around us – Corey Taylor strolls by with a smile, and small clumps of people are hanging back and pretending not to stare in our direction. Then, as we walk from the closeted artist area to the less restricted media area, so the band can do a TV appearance, the reaction is akin to the Kardashians walking the streets of LA. A frenzy of photographers and selfie-hunters elbow each other out of the way to get a glimpse of the girls. Dragonforce mastermind Herman Li appears behind us in the scrum. “We haven’t played together before,” he reveals, his face showing the combined weight of responsibility and jetlag. “I couldn’t sleep last night…”

Though Dragonforce are thrilled to be working with Babymetal, many metallers have criticised them for being “manufactured”. The three singers were in a schoolgirl pop idol group called Sakura Gakuin (‘Cherry Blossom Academy’), when Kobametal, a metal enthusiast who worked in media promotions, recruited them to fulfil his heavier vision. Their accompanying Kami Band is composed of a revolving lineup of musicians who are “summoned by the Fox God”, and the music is written by various secret composers. One contributor, who will only answer questions anonymously, reveals he grew up with metal but entered a Babymetal songwriting contest after Doki Doki * Morning “left such a strong impression” on him.

“I wanted to do something new, something to get people to look at Japan and associate it with metal, and that’s how I came up with fusing pop with metal that I love,” Kobametal explains.

Certainly the Babymetallers themselves are full of Disney Club-style teen spirit today when describing their joy at being selected for the band. As we sit down to chat, their entourage swarms around us – cameraman, security guard, make-up artist, women waving fans, and Kobametal, a slight yet ever-present ponytailed figure in a hoodie, watching over his charges.

“Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be a singer, and now I’m able to sing and dance a lot, I feel like my dream has actually come true,” enthuses 17-year-old Su-metal, speaking through their tour manager and interpreter, Nora, as their crew constantly films. Moametal, 16, says that “even as a child, I have always wanted to be the reason of someone’s happiness, of someone being able to smile, and I feel like I’m doing that right now in Babymetal”. Yuimetal, also 16, confesses there was an element of hero-worship to her career choices. “As a kid – [‘Of course, they’re still kids!’ adds Nora during the translation] – I didn’t want to be a singer, but I saw Su-metal in her previous group and I loved it, and that made me want to do it,” she beams.

The group might look and sound like something people would associate with Japanese gameshows, manga or movies, but Kobametal’s fanboy fusion approach actually makes them something of an anomaly in the Land Of The Rising Sun.

“In Japan, the idol group is a big market. Metal is a small market,” confirms Naoyuki ‘Ume’ Umezawa, who founded Japanese metal magazine Headbang after discovering the band. “Babymetal are in the middle, because it’s a mixture of the two. People see them and think they’re idol, but what they’re doing is metal, so they probably think it’s strange – they’re such cute girls, so why are they headbanging?”

Closer to home, Kobametal witnessed similar cultural confusion. “I can’t really speak for the general public, but I gave my mum a CD, and obviously she doesn’t listen to metal. Her first reaction was to say, ‘This is very, very, interesting…” he laughs.

Ume also says that he’s seen the band grow slowly via word of mouth, in contrast to idol groups who operate like single-producing corporate machines.

“Idol fans are not stupid – they can smell money, and see what companies are behind the girls and boys,” he explains. “But Babymetal is actually the opposite. “If you just take a look at how they started, you can’t smell big money. They’re an idol group, but there’s an organic feel to it.”

Back at Download, it’s 7pm, and we’re behind The Maverick Stage, where Babymetal are readying themselves for their first live collaboration – and it’s with a genuine metal band. As Dragonforce shred the life out of their instruments, rain lashes down outside, dampening the festival mood. Team Babymetal gather for a huddle, putting their hands on top of each other’s before raising them triumphantly. Then they leap onstage and twirl through breakthrough song Gimme Chocolate!! (penned by Takeshi Ueda of Mad Capsule Markets), and crowd elation hits 11, buoyed by its earworm of a chorus. The phones come out, too. Hundreds of them. As well as 40 professional cameras down in the pit. As the trio shout a “Thank you!”, bassist Fred Leclercq forms his hands into a heart shape and presses them against his forehead, bowing to them reverentially.

Post show, Babymetal have lost none of their excitement, though it’s tempered as ever with slick, professional politeness.

“Today when we heard Dragonforce was watching our live videos from the recent tour to try to get the feel of the stage, it made us feel, like, ‘Wow, you’re really trying to make us feel comfortable’, and we’re so appreciative of that,” nods Moametal. “Also, they tried to emulate the sound of our support band, and we could feel it. It was really fun, and we feel so thankful for this opportunity.”

And with that, we leave them to watch Judas Priest and Slipknot…

It’s Sunday when we next catch up with Babymetal, at rehearsals for the Golden Gods inside London’s IndigO2 venue. The crowds are gone, snappers are banned, and the atmosphere is more relaxed. Yesterday, they went shopping at Camden Market and bought souvenirs for their friends, before heading to Wembley Arena to watch, um, Aussie pop group Five Seconds Of Summer…

“Their fans are more hardcore than metal fans!” exclaims Kobametal, reflecting on the screaming. The response from Babymetal is typically ambitious.

“They went and saw everything, and were like, ‘This is where we wanna play one day!’” translates Nora.

Who did the girls prefer out of Five Seconds Of Summer and Slipknot?

They collapse into giggles, chatting over each other. “Both of them!” says Nora.

Today is all about practising with Dragonforce, working out how they’ll interact and how they’ll pull off Road Of Resistance – a song they wrote together last year, which Herman Li describes as “fast”, on a level with the Guitar-Hero-famous Through The Fire And The Flames.

“When we were writing the song, we thought, ‘You know what? Let’s make it really difficult to play, complicated and crazy, because we never thought we’d have to play it live anyway,” he grins. “Luckily we’ve been on tour for a long time now, so we can learn it quickly, but it’s not your average song you can pick up…”

Babymetal retire to their dressing room to go over some secret moves for a show back home, so we sit in a backstage lounge area with the rest of the team and eat Japanese potato snacks with smiling chip characters on the packets. Behind a red door, Doki Doki * Morning rings out loud and strong. Make no mistake – these girls can sing. When they emerge, they ravenously refuel with water.

Over the weekend, countless people describe Babymetal as “cute”, and it’s easy to see why. The happy snacks. The pop hooks. Today’s off-duty uniforms of tour t-shirts and pyjama bottoms. Even the way they behave when they’re not onstage or on camera – leaving the venue later this evening, Yuimetal will fly out of the dressing room on the back of a skate-board attached to her suitcase. But being in Babymetal also requires a lot of hard work and dedication. There’s schoolwork with a tutor in the morning, and band stuff in the afternoon. Their days must be mentally and physically demanding.

“The girls are having fun on tour,” says Kobametal, when we ask how he makes sure Babymetal are taken care of. “For them, it’s probably not difficult. It’s definitely difficult for the adults, ha ha ha! This is something the girls can’t experience in Japan. They have so much interest in the culture abroad, and they’ll probably learn more English than any of their classmates in Japan, sitting in classrooms with their teacher.”

Do you feel paternal towards them?

“Definitely. They call me dad, and they have a ‘tour mum’ here – it’s like a family touring together.”

If the girls find their schedule tough, though, you wouldn’t know it. They’re always giggling, and any questions about the band are greeted with stage-school meticulousness. It’s a strange contrast that they sound wise beyond their years, yet their young appearances make you feel uncomfortable about asking anything too deep for fear of upsetting them.

Up on the venue’s stage, Babymetal execute the high-octane routine of Gimme Chocolate!! with the precision of programmed robots, Dragonforce respectfully giving them space. The second time around, the guys let loose. It looks like they’ve been playing together for years. Kobametal claps and gives an approving thumbs up. Then they try Road Of Resistance, Dragonforce looking relieved when it turns out well. After a few more run-throughs, they practise a simultaneous jump and a group bow, and there’s lots of laughter all round. “See you!” shriek the girls, waving to an imaginary audience. “See you!” echo Dragonforce, putting on comically deep voices.

Once the trio have left, it’s time for Kobametal to discuss improvements with Herman, before going to a meeting in town. It does seem that, for the grown-ups at least, Babymetal never stops. Ever the metal fan, he’s in awe of what’s just happened.

“I can’t believe I’m sitting in the same room as Dragonforce!” he tells us, holding out his hands and gesturing to the band.

Through the chaos and the circus, you get the impression Kobametal is living his dream, sharing conversations and stages and music with his life-long idols. And, if Babymetal are to be believed, they’re living theirs. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

It’s Golden Gods day! And it’s Babymetal’s fifth show in the UK – their most visited destination after Japan and the US, and testament to our ongoing obsession with them. Kobametal is amazed by his band’s success abroad. They’ve also played to passionate crowds in Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, Canada and Mexico, and he reckons they’re the first Japanese metal outfit to ever get this far, never mind the fact they’re out of the ordinary.

“There are many bands who have left Japan to try the market over here, but never a group of minors, girls – not a performing troupe,” he marvels.

Whether their success here is due to their actual music or their ‘novelty’ factor is another question. Either way, according to Headbang’s Ume, it’s this overseas attention that has made Babymetal’s own country sit up and pay attention. At Christmas, TV channel NHK, the Japanese equivalent of the BBC, aired a documentary about Babymetal, featuring footage of London’s Brixton show. “People weren’t really aware of Babymetal, because they didn’t do much publicity in Japan, but they did a lot of publicity outside of Japan,” he explains. “They played Sonisphere, they supported Lady Gaga, and then all this news coming into Japan made everyone aware.”

Ume says Japanese metal fans are split into two camps: people who think Babymetal are “really good”, and people who think they’re “really bad”, but more and more people are converting over time. On the flip side, pop fans have started to explore heavy music.

“Babymetal started as an idol unit, so the fans are obviously idol fans. But now they’re doing so much outside of Japan, with all the proper metal festivals, proper metal fans are becoming fans of Babymetal. And the idol fans have started to think, ‘OK, if Babymetal is so much to do with metal, then I’m going to start listening to metal,” Ume explains. “So there are not just Babymetal fans, but metal fans generally growing from idol fans.”

In England, reactions have also been mixed, with a flood of online criticism aimed at Babymetal’s cutesy appropriation of metal’s tropes. Tonight, on the most important date of the metal calendar, Babymetal are once again intersecting with heaviness in a pop-idol style, bringing the heritage of metal into their new future. Their trailer is opposite Brian May’s. Members of Napalm Death stroll by. Fresh initiates into the Babymetal celebrity photo cult include Gene Simmons, Dave Mustaine, Duff McKagan, Butcher Babies, Killing Joke, Bring Me The Horizon and Scott Ian. But for Kobametal, this genre cross-pollination is entirely the point of Babymetal.

“I don’t think Babymetal is metal, either,” he says, somewhat surprisingly. “I think Babymetal is Babymetal. If Babymetal had appeared 10 years ago, I would have been one of those people bashing them for ruining metal. But the reason I wanted to create Babymetal is that out of all the genres of music, metal is the only one that’s open to so many different types. There’s rap-metal, melodic metal, power metal and black metal. As much as the metal scene is very closed-minded, it’s open to all different types of music. That’s why Babymetal is here right now.”

Kobametal, Yuimetal, Ume and the anonymous songwriter all use the words “creating a new genre” in relation to the group. It sounds like marketing speak, though if Babymetal really can’t find favour in metal or pop, it’s perhaps a sensible aim.

“You can call it pop, you can call it heavy music, but it doesn’t really fit anywhere because it’s a combination of things,” reasons Kobametal.

But for now, it’s time to find out whether those rehearsals paid off. Inside the IndigO2, the crowd surges forward. The girls come on bearing flags for Road Of Resistance, as that strange synthesis of genres once again bounces off the walls, before a group singalong to the chorus of Gimme Chocolate!! Over here, we’ve only seen simple Babymetal shows, but in Japan they’re high-concept offerings with coffins, temples and shrines wreathed in smoke and fire, plus some heavy metal setpieces designed to satisfy fanatics.

“At one show, there was a big torso of a goddess. Towards the end of the show, it broke,” remembers Ume. “If you’ve seen Metallica’s …And Justice For All tour, Kobametal took the idea from that. So many people saw it from the beginning and thought, ‘Ah! It’s going to explode!’ Metal fans are so excited to see which band is going to be the next motif. Is it going to be Dio, Manowar…?”

This magpie-like borrowing isn’t limited to shows and merch – it’s the same with their music. Kobametal consistently and geekily references the history of the genre.

“He’s embedding phrases from Metallica, Sabbath and all these famous bands’ music into their songs,” notes Ume. “For example, in Onedari Daisakusen, they’re using a sample of Limp Bizkit. It’s like digging for treasure on the beach. Every time Babymetal release a song, the fans listen, listen, listen, to find those tiny bits. It’s like hip-hop [sampling].”

As BabyDragon finish their Golden Gods set, the loud, Fox God horns-up response to their performance makes it easy to forget they even have detractors. Wherever they go, they leave a trail of jumping-for-joy emotion in their wake.

“I think people like them because metal has always been about fun,” says Max Vaccaro, general manager of Babymetal’s European label, earMUSIC, home to bands such as Stratovarius and Gamma Ray. They’ve just re-released Babymetal’s self-titled debut for Europe, which has sold as many copies in a few days as most of their label’s artists sell in a year. “Not every subgenre of metal, but if you think that bands like Kiss, Mötley Crüe and many others are still touring with great success, it means that people possibly want to have a bit of fun at the same time as enjoying pure, extreme metal music played and performed well, so I believe that that’s the secret.”

Dragonforce’s Fred has a more emotional response: “It’s like two universes colliding. It’s brutal, because it sounds like Slipknot, low and evil, and then those girls are going, ‘Eeeeee!’ And aw, they’re so cute. Inside every Babymetal fan there’s a small heart of gold, and that heart is melting when they see those Babymetal girls.”

Will Babymetal eventually melt everyone’s hearts? Only the Fox God knows. “If more people listen to Babymetal, and if that sparks an interest in metal, that’s good enough for me,” says Kobametal, ever the evangelist. The girls, on the other hand, are just looking forward to their afterparty: a well-earned, late-night snack.

But what’s their favourite one? “Choco!” comes the response. Of course.

Babymetal’s self-titled debut album is out now. They play Reading Festival on Saturday August 29 and Leeds Festival on Sunday August 30

Who Is the Fox God?

We investigate the strange spirit behind the masks…

Before Babymetal’s UK shows, a video is shown to explain the band’s origins, parodying the scrolling titles of Star Wars. It states that a mysterious Fox God “gave them the mission to make the world become one with heavy metal again”, and it’s the reason a mask of his face is included with this month’s issue of Metal Hammer.

“Foxes have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries,” explains Dr Thomas McAuley, lecturer in Japanese Studies at The University Of Sheffield. “You very often get foxes as guardian spirits at Shinto shrines – they’re intermediaries between the god of the shrine and the worshippers, and they’re particularly associated with Inari, who is the rice god,” he says.

“You very frequently find fox statues at his shrines, and people leave offerings for them.”

Dr McAuley also throws some light on the naming of Babymetal’s mysterious Kami Band.

“Shinto is Japan’s indigenous religion, and the word means ‘the way of the gods’, or ‘the way of the Kami’. Kami gods can be trees, waterfalls, the spirit of the rice, the sun, and so forth. And people can also be deified and turned into Kami as well.”

While band leader Kobametal appreciates the sacred origins of the Fox God, he has a more contemporary take on the symbolism. He explains: “In Japan, there are some temples that do believe in the spirit of the fox, and do actually pray to the Fox God. But for Babymetal, the Fox God is the god of heavy metal. That’s their Fox God.”

You’d better raise those horns in praise if you want more Babymetal…

Eleanor Goodman
Editor, Metal Hammer

Eleanor was promoted to the role of Editor at Metal Hammer magazine after over seven years with the company, having previously served as Deputy Editor and Features Editor. Prior to joining Metal Hammer, El spent three years as Production Editor at Kerrang! and four years as Production Editor and Deputy Editor at Bizarre. She has also written for the likes of Classic Rock, Prog, Rock Sound and Visit London amongst others, and was a regular presenter on the Metal Hammer Podcast.