Hyacca: Uneko

First up, I need to be clear that I’m not going to attempt to review this because I helped make it, but on the other hand, I love this band more than almost anything on Earth, so it’s obviously still an endorsement. Hyacca were one of the first bands I ever released on Call And Response Records and they’re regular features at my events when I’m in Kyushu and whenever I can get them up to Tokyo. I first met them in Fukuoka in July 2006. I’d just been through a rough patch and decided to take a trip for a few days to get away from it. I met up with Shuichi Inoue from the band Folk Enough, who I knew from his shows in Tokyo, and he invited a few of his musician friends along. The next thing I remember was waking up with a tremendous hangover and my pockets full of CDs by local bands. One of the CDs was a plain CD/R with just two Chinese characters written on it, that contained the best music I’d ever heard out of a Japanese band. Later, it turned out that this band was called Hyacca (literally “one hundred mosquitoes”, although there’s a pun on the Japanese word for encyclopaedia in there as well) and I started working with them.

The most recent thing they’ve done for me is the song Uneko, which they contributed to Call And Response’s Dancing After 1AM compilation album, released last October. Given the rather, um, easygoing pace at which the band work, this first new recording in three years wasn’t that unusual a time lapse, but I was determined that at least one song from the compilation would have a video made for it (actually She Talks Silence had already made a video for their song Long Ways, although the version on the video is slightly different to the album version). Since we had no budget, no time (just a couple of hours in the afternoon before their gig with Bo Ningen in Fukuoka), and no equipment apart from my wife’s small digital camera, this was never going to be a slick or professional looking shoot, so instead, I tried to go the other way entirely and make the footage exaggeratedly wobbly and unfocused. The key thing for me was that it should just look as if everyone was having fun and that it should show the band members naturally as the sort of people they actually are.

Most of it was shot in a karaoke box opposite the venue where they were due to play later, with some shots filmed later, at the izakaya next door (featuring cameos from a few other members of the Fukuoka indie scene and probably the backs of the heads of some of Bo Ningen, although honestly I can’t really tell). I want to point out at this juncture that as shitty and chaotic as the footage looks, I did have a pretty clear idea of how it was going to cut together as I shot it, and it’s to the great credit of Matt Schley, who did the tough job of editing it all together (and who also put together the video for Zibanchinka’s Nagisa no Hors D’oeuvres based on a similarly minimalist, no-budget concept), that he instantly saw what I was trying to do when he looked at the footage.

As far as the song goes, I don’t want to go on about it because you already know I love it, but I think it’s a great example of everything I love about Hyacca. They way they make music that’s structurally complex, almost math-rock, but play it with such energy and never forget to make it fun, always making sure there are neat little pop hooks or goofy ideas embedded in the arrangement.

As a postscript to this, you can see from the video that we got through quite a lot of beer in the karaoke box, and that may have taken its toll on the band, who went on to put in one of the most bizarre and chaotic live performances I’ve seen from them in years. Yeah, my fault.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Hyacca: Uneko

  1. UltimateMusicSnob

    This is what I hear: starts with an ostinato of descending perfect fourth intervals (F sharp-B, F natural B flat, E-A, E flat A flat). Two things about that: it’s chromatic, meaning that it’s not sticking to one key (we’re nominally in E minor here, sort of), so it doesn’t establish ANY tonal feeling, any key center. Second, because it’s descending, there’s a tri-tone between each pair: B-F is a triton, B flat to E is a tritone, and A to E flat is a tritone (you can try this out here and see how these pitches sound). Tritones are the most dissonant interval between two pitches, very unstable. So this song starts out completely unmoored tonally. The second guitar comes in sliding up, so that’s the opposite direction of the first, and even noisier because he’s sliding a chord, not playing individual pitches. Now we’re in even more unstable tonal territory. The bass comes in playing mostly low E and a short pattern of B – A over it. So now we’re anchored tonally by the bass (low notes win–they make the upper ones sound like decorations, not the tonality of the piece). After the slides up, the second guitar part starts with a repeating pattern (ostinato) built around a G chord, which is pretty close to the key of E, so it fits with the bass.
    So basically it’s a non-tonal song based on a tonal center of E. That’s different from, just for fun let’s say Taylor Swift, who writes all her songs in a definite key using primarily 3 or 4 triads locked into a key signature. Key signatures would be of no use for Hyacca’s music if you had a score–you’d just have to write in the extra sharps and flats all over the place anyway. The parts DO come together tonally very briefly at the turnaround at 2:10 where both the bass and the guitar together (!!) play a B and a B major chord. That’s the dominant of the ‘home’ tonality E, and this relation is the oldest, strongest, and most common way of centering a piece in its key. Sure enough the B goes to E as it would in the music of Bach, Beethoven—and 100% of country western songwriters. Of course, it immediately goes back to the chromatic ostinatos, so that doesn’t last long.
    In college I helped start a new wave band that would play music based on 12-tone rows instead of triads and blues chords. Novel idea, we couldn’t make it work. For one thing, that kind of music is VICIOUSLY hard to sing, because you have no tonal center to find your pitch against. We did play in public a few times, using a prototype hand-made drum machine when no such thing yet existed–probably the cooler part of this very short career. We definitely had no success tempting audiences to want to hear 12-tone music (totally chromatic, all pitches all the time, never ever settles into a key).
    This singer is more chanting than singing, easily solving the pitch problem. However, I think she clearly does know exactly where she is pitch-wise, because it turns out what sounds like chanting at first is actually dead-on for the tune she wants to sing at 1:43, B-A-B-C-B, which is clearly in the key of the bass, E minor. That’s immediately confirmed by the background part, singing D-C-B, which is also straight up B minor. I have to say, I’ve never heard this kind of vocalists’ pitch-control trick pulled off before, starting with a shout/chant which is secretly dead on pitch, and transitioning perfectly seamlessly into the part with actual defined melodic pitches. Excellent vocal control, the talent of the lead singer’s ear is at least as impressive as her voice.
    More Than You Ever Wanted To Know: The 12-tone composers of Germany ***invented*** the idea of this sort of half-sung, half-spoken or yelled vocal music, called sprechstimme (speech-voice). It mostly ends up sounding spooky and weird, and I find it hard to listen to–it never leaves me wanting more of that style. This video is a recording of probably THE great masterpiece of this type, sprechstimme starts at 1:00: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWYxRtoCAms.

    • The Schoenberg track reminds me of some of the stuff coming out of the German new wave movement, which always struck me as being a bit cabaret, although I guess the musical traditions go back further. Palais Schaumburg seemed to have an element of something like that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpQ2D_D2jsg

      And a lot of musicians around that time were rediscovering Brecht/Weil/Eisler and finding some relevance in it. Dagmar Krause (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cERQAPf9JE) was an obvious one, but more straight-up punk bands like Abwarts got into it too. I guess this particular song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jKwJotIOP4) was pretty much a standard by this point, but I assume Weil wrote it with Lotte Lenya’s voice in mind and I feel like that colours all subsequent interpretations.

      I think Hyacca’s approach is basically to keep banging their instruments until the sounds coming out start to make sense to them. There are lot of few bands in Japan doing similarly atonal stuff, although few that strike the same balance that Hyacca do. Hikashu are old enough they can do pretty much whatever the hell they want nowadays (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcGWY0pHkBs) and Panicsmile keep changing styles (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0NS1wYaD8k), Tacobonds I think are a bit closer to Hyacca in terms of how accessible they are, but they combine the elements in a different way (the way they keep throwing you off with the rhythm reminds me a bit of Nakata actually, especially on this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsmcdKnVsN4) and The Mornings are another (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=De5YTIp-rQ4). Hyacca are considered pretty pop by the standards of the company they keep, although all these bands are on some level trying to do pop music, or at least trying to use it in some way.

  2. UltimateMusicSnob

    Forgot to put in, virtual keyboard to try out the pitches is online here: http://www.bgfl.org/custom/resources_ftp/client_ftp/ks2/music/piano/

  3. UltimateMusicSnob

    Wow, thanks for all the great music samples. Palais Schaumberg, which I’d never heard before, is a big missed opportunity for my college-days friends and myself–we would have been all over their stuff, exactly the kind of stuff we wanted to hear more of (settled for B-52’s and Laurie Anderson). I notice all these bands have worked out a strategy for executing their pop/experiments crossover that we never did. Yes they have all the really out-there dissonances and noise elements, BUT they all also have a foundation in the basic blues-rock 5-note scale. Palais does it as a layer of dissonance over 5-note foundation, while Hikashu does it in alternation. In none of these examples does the bass play chromatically like the upper parts. They all provide a tonal home for the ear to hold onto.

    • I think most of the bands here (the Japanese ones anyway) have their roots in 90s US alternative music and then combined that with some of the more noise and jazz-influenced traditions of the Japanese underground, which might explain the two parallel elements. Like I said, Hikashu have been around for long enough they can do whatever they want, and whatever musical basis they had has long since been buried under the weight of their own vast and eclectic back catalogue (I’m pretty sure Zappa/Beefheart was always their core, but Japanese theatrical traditions were also important for them early on, as were The Ramones, in a less direct way). Hyacca are interesting in that the members seem to have no shared musical base, but their generation still puts them in the post-90s-alternative gang and they share a lot of its influences.

      Part of why I’m so interested in what these bands do is in how they take something that sounds vaguely, distantly related to music I remember when I was a teenager and then develop it in completely new ways. Sometimes listening to Japanese underground music is like a Man In The High Castle-style alternative history where instead of The Beatles and the Stones, it was Can and Captain Beefheart who had formed the basis of all modern rock, and instead of The Sex Pistols and their set, punk had been formed in the image of The Pop Group/Rip Rig & Panic etc. If that world really did exist, it’d probably bore me senseless, but it’s kind of utopian to imagine it at times.

  4. UltimateMusicSnob

    Gosh. Jazz, Zappa, Japanese theater, the Ramones, and Philip K. Dick references in one two-paragraph post. This is the best blog ever!! (That was meant to have a tongue-in-cheek tone, but I also mean it literally.) I’m going to work in references to Moby Dick, the Inquisition, and The Necromicon in my next musical analysis… 🙂

    • You noticed the reference to Orwell in my review of the last Perfume single? I know you disagree with the point I was making (about the chord sequence in the verse, which I still don’t like), but it gave me a bit of a laugh to write it.

  5. UltimateMusicSnob

    ROFL, yes: ” like a boot stamping on an unimaginative chord progression for eternity” — If I have the players in this metaphor, this has one of Nakata’s children trashing another one of his children (since he wrote both sections). Very Greek tragedy-ish.

  6. perfumeophile

    “I think most of the bands here (the Japanese ones anyway) have their roots in 90s US alternative music”

    that’s interesting because i don’t hear any of that in this music, while i do hear lots of beefheart and 70’s no-wave and post punk [and pere ubu]….are the roots you speak of from specific 90’s bands or just the scene in general?

    • I mean most of the bands in the little group of bands I linked, not most of the bands in Japan, obviously. The references you link are definitely closer to what these bands sound like now, but the jumping off points were usually bands like Dinosaur Jr., Pavement and Fugazi. I think you can feel a lot of their influence in contemporary Japanese alternative, especially the stuff being made by 30-somethings like these.

    • I can learn a lot about a Japanese person by their reaction to basic things about me. If I say my name’s Ian, some bands say “Oh! Ian Curtis!” whereas other bands say “Oh! Ian MacKaye!” Similarly, when I say I’m from Bristol, bands will either say “Oh! Massive Attack!”, “Oh! The Pop Group!” or “Oh! Disorder!” (the last category are the most dangerous!)

      Sadly, no one ever says “Oh! The Blue Aeroplanes!”

  7. perfumeophile

    thanks…those 3 names make sense of it…
    ps
    what? no “oh! ian anderson?” [lucky you, if true….]
    pps
    my answers
    ian wallace [highly unhip, i know] and massive attack
    ppps
    [can’t remember if i linked this here]
    video of pavement’s stephen malkmus and friends playing can live
    http://pitchfork.com/news/48844-watch-stephen-malkmus-perform-cans-ege-bamyasi/

  8. Pingback: Live preview: Shinda Shinda Shinda (June 15th 2013) | Clear And Refreshing

  9. Pingback: Hyacca: Telephone Number (2013 ver.) | Clear And Refreshing

  10. Pingback: Ten Years of Live Music in Tokyo Part 9: Hyacca | Clear And Refreshing

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