“In the beginning, I had no interest in touring abroad,” says Yoko, guitarist and vocalist with indie-rock outfit Noodles, who have toured the United States nine times over the last seven years. “Then in 2003, we opened for The Breeders in Osaka, and they told us, ‘You really should come to play in the States’. That was the first time we started to think about it seriously, and we’ve been every year since then.”
It’s no surprise. Noodles are cut from the fabric of U.S. college radio. Their music pays a clear homage to the late-1980s and early-’90s U.S. and U.K. bands that preceded their formation, most notably bands from independent label 4AD: the guitar hooks of The Breeders, the tight rhythm of Pixies and the dreamy vocals of Lush. But although Yoko sings over half her songs in English, her vocals retain a melodic sensibility that is distinctly Japanese.
Originally a four-piece, Noodles formed in 1991 when Yoko, bassist Ikuno, drummer Ayumi and second guitarist Junko (they each go professionally by one name) had part-time jobs at the same music venue in Yokohama — Ayumi was the sound engineer; the others worked the bar. All four women had a taste for Western music: Aside from the aforementioned influences, Ayumi was inspired to take up drums by her love for Echo & The Bunnymen, though Ikuno’s major muse was long-running Japanese experimental-rock band dip, whom she insists have “never made a bad album.”
“I remember our first rehearsal like it was yesterday,” says Yoko, as we chat in the Shinjuku office of Noodles’ management company, Bad Music. “None of us had played in bands before, so we were all on the same level in terms of technique, and it felt like something exciting was about to begin.”
Noodles debuted in 1994 on all-girl label Benten with a couple of songs on a compilation, followed in ’95 by full album “Juryoku Dorobo” (“Gravity Thief”). The same year, Coca-Cola used one of their songs, “Booster,” in an ad and the band quickly received significant radio play.
Skip forward to 1999, when a chance run-in with Sawao Yamanaka of successful rock band The Pillows led Noodles to part ways with Benten and follow Yamanaka’s band to Bad Music; Yamanaka then started his own imprint, Delicious Label, within the company to release music by Noodles and other bands. The label is distributed by independent mega-label Avex, home to J-pop stars Ayumi Hamasaki and Namie Amuro, though no crossover duets are on the cards. “Artists like that seem faaaar away from us,” laughs Ayumi.
Junko quit in 2004, after 13 years with the band and just as their international career was taking shape.
“She felt she’d outgrown music and stopped playing guitar altogether,” laments Yoko. “We didn’t know what to do. It would have been too weird to add a new person to the band after we’d all been together for 13 years, and we didn’t want to break up. So we decided to carry on as the three of us.”
Over the years, the band have improved as songwriters but refrained from tinkering too much with the formula. Of their 18 or so albums and minialbums, the most obvious departure was 2007′s “Metropolis,” which featured chunky synth lines as a nod to Brazilian group CSS. But even then, the keyboard was used to beef up the Noodles sound rather than radically reinvent it.
Their latest album, “Explorer” — released in August — is a more straightforward affair, in a deliberate bid to make the recorded songs closer to their live renditions.
“It was difficult to play some of those songs live as a three-piece,” says Yoko, referring to the synth lines of “Metropolis” and the older songs from when Junko lent an extra pair of hands. “This time, we wanted to make an album with a simpler sound that could be played live by three people.”
Yoko, Ikuno and Ayumi produced the album themselves, spending eight days in a studio in San Francisco and recording in the old-fashioned manner of completing one song before starting the next. They then returned to Japan to mix the songs.
“I was worried that being in San Francisco would be distracting,” says Yoko, “but actually the fact that I didn’t know many people there and couldn’t use my mobile phone meant I could really focus.”
The result is a warm, rounded set, with the sublime minor-chord harmonies that permeate all Noodles albums grounding lead vocals from Yoko that are somehow more intimate than before. In two decades as a band, they’ve honed their core sound to something powerful but tender; the addition of an acoustic guitar on a couple of tracks lends an understated extra dimension, while those synth lines are used more sparingly.
As an independent band whose sound is so far from the various flavors of J-pop, Noodles were never going to crack the Japanese mainstream. They have nonetheless become a key band in Japan’s rich musical landscape and a fine export. If you let them, they’ll suck you in.
“Explorer” is out now. Noodles will play an extensive Japan tour, starting in Tokyo on Sept. 25. For details, see noodles.velvet.jp