Bassist Takumi Matsuzaka had a clear plan in mind when he launched his band, Awesome City Club, in early 2013.
“From the start I knew I wanted it to be two girls and three guys, and we’d play the songs at slower, danceable tempos,” he says, speaking at the band’s management office in Tokyo’s Ebisu district. “I didn’t want songs with a strong message in the lyrics, I just wanted the music itself to make people feel good.”
He was also acutely aware that the de facto way of operating as a new and unknown band in Tokyo — constantly playing gigs, selling demos and praying an A&R rep will come knocking at the door — wasn’t going to cut it. Instead, his group chose the modern route, and recorded and uploaded songs and music videos online for free.
“There are a lot of bands who make songs and then try to monetize that,” he says. “We thought an unknown band selling CDs at a gig for ¥500 would be asking too much, so we just used the songs to advertise ourselves.”
It may be a simple approach, but it’s one that musicians who have slogged away on the club circuit in Japan will appreciate. The members of Awesome City Club — which consists of Matsuzaka, songwriter and singer/guitarist Hiroshi Atagi, singer/synth player Miho “Porin” Toshida, guitarist Hiroshi “Molithy” Morishima and drummer Yukie Oshiro — aren’t new to any of this (they’ve all been in various bands before), but it wasn’t until they came together under Matsuzaka’s vision that things started changing for them.
Matsuzaka’s strategy led to a good deal of attention in the indie scene and a series of opening slots for high-profile overseas acts such as Deerhoof and Tahiti 80. The group released its debut album, “Awesome City Tracks,” from major label Victor Entertainment’s Connectone imprint earlier this month.
Produced by Manabu “Mabanua” Yamaguchi (Chara, Gotch of Asian Kung-Fu Generation), the album reflects the group’s electro, indie pop and chillwave influences, which are most evident on lead track “Lesson” and the tranquil groover “Jungle.” Unlike some other new acts (The fin., Yogee New Waves) that have also recently been bundled into a “city pop” scene by some critics, Awesome City Club’s melodies have a more J-pop sound that is particularly apparent on the Yuki-esque “Shigatsu no March” (“April’s March”), which features Porin on lead vocals, and “It’s So Fine,” which is a nod to the feel-good, funk-infused J-pop of the early 1990s.
“Popular U.S. and U.K. indie bands right now have R&B, funk and soul as a base, a sort of indie R&B,” Matsuzaka says. “Atagi doesn’t listen to that stuff but instead goes for the people who originally did that music. So when he brings in a song, he’s doing it from that angle. To us it sounds like the latest thing.”
Always on the lookout for trends, Matsuzaka says he received some direction on how his band should operate from overseas indie groups who would come to Japan to play major festivals, even though those acts had released only one song on the Internet.
“I wondered how this could happen; it’s like they skipped all the steps,” he says. “It was then that I realized the barriers between the indies and the majors were truly gone.”
Despite this, the band ultimately chose to release its album via a major label, a decision that came from feelings of inadequacy that the band wasn’t capable of creating a salable product on its own. Matsuzaka says the band’s process hasn’t changed much, but it does have access to more money. In fact, instead of feeling a sense of “selling out,” he says the major-label system is now an exciting antithesis to the independent-label scene.
“Independent labels are more major label-like these days,” he says. “All the popular acts are on indie labels and the labels always sell as much as they expect. On majors you have releases that don’t do well at all, which seems more punk to me. They spend a lot of money and, when it doesn’t sell, there’s that sense of, ‘Oops . . . ‘ ”
Matsuzaka is conscious of the downside of signing to a major, but as he speaks more and more it becomes clear that he stuck to the same plan he made when Awesome City Club began in 2013 — and his resolve is paying off.
“We want a lot of people to listen to our music, and to have that happen we may need to make compromises. We’ll have to become more sophisticated in different areas, like with our performance and singing,” he says. “We definitely don’t need to keep representing the indie scene now that we’re on a major label.”
“Awesome City Tracks” is in stores now. Awesome City Club plays the Cave Stage at the three-day Viva La Rock festival at Saitama Super Arena on May 3 (11 a.m. festival start; show starts at 4:35 p.m.). One-day tickets cost ¥10,000, two-day tickets cost ¥18,000. For more information, visit www.vivalarock.jp or www.awesomecityclub.com.