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Friday, March 10, 2006
THEE 50'S HIGH TEENS
Romancing, not stoned
By SIMON BARTZ
I've got four High Teens in my apartment, one of them is unconscious on my futon, and "romance" will ultimately be on the agenda. But please hesitate from rushing to the nearest koban and filing a report because, I promise you, this story does not involve drugs and underage sex. (I'm saving that for a later column.)
The only pills being consumed are prescribed by my doctor to prevent me from hyperventilating as I am playing host to the best live band in Japan (and I only pronounce that once every two or three years, by the way).
I meet Fukuoka rock 'n' roll temptresses Thee 50's High Teens at an izakaya in Ebisu. I buy them curry rice. They are tired after the trip from Fukuoka and have time to kill before tonight's show. They refuse offers to get wasted -- they just wanna chill. So after the izakaya, we decamp to my pad next door.
I wonder how come the Teens got dumped by the record label P-Vine, an admirable company renowned for supporting Japanese indie bands. I wonder what mind-numbing chemical had been dropped into the the P-Vine office water supply the day that decision was made.
Tomo, the bassist-singer, founding member and de facto leader of the band, says with a shrug, "They said we didn't sell enough of our first album."
This mystifies me, because the High Teens are one of the biggest live draws in the immensely popular 1960s-inspired Group Sounds/mod/garage-rock/Showa-pop retro scene. They've built up a hardcore fan base from constantly touring and playing magnificent shows, and they look absolutely fabulous -- the best-dressed band in Japan by far, and, arguably, the cutest. They should be a dream ticket for any label's A&R man.
They might be from Kyushu, but they fly up to play shows in Tokyo virtually every month, and promoters, desperate to get them on the bill, pay the airfare -- not the record company. They work hard, just like Guitar Wolf and The 184.108.40.206's, and if they get a record company with the nous to promote them 100 percent, I think they'll be as successful internationally as those two Japanese bands.
"It might help if we moved to Tokyo," admits Tomo when asked. "But we're Fukuoka girls and we just don't have the finances to move here. If a record company gave us a guarantee they'd take care of us, then we'd seriously think about it."
After P-Vine dumped them a few nanoseconds passed before they were signed by up-and-coming Tokyo label Volt-Age, who recently released their second album "Punch de Beat." The album's good, but could have been much better. Whoever made the choice to use The Syrup's drummer Matsuishi Geru as producer got it wrong. The Syrup are a great down-tempo '60s mood band, but the Teens deal in hard-edged rock 'n' roll. It's a bit like The Libertines getting Elton John behind the mixing desk rather than The Clash's Mick Jones. So we end up with a bunch of great rock songs that have been tamed and lost some of their bite. Live, of course, the songs do have "de punch."
Anyway, if you haven't met the Teens before (they took me on a tour of Fukuoka in March 2004; check the column on The Japan Times Web site) then here they are. Tomo is at her neurotic best; guitarist Honey muses about love; Kei, keyboardist-backing screams, just wants to talk manga; and drummer Sue is on my futon enjoying a romantic dream. But first . . .
Tomo is having a waking nightmare. She's on the sofa next to Honey, looking grumpy, pointing at her virtually nonexistent belly, and making illogical pronouncements such as, "I am fat." I have been here before, so I console her. Trust me, it works. Instantly.
"You are not fat at all," I say. "You are, in fact, skinny. But you are not as skinny as Honey and Kei. You could say they are too skinny."
"When I'm drunk I look in the mirror and . . ." Tomo stops for a few seconds. If she is acting this is on an Oscar-winning level, but it's real. Her eyelids flutter rapidly and she finally gathers her breath and says, "I look like Kewpie."
For a second it looks like she might burst into tears, but she just frowns and stomps into the kitchen to touch up her hair in the mirror (they are preparing themselves for tonight's show). "I really love junk food," Tomo adds, on a roll, so to speak. "Even when I'm old, like I am now [she is 24]. I'm really into kanikama [processed-fish sausages]."
For me, Tomo's the coolest High Teen. She has a troubled soul, always tangled up in blue. I like that. A little insanity in the creative mix is a major accessory for genius songwriting. She's had the toughest upbringing of the bunch of them -- the kind of stuff that's not for a newspaper column -- but her resulting neurosis and edginess drive the High Teens sound, and is clearly evident in her husky, growled vocal attack. It gives the band a punkish edge, which makes them unique and refreshing. Unlike most of the Group Sounds, Showa-pop or garage-rock bands they share bills with, these girls straddle all three genres, with ease and class, and often in the same song.
Tomo's also the most rock 'n' roll of the quartet. To get her growl perfect, she used to drink potent cocktails like they were water and she'd gargle and drink olive oil before shows to enable her to scream more viciously without losing her voice.
"Now my vocal chords have got used to the abuse and I don't need to do that anymore," she says.
Kei's dream comes true
Someone's dream has come true today. After the lunch, Kei buzzed off to Ginza where one of her favorite manga artists, Nishioka Kyoudai, signed a copy of a book for her. Kei is the star of the Teens. She does the MCing, and gets so carried away during shows she often ends up tap dancing on her keyboard, headbanging so hard her wig flies off her head, or collapsing at the end through exhaustion.
She's still buzzing when she gets to my apartment. "Now I'm 22. I finally got The Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine' video the other day," she says, still talking animation. "It was soooo good. But it's tough to explain what is so fascinating about it. One thing is that I could understand the meaning of the lyrics for the first time. I was touched, and that meant a lot to me. But it's maybe that I like this pure cheesy style. It's cheesy, but it's also art. I mean, it's close to the truth, about what life is about, and there's nothing hypocritical about it. But I don't like stuff like 'Ampan Man' or 'Haiji' or 'Ikkyu-san,' kids' animation that I've called 'The Stupid Trio' even since when I was a kid."
Honey: love cats
Honey is the natural, classic beauty of the High Teens gang and strums my guitar on the sofa while day-dreaming of love and affection.
"I'm obsessed with the idea of love at first sight," she says. "When two people meet each other and in a split second you both know there's something special there. How does that work? Connected through DNA? This year, I hope I meet someone who has good DNA that will connect with me."
In the meantime, she's making do with showering unrequited love upon cats. "Whenever I see a cat in the street I just have this overwhelming urge to stroke it, hug it, take pictures of it. The problem is, they almost always run away from me. In the 'cat world' I guess I'm on the blacklist. They just don't know how much I love them."
One of the best things about watching this band grow in stature over the last few years is seeing how Honey has grown in confidence. Before, she'd loiter shyly beside her amp at the back of the stage, while now she strides around throwing guitar shapes as if she was Keith Richards' sexy grand-daughter.
Sue's perfect day
As I said, Sue's asleep on the futon. Her dream of a perfect day sums up the Teens as a whole. Young romantics. Ordinary girls who want to let the music talk for them. She's dreaming this . . . "It's warm and the sky is blue. I sleep late. I go out in the afternoon. I wear my coolest clothes. I stop by an esthetic salon. I stop by a nail salon. I stop by a hair salon. I meet my favorite person. I receive a gift from him. I enjoy a fantastic dinner with him with a perfect view and I feel immense joy. After dinner we drink a little alcohol in a romantic mood bar. And . . . after that, it's a secret . . ."
Dammit, Sue, you were just getting to the good part.
For their live schedule check Thee 50's High Teens Web site at sound.jp/50s/ For livehouse links, maps and free downloadable Japanese music including High Teens' tracks, check the Web site www.badbee.net