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Thursday, July 26, 2012

News photo
Time for action: Sakanaction (from left: Motoharu Iwadera, Keiichi Ejima, Ichiro Yamaguchi, Ami Kusakari and Emi Okazaki) will play at the Fuji Rock Festival this weekend.

Sakanaction gets busy with SMAP and Fuji Rock

Staff writer

In the two years since I last interviewed Sakanaction frontman Ichiro Yamaguchi for The Japan Times, he has lost weight. I probably wouldn't have noticed actually — after all, it's been two years. No, it was a Sakanaction fan on Twitter who alerted me to it; hearing that I would be speaking with Yamaguchi again last Sunday, she tweeted me to express her concern.

In fact, this interview almost didn't happen at all, as recording sessions for Sakanaction's next B-side overran heavily, doubtless heaping Yamaguchi with a mountain of excess stress.

"I definitely have periods where I look like I've lost too much weight," he admits, as we sit on deep comfy chairs in a cafe near his home in Tokyo's Shimokitazawa neighborhood. He speaks in between drags on an endless succession of cigarettes, a habit he also attributes to his workload. "I get thinner when we have a busy period. Unfortunately, that's also when we tend to have photo shoots, so it's more noticeable. But I am eating properly, really!"

For every kilogram Yamaguchi may have lost in those two years, his band (which also includes guitarist Motoharu Iwadera, bassist Ami Kusakari, keyboardist Emi Okazaki and drummer Keiichi Ejima) has gained all-new levels of popularity. He didn't know when we chatted last time that a week later Sakanaction's 2010 album, "kikUUiki," would go to No. 3 on the Oricon pop chart, much less that 2011's "DocumentaLy" would hit No. 2. Concert venues got bigger and bigger, from Zepp Tokyo and the Budokan in 2010 through Makuhari Messe in 2011 to an almost-headline slot on Fuji Rock's White Stage this weekend.

And the idea that an alternative-flavored, electro-tinged, folk-hearted pop-rock band would one day write a song for idol group SMAP couldn't have crossed his mind — nor mine.

"Our audience has changed a lot in those two years," he says. "Two years ago, our fan base was older and made up of die-hard music lovers. We've made a great effort to attract a younger audience as well, and that's exactly what's happened. We now have fans in their 30s, in their 20s and schoolchildren."

This success has its ups and downs. The upside is the effect it's had on Sakanaction's live performances, which grow ever larger in scope.

"When it comes to our concerts, we are no longer just a five-piece band: There's also the lighting guy, the sound engineer; the whole of Team Sakanaction works together to put the concerts together. And as the venues we play get bigger and bigger, we can put on more and more outlandish shows. It's really more of a production now than a concert.

"My ambition is to be able to play at venues around Japan — in Fukuoka, Osaka, Hokkaido — that are as big as the ones we play at in Tokyo, so that we can take our most impressive show to those cities."

The downside? Well, just you try writing a song for SMAP. As is often the case in Japan, Sakanaction's inexorable rise has led to high-profile tieups, such as "Boku to Hana" ("Flowers and Me") being used as the theme tune to TV drama "37-sai de Isha ni Natta Boku Kenshui Junjo Monogatari"; several songs gracing inspirational TV ad campaigns; and that tune, "Moment," being performed by squeaky-clean boyband SMAP and adopted by TBS during its coverage of the Olympics. As you might guess, Sakanaction's experimental style and subversive edge are not always in full effect on these tracks.

"When we write music for tieups, there are certain notes we have to hit, and there's no doubt that the music becomes more traditional sounding," Yamaguchi says frankly. "It's not necessarily the kind of music I most want to be making, but we compensate for that with our album tracks and B-sides. These tieups bring a huge amount of exposure to our band, which is very important to me."

As for SMAP, "I'm thrilled that they want to support us, and it's a nice anecdote to have, even if the song itself is not exactly what I'd write for myself in terms of lyrics or melody. It made me happy. Some musicians I like had written songs for them, such as Suga Shikao — I always used to sing his 'Yozora no Muko' at karaoke when I was at school and I thought it was a wonderful song. As for whether I was a fan of their music or not, that didn't even come into it."

Sakanaction is already preparing to get into recording its sixth album at the end of August, slap-bang in the middle of festival season and just as the band's new downbeat dance single "Yoru no Odoriko" ("Night Dancer") comes out. Yamaguchi says the album has a projected yearend 2012 release date, though Sakanaction routinely busts its recording deadlines, so don't take that as a given.

He also has ideas for a new series of live-streamed special performances — featuring collaborations, instrumental songs and visuals — to begin sometime in late August or early September. These will be collected together after a year to produce a document of some sort, as an alternative format to the albums, singles and live DVDs that the band currently produces by rote.

In the meantime, there's the small matter of Sakanaction's appearance on the second-largest stage at Fuji Rock on Saturday.

"I've never been to Fuji Rock, but from our staff's reaction I gather that the White Stage is a pretty big deal," says Yamaguchi, understating staggeringly. "Fuji Rock is a festival where people go to watch international bands, and we're playing directly before Justice, so I wonder how we'll be received. I think the punters' preconception of us as kind of a pop band. If I was them, I probably wouldn't be that interested in watching us. So we're putting extra effort into our set."

It doesn't sound like Yamaguchi will be bulking up anytime soon, does it?

"Yoru no Odoriko" is released Aug. 29. Sakanaction plays the White Stage at the Fuji Rock Festival in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, on July 28. The festival runs July 27-29; three-day tickets cost ¥42,800 and one-day tickets cost ¥17,800. For more information, visit www.fujirockfestival.com or www.sakanaction.jp.

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