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Trans-Pacific partnership serves up universal sound

by Steve McClure

A few years back, the big news on the J-pop scene was the “independent producers boom.” Following the lead of the then-ubiquitous Tetsuya Komuro, freelance producers such as Takeshi Kobayashi (Mr. Children, My Little Lover), and Hiromasa Ijichi (Speed) were supposed to usher in an era in which a new generation of Japanese Phil Spectors and George Martins would raise J-pop to new heights of creative brilliance.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. While producers undoubtedly have a higher profile than the days when they were simply anonymous salarymen working for labels, there hasn’t been the explosion of artistic wonderfulness that many people had expected. Instead, Japan’s best-known producer is Tsunku, the man who gave the world Morning Musume. In the immortal words of showbiz legend Bud E. Luv, I really like what Tsunku is trying to do with Morning Musume — but hey, it’s not my cup of ocha.

To my way of thinking, producers should help artists realize their creative vision without imposing their own — unless they are a demented/inspired genius like Phil Spector. Which is why I find the collaboration between young Japanese band Feed and American producer Lenny Kaye (best known as guitarist/songwriter with the Patti Smith Group) so interesting.

“9 Songs” was recorded 18 months ago in New York, but its release was delayed after Sony Japan pulled the plug on its Zone label, which was originally going to release the album.

So is “9 Songs” still fresh?

“I would hope that when you make a great record you can listen to the record at any time over a period of years and it stays great,” Kaye told me when he was in Tokyo recently to help promote it. And there’s no doubt in Kaye’s mind that “9 Songs” is that kind of record. “There’s a kind of classic feel to the music of Feed, and that’s what we tried to bring out when we made the record,” he explained.

Feed vocalist Maya Saito says that working with Kaye was a two-way learning process. “He didn’t have any preconceived ideas — he listened to our music and then decided what would be the best way to produce it,” she recalls.

I’ve been a fan of Feed’s music ever since I first saw them play their second-ever gig in the bunkerlike confines of a live house in beautiful downtown Shimokitazawa, way back in early 1999. It was clear that this was a very special band, still a bit amateurish, but with obvious promise.

Since comparisons with other acts are perhaps inevitable, let’s just say that some people who’ve heard Feed’s music compare them to the Cranberries, mainly because of the keening, folk-tinged quality of Saito’s voice, which in some ways recalls that of the Irish band’s Dolores O’Riordan. But to me, at least, there’s a lot more depth and subtlety to Feed’s music. There’s a sense of mystic longing and a desire for transcendence (pretentious rock-crit alert!) suggested by the interplay of Saito’s voice, Shinsuke Komiyama’s guitar and Akifumi Ikeda’s bass, with drummer Taro Dai making sure that Starship Feed doesn’t leave the known universe altogether.

Tracks on “9 Songs” such as “Find Me” and “Without Knowing” feature beautifully realized soundscapes that are utterly unlike anything else currently coming out of Japan, proving that Kaye was an inspired choice as the album’s producer.

“Obviously, by Feed coming to an American producer, they wanted to hear their music through my ears,” explains Kaye. “My job was not to change it or make it more American — it was to make it more universal. I think that when Japanese bands try to sound like American bands, it’s kind of secondhand. I’m as interested in hearing Feed’s Japanese influences as they are in hearing my American ones, and because of that, you have a music that’s neither.”

Ikeda points out that one big difference between the band’s earlier, self-produced recordings and the material produced by Kaye on “9 Songs” is the sound of the guitars, which now have more depth and power. Says Komiyama: “We love that analog sound that we got in New York.”

Another cool thing about the “9 Songs” project is that TripMaster, the label on which the album is being released on June 27, is a joint venture between the four band members and their management company, De-I Productions, leading independent label Polystar and book/film production company Artist House. It’s a unique collaboration that’s particularly appropriate given the meeting of Japanese and American minds that makes “9 Songs” such a compelling and powerful work of art. On June 1 you must go to your local CD store and buy a copy — or several! It could change the way you think about Japanese music.