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Friday, June 11, 2010

Midori grow up, but kids still love 'em

Special to The Japan Times

Parents beware: Hardcore jazz-punk three-piece Midori are back, and this time they're after your children.

News photo
Rebel yell: Mariko Goto, lead singer of Midori, says she's more at ease with her punk-icon status.

"There's loads of them in the band — more than in Midori — and they're just screaming and screaming!" says keyboardist Hajime Kato. Nineteen months after our last interview, he's telling The Japan Times about a video on YouTube in which a group of high school kids play a cover of Midori's song "Yukiko-san," whose rousing chorus of "Destroy!" has made it a rebel anthem.

"At the end, the guitarist pulls his underpants down and stumbles off stage. It's hilarious," laughs Kato.

"The video for 'Meka' is cute too, huh?" says Mariko Goto of the band's recent promo clip. Goto is one of the most confrontational and downright scary frontwomen in history — when she's not assaulting audience members she's scaling speaker stacks or bashing a mic into her own skull — so to hear her utter the word "cute" is disarming enough. The video in question resembles a particularly demented children's party, where a pair of under-10s carry out an unhinged dance as Midori crash out a fierce, piano-heavy screamalong.

"We were doing a signing at Tower Records, and these two little girls came along — they were fans of ours," explains Kato of the kids in the "Meka" video. "Apparently they play Midori songs on their recorders during music class at school. So we coerced them into appearing in our video."

Ironically, even as their sinister influence spreads among the nation's youth, Midori themselves are growing up. Formed in 2003 in Osaka and now well settled in Tokyo where they are signed to Sony, the band last month released their sixth album, "Shinsekai." Its sound is simultaneously more abrasive and catchier than before, smoldering with dark aggression but pushing melody further to the fore. As always the musicianship is impeccable — Kato's graceful piano and Goto's caustic guitar sit atop killer rhythm from rock-hard drummer Yoshitaka Kozeni and jazzy double-bassist Keigo Iwami.

The band have also dropped some of their visual trademarks — where Goto used to always wear a battered schoolgirl's uniform and hide her face (if not her knickers) in photos, this time she appears on the cover in closeup and wearing a T-shirt.

"I definitely think we've grown up since the last (Japan Times interview)," says Goto. "Not just physically, but in spirit. I got bored of wearing the school uniform; it started to feel like a safety net. And I was always so shy about my face appearing on the album sleeves, but recently I just felt like it was time. We've been signed to a major label for three years now, and I'm starting to feel more comfortable."

Both "Meka" and lead cut "Tetto no Ue no Futari" were mixed by AxSxE, guitarist for revered prog-improv noodlers Natsumen. The latter features an extended middle-eight in which Kato's delicate piano rubs uneasily against rhythmic shifts and background shrieks before the whole thing erupts into a guitar-driven mess. Its video poked fun at Goto's more savage tendencies by having her smash glass bottles over the heads of her band mates before turning the blows on herself.

"That was great fun!" yelps Goto.

"They weren't real bottles of course," laughs Kato.

"Yeah, what do you take me for?!" Goto deadpans with mock hostility.

"But I did get injured on the third blow or so," says Kato. "After taking several bottles to the head, I did start to wonder whether it was really that essential."

Maybe the bottling did more damage than Kato realized — after all, why else would the heavy metal-loving keyboardist, who specializes in bloodcurdling howls and has been known to fit his stage mic into his mouth, decide to sing on "Haru Mero," a cute quasi-ballad that appears midway through "Shinsekai" and is played absolutely straight.

"That was my first time to sing," says Kato bashfully. "I just felt like singing a song on the album — that was the only reason. There's a Web site called mF247, where you can post songs, and 'Haru Mero' was a song I'd originally put on that site as just a piano piece."

Are Kozeni and Iwami going to sing songs on the next album?

"No way!" bursts Kozeni. "My singing's too good."

"He's tone deaf," corrects Goto.

Perhaps part of the reason Midori chose to infuse a touch of pop to their otherwise brutal sound was due to the company they've been keeping. In August 2009, the band wrote a song for Melon Kinenbi, a prefab four-girl J-pop unit managed by Hello Project (alongside Morning Musume). The result was a deliciously discordant "Sweet Suicide Summer Story," a brilliant piece of avant-garde postpop (probably not the effect desired by Hello Project; Melon Kinenbi broke up last month).

More crucially, a chance meeting with Takuya Asanuma, one-time guitarist and songwriter with 1990s J-pop stars Judy and Mary, saw the band collaborating with one of their biggest heroes for the March 2009 single "Swing." Goto and Kato have always cited Judy and Mary as a major influence — the group's sound was as instantly accessible as it was subversive, throwing pyrotechnic guitar riffs, creative bass lines and massive choruses into a decidedly pop mix.

Kozeni says Midori learned a great deal from their sessions with Asanuma: "He taught us a lot, lavished us with affection and treated us to nice food," he laughs.

In addition to hanging out with pop idols, Midori continue to move in more familiar circles. When Goto's friend Miya, ex-bassist in Okinawa hardcore scenesters Bleach, had difficulty finding a record label to sign her new band 385 — a furious blend of hardcore and funk — Goto decided to set up her own label and release the band's debut album herself.

"It's coming out on Aug. 4," says Goto proudly. "Miya moved to Tokyo and started her new band, but after a year here she still couldn't find a label. She was sad about it, because she thought she might have to move back to Okinawa. I went to see her play at (Shinjuku venue) Loft and it was amazing, so I realized that this album simply had to be released."

Goto knows the value of label support. Midori have gone without management for a year or so after a rift with their previous handlers left them inclined to curate their own career (with help from their staff at Sony). It's not easy, and it's surely another cause for their encroaching maturity, but Goto says, "The four of us can decide everything much more quickly than before."

There's still plenty of messing around in Camp Midori. Kato tells us that his preferred title for "Shinsekai" was "Lost Cherry," a flippant reference to the band's recent evolution. Kozeni, meanwhile, is busy taking the piss out of Iwami for a less than impressive recent injury.

"I tripped on the concrete in a parking lot and broke my toe — two days before a show," admits Iwami.

"It was such a lame place to have an injury — his toe," jibes Kozeni. "If he'd been injured somewhere more prominent it might have looked quite cool, but when it's his toe, no one notices."

Above all, Midori's members seem to have fostered a striking camaraderie that will serve them well. Yes, their turbulent live shows offer explosive brutality, but the Midori unit itself appears extremely robust. It's as if the violence is all used up on stage; in person the band members are supremely friendly. So parents: Don't worry. Your kids are in good hands.

"Shinsekai" is out now. Midori play at Sapporo Cube Garden on June 11; Sendai Darwin on June 13; Nagoya Club Quattro on June 18; Osaka Big Cat on June 19; Fukuoka Drum Be-1 on June 23; Hiroshima Club Quattro on June 25; and Shibuya-AX in Tokyo on July 2. For details, visit www.midori072.com

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