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Friday, June 16, 2006

A psychedelic success story

Yura Yura Teikoku take the underground to major label


Staff writer

"They had a Japanese sense of openness, or space. I thought watching them was like watching kabuki," says Ken Matsutani of record label Captain Trip about the early live shows of Tokyo's psychedelic rock trio Yura Yura Teikoku.

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Yura Yura Teikoku, fronted by Shintaro Sakamoto (left), signed to Sony last year after years in Tokyo's underground scene.

Matsutani first met Yura Yura Teikoku's singer/guitarist Shintaro Sakamoto and Chiyo Kumekawa -- who joined as bassist in 1990 -- at Modern Music, a Tokyo record store where he worked before launching the label that put out two of their albums in the mid-1990s. There, Sakamoto and Kumekawa would dig through crates of psychedelia and avant-garde music, most likely trawling for bands such as British industrial noise group Throbbing Gristle and experimental New York new-wave synth duo Suicide -- both of which Yura Tei (as they're widely known) later covered on tribute albums.

Active for 18 years, Yura Tei's musical career has, unusually, seen an increasingly experimental sound result in rising record sales -- an achievement that probably accounts for them being picked up by Sony Music last year. First out on the label, in May 2005, was their eighth major album release, "Sweet Spot," which is followed next week by a single, "Into the Next Night," a mournful, 7-minute-plus slow-burner recorded at Peace Music studios in Tokyo. The band currently has a once-a-month live residency at Liquid Room in Ebisu which regularly sells out, and played a full-capacity show last weekend at Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo in Hibiya Park, Tokyo, supported by V026 redoms.

There was little of the refined grace of kabuki in Sakamoto's stage antics at that concert. Dressed in tight, blood-red pants, the frontman -- who taught himself to play guitar by mimicking Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page -- danced and ducked across the stage, knees bent and legs tightly squeezed together as he led the band from a Canned-Heat-boogie-meets-T-Rex-stomp into parts of Yura Tei's back catalog that draw on the repetitive, mechanical rhythms of progressive '70s German rock bands such as Can before taking off into extended guitar wig-outs. It's during numbers like those that the "sense of space" that Matsutani suggests becomes apparent.

Even at the beginning of their career, Yura Tei enjoyed the support of what Sakamoto describes as "maniac fans" -- the type that, when he made the unusual choice to shave off his eyebrows, dutifully followed suit.

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The band's new single, "Into the Next Night," is out June 21 and they make three festival performances in Japan this summer.

"For 10 years straight we played in the underground scene. Every time these fans came to a live show, they would record it. Lots of people would stand there looking deadly serious, listening and concentrating really hard [pulls a studied face and makes chin-stroking gesture]. At the end of the song, they wouldn't go 'Waaaah' or clap," says Sakamoto in a measured drawl. "It wasn't like they were bored -- they were coming back to see us every time after all. The atmosphere was actually pretty good."

In their early years, the band went through a variety of lineup changes (Sakamoto is the only remaining original member; current drummer Ichiro Shibata joined in the mid-'90s), and often found themselves sharing a bill with acts from a variety of genres.

"There wasn't really any kind of consistent 'scene' to speak of when we started out. We'd play with other bands whom we didn't know at all -- punk bands, bands that had nothing to do with what we were doing," says Sakamoto.

While his natural reflex is to distance himself from categorization, in 1992 the band found themselves on a "Tokyo Flashback" compilation by P.S.F. (Psychedelic Speed Freaks), the label that also released Keiji Hanno, Ghost and other bands who have recorded some of Japan's finest experimental rock. Soon after, Yura Tei signed with Matsutani at Captain Trip, which was releasing progressive rock, garage pop, punk metal and everything in between. That Sony is now willing to stand behind them is a clear acknowledgment by the mainstream that the three-piece have been able to reach out beyond their freakishly loyal fan base.

Still, Sakamoto has retained his trademark inscrutability and sense of otherness. Asked if there is a recurring theme to his band's albums, he ponders for a full minute before replying, "The songs . . . are about death." He cites Marc Bolan of T-Rex as his favorite musician, in part because "he's like an alien." A former student of the prestigious Tama Art University, he designs Yura Tei's album jackets, often covering them with his manga-inspired alien life forms.

Before Yura Tei play a series of high-profile festival slots this summer in Japan, next month sees them on stage for two dates in New York. It will be only the second time that the group has played in the city after two shows there last October. The large audiences at The Knitting Factory and at a venue in Brooklyn were largely due to word-of-mouth buzz and radio play on independent New York radio station WFMU.

While there this time, NY-based record label Mesh-Key will release an America-only 12-inch single, "Soft Death/It Was a Robot."

But don't expect them to take on the rest of the states -- Sakamoto, who prefers to avoid large gatherings of people, isn't really interested: "It's not that I don't want to sell records in America . . . but I've heard from friends in other bands about touring across the country and playing shows every night, and if that's what you've got to do to sell records there, then I'm happy not to sell any records."

Yura Yura Teikoku's new single "Into the Next Night" (Sony) is out June 21. "Shintaro Sakamoto Artworks 1994-2006" (Shogakukan) is published July 21. The band plays Fuji Rock Festival on July 30 at Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Prefecture; Rising Sun Rock Festival at Ishikari, Hokkaido, on Aug. 18; and Rush Ball '06 at Izumi Otsu, Osaka, on Aug. 27. For more information visit www.yurayurateikoku.com


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