Coldfeet raise pop to a higher plane

by Roland Kelts

“Sure, we want to be famous,” Coldfeet’s chanteuse, Lori Fine, says a little defensively in the faux tavern environs of Shibuya’s TGIFridays, stabbing at a half-eaten pizza quesadilla. Fine is a former model and has the effortless poise and posture of one — minus the myopic egotism.

Fiery, slinky and seductive onstage and on record, her offstage persona is disarmingly simple and humble. She takes a sip of her favorite beverage: lukewarm water.

“But we really want to mix things up, jazz and pop, house and hip hop, East and West, male and female. We’re not willing to be authorial about marketing. Even if sometimes,” she admits, flashing wide, Audrey Hepburn eyes, “there’s a conflict.”

Musical duo Coldfeet may be the odd couple of Tokyo’s pop scene. While so many of this city’s performers are self-conscious imitators with lots of color, pseudo-punk stances and hip-hop romps (but little depth), Coldfeet tap into more archetypal pleasures: artful melodies, a teasing lyric, a finely tuned phrase or riff. More urbane than urban.

Fine is the daughter of a Jewish-American clinical psychologist from New York and a Japanese mother, and was raised on dad’s jazz records and mom’s koto-playing in rural Oregon. The producer, bassist and musical polymath is Japanese Atsushi Tsunoda, or “Watusi” as he calls himself (after the African-inspired ’60s dance craze). He was raised in rural Gunma Prefecture.

They’ve been making CDs and performing club dates in Tokyo for five years, evoking what few other of the city’s otherwise progressive pop practitioners seem to care about: sophistication.

After several nationwide tours, David Lynch-style videos on MTV Japan and Europe, a Top 10 single, “In My Lucid Dream,” and major label support from Sony Japan, Coldfeet are now reaching back to Fine’s homeland across the Pacific. This spring they signed with Mick Inagawa, a veteran music biz impresario who spent 10 years in New York and helped sell DJ Krush.

They’re blanketing the lucrative U.S. AOR market with demo CDs this fall, and they’re planning to play Austin, Texas’ South-by-Southwest festival and the newly anointed Tokyo-New York festival in Manhattan, both next spring. Their new CD, “JazzFeet,” due out in two months, will be split between original Afro-Cuban-inspired songs and jazz standards. One single is a spirited, bilingual rendering of Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On A’ My House,” a tribute to the late singer, who died in June.

Coldfeet may not be authorial about marketing, but they are starting to get aggressive.

“We want to focus on the live show now,” a clearly exhilarated Watusi tells me as we drive the sterile streets of Tokyo’s western suburbs well after midnight. Hours earlier, at the end of the duo’s three-night engagement this summer at the swank Yokohama Blue Note, a packed room of 20-year-olds sat entranced, bobbing their heads and grinning to the infectious rhythms.

Backed by horns, percussion and vibes, Fine and Watusi stirred the kind of heat you expect from a rock show. The Japanese kids, with one table of energetic gaijin, took it in enthusiastically. Fine sang her hyped-up, rhythmically forceful “Come On A’ My House,” switching into Japanese for the verses, and the place was screaming for more.

Coldfeet rock up their jazz, and they’re best when strong. “We want more spontaneity, more energy,” Watusi continues, referring to his preprogrammed studio sounds that hamper live improvisation. Another conflict: How to create aurally complex tracks in the studio that can come alive extemporaneously onstage.

Some songs sound like a jazzier, wittier Everything But the Girl; others blend scat rhythms and discordant horns with gender-bending lyrics: “Woman be a man for me/Hold your baby tight/Woman be a man for me/Show me how it’s done tonight.” The interplay of conflicting musical and sexual identities seems an accurate portrait of today’s confused Tokyo.

Fine’s life in Japan has been schizophrenic. Hired as a model, then as a lead actress in “Hide to Rosanna Ai No Kiseki (Hide and Rosanna Love Miracle),” a TV drama about a real-life Japanese male and Italian female singing duo that won nationwide attention, the suddenly sought-after gaijin stubbornly stuck to music over acting. “It was fun,” she says now of her television stardom, “but I only wanted to make music. When I heard Watusi’s work, I knew we’d make the right pair.”

In 1996, Watusi was a part of drum ‘n’ bass pioneers Mushroom Head. He was also producing and making commercial jingles for just about everyone who could book him. He wanted out.

“Lori sent me back a demo tape of a song I sent her. She was just scatting ‘cold feet, cold feet,’ I loved it. Her voice and humor were perfect,” says Watusi. Lori was working with another musical partner, but she felt electrified by Watusi’s musical vocabulary, which draws upon the soft and hard ends of the funk-jazz-pop spectrum — Sade and Grace Jones.

Sony sent the duo to Morocco last winter to shoot some videos (“We got so many good vibes,” Watusi says). They returned to Tokyo and recorded a brilliantly diverse set of songs that Sony refused to release overseas, owing to contractual conflicts. The duo left Sony during another corporate ristura (restructuring). Like so much in Japan, Sony Japan is Sony Japan, internationalism be damned.

With America now beckoning, I ask them if they’d leave their Tokyo haunts for the lure of fame overseas. They shake their heads. “Tokyo’s focused on the underground,” Watusi says. “You can get exactly what you want here, because the mainstream is not so loud. The offbeat is for everyone.”