More than 100,000 people are expected to attend this month’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the Southern California desert. While heavyweight North American pop stars such as Beyonce and The Weeknd are grabbing the most attention, the lineup also features dozens of noteworthy names — including two Japanese ones.
The first is X Japan, a long-running metal band mythic enough to inspire both a hit documentary and a collaboration with Hello Kitty — it’s the type of flashy legacy act that Coachella loves.
The second is Otoboke Beaver, a smaller punk-leaning quartet based in Kyoto named after a local love hotel. The group’s live performances are frantic bursts of energy, with tunes that sometimes only last seconds.
“We didn’t really know much about Coachella, but we found out this is the show where Beyonce couldn’t perform (last year) because of her twins,” Otoboke Beaver’s lead vocalist and guitarist Accorinrin says via Skype from the group’s regular practice space in Kyoto. “We called our friend who loves Beyonce to brag about how we’d play the same day as her.”
The Coachella slot is the biggest step yet for a band that has made significant strides overseas in the past two years. Otoboke Beaver is made up of Accorinrin, guitarist Yoyoyoshie, bassist Hiro-chan and drummer Pop (the members all have day jobs and therefore keep their real names a secret). Their high-energy take on rock, which merges the simplicity of a band like Plastics with the vocal tag-teaming of regional forerunners Afriampo, is focused and delivered like a quick chop to the throat.
What started almost 10 years ago as a band playing cramped Kyoto venues to crowds made up of family and friends, however, is now scoring some pretty enviable gigs abroad.
This good fortune is partially down to how the English-language media has presented Otoboke Beaver. The group has received positive reviews for its blitzing take on punk, but there’s another common hook in the coverage: Pitchfork’s review of “Love Is Short” calls them “feminist punks” in the first sentence, and other articles compare them to the explicitly feminist Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s (sonically, a fair one to draw). Girlie Action, the band’s English PR agency, also plays up the feminism angle.
So it’s surprising when the band answers a question about feminism in its interview with The Japan Times by stating, practically in unison, “We aren’t feminists.”
“We don’t try to sing about women’s rights or women’s issues in our music, we’ve never talked about it,” Accorinrin adds. “We were surprised that we were written about in that way. I simply talk about my personal experiences. I just wrote about how I’m pissed at my boyfriend, nothing bigger.”
Hearing lyrics like “I’m not your toy, quit it” (“Oniisan Anone,” “Hey Man”) and knowing how the band came together, however, it’s understandable that Otoboke Beaver could land a feminist tag.
All the members hail from the Kansai region except for Pop, who was born in Hiroshima Prefecture. “Where I’m from, everything is a little slower. More behind the times,” she says.
They came together in 2009 through a university music circle, bonded by the fact they were the only four women in the group.
“We were too shy, I suppose, to ask any of the boys there to form a band with us. So we just stuck with one another,” Accorinrin says.
They grew up as fans of comedians and Japanese pop, especially Showa Era (1926-89) artists. As they grew older, they ventured into Osaka’s underground scene. Soon they developed their own fiery show, which gained a small following that included Hiro-chan. When original bassist Nishikawachi departed in 2013, Hiro-chan, who’d played in another band, approached Otoboke Beaver about filling her spot.
The group’s music sticks closely to simple punk structures, concentrating on a few chords at most and ripping through them. And they keep their songs short — around two minutes tends to be the average, with the song “Ikezu” (“Mean”) clocking in at 19 angry seconds.
Accorinrin says her lyrics focus on her own daily life “and definitely love life, and just general relationships between men and women.” The group’s newest song, “Anata Watashi Daita Ato Yome no Meshi” (“After Making Love to Me, You Eat Your Wife’s Cooking”), moves away from biographical subjects in favor of a twisty rock number focused on a love triangle. One thing’s for certain, the members of Otoboke Beaver aren’t afraid to call men out — regardless of their own politics, or lack thereof.
It’s worth noting that the Japanese music scene is currently embroiled in a debate as to whether politics have any place in making music at all. This idea is, of course, pushed by those who want to keep the political status quo in tact, but many younger creators have also expressed resistance to the idea that they must themselves be political in order to make art that has political origins. Otoboke Beaver seems to be in the latter camp.
After our initial interview, I email the band to clarify how they interpret the definition of feminism, and they initially decline to answer. After a day, however, Accorinrin responds.
“People should do what they think is interesting, no matter what others think. That’s easier said than done, though, and that goes for me too. We’ve only just started (with the band),” she says. “I don’t know much about feminism, and I’ve been busy pursuing my interest in music. I can only speak to my own truth, and that’s my answer.”
The truth is that Otoboke Beaver has evolved as a band that people inside and outside of Japan can relate to, whether it’s Accorinrin’s lyrics or the energy at their shows. The Coachella performances on April 14 and 21 — which are bookends to a quick tour in Britain from April 17 to 19 — could even be a turning point for the band. Moving forward, they say that their songs are starting to get longer and deal with their feelings in a more personal way. The members haven’t lost their mischievous streak, though.
“There are also some English speakers out there who have tried to correct our katakana-style English. So, I am now trying to used more messed-up English in my songs,” Accorinrin says with a laugh. After all, only Otoboke Beaver can define Otoboke Beaver.
Otoboke Beaver plays Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California on April 14 and 21; Glasgow CCA on April 17, Leeds Brudenell Social Club on April 18 and London Scala on April 19. The group opens for The Cribs at Kyoto Metro on May 17. The band releases “Okoshiyasu Otoboke Beaver,” a compilation of its work from 2010-15, on April 21. For more information, visit www.otobokebeaver-kyoto.jimdo.com.