‘A lot of the companies we signed to disappeared, basically,” says Ali Morizumi of pan-national rock duo Monoral, musing on the mysterious curse that has followed his band around.
“We’d make a minialbum and then the company would go bankrupt, then we’d make another one for a different company and they’d go bankrupt too.”
Denying that rumors of their impending third full-length album may have been responsible for the current global financial meltdown, Morizumi and bandmate Anis Shimada are keen to point out that “Via” will in fact mark the first time they have managed to put out two albums on the same label.
Talk of curses is perhaps appropriate when the label in question is the suitably Gothic-sounding Vamprose, set up by visual-kei rocker Hyde in 2007, and coming from a band who have been channeling their creative energies into increasingly elaborate Halloween shows for the past eight years. At the beginning, however, Monoral’s story seemed more fairy tale than horror movie.
Shimada, born in London to a Moroccan mother and a Japanese father, was brought up in Paris and only came to Japan after high school, “to stay for a year because I wanted to have a year off in Japan to, like, learn about Japanese culture . . . ” He pauses before admitting, “I just wanted to have fun, actually.
“In Osaka, where my father was living at that time, I was jamming with friends and this industry guy noticed, and within two weeks I was coming to Tokyo and signing with Sony.”
Morizumi, who shares with Shimada an international background (Japanese and American parents), was brought up in Japan and shortly after high school found himself playing in several bands and working as a VJ for the fledgling MTV Japan in the early ’90s.
“He was the first VJ I saw on TV,” remembers Shimada, “and he was, like, working his ass off!”
Shimada later landed a job at MTV as well, and according to Morizumi the two quickly hit it off: “We used to talk about music. Our taste was quite similar.”
“Jeff Buckley really brought us together,” says Shimada. “I think we were the only two guys in the dressing room who had ‘Grace.’ You know, if you’re listening to The Beatles or something that everybody likes, that’s not so surprising, but to hear Jeff Buckley was quite something.”
Despite their separate musical careers, they eventually came together in 1998. Morizumi explains: “There was a production-company director, Mr Adachi, who we both knew, who suggested that we try out playing together.” At this point, Shimada interjects that it was “more of a threat, really. He just called us and said, ‘OK, make songs.’ “
It started out well enough, leading to a spot on the “Rookie A Go-Go” new-bands stage at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2001, but they quickly learned that the path to stardom wasn’t going to be smooth. Perhaps more due to the changing market conditions that accompanied the onset of the digital-music era than anything as exciting as a curse, Monoral’s early years were frantic.
“We’d almost get a deal, and then something happens and everything collapses,” says Morizumi of their hunt for a record label.
Shimada notes that the changing climate of the music scene has been clearly visible through their career.
“The first minialbum we made, it was crazy, you know,” he says. “We had this studio where we could work anytime. It was like, ‘All the time you need to make an album; just enjoy!’ ”
Morizumi agrees, recalling, “Nowadays, budgets have gotten so small that we can’t really play around all day in the studios anymore,” to which Shimada adds sagely, “Well, we shouldn’t have in the first place!”
Listening to them talk, it’s obvious that they have a good relationship, with both frequently jumping in to finish the other’s sentences and bouncing ideas off each other. Nevertheless, Morizumi claims that on tour they can drive each other crazy, noting that Shimada is “very intelligent” but also “very . . . very weird. Spend a couple of days with him and you’ll see what I mean.”
Shimada responds gnomically, “I don’t like it so much when he wears his yellow T-shirt,” before clarifying, “When he wears his yellow T-shirt, it means that he’s gonna drink a lot.”
So far their touring has been confined to Japanese shores, but in November and December they will embark on their first jaunt abroad. They will take in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Argentina, having belatedly discovered a growing army of overseas fans who have learned about the band through the use of their song “Kiri” as the opening theme of 2006 sci-fi anime series “Ergo Proxy.”
Nevertheless, their annual Halloween extravaganzas are the gigs they live for. “He (Morizumi) went to an international school in Japan and I went to an international school in France,” says Shimada, “and we kind of had this Halloween groove inside of ourselves.”
Morizumi picks up on the thread, explaining, “To play a gig in Japan, they always want a title. We kind of got sick of thinking of titles — of needing an excuse to play a gig. You know, it’s Christmas or Halloween or Hanukkah.” (“I don’t remember playing any Hanukkah gigs!” adds Shimada.)
According to Morizumi, it was the opportunity to dress up that most attracted them to the Halloween idea, but he was surprised by the response: “The first year we did it, eight years ago, we were blown away by the crowd,” he says, with Shimada adding, “The crowd was more dressed up than us. So from the second year we really started to be more serious about it.”
This year, with the release of “Via,” which develops and expands on the band’s moody, multitextured grunge-based sound, the Halloween parties (which took place this week, with the final show at the 2,700- capacity Zepp Tokyo on the 31st) have taken on greater significance for the duo and their backing band, with Shimada promising that “everyone’s really psyched about it.”
The duo are keeping quiet about what sartorial excesses they plan this year, so perhaps the last word should lie with 2007’s shows.
Shimada: “Last year, we did the cabaret thing and that really worked. It was, you know, glamorous.”
Morizumi: “You just like dressing like a chick, right?”
“Via” is out now. Monoral play at “Nightmare of Halloween” at Zepp Tokyo on Oct. 31.
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