Omake Club helps Zombie-Chang escape down her own artistic rabbit hole


Special To The Japan Times

Midway through our conversation at a dimly lit Shibuya cafe, Meirin Yung offers to break down any song on her recently released album under the name Zombie-Chang. I choose the slacker-inspired “Semete Kanashii Tokiniwa” (loosely translated as “At Least in Sad Times”) that served as the advance preview of her second full-length release, “Zombie-Change.”

“Ahhh, how did I make that one,” she says with a laugh before pulling out an iPhone in a red case, seemingly to listen to an audio file. Actually, she opens the YouTube video for the song, and places the phone close to her ear, trying to jolt her memory. “No idea,” she says, before guessing that she probably started with the beat.

“If I have a song and I just keep listening to it, I start thinking I need to modify it in some way,” Yung says, explaining both her constructive forgetfulness and the lack of her own music on her smartphone. It’s a surprising admission, as Yung’s music stands out in part because it doesn’t seem bothered with perfection.

“Zombie-Change” finds the young artist gleefully chasing down a wide array of genres, from off-kilter electro-pop to half-speed ballads to four-on-the-floor bangers, all of it feeling like it could unravel at any second. And Yung makes it clear that this kind of mayhem is exactly what she wanted, ditching a big label in favor of online imprint Omake Club in order to get a little more freedom to follow her gut.

Yung grew up in suburban Yokohama, a place she “didn’t find very interesting.” She says that as early as middle school she would play around and record songs on a tape recorder, a hobby that carried on into her teenage years.

“I would make punk music, and basically just play three chords. I really liked the Ramones,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t really like it when other people get involved in my music. I don’t like the end result.”

This realization, along with a then-burgeoning interest in the subversive sounds of anti-folk music, inspired Yung to pick up an acoustic guitar and record as a solo singer-songwriter in the vein of Kimya Dawson and Jeffrey Lewis. She went as far as to call her music “anti-EDM,” even though she admits she has nothing against contemporary dance music, she just liked the idea. Around the same time, she found her stage name.

“I would dye my hair blue or green or something, and I just used my hands to do it. So my hands would turn that color — purple or blue. A guy at one shop I would go to said my hands looked like a zombie’s. That sounded really good to me.”

Her earliest works found her strumming an acoustic guitar and singing, often pushing her voice into harsh territory. She released one album, “Atashi wa Nan Desu Ka” (“What Am I?”) through the label UK.Project, and it can still be found on streaming service Apple Music today. It’s a drastically different sound than what’s on “Zombie-Change,” though flashes of her unpredictability pop up, most notably at the end of “Please Give Me.” After several minutes of strumming, the song transforms into a crushing EDM number — like Lilith Fair mutating into Ultra.

Omake Club founder Shinnosuke Shimada says he isn’t a huge fan of music featuring only acoustic guitar, but when he saw Yung perform at the venue Shinjuku Loft for the first time, he fell for her sound right away.

“I offered to release one of her songs through Omake Club, but she initially refused,” he says, seated next to Yung. A week later she changed her mind, though, saying she was frustrated her label wouldn’t let her take the risks she wanted.

Her story parallels Shimada’s path to starting Omake Club. He spent several years working with blaring dance producers Dexpistols, but eventually came to feel like his musical tastes were starting to diverge from theirs.

At the same time, he and some friends from Tama University started a hip-hop group called Tokyo Health Club, an outfit that has gained attention in recent years for its 1990s-leaning sound. He hopes to get a new album out this summer.

“A friend asked me to make a beat for him to rap over, but I said no because I had never made hip-hop before,” he says. “But I eventually gave it a shot and we ended up having a lot of fun.”

Omake Club’s releases skew toward hip-hop, highlighted by Tokyo Health Club, Jabba Da Hutt Football Club and MCpero, but Shimada says the label isn’t focused solely on rap. “I want to give young artists struggling in a complex music industry a chance to express themselves, and just do their own thing,” he says.

Zombie-Chang embodies this mission statement perfectly. In her first video with Omake Club, “Summer Time,” she raps over a sparse instrumental. It’s a track that positions her as another artist emerging in Tokyo’s growing “women rappers” scene (alongside Suiyoubi no Campanella and Daoko). But “Zombie-Change” refuses to be categorized, zooming from jittery electro-pop songs about PMS (“PMS”) to laments for the past (“Kore de Owari?”).

Sonically, it captures Yung’s in-person vibe perfectly — she bounces around and claps her hands together when she remembers something, like she’s buzzing in to answer a question on a game show. Yet she just as quickly grows serious and focused when talking about her music. “I see myself as a really emotional person, I’m really a romantic,” she says.

Whether tapping into her melancholy side or singing a song about lemonade, Yung is following Shimada’s lead and exploring the many ideas she wants to, without fear of having to change anything for anyone but herself. “In my head, I always feel like need to create something, and I’m always trying to organize just how to put them together in just the right way.”

“Zombie-Change” is out now. Zombie-Chang plays Solfa in Meguro-ku, Tokyo, on Feb. 23 (6 p.m. start; ¥1,000 at the door). You can follow Zombie-Chang on Twitter at @Yung_Meirin_.