The HQ of Japan’s current ’60s revival is a small office above a Chinese restaurant next to Koenji Station in Tokyo. That’s the office of Sazanami Label, a record company started in 2003 by the band Goggle-A. Having formed in 1994 and with four studio albums behind them, they are veterans of this burgeoning ’60s scene.
“When we first moved into this office, we thought it was such a big place, but since things have taken off, we’ve got hardly any room to move in here. Look at all this stuff,” says Noriko, Goggle-A’s bassist, as she pours green tea at a large round table emblazoned with a black-and-white Sazanami logo.
Noriko’s talking about the mountains of CDs Sazanami have piled up for distribution to record stores throughout Japan and the stacks of flyers and posters advertising upcoming events.
As the blonde-quiffed Goggle-A guitarist U-1 Ace and diminutive drummer Eri tap away at computers nearby, singer/guitarist Gaku Kamachi settles down for a chat about the wonderfully eccentric music that is emanating from Japan’s livehouses.
Many scenes seem to explode from a particular area, such as Manchester or Seattle. But the current ’60s revival in Japan is different, which is maybe why Sazanami lists the hometown of each band on their compilation CDs “Wild Sazanami Beat Vols. 1 and 2.”
“Yes, the scene is all over the place,” says Gaku. “Goggle-A has played in every prefecture in Japan, and wherever we go we find people who are not just interested in the ’60s style but also play in bands. The idea behind our label is to introduce these bands to a wider audience. Before, these bands — and they’re really good bands — from the smaller towns had few chances to be heard nationwide. They did some shows and then disappeared.”
Gaku takes a sip of his tea and hands over a CD from a band called The Space Agency.
“The interest in ’60s Japanese music is not confined to Japan,” he says. “Goggle-A have also played in Europe and America and we also include foreign bands on Sazanami compilations. The Space Agency are a British band [a Japanese girl and two English guys], but they play in the ereki [electric] style and the songs have an exotic Oriental feel. They heard about Sazanami and sent us their CD, and we are thinking of including them on the next compilation. It’s amazing to be able to come together like this through the love of the same music.”
How did Sazanami come about?
“Well, we were with Sony for a while, but when they dropped us, we decided to go it alone and started Sazanami,” says Gaku. “The big label said there’s no market out there for us. Well, OK, we said, we’ll create one.”
Why the name Sazanami?
“It means ‘ripples’ in Japanese, and that’s perfect when you think what we have been talking about. In the early ’60s, there was a guy called Kenji Sazanami who translated foreign songs into Japanese. So Sazanami is not simply interested in the Group Sounds style, which was a late ’60s phenomenon. We are interested in the whole of the ’60s and how Japanese interpreted Western music during that period. From the surf sound to ereki, which started after The Ventures toured Japan in 1965, to the Group Sounds after The Beatles came.”
And thus begins a little history lesson. “In fact,” says Gaku, “with Group Sounds, Japanese music started taking itself a little too seriously. It got more commercial. I kind of like the early ’60s Japanese scene because there was a lot more humor and fun. The bands didn’t worry so much about what they should sound or look like and just did their own thing, and that was so charming and cool. We call it the ‘iki sound,’ which is hard to explain in English, but it’s kind of a stylish and chic old-style Japanese flavor. And Goggle-A, of course, is an iki band.
I can totally see that, even when it comes down to the fashion style of Goggle-A.
“Yes,” says Gaku, “We have a clear concept of our own style and we want to be the total opposite of what the mainstream is today. We think it’s crucial to maintain a sense of fun. Our suits might be mod style, but then we wear those kitschy sunglasses that really do not fit in anywhere. So we are not out to be just a carbon-copy ’60s-style band.”
Noriko arrives with more steaming green tea and sums it all up.
“The mixing of styles was what it was all about in the ’60s in Japan anyway. The ideas might have come from the West, but they were wrapped in a Japanese flavor, which made things odd and fun. That is why Eri does her chanteuse routine during the shows when she quits the drum kit and strolls into the crowd singing and twirling around her feather boa. And that is why Sazanami is also releasing an album by the band Hanadan next June. They are basically a comic band influenced by Krazy Kats. What Goggle-A and Sazanami Label is all about is taking fun seriously, if that makes sense.”
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