Coffins on the joys of old school death metal and taking it easy

Founder Bungo Uchino swears that these Japanese death/doom legends are having a good time (despite all musical evidence to the contrary).

Coffins on the joys of old school death metal and taking it easy
Photo by Natsumi Okano / via Relapse Records

A new Coffins album is always an event. There are thousands of death metal bands out there, and hundreds of death/doom hybrids, and dozens of top-tier Japanese extreme metal bands (Corrupted forever), but the fact of the matter is that there is simply no one doing it like Coffins. I'll never forget seeing them play upstairs in front of a huge window at some busted-up warehouse space in Baltimore back in 2008 (or was it 2010?) with god knows how many sweaty maniacs crammed in there hanging on every riff, the windowpanes rattling, the rumble of their amplifiers threatening to collapse the rickety floor, and the blazing sun coming up behind them. It was dangerous as hell, heavy as sin, loud as fuck, and utterly magical. They've been one of my very favorite bands ever since.

The Japanese extreme death doom outfit have undergone many changes throughout their nearly thirty years of existence, but there have been two constants in every era: the commanding presence of band founder Bungo Uchino, and the project’s unshakeable commitment to churning out slow, torturous, rotting death metal. Multi-instrumentalist and sometimes vocalist Uchino founded the band in 1996, and the current lineup has been working together since 2015, when bassist Masafumi Atake joined vocalist Jun Tokita and drummer Satoshi Hikida. Their first full-length together, 2019’s Beyond The Circular Demise, was a heaving slab of old school death that fit perfectly into Coffins’ sprawling discography.

And it’s no wonder that even the newest members were locked in, because they’d already played on a half dozen other recordings by the time the album dropped. Coffins love doing splits, and have shared releases with a who’s who of diabolically heavy sounds, from DC doom punks Ilsa and much-missed grind crusties Stormcrow to icons of extremity like their goregrinding countrymen Butcher ABC and the mighty Noothgrush. “Releasing records with our friends and respecting bands is very stimulating for us and improves the motivation for creation for our album work,” Uchino told No Clean Singing back in 2018, and their attitude clearly hasn’t changed. 

The system works, too, because every five years or so, they dish out a new full-length platter of blood-splattered manna from hell. Their latest, Sinister Oath, marks their third LP for Relapse Records, and can be considered a continuation of Beyond The Circular Demise. The opening track, "B.T.C.D" is a callback to its predecessor, and as Uchino told me, working on the new album gave Coffins an opportunity to tie up some loose ends. “I wanted the new album to be more of an old school death metal album, so this album complements the elements left unfinished by the previous one,” he explained. "We also changed the recording studio for the new album and created it with a metal sound in mind. I think it was the best result.”

The majority of Sinister Oath was recorded at Tokyo’s Void)))Lab Studio with renowned engineer Ryuhi Inari (Kruelty, Gallhammer, Church of Misery) at the helm. Meanwhile, Uchino’s guitar was recorded at the band’s home studio, Noise Room, and engineered by Shigenori Kobayashi, who’s worked on most of Coffins’ major releases as well as Uchino and Hikida’s claustrophobic noise rock band, Oozepus. The end result is a malignant melange of darkness, decay, and doom, the soundtrack to an avalanche of rotted corpses crashing wetly through a church roof. A surprise appearance from death metal godfather Kam Lee on the primeval “Things Infestation” only adds to the cursed atmosphere. In short, it rules. 

It’s clear that Uchino and his bandmates have worked out a rhythm that suits them, with each member playing their specific role. For example, he’s the music man, but Tokita has sole authority over the lyrics (alas, the vocalist himself is not very big on interviews). They take that separation of duties seriously, too. While poring over the lyrics on Sinister Oath, my interest was piqued by the rollicking “Headless Monarch,” which seems to buck Coffins’ long tradition of eschewing political content in favor of pure gore. In my reading, the lyrics seem to criticize Japan's imperial history (and perhaps its present, via Emperor Naruhito), but when I asked about it, Uchino’s guess was as good as mine. “Sorry, I don't even know the story behind the lyrics of that song,’ he told me. “If you have a chance to meet [Tokita], please ask him directly, haha!”

The Coffins songwriter, founder, and guitarist may not be a big talker—and fair enough, he's a busy guy!— but Uchino was still kind enough to answer a handful of questions for Salvo in between promoting the new record (which dropped on March 29th) and preparing for the band’s appearance at the resurrected Maryland Deathfest next month. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Cover art for COFFINS' 'Sinister Oath' by Axel Hermann

SALVO: Sinister Oath is the first new Coffins full-length since 2019, though of course you have released many splits and covers during that time. Can you tell me about the recording process for the new album? How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your ability to get together and work on the new songs? 

BUNGO UCHINO: Up until now, I have written almost all of Coffins' songs except for a few, and also wrote all the songs for the new album. Although there are no major metal fests in Japan, small and medium-sized local metal shows are held every weekend. As we received a lot of offers from organizers, we spent our time playing shows in Japan instead of going overseas. As a result, I couldn't make time to write new songs. But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, local shows were canceled one after another. We were also affected by it of course. So I took advantage of that time and was able to write a lot of new songs. Although the band wasn't able to move, I think I was able to make good use of that time in the end.

I know Tokita writes all the lyrics, but do you all have input and make suggestions? How collaborative is the songwriting process overall? 

We have no particular opinions or suggestions regarding the lyrics. As he writes the content based on his worldview, we don't understand his deeper intentions. When it comes to songwriting, the past members rarely gave me their opinions, but the current members give me their opinions. We will incorporate those opinions and use creative methods to finalize songs. 

What do you all do when you're not playing in Coffins? I am curious about what kind of day jobs you have, and how that work impacts your ability to schedule Coffins recordings and shows. 

The band isn't a job for us. We all have full-time jobs. The extreme metal scene in Japan is very, very small, and it isn't a major music genre, so can't make money out of it. I don't think there are any players who only make metal bands their main job. In Japan, bands that earn money solely through band activities are classified as a "commercial major band". Their sound is very gentle, melodic and soft, so I would like you guys to think of it as a different genre from our kind of "serious" extreme metal music. The members' main jobs are...I'm a comic scenario producer, Satoshi is an installation worker, Tokita is a record store staff, and Atake is a printing factory staff. We juggle our limited time and make time to allocate it to tours, practices, and recordings. 

You've also noted that it can be difficult for Japanese underground metal bands to make an impact in the U.S. and Europe, but there have been some recent success stories, like Kruelty, who tour the U.S. frequently. Has it gotten any easier for Japanese bands to break through in the West, or is the distance still a big barrier?

I think the distance is still a big, big barrier. It's usually very difficult and almost impossible to take a long break from work in Japan. Members of Japanese bands that frequently tour overseas either don't work or have jobs that allow them to use their time freely. That's a very, very special case. 

How are you viewed at home in Tokyo? What kind of space do you personally occupy in your local metal community?

We're already a veteran band, so we are not very active at home. We just play shows when someone invites us, and almost never plan tours and shows too. But people in the local scene know that we are more recognized overseas than we are in Japan. We are also working with that slow stance. 

How did you get interested in metal in the first place? 

When I was in middle school, I listened to Japanese V-rock like X (aka X Japan) etc, but I became interested in more brutal sounds. When I was in high school, I discovered Slayer and Metallica etc and got into thrash metal. When it comes to death metal, Death was my gateway and from there I drifted into bands on Earache Records. The band that had the biggest influence on Coffins' sound was Winter. 

Can we expect to see Coffins play any U.S. shows or festivals in 2024? It's been way too long since we got to see you!

Hell yeah, we plan to play with MDF 2024. We are currently in the process of obtaining visas. I hope this process goes well. 

The world has changed a lot over the past five years, in many ways for the worse. What do you say to metal fans who turn to death metal—and specifically bands like Coffins—to find a break from the gloom of everyday reality?

There's nothing wrong with listening to metal music for any purpose (such as stress relief, etc). But I don't think death metal is music to listen to seriously. We just want listeners to take it easy and have fun and listen to sounds like us.


Buy Sinister Oath here, and don't forget to subscribe to Salvo!