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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Puffyshoes just wanna have fun


Special to The Japan Times

Shorter is nearly always better. The Pixies managed to cram three verses and choruses into just 94 seconds on "Trompe le Monde" track "Palace of the Brine," and it became one of the best songs they ever wrote. And just look at almost any tune recorded by The Supremes or The Shangri-Las or Elvis Presley, or all The Beatles' early stuff (before they became rubbish) — nearly all within earshot of the magic three-minute mark. Five-minute-long J-pop ballads? No thanks. Make them a short, sharp shock — or keep them the hell away from our stereo.

News photo
Short and sweet: Neko Meows and Usagi Hops make up the duo Puffyshoes.

Lo-fi female duo Puffyshoes know a thing or two about short. Guitarist Usagi Hops (real name: Natsuko Watanabe) and drummer/vocalist Neko Meows (Azumi Nakajima) are both physically diminutive, for one thing, which is one of many reasons they're so damn cute. But their new album, "Finally the Weekend," is short too; 19 minutes short, to be precise, despite offering 10 whole songs.

"We do seem to naturally write very brief songs," laughs Hops as we chat in a cafe in Tokyo's trendy Shimokitazawa district. "The 1950s and '60s songs we grew up with were usually very short, so maybe that's been a natural influence. Then again, both Neko and I have listened to J-pop songs since we were very small, so it's weird that we didn't end up writing some longer ones too."

So far, Puffyshoes' career has also been quite short, though as packed with action as that aforementioned Pixies song. In the two years since their May 2009 inception, the Chiba duo have released two albums (their first, "Something Gold," came out last year in Europe only; "Finally the Weekend" comes out June 15 in Japan), and they played four raucous live shows at Austin's South by Southwest music conference and festival in March.

Their appeal is manifold. For one thing, their music is an adorable take on classic '50s and '60s pop, with Meows' bruised and understated voice filling every song with heart-crushing passion, even as she sings about such silly stuff as smelly boys and backstage passes.

"Most of our songs don't have any deep meaning; we don't want to have a 'message,' " says Hops. "I suppose 'Backstage Pass' is supposed to sound something like an episode of a drama. Neko is great at creating a world within her lyrics.

"Maybe my biggest influence is Neko," she adds. "I love her talent and her sense, and it's so much fun to play music with her."

Puffyshoes are possibly Japan's most gaily ramshackle live band, staggering sweetly around stages as they bang and bash and wail on their instruments, Meows grinning wildly, Hops hiding shyly behind a mop of hair, the pair each singing into battered head-mounted microphones like a pair of budget Britney Spearses.

"We don't think it's important to play perfectly on stage," shrugs Hops. "The most important thing for us is that we're having fun. We're not interested in playing at the Budokan or anything. Even if they invited us to play there some years down the road, if it looked like it wasn't going to be fun, we'd turn it down."

"Fun" is definitely a key word for Puffyshoes. That's not to call them throwaway — their songs are mini-classics that will appeal to slacker types everywhere. But fun comes first and foremost in their world, and is very much their raison d'être.

When Hops and Meows met through a mutual friend five or six years ago, they didn't bond quickly. But in 2009, when Hops sent Meows an email to say "Long time no see," the pair ended up stumbling into a rehearsal studio to mess about. This DIY approach stuck because, well, DIY is fun; even "Finally the Weekend," their first release on revered indie label KOGA, was recorded by the girls themselves in a rehearsal studio, using Apple's free multitrack software Garageband.

"Although we love '50s and '60s music, we didn't mean to re-create that sound on our album," says Hops. "But when we started recording, that's just how it came out. We both really liked it; we'd accidentally captured the type of sound we've always loved.

"I'm not too bothered about recording in a big studio with professional gear. I'd do it if the chance came up, but it's not something I'm desperate to do."

By now you're probably thinking, "Gosh, these two ladies sound like they must be the very best of friends. I bet they have pajama parties and eat ice cream and gossip about boys for hours on end." That's certainly the impression you'd get from "Dear My Friend," the touching final track on "Finally the Weekend," on which Meows sings lyrics such as, "I like it when you call my name / I like it when you make silly jokes / When I'm down, laugh at me and make me realize I'm not alone," in a voice so sublime it'll make you wish you could atomize her and absorb her into your pores.

Hops does her best to shatter this best-mates image, but we're not falling for it.

"We're not close at all!" she laughs. "It's a mystery how we can play in a band together. We think about things so differently. I'm pretty sure she hates me, and I sometimes think we're a total mismatch. We almost never hang out together. Last winter, we went ice-skating together once, but generally if we meet up it's to do band stuff."

Pfft, yeah right. The carefree chemistry between Hops and Meows is their biggest attraction; sleepovers or no, the close-knit musical affinity of these two slightly awkward, shy girls is to die for.

Anyway, back to the shortness thing. The brevity of the songs on "Finally the Weekend" is perfectly fitting: There's no flab, nothing spare. And it works thematically, too — after all, what could be shorter than a weekend?

"On Saturdays and Sundays we always rehearse, which is the most fun thing in our lives," beams Hops. "Work sucks. We put up with so much awful stuff through the week, so our weekends are the time we treasure most."

"Finally the Weekend" is on sale June 15. For more information, visit www.puffyshoes.com.


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