When you’re an independent rock band, maintaining a do-it-yourself ethic long-term can be difficult. Many acts eventually have to scale back, and dreams of a musical career turn into the reality of having a really cool hobby. Uhnellys, however, have kept up the fight.
“I see other bands our age and I can’t help but notice that they’re poor; it becomes more apparent as they get older,” guitarist and singer Naoki “Kim” Kaneko tells The Japan Times while snacking at a restaurant in Tokyo’s busy Shibuya Ward. “You can’t just be DIY when you’re young. The fact that you can be 40, still do things yourself and be successful is the goal.”
Uhnellys is a rock duo made up of Kim and his wife, drummer Sachie “Midi” Kaneko. They started out as a five-piece almost 20 years ago and, according to Kim, back then the band played a completely different style of music: a more straightforward garage rock sound rather than the jazz-, funk- and hip-hop-influenced rock they play today. As the members left one by one, Kim eventually took on vocal duties as well.
“When our singer left, we had to write all new songs,” he recalls. “It was tough for a while. All of our fans from those days stopped coming to our shows.”
To compensate for his inability to sing while playing his instrument, Kim began to use loops, a utilitarian decision that ultimately resulted in a trademark style. Kim will typically loop riffs played on his baritone guitar, layering notes and providing a complex instrumentation that is at first unfathomable when looking at the band’s simple two-person lineup.
“I realized that my singing wasn’t very good, so the rapping started naturally,” he explains. “I didn’t want to deal with people leaving the band anymore, so I figured we should just do what we can with the two of us.”
Fifteen years later, Kim attributes the duo’s ability to function to a shared understanding of musical values and a personal chemistry that also led to their marriage. For the Kanekos, the couple that plays together, stays together.
“I just kind of know how he’ll want me to drum on a new piece,” Midi says. “Increasingly over the years, the initial ideas I’ve had wind up being used.”
Kim explains: “I like things that are a bit off, so I think in order to play with someone they need to share that same feeling. I like dissonance, I like it when songs speed up a little. I value humanness over perfection. That’s music to me.”
Imperfections and rawness define Uhnellys newest album, “Swing,” which was released on July 18 on the band’s own imprint, I’mOK. Recorded during downtime at the Shibuya venues Home and 7th Floor (where Kim works as house sound engineer), anyone who has seen Uhnellys live will recognize the band captured on “Swing.” From the energetic breakbeats and trumpet freak outs of “Too Much Human” to the call-and-response effects-drenched vocals between Kim and Midi on “Underground,” listening to “Swing” feels very much like being at one of the duo’s live performances.
“The title refers to how things swing back and forth, how the drums and songs aren’t perfect,” Kim explains. “On our last album (‘Chord,’ 2014) we used a studio that cost ¥50,000 a day and booked it for a whole week. We would change drum sounds for each song, which I realized was pointless. This album is a reaction to that.”
Engineered and mixed by Kim himself, the pair opted to handle the album’s production and release internally as much as possible, getting friends to take care of artwork, mastering and CD pressing.
“We were surrounded by music industry people — people I didn’t really know — on the last record who did things for us,” he says. “We paid them a lot of money, but we realized that none of it was all that necessary.”
This renewed sense of DIY has extended to Uhnellys’ concerts, many of which are overseas. The band takes care of their own bookings and publicity and have this year appeared at festivals worldwide including the Sakura Matsuri in New York and Wake Up Festival in Taipei. This weekend, the duo will be performing at Fuji Rock Festival in Niigata Prefecture. Appearing on the Naeba Shokudo stage on July 30, it will be Uhnellys’ third time at the event.
“I think it’s amazing that the people behind Fuji Rock picked a band like us, who have no industry connections. It’s a very special festival,” Kim says. “The first time we played it, we had some technical difficulties. A lot of people turned up, but our performance was a bit of a downer. The second time we were so nervous because of our first experience, we knew we had to make it a success. Ultimately it was, and for a year afterward none of our shows really lived up to that performance. That Fuji Rock show was just on a different level.”
With a collaboration 7-inch with Australian track maker Tigermoth also being released on Australian label Hydrofunk Records in July, and dates scheduled for other overseas shows including V-Rox Festival in Vladivostok, Russia, in the first weekend in August, Uhnellys are content with their independence, saying that it allows them to seek out opportunities that are a better fit for them culturally.
“Japanese venues aren’t very friendly to people over a certain age,” Midi says. “Ticket prices are high. Even if there’s a band you want to see, they share the bill with four other bands, and you can’t really leave the venue during the other bands’ sets. So it’s no surprise that people stop going to shows as they get older. Overseas venues have spaces where you can drink and chill out, so it’s easier for everyone to make a day of it.”
“You have to play abroad or else it’s hard to continue,” Kim adds. “Being in a band when you’re almost 40, there’s a social stigma attached to it that Japanese society has had a hard time shaking off. The industry always tries to get at the young artists quickly, and then it wears them down until they disappear.
“I realized after doing this for so long that DIY is what suits us the best,” he continues. “If you’re in a band that’s not trendy but believe that your music is great, you will have to do things that way in order to survive.”
Uhnellys play the Naeba Shokudo Stage at Fuji Rock Festival from 10:30 p.m. on July 30. Fuji Rock Festival takes place at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture from July 28 to 30. For more information, visit www.fujirock-eng.com.