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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

Tenniscoats make tunes out of tiffs


By JON WILKS
Special to The Japan Times

It's a late night on Hannana Dori in Tokyo's Meguro Ward. From a window above the P-Koen atelier and shop comes the sound of a couple arguing. But listen carefully and you'll realize that it's not a domestic row; rather, the pair are in heated debate over what their "sound" might be. It dawns on you that it's a band in distress; that what you've happened upon are those dreaded "musical differences."

News photo
Fair folks: Takashi Ueno and Saya make up Tokyo avant-pop duo Tenniscoats. JON WILKS

For most long-term bands, the phrase is nothing less than a death knell. However, for Tenniscoats — Takashi Ueno and the mono-monickered Saya (who won't reveal her last name, but confirms that it isn't Ueno) — a duo that have been working the capital's underground circuit for more than a decade, musical differences are there to be thrived upon.

Fans of the band are used to buying albums that leap with impressive dexterity between avant-garde experimentation and acoustic pop whimsy, often on several albums released within the space of a few months. Never comfortable sitting in one place, they appear to be in a constant state of transition — musically as well as physically. Months are spent abroad each year, partly because they have a larger fan base in Europe and Australia than they do at home, and partly because there are other musicians to meet; other styles to be learned.

Their latest album, "Enjoy Your Life", is an acoustic collaboration with low-fi godfather Jad Fair. At first glance, it is most notable for the spontaneity that went into its creation. The album was recorded during promotional duties for "Tokinouta," an acoustic collection that came out in April, though beyond their pared-down production, the two albums show little similarity. Where "Tokinouta" is introspective, folksy and soulful in a way that the duo have only ever toyed with before, "Enjoy Your Life" is as frivolous as its title would suggest; while the older album sounds like a work that was allowed to gestate, the new collaboration appears purposefully unfinished. Only the Technicolor popup cover has any gloss to it, which is unsurprising given that Fair only met Saya and Ueno the day before recording took place — a session that lasted approximately 10 hours.

"We had no rehearsal time together before starting the session," Fair explains, recalling what must have been the quickest recording of an album in his long career. "I had some lyrics written down, but more often than not I don't stick to what I have. Lyrics are changed to fit with the flow of the song. Saya and Takashi brought ideas to the session, only a couple of which we did at a show in Tokyo the day before."

That's not to say it makes for a poor listen, of course. The honesty of the music and performance will attract fans of folk music, and "Boku wo Hitori ni Shinaide" is as creative and devastatingly gorgeous a song as anything Saya, an enchanting singer even in her reediest moments, has sung on before. It's an album peppered with bum notes and tripped-over lyrics, but it's also a study in the joy of creation, with giggles throughout.

Speaking to Saya, it's clear that she doesn't think of the album as usual.

"It's not just an album of songs," she says, "it's also an album of improvisation, especially on tracks like 'Tonari Gumi,' an old Japanese song that Jad sings, even though he speaks no Japanese." Listening to that track, which sounds like something you might find on a bonus disc, it's hard not to smile as take after take breaks down into laughter. "Sorry ... so lovely!" giggles Saya after their third attempt. "Well, thank you," drawls Fair, ever the perfect gentleman.

"Enjoy Your Life" is far from Tennsicoats' first collaboration. In fact, over a career that has spanned more than 10 years, the pair have created a surprisingly small amount of noncollaborative work. In the past, Saya has self-deprecatingly called the duo lazy, though the vast amount of material they have produced attests to the fact that they are anything but. Instead, their collaborations represent a constant effort to better themselves. Whether they're creating avant-garde audioscapes with sound artists Tetsuya Umeda or Lawrence English, touring Britain with Australian musician John Chantler, banging out albums with Scottish indie group The Pastels, or creating sumptuous masterpieces with Swedish sound-painters, Tape (if you don't own "Tan Tan Therapy," then shame on you), there's a sense that they are students as much as participants, always honing their craft and moving on.

"I think one thing that stands out for me is their work ethic," explains Chantler, who played on their acclaimed 2007 album, "Totemo Aimasho." "On stage it all appears effortless, but behind the scenes they are going nonstop — practicing, arranging, organizing. I've done two tours with them and in both instances they played completely different sets every night, and the regularly played stuff got honed more and more. Even a simple kick-snare rhythm was subject to discussion and demonstration as to how it should be played. They really get inside the music."

English, who has worked with Tenniscoats via his label Room40, concurs: "They have an outstanding ability to work music out of even the most unmusical objects and situations. When we were recording "Temporacha" (2009), I remember Saya setting up a kalimba on a rattling old heater. The motion of the vibrating kalimba brought the whole heater into vibration — it sounded incredible. It's this kind of natural exploration that just impresses me so much."

And it's this continuous search for the next Tenniscoats sound that brings us back to Meguro and the argument in the night. Ueno passionately insists that the duo "make music that can be played by everyone," while his partner disagrees, saying that theirs should be "sophisticated music." It occurs to me that the only trouble you'll ever have with Tenniscoats is finding a suitable tag to file them under on your iPod. For the sake of a fascinating band, long may the musical differences continue.

"Enjoy Your Life" is out Oct. 15 on Sweet Dreams Press.


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