“Share the Joy,” the 2011 album by Brooklyn trio Vivian Girls, starts off with the distinctive rumble of a drone strike in progress before suddenly veering into a lollygagging eighth-note groove for beginner musicians.
Over the opener, “The Other Girls,” drifts Cassie Ramone’s pre-emptive warning: “I don’t want to be like the other girls” — sung in a sly, dislocated mid-Atlantic drawl that’s part-Catherine Earnshaw of “Wuthering Heights,” part-Bushwick caterwaul. It’s in that lyric that Ramone (whose real name is Cassie Gryzmkowski) appears to be portending a future of going it alone, and sure enough the band split in January 2014.
Vivian Girls were born from a special gang of girlfriends that included Ramone, Katy Goodman and Ali Koehler. Nearly as much has been written about their camaraderie — sisterly, sardonic and often delivered in a sweaty trifecta of near-matching bangs — as their breakup, when the group decided to forego making music together, but without the drawn-out hysterics of a public disavowing.
Lyrically, the trio was seen as 21st-century transplants of mouthy 1960s girl group The Shangri-Las, thought by many to be the prototype for female-fronted punk rock. And as with the case of nearly any millennial musician recording out of Brooklyn in the late 2000s, that nostalgic nod became a source of simultaneous praise and ridicule. The band was called everything from refreshing to wildly unoriginal, feminist to elitist, over-hyped to lo-fi.
Vivian Girls might be gone, but the spirit of the band persists in the divisive legacy they left on the Brooklyn music scene, noise-pop contemporaries in the U.S. and, surprisingly, indie scenes across Japan.
“The first record I ever bought was by the Vivian Girls,” says singer-songwriter and guitarist Tomomi “Meeko” Yamamoto. “They were the exact band I had in mind when I decided to form Old Lacy Bed.”
Meeko will get the chance to open for one of her heroines later this month when her Nagoya-based band performs with ex-Vivian Girls member Goodman and her new group, La Sera. Old Lacy Bed’s guitar pop should serve as the perfect compliment.
Japan wasn’t late to the party in terms of recognizing what Vivian Girls were doing, however. While Ramone, Goodman and Koehler stumped their fans over genre labels in New York, two other widely contested genres found middle ground in this country — at least in terms of etymology — within the world of the all-female Twee Grrrls Club.
The Club began more than five years ago as Sumire Taya’s tribute to East London DJ collective The She Set, but Twee Grrrls’ modest indie nights and homemade fanzines have since expanded to include Taya’s successful clothing business, several published books, exhibitions and a cult following both here and overseas. A portmanteau of music’s pricklier movements, thick with gender and class politics, the name might look like a shorthand for controversy, particularly — as history has been disappointing to note — when applied to a group of young female musicians.
“There’s still a massive emphasis on idol culture in Japanese music, which is a shame,” says Taya, referring to groups like AKB48 that focus less on their members’ musicality and more on their likability. “If people were more open-minded about the merits of all kinds of music, everyone — including young girls — would be more inspired to start playing and forming bands of their own. The quality of what comes out of our music industry can only improve then.”
“There is a tendency for people to focus on the ‘cuteness factor’ when it comes to all-girl bands,” agrees 24-year-old Meeko. “It helps draw a crowd.”
The riot grrrl movement first grew legs in the early ’90s and dug its proverbial heels firm on the ground across the American Northwest, especially in Olympia and later in Washington, D.C. — all the better to make sure they get “to the front,” according to ringleader Kathleen Hanna. The radical frontwoman of the feminist punk band Bikini Kill first coined the phrase in reference to safeguarding female concertgoers at rowdy venues. Riot grrrl could sound like Sleater Kinney and it could sound like The Gossip’s Beth Ditto — neither of whom sound like what Twee Grrrls Club does — but it was all more often than not, unapologetically loud. Any industry precedence for what constituted gender-appropriate music was a man-made invention, so to speak, and for all the brouhaha surrounding it, riot grrrl’s demand was simple: An end to the days where girls should be seen rather than heard.
If riot grrrl was the call to arms, twee is the unrequited love letter from the trenches. Passive-aggressive rather than pacifist, the caricaturized twee song dealt with the sheer bad luck of losing everything you never owned, only to suffer the additional injury of having your complaint arrested by the clamoring of 12-string Rickenbackers. What started out as a music-press descriptor for U.K. bands like the Pastels and The Wedding Present (breezy open chords, waterlogged harmonies, a smarty-pants vulnerability in the lyrics), turned into exasperated rants about the middle-class naivete of cashmere-wearing navel-gazers. “Twee” might have bloomed in the windows of record stores, but bands began to resent the category outright because they felt it undermined their music, and rightly so — its most reluctant poster boys, Morrissey and Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, are arguably among the finest lyricists indie pop has seen in the past 50 years.
“It’s a controversial term,” Taya says. “There’s a lot of ambiguity behind it, which is probably why it has been so misunderstood — a lot of artists who are accused of being cute and twee started out in garage and hard rock bands. I always think critics who fixate on labels and technique seem to be missing the point (of the music) entirely.”
Taya worships the late English radio DJ John Peel, known for his readiness to embrace anything but the radio-friendly fodder he was expressly hired to play. Peel spent nearly 40 years at the BBC enthusiastically plugging the scrappy demos of then-unknown bands, many of whom would become the likes of the Jesus & Mary Chain, Billy Bragg and Pulp, for no reason other than how much he loved listening to their music. (Herself a vocal promoter of up-and-coming music in Japan, Taya lists Not Wonk, Prince Graves and Homecomings as some of her current favorites.)
“I’ve been a huge admirer of Twee Grrrls since before our band was formed,” Meeko says. The DJ collective might have come a long way since its makeshift first days, but it “never strays from the original DIY mentality,” she notes.
Signed to 2670 Records, the roots of Old Lacy Bed’s 2014 mini-album “Little Girl” as well as the more recent split 7″ with Seattle’s La Luz could be traced to Meeko’s own first solo recordings, made in her bedroom more than two years ago.
Those songs now have an authority of their own, strident with flashes of drunken college rock and disco pop, though Meeko has elected to pare Ramone’s morose wit down to a more bare-boned whimsy about the dreariness of growing up (“Little Girl“) and romantic ocean-sickness (“Coastlands,” of course).
Taya was quick to claim “doing it yourself” as a personal and professional motto. Her (and Hanna’s) school of DIY speak as much about resourcefulness as it does the freedom to be your own boss (“To the front!”), where labels are banished with the surety of superstition. “I’m a great believer of impulses, in pursuing what moves you first and foremost,” she says.
When asked to define the Twee Grrrls’ “sound,” for instance, she gropes for an answer. “It’s whatever you want it to be — dance music or pop — that doesn’t conform to a particular era.”
Or maybe, to paraphrase Cassie Ramone, it’s just an attempt simply not to sound “like the other girls.”
La Sera plays Dum-Dum Party at Daikanyama Unit in Tokyo on June 19 (6 p.m. start; ¥4,800 in advance); Thee Boot Party at Sakuradai Pool in Tokyo on June 20 (5:30 p.m. start; ¥3,000); Kirchherr in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Pref., on June 21 (6:30 p.m.; ¥2,500) and Metro in Kyoto on June 22 (6:30 p.m.; ¥2,500). Old Lacy Bed will be joining as support band for the June 21 show, and Sumire will perform DJ sets at the shows between June 20 and 22. For more information, visit oldlacybed.com, www.iamkatygoodman.com or tweegrrrlsclub.blogspot.jp.