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Friday, July 11, 2008
By IAN MARTIN
"I didn't know anything about Japanese, or Japan at all, and I spoke English on stage and no one understood what I was saying."
When Scott Murphy first hit Japan with the Chicago-based pop-punk band ALLiSTER in 2001, he wasn't the first Western musician to play half a dozen sold-out shows here. But, unlike most, he took it a step further.
"We were coming back in four months," he continues, "and so I just used that four months for hardcore Japanese study, and it just kind of snowballed from there."
An opportunity to put his linguistic skills to use arose while planning bonus tracks for the Japanese release of 2005's "Before the Blackout." Murphy was by now a big fan of Japanese pop music and was confident enough in his Japanese to take the plunge.
"At that time, I was really into Spitz and I was listening to Southern All Stars," he explains. "And then there was this Okinawan song, "Shima Uta" (originally by The Boom in 1992) that I kept hearing at this Okinawan bar. I was talking to the guy who runs the place (about our plans to cover a Japanese song) and he kept saying, 'You'd better do "Shima Uta." ' "
And so he did: "Shima Uta" was used as a bonus track on the album, and Japanese audiences went crazy. Spitz and Southern All Stars covers then made it onto a 2006 mini-album titled "Guilty Pleasures," featuring eight cover versions — five of them Japanese songs. Released only in Japan on the indie label In-n-Out Records, "Guilty Pleasures" sold more than 150,000 copies.
After ALLiSTER split up in 2007, Murphy took up the offer to make a followup, creatively titled "Guilty Pleasures II." It features material ranging from the "Doraemon" theme to power ballads by Ayumi Hamasaki and Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi and a self-translated English version of "Swallowtail Butterfly — Ai no Uta" by Chara (as the Yen Town Band), originally from the soundtrack to Shunji Iwai's 1996 art-house movie "Swallowtail."
While gearing up for the release, Murphy hit the promotion trail, recently recording an appearance on Fuji TV's popular variety show "Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ" hosted by comedy duo Downtown. It was there that Murphy ran into Jero, who has made a name for himself by retooling old Japanese enka folk tunes with imagery and elements of production style taken from hip-hop. Like Murphy, he's a Japanese-speaking American with a minialbum of cover versions (all Japanese in Jero's case), but Murphy doesn't see the comparison with Jero extending further than that. He points out, "We're doing totally different kinds of music — I mean, he's doing this Japanese folk thing, but what I'm doing is much more to do with pop music."
One of the things that Murphy's case highlights most strongly is the peculiar way that the Japanese music industry classifies artists. Despite the largely Japanese-language content of his record, he still lives in Chicago, where he plays with ex-ALLiSTER member Kyle Lewis in The Get Go, and he is clear that in Japan he is "definitely a foreign artist." However, when it comes to Japanese CD shops, things aren't so simple. "They just don't know where I should go," he says. "In HMV I'm in the Japanese section, but in Tower I'm in the foreign section."
Back in Chicago, The Get Go are still in search of a U.S. label after releasing their debut "Hello Again" in Japan earlier this year. Murphy has also been working on new self-penned songs for a solo album. However, for now he is getting ready for his first solo tour with a Japanese punk-pop supergroup backing band that he has put together, including Hirotaka Takahashi from Ellegarden, Gongon from B-Dash and Fumi from Polysics. With the new CD, new band and new tour set to push his Japan-side profile even higher, Murphy is sure to be riding a wave of guilt-free pleasure.
"Guilty Pleasures II" is out now. Scott Murphy plays July 16 at Soma, Osaka (6 p.m., ¥3,900,  7732-8888); and 17 at Harajuku Astro Hall, Tokyo (6 p.m., ¥3,900,  3462-6969).