“Last year we toured Japan with bands such as Mongol800, and while we were messing around with the other bands on stage, we came to rediscover how much fun it is to just make a noise,” says Akiko Noma, better known as Akko, bassist with off-kilter rock band GO!GO!7188.
“We’d go ‘One, two, BAM!’ and everyone would react like ‘Wah!’ ” she says, “It was such a basic thing, but we came to realize again how important it is to play with sound, and we felt refreshed.”
Despite the excitable nature suggested by the punctuation in their name, GO!GO!7188, who formed in 1998, produced their six prior albums with sober attention to detail. Their best records — 2003’s “Tategami,” 2006’s “Parade” and 2007’s “569” — each presented a deliberate weaving of elegant melodies sung in helium pitch by guitarist-vocalist Yuu Nakashima, with intricate guitar lines and intense rhythms that created something unique. Flitting between genres such as Group Sounds, rockabilly, enka, punk, ska, psychedelia and more — but always with a pop sheen — their songs are occasionally playful but more often serious. And almost impossible to accurately describe.
Then something changed.
Their new album, “Antenna,” is a more straightforward affair. Tempos and styles still turn on a dime, but it’s not as rhythmically diverse, not as instantly immersive. It’s more . . . normal.
“When we started the album, we placed great value on the freedom we found on that tour,” continues Noma, the band’s lyricist and unofficial leader. “We also released a covers album last year (‘Tora no Ana 2’), and when we made that, we thought we’d disregard the limitation of having just three band members playing three instruments.
“There’s a limit to what we can do on stage, but we decided to play around with the sound during recording and try new things. So we thought we’d do the same thing on this album too. Each song has its own concept; it’s a lot clearer than on our previous albums.”
This newfound try-anything spirit even led the band to try the trickiest of tricks: They let the drummer write a song.
“It was my first time,” says Turkey, the powerhouse behind the band’s explosive live presence. Arguably one of the best drummers in Japan, not to mention the band’s comic relief, Turkey wrote “Ame no Hi Dake no Koi” (“Rainy-Day Love”) and sang it along with his bandmates. “It was great fun. I wrote the song myself but then we all refined it together and the music just kept changing and getting better and better. That whole process felt fantastic,” he says.
“If I have to pick one, I’d say that ‘Antenna,’ the title track, is my favorite song on the album,” says the shy and pensive Nakashima. “We wrote a lot of songs for this album that would sound killer live and be fun to play, and that song really embodies that approach. I’m just so glad that song was born. It has the lyrics ‘Hirabettai mainichi nante, hirabettai jinsei nante’: If every day is uneventful, if life is flat, what’s the point?”
In keeping with the band’s habit of throwing new genres into the mix on each album, “Antenna” marks GO!GO!7188’s first flirtation with metal, in the form of “On the Mayuge — Kiri Sugite,” (“On the Eyebrows — Severe Haircut”), whose opening rumble gives way to choppy vocals and power chords galore.
“The first thing was that we wanted to make a song with twin-pedal kick drum in it,” laughs Noma. “And we wanted Turkey to shout. Those were the two critical points in making that song.”
Since the watchword for this album was apparently “communication,” it’s only right that one of the best tracks is titled “Communication Gap.” A sharp, unconventional ska-rocker over which Nakashima twists her impossible voice to convey catastrophic panic, it tells of the unavoidable failings of human relations.
“Last year, I realized the importance of communication,” explains Noma. “If we converse better within the band, our path becomes clearer. But sometimes it can be difficult, and there was a rare incident where I was talking to someone but I just couldn’t connect with them. Communication broke down totally with this person, and I got so irritated that I had to write a song about it.”
Oddly, communication wasn’t an issue during GO!GO!7188’s two tours of the United States in 2007. They said shortly after the second tour that they’d been able to connect with the audience despite the barriers of language and culture (though Nakashima did embarrass herself on stage one night by telling the crowd her age, as is normal in Japan — but a peculiar thing to do in the West). However, despite their American fan base baying for more, the band made no trips abroad in 2008, choosing instead to visit parts of their home country they had hitherto neglected.
“When we went to the U.S., we realized that there were a lot of places in Japan we haven’t played yet,” says Noma. “So last autumn we went on a tour of places we’d never been; there are still a lot left. This year we’d like to play overseas, but first we’re going to tour more of those places.”
“I wished we’d gone to Toyama Prefecture sooner,” says Turkey. “Everyone loves rock music there, and people went nuts at our gig.”
Noma says the tour was an opportunity to learn something new about Japan.
“There’s a region called Sanin north of Hiroshima,” she says. “It was cloudy the whole time we were there, and the local people told us that it’s always like that. They have this permanently dull weather. I found it fascinating that this was the same Japan yet so different from what we’re used to.”
Despite the band’s constant touring and impressive release rate, they still manage to find time for extracurricular activities. Nakashima has released one solo album and another with her side-band, Chirinuruwowaka; Noma has released two solo albums under her maiden name, Akiko Hamada; and Turkey recently launched his own T-shirts and jewelry brand, Trico Roll Beauty, whose products he sells online and at the band’s shows. He also occasionally thumps tubs for acts such as Avex pop songstress Ai Otsuka, on whose recent No. 1 “Love Letter” album he played one song as a session drummer. (“She was extremely fussy about the beat,” he says when pressed. “She gave me a hard time . . . “)
Born of the band’s new outlook, “Antenna” is bursting with energy, albeit not their best collection of songs. That said, GO!GO!7188 at their worst trump most other Japanese pop-rock acts on top form; and anyway, the last time they released a duff album, 2004’s “Ryuuzetsuran,” it was followed by 2006’s mind-blowing “Parade.” If they can maintain the momentum afforded by their new inspiration, but couple it with the dexterous songwriting they’re loved for, there’s no telling what they might achieve.
“Antenna” is out now. GO!GO!7188 embark on a three-month tour of Japan from March 6. See www.breast.co.jp/gogo7188 for details.