• SHARE

Audio Active are Japan’s most controversial band and also it’s bravest. With each new album release they flip the bird in the face of the authorities. It’s like they’re asking for a showdown.

So what are they doing wrong? Nothing musically. Their new album, “Back to the Stoned Age,” is arguably their best recording to date. The problem is with their philosophy. These guys love ganja, and they don’t hide the fact. Instead they literally make a song and dance of it.

Their album covers are plastered with marijuana iconography (“Stoned Age” has a joint-shaped spaceship burning at one end) and their lyrics are almost entirely taken up with ruminations on the illegal herb (“Roll it/smoke it/pass it/and meditate,” from the track “Universal Joint.”) And this in a country where possession of half a joint can land you a prison term.

Aren’t Audio Active afraid of getting busted?

“We think the time of the bust may be now. We’re always talking about it,” says programmer 2DD, at their record company’s HQ in Shibuya.

“Yeah, it’s hardly a secret,” adds vocalist/programmer Masa. “We could get caught whenever.”

“If we get more famous then we could be in trouble,” muses 2DD.

“But we’re not dumb,” says Masa with a wink. “But whether we get arrested or not we personally don’t think [use of marijuana] is a crime. If we were drug dealers it’s a different issue but we just make music with marijuana as a theme and what’s the crime in that?”

I suggest that maybe they should plan on getting arrested. Then a big campaign could be organized to protest Japan’s Draconian marijuana laws and the resulting publicity would help them sell tons more records. OK, they might have confessions beaten out of them by the cops, and they might have to serve a few months in the slammer — but massive fame always comes at a price.

“We are not managed by Malcolm McLaren,” says Masa with a smile, dismissing the idea of any ulterior motive.

Hmmm, well it seemed like a good idea to me, anyway.

So now we got the drugs out of the way we can get stuck into the music, and specifically Audio Active’s unique futuristic blend of dub reggae and psychedelic rock.

On “Stoned Age” the proudly eclectic Audio Active have dumped the pop and rock aspects of their makeup and concentrated on experimental electronica and spacey dub. The result is they’ve dramatically swerved off the road that seemed to be heading toward the mainstream and crashed deep inside the leftfield. While this may alienate some of their burgeoning fan base, on the other hand it’s likely to attract new converts, those with an open mind.

Guitarist Kasai’s repetitive riffing forms the backbone to the impressive opener, “Weed Back,” but then he seems to go AWOL until the psychedelic voodoolike freakout of last track, “Universal Joint.” The second track, “Suckers,” is the most accessible here with its Chemical Brother-like swirling breakbeats while the ambient Aphex Twin-like “Demo Crash” is perhaps the most mysterious and best. But Audio Active are at their best when they attempt something grand, like the sweeping but simple orchestration of tracks such as “Time Shock” and the title track, both of which would fit perfectly on the soundtrack of some epic sci-fi movie. There are a few duds — “Viral Voice” and “Intelligent Chimpanzees” are so clogged with ideas that they go nowhere but up their own rear ends — but basically Audio Active have released another excellent album that fits neatly into their oeuvre.

Of “Back to the Stoned Age” Masa says, “It’s the band’s 10th anniversary so we wanted to get back to basics. We did a lot of mixes for each song but we basically chose the simplest ones.”

“Before we used to have [British dub pioneer] Adrian Sherwood producing, but this time it was just the four members of Audio Active,” says Masa. “So our ideas often clashed and we had to work hard to produce tracks acceptable to all members.”

“Yeah, sometimes there was a lot of tension between us,” adds 2DD.

“But although we have different opinions we all know what the basic Audio Active sound is and if a particular track was outside of that then it was ditched,” says Masa. “Maybe this is why this is the definitive Audio Active album. There was no outside interference.”

While drummer Nanao, guitarist Kasai and the heavy bass lines rustled up by 2DD and Masa form the foundations of the album’s heavy dub grooves, Audio Active are experts at using found sounds and samples to embellish the tracks with ear-friendly hooks. How do they go about finding these magic ingredients that spice up the basic groove?

“It’s pretty complex to pin down. It’s just on a case-by-case basis,” says Masa. “Sometimes we have an idea of a sound in our mind, a kind of image, and we then seek out a sound to fit that image. Other times someone makes a sound in the studio and we kind of work on it, manipulate it, until it evolves into something entirely different.”

Can they give as a specific example? How about the distorted loop of a kid’s voice on the track “Electrick Eels?”

“There’s a Lee Perry song where he plays a dub track and there’s a child singing. I was inspired by that and wanted to do something similar,” explains Masa. “On one of the records in my collection — and I’m not saying which one — there was a child’s voice so I sampled it and manipulated it so it was unrecognizable from the original and then made it fit the timing of a basic beat we’d developed. That’s how that song happened.”

I tell them I was a little disappointed with their show at this year’s Fuji Rock Festival because I felt the sound wasn’t big enough.

“Many people said the sound was too low,” admits Masa. “But it was the same for all the bands. There’s no sound checks at festivals so it’s tough to get it right.”

“But in our tour next month we’ll be playing in places with low ceilings and packed with people,” explains 2DD. “This is the kind of place where our sound is more effective.”

And with a massively eclectic back catalog of albums to draw tracks from — the techno-dub of the “Apollo Choco,” the reggae-pop of “Return to the Red Eye” and the hip-hop on “Spaced Dolls,” courtesy of Tha Blue Herb, who guests at some live shows — there should be something to keep every fan happy on Audio Active’s upcoming tour.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)