Synthesizers, drum machines and Vocoder-filtered vocals in the style of pop star Chisato Moritaka — this was 1980s Japan, and it’s the sound of Satellite Young.
However, singer Emi Kusano points out that most of the Tokyo band’s songs are about life in the internet age, a topic that’s decidedly 2010s.
“I used to have a startup company, and I went to Silicon Valley around 2012,” she says. “I was always interested in Japan’s ’80s bubble culture, and I thought (the tech world) was similar.” In fact, Satellite Young’s first song, “Jack Doushi,” was inspired by Kusano receiving a friend request on Facebook from someone masquerading as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
The disconnect between old and new — an ’80s aesthetic that presents modern ideas — has helped Satellite Young stand out at a time when retro rules. The gimmick reels people in, but it’s the group’s songwriting that has made Satellite Young’s eponymous debut album one of the year’s best so far.
The trio consists of Kusano, composer Bellemaison Sekine and Tele Hideo, a “wildcard” member who disguises himself by wearing a TV on his head — think of him as what Daft Punk’s grandpa might look like.
Kusano was born in 1990 but says her childhood was dominated by ’80s pop culture. While her friends were off listening to sleek J-pop, she was at the library discovering early Seiko Matsuda, Kylie Minogue and Madonna.
“It was free!” she explains. “If I got a CD from Morning Musume or Hikaru Utada, I’d have to pay. But at the library, there is so much music. And I liked it better, actually.”
Bandmate Sekine was a different story. Born in the early ’80s, he experienced the decade’s culture first-hand.
“My images of it are strong, vivid, macho and sometime ridiculous,” he says. “These characteristics were regarded as kitsch for a long time.”
He started creating music as a kid via the video game “Dezaemon,” before moving onto working with computers and synthesizers. Although he says he was more interested in experimental scenes growing up, he says he still kept up with what Japanese pop stars were doing.
When Kusano told a mutual friend she wanted to start an ’80s-themed project of some sort, she was connected to Sekine. She sent over the vocal melodies for “Jack Doushi” and Sekine came up with the music (Tele Hideo joined a couple of years later).
“Emi’s vocals are like the engine of our music,” Sekine says. “When I got them, I drew an outline of the music with drums, bass and some motif phrases.”
The pair refined the sound over a few EPs before releasing their first full-length in April. “Satellite Young” has a nostalgic sheen over it — from the “Miami Vice” car-chase tempos that drive “Dividual Heart” to the John Hughes-ready melodies of digi-ballad “Sanfransokyo Girl,” whose title, Kusano says, is a nod to Disney’s 2014 film “Big Hero 6,” but whose content is inspired by a long-distance couple she knows. It’s all bright, brisk and catchy — Satellite Young knows its ’80s pop and replicates the best parts.
Get below the neon sheen, however, and there are some contemporary conundrums. Kusano singles out “Fake Memory” as a prime example.
“It’s about artificial memories created by information (you get online),” she says, explaining how you can feel like you were part of something in the past simply by being immersed in it online. “I wanted to capture that awkward feeling.”
Artists have mined the ’80s so thoroughly that the revival has lasted longer than the decade itself. But while many stop at a few synths or a Eurythmics sample, Kusano, who also loves photography, went all in on the aesthetic, too.
“I come from a visual side, so I wanted to create an ’80s world with ’80s fashion and ’80s makeup,” she says. The group’s members wear throwback outfits, while artwork for its singles rift on old anime series such as “City Hunter” or “Dirty Pair.”
Thanks in part to good timing, Satellite Young’s aesthetic has got it noticed overseas, lumped in with a bevy of other synthwave/retrowave acts, which are basically synth-pop with a Tumblr-friendly genre tag and more emphasis on visuals. The style gained steam following the 2011 film “Drive,” whose shadowy urban environment draped in magenta neon set the template (as did the synth-heavy soundtrack). More recently, synthwave went mainstream thanks to the theme song from the Netflix program “Stranger Things,” created by members of the band Survive.
“I think the YouTube generation can be inspired by any era,” Kusano citing the popular YouTube channel NewRetroWave. “If you listen to every song from that channel, most of it sounds similar. But I think we stand out in the retrowave scene because we channel Japanese idol and anime music.”
Kusano’s past life as a “tech nerd” has also helped the group take advantage of the quick pace of the internet. She says bands these days need to keep their name out there to be noticed. Satellite Young is doing that by focusing on music videos (they are currently wrapping up two), and the band put in an appearance at this year’s South By Southwest music festival in Austin.
The SXSW show helped further another of Kusano’s strategies: collaborating with other artists, especially non-Japanese ones. Satellite Young has already teamed up with synthwave biggie Mitch Murder on the song “Sniper Rogue,” and wrote a song for the online anime-inspired series “Senpai Club,” which featured a special bubble-era-style music video. The clip is the group’s most viewed video to date.
“We were a good fit,” Kusano says with a laugh. “A fake ’80s band making a fake ’80s ending theme song. It’s very internet.”
Kusano points out that our interview happens to be on the same day that the trailer for “Blade Runner 2049” appears online, the latest film franchise from that decade to get a sequel or reboot. Millennials’ fascination with ’80s culture shows no sign of abating, and Satellite Young is only too happy to provide a soundtrack for the ongoing revival.
“Satellite Young” is in stores now. Satellite Young plays Asagaya Loft A in Suginami-ku, Tokyo, on May 14 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥2,000 in advance; www.loft-prj.co.jp/lofta) For more information, visit www.satelliteyoung.net.
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