It is surprising to hear Katsuhiko Maeda say one of the unifying traits found on his Virgin Babylon Records releases is “pop.” The artists putting out music through the imprint touch on many sounds, from dramatic metal to macabre spoken-word electronica — not exactly radio-friendly fare.
“On the surface level, it can be anything — idol music, J-pop, noise,” says Maeda, explaining his definition of pop, “but it has to have something that represents the artist’s core in the music, something that will shake people’s emotions.”
Since starting in 2010, Virgin Babylon has been home to some of the most intriguing and off-kilter performers in Japan, acts who have explored their artistic cores in ways few other labels would encourage. The imprint has just released two of the year’s indie highlights: “Osanasa no Shishi,” a jittery and intimate electronic set from bedroom producer Metoronori, and “Dystopia Romance 2.0,” a selection of shout-along songs from the band Have A Nice Day!
As Maeda talks about both releases, which couldn’t be more different, it becomes clear the goal for him is to help these two acts find ways to fully express themselves in their music.
Before starting Virgin Babylon, Maeda had been combining postrock and electronic sounds together in his project World’s End Girlfriend, which toured across North America and landed on prominent labels.
“I had to give up my mastering right, though. And by doing that, I also gave up final judgement musically,” he says. Maeda not only established Virgin Babylon for his own needs, but to also help friends who were finding it difficult to sell music.
Fittingly, it’s an imprint that favors musicians. “Seventy percent of revenue goes to the artist, and they retain the mastering rights,” Maeda says.
Besides being fair, the label’s openness to style has resulted in Virgin Babylon having one of the country’s more eclectic catalogs. It has released music from theatrical metal group Vampillia, fractured sampler Canooooopy and refined composer Daisuke Kashiwa.
The label’s two most recent releases further expand its turf. The band Have A Nice Day! hails from a frantic scene that is loosely based around Tokyo rock venue Shinjuku Loft. Known for high-energy shows and a sense of playfulness — the group has used samples of Beyonce and Wu-Tang Clan in its act — what struck Maeda about it was a sense of romanticism in its more anthemic tunes.
“Their live performance is core to them,” Maeda says. “When they play, the audience becomes part of the show, too.”
The music of Hikari Okuyama, who records as Metoronori, exists on the other end.
“I was stressed out by my musical activities at the time,” she says. “I just spent my time reading books and sleeping.”
Okuyama eventually started crafting her own sonic world from her bedroom, where she mixed hushed keyboards with disparate samples, resulting in disjointed songs that feel like they are moving in multiple directions at once.
“Her music has this very fine balance,” Maeda says of Metoronori. “At first listen, it almost seems random, like it doesn’t make sense, but it somehow has a pop vibe to it. I also like how private it sounds.”
Okuyama says she has been working on “Osanasa no Shishi” (which loosely translates as “child-like limbs”) for the past two years.
“I sing more on it, so I spent more time writing the lyrics. That meant I needed more time than usual,” she says. Still, she never worried about how her new label would react.
“Virgin Babylon understands my sense and uniqueness,” she says. “I feel like they trust me, and I appreciate that.”
Virgin Babylon Records releases are available at www.virgin-babylon-records.com. World’s End Girlfriend, Vampillia, VMO, Bool, Canooooopy and Metoronori will play Virgin Babylon Night 3, which takes place at WWW in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on May 28 (5:30 p.m. start; ¥3,900 and ¥4,200 in advance; 03-5458-7685). For more music from Metoronori and Have A Nice Day! visit www.metoronori.tumblr.com and scumpark.bandcamp.com/music
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