The live music experience isn’t all mosh pits in a hot, dark room with a few hundred strangers. Right at the front, beyond the barrier, are a niche group of people who capture those incredible moments in a split second.
The live music photographers have the best seat in the house. They take the very moments we fans enjoy and freeze them in time forever. And in the UK Japanese music scene, there is no one more widely known than Kakkoii Club.
BS: Welcome to Beyond Senpai, please introduce yourself.
KC: Hey everyone! I’m Warren Smith, the creator and founder of KAKKOII CLUB. My website has seen many format and content changes since the site first launched in 2015. The website initially began as a webzine of sorts covering my main passion; music. This featured artist interviews (I was lucky enough to meet the legendary Yoshiki during his ‘We Are X’ UK promo tour), album reviews, Spotify playlists and more but I wasn’t shy to try out new items or features to keep things fresh for me as the sole content creator. I covered other elements of J-culture including reviews of all the latest treats and snacks direct from Japan, thanks to my monthly partnership with Oyatsubox. This ranged from Wasabi flavoured Kitkats to a variety of drinks, chocolate bars and seasonal favourites. As time progressed, there were already a number of webzine’s out there covering the J-Rock scene and I needed a different angle. While the KAKKOII CLUB name has always remained, the content has been streamlined over time to solely focus on live music photography – to capture and support the Japanese live music scene in the UK.
BS: How did you enter the world of photography? And what inspired you to pursue a focus in live music photography?
KC: I would find myself at gigs thinking “that would’ve been a great shot!” or watching the energy of a band member and wishing I could’ve captured that leg kick or fan interaction and not having the tools to hand began to frustrate me immensely the more gigs I attended! Post one gig, I knew this was something I was clearly interested in and the following day I watched countless videos on YouTube; from camera gear and setup reviews to music photography tips and where to get started. Once I bought my first camera, I headed down to my local venue and began to shoot there regularly (unpaid – in return for access). Pubs or small club venues are the perfect ‘boot camp’ for aspiring photographers! If you can survive the insane amount of red lighting (any photographer’s worst nightmare!), stage smoke so thick it covers the entire band and stage area, limited space to manoeuvre and (over time) improve and still get a decent shot, once you get to the O2 Academies and larger venues, you’ll not only be treated to a crowd barrier at larger shows but normally the lighting and general space to work in is greatly improved but you will get the occasional curveball from time to time. E.G. strobe lighting or rapid changes of lighting effects that really put you to the test and you’ll have to adapt your settings on the fly.
BS: What type of camera do you shoot with? And have your gear preferences changed over the years as you have become more involved in the live music scene?
KC: My initial camera was a Canon DSLR. I used this more for video work at the time. While I was learning to shoot at my local venue, pre-show I would interview the bands for the venues YouTube channel that I created but later discovered Nikon DSLR’s ticked more boxes for me photography wise. The Canon was then sold and replaced with my current setup: Nikon D610 and Tamron 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD. The lens itself weighs 825kg (a little less than a bag of sugar. My arms normally start to tremble after a full day at HYPER JAPAN or live event but the shots it brings is truly worth it!) I’d love to upgrade my camera at some stage but all of my work is unpaid, I’m just grateful to gain access to the venue or artist and help share some great memories with fans both in the UK and back In Japan. I have dabbled with other lenses but the 24-70mm covers all the ranges I require (I just wish it was a little lighter!)
BS: Having an eye for detail is certainly an important factor in your line of work, what is your process from when you close the shutter to publishing the finished article?
KC: Post gig, I enjoy the editing process just as much as capturing the images. You normally only get to shoot the first 3 songs / 10mins, so you get no time to check the images at the gig. I normally walk away from the set with around 500 images per band. As the majority of bands will need to approve all potential images before they are posted online (this can take a few days or few months depending on the band / artist / management, which is why there is sometimes a delay between the gig taking place and me being able to share my images.) This process can sometimes be complex but one that needs to be adhered to and respected if you want the chance to capture the band the next time they are in the UK. In light of this, I always look at my photos with the view of “What would the band approve?”. I tend to avoid having the same style of shot multiple times in my galleries as this isn’t interesting to look at. I try to capture as many of the band members / artists as possible even when the lighting over the poor drummer is always weak at best! I then try to cut down 500 images to potentially 30 and cut these down again until I’m happy with the final selection, which should be a varied mix and one that represents their live performance.
BS: The Japanese music community in the UK is undoubtedly a niche one, how did you become involved in the scene? Was it the music that came first or the photography? And who was the first band you got to work with?
KC: Covering music has always been a passion of mine and as KAKKOII CLUB ‘s content began to expand over the years, events such as HYPER JAPAN took a key role in blending music with J-culture on my website. I then began to photograph the event (mainly to cover the live artists) and bit by bit my portfolio began to expand and I have been fortunate to cover events such as Japan Matsuri and Metal Matsuri was an incredible two days to say the least! My first (and favourite) memory was when I first met MUTANT MONSTER in 2016. I asked their tour manager if I could take them for a quick tour around Camden Town prior to their gig at The Underworld and get a few shots (something a little different to just covering live gigs) and to my surprise he said “yes” and to make things more interesting, he left me with the band and just gave me a time they had to be back for in time for soundcheck! One of my favourite photos is the band standing in front of the iconic Camden Lock area. Bearing in mind this was a cold November day, the band removed their winter jackets and were happy to pose for a quick couple of shots which turned out great! Shortly after, we were on the way back to The Underworld when the band discovered a Dr. Martens store nearby. Let’s just say we ran a little late for soundcheck! I’ve loved shooting the band ever since and their enthusiasm and passion for performing live is truly infectious!
BS: On your website, you post a blog about the gigs you have worked at which gives a really interesting perspective on the scene, what made you decide to include this alongside your photography?
KC: I wanted to vary my content and have a feature to accompany the live photos or just write about a specific topic I had in mind as I think a different perspective can be thought provoking or interesting to those who are involved in the scene. Ideally, I’d love to produce multiple ‘behind the scenes’ videos with clips of the live show from my camera angle and share a few pics etc but the red tape with authorisations would make that incredibly difficult and most likely impossible to produce on a regular basis, unfortunately. I may add further blogs regarding my photo setup / commentary for each show in the future. If that would be something of interest, let me know on Twitter!
BS: You have photographed many of the Japanese bands and artists that have toured in the UK, who was the most surprising act to shoot and why?
KC: I have to admit I wasn’t ready for Ningen Isu! Initially I thought based on the ticket price for their show at The Underworld, I was expecting a low turnout. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I love it when that happens! A packed crowd, all fully behind the band, singing and totally getting involved! The stage presence of the group was outstanding and the many faces that Suzuki Ken-ichi displayed were entertaining to say the least! There was no barrier for this show (normally standard for The Underworld gigs) but I managed to get a great spot and was really pleased with the finished photos which both the band and venue later shared on their social media channels. Again, it goes to show that live music can always be unpredictable!
BS: In an ever-evolving world of technology it seems everyone is a photographer these days, how do you feel about the sea of mobile phones at live shows?
KC: I’m all for someone wanting to get a photo or two for their own memory of the night but I’ve seen people at gigs holding up iPads, that’s when it gets ridiculous! Get a few pics and then put your phone away, you’ve paid to see the band or artist in front of you, live the experience not through your smartphone for the entire show!
BS: The live music environment is one that doesn’t always run smoothly, are there many struggles in shooting live bands, such as where to position yourself and stage lighting? And how do you overcome these obstacles?
KC: Ask anyone that shoots the J-music scene and they’ll tell you that trying to gain access to the venue or locate a contact to request a photo pass can sometimes be a mission in itself. Many of the artists won’t have UK contacts, so you have to do a lot of digging yourself via the bands social media channels and keep everything crossed someone may get back to you! Some gigs are more challenging than others and some promoters will literally get back to you on the day of the show, always be prepared! When you’re in the photo pit, you’re normally sharing the space with maybe 5 or 6 other photographers. Trying to not get them in your shots can be just as challenging as trying to capture ‘that’ defining image of the bands set in less than 10 minutes! I try to start on one side and move across during the duration, while being respectful of the other photographers and not blocking their shots or moving out of a space when necessary, nobody likes a ‘camper’*! (*someone that literally hogs the best spot and refuses to move for the duration.) When it comes to lighting, you’re at the mercy of the lighting director in the booth at the back of the venue. You’ll have no idea what he/she has planned or what set of colours they will be using. In cases like this, you need to know what your camera’s limits are and be able to change your settings on the fly to accommodate the multiple scenario’s you will be up against.
BS: The past year has certainly been a particularly difficult one for the live music scene, how has this affected you and how excited are you for that first live shoot that will happen?
KC: I can’t imagine how challenging this time has been for those in the profession as paid photographers, I’m fortunate that live photography is a side interest outside of my core full time job. Like you all I’m sure, I’ve missed live music incredibly during this time. What I wouldn’t give to hear a sound check or the screech of guitar feedback! I think my first live shoot will be incredibly emotional, not only to see a live band again but to be back capturing live music! There have been a lot of questions going through my mind during this time such as: will there be only one photographer per show moving forwards due to social distancing? Will the band have to provide their own ‘approved’ photographer? The answer is we really don’t know until the live scene starts to pick up again, it’s unknown territory for now but I hope I can be back down the front again as soon as it’s safe to do so!
BS: Among all of your works, which is your favourite and why? And is there a band or artist you really want to work with in the future?
KC: SCANDAL were one of the first J-Rock bands I followed and when I had the chance to capture their live show at O2 Academy Islington in 2016, I didn’t sleep much the night before! I sat on the crowd barrier steps with the other photographers (like we normally do, waiting for the house lights to go down.) and my jeans were caught against the metal railing on the step. I was freaking out! Here I am about to photograph SCANDAL and I can’t even stand up because my jeans are stuck and could rip, leaving me in a potentially very awkward scene! Luckily, the jeans were only caught for the first 20 seconds of the bands intro but believe me that felt like a lifetime! I lifted my camera up and adjusted the lens for the first shot, SCANDAL walked out on stage, I took my first shot, lowered my camera and then realised how close they were in front of me! Incredible memories and I then went to Paris the following day to capture their gig and this would be my first photography live event outside of the UK! I’d love to capture Wagakki Band; with so many different styles of musicians (and members!), it would be an incredible event to capture live! I’d also like to get more ‘behind the scenes’ photos. E.G. When you see the bands hanging out backstage/on the tour bus or during soundcheck, I love those intimate shots and would love to expand my portfolio outside of live music.
BS: Do you have any tips or advice for prospective live music photographers?
KC: For me it all comes down to one word – Respect:
Respect security – They are there for your and the crowd’s protection. If they need you to move or leave the photo pit regardless of the number of songs you have shot, you move!
Respect the crowd – They’ve paid to see their favourite artist. Be respectful. Don’t stand directly in their line of view (where possible) or if there isn’t a crowd barrier, don’t stand down the front waving a camera around, most likely it’s going to get damaged if the crowd are jumping around and you don’t want to leave with a cracked lens! Grab a few shots from the first few songs and then find an alternative standpoint.
Respect the band/artist – The label/management/venue has put their trust in you and your work. Don’t get in the artists way, respect their space and only shoot the first three songs (don’t push your luck for more, you’ll only ruin your chances for future gigs!)
Respect the management’s decision – You may have sent the band’s management 30 images and they only approved 5. That might not be the result you were hoping for but you also don’t want to be blacklisted for the bands next UK show if you decide to upload all 30 and bypass their decision!
Respect the other photographers – The J-Rock scene is niche and you will see familiar photographers at other events. Say “hi” to the other photographers in the pit before the gig starts, it helps break the ice and you’re going to be working in a close space for the first 10 mins of the gig. It makes for a much nicer environment and things a little less awkward!
Thanks to Amanda and the Beyond Senpai Team for this opportunity.
Beyond Senpai thanks Warren for giving us a snapshot into the live music photography world.