Catching Up with MAN WITH A MISSION’s Jean-Ken Johnny

The five wolves of MAN WITH A MISSION are busy on their latest international tour, Wolves on Parade. Since they’ve been together for nearly a decade and a half, the band has gained a loyal following of hardcore rock fans. Now, with a growing—but expansive—anisong discography, a new legion of anime fans have also picked up on the group’s other legendary tracks.

Following a roaring concert at The Regent, APA sat down with MAN WITH A MISSION’s guitarist and composer, Jean-Ken Johnny for a conversation. As he’s a huge fan of anime, he shared details on what it was like to compose music for the latest season of Demon Slayer. Because of his name, which is a play on the Japanese words for rock paper scissors, it would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t play one round. Read to the end to find out who ended up winning!

The interview has been edited for clarity.

APA: It’s been nearly four years since MAN WITH A MISSION came to play at The Regent. In fact, this will be your fifth time in LA, as MAN WITH A MISSION has played at historic nightclubs at The Roxy and Whisky a Go Go. Why did you choose to come back to The Regent?

Because it was available? [laughs] The last time we went there, we had a great time. The vibe and the atmosphere are really great. It’s a beautiful venue. We had a chance to book at the same live house as last time, and we just chose to go there.

APA: MAN WITH A MISSION has been together for 14 years. What was the turning point for you to continue the band?

When we started the band, it was a lot of fun. Obviously, we look different from all other kinds of bands. Everybody was shocked at watching animals on stage. Every day was a turning point. But I guess what inspired me the most was this one festival in Japan that we took part in. I think it was in 2011? Before we joined Sony and other big labels, we didn’t have much promotion, and no tie ups. We did it all by ourselves at the start. Posting on Twitter and having fun around the world.

We felt the buzz around us. Everyone was starting to talk about this band, like ones with wolf heads on the stage. They were asking, “What is that?” We took part in this festival, and it was a small stage, probably with a capacity of like 2,000 people or something. When we were getting on stage, we didn’t expect that many people. Like 600 would be enough, and we’d be satisfied with that.

But as we went on stage, it was crowded. Like actually 2,000 people. They couldn’t all fit into the area, which was a beautiful view. We did it all by ourselves. Although the band that was not that well known to the world, we felt the anticipation explode in that moment.

I felt the beauty of the band and of music, and I really appreciate that. These days, we have a chance to perform in front of, 10,000 people? Sometimes, the maximum is 50,000 people. But at that time, it was 2,000 people, and a lot less than now. That moment was just a big moment for us.

APA: Is the reason why you continue to make all that content on Twitter and YouTube a habit from back when you were indie? Or is that something that you just wanted to continue doing? Because you’re thinking, “Why not?”

I mean, it’s a lot of fun. Of course, we focus on the music, because it’s what we really want to continuing spreading out. But at the same time, we want everybody to have fun. We were having fun just joking around stuff, like that. I guess it’s good to just take it easy now. But whenever we create a song, we want everybody that listens to it seriously and have fun.

APA: Could you talk about your latest songs, “Kizuna no Kiseki” and “Koi Kogare”? Did the producers reach out and pitch producing the songs for Demon Slayer?

He was probably thinking about having two artists collaborate, specifically a female artist and a male artist because of the main characters in this season. We were chosen with milet. It was an honor and a pleasure to take the opportunity. We started writing a couple of demos for him. Luckily, he liked one of them.

APA: This would be the band’s second collaboration with milet since “Reiwa.” In terms of collaboration, was it mutual in terms of lyrics? Or did MAN WITH A MISSION work on the instrumentals, or was it collaborative?

“Kizuna no Kiseki” was composed and written by MAN WITH A MISSION, specifically composed by me. We just wanted milet to sing. I imagined the song to fit the character and voice of milet because I’m really a huge fan of her voice and her artistry. We didn’t have her compose the music or write lyrics.

But the other song, “Koi Kogare,” was written by Yuki Kajiura. We only joined on the arrangement of the whole song. She wrote it, but kindly and respectfully, leaned into us. She said, “Please arrange it as you guys want.” We sent the arrangement demos to her and anxiously asked, “Is this, okay?” She was so great and nice to us. That’s how we collaborated together.

APA: In “Kizuna no Kiseki,” there are traditional instruments in the song. I’ve read in another interview that although you may not be the most technical when it comes to guitars, you are very talented when it comes to writing music, vocalizing, and composing music. Can you tell me why you wanted to integrate those traditional musical sounds?

When I listened to the previous songs from Demon Slayer, each and every song is a masterpiece. I recognized that they hadn’t previously chosen those kinds of instruments as a focus. I thought those kinds of instruments fit the era of Demon Slayer, as far as what I imagined of their era. I chose it to also be a good hook for the song. I wanted it to sound traditional, but at the same time, have some modern vibes and rock and roll as well. That’s why I chose those instruments to go into that song.

APA: Although you make a lot of music for anime, MAN WITH A MISSION has a lot of original music. How do you balance the tour setlist to showcase different sides of the band?

Being tied up and connected with anime is a pleasure and an honor. I always think about balancing it. You have to write the story, deliver lyrics, and center the whole composition about the story. At the same time, it has to be persuasive enough for the band to sing it naturally. It’s natural for us to put whatever song we write on a setlist. It’s not so much about balancing, but it comes naturally for us. To us, it’s just a normal song. But with anime, it helps to have you guys listen to our music.

APA: You’re all big anime fans. Is it easier to write music when there’s already a story?

Yeah, indeed it is. Animation always has a solid theory and philosophy within itself. I always read the whole story, not just watch the season. I read the series so that I understand and interpret the message that the author wants to deliver. It helps because there’s something to follow. But as I said, I try to find the philosophy that the band has in common with the story itself, though it’s pretty hard to balance sometimes.

APA: Even though the band will be busy touring city to city, wolves have to eat. Is there anything that you want to eat or do while you’re here?

I mean, enjoying the local food is always great. I’ve talked to my American friends a little, and now we have a chance to go to Texas. Everybody usually recommends Mexican food, but my friends all go, “You got to have the barbecue in Texas.” Also, they recommended that in New York to get a decent steak. Because in America, you definitely know how to treat meat.

APA: Yesterday’s crowd included a lot of new MAN WITH A MISSION fans, many of them anime fans. When it comes to these different audiences, between your concerts and the festivals, do you keep track of the different kinds of audiences in the crowd?

As I said, we don’t worry about that a lot. It’s always about the music. It’s broadening to people who like anime because it’s a huge culture all over the world. We take the opportunity for promotion. At the same time, we don’t really think about reaching a certain kind of fan. As long as our music hits them in the right spot.

APA: How do you find that balance in a song? When you compose a song, how do you decide to write a rap verse here, the lyrics, etc.?

I guess, just because I’m myself. I’m just like you guys. I’m a huge fan of music, the music industry, and the music itself. I do a lot of things, as you mentioned, but it’s a pleasure for me to do that. I want to be a part of everything at the same time. How do I do it? It’s from my imagination and being a fan of music. That’s probably the one and only key to writing music. I was, and still am, a big fan of the music that was big during the 90s in the US and the UK, all those bands. I can’t even pick a band because I’m just a big fan of that era. The hybrid kind of sound and attitude came from that era. What we’re doing today is the heritage of that, but also adding new ingredients to make it sound modern.

APA: Given the band’s long history and fan base, what would you like new fans to know about MAN WITH A MISSION that they don’t already know?

We look like we are wolves, and everybody talks about us eating meat, but we do eat salad. We do eat veggies; you have to have a balanced diet.

APA: Your name is a pun on rock paper scissors in Japanese, can you tell us why you chose your name? And can we play one round?

Like you said, it is a pun. What else do people not know? I mean, Jean, is French. You guys pronounce it as Gene, but it’s Jean in French. Not a lot of people get it. It’s also a pretty long name. Everybody always asks which part should they say to shorten it. The people from the West say Johnny since it’s a lot easier. So, Johnny would be good.

APA wrapped up the interview with a test round of rock paper scissors and then an official round. In the end, APA won a game against Johnny by shooting paper against rock. “I’m not even good at it,” laughed Jean-Ken Johnny.

Currently, MAN WITH A MISSION is on their North American tour until May 28th. They’ll move onto their European leg in early June and return to Japan in July.

Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

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