It has never been easy for Japanese bands to find success both domestically and abroad. For the most part, they can muster notable attention on one side or the other, but rarely both — regardless of how many awkward English-language songs or cringe-worthy collaborations they attempt. However, tricot (pronounced tree-koh and spelled in lowercase) may have stumbled onto a winning strategy.
“In Japan, we’ve never really tried too hard to do promotion,” Ikumi “Ikkyu” Nakajima, the rock trio’s lead vocalist and guitarist tells The Japan Times. “We don’t really try to make it look like we’re some big group, we don’t play ourselves up as larger than we actually are. And we had no idea we would get attention from overseas — we kept our expectations low.”
Despite low expectations, tricot’s music was noticed by overseas fans and critics online, and praise spread. The group — consisting of Nakajima, guitarist Motoko “Motifour” Kida and bassist Hiromi “Hirohiro” Sagane — has toured across Europe, North America and parts of Asia, while at home they’ve appeared at major summer festivals such as Rock In Japan. Recently, the trio penned a high-energy theme for Sion Sono’s Amazon Prime series “Tokyo Vampire Hotel,” and it doubles as the lead-off track to tricot’s recently released album, “3.” The full-length came out domestically via the band’s own label, Bakuretsu Records, and through Big Scary Monsters (U.K.) and Topshelf Records (U.S.) abroad.
This is success. It’s not Beyonce levels of glitz and glam, but it’s where many indie bands want to get to. The three women and I met at a cafe in Tokyo’s Sangenjaya neighborhood near their practice space a day before they were to resume a tour that would take them to each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. They were planning to drive to Ehime in the morning, a trek that would take an entire day.
“We were originally planning for a smaller tour this year,” Nakajima says, “but then the band Dizzy Sunfist told us how doing a 47-prefecture tour changed them for the better and we felt inspired.”
The tour will bring each of them back to their respective hometowns to perform for the first time since moving to Tokyo about 18 months ago (Nakajima and Kida hail from Shiga Prefecture, while Sagane comes from Kyoto). The band formed in 2010 and quickly developed a style of playing that’s full of sudden tempo changes and start-stop guitar riffs. Critics have labeled it math rock, a genre tricot says they didn’t know existed.
And true, while math rock aficionados might raise an eyebrow at the label, tricot has always delivered songs with a strong emotional center that position them closer to math rock and other styles that were popular in the early 2000s. That sound is further developed on “3” [see review below], maybe thanks to the fact that the recording process went smoother this time than on previous album “A N D” in 2015.
Nakajima credits this to the trio getting a fixed support drummer. The group’s original drummer left in 2014, forcing tricot to use a rotating cast of musicians to record and tour with. Nakajima says they held extensive auditions, narrowing down a field of 200 to four through a series of stages. Yusuke Yoshida won, and toured with the group.
“Since we figured out the drumming situation, I felt like we could start over again,” Sagane says. “It felt more natural, and we have been able to have fun while recording.”
Tricot’s approach to songwriting is relatively straightforward: The trio first settle on the instrumentation in jam sessions and see what sticks. Then come the lyrics. Nakajima has said she sometimes draws on personal experiences, but for the most part the words are treated like just another instrument. Her near-voice-cracking delivery, though, can make anything sound like a passionate confession — you can hear it most on the song “DeDeDe.”
This may be why tricot does well overseas. With the lyrics being in Japanese, it’s not the meaning that listeners respond to, it’s their tone and delivery. When asked about any greater themes in their work, or their standing in the Japanese rock scene, the members simply reaffirm that their focus is on the music.
In addition to that emotional connection, there was also a concerted effort on behalf of the band’s management to get tricot’s music out abroad.
“We decided we wouldn’t tour again until we got our music released by an overseas label,” Nakajima says. With that achieved, the band is back to touring, a pastime they deeply enjoy. The Japan tour continues through the middle of October, although there will be a monthlong European leg starting in August. The group’s members hope the overseas detour will help them develop even more as a band, just in time for the Kyoto finale.
“I’m most excited for the Kyoto show; it’s our final spot,” Kida says about the city where tricot got its start. “I’m excited to see how we will have grown by then.”
Third time’s a charm
The band’s biggest strength has always been an ability to strike a balance between complex instrumentation and sudden emotional flourishes. If this is a class in math rock, then lead singer Ikkyu Nakajima has brought her poetry homework to it.
The abrupt pacing of “DeDeDe” benefits from a hook that finds her voice cracking slightly, while her sing-speak vocals on tracks such as “Pork Ginger” bring to mind the style of Number Girl’s Shutoku Mukai.
“3” is, if anything, unpredictable, and it’s how the group has stood out in Japan’s rock scene — it’s one of the main things that has been consistent about them.
Tricot plays Drum Be-7 in Nagasaki on June 30 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance); Geils in Saga on July 1 (6 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance); and B.9 V2 in Kumamoto with Mass of the Fermenting Dregs on July 2 (6 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance). For more information on upcoming tour dates, visit www.tricot.tv.