Many musicians will admit to having a special affection for Fuji Rock Festival, which unfurls at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture this weekend. Few, however, have a history as tightly intertwined with the event as Quruli, the affable guitar-rock outfit from Kyoto.
Frontman Shigeru Kishida and bassist Masashi Sato were in the crowd with members of their university music circle at the festival’s infamous debut in 1997, when a typhoon forced organizers to pull the plug halfway through. They returned for its second edition in Tokyo the following year.
In 1999, when Fuji Rock moved to its present home, Quruli played at the event for the first of many times: the band returns this weekend for what will be its seventh appearance. And, like Fuji Rock itself, Quruli celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.
“There wasn’t anything like Fuji Rock in Japan at the time,” recalls Kishida, reminiscing about the early days. Though the summer festival calendar has since become much more crowded, he says the event’s “anything goes” spirit has always set it apart from the competition.
“As a college band, we could appreciate that,” he says. Not only did they appreciate it, they practiced it, too.
When Quruli first performed at the festival, on a forerunner of the current Rookie A Go-Go stage, the group’s label boss skipped the usual advice and told them to do whatever they wanted. They responded by playing deliberately distended versions of their usual material, stretching four songs to fill a 45-minute set.
“We were really young then, so when we were told to do whatever we liked, we went way over the top,” Kishida says. “There’s a video of it somewhere on YouTube — it was a total mess.”
Quruli came from a generation of Japanese guitar bands, including Number Girl and Supercar, which were unusually attuned to overseas music trends. The group’s 2000 album “Zukan,” co-produced by Jim O’Rourke, reflected a strong ’90s alt-rock influence; subsequent albums “Team Rock” (2001) and “The World Is Mine” (2002) embraced voguish indie-dance tropes, while finding time for everything from shoegaze to folk rock.
“Up to around when The Strokes and The Libertines came along, I think there were a lot of people here who were following the American and British scenes — rock bands, like us, and listeners, too,” Kishida says. “The music we make now is totally different, but a lot of what we did during the late ’90s and early 2000s was very in tune with contemporary Western sounds.”
“The way people listen to music has changed,” Sato adds. “Young people nowadays don’t distinguish between Western and Japanese music when they’re listening. It doesn’t make a difference if something’s from the ’60s or from the 2000s: They’re drawn to whatever sounds good to them right now.”
These trends go some way to explaining the shifts in Fuji Rock’s programming over the years. The festival today features plenty of legacy artists alongside more of-the-moment acts, and shows little interest in policing old divisions between mainstream and alternative fodder that many music fans in the ’90s would have considered sacrosanct.
On the flip side, Fuji Rock has become increasingly reliant on domestic artists to fill out its bill, reflecting overall shifts in Japan’s music market. There has also been less space for performers from non-Anglophone countries since the eclectic Orange Court stage was axed in 2015, removing a bastion for jazz, blues and world music.
While acknowledging the irony of grumbling about this as a Japanese musician, Kishida says he has noticed a slight dip in diversity.
Reaching for a culinary metaphor, he says: “I go to Fuji Rock expecting to be able to try food from lots of different countries — some T-bone steak, some escargot, some Shanghai crab. When I look at the lineup now, it’s like: Oh, there’s a lot of tempura and soba here.”
He’s saying this as a festival organizer himself. Quruli curates the one-day Kyoto Music Expo, which has taken place each September since 2007. Though it’s conceived on a far smaller scale than Fuji Rock, the event has an admirably cosmopolitan outlook; this year’s edition features musicians from Brazil, Argentina and Indonesia alongside homegrown acts.
“This is going to sound like I’m dissing Fuji Rock,” Kishida says. “But if they had musicians coming from a wider variety of countries — not just American, British and Japanese bands, but from places like Southeast Asia, South America and the rest of Europe — I think it would make for a more interesting festival.”
Quruli’s Saturday night performance at Fuji Rock is the first in a string of summer festival dates, after what has been a relatively quiet period for the band. Trumpeter and keyboardist Fanfan, the only other core member in the current lineup, took an extended maternity leave in 2015.
Kishida, meanwhile, was busy writing his first major orchestral work at the invitation of the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra. Though his classical leanings have been evident since at least as early as Quruli’s 2007 album “Tanz Walzer,” which the group recorded in Vienna with full orchestral backing, his 50-minute “Symphony No. 1” was an ambitious undertaking for a self-described rock musician without any formal training in composition.
“I can’t even play keyboard,” he says. “The only thing I can play is ‘Let It Be’ by the Beatles.”
He wrote the symphony on computer software, drawing in each instrumental part manually, before turning the data over to a more experienced arranger to prepare a written score. The piece had its world premiere in Kyoto last December, and was recently released as an album, with a supplementary “Rhapsody on the Themes of Quruli” to keep fans happy.
“There’s probably always been an orchestral element to Quruli’s songs,” says Kishida. Performing those songs with an orchestra, as the band plans to do at this year’s Kyoto Music Expo, is a natural step: “It feels like taking something that was in black and white and making it color.”
But first, there’s Naeba. Quruli is scheduled to play one of the longest sets of the festival: a two-hour performance on the laidback Field of Heaven stage. They’re happy about the setting (“I feel like whatever you do there, people will go along with it,” says Sato) but a little less ecstatic about the timing.
“It clashes with Aphex Twin,” laments Kishida. “Maybe I’ll go and watch that instead!”
Quruli plays the Field of Heaven stage at Fuji Rock Festival from 9 p.m. on July 29. 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 or www.quruli.net.
Who to check out at Fuji Rock Festival
Celebrity beef: Keigo Oyamada, aka Cornelius, plays on the same day as estranged former Flipper’s Guitar bandmate Kenji Ozawa. Will they have a tearful onstage reunion — or a backstage punch-up?
Sound and vision: “Virtual band” Gorillaz has always been as much about the visuals as the music. Even if most of the guests from recent album “Humanz” (Grace Jones, Danny Brown, De La Soul and more) don’t make it to the festival, this should be a real spectacle.
Future star: After an early endorsement from Pharrell Williams went viral, 23-year-old singer Maggie Rogers — a Joni Mitchell for the YouTube generation — seems destined for greatness.
Flavor of the moment: This has been a vintage year for quirky electro-pop act Wednesday Campanella, and its after-hours set in the Red Marquee should be absolutely rammed.
Prima donnas: The main Green Stage at Fuji Rock can be awfully masculine, so the trio of formidable female artists crowning Sunday’s bill — 1990s survivor Yuki, ascendant pop star Lorde and four-time headliner Bjork — is worth celebrating. (James Hadfield)