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George Miller has lived many lives despite his tender age. Under his now defunct alias 'Filthy Frank' he was the figurehead for disposable internet pop-culture, being the man responsible for the 'Harlem Shake' craze. In recent times, Miller has been quick to distance himself from that alias and that part of his life, instead focusing on music output and his new alias, Joji. Craig Connolly spoke with him over a patchy telephone line for Issue 005, featuring a shoot by District's LA-based photographer Caitlin Dennis.
“My biggest priority is just to make people feel shit.”
I’m going to start off by saying that ‘Will He’ from Joji’s ‘In Tongues’ album is my favourite song of the last 18 months, maybe even the last two years. Depending on how hyperbolic I want to come across, I could go as far as saying that it’s the greatest song ever recorded. I’m a big fan, but up until eight months ago I had no idea about his existence, especially his past ‘careers’. I had seen his name rattled around Spotify playlists and hype-y magazine’s Twitter feeds, but had never actively listened. When I did engage, I was met with an artist who had a deep understanding of musicality and melody, and an ability to convey heartache and the rigours of falling in and out of love, while being economical in word choice (‘Will He’ contains just one verse and one chorus). It’s only afterwards I find out ‘Joji’ is a relatively new project for George Miller and the 26-year-old had enjoyed meteoric success as a YouTube star previously.
Being 30 years of age, I’m probably not as au fait as I should be on internet celebrities, so to find out that Miller’s not so distant past featured him creating the Harlem Shake phenomenon, along with a plethora of goofball Jackass-meets-Weird-Al- Yankovic character’s was utterly bizarre to me.
Reinventing yourself while under the microscope of social media in this day and age is easier said than done, so as I go in to interview Miller I was cognisant that looking towards the future was the direction the conversation needed to go. But not before finding out about what shaped him into this multi-genre, multi- disciplined Action Man, and how close to George Miller Joji actually is.
“It’s the closest thing to me but it’s a character. I would assume it’s just a way over-exaggerated version of myself. Putting the content aside, the sounds and melodies that I create are definitely what I’m actually doing and I’ll just modify the lyrics and that’s where the character comes in. I approach songs very differently, so it really depends on the song. I can’t really say in black and white whether it’s a character or not. The more strung out cinematic stuff is what I really like making and some- thing I want to explore more of going forward.”
"There's hyper-masculinity taking over right now and I'm here to remind people that it's ok to just be a normal boy or girl."
On whether the songs he’s written are based on personal experiences or the musings of Joji as a character, he says it’s open to interpretation.
“I don’t try to be self-indulgent, it’s songwriting, it’s a little bit of everything – a lot of songwriters will tell you that. My biggest priority is just to make people feel shit. Things pop into my head and they might have been from times I’ve forgotten about and have rediscovered the feeling, I’m not sure.”
Miller is of Japanese descent, a country where Western power ballads are obsessed over and pop divas have a fanatical following. I ask if this had an impact on him as a kid.
“I don’t know if I liked it, but it was just on. Japanese people love Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. You go to the mall, or anywhere, and that sort of shit is just always on the intercom, it’s not so much that I liked it, but it’s been imbued into my head unintentionally.”
Joji’s use of lyrics can be sparse in parts, but in a way that compliments the music bedded underneath. I was eager to know how much value he puts into songwriting.
“It’s 50/50,” he admits. “I just think I enjoy making instrumentals and that’s what it comes down to. I do enjoy singing too.”
With braggadocious hip hop and R&B still as prevalent in the charts, I ask if he thought it was important for young people to have a figurehead like Joji to speak about love and heartbreak.
“There’s hyper-masculinity taking over right now and I’m here to remind people that it’s ok to just be a normal boy or girl.”
Although the Joji alias is still in its infancy, he already has more music out in the world – and more in the pipeline – than most would even consider releasing over a three or four year period. With that in mind, is it a case of being perpetually influenced and able to channel that into creating?
“I don’t really know where my influence comes from, I mostly just listen to really loud trap music and metal and I don’t really see that coming through in my music. It’s really weird, I like soft songs that are in my genre, but when I listen to it I think, ‘I know where this is going’. I think maybe I’m just angry, I just like listening to really distorted stuff and I don’t see much of that as an influence.”
On ‘In Tongues’ the final nine songs are remixes from contemporaries of his that you can hear fragments of in his production technique. Respected beat makers such as Brainfeeder’s Lapalux and Ninja Tune’s Actress, Miller allowed all of the artists to liberate themselves with the project.
“When I had these guys do the remixes I had the opportunity to send notes back, but that completely defeats the purpose of letting someone else remix and rework your music. I wanted to make sure all these guys had all the creative freedom to do what they wanted, I’m a big believer in people being able to create things at their own will, so I kind of stayed out of it. I waited so it was kind of like a present to myself to finally hear them. Some of them are crazy weird, like the Actress one, it’s like a 10-minute maze or something, I don’t know what’s going on. I’m all for it, he had a vision and it was executed.”
Having mentioned walking around the mall in Japan listening to Mariah and Whitney, how much of Miller’s upbringing played a part in who he is today?
“In the sense of my core values, they’re still very Japanese. I don’t know if it bleeds into any of my music. Like most Japanese people I mind my own business. I don’t really go on social media that much, other than that I just took inspiration from what was on the internet in the early days in Japan. I was in middle school right when the internet was starting to get really popular, so I was learning from that.”
Not much is known about his early life in the Land of the Rising Sun, but during the conversation it becomes apparent that it wasn’t what you’d describe as regular. With that, I wondered if he struggled with a sense of identity.
“Growing up in the early 90s being half Japanese, that was still kind of new… Now we see a bunch of half-Japanese people being glorified on the TV over there, which is amazing, but I wasn’t there for that. The whole train would be packed and no one would want to sit next to you. It was something that I got over quickly, I still see myself as Japanese, but I’m at peace with them not seeing me as one of them. I don’t really care – I just go around and I’ll be apart of whatever accepts me, do you know what I mean?”
At the time of the interview Miller is on the ‘88rising: 88 Degrees and Rising’ US Tour with the likes of Keith Ape and Rich Brian. In another interview he stressed how influential US hip hop is in Asia. The concept of musical identity is a conversation that appears quite often in rap music. Authenticity has been a staple part of the genre since its genesis in New York City. Taking grime in London and trap in Atlanta’s modern examples of hip hop mutating to suit its surroundings, can Miller envision a time when Asia, and
Japan in particular, will have its own signature sound?
“No, Japan has a signature sound in other ways, but I’ve yet to see it in hip hop. I can see a few dudes maybe changing it up, I’m actually with Kohh on tour and he’s one of the guys that I think can do something different and create a signature sound… But as of now, I don’t know…”
With all members of 88rising based in different locations and busy on their own projects, touring allows for a rare opportunity to creatively congregate. Does this give them time to record together?
“We all have a lot of our own stuff going on, the group collaborations are done when there’s a slot of time when we’re all free. There are a lot of us and most of us are out of the country most of the time. I like to just isolate myself when I make music, but when we do get in the studio it’s always fun.”
Having seemingly been shunned by the YouTube fraternity for turning his back on the internet, it was interesting to hear Miller’s take on his reinvention and journey towards the Joji alias.
“It’s something I don’t really think about it, it’s just something that I needed to do. It’s not a music career that I’m going for, I’m just trying to eventually give back to the world. I care more about fixing things. It’s making good art and I don’t really think about the transition, I do it because I know in the future I need to use my influence to do good things.”
Over the course of our 20-minute conversation, over an admittedly sketchy phone line, this topic kept recurring. It became apparent that the concept of “fixing things” is something Miller is extremely passionate about.
“It’s societal changes, I don’t know – right now I don’t have the funds to fully do things yet, but I am working to fund the things I’m very interested in. I have a lot of plans, but it’s kind of tough because if I talk about it then it kind of defeats the purpose of it. I don’t want to be recognised for that. For me, it’s a civil duty, but at the same time I don’t like the idea of people thinking that I’m so close-minded and that my only goal is to be a star. I think that’s a little bit silly so I have to come forward and say it out loud. I do have other things in store.”
‘BALLADS 1’ is out now on 88rising. Click here to buy a copy of Issue 005 featuring the full shoot with Joji.
Words: Craig Connolly / Photography: Caitlin Dennis
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