Greeen Linez debut revisits Japan’s City Pop summer jams of the past

by Arni Kristjansson

Special To The Japan Times

Nostalgia is nothing new in popular music. A disco revival during the 1990s (think Deee-Lite), led to a renewed fascination with the 1980s during the 2000s (think Chromeo and a synth-pop boom) and that decade even started seeing a ’90s revival toward the end of it.

“Things That Fade,” the debut full-length from duo Greeen Linez, is also brimming with nostalgia — but it’s a vibe that’s more Japan-specific. It comes from a local musical movement from the ’80s, which was refashioned as a genre called City Pop in the early ’90s. It blends soul music, fusion and adult-oriented rock (AOR) with lyrics that center on city life as it often was experienced during the country’s bubble economy.

“We used lots of DX7 sounds in most of the tracks on the album to create the City Pop vibe,” explains one half of the duo, Matt Lyne, referencing a popular synthesizer that was in widespread use throughout the ’80s. He explains that the rhythmic features in the tracks were also borrowed from City Pop, as well as the melodies and harmonies. Their choice of sounds is also indicative of the genre: heavy use of synth marimba on “Courtside Daydreams,” the digital piano and keyboard sounds on lead single “Hibiscus Pacific,” and the dead give-away for ’80s music — copious amounts of digital reverb sprinkled throughout the album.

Lyne, 30, is based in Tokyo, DJs as A Taut Line, and is cofounder of the record label Diskotopia. He started the group in 2011 with childhood friend Christopher Greenberg, who is also 30. Greenberg is based in Britain and is also a member of electronic pop-group Hong Kong In The 60s. Diskotopia released Greeen Linez’ self-titled EP last year, which received a fair amount of attention from music blogs overseas.

Lyne says that despite growing up in England, his own nostalgia for the City Pop era in Japan comes from connecting similar elements of the sound to the music he grew up with. During his student years, he used to watch Ceefax (BBC Television’s on-screen text service) late into the night and became fascinated with the background music featured on it. Then on a road trip in Japan in 2005 with his Japanese girlfriend and her family, he was introduced to Japan’s version of that music.

“Her dad was listening to late ’80s Japanese fusion on the car stereo, and I realized this was the same music they used on Ceefax.” Lyne recalls. “This music, accompanied by my first experience of the Japanese countryside, made quite an impression on me.”

City Pop spawned from “New Music,” an umbrella term that was used to describe the Japanese folk and adult-oriented rock (AOR) output during the ’70s and ’80s from artists such as Sugar Babe, Yumi Arai (who later became Yumi Matsutoya), Off Course and Godiego. According to music critic Toshiro Mitsutomi, New Music represented a departure from the battles that had raged in rock regarding how the Japanese were to adopt foreign music styles — most importantly how (or if) the Japanese language should be used when singing. New Music broke grammatical rules by splitting up sentences in odd places and manipulating Japanese words into a pronunciation that sounded closer to what Japanese people perceived an English accent to sound like.

New Music acts that appealed to the glamor of life in the big city (with fast cars and day trips to the beach) were relabeled as City Pop during the ’90s. The artists that were most often picked up by DJs at the time included Tatsuro Yamashita, Minako Yoshida and Toshiki Kadomatsu whose sound was greatly influenced by soul music as well as folk-inspired acts such as Yumi Matsutoya and Miki Imai.

“It’s about yearning and imagination,” says Cunimondo Takiguchi (real name Toshiaki Takiguchi), 43, who has also used the moniker Ryusenkei since 2003. According to Takiguchi, City Pop’s focus is on the theme of the city and the ocean. “There’s a desire that’s turned into sound that is what City Pop is all about,” he explains. “It’s about leisure.”

Inspired by soul music, AOR and fusion, Takiguchi started his music career in middle school when he formed a band. He joined Tower Records after finishing school and throughout his 20s he continued to make music, taking influences from acid jazz and Shibuya-kei. Though a hobby at first, he eventually gave into pressure from his friends and in 2003 he released his debut album, “City Music.” For his second album, “Tokyo Sniper” (2006), he was joined by vocalist Hitomitoi, and his third album, “Natural Woman,” was recorded with vocalist Atsuko Hiyajo.

His most recent effort comes in the form of former bandmate and singer Hitomitoi’s latest album, “City Dive.” Takiguchi invited fellow City Pop enthusiasts Dorian and Kashif (aka Stringsburn) to join the project and they contributed to the album’s songwriting and arrangements. The album, which came out on Billboard Records on June 20, contains what the label calls “new city music” and its textures and sounds recall the early ’80s.

Another addition to the roster of recent City Pop-inspired artists is new Victor Entertainment signing Junk Fujiyama, whose single “Ano Sora no Mukogawa e” was released last month and recalls Tatsuro Yamashita’s work from the early ’80s.

And yet another indication of renewed interest in the genre is the 2011 publication of a revised edition of disc-guide book “Japanese City Pop.” The guide was originally published in 2002 by music writer Yutaka Kimura and was followed by four compilation albums the following year, curated by Kimura.

Are we now experiencing the second wave of a City Pop boom?

“It has arrived,” Takiguchi claims, mentioning that a younger generation of artists are also being influenced by the sights and sounds of the genre. As examples he brings up “Suisei”, a recent single from trackmaker Tofubeats that displays a City Pop influence in its music and lyrics, as well as Videotapemusic, a duo that creates its music by sampling old VHS tapes. (((Saraundo))), a new group comprised of rapper Illreme and producer team Traks Boys, can also be added to the list, with a self-titled debut album released in March this year. “It’s a different generation, but they understand the City Pop feel,” Takiguchi adds.

The idea of this younger generation not having been around during the heyday of City Pop presents an interesting enough situation, but it’s amplified even more for Britons Lyne and Greenberg who weren’t even in the country. “I wasn’t in Japan at that time, so I have no real memories (about it) of my own from that period, but that makes it even more fascinating for me,” Lyne explains. “The clothes, the lifestyle of that era. It’s almost like Japan was a kind of blissful dreamland back then.”

The visuals aspects of City Pop are another constant between the two generations of acts producing it. Album covers and music videos depict sandy beaches and metropolitan skylines. As a result it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the cover for Videotapemusic’s recent album, “Nanahaku Yoka” (“7 nights 8 days”), bears a striking resemblance to the Greeen Linez LP, both depicting a beach road stretching towards the horizon.

Greeen Linez also extends the City Pop influence into their visuals, as evident in the music video for “Hibiscus Pacific.” It’s comprised of VHS footage of swimsuit models on catwalks and shots of beaches and cityscapes, cut together using picture-in-picture and shuffling editing techniques that easily identify the decade as it was experienced here.

When asked what the ultimate City Pop album is, Takiguchi names Hiroshi Sato’s “Awakening” without missing a beat. Released in 1982 and featuring vocalist Wendy Matthews, it represents the ultimate summer listening for Takiguchi. “It has that ‘Let’s go to the beach,’ resort-feel, one hundred percent,” he laughs.

Lyne’s pick for the City Pop album that had the biggest impact on him is “First Light” by Makoto Matsushita. “It was discontinued and I was going crazy trying to find it. Eventually I did, though, and it was worth the frenzy, he says before adding yet more evidence of a possible City Pop revival. “Recently I saw it’s available on iTunes, though, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t before I spent ¥5,000 for it on vinyl!”

“Things That Fade” is available in record stores now. Greeen Linez will hold a release party at WWW in Shibuya, Tokyo, on July 21 as a part of record label 100% Silk’s Japan tour (11:30 p.m.; ¥2,500 in advance; [03] 5458-7685). For more information, visit. www.diskotopia.com. “City Dive” is available in record stores now. Hitomitoi will perform with Ryusenkei, Dorian and Kashif (PPP) at Billboard Live in Minato-ku, Tokyo, on Sept. 2 (4:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.; ¥4,800 and ¥6,800; [03] 3405-1133). For more information, visit www.billboard-live.com or www.hitomitoi.jp.