Sugar’s Campaign come up with some sweet city pop for debut album ‘Friends’


Special To The Japan Times

Seiho Hayakawa and Takuma Hosokawa think modern pop music is “grotesque,” but that’s exactly how they wanted the debut album by their band Sugar’s Campaign to sound.

“We grew up in the 1980s and ’90s,” says Hayakawa, who also records solo under his first name, Seiho. “Japanese pop music was very exaggerated, about life in a city that was pure fantasy.”

“Even look at Kyary Pamyu Pamyu,” adds Hosokawa, whose own solo project is called Avec Avec. “She has a really cute image, but it is intentionally taken to the extreme, to the point of feeling creepy. We want to do that, with city pop.”

The genre of city pop is a fusion of soul music and album-oriented rock that was particularly popular in the ’80s. Hayakawa, Hosokawa and vocalist Keita Hatada put an extra glossy spin on city pop as Sugar’s Campaign, an interpretation that landed the trio a deal with Victor Entertainment last year.

Debut album “Friends” strikes just the right balance between reverence for older Japanese sounds and creating a new sonic path. Sugar’s Campaign funnels all the best elements of city pop — the hooks, the tight production, the bounciness — into a shiny frame that never sounds dated. And, considering most younger listeners never experienced the opulence of the bubble era, an air of irony hangs over these luxurious-sounding creations.

Hatada and Hosokawa met at an Osaka-area high school where they played in a small band together. Hosokawa later met Hayakawa at their college music club, and he was relieved to find someone that shared his interests. And what was that main interest? The pair answer in unison: “Steely Dan.”

The U.S. rock act from the ’70s served as a halfway point between Hosokawa’s interest in album-oriented rock and Hayakawa’s love of jazz.

Just as Sugar’s Campaign started rolling, however, Hayakawa and Hosokawa began focusing on their solo projects. Both became cornerstones of Osaka’s electronic music scene in 2011, and by the end of that year, Hayakawa had launched his own imprint, Day Tripper Records. His manic electronic songs as Seiho nabbed some critical attention, which he parlayed into festival appearances and opening slots for Western acts such as Disclosure and Ryan Hemsworth.

Hosokawa’s Avec Avec project, meanwhile, was also getting attention overseas, mainly from California-based Mush Records, who released his EP in early 2012. Hosokawa also began producing and remixing songs for rising J-pop performers such as Yun*chi and Tokyo Girls’ Style.

Hatada looks impressed when hearing his bandmates’ accolades listed out loud.

“I sang songs on (Japanese video sharing site) Nico Nico, but I wasn’t very popular,” Hatada says with a laugh when asked about what he got up to musically. “And I trained, I trained a lot,” he adds, flexing his arms and laughing even more.

Before turning their attention to individual pursuits, the members left listeners with a taste of what the band was about. In January 2012, Sugar’s Campaign uploaded a video to YouTube for the song “Netokano,” a dizzying tune backed by carnival synths and big “la la la” vocals. It proved popular, racking up thousands of views.

“For our first album, we wanted to have a concept first before recording,” Hayakawa says. “But ‘Netokano’ was our big song, and we didn’t want to change it because so many people already liked it.” Hosokawa says “Friends” is a kind of greatest-hits collection of Sugar’s Campaign’s earliest numbers.

The sound of singer-songwriter Tatsuro Yamashita is evoked via vocal harmonies on “Big Wave,” while the glitzed-out influence of city pop touches nearly every song. Most tracks also feature contemporary touches, and on first single “Holiday” they merge together just right: the funky chorus transforming into a bridge spiked by laser sounds and chipmunk vocals.

” ‘Holiday’ was one of our earliest songs,” Hayakawa says. “It’s a mix of a lot of styles — J-pop, indie rock, dance music,” Hosokawa adds. “It owes a lot to The Stone Roses and Madonna.” The song also highlights the aforementioned grotesqueness of the group, as those laser bursts and helium voices seem like pop perfection pushed to its limits. It’s a reflection of how exaggerated city pop — and many films and TV shows — was when the members were growing up.

“When we were kids, we saw images of the big city adults made up as a fantasy. Osaka was nothing like it,” Hosokawa says. All three members grew up in suburbs, and their only reference point for an urban center like Tokyo ended up being in music and cartoons. Hosokawa says a good example was the opening sequence to the anime “Oishinbo,” loaded with dazzling cityscapes and bright lights. He even bursts into singing the title song.

“But no city was actually like that, it was all pure fantasy,” he says.

“We also just really liked that music when we were younger. There is an element of nostalgia too,” Hayakawa says.

That’s where the personal focus ends for Sugar’s Campaign, though. “We didn’t want to push ourselves into these songs, but rather have a different character in each one,” Hayakawa adds. “More like a story.”

Hayakawa and Hosokawa both say their solo activities allow them to be more self-indulgent. With Sugar’s Campaign, however, they want to try something different. “We want Sugar’s Campaign to be like a theatrical play,” Hosokawa says.

In addition to Hatada, various female vocalists appear on “Friends.” Sugar’s Campaign’s goal was to have a unique character featured on every track, which provided some successful results.

“I feel like an actor, while those two are like the writer and director,” Hatada says with a laugh about his contributions. “I have to do whatever they come up with, no matter how difficult it might seem.”

Sugar’s Campaign is preparing for album release parties in Tokyo (March 19 at Daikanyama Unit) and Osaka (March 20 at Sun Hall), and following that Hayakawa and Hosokawa will return to their solo projects. “But Sugar’s Campaign is the one I want to do the most,” Hosokawa insists.

“As a solo artist, I can be experimental and edgy, but I wouldn’t be able to do that without Sugar’s Campaign,” Hayakawa says. “This band allows me to make music for everyone. It gives me balance.”

“Friends” is in stores now. Sugar’s Campaign plays Galaxy in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Jan. 31 as part of Yashibu Vol. 2 (3:30 p.m.; ¥3,000 in advance). For more information, visit