If you wanted to pinpoint the moment Cero broke the glass ceiling of Japan’s indie music scene, it would be March 7, 2016. That’s when the group — still cresting on the buzz generated by its “Obscure Ride” album the previous year — performed that record’s signature singalong, “Summer Soul,” alongside aging boy band SMAP on the latter’s “SMAP×SMAP” show.
Though the Tokyo-based trio had been steadily expanding the audience for its brainy, eclectic art-pop, there was something surreal about seeing it on prime-time TV, occupying a guest spot normally reserved for established J-pop artists and pedigree international acts (the following week, it was Kool & The Gang’s turn).
Other bands would have taken this as a cue to record an entire record’s worth of songs like “Summer Soul,” a breezy acid-jazz groove that was tailor-made for festival audiences and lucrative sync opportunities. But anyone expecting Cero’s latest album to sound like Suchmos is in for a disappointment.
“It was like a taboo,” says frontman Shohei Takagi, who splits songwriting duties with his bandmates, keyboardist Yu Arauchi and guitarist Tsubasa Hashimoto. “We had an unspoken understanding that we wouldn’t go there.”
“Poly Life Multi Soul,” the band’s fourth album, is both the strangest and most ambitious thing Cero has produced to date, full of unlikely genre collisions and sprawling multipart arrangements that teem with complex harmonies and polyrhythms.
The group tested out many of the songs during a pair of sold-out shows at Tokyo’s Liquidroom venue last month. Talking to The Japan Times a few days after the gigs, at a branch of family restaurant chain Jonathan’s, the trio admit they had some doubts about how the new material would go down.
“The thing that worried me most wasn’t whether people would ‘get’ it, but whether they’d dance,” says Arauchi. “We want to try various new approaches to making dance music, so if people don’t dance then we’ve failed to achieve our goal.”
While Takagi and Hashimoto have supplied some of Cero’s most hummable moments, it’s clear that Arauchi is responsible for luring the group into wilder terrain. He talks animatedly about his fascination with polyrhythms, and how the square, four-four beats preferred by most dance acts in Japan represent only a narrow sliver of the available possibilities.
“If you look around the world, that ‘dum-dum-dum’ style of dance music is really just one part of it,” he says. “In Africa, Brazil, Central America or the Middle East, there are all kinds of rhythms that people naturally enjoy as dance music. Once you know there are people all over the world who can dance to (those rhythms), I don’t think there’s any reason why Japanese people won’t get it. If you package it in a format that’s easy for listeners to understand, I think it’s possible to create a new kind of dance music.”
The results of this approach can be heard on new song “Sakana no Hone Tori no Hane” (“Fish Bone Bird Feather”), one of Arauchi’s compositions: a bravura display of intersecting rhythms that manages to sound like Brazilian pop, Afrobeat and ’70s electric jazz all at once. Even his bandmates confess that they have to work hard to keep up.
“I think the audience at the first of our Liquidroom shows was at the same stage we were at when Arauchi first played us those songs,” says Takagi.
“I still have to practice,” admits Hashimoto. “It’s going to take me a bit longer to get to a point where I can enjoy (playing this music) naturally.”
The members still do most of their songwriting separately, working on demos that they then present to the rest of the group. A few of the songs on “Poly Life Multi Soul” were collaborative efforts, with Takagi and Arauchi writing different sections of the melody, but the band has yet to attempt creating a whole song together.
“I’m not sure how we’d even approach that,” says Takagi.
Both live and on record, the core trio of Cero is supplemented by a formidable crew of support musicians. Drummer Wataru Mitsunaga and bassist Yoshiro Atsumi also played on “Obscure Ride,” and provide a solid funk backbone. Since 2016, the group has also incorporated percussionist Manami Kakudo, keyboardist Tomomi Oda and multi-instrumentalist Baku Furukawa, all of whom also contribute backing vocals.
Each member is involved in multiple other projects, which can have its drawbacks; at the second Liquidroom show, Takagi commented on how hard it was to schedule rehearsals, and asked — only half in jest — if his bandmates would even have time for a drink after the gig. But the abilities they bring to the table gave Cero a host of new possibilities to explore on “Poly Life Multi Soul.”
“Rather than beginning with the songs, this time it started with getting that gang together,” says Takagi.
On “Waters,” Kakudo and Oda supply the kind of fleet, intricate vocal work that Dirty Projectors used to specialize in, using a technique called “hocketing,” in which multiple singers trade alternating notes of a single melody. When the group performed it live for the first time at Liquidroom, it was one of the highlights of the gig.
“I couldn’t do that without those members,” says Arauchi, who wrote the song. “I thought that if we were going to take advantage of their abilities, it would be okay for me to drop something challenging like that in there.”
Although Cero has been steadily expanding the scope of its music, the band has had omnivorous tastes ever since it formed in 2004. Takagi recalls that when he first went to hang out at Arauchi’s home, he brought albums by The Avalanches, Phoenix and Haruomi Hosono, none of whom are what you’d call genre purists.
“I like music that has all these different kinds of essences jumbled up together,” he says. “I’ve never fixated on just one type of music.”
This kind of mix-and-match approach can have its hazards. The critical acclaim that greeted U.S. indie-rockers Vampire Weekend a decade ago quickly turned into cries of cultural appropriation, over the band’s liberal use of Caribbean calypso and Congolese soukous. In an interview when “Obscure Ride” came out, Arauchi commented that if Cero consisted of a mix of ethnicities, the group’s music might have a narrower focus.
“If we were friends with a master drummer from Nigeria, we probably wouldn’t play music like this,” he admits. But he doesn’t seem phased by the cultural appropriation argument.
“I think culture is based on theft,” he says. “It’s not like there’s a rule saying that Japanese people can’t play jazz, for instance. At this point, New Yorkers aren’t going to say, ‘You’re stealing our culture!’ As long as it’s being done respectfully, anything is OK.”
Takagi and Hashimoto both mention the experience of seeing the octogenarian Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal perform in Tokyo last year. Hailed by Miles Davis as “one of the most important musicians on the planet,” Pascoal incorporates a huge swathe of influences into what he dubs musica universal — an approach that Cero can relate to.
“That was probably a big influence on us,” says Takagi. “It felt like an evangelist telling us that the fact that we’re Japanese, and that this is the country where we’re making music — none of those things are worth worrying about.”
“Poly Life Multi Soul” is released on May 16. Cero’s album tour kicks off on May 25 at Club Quattro in Hiroshima. For more information, visit www.cero-web.jp.