Picking one highlight from 2017 proves a tough task for Suchmos vocalist Yosuke Kasai. The past 11 months have been good for him and his six-member band. They’ve gone from a Jamiroquai-inspired outfit playing late-night sets at small Shinjuku venues to a national phenomenon, their music moving tens of thousands of copies and soundtracking car commercials. Ultimately, Kasai decides the highlight of his year came on a trip the group took to New York, to buy old records and vintage clothing.
He understands Suchmos had the sort of year artists can often only dream of, and he wants to pay that feeling forward to as many people as he possibly can.
“We realized how all of the positive influences around us were so important to us chasing our dreams, and we began to think that we should make music for people who are down,” Kasai, who goes by the nickname “Yonce,” tells The Japan Times from NHK’s office in Shibuya, where he’s scheduled to take part in a radio interview. “For the people who are in a really low period of their lives. That was our goal with ‘The Kids.'”
From one angle, Suchmos’ success in 2017 follows a familiar path. Formed in 2013 in Kanagawa Prefecture, the band started generating buzz over the next couple of years thanks to a smooth sound that took cues from acid jazz, funk and rock. The group’s 2016 video for the swaggering “Stay Tune” served as its breakout, currently sitting at over 32 million views on YouTube. Then came commercial tie-ups, interviews and country-wide tours that brought more attention. This year served as the crest of the Suchmos wave — the group released its second album, “The Kids,” at the end of January to strong sales and critical praise. It won album of the year at the 59th Japan Records Award.
Yet the reason Suchmos was one of the biggest musical acts of 2017 in Japan is how its members bridged disparate platforms, hinting at a way forward for new bands. As with many other countries, Japan’s music industry has become fragmented in recent years. Physical sales remain important, but have in recent times been joined by downloads, streaming services and YouTube plays (the 26-year-old Kasai’s preferred way of finding fresh tunes). Live shows and festivals, too, can be telling. But trying to chisel out consensus from all this proves difficult — idol groups and K-pop acts milk physical sales for high Oricon chart rankings, while other performers exist entirely online.
With “The Kids,” Suchmos touched all these corners. Its sophomore effort performed well on streaming services Spotify and Apple Music, and, the week of its release, it went to the No. 2 spot on Oricon’s album charts, having shifted more than 70,000 physical copies. It finished only behind super-size idol act AKB48’s most recent full-length, “Thumbnail.”
“But I think that it was good that it was second place,” Satoru Kaneko, Suchmos’ manager, told entertainment website Cinra in a surprisingly open interview in April. They are playing a long game, looking at a career lasting decades rather than burning out fast (pour one out for Gesu No Kiwame Otome.). To that end, Suchmos established its own label, FCLS (First Choice Last Stance) in July, connected to Sony but offering what Kasai calls “flexibility,” allowing the group to work at its own pace and even reissue older albums (“we hope to discover buried treasure in music history,” the vocalist says). “The Kids” served as a jumping off point, though.
“With the album, we aimed to put everything we wanted to try and express into it. Just get it all in there,” Kasai says. “In our minds, we were trying to make it like a full course.”
The album features plenty of easy-breezy cuts accented by turntable scratches (“Tobacco,” “Pinkvibes”) alongside more jarring rock numbers (“Dumbo”). Part of the band’s charm lies in a very 21st-century approach to genre — rock might be the foundation, but Suchmos mixes in jazz, hip-hop and R&B throughout “The Kids.”
Yet plenty of Japanese artists tip-toe over stylistic lines in 2017. What separates Suchmos comes from Kasai’s lyrics.
“No lies,” he says. “It’s all from my experiences, they’re all of my own words.”
Kasai writes the bulk of his lyrics at his home in Kanagawa — despite a monster year, he says he still lives in the same neighborhood and hangs out with the same people (“I do take more taxis now”) — and they revolve around relatable situations that are sometimes hyper-specific: “Snooze” is about Kasai suffering from a bad hangover and trying to sleep through his alarm. Most of the time, his lyrics meditate on being young.
“I’m inspired by people like David Bowie, John Lennon and Joe Strummer,” Kasai says. “I think I’m especially inspired by them because they wrote about their daily life, but it ended up echoing with lots of other people. I think they really worked closely with the times they were in.”
Suchmos’ lyrics can often feel like a secret language. They are peppered with the slang deployed by Japanese youth and Shonan locals, and Kasai jumps between his own language and English frequently. Sometimes this is just a melodic choice — see the line “juicy-na baby” in “Pinkvibes” or the brain-jumbling “‘SAT’ scramble” in “Stay Tune.” Other times, it allows him to say things he never would in Japanese.
“Our 2015 song ‘YMM‘ is a good example, the chorus goes ‘I’m so cool / he’s so cool / she’s so cool / we cool, and you?’ But if I said that in Japanese…” he says before laughing, unable to even imagine shouting out his own swagger in his native tongue.
Whatever the language, Suchmos is speaking to the kids. Rock has always been a youth-driven genre, and in Japan over the past few years it has played out through adolescent perspectives, whether via the earnest everything-will-be-OK hope of Sekai No Owari or the bonehead riffing of Man With A Mission. But 2017 saw a new wave of bands come in and offer a cooler take on being young. Never Young Beach, Yogee New Waves and Friends gained traction for music not far off from Suchmos’, featuring beach-side guitar playing and words celebrating the potential of tomorrow (one of Never Young Beach’s biggest hits is “Akarui Mirai” — “Bright Future”).
Suchmos leads the pack, though. Part of this edge can be attributed to how charismatic the outfit comes off, especially Kasai. When performing live, he stalks and spins around the stage, effortlessly. He’s naturally crossed over to commercials and fashion shoots, which he admits he’s still not used to.
“I used to be freelance basically, and from a working-class background. So it’s interesting to see them putting these kinds of people on magazine covers and stuff.”
Yet it really comes down to Suchmos knowing its audience. Although the band is on top of many 21st-century musical trends, Kasai has dumped one huge tool — social media.
“People have definitely said it would be better to have it,” he says. “I used to be on Twitter, but I just quit it. It’s boring!” In fact, he sees it as a challenge facing his generation.
“They are just focused on their smartphones. SNS, messages … they are taking in less and less, everything is just inside of this,” Kasai says while pretending to stare at his iPhone. “I think they need to get out more, to feel the sea and to breathe in the air up in the mountains. To enjoy the natural beauty around them. To enjoy the basic parts of human life. I always want to express this through our music.”
“The Kids” captures the feeling of life, both in the small details and bigger moments calling for a guitar solo. And while Kasai says the band is already plotting its next move — he wants to explore a more acoustic folk sound, mentioning American performer John Mayer’s country-fried 2012 album “Born And Raised” — Suchmos stood out in Japanese music in 2017 because it was aware of the now.
Suchmos plays the FM802 Rock Festival “Radio Crazy 2017” on Dec. 29. For more information, visit www.suchmos.com.