Buzz overseas spells success at home

Both The Suzan and Comanechi find that the way to Japanese hearts starts abroad

by Mike Sunda

For Japanese music acts, success abroad has traditionally been the reserve of noise-rock bands such as Boredoms and Melt-Banana, for whom potential barriers like language or cultural disparities do little to hinder their pursuit of abstraction. More conventional Japanese indie bands have traditionally fared less well in the West, which is why it’s so refreshing to see several acts on the verge of genuine breakthroughs abroad in 2011, spearheaded by all-girl four-piece The Suzan.

In 2010, The Suzan took their ultra-cool brand of garage rock, which features genre-hopping elements of dance music, soul and riot grrrl, to America on numerous occasions, playing alongside the likes of Kanye West and Kid Sister. As recent additions to respected turntablist A-Trak’s dance-music-oriented Fool’s Gold label, The Suzan were often the only typical rock band at the shows they played, making it all the more impressive that they managed to capture the attention of ravers, hip-hop heads and bloggers alike.

“So far the sorts of Japanese artists who have played in America have tended to be J-pop acts such as Puffy Amiyumi and X-Japan. Although we’re Japanese, our sound is obviously nothing like J-pop, which I think surprised a lot of people,” says drummer Sachie Sone, who goes by the name of Nico. She is a confident, boisterous character who takes charge of the interview and answers questions in rapid Japanese. Luckily, vocalist Saori Suzuki chimes in now and then with much-appreciated English translations.

English ability (or rather, a lack of) has proved to be a significant barrier between Japanese bands and success abroad in the past. One example is The 5.6.7.8′s notably failing to fully capitalize on all the attention they received after appearing in the hit film “Kill Bill” — while the band still maintain a healthy following in their home country as well as touring abroad infrequently, there is nevertheless a nagging “what if?” that hangs over them now.

You can see a similar charm reflected in The Suzan — a strong signature look (albeit Day-Glo eye shadow and neon lipstick rather than 1950s Americana) and a confident attitude that demands your attention from the outset. But where The 5.6.7.8′s stumbled you would expect The Suzan to succeed, both on the stage and off it, with Suzuki comfortably commanding crowds in America just as easily as she does in Japan, and ex-member-turned-manager Miyuki Kawabe fluent in English and able to navigate the pitfalls of bookings and negotiations abroad.

As bassist Ikue Yoshida points out, The Suzan have also intentionally been writing their lyrics in English since their inception as a band seven years ago. “As a band we wanted to travel all over the world, and English, as the most common language, was the best way to communicate with people worldwide.”

Their first trip abroad as a band was to New York five years ago, back when they were all still students. “We searched out live venues and clubs and contacted them ourselves for bookings. We sent them an e-mail with a link to our MySpace and said that we wanted to play,” says guitarist Rie Suzuki (who is vocalist Saori’s sister). And it was MySpace that was ultimately to thank for their big break, with Bjorn Yttling (of long-running Swedish indie-rock group Peter Bjorn and John) famously discovering the band via the social networking website. Saori Suzuki describes how it was “You Know Nothing” — a dark, snarling garage-rock piece from their first album, 2006′s “Suzan Galaxy” — that first caught Yttling’s attention. “It’s one of our heaviest tracks and was probably very different from what he was expecting from our photos.” Yttling went on to produce the band’s second full-length, “Golden Week For The Poco Poco Beat,” released in October 2010 in the United States and due for an internal release at the end of this month via Hostess.

The Japanese release will feature an exclusive DVD documenting the band’s U.S. tour in October and November of last year, and Nico is keen to emphasize how success abroad is important for fueling success back in their home country.

“Japanese people like things from abroad,” she says. “Although there were people in Japan praising us two or three years ago, it was mostly people involved in the music scene themselves. If the media hadn’t seen that we’d gone to America and accomplished what we did, then they wouldn’t have known whether we were really any good or not. Now that we’ve been to America and the media have taken note of what we did abroad, general music fans are paying more attention to us too.” Of course it helps when you’ve got a label like Fool’s Gold behind you — with The Suzan already experiencing the sort of backing you’d be hard pressed to find from a comparable Japanese label, including a dedicated iPhone app for their latest music video, as well as a four-door Scion car with a custom The Suzan-inspired paint job to promote the album.

One band who already command plenty of attention abroad are London-based duo Comanechi, headed up by Japanese vocalist/drummer Akiko Matsuura, who also drums for The Big Pink, as well as being a member of the on-hiatus Pre and the wonderfully named (but sadly defunct) Sperm Javelin. Alongside guitarist Simon Petrovitch, the two make brutally effective grungy punk that, with its visceral, unprocessed creative energy, represents everything good about East London’s multicultural Dalston district, without any of the hipster pretense. No wonder then that the band, and particularly Matsuura herself, have become firm favorites of both British music bible NME and cool-hunters Vice magazine. NME put Matsuura at No. 31 on their yearly “Cool List” and Vice deem Comanechi “one of our favorite bands led by one of our favorite people.”

2010 was mostly spent following up on debut full-length “Crime Of Love,” released at the end of 2009, and the year culminated with a homecoming of sorts as Matsuura toured her native Japan for the first time as part of Comanechi. Although you’d hesitate to classify Comanechi solely as a Japanese band (or indeed as an English band, incorporating influences from both cultures as they do), Matsuura nonetheless echoes The Suzan’s sentiments on success abroad translating to success in Japan.

“The recognition we got in the U.K. helped us get a good reception in Japan,” she says. “Kids in Japan are more open-minded now and want to be involved in more than just what the Japanese music scene is offering.”

When The Suzan are at their most infectiously catchy, you sense their appeal is almost limitless. Comanechi, however, were never likely to be concerned about breaking into the mainstream, but the hard work that they put into gaining a steady fan-base has clearly paid dividends. “Touring in Japan was one of the best moments in my life. I couldn’t believe how many people knew about us and came to our shows. We want to come back and have another fantastic time with our fans,” Matsuura says.

With both bands proving in their individual ways that Japanese acts can prosper abroad, it might not be long before we start seeing more Japanese bands relocate overseas. The Suzan have yet to rule out the prospect of such a move, but when asked about what’s stopping them from doing so right now, the answer is clear: “Our day jobs!”

The Suzan play a free acoustic set on Jan. 9 at the Apple Store in Ginza, Tokyo. They will also play at Shibuya Quattro, Tokyo, on Jan. 11 (¥5,800;); Ebisu Liquidroom, Tokyo, on Jan. 15 (¥3,000 adv.); Miyazaki SR Box on Jan. 21 (¥3,000); Kagoshima Caparvo/SR Hall on Jan. 22 (¥3,500); Club Metro, Kyoto, on Jan. 25 (¥1,800 adv.); Umeda Shangrila, Osaka, on Jan. 26 (¥2,500 adv.); Apollo Theater, Nagoya, on Jan. 28 (¥2,500); and Daisy Bar in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, on Jan. 30. “Golden Week For The Poco Poco” comes out Jan. 26. For more details, visit www.thesuzan.com.

Go West young band! Local acts take flight(s)

When The Suzan play Niw! Collection ’11 at Liquidroom in the Ebisu district of Tokyo on Jan. 15, they will be sharing the bill with several other bands who are no strangers to playing shows abroad. Twin brothers Gen and Dai who make up electro act MontBlanc recently returned from a short tour of Britain, while ska-pop heavyweights Riddim Saunter were part of the 100% Genki tour that saw four Japanese bands play four U.K. music festivals in 2009. Meanwhile, Miila and The Geeks will be accompanying The Suzan to the industry-based music festival South By Southwest in Texas in March this year.

Other dates for 2011 include absolutely bonkers electro-pop outfit Trippple Nippples, who will attempt to shock France into submission with their memorably messy live shows when they visit in April, as well as in-demand remixers and producers 80Kidz who also have plans to return to their appreciative European fan base soon, having recently played Diesel:U:Music’s star-studded 10th anniversary party in London.

Meanwhile, following in the footsteps of Comanechi last year, London-based Japanese psychedelic rockers Bo Ningen will be touring this month. Comanechi’s Akiko Matsuura says she’s “unsure whether Japanese music fans would have picked up on them if they were doing what they do in Japan,” but having now put in the hard work abroad, Bo Ningen too will no doubt be hoping for the sort of triumphant homecoming that their compatriot received last year.