“I hope foreign listeners can persevere with Japanese music,” laughs bespectacled musician Ichiro Yamaguchi. “Sure, there’s a lot of crap music here, but there’s a lot of good stuff, too. Intelligent music is in the minority now, but I believe it will become mainstream in the future.”
Yamaguchi’s doing his part. His band, Sapporo five-piece Sakanaction, have found their way into Japan’s music charts despite an often deliberately contrary sound that mixes elements of rock, electro and folk music, with the balance of ingredients changing from album to album and even song to song.
“When my father was young, in the ’60s, there were student protests, and their soundtrack was Japanese roots and folk music — artists such as Masato Tomobe or Wataru Takada,” says Yamaguchi. “I am very much influenced by these folk singers. They sang about political and social issues, but always in a direct way.
“Later I got into electro music — overseas artists first, such as Kraftwerk or Jeff Mills or Tortoise; that fusion of house music and minimal techno. In Japan, I like Rei Harakami; I’m very much influenced by him, because he rearranges folk and roots music into electronica.”
But Yamaguchi’s influences are not purely musical. The band’s name comprises the words sakana (fish) and “action,” and it is in the murky underwater world where Yamaguchi finds his own philosophy.
“I’m influenced by freshwater fish,” he explains. “They live in cold water, sometimes underneath the rocks, and they continue swimming against a strong current. I would like to live like them; always swimming against the flow.
“Also, I like fishing,” he laughs.
Sakanaction’s story began when Yamaguchi signed a development deal with Victor back in 1999, after winning an audition with his old band Dutchman in Sapporo. The band combined folk music with the Britpop sound of bands such as Oasis and Radiohead, and a smattering of Japanese melody. But it struggled to find recognition, and eventually Yamaguchi struck out alone. Victor kept him on its roster as he DJed and learned to make tracks electronically, evolving into Sakanaction’s piscine pop by 2005.
The group of musicians he’d selected along the way — Motoharu Iwadera (guitar), Ami Kusakari (bass), Emi Okazaki (keyboard) and Keiichi Ejima (drums) — became full-time members in 2006, and the whole band relocated to Tokyo in 2008. While Yamaguchi is the chief songwriter, the other four members are closely involved in the arrangement of the band’s music.
“We have a rule not to make any songs that can’t be sung with just one acoustic guitar,” explains Yamaguchi of Sakanaction’s songwriting process. “After I’ve written a song, we arrange it together. Once it starts to take shape, I leave the studio, and the other four members continue working on it. That way, when I come back to the song, I can listen to it objectively and give my feedback. Then I leave again until the arrangement is almost complete, and we record it together. So the songs go through several filters.”
The process is paying off. In January this year, Sakanaction were plaiced — sorry, placed — at No. 3 in the official Oricon chart with their 1980s-styled electropop single “Arukuaraundo,” quickly bringing them a new school of fans. New LP “kikUUiki” hit the same number in the album charts on its week of release — though on the day we speak in a prefabricated Nogizaka sandwich shop in Tokyo, “kikUUiki” has been on sale for mere hours. (“In the chart inside my mind, it’s already No. 1!” says Yamaguchi.)
“kikUUiki” is a more organic affair than previous album “Shinshiro.” While that album featured a cold electronic sheen, “kikUUiki” comes closer to achieving Yamaguchi’s vision of blending roots and robotics. The acoustic guitar on which the songs were written is nowhere to be heard — the tracks are built from sparse but finely crafted synths and heavily treated electric guitars — but the warm harmonies that make up the singalong choruses provide a very human feel.
“When the water runs from the river into the sea, the freshwater and saltwater mix,” says Yamaguchi when asked about the album’s title, itself a reference to the album’s core concept. “In Japanese it’s called kisuiiki. We replaced sui (water) with kuu (space) and called it ‘kikUUiki,’ to describe the fusion of things that are not supposed to mix; a comfortable feeling of discomfort. Like when you see flowers growing through a crack in the concrete.”
It wasn’t an easy album to record. Yamaguchi says they spent four long months in the studio and missed several deadlines. But the payoff is evident: “kikUUiki” is a bold and unusual record, filled with memorable melodies and thoughtful hooks. Four albums into their career, Sakanaction have managed to reinvent themselves regularly, making them not only an intriguing band but a pretty successful one.
Sakanaction are taking “kikUUiki” on the road, with dates throughout April and May. The arrangements on stage are totally different from on the CD — Yamaguchi says they painstakingly disassemble all the songs and rebuild them from scratch, making for more of a club atmosphere. He’s keen to expose more Japanese to club culture — “Very few people go to clubs in Hokkaido,” he says, though he names Sapporo’s Precious Hall as a favorite venue.
Organizing a DJ party at Precious Hall is one of his future dreams, alongside more ambitious plans such as releasing an album in English, evolving the taste of the average music fan by subverting the mainstream and revolutionizing the Japanese music industry with his Twitter account. Sure, why not. After all, success comes to the strongest swimmer.
“kikUUiki” is out now. Sakanaction tour Japan from April 2. For more information, visit www.sakanaction.jp