Perfume keeps finding new opportunities more than 15 years into its career. This spring, the electro-pop trio embarks on its latest international tour, with stops in Asia and North America, but the real development comes at the very end of that jaunt when the group plays the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, over two weekends in April.
“It’s going to be a bigger challenge for us,” Ayaka Nishiwaki, better known as “A-chan,” tells The Japan Times from the Shibuya office of the group’s talent agency Amuse Inc. “The time of our set will probably be difficult. And of course, playing for a crowd that mostly doesn’t know us.”
Their appearance at the most buzzed-about music festival around is a first for a J-pop group (depending on how you classify a band like X Japan), and puts Perfume in the role of underdog. But that’s a position the three — A-chan, Yuka “Kashiyuka” Kashino and Ayano “Nocchi” Omoto — have played plenty in their career, going from local gigs in their hometown of Hiroshima where they covered U.K. pop to a Tokyo-based project on the verge of disbandment in the mid-2000s. But they rallied to become one of J-pop’s biggest acts so far this century, and the rare one to develop a strong following outside Japan. And as 2019 gets underway, the trio keeps looking for new avenues — musical and otherwise — to explore.
Priority one goes to the aforementioned world tour, kicking off in Shanghai in late February, stopping in Taiwan early in March and then shifting to North America for almost all of April. It’s their third string of performances in the United States, and they are acting accordingly.
“Since this will be the world leg of our most recent domestic tour supporting (2018 album) ‘Future Pop,’ we have to scale it down a little bit,” Nocchi says. “I’m constantly thinking about how we can deliver the same message and performance overseas.”
Over the past decade, Perfume’s live shows in Japan have been celebrated for their integration of cutting-edge technology, provided in recent years by Rhizomatiks. A-chan says these futuristic flourishes are now expected by fans at gigs. But bringing them abroad when they play smaller spaces isn’t feasible.
“It all comes down to our dance skills,” A-chan says. Watching Perfume’s Dec. 11 show at Yokohama Arena reveals it isn’t that spartan; the sold-out performance features lasers, nifty visual tricks and synched-up CGI backdrops (one of which resembles their performance for this year’s edition of NHK music show “Kohaku Uta Gassen”). But the attention for the “Future Pop” tour has shifted toward the trio’s moves, partially because it’s far easier to transport those skills than arena-designed tech.
“During the first world tour stops, I was worried about the difference in reactions between Japanese audiences and overseas audiences,” says Mikiko Mizuno, the group’s longtime choreographer better known just by her first name. “But I was very happy that the shows were well received in every country. Especially the American audiences. That made us confident we didn’t have to change for international shows.”
Mikiko says the sets for the current tour were made simple in a way to draw focus on the actual physical movement of the members themselves.
“I think the real pleasure of their performance is being able to enjoy it regardless of the setting,” she says. “I wanted to make something that could be enjoyed in any place, regardless of the venue’s size.”
“We were very nervous,” A-chan says with a laugh about preparing for shows where attention would be mostly focused on their dancing. “We just had to practice a lot. And as long as these two are present with me, I know everything will be OK.”
A special edition of Brutus magazine is displayed in the lobby of the Amuse building. It focuses on the talent agency’s 40th anniversary. Early on is a photo of what appears to be a teenage Perfume dancing outdoors, a throwback to their pre-fame days performing in parking lots and Apple Store corners. When asked about memories of these days, the three reflect on marathon set list-making sessions for shows lasting three songs. “We also had this feature where we invited people to dance with us, and we’d give a sticker to the best dancer,” Nocchi says.
“We did a magic show on stage for a long time,” Kashiyuka recalls with a chuckle. “A-chan was the magician, Nocchi was the assistant and I was the MC.”
But the days of amateur illusions vanished after 2007, when Perfume rocketed to mainstream prominence behind a sound developed by longtime producer Yasutaka Nakata, featuring burbling bass lines and filtered vocals alongside sticky hooks. Just as vital were the trio’s dance skills, which separated them from the world of idol music by eschewing that realm’s usual awkward-baby-duck maneuvers in favor of sharp and precise movements. Mikiko says the trio’s dedication to performance, even from the early days when she first encountered them, is rare.
It might also be key to winning over Coachella. The rest of Perfume’s North America run will see the group play to fans, and surely some will schlep out to the California desert. But the majority of Coachella’s clientele will have no idea who Perfume is, and they’ll have to stand out from a packed bill. The members themselves are aware of this challenge, and are starting to think about how to conquer it.
“Do you think it would make an impact to start with a greeting in Japanese?” Kashiyuka asks me, adding, “We just want to grab their attention. How do you think we should do that?” After coughing up my thoughts — a foreign language might not work, go for something musical — A-chan jumps in. “Maybe a lot of shouting, lots of loud noises. Something to make an impact, yeah?”
“I think our performance and music is cool, and that it can translate to audiences in the States who might not be familiar with us,” A-chan adds. “I never thought we could make it to Coachella at all, so it’s a dream come true already! I just want to do my best and make the most of it.”
The whole discussion is a reminder that Perfume’s members continue to challenge themselves, when they could just as easily coast on domestic success. This extends to nonmusical activities. Perfume has partaken in other corners of the entertainment industry before — hosting variety shows, for example — but recently ventured into fashion with a Perfume Closet line of clothes, while also embracing video-sharing site TikTok.
“We need to not be afraid of changes, and we need to do lots of different things. And do more solo things as well,” A-chan says. This prompts a discussion on what each of them wants to do next. Kashiyuka, who has a recurring feature in magazine Casa Brutus devoted to Japanese crafts, says, “I want to open a shop that’s devoted to traditional Japanese arts and crafts, because that’s what I’ve gotten really into. Because I’m in a position where I’m allowed to introduce a lot of Japanese stuff abroad, I want to take that opportunity and show what’s really great about the country.”
Nocchi says she eventually plans to share her personal interests (“because I’m an only child, I tend to just go about things solo, and I don’t really share those interests with anybody”) while A-chan’s biggest challenge comes in midway through our interview — her dog Popo has come back from a grooming appointment and throws the room into cuddly confusion.
“I want to make dog clothes,” A-chan says while the others play with Popo. “I’ll buy bigger clothes, and then resize them for the dog. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten.”
There’s at least one more potential musical milestone for Perfume on the horizon. “The 2020 Olympics are coming to Tokyo. All of the entertainment business people are gearing up to take part in that,” A-chan says. “We also want to take part in it. We want to keep our skills up and keep delivering great performances, so that we can be part of it.”
It’s just another challenge for the trio to tackle.
World tours and waterfalls
This spring’s tour of North America marks the third time Perfume has performed across the continent. In previous years, the trio has found time to enjoy American fast food, visit the Pixar studios and hit up Whole Foods. We asked the group what it hoped to do this year away from the stage.
Kashiyuka: Meals! (laughs) But I have no idea what is famous in some of the new places we are going. Like, Dallas and Seattle, I’ve never been. Everyplace we go, I just love eating the local delicacies … even if it’s just pizza (laughs). Outside of that, the three of us always enjoy shopping together.
A-chan: Niagara Falls! I love waterfalls!
Why do you love waterfalls?
A-chan: The smell is so different. The atmosphere around them is so different, and the temperature goes down when you get near them. It’s incredible!
Nocchi: The Great Lakes! When I was a student, I studied for tests about the names of bodies of water. I just memorized them all back then.
A-chan: Ahhh, that’s so cute.
Nocchi: I want to see the real thing.