If you were to glance at Kikagaku Moyo’s tour itinerary for 2017, it would be easy to forget that the group was Japanese at all. The psych-rock quintet recently completed the second leg of a European tour that encompassed nearly 50 dates, having racked up 26 shows around North America earlier in the year. Its five-date Japan tour next month seems a bit cursory in comparison.
The band belongs to a select club of Japanese acts that command significantly larger followings overseas than in their native country. Much like Acid Mothers Temple, Kikagaku Moyo (whose name translates as “geometric patterns”) has discovered that there’s robust international demand for a bunch of shaggy-haired Japanese dudes rocking out like it’s still 1973. But Go Kurosawa, the group’s drummer and de facto spokesperson, stresses that they’re keen to avoid being seen as exotic outsiders.
“Then it becomes more of a ‘Japan’ thing, and we didn’t want to fall into that category,” he says. “We wanted to be actually involved in the scene.”
He means it, too. When we meet at a cafe in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, Kurosawa is just about to move to Amsterdam, along with guitarist and vocalist Tomo Katsurada. The rest of the band — lead guitarist Daoud Popal (who joins us for part of the interview), bassist Kotsu Guy and sitar player Ryu Kurosawa, Go’s brother — will remain in Tokyo.
“For five years I was working like a salaryman, playing music, and I kind of stagnated,” Kurosawa says of life in Tokyo. “It’s a cool place, and it’s kind of comfortable. I wanted to get out from the comfort zone.”
Formed in 2012, Kikagaku Moyo evolved in a loose and freewheeling fashion, honing its improv-heavy psychedelia while busking on the streets of Koenji and Takadanobaba, and during late-night sessions at rehearsal studios and rural retreats. Though Ryu had studied under sitar guru Pandit Manilal Nag in India, musical proficiency wasn’t a primary consideration: They were explorers rather than technicians.
“I like sloppy bands,” says Kurosawa. “That’s why I like psychedelic rock, because you can be bad and it’s still good.”
None of the members had much experience of how the Tokyo gig circuit operated, and their first taste of it gave them a rude awakening. He recalls an early show at a conventional live venue: “After we played, the venue person was like, ‘Oh, you guys did a really good job. That’s gonna be ¥30,000.’ We were like, ‘F—-, yeah!’ and they were like, ‘No, you have to pay.'”
This pay-to-play system, known here as noruma, has led many younger musicians to spurn the “live house” circuit, organizing gigs instead at no-frills venues with lower overheads, or even in rehearsal studios. From 2013 to 2014, Kikagaku Moyo hosted the monthly Tokyo Psych Fest series at Shibuya’s Ruby Room, a popular haunt for penny-pinching musicians. The shows were cheap, and promoted in both Japanese and English, but they struggled to build much momentum.
“I felt it hit a wall, to be honest,” Kurosawa says. “It was too small and underground to make an impact.”
Being an underground rocker in Tokyo didn’t feel like the sexiest vocation either.
“If you tell a normal girl, ‘Oh, I’m in a band,’ most girls are like, ‘OK, I don’t wanna date you,'” he says. “Being a comedian is cooler than being a musician here.”
“When you have a girlfriend and you take her to a live house, many aren’t good date spots,” Popal says. “Too small, too smoky, you have nothing to see except the stage — it’s kind of boring. There’s nowhere to have a conversation.”
While chafing against the constraints of the local music scene, Kikagaku Moyo was quickly finding fans beyond Japan. The group’s eponymous debut album — initially released via Bandcamp, and later in a vinyl edition by Greek label Cosmic Eye Records — paved the way for a two-week Australian tour in 2013. The following year, the band embarked on its first U.S. tour, which included an appearance at the high-profile Austin Psych Fest.
Kurosawa describes how they organized the U.S. tour by themselves — contacting bands directly to arrange gigs, renting a van, buying and reselling used equipment, and even posing as a fake “manager” to negotiate their performance fees.
“Many bands in Japan think, ‘Our job is to just play music,'” he says. “Noone thinks do-it-yourself is cool. Getting signed with a bigger label is the only goal.”
He contrasts this with the more business-savvy indie musicians that he has encountered overseas, and whose approach Kikagaku Moyo has sought to emulate. (Following the example of compatriots Boris, whose label Kurosawa briefly worked for, the group now has its own amplifiers and equipment stashed in both Europe and North America, cutting out one of the major expenses of touring.)
The band releases music via its own Guruguru Brain imprint, while also licensing albums to overseas labels for collector-friendly vinyl and cassette editions. (2014’s gorgeous, droning “Mammatus Clouds” EP is the place to start.)
The label has also released music from an eclectic roster of Asian artists, including Taiwanese drone duo Scattered Purgatory, Pakistani trackmaker Nawksh and Vietnamese acid-folk singer J. William Parker. Kurosawa and Katsurada plan to use their new base in Amsterdam to help these acts go on tour in Europe.
“I think all the bands from Guruguru Brain can contribute to Western rock culture,” says Popal, who isn’t involved with running the label. “They have their own thing, which doesn’t exist in the current indie rock scene.”
“There are many bands in Japan that sound exactly like U.S. indie bands,” Kurosawa says. “But there’s no point listening. They sing in English…”
“They just look different,” Popal interjects.
“When I’m looking for Thai bands, there are so many bands that sound like Mac DeMarco,” Kurosawa continues. “Their English is great, too, but what’s the point? Sing in Thai!”
Kikagaku Moyo’s Japan tour starts at Clapper in Osaka on Nov. 7. For more information, visit kikagakumoyo.tumblr.com.