DEBUTING AT THE TOP

Love Psychedelico hits the blue notes

by Steve McClure

It’s every struggling musician’s dream: One moment you’re scrounging around for gigs and a record deal while trying to keep food on the table and pay the rent, and the next moment, you’ve got a hit record on your hands and suddenly the talk of the town.

That’s more or less what’s happened in the last year or so to Naoki Sato and Kumi (she prefers to use a single name), who together comprise the “unit” known as Love Psychedelico.

Their first album, audaciously titled “The Greatest Hits,” has sold well over 1 million copies since being released on Jan. 11. It’s a stunningly assured debut effort. The songs are replete with catchy hooks and riffs that you just can’t get out of your head, and the production style is clean, bold and gutsy — light-years away from the anemic sound that’s all too typical of Japanese pop/rock music.

Kumi, 24, was born in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, while Sato, 27, hails from Shizuoka Prefecture. Kumi cites the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and Sheryl Crow as her main musical influences, while Sato mentions Van Halen, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

“We were influenced by music from the ’60s and ’70s because it makes effective use of ‘blue notes,’ which I like to use to express my feelings,” says Sato. Which explains Love Psychedelico’s decidedly yogaku (foreign music) sound.

Kumi and Sato first met in 1994 while attending Aoyama Gakuin University, where they were both members of the music club. Finding they had common musical interests and a desire to make their own music, they started writing songs together.

“At first, we called ourselves Psychedelic Orchestra,” says Kumi, though she stresses that there is nothing psychedelic about the duo’s music nor does the group’s name have any special meaning.

The duo sent some demo versions of their compositions to an FM radio station, which liked their music and decided to play some of it on the air. That got a lot of good reactions from the station’s listeners, and soon several production companies and record labels were falling over themselves trying to sign Love Psychedelico.

Their first single, “Lady Madonna Yuutsu Naru Spider” (which roughly translates as “Lady Madonna Becomes a Melancholy Spider”) was released independently through Tower Records. It’s a powerful, punchy track, dominated by Kumi’s gutsy, in-your-face vocal and Sato’s hypnotic riffs.

“Lady Madonna” was re-released in April on Victor Entertainment after the group signed a contract with the major label, and so far the single has sold some 70,000 copies. A respectable amount, of course, but no indication of the extraordinary success their debut album would have.

Victor launched what turned out to be a very effective promotion campaign focusing on a simple black-and-white drawing of a vampish-looking Kumi holding a microphone. It was the perfect visual complement to Love Psychedelico’s direct, stripped-down rock sound.

“It was really well done,” says Kumi of the label’s promo blitz. The buzz then started to build around Love Psychedelico. Their second single, “Your Song,” was released in July and sold some 140,000 copies, while their third single, “Last Smile,” has sold some 225,000 units since being released last November.

In conversation, Sato reveals himself as a dedicated pop craftsman for whom the sound of a track is every bit as important as the melody and the lyrics.

“We oversee everything to do with our sound,” explains Sato. “The arrangement, the mix, the people we work with during recording, such as the recording and mastering engineers — we coordinate everything.”

Sato’s attention to detail is evident throughout “The Greatest Hits.” For example, during the chorus of the song “I Mean Love Me,” there’s some distortion on Kumi’s vocal track, which gives the song’s climax just the right amount of extra dramatic impact.

Sato says his ambition is to someday record with recording engineer Andy Johns, who has worked with Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, the Rolling Stones and many other rock mega-acts. “I love the way he records drums,” says Sato.

One of the most striking things about Love Psychedelico’s music is the way Kumi sings Japanese lyrics with an American-English intonation. And while most Japanese artists throw a few token English words and phrases into their songs, roughly half of the lyrics in any given Love Psychedelico song are in English.

“The music that we play ultimately comes from the blues, and the language of the blues was English,” says Sato. “And since we were born in Japan, mixing English and Japanese is natural for us. For example, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits is English, but his guitar playing and his voice sound American.”

Kumi says her “American” style of singing is due to having lived in San Francisco from age 2 to 7. “So I probably developed my sense of language, my listening ability at that time.”

Love Psychedelico’s extensive use of English (some of it, unfortunately, rather “nonlinear,” as it were) and very contemporary “yogaku-ish” sound (think Sheryl Crow) would seem to make the group an obvious choice for overseas promotion. The duo make their international debut March 16 at the South by Southwest music-industry conference in Austin, Texas, followed by live dates at clubs in New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But they’re not nervous.

“It’ll be no different from playing a gig in Shibuya,” says Sato.