The recording of Tempalay’s third full-length album, “With Love from the 21 Century,” should have been a high point for lead vocalist and guitarist Ryoto Ohara. The group he fronts had climbed up the ranks of Japan’s music community since forming in 2014, and even got a shout out from BTS, arguably the biggest male pop group in the world.
What should have been a victory lap, though, proved to be much tougher, as Ohara found himself virtually homeless for two months right in the middle of recording.
“My then-girlfriend and I were living in the same place, but then we broke up,” Ohara, 28, says from the Shibuya offices of his label, Space Shower Music (which, he notes, was kind enough to store his belongings during this rough patch). For two months, he bounced between internet cafes, and when asked where Tempalay recorded its latest release, it all blurs together for him.
“There was one day I ended up on the streets of Sakurashinmachi thinking about my situation, so I got drunk and slept in the streets,” Ohara says. “But I had to go to work soon after. That was a low point.”
Ohara’s situation has improved drastically since. He has a place again, for one. Tempalay, meanwhile, released “21 Century” in June, earning its best sales to date alongside praise from critics for its eclectic approach to song. The rock trio — also featuring Natsuki Fujimoto on drums and Amy Furuhara (also known as Aaamyyy) handling synthesizers and back-up vocals — will, on July 27, play the Red Marquee at Fuji Rock Festival, a gathering the band appeared at in 2015 on the considerably smaller Rookie A Go-Go stage.
“One of our goals was to get to a main stage like this, but now I want something bigger,” Ohara says. “If we do this and we don’t leave an impression on people, it’s meaningless. So we’ll try to be the best band. We will do something crazy.”
It’s this attitude — irreverent playfulness concealing swagger and ambition — that has already helped Tempalay leave an impression. By the time Ohara came to Tokyo from his home of Kochi Prefecture and formed an early version of the group in 2014, Japanese mainstream rock was just starting to pivot toward more laid-back sounds, initially marketed as a new take on city pop. Tempalay’s influences, however, were rather different.
“Originally our style came from the California and Brooklyn indie scenes. Bands from those places have all these fun and free-loving spirits around them. That fit with the spirit of our band initially,” Ohara says.
Early songs and videos from the group featured guitar melodies and drum patterns wrapped in a second-hand high, complete with silly videos featuring VHS tape-quality footage. This aesthetic persisted, though the tunes themselves also became more tender and chill. Tempalay’s music, though, tends to maintain an unnerving edge.
“We always want to give the impression of uncomfortableness in our music,” Ohara says. “We want to make that our standard.”
The group’s lineup has undergone some changes — founding member and bass player Yuya Takeuchi left last year over creative differences, and long-time live support player Furuhara became a permanent member — but that unease has remained throughout.
Part of this atmosphere comes from the band’s willingness to dabble in a mix of genres, which is especially clear on “21 Century.” Mid-tempo rock numbers give way to rapped passages and psych-adjacent synth interludes.
“There are orchestra arrangements and saxophone arrangements here, and these are new instruments we haven’t tried out before,” Ohara says.
The record does see a bit of a move away from the slacker-ish attitude exuded in early releases — Ohara thinks the actual sound quality of the album is a massive step up — but Tempalay hasn’t gotten too serious quite yet. Even the breezier moments on “21 Century” feel close to toppling over themselves.
In the landscape of Japanese rock in 2019, bands such as Suchmos, Yogee New Waves and never young beach (also playing this year’s Fuji Rock) have become marquee names by (mostly) staying the course. They play chilled out tunes about being young, enjoying life and imagining a brighter tomorrow.
Tempalay offers a welcome counterbalance to this by embracing surprise. Ohara says the band added strings and sax to some songs on “21 Century” partially to catch fans off guard with sounds not previously found in the band’s repertoire. Coupled with a generally off-kilter vibe and lyrics, it makes Tempalay a nice splash of unpredictability in a musical corner fond of consistency.
It has won the band some unexpected fans, too. As mentioned earlier, Korean pop act BTS last October shared a screenshot on Twitter of Tempalay’s song “Doooshiyoooo!” being played on a smartphone, with a hashtag implying it was a recent favorite of member Kim Nam-joon (better known as RM). It was a big endorsement, given the group’s global standing — not to mention how many pop stars desperately try to catch some of BTS’ waves. Tempalay managed it by accident.
“We didn’t know who BTS were. When they shared it, somebody told us and we thought … are they a punk band?” Ohara says. While he remembers catching some buzz because of it, he also notes that nothing much happened beyond that. “People who care about Tempalay probably don’t care too much about BTS,” he says.
The rest of 2019 looks to be busy for the band. Following the appearance on the Saturday afternoon of Fuji Rock, the group will travel to a variety of other festivals around the country where they will be sure to keep crowds on edge.
Ohara might think he needs to do something crazy to leave a mark, but his band’s music alone should do the trick.
Tempalay plays the Red Marquee at Fuji Rock Festival from 11.30 a.m. on July 27. Fuji Rock Festival takes place at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture from July 26 to 28. For more information, visit en.fujirockfestival.com or tempalay.jp.