Plasticzooms dress up new sound on ‘Starbow’

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Special To The Japan Times

Sho Asakawa is visibly excited. The vocalist from Tokyo rock band Plasticzooms has just come from Tower Records in the capital’s trendy Shibuya district, where an exhibition of his artwork and clothing are accompanying the promotional display for his band’s new album, “Starbow.”

Asakawa is dressed all in black, he’s in full makeup and combs his hair often — even while walking down the street. Fully aware of his own appearance, Asakawa says that the Plasticzooms aesthetic — the album, the art, the clothing — is a carefully constructed package.

“Everything is connected, including the fashion and the music,” he says. “And that’s the way Plasticzooms believe creativity is. We try not to be too rigid in thinking we should only be musicians. We all agree we should be about more than just music.”

Anyone who has seen the quintet play will understand Asakawa’s point. Plasticzooms’ style of guitar-and-synth rock is paired with experimental lighting and a sense of performance -but not to the point of being theatrical. It’s also apparent they pay attention to their look. So much so that they could give some visual-kei bands a run for their money. Their appearance is mostly goth-inspired with a penchant for symbols that betrays a knowledge of the blog-approved “witch house” trend, or branding. They have collaborated with fashion label Discovered and were outfitted by Jill Sander in a limited-edition style magazine, “The Reality Show,” by photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Not bad for an independent act. Asakawa also has his own line of accessories under the label Venus Eccentric.

There’s a risk, though, when a band becomes too fashion-conscious. Critics can easily frame attacks that style becomes more important than substance. It’s rare that opinion will go the other way with critics suggesting bands ditch the jeans and Converse and become more extravagant.

“If wearing jeans and T-shirts is considered rock, then we’re not rock,” Asakawa retorts.

However, with such a specific look Asakawa acknowledges he might be limiting Plasticzooms’ appeal. He also thinks that being so specific could pay off in terms of giving them the flexibility to try more things musically and still maintain a definite and recognizable identity.

“You have to be honest about your own art and stand behind it. Even if it’s a huge risk,” Asakawa says. “Lady Gaga dresses differently from everyone else, but she sings about universal themes like love, so she is extremely popular. If you’re different in some way from everyone, you have a higher chance of becoming successful.”

Plasticzooms’ second album, “Starbow,” attests to this flexibility. There is a marked change in their sound from their debut, “Charm,” that is sure to surprise their fans. “Starbow” still has a melancholic element, but the song-structures are more pop, while “Charm” had a punk sensibility. Asakawa says the new album was meant to target people who are curious about musical shifts and find those changes interesting. He likens Plasticzooms to a chameleon that changes color from time to time.

However, “Starbow” seems more like a chameleon that can’t make up its mind. Asakawa says that, as opposed to their previous album, the band wasn’t influenced at all by rock music this time. There is more orchestration on this release, and at times it can threaten to swallow the band’s sound. But as they’ve teamed up with contemporary classical musician Masuhisa Nakamura — a songwriter known for mixing traditional instruments with electronics — he has made it work.

Elsewhere on “Starbow,” the track “Cave” utilizes a hip-hop beat and dark, slow atmospheric sounds that fall in line with the characteristics of witch house. Asakawa says the song “Cat” uses a rhythm that was inspired by some of the work of Icelandic singer Björk, and he also mentions that pop musicians, such as Christina Aguilera, were big influences.

One of the standout tracks of the album is “KMKZ” (pronounced like “kamikaze”). The song should appeal to the band’s previous fans as it’s a lot rockier than the rest of the tracks on the album.

Plasticzooms seem to identify with Western bands more than Japanese ones. Asakawa says he would like to spread his music overseas and proudly mentions that the band has a fan club based in Mexico. It seems they’ve also received a lot of positive feedback from Russia and the United States, and in particular the visual-kei communities in those countries.

Since the music isn’t particularly in line with visual-kei, it could be that the band’s look is what fans abroad find appealing.

“In some countries, we are seen as an idol group, and in others we’re seen as an indie band,” Asakawa says. “It’s hard to predict. But at least there is a good buzz in those places, even if I can’t keep track of all it.”

“Starbow” is available in selected stores now. For more information, visit www.plasticzooms.net.