When I first saw Super Butter Dog at an industry showcase a few years back, I thought they were a joke. First, of course, there was the name. Super Butter Dog sounded like one of those quasi-edible agglomerations of animal byproducts and chemicals you buy at dubious-looking matsuri stalls. And the band members, with their ersatz ’70s fashions and the odd Afro looked decidedly dodgy.
Having been subjected to innumerable Japanese wannabe bands where form took precedence over content, I was prepared for the worst. But then they started playing. Not spectacularly, at least at first, but with a sense of funk and tightness that few bands could even get close to. In fact, you could say their performance style was restrained, in the best sense of the word. Since then I’ve seen Super Butter Dog a number of times, and each time they’ve put on a righteously funky show that reflects the depths and strength of their musical roots.
The band’s founding members — vocalist/guitarist Takashi Nagazumi and lead guitarist Tomoyasu Takeuchi — met in 1994 at university and found they both loved the music of funk bands such as Funkadelic, Parliament and Sly and the Family Stone. Funk-rock forms the bedrock of the band’s sound, but another, equally important ingredient is Nagazumi’s songwriting skills and melodic sense. His list of influences in this regard includes Carole King, Rikki Lee Jones, Julie London (!) and Yosui Inoue.
“We wanted to create Japanese funk, using idiomatic Japanese, with no limits,” says Nagazumi.
What really sets Nagazumi apart from the frontmen of other Japanese bands is his voice, which on first listen sounds reedy and a bit odd. But his singing is unusually expressive, its light tone floating over the churning funk the band lays down. And with his slight frame, black-framed glasses and porkpie hat, Nagazumi cuts a distinct figure on stage.
After their initial meeting, Nagazumi and Takeuchi recruited drummer Shuichi Sawada, keyboardist Takafumi Ikeda, bassist Tomohiko (he prefers to use a single name) and vocalist Megumi Yamaguchi (who has since left the group), and formed Super Butter Dog.
Apart from Takeuchi’s occasional wild, incendiary solos (which add to, rather than distract from, the song in question), Super Butter Dog emphasizes ensemble playing, where the groove — that almost indefinable but essential quality for any band worth its salt — is way more important than individual instrumental prowess.
Sawada is a case in point. He belongs to the Charlie Watts school of drummers, with an unflashy style you could almost call simplistic, were it not for the fact that he and Tomohiko are an extraordinarily effective, solid rhythm section. A classic case of less is more.
Less self-effacing than Sawada and Tomohiko is Ikeda, who is definitely the comedian of the group. He’s also a damned good keyboard player, whose skill on the Fender Rhodes adds to the band’s authentic but unaffected ’70s retro vibe.
The band started its career by doing covers of funk classics by Sly Stone and other faves, but gradually started writing original material. After getting some attention when two of its songs were included on producer S-Ken’s “Soup Up” compilation album in 1996, Super Butter Dog was signed by keen-eared Toshiba-EMI talent-spotter Keitaro Kamo.
“To me, they represented a new generation of Japanese musicians,” says Kamo. “They weren’t in the J-pop vein — they had more of an international sound, and their music was a unique combination of club music and the rockier sound of the live-house scene.”
Their first major-label release was the 1997 album “Freeway,” which was produced by S-Ken. The first two songs on that album set the tone for the band’s oeuvre: “Kakehiki no Judgment” was a frenzied funk workout, with Takeuchi’s scintillating guitar blasting out killer riffs at a frenetic pace. The second track, “Shuden Magiwa no Bungee Jump,” was much more mellow and gave Nagazumi a chance to show off his knack for melody and phrasing.
Since “Freeway,” there have been three more albums as well as seven singles, the latest of which, “Lovers Ho,” came out May 16. The band, meanwhile, has developed an extremely loyal following all over Japan, especially in Kansai. But they are still waiting for that really big break that will make them a household name nationwide, like “Guts Da Ze” did for the Ulfuls back in 1995.
Right now Super Butter Dog belongs to that interesting category of Japanese bands that are neither mainstream superstars nor obscure indie acts. They’ve graduated from the live-house circuit, but they’re not playing venues on the scale of the Budokan. One reason they haven’t sold zillions of units (latest album, “Funkasy,” has sold only some 20,000 copies since its November release) is that so far none of their songs have been used in a “tieup” for a commercial or TV drama. And I thought “Funky Ooloncha” would have been a natural candidate.
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