Category Archives: Profiles

Profile: Satoru Ono

Japanese singer-songwriter Satoru Ono has a pretty wide ranging background, having performed as a satellite member of the experimental indie/folk/psychedelic/pop projects of no fixed membership Tenniscoats and Maher Shalal Hash Baz, as well as working with guitar pop darling Hideki Kaji. From his hometown of Kyoto he has a long association with the frightfully hip but a bit scattershot and confusing Second Royal label, and in his current home in Tokyo, he has various connections with the Twee Grrrls/Violet & Claire/indiepop crowd but seems happy to ply his trade wherever he’s welcome.

The core of his own musical output as a singer-songwriter (he currently performs in a ramshackle three-piece as the Satoru Ono Band) lies partly in a handful of tracks for compilations, but primarily in the trio of albums he released through Second Royal between 2005 and 2010, so it’s these three records I’ll be taking a brief look at here.

CD, Second Royal, 2005

2005’s Frankenstein is perhaps the oddest of the three from a musical perspective, suggesting that while Ono had come into the process with an already well-developed songwriting sensibility, he was less sure of himself in terms of production and arrangement. While the likes of To Be Loathsome, You and Me, and Domperi contain echoes of White Album/Abbey Road era Beatles, elsewhere curiously dissonant synths and drum machine beats challenge that mood, as on A Rum Tale and the wonderful, Stereolab-like psychedelic pop workout of Hascach, one of the album’s highlights. Early single Wavered in Cambridge combines Ono’s 60s UK pop and psychedelic influences with a sensibility still rooted in Japanese 1990s style songwriting that he will have been familiar with from his work with Hideki Kaji, while the closest thing to a straight-up rocker on the album, Conventional People, is densely packed with oddities of its own, the guitar and synth battling for the song’s soul over a descending chord progression that intentionally or otherwise recalls Puffy’s Asia no Junshin (itself a pretty transparent ELO pastiche), and Ono’s voice, a nasal half-whisper that was never going to be suited to rocking out, giving the song the impression of a piece of twee pop that just fell off a cliff. Put simply, it’s an album that tries to be half a dozen different things at once (the title is apt) and the end result is an eclectic, occasionally disorientating collection of songs with some seriously impressive songwriting at its core.

This version of Hascach performed live with a standard rock setup is an interesting and quite widely divergent take on the album version:

CD, Second Royal, 2007

Skipping ahead two years and Ono has refined his style rather more for 2007’s Days of Perky Pat. The strong core of classic songwriting still forms the backbone of the album, although now the arrangements have jettisoned the electronic and synth elements in favour of more timeless organ sounds backing up a traditional drums, guitar and bass setup. That’s not to say that Days of Perky Pat is in any way more limited in terms of its musical range, with Ono’s melodies effortlessly hitting sweet spot after sweet spot without ever seeming to repeat themselves and never getting stuck in the cliches of a particular scene and its associated generic rut. The album still packs surprises with the summery groove of Afternoon in My Own Festival kicking in just as it seemed like the album was settling into a pattern of uptempo guitar pop and late Beatles-influenced rock. Ono then follows it with Clown Song, with its echoes of The Kinks/Jam’s David Watts, and the full-on Glitterstomp of Two Wins and Three Losses. Days of Perky Pat is, in summary, a more coherent piece of production and arrangement, but doesn’t indicate any narrowing of Ono’s songwriting range, balancing a consistent atmosphere with discrete songwriting gems in a way that marks him as a songwriter with a consummate grasp of the intricacies of guitar pop.

 

CD, Second Royal, 2010

This is something that Ono developed and refined still further on 2010’s Tales from Cross Valley, this time with the help of producer Dave Naughton (who had previously worked with Belle & Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub). Again, there isn’t a duff moment on here, effortlessly channelling The Kinks, late Beatles, Elvis Costello and the less sonically-obsessed elements of 80s and 90s indiepop in a way that confidently keeps its lively steps on the right side of the line between timeless and merely retro. There are moments where the influences are worn recognisibly close to the sleeve, with C-Berry containing if not too much exactly, certainly enough of Costello’s Oliver’s Army to be easily noticeable. Again, there is little in the way of repetition, even of material and ideas from previous albums, but a sense of what kind of range of material a Satoru Ono album will contain might now be settling, with powerpop rockers (Old Rose Stout Union), bouncy, breezy Beatlesy guitar pop numbers (I Will Be There) and faintly eerie waltz-time ballads (Moon it’s You). The only moment where the upbeat, summery, classic guitar pop atmosphere breaks down is on the dreamy Above Jewel, with its fragile female vocals, atmospheric synth backdrop and distant beats recalling electronic-tinged 90s lo-fi indiepop that groups like the Trembling Blue Stars sometimes played with. What Ono never allows to happen is for the hooks and melodies to lag, sag or drag in any way, and if Tales from Cross Valley doesn’t exactly move him on substantially from Days of Perky Pat, it certainly solidifies his position as one of Japan’s foremost guitar pop songwriters.

Satoru Ono Band: C-Berry

One interesting way in which Ono does seem to be experimenting is by writing new material in Japanese rather than English for what might be the first time. I know a few Japanese songwriters who prefer to write lyrics in English, saying that it’s difficult to get Japanese sentences to flow with pop music rhythms, which makes me wonder if one of the enduring differences between R&B-influenced Western classic songwriting and Japanese kayoukyoku-originated pop might be related to differences in how the styles treat rhythm (punk or postpunk is flexible enough in how it treats vocals for differences between Japanese and English not to be an issue, while dance music goes perhaps the other way and forces English to behave in a more disciplined fashion). In any case, new songs that Ono has been debuting live recently indicate that his next album is likely to have a significant amount of Japanese language content. That’s not to say of course that there’s anything particularly wrong with his English (it’s occasionally awkward and unnatural to native ears, but it’s far from the blathering awfulness of bands like Love Psychedelico), but as a challenge to express himself in a language which he speaks in his daily life but which exists almost entirely outside the musical tradition from which his own music draws, it’s an interesting step.

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Profile: Praha Depart

This is the last of my posts about the Japanese indie bands at the Call And Response Records New Year party at Kichijoji GOK Sound on January 22nd and this is actually a double layered bit of self-promotion since in addition to the party tomorrow, Call And Response are going to release their new CD, Dot., on February 1st.

Dot.

Aside from being one of the hardest working and most self-motivated bands I know, Praha Depart are one of the most explosive live experiences there is. I saw them for the first time somewhere around 2007 performing as a bassless three-piece with Mai Yano singing and doing strange little Gypsy dances over this intense, propulsive, tribal dance-punk. The name “Praha Depart” means “Prague department store” and is I think an obscure reference to the group’s fashion sense (they think it looks like the kind of thing you’d buy in a department store in Prague) but there’s this curious Eastern European atmosphere that runs through their music. It’s not as explicit as a group like Gogol Bordello, and it’s hard to know if it’s even intentional (it may just as easily be the influence of Japanese festival music, which can sometimes sound similar).

Portrait Man (bassless version)

Mai eventually started playing bass — they have experimented with adding bassists to the band to free her up for dancing, but they have never lasted long — which filled out the sound, but it’s really the sheer, tribal intensity of Junpei’s drumming and Tsukasa’s multi-layered, almost psychedelic guitars that’s the group’s signature. There are echoes of the poppier moments of Rip Rig & Panic and possibly Bristol contemporaries Pigbag in their sound, primarily in the rhythm, but there are reference points scattered all over the place. What sets them apart from other rhythm-orientated Tokyo artpunk bands (apart from Junpei’s occasionally ludicrous drum solos) is that while many of their contemporaries treat melody as something alien, to be handled with suspicion, employed as a conceptual component and delivered with perhaps an apologetic layer of self-deprecating irony, Praha Depart embrace it, Mai’s vocals running the full range from deep and rich to piercing Lydia Lunch style shrieks and Tsukasa’s guitar picking up hook after hook.

Praha Depart: Portrait Man (album version)

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Tessendorico, Tantan to Tantan, Girls Pancakes

Continuing my notes on some of the Tokyo indie bands who will appear at the Call And Response New Year party on January 22nd, here are some short descriptions of three more of the bands who are going to perform.

Tessendorico are a postpunk quartet with a percussive twin-drum setup and a neat line in scratchy, dance-orientated Gang of Four/Contortions type angular punk-funk. They emerged out of the similar sounding Chewz a little over a year ago and they continue to organize the semi-regular Future Music event, bringing together similar artpunk spirits from around Japan.

Tessendorico: Chika Song

A minor but interesting point about Tessendorico is that they’re a rare band in Japan with a lone female guitarist. Japanese indie is pretty good at giving boys and girls something closer than usual to equal status, with plenty of female sound engineers, lots of excellent bassists and drummers, and some outstanding female-dominated bands – overall I’d hazard a guess at a ratio of something like 70/30 male/female which is a lot better than you seem to find in, for example, the UK. Obviously all-girl bands and a lot of female-fronted bands have female guitarists, but you rarely see girls like Mayumi Sekiguchi just lurking in the corner, cutting awkward shapes on guitar in male dominated bands. Part of it might be the opportunities for customization of sound through multiple effects pedals lending itself to the still largely male tendency towards tech-geekery (I remember before a gig once seeing a guitarist arrive at the venue, then casually sit down, take out a portable soldering iron and start customizing his guitar just for fun while he waited for his soundcheck), but I’m open to other explanations.

Tessendorico: Demo

Tantan to Tantan are a band I must confess to knowing rather less about other than that they are a young, Stooges-influenced garage punk band, so I’ll just direct you to their Myspace (their only web presence at this time) where you can hear a couple of rough and ready demo tracks (I recommend Shocker).

Girls Pancakes: Crash

Girls Pancakes are what Time Out Tokyo describes as an “unashamedly twee” Tokyo indiepop group. More than “unashamed”, they wear the label proudly, with guitarist Sumire Taya a founder of all-girl DJ collective Twee Grrrls Club and owner of ultra-indie clothing/accessories/record shop Violet & Claire. The above video of Girl Pancakes covering The Primitives’ Crash is a bit old as they have now brought in Makoto from Smilelove, but it gives a good picture of the kind of fragile, indie melodicism you can expect from them.

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Profile: Tacobonds

I’m helping to organise an event in Tokyo on Sunday January 22nd that features a lot of my favourite local bands so over the next week, I’ll be profiling a different one every day. Obviously part of the hope is for anyone in the Tokyo area to find something that catches their interest and come along, although this is just as much an opportunity to wax lyrical about bands that I think are wonderful and/or lovely for anyone to enjoy.

The first band I’m going to talk about are Tacobonds:

BPM4

Tacobonds have been around in one form or another since 1998 and are part of a generation of bands emerging from Rikkyo University in the late 90s who were at least in their own minor way influential in the Tokyo indie/alternative scene. Joshua Comeback and The Hangovers are a couple of other examples of bands who came out of the same Rikkyo band circle; Tokyo Pinsalocks were members of a different club at the same university.

Originally Tacobonds were formed by vocalist Toshikazu Sasaki, with guitarist Naoki Ogawa joining a week or two later. They ditched their original bassist and drummer in 2003 and broughit in Arito Yano on drums and Yukiyo on bass, with their sound slowly evolving from the old-school emo-ish alternative rock/punk sound that was common to many Japanese bands of the post-Number Girl generation towards the more progressive, rhythmically tricky and riff-heavy sound displayed on their 2005 full-length debut album Sick of Listening (produced by AxSxE from Natsumen).

By 2009 Ogawa had stopped using effects pedals and the group were moving towards a more stripped down, postpunk-influenced sound based on quirky but confident grooves and a less heavy, more scratchy, furious and dynamic sound. The same year, Sasaki left, leaving  Ogawa as the group’s de facto leader and forcing them to reconsider their sound again. What followed was six months with a rotating cast of guest vocals from local luminaries such as Panicsmile, Bossston Cruizing Mania, Groundcover., Mahiruno and others before they emerged at the other end with a new, more confident, slimmed down lineup, that took more of a tag-team approach to vocals, often emphasising the contrast between Ogawa’s punk boy yelling and Yukiyo’s demure, cooing melodies, but with subtle changes in time signature still forming the key to the songs’ dynamics and Ogawa showing a revived interest in effects pedals.

This Count

It was this lineup and these songs that formed the basis of the group’s 2011 album No Fiction, released on Disk Union affiliate label Take A Shower Records (who also released The Mornings and Bossston Cruizing Mania the same year). The great thing about Tacobonds is the way they are able to make quite complicated, technical, even fiddly things seem so natural, intuitive and accessible. Throughout the music they keep dropping hooks for the audience to catch onto, each member seems instinctively aware of what the others are doing even when they let things fall out of synchronisation or descend into a tightly controlled spiral of chaos.

For me the best thing about them is hearing audience members break out in screams when they drop from one time signature into another. I mean, isn’t that brilliant: audiences going nuts, punching the air and getting all stagedivey at a change in goddamn time signature? Well you might not think so, but trust me, it is. And it’s the passion and sheer rocking-outness of it that makes it so kinetic, so immediate. I remember once seeing them at a gig where Ogawa broke the guitar amp during a particularly frenzied wig-out, but the other two kept up the same dance groove for what may have been only five or six minutes, but from the sweat pouring off Yano’s face looked like far longer, while problems were diagnosed and a replacement was found, before Ogawa plugged back in and casually as you like all three members swung straight back into the song at the exact moment they’d left off, drawing their energy out of the air and spitting it back in the audience’s faces. And in Tokyo there are few bands around who can touch them.

Fiction

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