Witnessing Kenji Usui perform is like nothing you have ever experienced. That is not the usual hype and dribble that music business executives use in their speech to get someone to “drink the Kool-Aid.” Kenji is unique and fearless. He could not be further from safe or controllable if that was his intention, which it is not. There are artists who set the parameters for what those who are later lauded as mold breakers, Usui is the former. Names like Morrison, Cobain, Hendrix, come to mind…more for the fact that they were individuals who found their unique voice and style than because they were musicians. Every generation has someone who breaks through the status quo and inspires artists to do things their own way; Kenji is performing and living like no others at this time. Though he is still underground internationally, he is something of an icon in the Japanese music community. In a culture known for their intense work ethic and devotion, Usui takes his love of music and creativity to an even more intense level. As a member of many bands and a multi-instrumentalist, this artist has singlehandedly pushed his countrymen in a new direction as well as contributed to the careers of US bands touring Japan.
For many individuals, playing music and being in a band is a rite of passage. Making music might be a way to investigate your artistic abilities in school or a way to rebel against the establishment, before you become part of it. For the true-believers, it becomes a lifestyle. Honestly, the true believers are in the vast minority. Even more rare are those who lead that minority. Kenji Usui is at the apex of the underground music scene in Japan. Embodying the Japanese work ethic, Usui works a 72 hour work week to enable him to spend every other minute pursuing his music career. That’s the kind of lifestyle that society calls crazy until you “make it” and then it is praised as “visionary.” When asked why he perseveres, Kenji professes his love of making music gives his life meaning and also confirms, “It’s difficult, but it’s also rewarding. The best bands are the bands you never hear about, and in the DIY scene you get to find these bands. But this means having a music “career” without making much money, which is very challenging sometimes.” Foregoing the goal of making money for the pursuit of realizing one’s own artistic voice is admirable, and taxing. Since 1999, Usui has been making music with many different bands and in a variety of roles.
Since 1999, Usui has been a mainstay of the diversified Japanese music scene. Content to let others pursue the pop music format, Kenji has been a leader in pushing the envelope of music, experimenting with effects, a combination of singing and spoken word/prayer-like vocals, and shifting his instrument of choice in different band configurations. As a member of groups like; Shoot, Blackjack, The Spoon, Allies and Aces, An Atomic Whirl, Pororocks, and Poronely, Usui constantly presented an evolving artistic style to his fans and other artists alike. Eri Zarigani (member of renowned Tokyo girl-punk band Zarigani) confirms, “There is a big festival in Taiwan called “Spring Scream”, and both my band and Kenji’s band had the chance to perform there. When we saw Kenji play, we were blown away. His level of performance had increased drastically since we had last seen him; we all felt that we were part of his performance. Fans and bands alike were in awe of his band’s performance. As a fellow Japanese citizen, this meant a lot to us, as he is helping take Japanese bands to another level. Kenji is a great inspiration. Many people look up to his creativity, his patience, and his ability to relate to people and make connections with other artists. People respect him due to not only his music but also his sincere personality.”
Kenji’s admirers and exposure is not limited to his homeland. He inspires audiences wherever he goes. His performances transcend language and cultural ideals. C Leung, Show Organizer, Founder of CCCC Productions & Organizer of NoiseNoiseNoise Festival in Hong Kong. He states, “I first saw Kenji in 2012, performing with the band Pororocks. He sat at the back of the stage with a spotlight on his face. He was mumbling, singing and playing drums, and I could immediately tell that there was something very special…almost otherworldly, about his stage presence. After the show, I invited Kenji’s band An Atomic Whirl to play in Hong Kong at a show presented by CCCC. In Hong Kong, I got to see him performing as a bassist and vocalist. I was again impressed by his musical capability and the possibilities and creativity he brought to the stage. I was so glad that I had brought his band to Hong Kong. In a single night, he earned numerous fans in Hong Kong. His fans were adamant that I bring him back again, so I brought Kenji to perform with both An Atomic Whirl and Pororocks. To date, I have had the chance to see Kenji perform on many occasions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. He is a born performer who belongs on the stage. He can make every show different, even with the same set list.” Kenji Usui is an original voice, existing to channel the artistic message and ideals through the vehicle of experimental modern music.