Hysteric Picnic opts for cassette grooves and imperfections on ‘Cult Pops’

by Ryotaro Aoki

Special To The Japan Times

In an age where the traditional guitar-bass-drums-vocals setup of a rock band is being eschewed in favor of more stripped-down groups using laptops and synthesizers, at first glance Hysteric Picnic may seem like it’s just another band following the trend.

The new wave/post-punk two-piece, which consists of vocalist Soh Oouchi and multi-instrumentalist Shigeki Yamashita (both men play guitar and synth), plays along to pre-recorded backing tracks and drum machines, just like a slew of other indie acts. But instead of propping up an expensive Macbook Pro running Ableton Live on stage, with the white Apple logo beaming brightly toward audiences, Hysteric Picnic goes for something a little less in vogue. The duo uses cassette tapes.

“We use cassettes for our live performances because we feel the dirty and muffled sound of analog fits our music more than the clear and transparent sound of digital,” Oouchi says. “And we also think it’s really lame to have a computer on stage.”

The philosophy behind the band’s sound is evident after one listen to its latest release, “Cult Pops.” Those who keep tabs on post-punk bands from the 1980s will instantly recognize the Birthday Party and Joy Division influences, but it’s the juxtaposition of the bouncy guitar lines and Oouchi’s quirky vocals, against the industrial, clanky precision of their drum machines that creates the unique unsettling dystopian groove, setting it apart from other similarly influenced bands.

“We value improvisation and coincidence, so we try to record in one take as much as we can,” Oouchi explains with regard to the band’s recording process. “We like how the mechanical sound of a drum machine and the live performance of a human don’t perfectly meld together.”

This clash of perfection and imperfection gives the songs a sense of urgency. That feeling is in the lyrics also, which are a flurry of what sounds like the frustrations of living in a modern world. For example, on “Obecca Dance” Oouchi begins with the lyrics, “Aimaina nichijō wa hana no kareta rakuen-miman” (“An ambiguous daily life is worse than a paradise with withered flowers”).

The band has remained adamant about writing its lyrics in Japanese — and not just for linguistic reasons.

“I feel that by writing lyrics in Japanese, the songs can be infused with a sense of humor,” Oouchi says. “Japanese also has a rigidness to it, which fits our music.”

German music and art has been another important influence for Oouchi; he recently played a string of solo concerts in Germany.

“It was for only a short period, but it was a very stimulating experience,” he says. “Especially Berlin, which has venues like NK and Ausland where a lot of experimental music is played.”

To coincide with the tour, he released a 7-inch record from Licht-ung, an independent label in Germany. A cassette-tape version of the release is also in the works.

So, Krautrock, Japanese lyrics and cassette tapes. It’s easy to see how the aesthetic and philosophy of Hysteric Picnic is wrapped tightly around the band’s music. With bands such as Savages and Bo Ningen receiving press in the United Kingdom, there seems to be a wave of dark, psychedelic, new wave bands emerging. Japan could be said to have a similar scene breeding recently, from three-piece Lillies and Remains, who released “Transpersonal” in 2011, and Plasticzooms who released “Critical Factor” last year.

Unlike those bands, however, Hysteric Picnic seems to be gathering less of a goth following, and more of the record-bin scouring indie crowd who mull about Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood.

“A lot of our fans are fans of ’70s and ’80s post-punk from Manchester and New York,” Oouchi says. “I think they’re ravenous for new music, considering they’re listening to our stuff despite our lack of presence in the media.”

Oouchi, like many Japanese indie artists, isn’t too focused on building a core audience around his work and says he’d like to remain on the edges of any kind of music scene.

“Personally, I think it’s boring when it’s only the bands and people who belong to a scene who are listening to your music, so I want to make songs that can’t be absorbed by one particular group,” he says. “Every age has had great bands that don’t, or can’t, subscribe to a particular scene, and we aspire to be one of those bands.”

Anyone who’s interested in catching the band live will be able to do so at the Ruby Room in Tokyo this Saturday. When asked what to expect from a Hysteric Picnic set, Oouchi describes his band’s shows matter-of-factly. “We turn down the lights as much as possible,” he says. “And play as loud as we can.”

Hysteric Picnic play with Fancy Numnum at Ruby Room in Shibuya, Tokyo, on Jan. 12 (6 p.m. start; ¥1,000; 03-3780-3022). “Cult Pops” is out now. For more information, visit www.hystericpicnic.blogspot.jp.