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Pop to the sixth power

by Steve McClure

Hermann H. & the Pacemakers are one of Japanese pop music’s brightest new hopes. As with the superlative Cymbals spotlighted in last week’s column, this six-piece band specializes in the musical genre known as “power pop.” But in the case of Hermann (as the band is collectively known), the emphasis is a little more on the power side of the equation.

Hermann H. & The Pacemakers enter the big league with the release of “Six Packs” on mainstream label east west Japan.

They’re a tight band with an incredible knack for coming up with catchy songs. These can be tender and lyrical, as in the single “Yoru ni wa Hoshi to Ongaku wo”; zany, as in the sci-fi-flavored “Newly Discovered Crater”; or just straight-ahead pop-rock, as in their latest single, “Kotoba no Hate ni Ame ga Furu.”

Their musical roots are firmly planted in the rich tradition of mid-’60s pop-rock, back before rock ‘n’ roll became plain old rock and lost a lot of its original innocence and charm. One of my colleagues says that Hermann’s music is heavily influenced by The Moon Riders, a Japanese band active from the mid-’70s till the mid-’80s. I must confess ignorance of The Moon Riders’ music, but the fact that the folks in Hermann draw on domestic as well as overseas influences is a healthy sign.

Like many other Japanese bands these days (Love Psychedelico is a prime example), Hermann got their start in what’s known as a “music circle” (a music club) at their university — Keio, in Tokyo. The band played its first gig at a Tokyo live house in January 1998 and since has built up a loyal following on the live-house circuit nationwide.

The band’s unquestioned leader is Yohei Okamoto, who, beside handling lead vocals and playing guitar, writes Hermann’s songs. It was he who envisioned creating a band with a unique identity, or feel, to differentiate it from other Japanese groups.

He succeeded in that respect. For a start, six-member bands aren’t so common here, or anywhere else, for the simple reason that too many cooks spoil the broth (as was always the problem with Jefferson Airplane, for example).

But each player in Hermann knows their place — in the best sense of the term. There’s no grandstanding, just incredibly tight, precise ensemble playing that is obviously the result of many, many hours of rehearsal. As well as Okamoto, the band’s instrumental lineup is drums, bass, second guitar, keyboards and Wolf. This latter individual (real name: Yuji Wakai) does not play an instrument. Although he does contribute some backing vocals, his main contribution is to jump around the stage like a crazy man, providing a surreal dose of anarchy as the other five members do their thing.

Okamoto, in contrast, is a pretty serious-minded guy. Last fall at a show at Shibuya’s Yaneura live house, I remarked to Okamoto that he must be happy because 90 percent of the audience were young women. He said that, on the contrary, such a gender imbalance worried him because he felt that if the band were to have any real commercial success, it would have to appeal to both sexes.

But there’s still something of the college music club about Hermann H. & the Pacemakers. The name itself is a bit of a giveaway. “Hermann H.” does not refer to British Invasion band Herman and the Hermits; it’s a reference to German novelist Hermann Hesse. The “Pacemakers” bit, though, does refer to Gerry and the Pacemakers, the mid-’60s Liverpool band responsible for such classics as “Ferry Cross the Mersey.”

Hermann got their first record deal with Warner Music Japan’s curiously named Warner Indies Network label. Curious because WMJ is part of the world’s largest media corporation, AOL Time Warner, which is no one’s small struggling indie.

Like some other Japanese labels, WMJ recognized the vitality of the Japanese indies sector and so set up its own quasi-indie imprint. Think of it as a sort of farm team, designed to nurture new talent until they’re ready for the big time.

And Hermann is ready. On Oct. 24, the band’s first full-length album, “Six Packs,” will be released on east west japan, one of WMJ’s mainstream labels. “Six Packs” is a great album, comprising both previously released singles and new material. The music is bright and confident, and it is my earnest hope that Hermann soon conquers the airwaves and sells millions upon millions of CDs. They deserve to. Check it out and see if you don’t agree.