Chatmonchy go south by southwest

Shikoku girl rockers to target new fans at premier music- industry showcase

by Robert Michael Poole

“We want to establish our reputation as a rock band rather than a ‘female’ rock band. But I’ve noticed there are big differences in feeling between men and women, and it seems to be easier to convey how we feel and get into the rhythm as girls.”

So says Eriko Hashimoto, 26, vocalist of melodic-rock trio Chatmonchy, who since 2005 have reached the upper- echelons of the Japan charts with three gritty, emotional, yet vivacious albums. This has established them as one of the most popular all-girl bands in the country with live dates that have even taken in the prestigious Nippon Budokan in Tokyo.

Chatmonchy are now the latest Japanese act to venture to the United States with a gig at Texas’ world- renowned South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference.

“We’ve always wanted to play abroad” says bassist Akiko Fukuoka, 26, as she jumps excitedly to the edge of her seat. The band are also planning a short tour of the United States on top of that and hope to take in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but a full-scale assault on the American market is not yet on the horizon. Rather, 27-year-old drummer Kumiko Takahashi says the minitour is merely a dipping of the toe in fresh waters.

Record company Ki/oon, a Sony subsidiary, is now keen to help get the band overseas exposure.

Fukuoka seems aware of the challenge that has always faced Japanese acts trying to break into the U.S.: “We dream of releasing our album abroad and hopefully after performing some exciting live shows on our tour, we’d be thrilled if a few doors will open for us. However, it seems difficult for our company to schedule releases in the U.S.”

Chatmonchy will headline SXSW’s Japan Nite on March 19, alongside Omodaka — a solo project by Soichi Terada that fuses traditional Japanese folk with electro, and the Okamoto’s — a band from Tokyo best described as psychedelic garage in the vein of early Rolling Stones.

Japan Nite itself is spun off each year into a minitour taking in major cities in the U.S. It’s not yet confirmed, but it looks likely that Chatmonchy go it alone for their dates.

Despite several well-known acts from Japan participating in SXSW since 2005, including the likes of Bonnie Pink, HY, Ellegarden, Detroit 7 and last year’s all-girl rock headliners Scandal (on another Sony subsidiary, Epic), none have built a large enough fan base to warrant regular returns to the country, nor have they struck record deals out of it.

But Chatmonchy are nonchalant on the pressure to buck this trend.

“We want to challenge ourselves in other countries and see if we can convey our music with just the groove, without the lyrics (which may not be understood)” says Takahashi. “We want to (build a new fan base and) restart!” adds Fukuoka.

The Chatmonchy story itself is little known, with few specifics released by their company and little information discussed in Japanese media interviews, leading to a lot of false data circulating on English-language Web sites — something the girls are all keen to correct in their first English-media interview.

Firmly established as the band’s founder, Hashimoto explains: “My brother played in a band when I was young and I went to see his live show. It was the first concert I’d ever been to. There were so many three-piece bands there, and the cool appearance of the bands with three members struck me.

“I formed a three-piece band with girls simply because it was easier to deal with, but we didn’t think of ourselves as a female rock band per se.”

Hashimoto had been a brass-band member for six years through junior high and high school before being influenced by her brother, who taught her to play guitar. “There were many girls who wanted to play in a band, so once I started, I really got into it, but we were not yet Chatmonchy.”

Hashimoto settled on her first trio in the second year of high school, but it didn’t last as the other two members decided to go their separate ways after graduation.

“One of the members insisted on using the word ‘monchi,’ like ‘monkey’ ” explains Hashimoto. “Not a real monkey, but from an image of a cute monkey doll named ‘Monchhichi’ (from the Hiroshi Jinsenji-directed animation series ‘Futago no Monchhichi,’ which ran 130 episodes through 1980).

“She wanted to name our band ‘something-monchi’ or ‘monchi-something’ and we chose ‘something-monchi.’ We looked up a word that matched for monchi in a dictionary and found the word ‘chat,’ which caught our eyes when it was written, and so we became Chatmonchy!”

Bassist Akiko would then join Eriko’s Chatmonchy and the two performed just one show as a duo once a male drummer had dropped out right before a pending gig in April 2004. In the audience was drummer Takahashi, who already belonged to another band and, being a year older than the duo, was known to them only via the Light Music Club of their university in Tokushima, Shikoku.

The new lineup debuted in 2005. “We didn’t have management, so we made a copy of the CD again and again and sold it at the venues of our live shows in various regions, while I drove the band around in my car,” recalls Fukuoka.

“We sold a lot at our shows and earned money just to keep on touring. But we also sent the CD to various record companies, and finally we got a response from Sony, who invited us to meet Ki/oon.”

The girls’ success meant they would have to move to Tokyo, where Takahashi still finds it hard to adjust. “When we came back to Tokyo after a tour in the countryside, such as to Ehime or Niigata, I get, like, ‘Wow — so many people; is it possible?’ “

Musically, it’s Chatmonchy’s lyrics that really struck a chord with their Japanese fans, whom Hashimoto describes as “different in each region but, in general, all really sincere people.”

“We always write the lyrics first, and then put music to them” explains Fukuoka. “So sometimes we make happy lyrics and turn the tune into a sentimental ballad (and) we can do that because we add the music later.”

Main lyricist Hashimoto expands. “Even though a song has the sense of high-speed, it could be melancholic by using minor chords and it is easier to share the feeling of a song simply because we create the lyrics first.”

Despite limited English, the band have not been averse to adding the odd English lyric, such as on ‘Make Up! Make Up!’ from second album “Seimeiryoku” (Vitality, 2007).

“It’s about women’s daily makeup routine to make themselves beautiful. All women want to be beautiful, so we all have the task to do our makeup every day” explains Fukuoka. “But we only used English in the catchy parts of the song!”

On March 24, Chatmonchy will release the compilation “Hyoujyou,” which will feature a bonus disc of acoustic versions of their hits, including Takahashi on bongo and the sounds of noisy cars as they played on the street.

With the Chatmonchy story about to start a new chapter, the girls can’t wait to spend even more time together on their next adventure. “I think it’s more difficult for men” laughs Takahashi.

“It is sometimes suggested that when women only are together, it can also be really tough, especially three women, but we are together pretty much every day. There really is no problem for us!”

Chatmonchy’s new album “Hyoujyou — Coupling Collection” (Ki/oon) is out March 24. They will play SXSW Japan Nite in Austin, Texas, on March 19.