Mitsume play the indie game, but are winning the mainstream

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Mitsume subscribes to an easy-to-get-behind ethos regularly found in indie-rock communities: “Since our first album, we’ve been under nobody’s control but our own,” says lead vocalist Moto Kawabe. “We prefer to do whatever we can ourselves.”

Accordingly, the Tokyo-based quartet has released all its singles, EPs and albums through its own self-titled label, including third full-length “Sasayaki,” which arrived in stores last week.

Refusing to compromise artistic control is noble, but risky if you never go anywhere. Since Mitsume formed in 2009, though, it has garnered more attention with each new release. The band has made it into popular music magazines such as Rockin’on and Indies Issue. They played a side stage at last year’s Fuji Rock Festival and will open for English indie-pop act Summer Camp next week in Tokyo. Afterward, they embark on a brief nationwide tour culminating in a much-hyped March 28 show at Tokyo’s Liquidroom.

Kawabe, guitarist Mao Otake, drummer Yojiro Suda and bassist Nakayaan (who goes by one name) all attended Keio University and were in the same music circle.

The four shared a similar taste in U.S. indie rock and eventually started writing their own material.

“We didn’t know what Tokyo’s indie-rock scene was like, we were mostly just listening to music online at home,” Suda says. “We weren’t focused on playing live, just on recording music first and sharing it through sites like MySpace and SoundCloud.”

Mitsume’s eponymous debut was released in 2011. It is, especially compared to subsequent releases, a pleasant, albeit unremarkable collection of indie-pop-by-numbers highlighted by the occasional Built-To-Spill-esque guitar jam. It’s the sort of sound a band could coast on — and many do — but Mitsume was restless.

“We always want to do something new when we start recording,” Otake says, and this approach helped shape 2012′s “Eye” into a musical leap forward. Mitsume intentionally stepped away from the traditional rock mold to introduce squiggly synths and drum-machine beats into its music. Whereas guitar solos lingered on “Mitsume,” the four-piece tightened up to the point where cuts such as “Cider Cider” and “Towers” sound dancefloor-ready.

When “Eye” popped up in stores, Mitsume had become a regular in the Tokyo indie-rock live scene. Suda says they became close with Tokyo-via-Kobe outfit Teen Runnings after releasing “Mitsume,” and were soon sharing bills with acts such as Nag Ar Juna, Super VHS and Canopies And Drapes.

“We do all of the promotion for the albums, especially online promotion,” Suda says. “Otake has a programming background, so he designed our website himself.”

The band also handles the pressing of all the CDs with its own money. “We submit an order to a pressing company, and it gets expensive, but we’ve been able to recoup the investment money,” Nakayaan says.

For all these hallmarks of the indie lifestyle, Mitsume have attracted more mainstream media attention, album sales and higher-profile gigs than many of their contemporaries in the city. Mitsume’s music is good, but so are plenty of other groups scattered about Tokyo. Suda says the reason they’ve done well is simple.

“Most of those other bands were singing in English, but our lyrics are in Japanese,” he says. “More listeners can understand our music and more people can become interested in us. It’s also easier for the mass media to pick us up.”

“We want to write lyrics in English, but we want to get better at it first,” Otake says with a laugh. “Our goal is to be like Shugo Tokumaru.”

Mitsume’s latest release should help it move in that direction. The band says the recording of “Eye” was “very organized,” the four having had a clear idea of what they wanted. For “Sasayaki” (“Whisper”) though, the group tried another approach.

“This time we tried to be more experimental,” Otake says. “If we made a mistake while playing a new song, we left it in to see how it sounded. “I listened to less American and British music, and instead listened to various psychedelic-rock compilations from other countries.”

“Sasayaki” is Mitsume’s best effort yet, managing to retain the grooves introduced on “Eye” but now bordering them with strange touches. The songs are sparser than before, and the extra space allows every detail to hang in the air — an otherwise driving rock number gets punctured by a drum-machine bleep, or a slinky slow-number turns unsettling thanks to Otake’s echo-soaked vocals. It’s the first great Japanese rock album of 2014.

In the immediate future, Mitsume will focus on its tour, especially the final show at Liquidroom, a venue all the members of the group have gone to many times (“we love the sound system”). However, the reverberations from what the band has done so far — managed to climb out the depths of Tokyo’s live-scene underground — may be a guiding template for its peers.

Mistume plays with Summer Camp and Ykiki Beat at Tsutaya O-Nest in Shibuya, Tokyo, on Feb. 18 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥5,000 in advance; 03-3462-4420). The band tours Japan starting with a show at Molehall in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, on Feb. 22 (7 p.m. start; ¥5,000 in adv.; 0263-88-5535). The tour winds up at Liquidroom in Tokyo on March 28 (8 p.m.; ¥3,000; 03-5464-0800). For more information and tour dates, visit www.mitsume.me.