Inverting Inspiration: Kyoto Kyoto at Dalston's Café OTO
Making waves with their distinct grab bag of tastes and sounds, Eve Boothroyd sits down with Kyoto Kyoto at the legendary Café OTO to discuss just what makes them so unique.
We meet experimental collective Kyoto Kyoto on a fairly glum Friday afternoon in East London. The weather hasn’t quite reached drizzle, but the clouds hang low enough to give the area an overcast and moody feel. It’s the perfect setting for a band who pull from their surroundings as much as Kyoto Kyoto, who have chosen for their interview to take place in Dalston’s Café OTO. As they pose in the bleak environment, frontman Lev’s high cheekbones and cold stare feel fitting, and both band members watchfully observe the harsh and graffitied terrain. A shift occurs as we step into the mellow atmosphere of the café, almost as if the warmth of the room permeates the band, and they begin to open up and chat in a deeply warming, and genuinely enthusiastic, way.
Café OTO has, in the 15 years since it was founded, become an experimental staple in the Dalston community. It is a sheltered space finely tuned to create an arena of discussion and exploration, with shelves filled with LPs, books and magazines, and regular live shows taking place in the evenings. For Kyoto Kyoto, they were drawn to this location because it echoes in many ways their practice of borrowing and toying with the established in order to explore something new. “Basically it has nothing to do with us” they reply when I ask them why here of all places. “We’ve never played here, and it’s not necessarily about us wanting to play here.” The café itself is centrally located “in the core of Hackney and Dalston but isn’t attached to any specific scene in the way The Shacklewell Arms, Moth Club, or Paper Vintage are” the band explain. They admire how the venue “manages to be its own thing in a way that sort of doesn’t fit any description, and that’s how we feel sometimes with our own music.” They continue this parallel, describing how “we play all this music with all these bands, but we always feel a bit out of place. Not necessarily in a good or bad way, we just notice that in the context of some of the line-ups we’re playing or even the Spotify playlists we’re on, we’re just out of place.”
The complaint isn’t uncommon for a band who frequent the venues that Kyoto Kyoto do. It’s become a cliché of the new London music scene that practically any group who feature experimental guitar or spoken-word-style lyric delivery are lumped into a generic ‘post-punk’ label and dismissed as one of many. As uninspiring and shortsighted as these dismissals are for the diversity of talent being produced by these acts, for Kyoto Kyoto it feels like a particularly neglectful response to music that challenges its predecessors as much as it borrows from them. The collective’s discography joyfully experiments with classic kraut, experimental and classical elements to create a sound that is far more intriguing and complex than a token ‘post-punk’ label could do justice. Swerving from heavier, almost metal elements to more tranquil moments of experimental, complex guitar, they bounce between genres and pull listeners in an abundance of directions. It makes sense then, when they are keen to assert their status as a collective as opposed to a fixed “band”. They have “experimented with extra members and different instruments” and state that going forward they “don’t want to put a limit on what is possible”, wanting to “have the room to bring people in and not be defined by being a three-piece or four-piece.” Just as their sound is an ever-moving array of influences, so is their status as a group.
Part of what makes the act so immediately distinctive are their German lyrics, an unusual experience for London audiences who are so used to having bands cater to their native tongue. The decision was an organic one, with the band explaining that although they attempted to sing in English for the first few shows because it seemed like “the natural thing to do” it ultimately felt inauthentic to the German frontman Lev. “It felt like” he explains “if someone like Björk can play with pronunciation, you know, with vocal passions and skills… it felt to me very foreign singing in another language, one that isn’t my own. It felt natural to sing in German and musically for me more effective because it enabled me to play with words and riff around without having to translate the words and make it impersonal. I kept thinking ‘why would the most personal aspect of the music be in a language that isn’t my first language?’”
Perhaps fittingly then, it was at a German show where their music first began to resonate in a notable way. After only two months as a band, they travelled to the country and performed at three shows. “It was great,” they tell me, “it was the first time we’d seen that kind of reaction, with people moshing and moving that way.” When I ask if that was because German audiences could understand the lyrics more easily they agree it may have helped, but they discuss that more importantly “when you go to smaller cities people are not spoiled with international touring bands non-stop” like audiences often are in London. In comparison to Left of the Dial, which the band played a few weeks prior, where “from the first note literally everyone came in, they almost popped out of the floor,” London audiences have a tendency to “just have another cigarette and miss half the set” which the band laughingly admit they’re often guilty of too.
It’s interesting to consider the way in which spoiled London audiences have a tendency to dismiss certain acts for belonging to a ‘scene’ in comparison with the closer attention paid by regional audiences. Perhaps as a result of this fickle nature the band “take stage time really seriously.” Frontman Lev describes how “from seeing classical concerts, I feel like every minute and second counts.” He even states how he doesn’t “like drinking water on stage because it’s such a breaking of the fourth wall. I want a show to be like watching a magic trick, I want it to capture that feeling.”
Despite the centrality of their live shows to their rapidly growing reputation, Kyoto Kyoto have a notable output of recorded music, culminating in the release of their first EP ‘Mirror Flexing Jaw’ at the beginning of 2022. When discussing the EP, they look back with nostalgia, thinking of how “we didn’t have any idea how any of that kind of stuff really worked, we just wanted to record something and be an official sort of band. It was a very spontaneous kind of thing, and we weren’t really thinking down the line. It was very much recorded on a budget, but it also definitely put us on the map in some way.” It was also important for the band to assess the relationship between their live shows and recorded output, as they needed to see “if we could pull it off as well, to see if we could translate and replicate it on a recording.” When asked if there is anything they would change they reply sincerely “definitely. We would take more time and change the approach on the production. We would maybe have waited a bit more and saved a bit of money so we could make it as big as possible.”
Despite the DIY roots of the EP, the band has continued to progress and develop, as embodied in their single ‘Trier’. The track centres around one of Germany’s oldest cities, Trier, which frontman Lev grew up just down the road from. Because of its age, he explains, “you’ve got a lot of tall standing buildings from the Roman Empire. When I’m there it has a very nostalgic feel connecting me to the city.” He goes on to describe how for him “Trier is a symbol for… a city being so great but also being modernised. It’s just a symbol of pure craft and nostalgia and German art and music coming together. When I go to Trier, I can embrace all of it in one go.” Despite his concerns, he is keen to clarify that he doesn’t see “modernity itself as an issue, but the stuff that comes from modernity.” He gives the example of “people not being aware of the greatness around them, such as great art, great literature, or great music, which surrounds them non-stop, but they’re just distracted. I think the modern problem is people getting distracted too easily, by their phones etc. when in every city around you, every moment could be a source of inspiration to do something or write something.”
Kyoto Kyoto are not an act who can be accused of overlooking the history around them. Drawing on a complex tapestry of inspirations they borrow from and invert details of genres as if it were a game, but the product is momentous. Their small yet complex discography swerves in unexpected directions, fuelled by fun as much as emotion, and an astounding yet obvious love of detail. Their aspirations for the future remain undetermined but never directionless, with the group explaining how they “want to explore things such as classical, but never in a way that is just one genre. Never abandon songwriting and writing songs.” Their future is intriguing but, I reflect as we head out of the cosy haven of the café and back into the streets of Dalston, it will be as much informed by the past as it is by the desire to create something new.