On "Xeno," rei brown Finds Inspiration From "The X-Files" and Britney Spears

The queer Japanese-American artist talks about his debut album out July 8.

While the electronica-tinged, at times ethereal music of rei brown has been called “lo-fi R&B,” “bedroom pop,” and even jazzy in the past, the NYC-based Japanese-American’s upcoming debut LP, Xeno, takes on a more lush, groovy, extremely now Kpop sound at times, and even gets into legit sci-fi territory.

“I found myself really bored writing sad love songs,” brown tells Logo via Zoom. “I consume so much sci-fi and movies, but it never dawned on me before that I could create these crazy worlds and stories and incorporate those into a love song. So instead I was writing about someone falling in love with a robot or AI.”

Brown also peels back some deeply personal layers with the whopping 15-track Xeno (set for release in early July) and, in a departure from his previous EP releases and interviews, opens up about his queer identity. Xeno’s first music video and single, “Could I Be Somebody,” was inspired by brown’s adolescent same-sex crushes, adding a sci-fi element for good measure, while the title track addresses a sense of otherness he’s experienced as a biracial person raised in Kobe, Japan (mom and dad are Japanese and American, respectively).

Currently on tour with keshi through late June, Brown discussed Xeno, his sexuality (queer or pan work, and he’s “fine with all pronouns”), the song he’s most excited to perform live, and whether he’s happy he changed his stage name from that of his early efforts, raybaboon.

First, tell me the story behind the “Could I be Somebody” video, which reminded me a bit of the Spice Girls’ “Viva Forever” because of its fairy tale vibe, forest setting, adolescent protagonists, and - spoiler alert - a creepy AF bummer ending!

(Laughs) So I have not seen the “Viva Forever” video, I will watch it later, but the song itself was very autobiographical and from the second I wrote the synthline and sang over it, it felt like a very coming-of-age song. Once I started working with the director, Zachary Bailey, we came to this idea of casting a younger me, and to circle back to the song, it was such a pleasure to come up with this metaphor of navigating different realities because that rang so true for being closeted in middle and high school and code switching and seeing people I was in a relationship with, but acting different in school. It’s already so ripe with visual ammo, I guess. I was really excited to turn that into a visual piece.

Before that single, you never discussed your sexuality in the press. Why the change?

I was just comfortable for a while knowing I didn’t have to necessarily ‘come out,’ because nobody’s assuming anything about me, and with the album, I started writing more autobiographically and naturally some of those things touched on queerness, so it just felt right to talk about.

The song titles reflect a lot of yearning, like “r u gonna love me?” “Waiting For You,” and “Haunt Me.” Was this an intended theme for Xeno?

I think yearning is very central to my being and existence, whether that be for a person or robot or human connection and community. But it would be a disservice to say the album revolves around that, because some songs are misfit anthems or roasting capitalism. Yeah, yearning is in a lot of it, but also songs that aren’t.

Which song isn’t slotted as a single but you really hope people get into?

I would say “Xeno.” It doesn’t have that single sound, and that’s why we didn’t push it as a single, but thematically and lyrically it talks about so much and is very near and dear to my heart.

Have you encountered a lot of xenophobia in your life?

It’s very nuanced and complex. I grew up in Japan and experienced xenophobia as a biracial person, for not being “Asian enough.” Just walking around, not looking full Japanese there was a lot of, “oh, you must not be from here.” And then being in America, finally feeling I pass in a way, New York at least is very melting pot, and people won’t look at you because you’re not white and be like you don’t belong here. There was an evolution, but there are other layers to that and with COVID there was a lot of tension. I didn’t personally experience any anti-AAPI violence and hate, but the Asian community as a whole was very aware and conscious and it was on my mind a lot. I didn’t include this in a very on-the-head way on the album, but in Xeno there’s a line, "am I contagious," and I’m also talking about queerness and other things where people don’t want to be associated with you because it’s like you have a sickness.

I found a lot of the labels for your music in the past, like “lo-fi R&B,” don’t fit this album at all. It doesn’t sound at all lo-fi. So how would you categorize it?

I’m not big on labels at all, for personal stuff and music, but I feel the easiest, squeaky clean label is ‘alternative pop’ or experimental pop.’ The more messy, fun way I think of the album is if there was a season of The X-Files and somehow they got Backstreet Boys, Limp Bizkit, and Britney Spears to score it. Sonically, I’m drawn to and taking influence from a lot of weirder genres.

I noticed that, based on your Spotify playlists.

I just made one called Aura. To be very transparent, a lot of stuff I’ve listened to recently is probably not reflected a lot in my music. It’s been queer club music, Shygirl, Arca. And then throw in some random New Jersey club and New Orleans bounce. I feel some is reflected in the song “EZ,” which is the dance track.

For Xeno, you collaborated on its second single, “Thinking Bout You,” with fellow Japanese-American Joji, and on “White Honda” with California Filipino-American Lecx Stacy. Who else would you love to work with, and are there any LGBTQ artists on that list?

Arca would be amazing. Frank Ocean, but I almost don’t include him because he seems reclusive. I’ve been listening a lot to Dorian Electra and that would be interesting. And let’s throw in Limp Bizkit! It would be so hilarious, weird, and possibly cool.

What about Brooklyn’s Araya, who is queer and Thai-Chilean? Are there any other LGBTQ artists we should look up and listen to?

Araya is dope. There’s so much good art out there right now. Elysia Crampton Chuquimia, a trans Bolivia producer. I would find some of her random mash-ups or remixes on Soundcloud, they’re very ethereal and beautiful. People love it, but then they’ll get taken down or disappear so she’s kind of an enigma, but an amazing, talented person.

Would you love to do a Lil Nas X-style, over the top, queer AF music video like “Industry Baby” and “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”?

Yeah. I’m definitely trying to turn up the dial with queerness in one of the new music videos. If I had the budget I would definitely do some crazy stuff. I would lean more towards the VFX and a surreal location. Trans humans. I’m not sure.

Which song do you most look forward to performing live on this tour?

I’m excited to perform “EZ” because it’s a clubby track and the audience can have fun with that, and “Xeno” because it’s personal and I hope can be an anthem that people feel community around. Also, “White Honda” is kind of like nu metal hyper pop, balls to the wall crazy. I’m excited to shock people with the new sounds in this album.

Do you ever sit back and think, I’m so glad I didn’t stick with raybaboon as my stage name?

I don’t know! Honestly, I was always ready to roll with it. With Y2k stuff coming back I know there’s an alternate reality with DJ raybaboon. I feel I want to reference that someday with some merch!

Brown is currently on tour with keshi. Xeno will be released July 8th.