Inkakai define their sound as Imperial, a fiercely dynamic alternative rock influenced by nu-metal and electronic music. The six musicians, songwriters, and producers have collaborated with Max Martin, Steve Vai, and Lordi in the past.
In the past, Inkakai has appeared in films such as Priest of Evil (2010) and Jade Warrior (2006), published one of the most popular songs in Finland in 2010 (‘Halo’), and received the Best Nordic Song award at the NRJ Radio Awards in 2007 (‘Fate’ feat. Ana Johnsson). With HMC/Warner Music Finland, they released their debut album Burns Inside (2006) as Bleak and their sophomore album The Dark Side (2011) as Fireal. Currently, Inkakai are preparing their third album, Unlite.
Their signature black and red color scheme represents their moniker (shadow, fire, society), which is derived from Japanese mythology. Inka is one of the onibi ghost lights, which are spirits produced from charred corpses. Check out their song ‘Drown’ and the exclusive interview below:
1. Can you tell us a bit about where you come from and how it all got started?
INKAKAI: We come from the United States, Japan, and Finland, and from several different cities in these countries. Inkakai singer-songwriter originally founded the band in Rovaniemi, Northern Finland in 1997. The first line-up ended in 2000 due to some members’ lack of time. The second line-up regrouped in 2002 in Helsinki, with a few new band members. That too ended in 2009, due to inner problems with the rhythm guitarist. The band instantly regrouped and got renamed to Fireal which would be later renamed to Inkakai.
From the 2009 line-up, what has remained in Inkakai, is the core line-up: the singer-songwriter-guitarist, the drummer, and the bass player. The drummer and bass player were also the first two official members to be recruited into the band in 2009. However, the drummer already worked with us in 2004 when he replaced one of the former drummers on the single ‘Crossword’.
We’ve since recruited new band members from the US and Japan. The coming together of older members with newer ones has been very uplifting and inspiring. One feels blessed to be able to play with the same guys, but also for having all this new talent with us.
2. Did you have any formal training or are you self-taught?
INKAKAI: Some of us have gone through some training and musical education. For example, the singer-songwriter studied piano and classical guitar in music conservatories from the age of 8 to 12, but beyond that is self-taught like the rest of the band. Our band members have worked as touring/studio musicians and songwriters for various bigger artists for over a decade, so it’s been super easy to come together as a group and work on our own music.
3. Who were your first and strongest musical influences and why the name ‘INKAKAI’?
INKAKAI: Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Soundgarden, Deftones, Linkin Park, The Prodigy, to mention a few. It’s a long list of great artists.
Fireal was first revealed in 2009 with an updated look, leaning more towards the black and red, but we didn’t wear masks then. The idea of an Asian influenced masked band came to us in 2012 when we were still on our break. While the masks were soon incorporated into our band, we weren’t thinking about changing the name then. Perhaps we didn’t want too much confusion as we had already changed the name in 2009.
But the more time passed, the more it started to look like we were doing something different this time around. And once we recruited these new international band members, the group actually became something new and updated. For 12 years it was Bleak and all of this was happening when 12 years had passed as Fireal. So, it felt like the perfect time to rename the band to Inkakai. Third time lucky.
As for the meaning of the name itself, Inka (“shadow fire”) is one of the onibi ghost lights from Japanese legends. Spirits born from the corpses of people who have become fire. Many probably know the word Kai from Cobra Kai; the word means “association, assembly, meeting”.
Now that we’re on the topic of names: Bleak made absolutely no sense for us as our band name. Not saying the name is bad but, in our case, it had nothing to do with anything, there was no cool history nor innovation behind it. On top of that, there were several other bands with the same name. It was a poor choice for us.
We had the fire logo, the black and red color scheme to go with the lyrical themes of darkness and fire, and the debut album was named Burns Inside – and then the name of the band was Bleak. It didn’t make any sense even before the fire logo was designed in 2003.
So, changing the name to Fireal felt like finally the whole thing made sense. It was the perfect change for us. Some people in the Finnish media had trouble pronouncing the word, but beyond that there were no problems. Yet, in hindsight it was also a bit naive take on the slang word. But it’s still a cool name and we’re happy to carry that with us as a part of our past.
However, with Inkakai, it felt like for the first time we actually landed on a name that’s truly unique and purely us. Not only is it in perfect line with our previous themes, but it also fits perfectly with our newer themes as well. Sometimes in life things just click and fall perfectly into place, and this was one of those times.
4. What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners, and how would you personally describe your sound?
INKAKAI: We describe our music as Imperial or Imperial Core. That translates as alternative rock/metal mixed with nu-metal and grunge, 80-90s synths, pop hooks and the occasional beats and Amiga 500 samples. It’s easier to just call it Imperial.
While there are some rougher guitars at times, we’re still very much focused on strong melodies. The contrasts and the way we blend all these elements is what people have found to be unique. As the creator of that blend, it’s hard to say what it is exactly that resonates with them. Perhaps it’s some individual fingerprint that truly invested artists leave in their work that resonates with people.
There are a lot of bands out there that use the same tricks, same overall sound, similar vocals, and very similar melody ideas – and they seem to be doing fine with their streaming etc. People aren’t always looking for something unique, but rather something that is similar to this other thing that they love. That’s just not our way.
We all chose our own paths, and we’ve chosen not to care so much about what others are doing if it doesn’t involve us in some way. It would actually be harder for us to start making something that was already out there because it would go so much against the very essence of what we are and how our creative process goes.
5. For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and music maker, and the transition towards your own style, which is known as Imperial?
Usually, the younger you are, the less subtle your influences are in your own creations. There was definitely unconscious emulation involved in our teenage years, specifically from Pearl Jam as that was the biggest influence back then in terms of songwriting.
The good thing was, even that band was one among many that had a bigger impact on us. The number of influences were so plenty that we didn’t have any carbon copies of anything. The influences just blended together and started to take lives of their own, becoming something more original.
While some older riffs and melodies we’ve incorporated in our newer songs have stayed the same since the late 90s (for example, the chromatic riff of ‘The Imperial’ and the main riff of ‘God’), the overall sound, arrangement, and blend, has become what we call Imperial through years of maturing.
That being said, we haven’t yet revealed our newer songs where we’ve been stretching the sound a bit more into different directions.
Our advice to younger songwriters starting out would be: listen to different artists from as many genres as you can. Learn what resonates with you but also step out of the box and try to learn new things from genres you wouldn’t listen to. The more you do this, the more likely it is for you to develop a unique sound of your own. Absorb different ideas from all around but only copy as an exercise, don’t present it as something of your own. Learn from what others do and try to find out how you would do things differently; what do you want to say in terms of music, what’s the musical representation of you?
One of the best rewards is when you feel you’ve created something that accurately represents your vision of what you always wanted to do but didn’t previously know how to put into words, notes, art. That moment is so gratifying it’s worth pursuing even for a longer period of time.
6. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative, and entertainment?
We try not to get too political, but there are some topics that people need to be vocal about. We’ve been open in our criticism towards social media, cyber bullying, and the misuse of the internet in general, because those can have horrible, life-changing consequences on people, especially on the youth.
Some of us have kids and many of our family and friends have kids, so that tends to change your perspective on life. If you spend over a decade watching someone grow from a tiny baby into this whole unique person, you are no longer the same as you were a decade ago. And you don’t see the world the same way.
You see the dangers in a whole new light, and you want to protect that innocent form of life. And others like them. So, when you, as an artist, have some sort of platform – no matter how small it might be – you feel the need to speak out about these things.
Perhaps everyone who has some kind of platform should use it to bring awareness to things that are harmful, especially towards children, animals, and the environment. We should promote values that would try to fix things and make this world a bit better place to live in.
Every loving parent understands this and is concerned about what kind of world we live in. Because that’s where our children are going to grow. We need to start fixing these things and we need to be vocal about them.
For example, the damage done to kids via online bullying needs to be taken seriously and prevented. While the biggest responsibility lies with the social media creators – who should take example from YouTube Kids and make child-proofed versions of their platforms – the parents also have responsibility.
It’s not safe to let kids download social media where everyone can send messages to anyone, or where they are subjected to ads that are not meant for children. Parents need to do their research, to do their job, and not just let the kids download “that new app that all the other kids are using”.
Just because some parents aren’t responsible, doesn’t mean you should follow the example.
We all have a universal responsibility to the safety of children everywhere. Just because it’s not your kid, doesn’t mean you can neglect them if they’re all alone and lost. Our permanent job as adults is to protect the children and that task will never change.
7. Do you feel that your music is giving you back just as much fulfillment as the amount of work you are putting into it or are you expecting something more, or different in the future?
For years it felt like the music didn’t really reward us with what the work and time invested in it would’ve warranted. But these things often take time, and now that’s been on the rise, we’re quite optimistic about the future.
It’s hard to predict these things but if the recent past is any indication, then we’ll be growing our presence, slowly but surely, and that is actually great. It’s better for us to slowly build something bigger that will last.
Sometimes things take their own time and that’s just something that has to be accepted. It’s a good lesson in humility and time might actually end up being that one crucial factor that makes a good thing great.
8. Could you describe your creative processes? How do usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head? And do you collaborate with others in this process?
Usually everything start with guitar riffs, synth chords or topline melodies. The singer-songwriter makes a full recording of the song with all the band instruments, then the drummer plays his version of the drums, other guitarists bring in their spices and ideas, bass player plays his parts etc. During this process, the final arrangement of the song starts shaping out. The lyrics usually come through a different process, but they evolve when they blend in with the music.
So far there hasn’t been actual co-writing in the band but we’re open to collaborating with some talented producers and songwriters. We had such good experiences in the past with people like Per Aldeheim and Max Martin that we’re definitely eager to do that again.
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
INKAKAI: We all have faced some difficulties in our personal lives – some more than others – but not everyone is eager to share them. And we like to keep things private, so we won’t be going into too much detail here.
But it probably becomes clear to anyone reading the lyrics of our older songs that there’s been some serious hurt involved. While our new single ‘Drown’ and its sequel ‘Ariel’ paint fictional situations that are not derived from personal experiences, in the past many of our songs were connected to some kind of personal hurt as a result of certain relationships. Obviously, the songwriter’s age at the time was a big factor.
Those are now situations and issues of the past, but they’re still universal problems that reflect today as they repeat all around with newer generations.
Overall, there are new challenges in relationships today. For example, the lack of communication skills, as many have come to rely on the written word, thanks to extensive use of online messaging. That doesn’t realistically translate how the individual is in person, and many are lacking the required skills to authentically communicate face to face.
One could argue there is also a lack of emotion. Mental health problems are on the rise, and this contributes to all these. Instead of built on deeper emotions or connections, relationships tend to be more about superficial things like mathematical beauty features, fitness of the body, cost of the clothing, the size of one’s wealth (and maybe certain body parts), the level of one’s status, and the skills in “playing the game”.
Finally, there’s the lack of commitment. The more people have gotten effortless access to several potential dating candidates, the less effort, time, and loyalty people invest in relationships. Instead of a few deeper relationships, there are plenty of short and physical ones. Instead of working on problems, people tend to seek the easy way out and move on to the next candidate. This pattern repeats.
Polygamy, multi dating and open marriages/relationships are the trend now and that seems to be affecting the lack of commitment as well. Even to the point where monogamy is being considered “selfish” or “possessive”. It seems those who believe so see even infidelity as something “understandable” as they see monogamy as an attempt to own someone.
Morals and traditional values are being twisted into travesties. Many see chains where there is actually something pure and beautiful. Something that’s not about owning anyone but about loyalty and committing one’s time, body and emotions to that one person.
Obviously, every adult is free to choose what they do with their bodies and what kind of relationships they are having, as long as it doesn’t hurt others. But polyamory shouldn’t be so blatantly advertised. People need to learn how to be with one person before jumping head first into polygamy. Balance is everything.
It may not be easy for anyone looking for the traditional romantic love and monogamous relationship in today’s porn-saturated world. One of our songs ‘Violet’ actually touches on this subject. But just because something isn’t easily achieved, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue it. Perhaps people overall lack perseverance and patience in matters of love. And btw: you can’t hurry love.
In terms of our music career, the most difficult time in our band’s history was the second Bleak lineup (2002-2009). By the end of that period, it had become clear that recruiting that lineup’s guitarists had been a huge mistake. While technically that was fixed when the lineup regrouped in 2009, obviously these things have long-term consequences. Every broken relationship leaves behind hurt that takes time to be dealt with – and if some people aren’t actually dealing with them in a healthy way, it can lead to all sorts of ugliness, like decades of character assassination.
In cultures where it’s a taboo for a man to openly talk about his inner issues, men tend to deal with them through aggression and alcohol. If there’s a falling out, the traditional man might be the “eye for an eye” type. But now there are increasingly many who will try to “win” the falling out by poisoning others against you; by destroying your character to those who don’t personally know you.
People tend to believe their friends over someone whom they’ve never known as a person. But the smart individual makes their own opinions based on personal experience – and recognizes the trashing of others when they see it. However, an accurate opinion would also require emotional intelligence, empathy, and no personal agenda – and will you find that in those who’ve embraced the “emotional constipation” of a culture that frowns upon the showing of emotions? Not likely.
While we should move on from things of the past, we should never close our eyes to what’s happening in the present. If it turns out that things you thought were mistakes of the youth, were actually representation of the evil in some people, there’s no reason why you should turn a blind eye to it. It’s an ongoing problem.
On a more positive note, even if you’ve started out as a sentimental and sensitive private person, doesn’t mean you would automatically break if suddenly you were targeted by some faceless mob. All sorts of bullying and persecution is ugly, unfair, and reprehensible – and should be punished – but that kind of thing can also make you strong. Maybe colder, but stronger, nevertheless.
That’s something one can take away from that. You can actually survive that and in the process become much stronger. Those that try to drag you down, are lacking something you have. That’s why they want to bring you down to their level.
Best to stay above and ignore them, focus on the good things in your life; things that make you happy and things that you love doing. That’s the best possible “revenge”: genuine happiness and peace in your life.
10. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or music career so far?
INKAKAI: It would be easy (and inaccurate) to underline the moment we got our first record deal in 2005. True, it was significant as it was the result of years of songwriting, touring and some networking. The deal also led to some of us being able to let go of our day jobs and focus purely on the music. So, yes, it was significant, and it changed some of our lives.
But it was also the beginning of the downfall of many things, and a lot that was involved with the whole thing turned out to be actually bad for us. So, it’s hard to look at that and consider it as something successful or something to be proud of.
Imagine something that turned out to be lies but at the moment when it happened, felt like the greatest thing ever. Would you afterwards still consider it to be a great moment in your life?
Getting the Best Nordic Song award for ‘Fate’, a co-write with Ana Johnsson and producer Tomi Malm, was a successful point in our career. It was great that the songwriting process didn’t include the band and was done in a peaceful environment that fueled creativity. Those kind of writing sessions really are the best ones – when there are no egos involved but rather genuine effort and interest in making good music. That’s how it should go.
Co-writing with Per Aldeheim and Max Martin was similarly a great experience and a proud, successful point in our lives. It’s something we can still look fondly back on – apart from one tiny detail: a fourth person was unnecessarily connected to the session even though they didn’t contribute to the writing process at all.
But that’s how some labels do these things: someone sits there playing what you’re playing – your riffs, your and someone else’s ideas – and afterwards they get credit and shares of a co-writer. Even when everyone involved know how it went and your demo recordings and tabs prove otherwise. Welcome to the music industry.
To quote Tyrion Lannister: “If you want justice, you’ve come to the wrong place.”
Back to the positive: as previously mentioned, it is extremely rewarding when you create something that you were previously unable to fully express. As such, Inkakai stands out as one of our proud moments.
All the years of planning and envisioning things just came together under this one headline. As one representation of what we always wanted to express. While that doesn’t automatically contribute to any sort of success for the band, it was a success in terms of creating something we always wanted to have.
11. With social media having a heavy impact on our lives and the music business in general, how do you handle criticism, haters, and/or naysayers in general? Is it something you pay attention to, or simply ignore?
INKAKAI: Knowing how social media is plagued by trolling, cyberbullying, and misinformation – with inadequate or no moderation involved – we eventually decided to just turn off or moderate commenting and limit the visibility of our pages.
We honestly don’t have time or energy to comb through someone else’s filth just because nobody taught them how to behave online. It’s their problem, not ours, and it’s much easier this way. It’s weirdly amusing to see the threshold grow when comparing direct messaging the artist versus free commenting as one among the many commenters. Herd behavior?
Obviously trolling and bullying isn’t criticism. Of course, in the modern cancel culture climate it can be easily twisted into that but everyone with common sense knows it isn’t that.
Maybe those people have gotten used to behaving that way because there aren’t real repercussions to that. If lines are crossed, if it becomes slander, then you take it to court. Sometimes people only learn the hard way.
But overall, it’s better to ignore those people. Many are hoping for attention and knowingly making shocking statements out of desperation for attention. Best not to give them the satisfaction of attention. Professionals and actually good people – those who are worth your time – don’t look twice or participate in trash talk.
12. Creative work in a studio or home environment, or interaction with a live audience? Which of these two options excites you most, and why?
INKAKAI: These are two very different situations with both positive and negative sides. Performing live has always been a blast. It’s being on the road and the endless waiting before the one hour of performing that’s the sucky part. If you’re not the traveling type, the touring life might start to gnaw at you eventually.
In one way, we’ve already decided between these two by being on a touring break for over 10 years now. Studio work doesn’t require traveling and can be done from the safety and calm of your home so if you’re a family man, your everyday life isn’t that much disturbed by studio work.
But the idea of doing a little bit of selective touring excites us. We’re looking into this and if that becomes possible in a way that would make sense for us, we might just end our touring break. We have our eyes set on Europe in that sense, let’s keep our fingers crossed so that it might happen soon.
13. Do you think is it important for fans of your music to understand the real story and message driving each of your songs, or do you think everyone should be free to interpret your songs in their own personal way?
INKAKAI: Well, if you’d asked that question 10 years ago, the answer would’ve been “definitely yes”. It’s good to have your message delivered and people actually being invested in the story of the song so that they can fully understand it. That way each line carries more weight and whatever message there is, it is not misunderstood.
But then again, if someone gets something out of the song because they think it’s about something else that’s important to them, what’s the harm in that? As long as they don’t start twisting what the song’s about. But if they feel they want to keep a little mystery and let their own imagination build the story, there’s nothing wrong with that. Listening to music is such an individual experience and we don’t want to rob people of that.
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