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Friday, June 5, 2009

Fermenting dregs of rock 'n' roll for the masses


By JEFF RICHARDS
Special to The Japan Times

"I just had a connection with the sound of the words," says singer and bass player Natsuko Miyamoto when she answers my question about the name of her band, Mass of the Fermenting Dregs. Before I can pursue the question further: about the words, about where and when she first put them together, about this "connection" to a lump of decomposing sludge, she adds, "A band name is not as important as the music." Touche.

News photo
Mass of attack: Natsuko and Chiemi of Mass of the Fermenting Dregs JEFF RICHARDS

I change tact. It can't be as simple as that. I ask what some of the best or coolest band names are, hoping to catch them out and head back down the "crazy Japanese band name" avenue, but in keeping with her response, both she and guitarist Chiemi Ishimoto draw blanks.

We are sitting in the EMI/AVOCADO Records office with their A&R people. With a name like Mass of the Fermenting Dregs, you would expect an interview like this to take place in a destroyed hotel room with black drapes covering the windows, floor littered with spent and mangled beer cans, cigarette boxes, ashtrays, and other detritus of rock and roll debauchery. But no, the two young women I am speaking with bear no resemblance whatsoever to a road- hardened, booze-fueled metal band.

Mass Of The Fermenting Dregs is rapidly climbing the indie-rock ladder in Japan. Known for their energetic, shoeless, hair-flailing live shows and melodic, guitar driven pop sound, their 2007 Fuji Rock Festival appearance on the Rookie A Go-Go stage opened some major-label eyes, and helped their subsequent self-titled debut album climb up the Oricon Indies and iTunes Japan J-Rock charts. It also gained them slots in 2008 at a number of festivals. They played sold-out shows across Japan with Qomolangma Tomato and 9mm Parabellum Bullet, and they are currently headlining a tour of Japan in support of their latest disc, "World Is Yours."

Natsuko and Chiemi (each in their early 20s) met each other at high school in Kobe and formed MOTFD in 2002. Raised on a steady diet of 1990s Japanese guitar rock, both girls tried to emulate their heroes. I ask Chiemi if she can remember the first song she learned on guitar, and she responds Hide's "Pink Spider," but then adds that she's not 100 percent certain because she learned to play all of Hide's songs on the guitar. With their original drummer (Reiko Gotoh, who left in 2007), the all-girl trio honed their chops on the Kansai circuit before independently releasing a three-song demo CD in 2006.

One of the cuts from the demo won the EMI Records "Road To Tarbox" competition and a chance to work with producer David Fridmann, bass player for Mercury Rev and owner of Tarbox Road Studios in Cassadaga, New York. Fridmann worked with them on two tracks, "If A Surfer" and "Bears," both of which would end up on their 2008 debut CD. The fact that Fridmann produced the major label releases for Japanese indie stalwarts Number Girl, and that MOTFD's latest album, "World Is Yours," was co-produced with Number Girl bass player Nakao Kentarou, has led to some easy assessments of their sound.

"No, I don't think (we are) the same," counters Natsuko about the Number Girl comparisons. "In fact, we are quite different. We are women and they are men. Our lyrics are different."

While on the surface she seems to be stating the obvious, it is apparent that they are both somewhat perplexed by the easy associations people make based around the MOTFD-Nakao-Fridmann nexus. They don't want to be pigeonholed into a particular "sound" — especially not someone else's. They have always created their own sound, which Chiemi describes as "not something concrete, it's much more vague and unclear, but it has the elements of heaviness and darkness and brightness which are the basic elements (of our music)."

They point out that, although much is made of Fridmann working with the band (he is credited as producer on two tracks from their S/T debut), he just mixed the sound that the girls had already created and arranged. "Dave only did two songs," says Natsuko, "he didn't really help lead the group or say we should do that or bring this in. We recorded it, and then he mixed it." She says that he gave them a lot of freedom, just sitting them at the mics and saying, "Go for it."

On the other hand, "Nakao was more like a big brother when we were working," says Chiemi, "but when we did feel we needed a producer, he was there."

I ask them if — with the success of their first two CDs — they still have jobs or if they are earning enough money from their efforts to support themselves, and they become reticent (their label claims a No. 4 ranking on the Oricon Indies chart and a No. 1 ranking on the iTunes Japan J-Rock chart in 2008). In characteristic Japanese fashion, they sidestep this personal question, but Natsuko's answer hints that they are aware of the conundrums that success can bring.

"There is a danger," she says, "in having (your) music become work." She clearly senses that when doing what you love becomes your job, the dynamics of music and life change. Where do you get your inspiration from when music becomes your daily grind?

"When it becomes something like work, you tend to lose the balance you have with your daily life, which gives you the energy to keep your music alive."

"World Is Yours" is out now. Mass of the Fermenting Dregs will tour Japan from June 8 and play Fuji Rock Festival 2009 on July 26. Visit www.motfd.com for more details.

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