City pop revival helps Suchmos at just the right time

by

Special To The Japan Times

Walk into a Tower Records store in Shibuya or Shinjuku and you’ll eventually come across the apparel section. The current fashion aesthetic here leans retro: Hoodies and T-shirts come emblazoned with text highlighting throwback music signifiers, from equipment (“cassette tape,” “analog”) to genres (“surf rock,” “grunge”).

The sweatshirt that seems most relevant to the music filling up the rest of the stores, however, reads “city pop.”

Back in July, writer Ryotaro Aoki used this same space to write about the effort being made by domestic music magazines — and in particular CD-rental chain Tsutaya — to turn a horn-filled genre from the 1980s into a new trend. Bands such as Cero, Lucky Tapes and Awesome City Club got lumped together in this branding move … steps away from the ¥4,000 hoodies, you can find their latest releases on display.

Included in the display is Suchmos, a six-piece band from Kanagawa Prefecture that currently boasts the most momentum. Its video for the smooth “Stay Tune” has racked up 670,000 YouTube views since appearing in early January, while its “Love & Vice” EP sits at a respectable 31st spot on streaming service Apple Music’s “top albums” list at the time of writing. The members have also become media staples — when I meet lead singer Yosuke Kasai and turntablist Kaiki Ohara at their label office in Shibuya, I assume my 7 p.m. slot will be their last for the day — nope, they still have a handful of radio interviews to attend to. But in our allotted hour, a lot comes up: a recent secret show in Osaka where 400 fans sang along with every word of “Stay Tune,” how the band deals with busy schedules and how Kasai and Ohara became friends via a shared love of garlic-soy-sauce-flavored potato chips.

Yet something the pair never mention is city pop. Kasai grew up loving harsher Japanese bands like Thee Michelle Gun Elephant and Blankey Jet City, and all the artists he talks about in relation to Suchmos’ sound come from overseas.

“I heard Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’ and thought it was so cool, I liked how easy it was to understand what he was trying to say,” Kasai says. They go on to reference Jamiroquai and Earth, Wind and Fire as artists they try to emulate. The closest they come to talking about city pop is when they mention their hometown of Yokohama — a popular backdrop for real-deal ’80s city pop tracks.

Suchmos, like the bands Aoki wrote about previously, aren’t taking cues directly from city pop. Yet the outfits linked together in this media-driven revival do share a lot of similar sonic qualities. Their music moves at a breezy pace, horns appear frequently and songs nod to artists of yesteryear (not necessarily Japanese ones). City pop itself draws from a variety of genres — funk, R&B, fusion, disco — that also guide the sounds of Suchmos and similarly buzzy groups. The “city pop revival” might be pure marketing, but a real musical trend is happening.

Like all corporate-guided comebacks, city pop never went away. Rather, after Japan’s economic bubble burst in the early ’90s, the genre’s glitzy style faded from mainstream view. But no shortage of artists continued dabbling with it in the decades afterward, from former Cymbals singer Asako Toki to Junk Fujiyama. The Japan Times even ran an article in 2012 about acts such as Greeen Linez and Hitomitoi, who were playing around with city pop.

A year-and-a-half later, the moment Kasai points to as being massive for Suchmos happened.

“When Daft Punk won the Grammy for ‘Get Lucky.’ Seeing the most popular house group in the world win for that, it felt like the wave had come,” he says. “We wanted to be the young band in Japan that saw where things were heading.”

“Get Lucky,” and the album it appeared on (“Random Access Memories”) found the French act embracing old-school approaches to crafting music, the end result being disco-heavy and loaded with stiff bass slaps and Giorgio Moroder synths. Press for it found the robo-costumed duo emphasizing how it was a response to EDM (electronic dance music), which they painted as soulless.

“We really felt that the computers are not really music instruments,” the pair told Billboard magazine at the time.

“Get Lucky” and “Random Access Memories” were global smashes, including in Japan, where the album climbed as high as third place on the Oricon charts. Guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers — who at the turn of the century was writing pop songs for SMAP — became an icon of cool, celebrated on Japanese TV shows such as Tokyo MX’s “Disco Train,” which saw its stock rise in recent years, too. All of the bands getting the “city pop revival” treatment today also started gaining traction after Daft Punk’s big Grammy win, with acts such as Cero drifting away from an indie-rock vibe to a horn-laden sound built for light grooving.

Timing, however, isn’t everything.

“For us, we were experimenting with throwback sounds. It was time for that cycle, and we got in at just the right point,” says Haruka Tominaga, leader of five-member idol group Especia, an outfit plunging into the same disco and funk sound as the bands shuffled into the city pop resurgence. Last week the group released its latest album, “Carta,” and its mid-tempo, saxophone-assisted tracks don’t sound much different to what Suchmos has been up to.

But whereas Suchmos is on the rise, “Carta” marks the last release from the current incarnation of the group, as three members of Especia are set to “graduate” later this year (meaning they’ll leave to pursue other interests). They’ve enjoyed modest success, but nothing close to what this latest wave of acts inspired by the smooth sounds of the past has.

That’s because of Japan’s band boom, which has been building for the last few years but exploded in 2015 thanks to the success of units such as Sekai No Owari and Gesu No Kiwami Otome. It’s easy to see this interest in rock and older musical styles made massive again by Daft Punk intertwining, resulting in dance-floor-leaning groups such as Suchmos receiving huge amounts of buzz that wouldn’t have been possible three years prior, when idol groups dominated domestic music coverage. The shift away from cutesy pop groups — who often embraced fantasy — toward bands signals that general Japanese listeners want something more real. The throwback city pop style was always being made, whether by solo pop singers such as Hitomitoi or idols such as Especia, but it took people playing real instruments — offering authenticity — to push it back into the spotlight.

The near future might be full of interviews and festival dates for bands on the right side of the revival, but someone on the other side makes a good point.

“Some people will think this music sounds new, but other people are going to feel nostalgic. Trends go in cycles,” says Especia’s Chika Sanomiya. Who knows what those hoodies will say a few years from now.