Shuffling onto the stage in a flurry of robotic jerks come three men wearing glazed expressions and identical striped tops. In time with the retro-futurist synthesizer chirps and bleeps, they then lurch into a kind of clockwork dance routine, while a fourth man, wearing a construction helmet and mask, scampers around, correcting mechanical errors in his “robots.”
So begins (M)otocompo’s live performance. Equal parts comic theater, technopop symphony and postmodern pop deconstruction, the group is the all-boy (“otoco,” geddit? A multilayered pun on the band name as well as the Japanese words for “man” and “sound”) spinoff from new-wave/electropop duo Motocompo, playing a mixture of songs band producer Nobuya Usui (a.k.a. Dr. Usui) wrote for his other band and occasionally surprising reworkings of famous songs by other artists.
Behind the humorous exterior, however, (M)otocompo (the bracketed “M” is silent) is also a carefully realized concept born of sharp and occasionally withering observation of social and musical trends.
“I think ‘J-pop’ itself is quite a narrow thing with a predictable formula,” explains Usui, who then likens it to a kind of gyudon (beef-topped rice often served at fast-food joints) music. “They play the sort of songs that are piped into gyudon restaurants. There’s a rap in the verse, then it builds up to the chorus, and the lyrics are always about friends, family, missing a lover who’s far away.”
“The lyrics are like a child’s homework diary,” adds drummer Kimihiro “Kinoko” Hirano, ” ‘Yesterday I had an ice cream, today I met with my friends.’ “
But Usui believes it’s important to distinguish that kind of music from other things in the Japanese pop world, continuing, “Someone like Yasutaka Nakata (of electro duo capsule and producer of idol trio Perfume) isn’t J-pop in that sense, and the underground idol scene is quite hot at the moment.”
In fact, a lot of what (M)otocompo does seems more in response to a lack of creativity among independent musicians.
“What we’re doing is in a way creating a sort of antithesis to the indie scene,” states Usui. “Ten years ago, people wanted to hear new independent artists, but the creative impetus has shifted and you can see groups like Girls’ Generation and underground idols are now picking up those listeners.”
(M)otocompo recognizes the mark that Korean pop groups are making, regularly incorporating a raucous version of Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” into its sets and Usui claims that it’s his dream for anyone in his group to marry a K-pop idol someday.
That said, however, Usui has no fundamental interest in the so-called Korean wave (a term barely applicable to Girls’ Generation anyway, given that 90 percent of its recent album was the work of European and American songwriters). Rather, the underlying philosophy of the group is simply to look at culture, sift out what they find interesting and spit it back.
A striking example of that, and a timely one given that the group’s next show will be on the six-month “anniversary” of the Great East Japan Earthquake, is the way the group have added a cover of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity” to its sets.
“We’ve always been about doing things that are stupid and foolish,” explains Hirano. “That’s the frame through which we look at trends, and in this case, we extended that foolish approach into the area of radioactivity.”
“After March 11, we were playing lots of happy, upbeat gigs,” explains Usui. “It was really worth doing, but at the same time, there was a lot of nervousness around as a result of Fukushima and in April we decided to start playing ‘Radioactivity.’ “
Performing the song, the group never breaks its detached and ironic, yet superficially goofy stage personae, teasing the audience with an unfamiliar reggae-tinged arrangement so the awareness of what they are doing dawns only gradually. Yet merely by recognizing it at all, in an environment where artists and politicians alike have been unwilling to take the lead in articulating the crisis, the impact is tangible.
The plain and naive image required of Japanese idols is part of what allows Seifuku Kojo Iinkai to speak directly to the issue on “Free from Nuclear Power Plant” in a way that a rock band would be unable without seeming over-earnest, but for (M)otocompo, it is perhaps this position as a group of theatrical jokers that allows it, like King Lear’s sharp-tongued court jester, to tack closer to the wind than many of its more serious contemporaries.
This image also constrains the group though, limiting the degree to which it can engage seriously with the topic, forcing it to hold it at a distance. Stepping out of character, the group is notably more wary in how it discusses Fukushima.
“I wish it hadn’t happened, but despite all that, nuclear power won’t stop,” says synth player Toshiki “Kurt” Urano, carefully. Hirano continues, “I’m from Fukushima, but I’ve lived in Tokyo for a long time so I feel more remote from it. It’s hard to express, but my main thoughts are about the people around the plant who have been forced to evacuate their homes.”
Usui, whose family also has connections to Fukushima, is more forthright. “Nuclear power is like any other part of the country’s industrial makeup,” he states. “There are people who think it is needed in a place like Fukushima and there are people who benefit financially. Not just power stations, but also military bases function on the same industrial principle. In Fukushima people thought it was safe, the government told them it was safe, but all the people who were supposed to be managing it thought, ‘This is not my business,’ so no one managed it properly.”
“In the end,” Usui concludes, “perhaps Japan is that kind of country. ‘I don’t know about this,’ ‘This isn’t my business,’ everyone has this attitude. No one takes responsibility for important things.”
But ultimately, Usui is a sweet fool rather than a bitter one:
“We’re standing in a new world now,” he says. “I’m positive about it.” He talks enthusiastically about plans to develop the group’s sound, mixing electronic beats and synthesizers with more traditional instruments and musical scales, bouncing ideas off the other group members before retreating to the studio to write new original material.
“Producers like (AKB48 mastermind) Yasushi Akimoto need their idol robots,” he smiles. “I don’t need anything like that. These guys just pretend to be robots.”
(M)otocompo plays Bad Noise! fes 2011 at clubasia in Shibuya, Tokyo, on Sept. 11 (2 p.m.; ¥3,000 in adv. plus drink). For more information, visit www.motocompo.com.