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Friday, Sept. 11, 2009
Back from extinction
Legendary 'rock' band Unicorn talk about their surprise reunion
Special to The Japan Times
Few rock bands in Japan are as legendary as Unicorn. From their inception in 1986 at the height of Japan's "band boom," which saw the balance of chart power shift from idoru (idol) pop to real bands, through to their split in 1993 and subsequent reunion this year, the Hiroshima five-piece have left a weighty footprint.
Led by Tamio Okuda, now an astronomically successful solo artist and producer, the band moved to Tokyo in 1987 to create six wildly eclectic albums (adding a seventh this year), flirting with new wave, punk, dub, reggae, Latin, ska and more. But what set the band apart from the band-boom hordes was not only their relentless experimentation but also their solid songwriting and an injection of humor.
"I think our songwriting process was pretty natural," recalls Okuda as we chat backstage at the Summer Sonic festival in Chiba, shortly before Unicorn's rain-soaked set at the 30,000-capacity outdoor Marine Stadium. Despite the band's 23-year history, this is the first time they have spoken with an English-language publication.
"We all like different music and we all think differently, so it seemed natural to pick out the best bits and mix them up," continues Okuda, who shares songwriting and vocal duties with his bandmates. "We felt free. We all had different tastes, but our love for music was the same. That feeling helped us write music together — the writing was very easy.
As Okuda speaks, his bandmates listen. Although lead guitarist Isamu "Tessy" Teshima, keyboardist Yoshiharu Abe, bassist Kazushi "Ebi" Horiuchi and drummer Koichi Kawanishi all went on to solo or band projects in the 1990s and '00s, it was Okuda who made the biggest solo splash, producing megahits for pop acts such as Puffy, and it is Okuda who does most of the talking today.
He speaks in the leisurely tone of the oft-interviewed, with a keen humor that borders on sarcasm. For example, when asked what Unicorn have planned for their set at Summer Sonic — a festival that was founded during Unicorn's lengthy split — he replies: "Well, just a typical Japanese-style show. You know, making sure we come on and off stage on time. We'd better not go over our allotted time, eh?
He explains that humor is crucial, not only in music but in life in general, saying, "If you start out trying to make people laugh, you can go anywhere from there."
"If there's a problem, you can laugh it off," adds Abe, who replaced the band's original keyboardist in 1988 and whose post-Unicorn credits include a collaboration with rock band Sparks Go Go (known as Abex Go Go) and production work for comedy rockers Kishidan.
"Sometimes I wish we were a really serious, cool band," Okuda deadpans as his bandmates crack up, "but it's too late for us to be like that now."
Unicorn are aware of the headache incurred by any journalist charged with the task of describing their sound. Is it rock? Maybe as a base. But there's so much going on, so many styles splashed across their six presplit albums, that frankly it is an exercise in futility. Curious readers are better off finding the band's music online for themselves; even Abe admits, "I wouldn't describe it at all!
But while the majority of the band's influences appear to be Western, their music bears a quintessential Japanese quality, something Okuda simply ascribes to cultural aesthetics.
"We never really thought about which music was Japanese and which was foreign when we were listening to it," he considers. "But we are Japanese, of course. Even if I wanted to make music that sounded just like The Beatles, it would turn out different. And anyway, that would be extremely boring, right?"
Perhaps the band's scattergun sound can partly be attributed to their absolute lack of strategy from the very start. "Because we didn't really have a plan at the beginning, we were pretty much all over the place until the end," admits Okuda.
"What were we like in those days? Cute?" he asks his bandmates with a chortle. "When we first got together, we didn't really know what kind of music we wanted to make. We felt we were learning about music as we made and released each album."
Despite this innocent approach, Okuda insists that the band took moving to Tokyo and releasing debut album "Boom" on Sony in their stride, since they were just one of so many bands doing the same thing. "I wasn't nervous; not at all," he says of the move to the big city. "For one thing, I wasn't alone; we all moved together, we all lived near each other, so it felt a bit like being at school together. You only really get nervous when you're alone, don't you think?"
But it was the band members' diverse musical tastes that eventually pulled them apart. Although their albums became increasingly unusual and still continued to chart highly, they decided shortly after the release of 1993's "Springman" to split, allowing each member to follow their blossoming side projects.
"We were too busy. We were interested in doing different things," says Tessy, who has since played solo and in the band Big Life as well undertaking production and session work.
"At that time, I don't think we foresaw that we'd ever get back together," adds Ebi, who went on to release several solo albums and play bass with young band Madbeavers. "We just thought we should each do something different."
When asked whether they listened to one another's new music during the 16 years that followed, the members joke around, hinting at the obviously incongruous success of their bandleader.
"If one of the guys' music happened to be playing somewhere, I'd hear it," says Tessy.
"Or if someone played it to me," jokes Kawanishi, whose own post-Unicorn band, Jet-Ki, are revered in Japan's underground scene.
"You know, if it was playing in a cafe or a convenience store," adds Tessy.
"I sometimes watched Tamio on TV," laughs Abe.
"Yeah," quips Tessy. "I'd think, 'He's got some good songs.' "
Okuda takes it on the chin and laughs, before going on to explain that the band's reunion for a new album, a tour and festival dates this year was largely down to timing, plus a rush of memories of the good old days. This may have been aided by the release in 2007 of a tribute album featuring covers of Unicorn songs by acts such as Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Mongol800, Doping Panda and (of course) Puffy and Sparks Go Go.
Tessy half-jokingly describes the band's first rehearsal in 16 years, saying, "It was like being in a room with a bunch of strangers! We were pussyfooting around each other."
"But you know, the sound was so nostalgic," says Ebi with a smile. "I thought, 'Ah, I've heard this sound before.' It was like, 'Oh, this is Unicorn, huh?' A very warm feeling."
"In some ways the band is the same as before, and in some ways different," says Okuda. "For one thing, everyone's become much better musicians since then. When we were young, we made up for what we lacked in technique with passion. As we've all got older, we've become better musicians. But in terms of spirit, nothing's really changed. We're still just like kids.
"We haven't grown up at all," agrees Kawanishi earnestly.
"Our instruments have got older though!" laughs Tessy. "The fact that we had split was what made it feel so good to be back together, I think. If we hadn't stopped back then, we wouldn't be having such a good time now.
The reunited band released "Chambre," an album of 15 stylistically diverse songs, in February 2009, quickly selling 160,000 copies and earning the record of the longest gap between No.1 albums (their previous was the postbreakup compilation "The Very Rust Of Unicorn" 14 years and 10 months earlier).
"What's next? We haven't really decided anything," says Okuda. "We definitely want to carry on for a bit longer, but we don't know until when. Everyone has other projects on the go. We'll probably play as Unicorn from time to time. We are making new songs, though." He looks around at his giggling bandmates for support. "Right? New songs?"
In the meantime, Okuda seems pleased that his band finally have a chance to communicate with their non-Japanese fans via The Japan Times. "We all speak a different language, and that's a big obstacle," he says. "But we've always loved foreign bands, and even though we don't really understand their lyrics, we fell in love with the music and then looked into what the lyrics meant later. We hope your readers can do the same with our music."
Unicorn play Sept. 21 at Shinkiba Studio Coast, Tokyo; Oct. 6 and 7 at Nippon Budokan Hall, Tokyo; and Oct. 19 and 20 at Osaka-jo Hall, Osaka. Their single "Hanseiki Shonen" ("1/2 Century Boy") will be released Oct. 7.