Music

A musical pilgrimage to an adopted homeland with DYGL

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

Scroll through the comments under DYGL’s videos on YouTube, and the same reaction comes up again and again: I could’ve sworn this lot were from England.

It isn’t just the music the Tokyo-bred quartet makes, channeling the best bits of guitar acts from The Clash to The Kooks into songs that sound like established parts of the indie-rock canon the first time you hear them. It’s also the way frontman Nobuki Akiyama sings: not just in English, but with a convincing British accent, albeit one whose precise region is impossible to place.

This recipe has served the band well in Japan, where it has graduated from small club shows to playing the larger stages at festivals like Fuji Rock, buoyed by a solid 2017 debut album produced by Albert Hammond Jr. of The Strokes. But for the past year, DYGL’s members have been living — and recording — in the one place their music is most at risk of being deemed surplus to requirements: London.

“We just want to be here, watching new things happening,” says Akiyama, speaking over video chat from the apartment the group has been sharing, with the rest of the band — guitarist Yosuke Shimonaka, bassist Yotaro Kachi and drummer Kohei Kamoto — squeezed in around him. The group adopted similar living arrangements on earlier recording trips to Los Angeles and New York, but this British sojourn has been considerably longer.

“We can constantly keep sharing ideas about music — sometimes on purpose, sometimes just randomly hearing some music that one of the other guys is playing,” says Akiyama.

Back when they first came together at a university music circle in 2012, the group’s members bonded over a shared appreciation of Scottish indie rockers The View, but their listening habits are much more diverse. When I ask around the room, a variety of names come up: Haruomi Hosono, Fat White Family, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Cate Le Bon, Model 500.

“I don’t want to call it a guilty pleasure, but I still listen to Billie Eilish,” says Akiyama. “There’s one song called ‘Wish You Were Gay’…”

“Yeah, that song’s great,” agrees Shimonaka.

Nonetheless, the British band scene has been an important touch-point for DYGL (pronounced “day-glo”) since the group’s inception, and was one of the reasons the four decided to decamp to London. Getting away from Japan was also part of the attraction. Their recent success at home seems to have come almost in spite of their misgivings about the Japanese music scene, which Akiyama describes as “quite domestic and commercial, in general.”

“There are still so many good musicians who have a proper vision, and have a passion to make new things,” he says, “but all these people are always just living in the underground music scene — and there’s no middle in Japan. It’s really uncomfortable to keep being there.”

Didn’t they worry that, by moving to the UK, they would become just another face in the crowd?

“Actually, we needed that,” says Akiyama. He’d already started to sense the limits of DYGL’s exotic status in Japan, where “people just label us as ‘the band that sings in English’ — but that’s not really like a proper vision.” By immersing themselves in a culture where this distinguishing trait was commonplace, he says, the group’s members could get a clearer sense of “what we wanna make next.”

DYGL can’t be accused of taking the easy option on second album “Songs of Innocence & Experience,” which was released July 3. Anyone expecting a repeat of the swaggering guitar rock of 2017’s “Say Goodbye to Memory Den” will be thrown by opener “Hard To Love,” a twee psych-pop ditty in which Akiyama affects the kind of BBC English pronunciation that went out of vogue decades ago. When I mention that it sounds like The Zombies, he starts enthusing about that group’s 1968 masterpiece, “Odessey and Oracle,” which he says informed the album’s “’60s-ish” concept.

A less obvious reference is contained in the album’s title — named after a collection by the visionary poet and painter William Blake, a born-and-bred Londoner.

Originally published in 1794, “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” combines two sets of complementary poems, wildly varying in tone, which reflect what Blake described as “the two contrary states of the human soul.”

Akiyama first encountered it while studying English literature at university, and says it was one of the first things that came to mind when he was trying to choose a title. When he revisited the collection, he says it was the contradictions in the poems that resonated with him, and seemed to connect with his own lyrics.

“Blake himself was quite a religious person, but then he’s kind of criticizing the church in ‘Songs of Experience,'” he says. “I was also born and raised as a Christian, but I’m living this sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll life now — but still I kind of have faith.”

DYGL isn’t the first band to reference Blake’s “Songs”: the collection also supplied the titles for a pair of albums by U2, the first of which was notoriously dumped on 500 million iTunes users in 2014. Akiyama’s old university seminar teacher, Paul Hullah — who still helps him finesse his lyrics — pointed this out too, but apparently he was reassuring.

“He mentioned that there were albums called that by U2 — but people don’t care about them now, so it’s fine,” Akiyama says.

These literary references came after the album was finished, mind you. During the recording process, the band sifted through more than 30 demos to decide which songs would make the cut. Shimonaka says they picked the ones with a common “’60s vibe,” and notes a general trend of rock bands “going back to their roots, like the Beatles and psychedelic rock kind of stuff.”

“So many people compare our music to Oasis and The Strokes, and maybe The Libertines or whatever, but the new stuff that we make — I’m pretty confident about that,” says Akiyama. “There are not so many bands that sound like our new album.”

“I think the new style is not completely different from the first album,” says Kachi. “Maybe the tempo is a bit slower, but I don’t think that happened on purpose.”

“I think that’s because we don’t ride on the train in Tokyo now,” says Shimonaka.

London has a lot to answer for.

DYGL will play at Fuji Rock Festival ’19 on Saturday, July 27. The band’s album “Songs of Innocence & Experience” is out now. For details of upcoming tour dates, visit www.dayglotheband.com.