Moving on from Bo Ningen, Momoiro Clover and Dempa Gumi inc., it’s also worth looking into the mechanics of how compatible experimental/alternative music and idol pop really is. One way that some friends of mine and I examined this recently was by a number of us going away and trying to tackle songs by Perfume in each artist’s own style. The result, entitled Chocolate Discord (named after a band formed by some of my Fukuoka friends) was made just for fun and given out as a free gift to audience members at a friend of mine’s Valentine’s Day live event last month.
Firstly, a quick note on the artists who took part. None of them are famous, and nearly all of them produced their covers quite quickly (time frames ranged from a couple of weeks to a single afternoon). The majority of the songs are by non-Japanese artists based in or at least who spend a lot of time in Japan. There was no particular decision on my part to make it like this — it just ended up this way. Perhaps the short timeframe and the white man’s legendary lack of fastidiousness combined to exclude their more conscientious Japanese peers. The musicians cover a range of styles, but generally lean towards the avant-garde/noise end of the musical spectrum. However, there are electronic, indie and rock musicians also involved. I’ve added Soundcloud links where the artists have made their songs available online.
Now I think it’s kind of debatable now to what extent Perfume are an idol group anymore. In fact, apart from their naff “Akihabalove” diversion and maybe that pair of shockingly bad early songs they made in Hiroshima, they’ve always had a bit too much of Yasutaka Nakata’s post-Shibuya-kei fashion-consciousness to them, too much of a distinctive, easily recognisable style for them to be absorbed entirely into idoldom. However, it’s certainly fluffy, bubblegum pop that hits a lot of the buttons of idol music, so bearing in mind these caveats, I think there were some interesting points that came out of it.
One thing that was true almost right across the board was that nearly all the cover versions, and certainly those by artists at the more avant-garde end of the scale, tried to bring some degree of minimalism to Yasutaka Nakata’s original arrangements. Part of this, I suspect, was a combination of the short timeframe and musicians’ own laziness. It’s also a logical response for someone looking for a new approach to Nakata’s style, given that more than almost any producer in Japan, he prefers to over- rather than under-produce his music.
A lot of the groups extracted just one or two aspects of Perfume’s originals and built their own material around those. The no wave/postpunk band Uruseeyo’s take on Baby Cruising Love just takes the title, which the singer bellows over and over while the rest of the band build a doom-laden, crashing industrial cacophony around it. Human Wife’s brutal take on Game is also a case in point (you may want to turn your volume down to safe levels about now):
Rhythm guitarist James Hadfield (who doesn’t hate Perfume as much as drummer Clay Jarvis) explains the process thus:
“Human Wife instinctively recoil from any song with more than three chords in it (we’ve discovered that one chord is often more than enough), so it didn’t take long to rule out just about every track in the Perfume canon. In the end, it was a toss-up between “Game” and “Edge”, and since Trinitron were already planning to do the latter (and would probably do it far better than we could), we went for the former. I’d originally thought of taking the opening chord sequence and playing it in a monolithic sludge/doom metal style, but Clay, our drummer and Christian Vander-esque MD, felt that it sounded too much like grunge. He voted that we do it in a Brainbombs-esque midtempo scuzz rock version, which seemed to work better, and after a few run-throughs we’d pared the song down to a couple of basic chord progressions and a whole lot of distortion. We recorded three takes, overdubbed vocals on the best one, then Clay took the recordings home and spent about five minutes mastering them. Nakata would be proud.”
Electronic project Floppy Knobs’ version of Linear Motor Girl just takes the lyrics, translates them into English, passes them through a voice synthesiser and chops them up, combining the result with fragments the producer already had lying around.
“Well, it started out as something else. Lately, I’ve been making instrumental music using only an iPhone and had thought to try and remix an unused track I had previously been working on. Anyways, it ended up sparking my synapses in all kinds of un-usable ways and on the morning I had arranged to hand in the piece, it went out the window and thereupon it was decided to opt for a Jac Berrocal / Flying Lizards / pop-on-a-rope approach.”
Curiously though, despite the musical backdrop not being taken from the original song, the repetitive, chiming loop in the background is startlingly reminiscent of another Perfume song, Chocolate Disco, which appears in two versions by other artists on the collection.
Kanterbury, a.k.a. Kantaro Sato of indie rock band Randy & The Pyramids, did an irony-laced, exaggeratedly cheerful take on it. He says:
“The most important point in the song is the phrase “Chocolate Disco” itself. It’s a funny phrase. I liked it. The original has a story to tell, but my version is the anguished cry of a lonely guy who’s desperate to get chocolate on Valentine’s Day, although basically I just wanted to do a song like Prince. The other thing is the line “The classroom turned into a dancefloor.” I repeat that line twice because it’s the most ridiculous line in the song. It’s a good phrase.”
Kaki, a.k.a. Zana Fabjan Blazic also draws attention to this phrase in her epic, dark electro version of the song, intoning the line blankly during a lull in the arrangement:
Neither Kanterbury nor Kaki take explicitly minimal aproaches, although Zana’s vocals on her “Shockoladige Disko” are at least emotionally minimalist, and the beat grinds the original’s bounce down into a relentless, Teutonic panzer assault, stripping the original of its joie de vivre, leaving a hollow rhetorical shell. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of the approach to cover versions of Zana’s Slovenian countrymen Laibach, and like many of the artists on Chocolate Discord, it interprets pop music primarily by stripping layers away, even if it then builds it back up quite slickly in its own image.
I worked with Zana and co-vocalist Kaname K, as well as producer N’toko on Trinitron’s version of Edge. Again, we stripped away a lot from the song, basing it on the more minimal Love the World b-side version than the eleborate remix that appeared on Triangle and replacing the disco beat with a motorik Krautrock drum pattern. We also stripped away the heart-stopping harmonies in the “loving you” segment, instead having Zana and Kaname intone the lyrics, one in English and one in Japanese, overlapping their words to create a disorientating babble of voices:
Part of the reason for cutting this stuff is simply because it’s difficult, but also some of the sweeter parts of pop music just don’t work in alternative rock. If you’re The Jesus and Mary Chain or The Velvet Underground, you can take honey-sweet 60s pop and make it dark and forboding, but that’s because both types of music share a common set of blues-based chord progressions. J-pop on the other hand, does not have a common base with most alternative/indie rock. Krautrock tried to abandon blues, but in the case of the Neu! style minimalism that Trinitron sometimes plays with, they also abandoned pretty much everything else too. Playing motorik with more than two chords is gilding the lily.
Sato picked up on some of the same points with his and rakugo performer/former Lolipop Guitar Lesson backing singer Koyomi’s version of Vitamin Drop. Rather than gutting the original as Trinitron and many other groups did, they kept mostly to the original structure, but performed it as a guitar-led piece of 60s pop/indie rock. Says Sato:
“We chose Vitamin Drop because it was one of the most pop songs Perfume have, and we just tried to make an indie version of it. The chord progressions are actually very strange though, and quite complicated chords. Before I tried to cover it, I didn’t think of it as a J-pop style song. It sounded more sophisticated, simpler, but actually it was very J-pop. It uses a lot of jazz chord progressions, and the chord changes twice in the space of one bar, which is typical for Japanese pop.
On the other hand, the synth in the original version of Vitamin Drop keeps going on in one speaker, which productionwise is quite radical. There are lots of things that make it seem simpler than it really is.”
Jazz chords are a staple of Shibuya-kei, and should probably be attributed primarily to Nakata’s background, although Japanese pop generally has since the 50s and 60s been strongly jazz- rather than R&B-influenced. Deceptive simplicity is also a feature of Nakata’s work, but it’s also a feature of a lot of the best idol music. Something bright and brash to catch your attention, but something complex happening once you get in. Momoiro Clover take simple melodies and arrange them in an unusual and often complex way, not wearing the process on their sleeves so much as hitting you round the face with it, but with Perfume the complexity insinuates its way into you more subtly.
Tokyo-based noisenik Dave McMahon was possibly the most enthusiastic participant in the whole enterprise, producing three separate tracks with different groups or projects. I’ll leave him to outline each track in his own words:
Ne~e – Shigai:
“This was an obvious choice for Shigai to cover because of the way the jaunty form and insipidly optimistic lyrics seemed to present a nice potential contrast with our sexually repressed hooligan posturing. We’ve used samples of Yuukorin and Bakunyuu Yankie in the past, so I guess there’s a sort of intersection with the dank underboob of idol culture there. Our regular co-conspirators from Napalm Death is Dead / Frozen Panty and His Dirty Hearts are also confirmed Momoclo fans, so it seems to be a recurring thread – maybe even moreso in the psychosexually scatalogical noise/grind scene than with other areas of the J-underground because of the Maruo Suehiro esque Undo-Gi sporting paedopop qualities of acts like Aka Inu Shimai and the Akiba vibes of Kuzuha, Gejirekuto Orugan, Abisheika, etc… Chris and Kenny weren’t familiar with the track, so I boshed together the pitch-shifted tatters of the original track’s intro in my computer, before heading out to the studio, reaming that through all my effects and felching the results back into the PC for further abuse. I managed to get hold of Chris one night after work to record do a vocal take down a Nishi Shinjuku alleyway, around the corner from Los Apsom, just before last train time.”
575 – Jahiliyyah
“My initial idea for this was to do a ‘straighter’, chugging drone reading, following the actual song structure fairly closely and with a full, multitracked vocal. To this end, I supplied the others with a recording of me jamming along on synth and FX whilst listening to the original on headphones (in the same studio session as with the initial Ne~e detonations) and sent it to Ezra, James and Cal, hoping to get at least one sticky, four-way, collective session after they’d each had their own individually wicked way with my discharge. Schedule constraints ruled this out, but luckily the dark master Cal was on hand to sort it all out ‘in the mix’. The final cut is probably not recognisable as 575 even to those who know what they’re looking for, but it definitely sounds like Jahiliyyah and rest assured that to keep the lawyers fed and clothed, there are still some samples of the actual song drooping feebly forth at strategic points.”
Dream Fighter – Hitodama:
“I got unreasonably excited about the prospect of recording this as an ‘actual song’ with ‘clearly defined’ multitracked parts well before I actually had any idea of how I was going to tackle it, having never ever done such a thing in all my years as a ‘musician’. I knew that I wanted to use my reed organ and guitar, and was thinking along the lines of Galaxie 500 and Space Needle, as well as Dolly Collins’ organ arrangements. With the deadline looming, I found YouTube vids of folk doing guitar and iPad covers, worked out the chords, improvised around them for a few days to try and strike something like a stylistic fit and then set about recording on the last night before the deadline. Unfortunately, in a schoolboy error, I neglected to lay down any type of rhythm track or metronome and started with two layers of reed organ taped in my kitchen, before decamping to the studio from 1am, to get the two guitar parts and doubled up vocals. Seeing as they were all simple parts, I’d expected to be done in about an hour, but the eccentric timekeeping of the organ tracks kept throwing me off and had me in the studio until after the first train had already gone. The timing is still clearly out, but hey ho… I’m not sure where the idea to use birdsong came from, but in the end the dawn chorus, replete with cock-a-doodle doing seems to fittingly frame a fitful night battling with the creeping fear and sadness of the subconscious… or… ‘dream fighting’… if you will…”
These are really the kinds of techniques that these musicians would employ in covers of pretty much anything — stripping away the parts of the song that don’t work with what they’re trying to do and either cutting out the beating heart to replace it in a new body, or just selecting a few prime cuts, dicing them and making a casserole. In terms of idol music, what does it reveal?
Obviously from a musical perspective, it reveals what we knew from the start: that these are two opposite poles of the music scene, with little overt similarity in sound or style. However, what’s come through in previous posts this week is also the idea of the “anarchic energy” and “anything goes” nature of idol music, as well as the power to bring you back to a childlike way of thinking about music. Bearing that in mind, I think what comes though in these covers is something similar. There is a cavalier air towards the source material rather than a sombre and respectful approach, a sense that the musician can pick and choose which bits they like, taking a bite here and there, chucking away, discarding bits that taste bad, mashing them up together into a paste like Jahiliyyah or only eating the red bits like Human Wife. There’s also an attitude like children kicking over towers made of building blocks in the gleeful way some of these songs are mutilated, or more subtly of rearranging letter blocks to say rude words as in the way the likes of Kaki and Kanterbury elegantly but mischievously altered the meaning of Chocolate Disco.
The full compilation is available to download from this link for a while, although obviously it is ABSOLUTELY NOT for commercial use:
1. Ne~e – Shigai
2. L-I-N-E-A-R Motor Girl – Floppy Knobs
3. Edge – Trinitron
4. Chocolate Disco – Kanterbury
5. 575 – Jahiliyyah
6. Baby Cruising Love – Uruseeyo
7. GAME – Human Wife
8. Dream Fighter – Hitodama
9. Vitimin Drop – Kanterbury and Koyomi
10. Shockoladige Disko – Kaki