Music

It’s pop, but complicated: Tokyo Shiokouji takes minimalism in new directions

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

Fuji Rock Festival’s Rookie A Go-Go stage has served as a springboard for bands from Asian Kung-Fu Generation to Chai, but each year it draws a few acts with rather less obvious commercial appeal. The most peculiar group to appear this year was Tokyo Shiokouji, an eight-piece ensemble featuring percussion, trombone and vocoder, playing the kind of music that minimalist composer Steve Reich might write if he tried to make a pop album.

The band is the brainchild of composer, playwright and keyboardist Masashi Nukata, who formed it in 2013 while he was studying at Tokyo University of the Arts. In a nod to Reich’s famous “Music for 18 Musicians,” he initially recruited that many members, but later slimmed things down to a more manageable number because “everyone’s schedules clashed.”

“Minimalism has mostly been associated with things like techno and house until now, but I wondered if there was a way of bringing it together with R&B or rock,” he says over coffee at a cafe in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. “In a way, I was trying to find a place for minimalism within a pop or rock context.”

As it turns out, Nukata’s earliest musical love wasn’t a highbrow composer, it was rock band Unicorn, one of the most successful acts to emerge from Japan’s mid-1980s “band boom.”

“I think we have quite a lot in common with them, actually,” he says with a laugh. “They released albums where every song was different; they’d be doing free jazz and stuff.”

Still, there’s quite some distance between Unicorn and the polyrhythmic pop that Tokyo Shiokouji makes. An uninitiated listener hearing the group’s playful new album, “You Can Dance,” might mistake it for the intricately programmed work of a studio boffin like Cornelius. There’s a precision and complexity to the music — rhythms and instruments bouncing off each other and intersecting at weird angles — that’s easy to stitch together digitally, but nigh-on impossible to play live.

Yet that’s exactly what Tokyo Shiokouji does, working from fantastically complex scores written by Nukata. As he explains, the original impetus for the group was being gifted a copy of Finale, the music notation software, and wanting to try it out on some willing musicians. Since then, he has been gradually expanding the ambition of his compositions.

“It would be weird to say that I’m pushing at the limits of notation, but there are lots of extended techniques in the pieces I wrote this time,” he says. “I’m using sounds that you can’t really write in sheet music, like getting the brass instruments just to play breath sounds.”

On last year’s “Factory” album, it was easier to hear Tokyo Shiokouji’s links to contemporary classical. Nukata supplemented the core band with a string section, and included a suite of pieces that paid tribute to some of his key influences: Reich, Pat Metheny’s 2005 album “The Way Up” and the classical-music-goes-clubbing ensemble Brandt Brauer Frick. However, the way the album was received encouraged him to try a different approach on the follow-up.

“A lot of people said it sounded like a chamber ensemble, which really bugged me,” he says. “That’s not what I was going for. I wanted it to be more of a band sound. I didn’t want us to end up as ‘jazz’ or some kind of ‘indie classical’ act.”

On “You Can Dance,” the strings are out, and the band has adopted a brighter sound palette and a more tongue-in-cheek sensibility. Most of the recording was done in a single take with the core rhythm section, then the horns — trumpeter Nayu Watanabe and trombonist Natsuki Watanabe — and vocals by guest singer Ermhoi were overdubbed later.

Nukata explains that he deliberately left in some of the imperfections, so that listeners would know they were listening to flesh-and-blood musicians. “That’s why you get these odd grooves sometimes,” he says.

“I wanted to do things you can’t do with programming,” he says. “As much as possible, I wanted to do stuff you can only do with a live group.”

Tokyo Shiokouji’s approach has made them an outlier on the live scene.

“When Shiokouji plays a gig, they might be slotted in between a J-rock band, an R&B act, a kind of jazzy group and then another rock band,” says Ermhoi, whose solo work skews in a more club-friendly direction.

Nukata agrees: “I think that promoters and festivals are sometimes book us because they want to add something a bit ‘different’ to the lineup.”

The demands of Nukata’s compositions may sound like they’d be vexing for any musician, but it seems that’s part of the charm.

“After a gig, the members often talk about how they got ‘in the zone’ today,” says Ermhoi. “The scores are so difficult that it isn’t enough just to concentrate — you have to go into a different realm of concentration. That’s how challenging what they’re doing is, so when people think the music’s all programmed, it’s a bit frustrating.”

Ermhoi also featured on “Factory,” but she’s a more prominent presence this time around. Her vocals get diced into a synthetic chorus on opening track “O.A” and she pops up at various points to make deadpan customer service announcements encouraging listeners to have a boogie.

So do they get a lot of dancing at their shows?

“No, that doesn’t happen much,” says Nukata, laughing. “When we’re playing at festivals, we try to play things that are relatively easy for people to get into, but it seems like it’s still hard. If there’s a bass drum in there, that gets people moving, but the moment you take it out they might lose the rhythm.

“Sometimes we’ll have some old prog rock fans who get really into it,” he adds. “The King Crimson generation.”

Nukata, for the record, isn’t much for clubbing.

“I’m making the kind of dance music that I’d enjoy if I heard it in a club,” he says.

Tokyo Shiokouji plays at Aichi Prefectural Art Theater in Nagoya on Nov. 3, Urbanguild in Kyoto on Nov. 4, and WWW in Tokyo on Nov. 17. For more information, visit shiokouji.tokyo.