With four giant reel-to-reel audio tape recorders behind it on stage, Open Reel Ensemble could almost be mistaken for a Japanese version of Kraftwerk.
The five members of the group want to expand the instrumental possibilities of the recorders, which are only really meant to record sound and play it back.
“I was fascinated by how cool these machines look. I knew about cassettes, but to me these were like the boss of all recorders,” says project mastermind Ei Wada.
In another group’s hands it’s a task that could spiral down a hole of experimental noise, but Open Reel Ensemble keeps its output light and accessible.
“We’re interested in mixing both pop and experimental sounds,” Wada says. “That way, rather than just slotting neatly into either of those genres, the possibilities could multiply.”
Wada, a composer and programmer, founded Open Reel Ensemble with his Tama Art University classmate Kimitoshi Sato in 2009. They came up with the idea of playing music using the recorders for a class activity and were later joined by violinist Takumi Namba, percussionist Haruka Yoshida and his brother, bassist Masaru Yoshida. The Yoshidas and Wada have been friends for a long time, so Haruka wasn’t too surprised when he first heard about the idea for the band.
“I knew (Wada) had had the recorder since junior high school,” Haruka says. “And then we started playing around with it after forming a folk-music group in high school.”
The members of Open Reel Ensemble all have different taste in music (Masaru was the original bassist for rock group Okamoto’s), but Wada says the group’s core influences come from Germany, specifically the sounds of late 1960s and early ’70s Krautrock. As a result, the band’s eponymous debut album sounds mechanical, but its newly released second album, “Vocal Code,” ditches the robotic vibe for a warmer, more pop-sounding atmosphere.
“The album’s title comes from the (English term) ‘vocal cords,’ ” Wada says, “because we recorded the vocals of the guest singers and then encoded them as samples, processing them through the reel-to-reel tape recorder.”
The album’s six guest vocalists — actor Shota Mori, singer-songwriter Tavito Nanao, theater group Crewimburnny, performer Ayaka Kanda, Jan from rock band Great3 and pop singer Babi — where chosen specifically to match the storylines of the protagonists on each of the songs they appeared on.
Album opener “Kaettekita Rakuen” (“The Return of Paradise”) is the band’s own sequel to the 1967 Folk Crusaders’ track “Kaettekita Yopparai” (“The Return of a Drunken Man”), which also used a reel-to-reel tape recorder in its production. The Open Reel Ensemble version follows the rotation speed of the original version, but Mori’s vocals are shifted to a higher pitch. This produces a comical effect when combined with lyrics that depict a lonely old man down on his luck.
“Instead of doing a cover, we decided to honor the original by creating a sequel,” Masaru says.
Wada adds, “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this, but Mori is a single, balding guy in his mid-30s — he totally matched the character of the song.”
Open Reel Ensemble is set to embark on a nationwide tour in support of “Vocal Code” and in addition to its performances, the band plans on holding a workshop in Nagoya as a way to teach people about reel-to-reel recorders.
“We’re horrible teachers, though,” Masaru says with a laugh. “I hope we don’t show them the wrong way to use the recorder.”
The Nagoya workshop takes place Sept. 12 and the band plans to set it to a high school sports festival theme, which could mean competitions and quizzes.
“What these recorders can do may seem limited,” Wada says, “but through performances and workshops, we hope we can teach people about all the fun things they can do with them.”
“Vocal Code” is in stores now. Open Reel Ensemble plays Club Metro in Kyoto on Sept. 10 (8 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance; 075-752-4765); Osu Engeijo in Nagoya on Sept. 13 (4 p.m.; ¥3,500 in adv.; 052-222-0428); Circus in Osaka on Sept. 15 (7 p.m.; ¥3,000 in adv.; 06-6241-3822) Shibuya 7th Floor in Tokyo on Sept. 20 (2 p.m., 6:30 p.m.; ¥3,500 in adv.; 03-3462-4466); and Graf in Hakata on Sept. 30 (7 p.m.; ¥2,800 in adv.; 092-733-1199). For information, additional concert dates and details about the workshop being held in Nagoya, visit www.steamblue.net.
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