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Thursday, June 14, 2012

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Table for two: Uhnellys used to be a five-piece band, but for the past decade have worked as a duo. Using technology, they've been able to cover just as much ground as a larger band.

To Uhnellys, anything more than two is a crowd


Special to The Japan Times

Uhnellys' Naoki Kaneko (who goes by the stage name "Kim") says journalists often ask him the same question in interviews: "Do you ever plan on adding more members?"

"I've got a set answer I use now," laughs Kim. "I say that if we decide to add more members, we'll add 20 people."

The funny thing is, even with all of those extra bodies, Tokyo's Uhnellys would likely still sound the same. That's because Kim and drummer Sachie Takagiwa (better known as "Midi") cover a lot of ground between them: hip-hop, postpunk, funk, jazz, soul and even a touch of electronica. With the aid of looping pedals, Kim does the work of several musicians as he plays guitar, bass and trumpet, and raps and sings — usually all in the same song.

In 2009, the pair were invited to Singapore to appear on a TV show called "Sutasi." After listening to some of their densely layered grooves, the show's producer was convinced Uhnellys wouldn't be able to recreate their music live with just two members.

"The producer arranged a support band with a keyboardist, guitarist, bassist, DJ and a backup singer," says Kim. "When our rehearsal started, all the other musicians began to set up their instruments and I saw that they had sheet music for the song we were going to play.

"Midi and I panicked a bit. We said we didn't need any other members and asked them to watch us play on our own first. They were surprised when they saw what we could do."

But wanting to keep the program's staff happy, Uhnellys found a way to include everyone in their televised performance.

"I thought it would be fun to collaborate with the DJ, so we decided to let him play. We told all the other members that they could sing backup vocals on the chorus. It was a funny situation for us, but the song arrangement was actually really cool."

Uhnellys formed in 1998 as a five-piece with Kim and some pals. Two weeks before their debut gig, their drummer suddenly quit. Trying to find a quick replacement, Kim contacted Midi.

"Midi and I went to the same high school in Saitama," says Kim. "We weren't friends back then, but we knew each other. I wanted Midi to drum for us because I thought she was beautiful."

Two other members left shortly after, and Uhnellys operated as a trio for five years. Kim was the guitarist and backup vocalist in the band, and began trying to add a more experimental edge to their tunes. He started playing trumpet on some songs and played keyboard with his foot, too.

Then in 2003, one week before a show, Uhnellys' third member resigned, leaving only Kim and Midi in the band.

"I didn't want to have to worry about other members anymore, so we decided to keep making music as a duo," Kim says. "That's when I started using musical loops so that we could make the music we wanted with just the two of us."

On June 13, they issued their fourth full-length, "Uhnellys." Like previous offerings, this self-titled album features a hodgepodge of musical styles. The new cuts are more concise, giving them a stronger sense of immediacy and making the disc a more cohesive listening experience.

"We wanted to sound more professional on this album," says Kim. "In the past, I made all of the songs by myself. But this time I accepted advice from our engineers and label about the length of songs, instrumentation and the way we should use our voices. All their tips helped make our new songs better.

"I think it takes a band three albums to show their full ability. This is our fourth album, so we feel like we're starting the next round of our career. We want more young people to listen to our music and we want to perform in more places in Japan and in foreign countries. We want to keep doing everything better."

The "Uhnellys" release party takes place at Lush in Shibuya, Tokyo, on June 17 (6:30 p.m.; ¥2,000 in advance; [03] 5467-3071). Uhnellys play the Kiwa Kiwa Fest at Club Asia in Shibuya, Tokyo, on June 24 (11 a.m.; ¥3,300 in advance; [03] 5458-2551). For information, visit www.uhnellys.com.

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