Much is often made of the differences between popular music in the East and in the West, either praising the former for its inventive takes on Western styles, or deriding it for making cheap imitations. The truth, however, is that music travels so easily between nations and continents these days, and that music fans are so voracious and omnivorous in their tastes, that a lot of the cultural generalizations that used to be the staple of journalists covering overseas music scenes have started to dissolve.
The way that bands from as diverse locations as New York, Georgia and Seattle could become so easily linked together in a scene like “chillwave” or “glo-fi” flies in the face of the more geographically specific way music scenes have traditionally developed. If a scene like this could emerge from spots scattered all across the United States, why not Japan too?
One band who could make an claim to kinship with the likes of Washed Out and Toro y Moi is Kyoto-based Hotel Mexico.
“I started working on tracks around the end of 2008, along with (vocalist) Ryuyu Ishigami, (drummer) Masaaki Iwamoto and (guitarist) Hitoshi Kikuchi,” explains bass player Kai Ito. Synth player Jiko Kobayashi and second guitarist Jiro Mizushima joined later when the band began playing live, completing Hotel Mexico’s current six-member lineup.
Ito makes clear that the band’s main motivation was “to simply make cool, good music,” but in common with bands of the U.S. scene, Hotel Mexico’s music blends classic pop melodies with faintly retro sounding keyboards that recall the shoegazer sounds of early Ride or the neopsychedelia of The Flaming Lips to create a nostalgic atmosphere, counterbalanced by a keen understanding of dance music that underpins the sound.
Ito acknowledges glo-fi and its brother-in-sound beach pop (bands like Wavves and Beach Fossils) as movements in music with which Hotel Mexico share a sensibility, also citing Portland indie/electronic band Glass Candy and their eclectic New Jersey- based label Italians Do It Better as influences, stating: “I always try to be sensitive to current sounds, even if they’re not necessarily things I like. Actually I like all these bands though.”
According to Ito, Hotel Mexico’s influences are drawn from a wide range of genres and musical generations, including, “progressive, folk music, modern music, dance and all kinds of other things.” However, he believes there might be something in their attitude that gives their music its nostalgic vibe. “We’ve never cared about new or old,” he claims, “but we’ve always tried to make songs that sound timeless.”
One thing guaranteed to make at least a certain generation of music lovers nostalgic about Hotel Mexico was the decision to debut by releasing a live video in VHS format, as well as the cassette-only “3 Songs EP,” which sold out in just over a month.
“We are very attracted to analog as a format,” explains Ito. “In this case the president of our label suggested putting out a cassette as our first release. A lot of our favorite bands use that format, in fact, so we were happy to take him up on his suggestion.”
Despite some of the retro format fetishizing, though, Hotel Mexico are also eager exponents of the club scene, an influence that struck Ito powerfully in the year he spent living in Liverpool, England.
“I think that in the U.K., the club scene and live scene are much closer together than in Japan,” he says, “and this is one of the things we’re pretty jealous of. More than half of the members of Hotel Mexico also play as club DJs and most of our gigs so far have been at club type shows, including our own event this past March, so that sort of environment is our main active space.”
Nevertheless, the narrowness and lack of interchange between the club and live scene in general is something that Ito finds disappointing after his time in the U.K.
“It’s a shame for us that club culture in Japan hasn’t grown in that way yet,” he concludes.
Still, with the support of their label, Second Royal Records, and alongside similarly minded Japanese musicians like their Tokyo-based label mates The New House, Hotel Mexico believe things are currently looking up for them.
“If you look beyond the world of J-pop and take in the entirety of the Japanese music scene right now, there are definitely some people doing interesting things,” says Ito. “Around us and our label here in Kyoto there are a lot of exciting DJs and parties going on, and together with them, we really might be able to make a new kind of movement.”
Hotel Mexico play Swing! #6 at 7th Floor in Shibuya, Tokyo, on June 19. The show starts at 11:30 p.m. For more information, visit swing-titn.com/e6.php. They play Mogran’Bar at Nano in Kyoto on July 3. The show starts at 6 p.m. For more information, visit livehouse-nano.com or hotelmexico.blogspot.com