BLUE ENCOUNT Talks the Band’s Future as Reflected in ‘Z.E.R.O.,’ the Ending Theme of ‘Code Geass’

This June, BLUE ENCOUNT announced that its bassist, Yuta Tsujimura, would be moving to the U.S. in 2023. He will continue to take part in the creation of new material, but during live shows, which are so important to the band, he will be replaced by a support member. This unusual approach is a surprising one, but there are good reasons for it, as the band explained in their latest Billboard Japan interview.

In 2022, the same year that the band made this unusual decision, it released two new songs: “Ao” (“Blue”) and “Owaribi” (“Ending Fire”). Listening to them, you get a clear sense of what a forward-looking and ambitious band BLUE ENCOUNT is. Now it has released a new song, “Z.E.R.O.,” a culmination of BLUE ENCOUNT’s efforts this year. “Z.E.R.O.” was written as the ending theme for the rebroadcast of Code Geass Lelouch of the Rebellion R2 in commemoration of its 15th anniversary. The song is simple yet soaring, with lyrics that match the anime while sharing a straightforward message. This solid, deep song provides a window into the future of BLUE ENCOUNT as it sets off to a new start next year. 

You’d already released two streaming singles this year, and now you’ve released a third song, “Z.E.R.O.” Looking back on 2022, what kind of year has it been for you so far?

Shunichi Tanabe (vocals/guitar): In June of this year, Tsujimura announced that he’d be moving to America next year. We were finally able to let fans and the rest of the world know that. For a whole year, since our April 2021 Yokohama Arena show, we’d been struggling with how to tell the world about the future of our band, but now it’s all in the open. Because of that, I’m now able to really enjoy our live shows. It feels like we’re finally at the starting line.

When I listen to your songs, it’s clear that you’re a really relaxed, natural band. I’m sure that in the past BLUE ENCOUNT would bring in different ideas when the timing was right, maybe because you wanted to perform at a certain venue or you wanted to create an album with a certain theme. This year, it feels like you’re taking a really even, open approach.

Tanabe: That’s right. We’re putting on a ton of shows this year, and we’ve been invited to a lot of events and festivals. We’ve also started a tour of our own, and I feel like our image has become a really open one. We’re having a lot of fun. It doesn’t matter what other people think of us, we’re just doing what we want every day, playing songs that have messages we want to share. We’re just having a blast.

Yuya Eguchi (guitar): Being able to share the news with our fans about Tsuji (Yuta Tsujimura, bassist) has made a huge difference. Since the announcement, I feel like the relationships between us four have been better than ever. We’re discussing all kinds of things, and there’s a real feeling of unity. Because of that, we’ve been able to write great songs and put on great shows.

So the announcement that Tsujimura was moving to the U.S. has had quite an impact.

Tanabe: I think it’s the biggest thing that’s happened to us. We were in discussions right up to the end of last year getting everything ready for the announcement. We didn’t know for sure where we were headed, and yet we were touring, so we weren’t able to really open up about it. We couldn’t, for example, say “everything will turn out fine.” Everybody was choosing their words carefully. I thought, “this isn’t like us.” Up on stage, it was always like, “What should we say?” That was something that I, and the rest of the band, struggled with. But Tsuji had made his decision, and I was worried that if I opened up with “Okay, fine then, what are we going to do?” it would cause things to crumble.

So you understood why Tsujimura made the choice he did, but the band was feeling down because it hadn’t decided on what to do?

Tanabe: Right. Last year, we were finally scheduled to do shows at Yokohama Arena, and they were great days. Over the course of the two days, we put on two different but wonderful shows. It reaffirmed for me that it was the four of us that made it so great. I wanted the four of us to be together, and I felt like we just hadn’t accomplished anything yet. So Tsujimura’s course of action was decided, but that’s how I was feeling about things, so I just felt down the whole time. I realized that towards the end of the tour, so I opened up to Tsuji about it, and we came to an understanding. You only live once. That’s true for Tsuji and it’s true for the rest of us, so we all have to enjoy ourselves. But the four of us, as a group, still hadn’t accomplished anything, and I felt that achieving our goals would be how we could live our best lives.

So you ultimately decided that Tsujimura would move to America but remain a member of BLUE ENCOUNT. He would work on new songs, but you’d have a support member come in for live shows. That must have been a hard decision to arrive at.

Tanabe: That’s right. We’re skating a fine line.

Honestly, when I first heard about it, I wondered if it would really work out, but hearing what you’ve had to say, it seems you’ve given it a lot of thought before making that decision.

Tanabe: Of course, the best thing would be for the four of us to keep what we were doing, without changing things up. But, in a way, I thought his decision would also have a really good influence on us. That situation, and the COVID situation, had in a way presented us with new opportunities. Over the past two years, we haven’t been able to put on live shows like we would have liked to. Things are getting back to normal now, but some of the people who had been coming to see us before haven’t returned. I was thinking that, in in this situation, what’s most important is for us, as musicians, to share our music with people who haven’t heard it before. Live shows are really important to us, so we want to keep playing them, but to do that we need to keep bringing in new “kindred spirits.” To do that, I want to keep releasing lots of new songs. If we can do that, we can keep on moving forward even if Tsuji’s in the U.S. Of course, we’re exploring just how to do that, but we’ve got lots of different ideas, and I’m sure they’ll strengthen us as a band. I myself have started learning how to make music on a computer.

You’re programming music? That’s something new for you.

Tanabe: Right. I was never into that, and was the kind of person that would record songs I made onto a MP3 player. But now I realize that using computers will be essential for this phase of BLUE ENCOUNT. I plan to use a computer to express what’s in my head, to the best of my ability, and share that vision with the rest of the band. If I can do that, then we can make songs right away, even if Tsuji is in the U.S.

Is that how you made the new songs you released this year, “Ao” and “Owaribi?”

Tanabe: Yes. Starting with “Ao,” instead of Tsujimura coming to the recording studio, we worked as if he were in America, with him recording his phrases and saving them as data, which I then snapped into what we’d recorded in the studio. With “Z.E.R.O.,” though, we all gathered together to record in the studio.

The two songs you made using this new approach were an aggressive guitar tune and a ballad with a beautiful melody. They really showed two sides of BLUE ENCOUNT.

Tanabe: Yes, they did. We released “Ao” at the stroke of midnight on the night when Tsuji announced on a live stream that he was going to America. We wrote “Ao” to express our resolve in the form of a song. It felt like, for the first time in a long time, we’d had fun making a standout song that would stand the test of time.

Eguchi: When I got the rough cut from Tanabe, every one of us was like “I want to make this song,” so that was that. Even before creating the song, we felt that it’d become a really special song for us, so I was happy that our fans received it so well, saying it was a true BLUE ENCOUNT song.

Tanabe: The song was a great fit for BLUE ENCOUNT from the very start, which is why I think we were able to create it using our new approach. It was our first attempt, so it was really hard going, but I think it served as a great litmus test.

That’s why you chose to include it on your single, right? “Owaribi” is also a great song. I feel like it’s been a while since you wrote that kind of love song.

Tanabe: Yeah, I feel like we haven’t written a song like that in about two years. We actually wrote “Owaribi” before “Ao,” and it had a full chorus even then. But nobody had a chance to hear it right away, and then Tsuji made his announcement, and we started working on “Ao,” and before we knew it there was just barely enough time to make it a summer release (laughs). “Ao” went so well that we thought we could do things right away using the new approach, but when we actually got to working on it the arrangement was pretty hard to do. The theme of the song is the end of summer, but for some members the image didn’t fit. I’d thought it would be easy to create the song by passing data back and forth, but I realized that it’s not always so easy (laughs).

On “Owaribi,” you experienced some hurdles you didn’t experience with “Ao,” right?

Tsujimura: It was really difficult for us to communicate our feelings to each other without being in the same studio.

Tanabe: Like, for example, the places and the music that Tsujimura has experienced over the past few years have had a really strong influence on BLUE ENCOUNT, and the life experiences of our members have taken the form of music, creating all kinds of songs in new genres. I think that’s why we were able to make “Z.E.R.O.”

All four of you gathered together in the studio when you made “Z.E.R.O.”, right?

Tanabe: Right. That’s why the creation process was so fast. Through these two songs, we really gained a deeper understanding of the good and bad parts of this new style of songwriting. We wrote “Z.E.R.O.” after being approached to write the ending theme for Code Geass Lelouch of the Rebellion R2. In preparation for writing the song I watched the whole series on Netflix, and I really got into it. It isn’t just a collection of battle scenes, but there are some real character studies, and the main character, Lelouch, has a dark, twisted side, which is interesting. I loved the feel of the world. Because of that, I got an immediate feel for the world, and right away got ideas about the chords, vocals, melodies, and the like.

“Z.E.R.O.” Music Video

This song is very much a BLUE ENCOUNT song, but in a way it’s also very fresh. The edge to the song, its soaring scale — these are things that, surprisingly, you’ve never really used in your past songs, right?

Tanabe: The songs that we set out to write as really big, sweeping songs didn’t turn out that way. We’ve had a ton of songs where that’s what we were setting out for, but the four of us were never all fully satisfied with them. Sometimes it was like the starting point, which was just me singing while playing guitar, had the most expansive feel, and we just couldn’t get that feel across in the final song. I think I was able to finally achieve that by using a computer. I was able to express that sense of scale while having fun doing it.

It is a really simple sound, but because of that each part is that much stronger. That’s what makes it feel so big. It really feels like you were able to share your own ideas with the rest of the band and bring them to life.

Tanabe: Part of it was that I had started working with making music using a computer, so I’d started figuring out how it worked, and it worked out with the four of us. I think it provides a glimpse at what BLUE ENCOUNT has achieved this year.

Eguchi: The guitar part for this song was really hard. During the stage where I was writing the phrases, I just couldn’t really unpack and actualize Tanabe’s concept of this massive, dramatic song. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I think the song has a kind of Western sound to it, but I’m not really all that well-versed in Western music, so I ended up buying a new guitar in preparation for recording, and I struggled to wrap my head around everything.

Yoshihide Takamura (drums): The drums are all about subtraction. I guess it was a good thing that we weren’t adding stuff in. We used the computer to test out lots of subtly different drum patterns and nuances, and then thought about what we could strip out from them, which was good.

Tsujimura: I also think that I was able to express where I am now with the bass melody. When I first heard the rough cut, I wanted to play a bass line with a bit of an American feel. I’m a fan of Western music myself, and I wanted to produce that feeling of creating this sense of a big, wide-open sky even though you’re using the same chords. I thought that hints of that kind of tone would be good for BLUE ENCOUNT, so I made a lot of requests about things like the sounds of the drums or the sounds of other accompaniment.

The lyrics fit Lelouch of the Rebellion, but they’re also very straightforward.

Tanabe: I started out knowing nothing about the series, and then I watched all of it, soaking in the feeling of that world, and then wrote the lyrics while it was still fresh and vivid in my mind. We were writing a new ending song for the 15th anniversary revival of the series, so I was a bit worried about what the original fans of the series would think, but I decided to just write what I felt when I watched it for the first time, as a whole new interpretation of it. I think that’s what made the words flow out so easily.

BLUE ENCOUNT has collaborated on several anime, such as Gintama, Mobile Suit Gundam Iron-Blooded Orphans, and My Hero Academia. You’re really good at writing songs with lyrics that match their anime but which also convey a message.

Tanabe: You think so? Well, sure, we do enjoy making them. It’s something that most people don’t have the opportunity to do. We can become a part of each work, and also a pillar that helps support it. Our songs shape the future of the works they go with, but also the future of our band. It’s really the best, and I never forget that.

And, looking back, the songs you’ve written that way are also essential for you as a band.

Tsujimura: That’s because they’re also fun to play live.

Tanabe: “Polaris,” the opening theme of My Hero Academia, connected BLUE ENCOUNT with the rest of the world. But we didn’t make it because we wanted people overseas to hear us, we simply knew that it was the only song that would fit that anime. I think things will feel the same in our future work, too. When you’re Japanese, everything you create is going to have something what of a Japanese feel to it. I can only play guitar the way I know how. We’re in an era in which you can hear all kinds of music, so I think that it might actually be better to try to emphasize those elements. Luckily, anime culture and the like are strong allies of Japanese bands, so we hope to keep making music, and we hope that, ultimately, it will reach a global audience.

This interview by Tomohiro Ogawa first appeared on Billboard Japan

Katie Atkinson