Only a few short years after Kenji began playing music, he started a group with his childhood friend Shingo I. This was the first chance for Usui to seriously write songs with a collaborator whom he trusted. Kenji often references this band as a major influence in his style. SPOON was a psychedelic rock band formed in Tokyo in 2005 by Kenji Usui (Bass/Vocals) and Shingo I (Guitar/Vocals), along with an ever-revolving cast of drummers for their live performances. Eventually they caught the attention of Takuya Kusunose, a renowned record engineer in Tokyo, who soon assumed full-time drum duties. After recording a demo CD in 2006, SPOON disbanded due to the time demands of the members’ other musical projects. Takuya is a noted and respected engineer in Japan; as such, he had worked with musicians from the famous to (almost) completely unknown. His time playing with Kenji, as well as his interaction in the music community made him aware of Usui’s individuality, artistry, and importance to the Japanese music scene. Musicians know that the bond between rhythm section members (drums and bass) is one of the utmost importance in a band. The long lasting impression Kenji made is evident as Takuya comments, “Kenji has had many bands in the Tokyo area (Pororocks, Kissaco, An Atomic Whirl), and he has become a central figure in the music scene here. All of his bands have been welcome at venues across the city.” Kusunose declares Kenji’s impact on the Japanese music scene continuing, “His assistance with his friends’ events and festivals have earned him an excellent reputation here. In the past dozen years, I have met many famous musicians and encountered a wide range of music, but still Kenji stands out among everyone I have met. This is due to not only his songwriting, musicianship, and performance skills, but also his sheer presence and his behavior with others, both on and off-stage. He is interested in creating original music and supporting others who bring creativity to the music scene here. Although I played with him for a relatively short time in SPOON, I have followed him as an artist over the years, and I have seen him grow immensely while also helping the scene itself to grow. He is a powerful force in our music scene.” Although SPOON ended in 2006 after just one recording (the self-titled SPOON), it cemented Usui’s presence as a fixture in the Japanese Independent music scene. As we know from the US music scene, what was once independent and underground (Folk, Rock, Rap, etc.) eventually becomes the major market. By these circumstances, Kenji Usui became one of the cornerstones of the Japanese (Tokyo in particular) music world.
Allies and Aces was a five-piece band was the ensemble in which Kenji still served as bassist. The band’s music was in a genre described as muscular hard rock. This Japanese group is often compared to the Mars Volta and Queens of the Stone Age. Allies and Aces utilized sci-fi sound effects, vocal samples, and psychedelic flourishes to accent the songs seamlessly. The band may have sounded more mainstream to many listeners but they always wrapped it in their own original box, as exhibited in 2008’s Full Circle Orbit. Usui describes himself during his tenure with Allies and Aces stating, “I was a young punk then. We were all friends, having fun…too much fun sometimes.” The band’s vocalist Leo Takahashi tells a different story as he notes, “Kenji’s level of performance is second to none. He transforms into a new person on stage, performing with intense energy and passion, all while playing his parts flawlessly. He devotes himself wholly to creating art, performing, and arranging shows for others. His contributions to these projects have earned him a reputation as a cutting-edge and hardworking artist in Tokyo’s underground music scene.” Being a part of a much more high profile band with an international fan base meant that Kenji was being exposed to bands from other countries; this would lead to his present status as the unofficial ambassador for visiting foreign bands attempting to navigate the complex Japanese scene.
The most recent venture for Usui has been An Atomic Whirl, a two-piece experimental noise/math/punk with American drummer Brian Giles. Kenji is the bassist and vocalist in An Atomic Whirl. His captivating live performances are what brought him to the attention of Giles. Brian concedes, “I first saw Kenji in Taipei when he was the vocalist for Kissaco. I knew immediately that I wanted to work with him. The entire crowd, including myself, was mesmerized by his charisma and performance. Kenji is a born performer and a true artist; a free spirit who trusts his own musical instincts and has built a following throughout Asia as a result.” An Atomic Whirl has allowed Usui to use his passion for music, performance, and cultivating relationships with international artists. The group has three releases to date (2015’s Mado Ni being the most recent) and has toured internationally in response to their fan base. Now An Atomic Whirl is hoping to relocate to the United States due to interest from fans in America. As an artist who has always reveled in sharing ideas with musicians from other parts of the globe, this is especially attractive to Kenji. He agrees, “Music is an international art and way of communicating. You don’t even have to understand the lyrics to feel the emotion of many songs. I’ve always enjoyed introducing bands from other parts of the world to our music world in Japan, it would be truly interesting to me to experience what that is like in a different part of the world…to imbed myself into a new artistic family and community. An Atomic Whirl is ideal for this. My co-band member Brian is a talented drummer from the states; because there are only two of us it is much less complicated. The US is such an amazing place for music to be made, I am excited at what could be possible when I interact with artists there. I feel like music helps us to bridge the gap to the common places that all people share.” Kenji is also experimenting with a one man solo project called Poronely.