Music

When dub's Adrian Sherwood met experimental-rock trio Nisennenmondai

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

Austerity is a hell of a drug. Tokyo’s Nisennenmondai has spent its 16-year career figuring out how to do more with much, much less. Since forming in 1999, the group has progressed from the well-mapped territories of instrumental noise-rock into a sparse, industrial zone bordering on the hinterlands of techno, all without changing its traditional rock-trio format.

Yet on this year’s “N’ ” (pronounced “N-dash”) album, released in March, Nisennenmondai’s commitment to repetition appeared to have settled into a holding pattern. Featuring new versions of the monolithic, minimal tracks from 2013’s “N,” the record felt like a refinement rather than a step forward. In purging its music of surplus elements — melody, harmony, tom-tom drums — had the group left itself with nothing new to say?

Barely five months later, the trio has supplied an answer. New album “#N/A” is the fruit of a collaboration with veteran U.K. dub producer Adrian Sherwood, who joined Nisennenmondai for a live session at Tokyo venue Unit back in April.

As drummer Sayaka Himeno recalls, the band had already been booked for the gig, “but then a couple of weeks beforehand, we were told, ‘Oh, there’s a slot open at Red Bull Studios — do you want to do some recording?’ ” With little time to prepare, the group entered the studio with just one prerehearsed track, and spent the remainder of the session playing improvised jams that Sherwood then reworked at the mixing desk.

“During the actual recording, it didn’t really feel like we were collaborating with someone,” says guitarist Masako Takada. “We were just focused on doing what we do.”

Asked if they gave Sherwood any stylistic pointers, Himeno laughs. “We left it to him,” she says. “He’s pretty judicious in the way he uses effects, and respectful to the original performance. He doesn’t hammer away or overdo it.”

The resulting album may be the band’s most minimal to date. Himeno and bassist Yuri Zaikawa often pare their rhythms to a barely-there throb, allowing Takada’s guitar loops — which sound more like the mating rituals of rainforest insects — to take center stage. “#3,” a standout track, harnesses the propulsive kick-drum beat that’s powered the group’s live shows over the past few years, but it’s an outlier on an album that favors bleak, desolate atmospherics.

Audiences at Poland’s Unsound Festival next month can expect more along those lines, as Himeno and Takada team up with British producer Shackleton, a master of eldritch, polyrhythmic bass music. (Zaikawa, currently on maternity leave from band duties, will be skipping the gig.)

While insisting that the group isn’t actively seeking such collaborations, Takada says their experience of working with Sherwood left them with plenty of fresh ideas. “I think we found a new way to express ourselves,” she says.

“Maybe I’ll ditch the hi-hat altogether next time,” says Himeno, laughing. “It’ll be just the kick.”

“#N/A” is available in stores now. For more information, visit www.wearenisennenmondai.com.