At 35, Shutoku Mukai is practically the elder statesman of Japanese indie rock. The guitarist and singer, whose nerdy demeanor suggests an off-duty salaryman rather than a rock star, has been behind some of the most abrasive and inventive music to make a dent in Japan’s pop charts during the past 10 years, inspiring a generation of off-kilter guitar slingers.
Mukai made his name as the frontman and creative force behind pioneering indie act Number Girl. That band’s nervy, clamorous rock — indebted to American guitar heroes such as Pixies and Sonic Youth — enjoyed considerable success at the turn of the decade, paving the way for the likes of Asian Kung-Fu Generation and Rin Toshite Shigure.
When Number Girl broke up at the peak of their fame in 2002, Mukai resisted the temptation to rehash past glories and instead turned his attentions to what had until then been a side project, Zazen Boys. Recruiting Number Girl drummer Ahito Inazawa, guitarist So Yoshikane and former Art-School bassist Hidekazu Hinata, he set about expanding on the possibilities suggested by his previous band’s final album, “Num-Heavymetallic.” While not entirely shucking the Number Girl sound, he made it a whole lot weirder, broadening the palate to include fiddly math rock and the influence of Prince and Public Enemy. Live, their songs spin off into lengthy improvised segments before suddenly kicking back in with another burst of razor-sharp riffage.
Each Zazen Boys album — which, in the vein of Led Zeppelin, are simply numbered sequentially — has drifted further into the realms of the bizarre. With Inazawa leaving at the end of 2004 to front postpunk outfit Vola & The Oriental Machine and Hinata parting ways with the band last year, Mukai’s creative music is freer than it’s ever been. This year’s “Zazen Boys 4″ finds unlikely inspiration in the 1980s synthesizer funk of Cameo, showcased on lead single “I Don’t Wanna Be With You.” It’s proved a turn-off for even some of the group’s most dedicated fans, but one suspects that a musician as restless as Mukai wouldn’t want it any other way.
Zazen Boys play Nov. 20 at Shibuya-Ax, Tokyo; Nov. 29 at Penny Lane 24, Sapporo; Dec. 1 at Club Junk Box, Sendai; Dec. 3 at Quarter, Aomori; Dec. 4 at Club Change Wave, Morioka; Dec. 8 at Club Quattro, Hiroshima; Dec. 10 at Namba Hatch, Osaka; Dec. 11 at Varit, Kobe; Dec. 12 at Dime, Takamatsu; Dec. 15 at Caparvo Hall, Kagoshima; Dec. 16 at Drum Logos, Fukuoka; Dec. 21 at Az Hall, Kanazawa; Dec. 22 at Club Riverst, Niigata; Dec. 24 at Club Junk Box, Nagano; Dec. 25 at Club Quattro, Nagoya. For details, see www.mukaishutoku.com