In a music scene where the border between underground and mainstream can be incredibly difficult to traverse, it’s not surprising that many bands trapped in the indie-sphere bemoan their lot.
What you hear less of is how that sense of exclusion, fostered by a cultural divide between major and minor, can affect musicians in the other direction as well.
“Some indie record shop buyers told us, ‘You guys are too pop to sell in this store,’ ” says musician Noriyo Hotta. “But we don’t fit the major side of the music industry either. We might exist somewhere in both major and indie . . . or maybe not in either.”
As one third of Nagoya-based trio Crunch, guitarist and vocalist Hotta, along with bassist Reina Kawagoe and drummer Yoshiko Ginno, shares responsibility for the most glorious melancholic pop statement of the first quarter of 2014: the mini album “Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto” (“A Chance, Everyday Thing”). The trio is far from eager to join the hegemonizing swarm that the marketing-led entertainment industry has become.
“We don’t divide major pop and indie music as players or listeners,” Hotta explains. “But we think having what you might call a ‘sense of minority’ is important — the ideal is minor rock that is able to gain popularity.”
The members of Crunch met in high school and discovered a shared taste in music, which led to them forming the band and making the rounds of Nagoya’s live venues in 2010.
Many musicians are either reluctant or unable to reveal much in the way of artists who’ve influenced them. Hotta is clearly an avid consumer of music and eagerly narrates a winding journey that includes everything from 1970s classics to ’90s J-pop and the indie-dance boom that featured bands such as Franz Ferdinand and The Rapture.
In the context of Crunch’s own music, there are two kinds of artists that really jump out and reveal something of the trio’s creative ethos. On the one hand there are artists such as Ringo Shiina, Supercar, Cornelius and Sakanaction, who stepped out of the alternative-music scene to achieve mainstream success. On the other, there are artists from an eclectic range of backgrounds who are united by having distinctive voices. Among these are Okinawan folk rocker and antiwar activist Shokichi Kina, Brazilian songwriter and producer Marcos Valle, Japanese indie rocker Kenta Maeno and British new wave bands such as Orange Juice, The Smiths and New Order. Listening to any of these artists individually won’t give you an idea of what to expect from Crunch, but seeing them listed all together — and knowing that a curiously long list of music journalists number among their fans — says a lot about the way the band think.
Folkish melancholy runs through “Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto,” culminating in the tear-jerking title track. “Utakata” and “Snow Light” feature a gently propulsive momentum that has echoes of early 2000s rock such as Quruli’s “Bara no Hana.” “Fortune Boat” takes its cues from postpunk, and “Awakening” contrasts a simple cascading guitar melody with a disorienting rhythm that seems to delight in dropping the final beat at unexpected moments.
“We start by doing a session around a piece of melody,” Hotta says about the band’s creative process. “So we work on the rhythm and groove naturally. Then afterward I look back at it and think, ‘Yeah, this is what I wanted to make.’ A landscape I’ve seen, a landscape I want to see, like a diary or envisioning utopia. The three of us are making a cozy place where we can have peace of mind.
“For example, take ‘Mori no Naka,’ the first track on the album. This song was influenced by Radiohead, especially the songs ‘Jigsaw Falling’ and ‘There There,’ and a funk tune by Japanese rock band Jagatara called ‘Tango.’ But I was also inspired by a book about the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon. According to the book, suicides increase among members of the tribe who accept modern civilization. They obtain ego but with that comes solitude, so that comes over in the lyric, ‘I can’t stop dreaming of becoming alone.’ “
Nagoya has proven to be a comfortable environment for Crunch to develop, with the music scene’s small community meaning everyone knows each other.
“All the venues, clubs, bars and record stores we need are together, compact and within walking distance,” Hotta says. “In Sakae there’s Stiff Slack Records, Club Rock ‘n’ Roll, Vio, Spazio Rita and Daytrive, At Osu there’s File-Under Records, and at Tsurumai there’s K.D. Japon, Ripple and Daytrip.”
Crunch recorded “Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto” with producer and local legend Shigeru “Geru” Matsui, formerly of new wave band Building and now of avant-garde postpunkers Panicsmile. The trio regularly collaborates with other musicians in the lively local scene, with the artists Hush and Sayoko-Daisy providing remixes for “Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto” and Crunch returning the favor, appearing as guest musicians on Sayoko-Daisy’s next CD.
There’s way more potential in Crunch than to be simply another promising local band. “Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto” is a stunningly self-assured debut that shows a flowering songwriting talent with bags of potential for mainstream crossover appeal. It’s foolish to make predictions and you should never underestimate the music industry’s ability to get it horribly wrong, but Crunch are already planning a second album for 2015 and a world with any justice would treasure both its instinctive pop sense, its independent spirit and immediately get to work ensuring that it is the country’s next breakout band.
“Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto” is in stores now. Crunch plays with Hush, Apple Light and more at K.D. Japon in Nagoya on May 25 (6 p.m. start; ¥2,000 in advance; 052-251-0324). For more information, visit www.crunchjp.blogspot.jp.