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Thursday, May 3, 2012

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Sticking with the Brits: Taffy (from left: Koichin, Asano, Iris and Ken) feel the road to success goes through Britain. One of the reasons for this way of thinking is a worry about Japan's domestic music market.

Taffy sets its sights on success abroad

Special to The Japan Times

The most jarring aspect of Taffy's live set is what's not said. The Tokyo-based rock band shared a bill with four other bands at Party Sick!, an event held at the start of the Golden Week holidays at Heaven's Door, a venue in Tokyo's Sangenjaya district. The other groups on the bill rarely let the silence between songs linger — they either bombarded the audience with thanks, jokes or invitations to check out the small merchandise table set up in the back. These interludes could last a brief 30 seconds, but sometimes the rambling went on for minutes.

Taffy was not avoiding the crowd — its members engaged in some banter, but it was swift, done in seconds before the four-piece ripped into the next song. In a sense the band was letting the music do the talking — reflecting a more Western style of live performance (Japanese bands often chat with their audience more). The tunes were a mix of melodic pop with feedback-stained rock sometimes bordering on the dreamy, and it turned out to be just what the crowd wanted — Heaven's Door got crowded right before Taffy's 9 p.m. stage time.

The band, though, has plenty of interesting topics it could talk about. A week earlier, Taffy released a new single called "So Long" in Britain for Record Store Day, and the band will soon release its album, "Caramel Sunset," in that country, too. In the past two weeks, influential British publications The Guardian and NME have given Taffy attention. The group has chosen to concentrate their sales efforts in Britain, making its native Japan a secondary market concern in a move it calls "an experiment."

The band, originally called Salt Water Taffy, formed in the early 2000s when lead singer Iris met bassist Koichin (the band members all go by one name only). They went through several drummers and guitarists until a year ago, when lead guitarist Asano and drummer Ken came aboard. They ditched Salt Water and rechristened themselves as just Taffy. "Everyone called us Taffy anyway," Iris says.

She says that she thinks the band's sound hasn't changed with the name. Taffy has described its music as "sweet but hard," sugary pop tunes played with fuzzed-out guitars. Everyone in Taffy says The Beatles played a big role in defining their sonic identity, with Iris saying she has fond memories of hearing her parents play the Fab Four's records around the house. The noisier side of the band has led many to compare Taffy with various bands from the 1990's Britpop scene. The Guardian referenced British acts Echobelly and Salad, while a 2002 article in The Japan Times brought up names such as The Primitives and Teenage Fanclub.

Taffy's members, though, say they aren't actively mimicking any of these groups.

"I avoid the bands we are compared to," Iris says. "I don't listen to much new music." Still, Taffy has a strong interest in Britain. The group played shows there last year, and says it was warmly received by the crowds. "They show more passion," Ken says. "They came up to us and said, 'You're f-cking brilliant!' They hugged us, too."

The British audience's reaction stands in stark contrast to some of Taffy's interactions in Japan. The week before the Heaven's Door gig, the band played in front of 1,500 spectators at an event hosted by Nylon Magazine. "It was hard to play," Iris says, because the front row remained stone-faced for the entire set. Afterward, though, those stoic fans came up to the band and told them they loved it. Asano says Japanese crowds look for weak points, while the British are more outward.

"I think English people feel music, while Japanese people just hear it," Koichin adds.

Those reasons, coupled with worries about the domestic Japanese music market, are what prompted Taffy to focus on Britain. Fans can preorder the group's new album, "Caramel Sunset," from HMV.co.uk or Amazon.co.uk, but won't find a trace of its existence on Tower.jp or Amazon.co.jp. The band also plans to release a compilation of songs recorded during the Salt Water days in Britain this autumn. The members say they eventually want to release both records in Japan, but aren't rushing to do so.

At Heaven's Door, Taffy's sliver of a merchandise table featured only one copy of "Caramel Sunset" and one copy of the forthcoming compilation. They were not for sale. Taffy hopes to tour Britain again in October, and treats shows like the one at Heaven's Door as a warmup. Still, after playing the Nylon show last week, the members say they were "refreshed to do a gig at a real live house."

Ken describes the Heaven's Door set as "emotional ... too emotional." The drummer got so into the show that he lost a drumstick and at one point pounded one of his cymbals onto the floor — to much delight from the audience. Asano, focused on playing most of the night, managed an excited hop late in the set, which culminated with the song "Uriseas." The members stepped away from the "sweet" and the "hard" in favor of a dreamier sound, the one moment of the night that could be called shoegaze — a slow-burning finale that excited the crowd at Heaven's Door and it's a tune that will go over well in any country.

Taffy play Sangenjaya Heaven's Door in Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, on May 27 (7 p.m. start; ¥2,000 in advance; [03] 3410-9581). For more information, visit www.taffy8.com.

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