Owarikara takes its fans to the edge with ‘Saihate Songs’

by Ryotaro Aoki

Special To The Japan Times

The band name Owarikara loosely translates into English as “starting from the end.” However, singer and guitarist Hyouri Takahashi gives a much more specific interpretation.

“The suffix ‘-kara‘ (from) and the word ‘owari‘ (end) are both part of the name,” he says. “It’s about being a band that encompasses all of rock music.”

That’s basically Owarikara’s musicality in a nutshell. Comprising of Takahashi, Taku Kameda on keyboards, Fumihiko Tsuda on bass and Kenta Kawano on drums, the four-piece is a melting pot of rock who are influenced by everything from Jimmy Smith and The Doors to Yura Yura Teikoku and Merzbow.

“We sound like (folk musician) Yosui Inoue backed by Arctic Monkeys,” jokes the always outspoken Takahashi, but he’s only half-kidding.

Owarikara formed in 2008. Since then, the band has become known for catchy rock riffs and ferocious live performances that often culminate in Takahashi jumping onto Kameda’s keyboards during a guitar solo, while Tsuda climbs on top of the drums to perform a handstand.

Last week, Owarikara released its fourth studio album, “Saihate Songs” (“Songs From the Edge”). It comes after a trilogy of sorts for the band and serves as a “grand reboot.” Takahashi feels like he has gone back to basics, when he spent his days playing music by himself at home. Owarikara’s third album, “Q&A,” emphasized communication with its listeners on a personal level.

“I feel like we’ve come full circle and now I’m back to being in my own little space,” he says. “(‘Saihate Songs’) is about isolation. It’s different from before, though. The scenery is similar, but I like to think of it in terms of a winding staircase. We’ve gone around once, but we’re in a higher place so we can see things a little differently.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) returning to a more introverted approach to its music, “Saihate Songs” is Owarikara’s most straightforward and accessible album yet, showing off a tightly polished sound that retains those fun little quirks that have come to define the band. The album contains the same vigor found in its earlier material, on tracks such as the funky “Matchmaker,” the Deep Purple-sounding “Kurorekishi ni OK!” (“OK to a Dark Past!”) and the incredibly catchy single “Odoru Rorschach” (“Dancing Rorschach”), which references the inkblot psychology test devised by Hermann Rorschach.

There are moments of refined songwriting, a skill the members have honed over time. It’s most apparent on “Mercury,” a track in which the band takes the viewpoint of Pluto sending a message out to Mercury, the closest planet to the sun. There’s also “L,” which is about standing your ground and not being swept away by other people.

Owarikara has always been an ambitious group, but the themes on this album are wide, sweeping and bold, with title track “Saihate Song” being perhaps the most thematically symbolic. The word “saihate” translates to “the utmost edge,” and according to Takahashi both the song and album are about reaching as far as possible in both music and life.

“I think having the will to live means you still have the energy to reach for something,” he says. ” ‘Saihate’ doesn’t really exist, but in your mind you’re searching for it. Everyone thinks that we’ll all reach some ultimate goal one day, but the goal differs from person to person. It might be with your job, or family . . . to me it’s music. We may never reach it, but I think the will to search for it is what ‘saihate’ is.”

Takahashi hopes Owarikara can be an entity that serves as a bridge to connect mainstream culture and the more progressive ideas of the underground. He says this goal of connecting people and ideas is at the core of everything he does. Four years ago he helped release a compilation titled “Tokyo New Wave 2010,” which captured the acts and live scene surrounding the venue Motion in Shinjuku. The compilation featured bands such as SuiseiNoboAz, Sebastian X and The Mornings.

“I guess everyone then was a sort of outsider,” he says. “There wasn’t anything happening in Shinjuku. Motion had just opened and people who sort of spilled over from other places came together and that’s what made it so interesting. There was a real sense of camaraderie. It might have been coincidence, but I really hold that music close to my heart.”

Takahashi says the scene has since lost a bit of the uniqueness it had before, but that other emerging artists have caught his attention.

“I don’t think we’ve found something like that yet. But there are people who are doing cool stuff now who I think are amazing, such as Seiko Oomori and Charan Po Rantan,” he says. “It’s a sort of ‘idol’ way of doing things. They’re really thinking about and trying to take the passion found in the idol scene and feed it back over to the indie rock scene. I have a lot of respect for them.”

Owarikara, and Takahashi in particular, also hope to connect the gulf between Japanese fans who like Japanese music and those who like Western music.

“I’ve always loved Western music, but it’s kind of pointless for Japanese people to do it because it turns into something else,” he says. “I think Japanese people, being born and raised in such a small country, are really strange, awkward creatures. At the same time there’s definitely something that can only be found here. To me, that’s in the melody and words. Putting kayōkyoku (traditional Japanese pop) melodies on top of the hottest new sounds (from overseas) is the ideal. There are people in Japan who copy Western music or just do a translated version of it, but I’m not interested in doing that.”

So when Takahashi says that his band sounds like Arctic Monkeys being fronted by one of the greatest Japanese folk singers ever, you know he’s not being entirely coy. Maybe it’s this ideology that makes “Saihate Songs” and Owarikara so endearing.

“We’re both pop and avant-garde, as is our message,” he says. “There’s joy and sadness, past and present. We want to be that connecting bridge, that is what’s very important to us.”

Owarikara play Park Square in Sendai on March 7 (7 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in advance; 022-267-0433); Sonic in Mito, Ibaraki Pref., on March 8 (6 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in adv.; 029-300-2233); and Tsutaya O-Nest in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on March 10 (7 p.m. start; ¥2,300 in adv.; 03-3462-4420). The band will tour the country through May. For more information on dates and the band, visit www.owarikara.com.