The crowd at the sold-out Liquidroom show furiously pumps glowsticks shaped like green onions in time with the beat coming out of the venue’s sound system. They scream when three young women appear, and the energy only grows as the first song of the night gets rolling. It gets especially loud when they reach the part where they spell out their group’s name: “N! E! G! I! CC! O!”
This scene — a mostly male crowd whipped into a frenzy by young women performing choreographed dance moves — resembles a lot of contemporary J-pop idol concerts. Negicco, the trio in the spotlight, isn’t your typical modern-day girl group however. The Niigata Prefecture unit was formed to promote local produce, but has lasted for more than a decade and, whereas newer idols stick to a specific sound, Negicco likes to experiment. Recently released second album “Rice & Snow” highlights everything that makes the unit unique in today’s mainstream landscape, including heavy contributions from Shibuya-kei-era performers.
The current lineup features Nao, Megu and Kaede (they won’t reveal their last names), but they began in 2003 as a four-piece while still in elementary school. The National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Assosications (Zen-Noh) created Negicco to promote the yawahada negi, a variety of green onion from Niigata. Accordingly, the group would hold and toss said vegetable while performing at shows across the prefecture. This led to a lot of teasing from fans.
“It was a hard time for us,” Nao, the leader, says about those early days. Kaede adds that the group would “perform at local festivals, and we would have few fans.”
Timing wasn’t on Negicco’s side either. Nao says that the group started up just as the idol boom brought on by Morning Musume was dying down. “Nobody cared about idols,” she says.
Despite many instances where they thought about giving up, the members persisted. Things started to look up when they met producer and fellow Niigata native Yousuke Niwa, who uses the moniker “Connie” for his musical work.
“I had just come back from university in Tokyo,” Connie says. “I went to (Negicco’s) live show and really liked it.”
Shortly after the performance, he launched a website devoted to the group and invited the members to perform as special guests at a DJ event he was taking part in.
“They only had one original song at the time, so I made another one for them to perform live. And I kept writing for them,” Connie says. It’s hard to imagine a fan becoming a group’s primary producer in Tokyo, but in the smaller Niigata scene it worked out nicely.
Although Connie says he liked Morning Musume while at college, he grew up a fan of Shibuya-kei in the 1990s, a genre loaded with samples and nods to retro sounds from all over the globe. He even played in a Pizzicato Five cover band while in high school. He brought this passion for Shibuya-kei to Negicco’s songs, just as the group was transitioning from Niigata-only idols to signing with Tower Records’ T-Palette Records imprint.
“It was big for us, we would have broken up otherwise,” Kaede says.
“We used to physically hand out our CDs, but Tower wanted to sell them nationwide!” Megu says.
This new platform also allowed Connie to bring some Shibuya-kei heavyhitters to the project.
“Yasuharu Konishi, one of Pizzicato Five’s founders, did a DJ event in Niigata,” he says. “I knew the organizer, and he set up a dinner between us.”
Connie offered Konishi a chance to produce a song for Negicco, and Konishi jumped at the chance.
“I already had the title, ‘Idol Bakari Kikanaide‘ (‘Don’t Just Listen To Idol Music’), and he loved it,” Connie says excitedly, as if the situation is playing out for the first time.
Konishi’s final product — and an accompanying clip that imagines Negicco as older pop idols moving in a herky-jerky manner similar to 1970s group Candies — remains the trio’s most-viewed clip on YouTube. But even more Shibuya-kei artists worked with the unit on both “Rice & Snow” and its 2013 debut album, “Melody Palette,” including Gota Nishidera of Nona Reeves, Takao Tajima of Pizzicato Five and Katsutoshi Kitagawa of Round Table.
“Connie likes all of those artists, so he asked them to work with us,” Megu says. “We weren’t the same generation as Shibuya-kei, so he taught us a lot about it.”
This association with performers from one of the most respected periods in Japanese music could easily have ended up being Negicco’s new gimmick. It certainly would correspond with idol music’s focus on groups zeroing in on a niche — whether it be heavy metal (Babymetal), hip-hop (Lyrical School), being plus-size (Pottya) or being “anti-idols” (BiS) — and exploiting it. Some online fans have tagged Negicco as “Shibuya-kei idols.”
Yet the Shibuya-kei-era contributors provide songs that often don’t sound like the genre they specialized in, especially on “Rice & Snow.” Hiroyasu Yano, a drummer for the band Cymbals, offered up “Triple! Wonderland,” an electro-pop song that oozes optimism along with the group’s best hook. Tajima’s “Hikari no Spur,” meanwhile, is a winter-themed gallop accented by strings (released as a single in December, it debuted at fifth place on the Oricon Singles chart, Negicco’s highest placement ever).
Rounding out the album are younger writers and bands who bring a variety of sounds — from the talk-box-soaked pop of “Pajama Party Night” to the acid-house-accented “Space Nekojaracy.” Connie helped shape all of it.
“It’s easy to market for a specific crowd, but I don’t want to put Negicco into a box,” Connie says. In advance of “Rice & Snow,” Konishi called the group “the successors to Pizzicato Five.”
Ultimately, Negicco’s defining trait remains its Niigata roots. Nao says “Rice & Snow” refers to the two things their home prefecture is best known for, and all three mention trying to make the region proud. When news broke last week that AKB48 mastermind Yasushi Akimoto planned to start up a new branch in Niigata, many on the Internet wondered what it would mean for the idol trio who had been representing the area for more than a decade (on Twitter, the members of the group expressed joy at the idea of a new group coming to their neck of the woods).
And they are still associated with the onion that inspired their name. Despite having once been mocked for it, Negicco have embraced it (“we still respect the negi”), as it plays a pivotal role in their merchandise and overall image.
“Our dream is to play at Budokan, and see everyone in the audience holding our onion-shaped glowsticks,” Kaede says.
If the songs on “Rice & Snow” are any indication, this is a definite possibility. But if not, at least they’ll have gotten some kids to eat their vegetables.
Negicco’s “Rice & Snow” is in stores now. The Negicco First Tour Never Give Up Girls!!! & Rice & Snow begins at Live Spot Look in Chiba on Feb. 28 (5 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance; 050-5533-0888) and finishes at the Niigata Prefectural Civic Center on May 5. For more information, visit www.negicco.net/home.html.