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Friday, April 25, 2008
Set the controls to quirk factor 10
By SIMON BARTZ
After listening to Tokyo Pinsalocks' brilliant new minialbum "Planet Rita," it's frightening to think that the trio — bassist Hisayo, singer Naoko and drummer Reiko — almost sold their soul to the devil, and not the rock 'n' roll one at that, which would be cool. No, in a bid to get famous they almost sold themselves to the far darker evil of mainstream J-pop. And they're honest to admit loitering at that dangerous crossroads . . . and tough enough to say they don't regret it either.
"We used to play very heavy music like (1990s Tokyo rockers) Super Junky Monkey, and by the time we released our minialbum "Bubble Girl," we were quite famous on the indie scene and we felt we wanted to become even more successful," Hisayo tells me, between sipping her beer at a small Shibuya cafe.
"So we started working with a management company, and in about half a year we recorded a few songs in a J-pop style to try to get into the charts, but then we had second thoughts and decided not to release them because it's not what we wanted to do. Now we manage ourselves."
Then, in 2004, Tokyo Pinsalocks, who all met as members of Rikkyo University's music society seven years ago, had their defining "eureka!" moment.
"The four of us (guitarist Tomocchi has since left the band) went to a recording studio in the hills of Yamanakako (in Yamanashi Prefecture) and made the kind of songs we wanted to make, and those sessions ended up becoming our 2005 'Rhythm Channel' album," says Hisayo.
"Rhythm Channel" was a fine record, but with 2007's "Plutonium EP," and now "Planet Rita," Tokyo Pinsalocks have confirmed their existence in a brave new world of cosmo-pop in which, ladies and gentlemen, they are floating in space — and want you to join them. They do overdo the spacey thing a little — there's the album's title, tracks named "Cosmic Groove" and "Ideal Cosmos" and, on the jacket, Reiko clones orbit a globe. But don't get the wrong idea: This is not a disc of electronic doodlings from cyberhippies that only sounds good after midnight when you've toked on something the size of a baseball bat. This is one of those rare records that sound great no matter what time of day or what mood you're in.
"Planet Rita" kicks off with the insanely catchy "Antenna," in which bleepings from, um, Outer Space give way to what sounds like a choir of 6-year-old child robots chanting hypnotically in the background. Then, after about 20 seconds, it all kicks off as Naoko's smooth chanteuse-style vocal enters the fray along with groove-tastic bass and drums — and if this doesn't fill dancefloors in every disco from Mercury to Pluto, then nothing will. But there are darker, more atmospheric tracks, too, like "Ideal Cosmos," which is a J-pop song struggling to wake up from a Portishead nightmare.
The usual suspects such as YMO and Buffalo Daughter might spring to mind when listening to Pinsalocks, but Naoko ensures they retain a pop heart by whipping out the kind of vocal melodies that will have Martians crawling out from under red rocks to punch the night skies.
"The best thing is when people come up to me and say they get a feeling they've never experienced before when they listen to our songs," says Naoko. "A dreamy, spacey feeling. Like a trip."
But though this space-disco trip relies on the rhythm section to get the groove going, while Naoko taps out simple hooks on her Korg synth, the Pinsalocks sound is earthed by Reiko's ultrasteady live drumming (her hero is Zep's late John Bonham) and Hisayo's unique buzzing bass.
"I wanted to create something similar to a bass synthesizer, and I use a digital amp to get that effect," says Hisayo. "I don't think people at the live shows would get so much into the groove if I was just standing behind a keyboard. With the bass I can stand nearer the crowd at the front of the stage, pull some poses, and slide my hands down the strings to get sounds you can't replicate on a keyboard."
Pinsalocks toured Britain twice last year and have just returned from a series of dates in the United States, where they'll be returning for another tour in October.
"A lot of Japanese music magazines have said we stand more chance of being liked in the West than in Japan," says Hisayo.
Doesn't it upset them that they seem to be on the verge of cracking the West before making it big at home?
"Not really," says Naoko. "It's difficult for Japanese bands to break abroad, so for magazines to say that about us in Japan is a definite compliment."
For more details, check www.pinsalocks.com, www.myspace.com/tokyopinsalocksTokyo. Tokyo Pinsalocks play Sangenjaya Heaven's Door on April 26. Tickets are ¥2,500. For gig info check www.geocities.jp/xxxheavensdoorxxx/.
Japan's Lennon and McCartney sit opposite me — Yuya Sato, a biochemistry student at the University of Tokyo, and Makoto Nemoto, who, erm, works at a ramen shop. And guitar noodling and bizarre sonic alchemy is what Tulip Jacksons are all about. Yuya, Makoto, bassist Keita Suzuki and drummer Takahiro Haga formed the band in 2003 after meeting at Ibaraki National College of Technology. Now, five years and about 50 original songs later, I can happily declare this bunch of 22-year-olds to be the best unsigned band in Japan.
"We used to listen to (trippy British rockers) The Coral's first album a lot and The Beatles' later stuff, and with those bands, we always thought the weirdest stuff was the coolest," says Yuya.
The influence of those two bands is evident on Tulip Jacksons' masterpiece — their self-released second album, "Collage, Hommage, Pomade, Pottage" — but the recent tracks they've been making available on MySpace indicate that they're moving in a new, slightly more accessible direction. But they deny they're making their new songs solely with the aim of landing a recording contract — rather, they say, they're trying to emulate another of their major influences, Welsh pop-rock experimentalists Super Furry Animals.
"We wanted to make simple pop songs just like Super Furry Animals sometimes do," says Yuya. "And considering what we usually do, you could say that for us it's a very experimental move!"
The three new songs they handed me on a home-burned CD at an Ebisu izakaya are not so "simple," however.
"Don't Believe Me" sounds like The Kinks having a murderous fight in the studio; "Night Meeting" is The Coral meeting Funkadelic in a tiny Tokyo bedroom; and "ATP Boogie," which you can listen to on their Web site, sounds like The Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers" recorded by the cast of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
But while most of their songs do sound like they've consumed more drugs than half-a-dozen Keith Richardses, they are actually sober, shy kids who sip on just one glass of shochu apiece during the interview.
The freedom they allow themselves when making songs can only help them come up with unique leftfield tracks.
"We just leave each part to the person responsible for playing it and don't interfere," explains Yuya. "It's good if people are on slightly different wavelengths because we're more likely to come up with something unique."
As for that criminally elusive record deal, the boys say the label Noise McCartney run by a member of J-pop/rock band Quruli asked them to send in more songs after hearing a few . . . but that they haven't heard anything back yet. But fame is not top of their list of priorities.
"I don't think I'd like to be famous," says Yuya. "I do want people who like our music to listen to us, but I don't want to force it down people's throats."
"I imagine it might be hard having to do all the other sh*t that comes with being famous," says Makoto. "It would probably distract a musician from the music itself."
The name Tulip Jacksons is probably one of the cutest doing the rounds now. I assume one of them came up with it while on a canal boat in Amsterdam listening to music by a scary man who likes children a little too much. But they deny this.
"It's got nothing to do with the Jacksons clan. My family used to put stickers on the wall of the toilet at home when I was a kid. You know what it's like getting bored sitting on the toilet," says Makoto.
"He's writing down your toilet story," Yuya tells Makoto, pointing at me.
"I don't care. I think it was my mum who put a sticker of a tulip on the wall of the toilet. So when I was pooing I was sitting there contemplating things and I had this tulip in my face."
Was there then a flash of light, a heavenly chorus?
"Not really, just the sound of another fart!" laughs Makoto.
"Later, we thought calling ourselves just Tulips was too cute, so we added Jacksons for balance," says Yuya. "I don't know why we thought of Jacksons. It's just that the words flow well together, like a piece of good music."
For more info, visit www.myspace.com/tulipjacksons. Tulip Jacksons play at Sangenjaya Heaven's Door, May 11. Tickets ¥2,000. For gig info check www.geocities.jp/xxxheavensdoorxxx/.