Although many Japanese indie bands find it a struggle breaking into overseas markets, Tokyo’s Jesse Ruins have always seemed to strike a chord among both international and domestic listeners alike.
The trio’s distinctive brand of dreamy pop — laden with sentimental synth melodies and haunting, ethereal vocals — seems to transcend any geographical reference points. Their first single “Dream Analysis” in particular brought Jesse Ruins a lot of sudden attention. Following a pair of EPs on British and American record labels (Double Denim and Captured Tracks) in 2011 and 2012, they have just released their proper debut album, “A Film,” which also happens to be the first of their releases to receive domestic distribution, via Japanese label P-Vine.
“I think it’s an opportunity for lots of (Japanese) listeners to hear us for the first time,” says Nobuyuki Sakuma, who started Jesse Ruins as a solo project before later recruiting vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Naho Imajima and guitarist Yosuke Tsuchida. The result is that the richness of their recordings is now matched by their live performances, which they recently displayed in Niigata and Kyoto as part of a Japan tour.
“We’re not a band who started out as a band. We started as takuroku (‘bedroom musicians’ — referring to a do-it-yourself method of recording music at home), so there are all sorts of challenges making tracks work live,” Sakuma says. “But we’re enjoying the learning process … and suffering quite a bit, too (laughs).”
Another difficulty is finding a way to transpose what is a highly conceptual, thematic album into a live setting. Although each of the tracks on “A Film” can be taken as individual “cinematic” vignettes, there also seems to be a consistent narrative throughout the album, as its title hints, with peaks and interludes providing an important ebb and flow.
“To be honest, I like ‘throwaway songs’ — inconspicuous B-sides rather than anthems or singles … and there are several tracks like that,” Sakuma explains. “I was careful for the album not to just be a compilation of single tracks — I wanted to make it something that you could listen to from start to finish. That goes for the order of the tracks, the melodies, the balance and so on.”
With song titles such as “Laura Is Fading” and “Talk To Alicia,” “A Film” is peppered throughout with references to enigmatic figures.
“They’re the names of the characters that appear,” Sakuma says. “There are some guys too, but mostly girls. It’s easier for me to picture girls visually and also in terms of the track, stylistically.”
Even just deciphering the names is an entertaining exercise in film trivia: “They were all from films I’d watched in the past: Laura is Laura Palmer from “Twin Peaks,” Alicia is from (Pedro Almodóvar’s) ‘Talk To Her,’ ” he adds, starting me on the right path.
With cinema being such a powerful presence throughout the album, I ask the members for some of their favorite films. “I like dark dramas … where people get hurt, and hurt each other”, says Sakuma with a wry laugh.
“I don’t really watch cheerful movies,” agrees Imajima. “I like films that value color — like the French film ‘Swimming Pool.’ “
“I prefer urban films, skate films … Gus Van Sant, Larry Clark,” says Tsuchida, deliberating for a few minutes before offering Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” as a recommendation. With three film buffs in the band, you’d expect to regularly find them in the cinema sharing some popcorn, but Imajima is quick to refute the notion: “We’ve never been to watch a film together!” she says with a laugh. “We don’t have the time,” Sakuma confirms. This may be true, but at least they found the time to make one.
“A Film” is in stores now. Jesse Ruins play Ebisu Batica in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Sept. 21. For more information, visit www.jesseruins.tumblr.com.