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Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012

Teen Runnings rewrite their Tokyo story

Special to The Japan Times

In Shibuya, more than in any other part of the city, Tokyo becomes a parody of itself.

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Shy guy: Shota Kaneko's music has changed (as have his band members) since he has moved to Tokyo, but what remains is a drive to explore lo-fi sounds. IAN MARTIN

It's an area that revels in the guidebook cliches of human swarms, gaudy fashion, ad jingles shrieking at you from every storefront and teen idols winking down at you from giant video screens like an Orwellian nightmare in a candy shop.

It's not a place for shyness, privacy or intimacy, but it's a place where those characteristics take on their most precious shine. That is why, on one sweltering hot August night, at Shibuya's tiny, boxlike basement venue Home, Teen Runnings' fuzzy blend of Beach Boys melodies and simple, almost naive rock 'n' roll minimalism feels most appropriate.

"That was one of our best shows," says singer and guitarist Shota Kaneko, meeting up a week later in the more laid-back suburb of Koenji. "The previous day we'd done such a terrible gig and I was so depressed, but then it all came together at Home."

The path toward that moment of coming together has been a convoluted one. Initially hailing from Kobe, Kaneko joined a band circle at university, and played in a postpunk band during a 10-month sojourn in Sydney.

"I was listening to The Beach Boys and Explorers Club in Sydney," Kaneko explains. "I really liked it but when I came back to Japan and listened to (Californian surf pop band) Best Coast I was shocked because of the way they did their music so easily and simply, without any of the backing harmonies or marimba or anything."

Returning to Japan, Kaneko set about combining his love of sweet 1960s melodies with a rougher-edged, punkish sound, naming his new band Friends. He released a cassette via notoriously chaotic Kyoto indie label Second Royal, relocated to Tokyo, lost, re-recruited and lost again at least two full lineups of musicians (Kaneko is currently joined by Taisei Oka on bass and Masashi Takahashi on drums), and then released debut album "Let's Get Together Again" on vinyl just in time for a New York band of the same name to start hitting the big time, instantly making Kaneko's Friends impossible to Google.

The name Teen Runnings came out of a software word generator. "I put in words like 'teen', 'summer', 'runnings', 'friends' and a lot of random words," Kaneko explains, "and Teen Runnings was cool. I had this image like teenagers running along the beach in the '60s."

With the name change also came a reassessment of the band's sound, with Kaneko deciding that some of the most lo-fi excesses of Friends needed to be curbed. Second Royal fixed Kaneko up with engineer Jon Greene of San Diego indie label Art Fag Recordings with a view to remixing the album for its CD release.

"I wanted the sound to be somewhere between lo-fi and mainstream," Kaneko explains, "but he (Greene) said, 'Which?' and in the end I decided to go the more mainstream route, so I pushed up the vocals in the mix. It was so difficult working over email, but within a month we'd finished. I'm almost satisfied."

Calling the CD release of "Let's Get Together Again" mainstream is probably overstating the case. The new material does a fine job of polishing up the sound without losing the essential warmth, energy and rough-edged sense of nostalgia and escapism, which are key to the appeal of Teen Runnings' music in the frenetic combination of precision and disorder that makes up so much of life in Tokyo.

"The atmosphere is different from Kobe and the Kansai area," he says. "I think the air is different. Tokyo's image is colder, darker. A friend of mine said that when he listened to (Tokyo indie/electronic label) Cuz Me Pain's music in Tokyo, he felt it fit the city."

Listening to the disconnected dreamscapes of Cuz Me Pain standard bearers Jesse Ruins it's easy to see the hazy shimmer of Shinjuku's neon-lit night reflected in the music, but different music tells different stories about the city and its people.

Tokyo is a place whose tiny indie scene is so steeped in knowledge of the most obscure footnotes in music history that the sounds it produces often evoke the obsessive, alphabetized air of a collector flicking through the vinyl in a used record store. It's also a town where postpunk bands replicate the split-second, timetabled stop-start of the city's frantic rush-hour panic with their metronomic rhythmical efficiency combined with sudden madcap changes in time signature and vocals teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Teen Runnings' music combines both indiepop and postpunk sensibilities but seems more like something for impoverished convenience store clerks in rickety 10-sq. meter apartments that rattle beneath the elevated railway tracks, dreaming of open spaces. It's escapist, but like so many dream images, it's intangible, even for the author of the dream.

"My view of my music has changed so much now," Kaneko explains. "When it started, I could see an image of a beach in the '60s, but now I don't see anything. I can feel something, see a view of something, but not like lo-fi or ... I wanted my music to be like a stream from an old radio, but now it's changed."

One way this change in image may be seen in Teen Runnings' music could be in a shift toward the dreamy, electronic-tinged reflections of the Tokyo nights of Kaneko's friends at Cuz Me Pain, as evidenced by the driving bass and more mechanical rhythms of recent song "Wonder Mountaineering."

"I want to make a single next. A long song," Kaneko says. "I want to make a twelve-inch. I really like those postpunk records where the singles are almost 12 minutes, like club music. I want my singles to be like club music."

Whatever way Kaneko and Teen Runnings decide to go, the roundabout route they have taken to achieving this first full release looks to be a stepping stone to greater things, with Kaneko hoping to capitalize on some of the attention they have been getting from overseas indie blogs and head to the United States for a tour. For those left behind in Tokyo's concrete jungle, however, it may be reassuring to know that the tunes aren't going to dry up any time soon.

"I have a lot of songs left to write," he says with a smile, "so I have to keep making music."

"Let's Get Together Again" is in stores now.

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