For Japanese photographer Yuki Kikuchi it all happened at Burgerama 2014, the annual festival organised by LA garage-rock stalwarts Burger Records. It was here that his friend first handed him an Olympus MJU II and encouraged him to take photos, and it was here that he first met two of his idols, Mac DeMarco and The Garden.
From fan to friend, Kikuchi soon struck a bond with Mac and the Fletcher twins, resulting in the photographer joining them on tour in 2017 before staying at Mac’s LA home the following Spring.
But for this photographer it’s the freedom of US youth culture – specifically gig audiences – that is the real pull. “…For someone like me who was born and raised in Japan, the reason US youth culture appeals is that there’s a completely opposite approach from that of Japan, and there’s a kind of freedom where no one gives you a hard time,” says Kikuchi below.
Believing that the ideology of ‘freedom’ is based within diverse amounts of happiness that come and go throughout our lives, his aim is to capture those precious feelings and moments of pure freedom. And when your subjects are as devoted as Mac DeMarco’s fanbase, those moments are in the majority.
Lianna-Marie Arjona-Christian: When did your interest in photography begin – did you start taking photos while socialising and then went from there?
Yuki Kikuchi: I started taking photos four years ago when a photographer friend of mine, Shusaku Yoshikawa, and I went to cover Burgerama in 2014. When we arrived at the venue Shusaku said to me, “You came all the way here, you should take photos too”, lent me a camera (an Olympus MJU II), and that started me taking photos. I was a music journalist at the time, so I only took photos when I had a strong reason to take photos myself.
LMAC: What was it about US youth culture that stood out to you and how does this differ from Tokyo?
YK: I’m attracted to American youth culture because of the freedom of choice that there is, which doesn’t really exist in Japanese youth culture. For example, when Mac DeMarco is playing a live show, while so many young people would totally be in a trance, there would also be others just chatting and having fun with their friends, groups taking drugs, people sitting on the ground totally engrossed in eating pizza and drinking beer, couples making out and not listening to the music at all – this kind of wide variety in people’s reaction existing in one space and time is US youth culture. In Japan, if you tell someone to go right, they go right, if you tell someone to go left, they go left; everyone moves in unison and people live in a disciplined order, trying not to rock the boat as much as possible. So they really care about how they look to those around them. It is like this in the youth culture as well. For someone like me who was born and raised in Japan, the reason US youth culture appeals is that there’s a completely opposite approach from that of Japan, and there’s a kind of freedom where no one gives you a hard time.
“…when The Garden were coming to New York for a show in 2016 and they had trouble finding a hotel to stay, I suggested that they should stay at Mac’s house (I was staying with Mac at the time).”
“Mac would invite me onstage every night, then make me sing, dance and give him a kiss.”
LMAC: Why does the sense of freedom and gigs appeal to you as a photographer?
YK: The reason I’m drawn to the sense of freedom is because I don’t think people can keep feeling happy just because they have a freedom to do whatever. Because fundamentally life itself is hard, isn’t it? So just being able to feel and enjoy that sense of freedom is very precious. Of course I like gigs, I think I take pictures there because I feel that the people and the artists collected can feel the sense of freedom in that space. And perhaps it’s an act coming from a prayer or hope of sorts – precisely because we live in a world/society where life is hard, so in that moment when something is happening to each one of us, we should be able to feel happy and free.
LMAC: You’ve worked with the likes of Mac DeMarco and The Garden, how did you first meet these people?
YK: It’s sort of a miracle Now I think about it, but I met Mac and The Garden by chance at the Burgerama 2014 venue. Moreover, it was on the same day and in the same place inside the venue. I got to meet both of them then, but at that time, Mac and The Garden hadn’t met each other yet.
LMAC: How did the situation arise for you to go on tour with them?
YK: Since meeting them in 2014, I started to stay in Los Angeles and New York every year between spring and summer. Mac DeMarco and Fletcher from The Garden were the first people to compliment my photography. When I stayed at Mac’s house in NYC he took me to lots of places and I took lots of pictures of them as we spent a lot of time together during my short stays. Mac and Fletcher have used my photos for artwork on their records (Mac DeMarco’s Another Demo One and Puzzle’s Soaring). While I continued to take pictures, they told me that I should take pictures of them while they were playing live, just like I take pictures when we are hanging out. Even now I don’t know if I deserve these kind of opportunities, but I’m so grateful for the respect that they show me. And I always told both of them about each other even before they met, and so when The Garden were coming to New York for a show in 2016 and they had trouble finding a hotel to stay, I suggested that they should stay at Mac’s house (I was staying with Mac at the time). At first they hesitated, but they couldn’t find a hotel so finally I called Mac to ask. He was really drunk on the phone, and said it was all fine but, “Just tell them to bring some beers”, before hanging up. I remember I was feeling really nervous for some reason as The Garden and I headed towards Mac’s house. But once we arrived at Mac’s, they immediately got on well. Everyone stuffed their mouths with French fries that Mac’s girlfriend had made, sang stupid songs and joked around. It’s always really cool when two sets of important friends instantly connect, for whatever reason. Mac moved to LA later, and they started hanging out more. When Fletcher and I went to hang out at Mac’s after finishing The Garden’s tour I joined as their photographer last spring, Mac revealed that he was getting The Garden to support him on his summer tour. Then he went on to say “So Yuki has to come as well”.
LMAC: It must have been a wild tour.
YK: So the whole tour is an important memory for me. From the show in Oregon onwards, Mac would invite me onstage every night, then make me sing, dance and give him a kiss. In Missoula, Montana, the snow was pilling up even though it was still September, so we parked up the van en route and everyone had a snowball fight. After the show in Milwaukee, Alec and I went up on the roof, where we talked about our lives and our worries for the future. Or another time I woke up as the van we were in was crossing the Manhattan bridge, and when I rubbed my eyes I saw the evening sun setting over New York spread out in front of us – it was so beautiful. The feeling of loneliness and missing my family I got when I saw Wyatt and his dad hugging after The Garden played live at Radio City, and the taste of the cheese steak I ate in Philly are also unforgettable. Mac and I were already full at the time but we got seconds of cheese steaks covered in pizza sauce, which made us really sick. Or when Fletcher and I started working out after New Orleans and our arms got really muscly. I also remember the time I spent with their fans and audiences, the different emotions and energy they had each day. One kid gave me the key to his house, another kid I talked about horror movies with, another one I kicked a soccer ball around with, one cried throughout the whole show, and a group of kids hugged each other throughout. Every day I saw these kids from the stage thinking, “How will they look back at the day and those feelings when they have grown up?”
LMAC: It’s that euphoria of youth.
YK: Getting old is impartial, it happens to everyone. People go into society, earn money at their jobs, have families, meet people, part ways with some people, and in the passing of time, come to know a lot. What I want to capture with today’s youth is the fluctuating emotions of these people’s hearts, naïve and yet to find answers to their questions, living and struggling in these moments.
LMAC:What’s your next project?
YK: I’m making a book about things I have done up until now. I was poor, didn’t have any dreams or wishes, didn’t go to university – then eventually got into the music scene, became a music journalist, started taking pictures, had various chance encounters and got to experience many things. In the book, I want to put those kinds of things and what I actually thought then into words. I want to put out a photo album too, but first I need to find a part-time job and save money [laughs].
See more of Yuki Kikuchi’s work here.