For many musicians, dreams of success take the form of a big break: perhaps a major label record contract, a lucrative tour deal or a barnstorming festival set. However, a quick fix isn’t the style of Tokyo indie quintet Chi-na, who is gradually growing in stature through a steady process of connecting with fans one by one.
“The important thing is having an environment where we can smoothly make our own music,” says guitarist Shota “Leader” Nishiyori. “Sometimes signing with major labels can have the effect of shortening the band’s life span. We don’t think in terms of a border between major and indie, but instead we want to just advance one step at a time.”
Without the pressures the music industry can place on bands, Chi-na has nevertheless continued to make progress. Gradually coalescing out of classically trained pianist and singer Kyoko Shiina’s solo project (“Chi-na” is pronounced to rhyme with her surname), the band, completed by violinist Yukako Shiba, contrabass player Eri Hayashi and drummer Yuuto “Happy” Yuhara, is a frequently joyous mixture of styles from classical to alternative and post-rock — something the group was keen to explore on its latest mini-album, “Docci.”
“The theme of this album is that we wanted each track to have a different color — each one independent and heading out on a different vector,” Leader explains. “With ‘Docci’ the title (a homophone for the Japanese “dochi” meaning “which”) might sound like, ‘Which way will you go?’ and you might think it’s us losing our way, but for us it means more like, ‘You can go whichever way.’ We made it with a free mind.”
The twin themes of intimacy and gradual progress runs through Chi-na’s overseas experience, too, with a 2011 Canadian tour partly inspiring its first full album “Granville” — named after the district in Vancouver, British Columbia — and its 2013 tour being a happy return for band and fans alike.
With Japan increasingly echoing the music industry worldwide with summer festivals dominating the rock scene, Chi-na has found the small alternative festivals proliferating in the shadow of majors, such as Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic, to be fertile ground for meeting a kind of audience who doesn’t often frequent the sometimes dark and unwelcoming basements of the Tokyo live circuit. This year the band will appear at the One Music Camp festival in Hyogo Prefecture.
“In outdoor festivals, there’s an audience who comes to enjoy the atmosphere of the outdoors or not specifically for musical reasons,” Leader says. “Small festivals like the ones we can play are a great occasion for audiences to feel a sense of closeness to the band.”
In the end, perhaps Chi-na’s route to success may be less of a big break and more a series of small hugs.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5