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Friday, Nov. 10, 2006

Zoobombs redefine borderline pop

Special to The Japan Times

There's a story behind every song -- but like all tales, some are more compelling than others.

The Zoobombs
After focusing on the domestic market for the last three years, The Zoobombs have decided once again to target North America.

Take "Jamie," the closing cut on The Zoobombs' oddly titled new album, "B*B*B*" their eighth full-lengther to date. That track was inspired by unfortunate events on the Tokyo quartet's September 2005 North American tour.

Things started badly when an appearance at Toronto's Ear to the Ground festival was axed at the last minute due to venue problems; they got worse en route to another show in Canada after playing at New York's mammoth CMJ Music Marathon festival. Due to complications with their temporary work visas, the act were refused re-entry at the border on the way back to Montreal.

"It's always very important to us to play music," explains guitarist and vocalist Don Matsuo at his record company's central Tokyo office in Ebisu. "We had fans waiting for us at the venue in Montreal, but we couldn't play because of the situation at the border. It was very frustrating and painful for us. I was crying."

After being stranded in the United States for four days, and having to nix several Canadian shows, they went back to New York at the urging of the tour's promoter. Unable to enter the U.S. himself due to past run-ins with the law, he sent former Nagano resident and longtime fan James Tennant to assist them. "Jamie" took the band to the Canadian Consulate, where, after lots of paperwork, phone calls and negotiations, he was able to secure them new visas and get them out of the States with just enough time to still be able to perform that night.

"We were in a very cheap hotel in Buffalo. I was on a pay phone with our promoter early in the morning. I had just hung up and it started ringing again. I answered it and a voice said, 'This is Jamie.' It was pretty funny, actually. From there, we got lucky and everything went well."

The incident came on the heels of the band's decision to reacquaint themselves with their international fan base. Formed in 1994, they distributed their music overseas and appeared at high-profile events such as South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the Big Day Out festival in Australia through the late '90s and early 2000s. After the birth of Matsuo and his wife/keyboardist Matta's son, they chose to focus on the domestic market.

The Zoobombs, which also features bassist Moostop and drummer Pocky, will be touring North America again in March, with hopes of finding a distributor for "B*B*B" (a random title made up by Matta). Do they have any reservations about returning after so many problems? "No way," laughs Matsuo. "It was a bit of trouble financially, but it was still a good experience for us."

Constantly redefining themselves, the excellent "B*B*B" has little in common with its predecessor, 2004's "New San Francisco," on which the group set out to make a psychedelic album based on improvisation -- and which was recorded in only two days.

This time they made a conscious effort to produce a poppier disc. Created over six weeks, the album's short tracks, and a greater emphasis on Matsuo's vocals, delivered in Japanese and English, allow the record to make an immediate impact. As is the case with early Zoobombs recordings, though, "B*B*B" is tough to pigeonhole, as it combines elements of funk, electronica, hip-hop and soul with their rambunctious, bluesy rock 'n' roll base.

"We didn't plan to work so many different styles in," says Matsuo. "It just sort of happened. It was kind of difficult to make it into one album because of the variation in the songs. That's what rock 'n' roll is to me, though. Music must be fresh.

"When we were starting out, I was very influenced by the early and mid-'90s alternative movement -- Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Beck. Many of the bands from that era have stopped making music with a lot of variation, so their new albums lack the freshness that made them so great before."

Matsuo is upfront about his wish to find a wider audience, and concedes that this might mean a watering down of the band's sound. But still, he doesn't intend to completely abandon the eccentric twists and turns. "We want to build a bigger audience, so I want the next record to be a bit easier to listen to. The beginning will have a familiar, kind of commercial feel to it, so everyone can get into it. But once you get inside, there will be a very deep world to discover."

"B*B*B" is out Nov. 18. The Zoobombs' tour starts Nov. 19, Iwaki Club Sonic, Fukushima and ends Dec. 20 at Shimokitazawa Shelter. For more information, visit www.ultra-vybe.co.jp/BBB/

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