Claire Boucher, the singer and producer better known as Grimes, doesn't hide the fact that she's a bit of a Japan geek. Just days before playing her first-ever Japanese gig at Summer Sonic, she performed on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon wearing a kimono, on a stage strewn with cherry blossom. The genre-surfing chanteuse has spoken of her love of J-pop in the past, and she ended up rescheduling her interview with Time Out in order to watch Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's set at the festival (good call), then talked eagerly about her hopes to record her next album here – the followup to this year's breakout hit, Visions...
You wrote on Twitter the other day that Japan was like your 'spiritual homeland'. Could you expand on that?
I'm just very obsessed with Japanese stuff in general. I think there's this archetype that exists in Japan that I really identify with, that I don't think really exists anywhere else – which is the kind of [Hayao] Miyazaki, Nausicaa or Mononoke character. She's like a young girl who's very powerful, but is also kind of cute – but it's not like belittling at all. It's just not really an archetype that exists in the West, and I love that. You know what I mean, like Chiaki Kuriyama in Kill Bill or something? That kind of character is like my kind of character in reality. I mean, obviously I'm not, like, an assassin, but… I like that, I think that's really cool.
Were you ever worried that you'd come over here and people wouldn't be into what you're doing?
I don't think so. I have a lot of Japanese friends: I grew up in Vancouver, and there's this huge Japanese population over there. I had a relatively good idea what it would be like, because I had so many friends who were born here.
I heard that you rescheduled the interview this morning because you wanted to see Kyary Pamyu Pamyu…
[Laughs] Sorry about that.
Not at all – I wanted to see her as well. What did you make of it?
I thought it was great. I've just never seen anything like that. I feel like – at least in the music scene I'm in – it's just like the antithesis of what most of my peers are doing. And I really like what she's doing, so I was pretty excited by that.
They said there might be a chance of you meeting her tomorrow. If that does happen, what do you think you'll talk about?
I don't know – I'm not sure if she's good at English or not. I don't know what I would talk to her about. Actually, I almost don't want to meet celebrities sometimes, because I'm afraid of being like, 'Ah-ah-ah…'
Sometimes they're just dicks as well, which is disappointing.
Sometimes it's almost better to keep them at a distance. I feel like watching Billy Corgan just get shittier and shittier has been so depressing for me over the last… Sorry, I probably shouldn't say that in an interview. [Laughs]
When Visions came out, one of the genres that got cited a lot was K-pop – but I couldn't really hear that when I was listening to it. How do you think it influenced you?
I'd say more visually than anything else. Grimes, for me, is a project that's like everything I do: all the videos and stuff, all the styling and everything. It's definitely more of a visual influence, I think. But also, when I'm layering the vocals, I like the idea of this chorus of cute girls – I'm picturing that when I'm doing 'Genesis' and stuff.
Were there any acts in particular who really grabbed you?
Actually, my favourite K-pop band are Big Bang, but as far as girl groups go, 2NE1. They're like the bad-ass bands. Girls' Generation is such a strong visual – they're not like my favourite, but they've got some good songs. But I like G Dragon, I like Big Bang.
With the live show, obviously you're having to play on much bigger stages now. I understand that when you were on the Full Flex Express tour, you were performing with dancers and stuff…
Usually I perform with dancers. That's why this show was really hard, because it was the first show I've done in a long time without dancers. It's very psychologically intense to be on stage and just be like: Oh my god, all my support is gone right now.
Does that make it more exciting in a way?
I kinda like the adrenaline: it's kinda nice to feel really nervous again. I've had a few of those – I just played [Late Night With Jimmy] Fallon, and that was really like… as soon as you're getting too comfortable, it's nice to get shocked back into something again.
You went all-out with the Japanese look for that, didn't you?
Uh-huh. We thought it was a good middle ground. I really didn't want to be too sexy: we were really thinking of what's a good way to do this, where it's really fashionable, but it's still like we're totally avoiding any sex appeal thing. I thought that was a good way to deal with that. We went to this kimono shop, and there's all these gorgeous kimonos from 1910, the 1800s. There were some really old ones, but I was too worried that if we ruined them, we would have to pay for them.
You were saying earlier that you're actually conceptualising all of this yourself, but what's been the most challenging part of that?
The most challenging thing is the stage show. Anything where I'm not directly in front of people, I can take as much time as I need and do whatever I want. The stage show has been especially hard, because at first everyone was like, 'You need a band! You need a band!' And I did a few tours with a band, but then I really felt like it was very unclear to people that I was making the music – even when I play with Mike [Tucker, aka Blood Diamonds], I worry about that. All the interviews I was doing on the Full Flex tour, we'd sit down for the interview and they would start talking to him about production. When you're onstage with a guy, people just assume that he's producing it, you know what I mean? That's why the dancers are cool. I've only just started working with dancers that are good enough that they can learn choreography. Traditionally, I never had a budget, so usually we'd show up in a city and I'd call people that I knew, and I'd get them drunk and they'd dance. In smaller venues it's good, but now that we're hitting bigger stages I think it needs to be a bit more organised – because it just looks like drunk people dancing on a bigger stage.
Speaking of which, who was the woman who was taking pictures during your set, and came on and danced with you?
The girl who came on and danced is my friend Jillian, who's like a model here. I think she's just really drunk today.
One of my friends was like, 'Did Grimes just come on stage?'
She's my friend. We share hair dye. [Laughs] The girl taking pictures is my publicist and my friend Laurel, who just came to hang out. We all do our hair together, if you're wondering why we can actually look the same.
It's good, you can have some fun with that.
What's good is, sometimes they're decoys. Sometimes people think Laurel is me, when I wear my bangs down. If we had a big show and there's a lot of people, it's nice to have someone who looks a lot like you. And people are like, 'Hey, Grimes!' and she's like 'Hey…' and you can walk behind her.
I thought it was just overpaid Hollywood stars who did that.
Maybe not here so much, but in LA, when I play shows, sometimes it gets really intense, so it's good to have like a decoy. I mean, I like talking to fans, but sometimes you just need to pack the van or whatever. It's very important for me to pack the gear: I don't want to be the asshole who's not packing my gear and all that stuff. It's really hard to be on stage and packing your gear when people who just saw you play are in the room, because they all just want to talk to you.
Even though you're playing these bigger venues now, it feels like you're not giving yourself much of a safety set with your live setup. There's still stuff that can go wrong…
A lot, yeah.
Is that important to you, just to keep it live rather than pressing play and singing over the top of it?
I don't want to just be singing and dancing. If that's the direction I am going to go in, I think I need a lot of time off to work on that. In the short term, I like that stuff can go wrong, especially when we're doing more jammy things: I like being able to improvise, and not do something if it's not right for the audience, or do something harder if it's the right time for it. That definitely works for my benefit, as far as being able to play vastly different types of shows: I can play to a Skrillex audience, I can play to a sit-down audience. I can change my set enough to do that, and I think that's really important.
How much can you change what you're doing, though? You had that bit at the end of 'Oblivion' today that sounded almost like a Skrillex tribute, but how far can you actually push your stuff in that direction?
In the Skrillex direction? I don't know. Right now, since I'm using a lot of samples, if I wanted to really go in a dance direction I think I'd need to sit down and reproduce a lot of things. I feel like I could do that easily. I kind of want to make a set that's just straight-up dance music, since I play so many after-parties and stuff. Instead of having a set that's kind of malleable, I almost want to have the crazy set and the quiet set, and they're just different: they're just two different things. But that requires a bit more time to work on that.
Is it true that you want to make your next album in Japan?
Uh-huh. Especially since coming here – I'm really digging the vibes. [Seems surprised at what she just said.] I'm 'digging the vibes.' [Laughs]
Where do you think that would be? Would it be in the countryside, or in Tokyo?
I don't know. Maybe a bit off in the countryside, I think. I just want to be very isolated.
Tokyo's probably not the best place, then.
But even Tokyo is so calm. I tried to do some recording in New York and I tried to do some recording in LA recently, and both, I just couldn't. Because even if people weren't filling up all my time with promo – which they would, because it's New York and LA – there were just people at my door. Everyone I know lives there, and people are offended that I'm there for two weeks and I'm not seeing them. I just don't think it's possible for me to be in those cities. And then everyone wants to party, and it's so hard not to drink. I feel like here it's just interesting. I don't know anybody, there really isn't any risk of me getting wasted constantly. It's very peaceful, but it's also super cyberpunk and futuristic and crazy and psychedelic – it's not boring by any means, it's pretty inspiring.
‘Visions’ is out now on Hostess
Interview by James Hadfield