Umez label is good news for noise-pop

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

“Those voices makes me vomit! Too many people in one band is no good. It’s kind of scary. I feel like I’m suffering from car sickness all the time.”

Sachiko Fukuda from noise-pop duo Umez is not a fan of AKB48. That didn’t stop her band from covering its iconic single “Aitakatta,” though, stripping it down and turning it into a lo-fi garage-scuzz that keeps threatening to tilt over into pure shoegaze or dreampop.

“I can’t stand the typical style of J-pop — it’s pretty boring and we thought we could do it better,” she says. “With the AKB48 song, I hated it before doing the cover, but actually it’s a really great song. I love it now.”

Formed in London in April 2012 after the bands they had been in split up, Umez started as a three-piece but is now a duo consisting of bassist Sachiko Fukuda and guitarist/noisemaker Koichi “Niiyan” Niizato, formerly of Screaming Tea Party.

“An animator friend of mine asked me to make sounds for a project she was doing for Space Shower TV in Japan,” Fukuda recalls. “She only gave me five days to finish. Niiyan and I weren’t expecting to carry on the band after Sarihi Maeda, the other member, left, so it was really my friend who made us Umez.”

With live performances that mix screaming guitar and machine noise with disarmingly sweet melodies, Umez revel in jarring juxtapositions. Visually, they strike a sharp contrast as well, with Fukuda statuesque and economical in her movements, while Niiyan, face concealed beneath an old World War II gas mask, twists, writhes and contorts himself, clambering over his equipment as he coaxes, bullies and hacks noises from it. Their penchant for dropping J-pop covers into the midst of all this chaos threw another curveball into the mix for British audiences.

“There were sometimes people who knew about J-pop, but most people didn’t know,” Fukuda says. “It was new to them and I think they were a bit confused. I thought it was funny when we did a cover of (1990s J-pop/rock band) Zard; they didn’t know what it was but they were dancing anyway. I really loved that moment.”

Offered a recording deal just as their visas were coming to an end and Britain’s thuggish immigration control was preparing to kick them out of the country, the duo felt it would be unfair to release an album just as they were returning to Japan (Fukuda to Tokyo and Niiyan to his home in Kobe). The plan changed to doing a compilation album, but then the label pulled out as well. By this point, Fukuda had far too much invested in the project to let it go so easily. The result is a new label, 14 Years Records, run by Fukuda out of Tokyo.

The same collision of pop and noise that informs so much of Umez’ music runs through the compilation, catchily titled “International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl) Vol. 1″ (in stores Sept. 9), which doesn’t so much veer as ricochet wildly between extremes, from the trash noise of U.K. band Brutes to the whimsical lo-fi acoustic pop of Italian singer-songwriter (and Niiyan’s former Screaming Tea Party bandmate) Teta Mona.

“Most of the bands are people I met through playing with Umez,” Fukuda says. “They’re all different genres of music but I think they have the same direction. I think when you listen to this compilation it blended naturally. Part of the purpose of making it was that each band opens up the listener’s ears and it forces you to listen to the sounds you never wanted to hear.”

Indeed, the album is a roller-coaster ride through the screeching noise tantrum of Nananova and the nursery-rhyme idol-pop pastiche of Bo Ningen vocalist Taigen Kawabe’s “Kaero Kaero.” It’s a bundle of eccentricities, linked by a lo-fi aesthetic and an uncompromising rejection of both pop and rock ‘n’ roll convention. While the sound of AKB48′s dozens of voices singing the same thing is what makes Fukuda’s stomach lurch, the album she has compiled is the sound of dozens of voices singing, screaming, cooing and ranting a delirious cacophony of different things. If 14 Years Records manages to persevere, it promises to be a gloriously messed up and unpredictable firecracker of a label in the heart of the Japanese indie music scene.

Umez plays Koiwa BushBash in Shinuku-ku, Tokyo, on Sept. 7 (6:30 p.m.; ¥1,500 in advance). For more information, visit www.umez-uk.tumblr.com or www.14yearsrecords.com.