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Friday, Feb. 11, 2011
Miila and the Geeks take Tokyo 'riot grrrl' sound international
By IAN MARTIN
Special to The Japan Times
A small girl, stylishly dressed in a short, black-and-white dress crouches hunched over a microphone, spitting out vocals that might be English or might be Martian for all the audience can tell beneath the thick overlay of distortion; a sax player with crazy hair is engaged in some kind of intense, seemingly unconnected free improv; and a drummer in a pair of schoolboy running shorts pounds away at the drums, face glowing red with either exertion, alcohol or both.
This clash of contrasting faces goes by the name Miila and the Geeks, and they're one of the most exciting things in Tokyo's underground scene right now.
"The name has no meaning: I just wanted something that began with an 'M,' " says guitarist, bass player and singer Moe Wadaka. "It started seven years ago as a solo project, and then three years ago I expanded it into a band by adding Kaoru (Ajima, drummer) and Ryota (Komori, sax)."
Ajima was introduced to Wadaka by her boyfriend, "He said to me 'I know this amazing, strange, funny drummer' and we went from there," she explains. "With Komori, he just suddenly came up on stage with his sax, really drunk, during one of my gigs and we ended up making the absolute coolest session together."
Even without knowing Miila and the Geeks, dedicated Tokyo indie observers may find Wadaka's face familiar, since she is an instrumental figure in a small flowering of what we might describe as "girls culture" that has grown up around the back streets of trendy Shibuya, the art galleries in Harajuku, and the cafes of Tokyo's more fashionable suburbs.
In addition to her work with the Geeks, she is also one half of the sugar-sweet hip- hop/technopop party band Love And Hates along with coconspirator Yuppa of Hazel Nuts Chocolate. She is also associated with Violet & Claire, the Shibuya shop owned by her friend Sumire Taya, which acts as a base for various kinds of girls fashion and music. All three girls are also part of the all-female DJ team and fanzine Twee Grrrls Club.
"First of all, I'm a girl and most of my songs are about boys, so naturally the music I make is going to be a bit 'girly,' " explains Wadaka. "But I think 'girls culture' is producing a lot of very strong and innovative ideas at the moment. It also has a great destructive power."
This combination of innovative and destructive impulses seems to be at the heart of Miila and the Geeks' music, with Wadaka citing the 1990s "riot grrrl" movement as an early inspiration, insisting: "Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre), Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth) and PJ Harvey — these are my heroines."
Another of the defining themes of the band seems to be a love of do-it-yourself culture. From the stripped-down, lo-fi sound of the music, through to the self-released cassette singles that Wadaka's own label Pit Pony distributes through various independent record shops and boutiques, there is a sense that it is more than simply the result of the harsh necessities of life as an independent musician, but also of a deep love of the DIY aesthetic, going right back to the early days of New York no wave in the late 1970s as well as the British cassette music scene of bands like Danny and the Dressmakers and the Messthetics label.
"Pit Pony releases only cassettes, for the simple reason that I love the cassette format," says Wadaka. "But it's also the most convenient way; it lets me release my own material extremely fast."
The lo-fi aesthetic is also on display on Miila and the Geeks' "6 Songs" EP, which was released on 7-inch vinyl in December.
"We recorded the whole thing in five hours with an engineer friend of ours," says Wadaka, "in this old studio with a broken bass drum."
The result is a collection of abrasive, discordant songs, all grimy, fuzzy guitars, distorted vocals, propulsive drums and shrieking sax, with a distinctly vintage feel, both sonically and in its sense of style.
In this sense, Miila and the Geeks are part of a long lineage of Japanese musicians of various genres, going back at least to the 1990s "Shibuya-kei" indie-music boom, who have always been keen record collectors with a strong sense of musical history. Similarly, while some Japanese punk and alternative bands struggle with attempts to carve out a distinctive notion of "Japanese rock" as something separate from American or European music, Miila and the Geeks seem to share Shibuya-kei's more flexible, internationalist attitude toward songwriting, albeit much more abrasive in style.
"I grew up listening to a lot of music from Japan, so it's definitely a big part of me," stresses Wadaka. "And there are many great bands from Japan, but these days I always listen to overseas bands, and I get a lot of inspiration from them. I hope Japanese bands can grow to become better in that way."
The group's first gigs outside Japan will be this March at the South By Southwest music-industry showcase in Austin, Texas, with the band performing on March 17 and at an official showcase event on March 19. But all that nearly didn't come about.
"We applied on the recommendation of our friends," says Wadaka. "But when the invitation came, I made a mistake concerning the deadline. If I'd been just 30 minutes later in replying, we wouldn't have been able to go.
"I'm not worried about anything now though," she concludes. "I just want people to come, regardless of our nationality, and listen to us and watch our performance."
Miila and the Geeks play at Koenji Penguin House in Tokyo on Feb. 11 (7 p.m.;  3330-6294); and at Three in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, on Feb. 28 (8 p.m.;  5486-8804). Overseas, Miila and the Geeks play the South By Southwest music-industry showcase in Austin, Texas, at Spiderhouse Cafe at 2 p.m. on March 17, and Malaia World Lounge at 10 p.m. on March 19. The band play at Goodbye Blue Monday in New York at 10 p.m. on March 21. For more information, visit www.myspace.com/miilamiilamiila.