Music

The unstoppable rise of Regal Lily

Singer Honoka Takahashi explores individualism on new album

by Russell Thomas

Contributing Writer

Regal Lily is supposed to be on tour at the moment. But instead of enjoying what the band’s members like about touring — eating hotel breakfasts, trying local dishes or simply exploring new towns — they’re staying put. There will be no early April show at Mynavi Blitz Akasaka, Tokyo, wrapping up what would have been a tour promoting their first full album, “bedtime story,” released early February.

Of course, COVID-19 is the reason you won’t be seeing Regal Lily on stage anytime soon. Rather than being introduced to the group’s music in a live setting, the self-isolation and social distancing that this most antisocial of pandemics demands now gives you ample time to discover this shoegaze trio and its inaugural album by yourself.

But Regal Lily has been around a lot longer than its first album would suggest.

The group first formed in 2014. And, to be clear, it’s not fair to strictly classify the band as shoegaze — a genre known for its introspective music and its introverted musicians.

“Actually the only shoegaze band I know is My Bloody Valentine,” vocalist and guitarist Honoka Takahashi, 22, tells The Japan Times. “So, if anything, our sound is influenced by My Bloody Valentine, not shoegazers per se.”

The first track on “bedtime story” is called “Beddotaun.” Not only is the song’s name a wasei-eigo (Japanese-English word) term for a commuter town — preparing the listener mentally for a commute into the sonic world of this trio — but it is also part of the album’s concept and, more explicitly, its title.

“Sewing the sheets that fell apart,” Takahashi sings sweetly, in Japanese, on the track, with her guitar sounding almost like birdsong. “I felt like we could be friends.”

Then “Beddotaun” springs to life, an explosion of rattling guitar and battling drums — the blare of crowds and traffic and station announcements rolled into a wash of instrumental eruption. It’s a zooming of noise, and a crash, that announces your arrival in the world of Regal Lily.

“Hey, God,” Takahashi’s voice peals into overdrive, “Keep smiling!”

And, after the crescendo, silence. Then the album truly begins.

Like the unassuming and sudden explosion of this album opener, Regal Lily has gone from success to success since its founding in 2014.

“A guy I was in a band with (in high school) told me my songs were lame, and didn’t want to be in a band with me,” says Takahashi. “(But) I’ve always wanted to make a cool girl band, like Shonen Knife.”

The year after, Regal Lily participated in Tokyo FM’s “School of Lock!” Mynavi Mikakunin Festival 2015, where they were the runner-up. In 2016 the group played its inaugural overseas gig at “Next Music from Tokyo Vol. 8,” which took place at Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver.

2016 also saw the release of “the Post,” a six-track mini-album that was to be the first in a trilogy of musical output from the band, with “the Radio” and “the Telephone” following in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Rock royalty: Regal Lily (from left: Umi, Honoka Takahashi, Yukiyama) had to cut short a tour promoting the band's first full-length album, 'bedtime story,' due to the COVID-19 pandemic. | SYUYA AOKI
Rock royalty: Regal Lily (from left: Umi, Honoka Takahashi, Yukiyama) had to cut short a tour promoting the band’s first full-length album, ‘bedtime story,’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic. | SYUYA AOKI

With each release, Regal Lily’s lyrics and sentiment became more introspective; Takahashi, as chief lyricist, noted that since the release of “the Radio,” she has been more aware of her songs — or her thoughts — making their way to the ears of a wider audience.

But, in 2019, the band’s story got a whole lot more of the spotlight, and Regal Lily’s fame once more blew across the Pacific to North America — this time, it was to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Last year, too, saw the band provide the theme song for the live action adaptation of “Aku no Hana” — or “The Flowers of Evil” — a manga which ran from 2009 to 2014. It seems, however, that Takahashi is more pleased about the celluloid treatment of a favorite manga of hers than she is for her band’s track, “Hana-Hikari,” to be used for its theme song.

“Back in high school, ‘Aku no Hana’ was one of those manga that I read a load of times,” she says. “(The film) had a natural vibe to it, almost as if the actors were expressing the original line spacing of the manga.”

“Hana-Hikari” — track seven on “bedtime story” — expresses well the ability of Regal Lily to inject noise into indie pop. Wide, scratchy chords, a lonely arpeggio, a clash of instruments in the outro and a two-four jangle of a chorus: “I remember Hana-Hikari,” sings Takahashi in a nursery rhyme way.

Playfulness runs throughout “bedtime story,” sometimes diving headfirst into a ball pit of abstraction; on “Cat Guitar,” for example, Takahashi sings a surreal ode to a crying neko no gitā (cat guitar) — think Weezer with toy instruments. Glockenspiel and jaunty guitar also make their mark in the bouncy “Kitsune no Yomeiri”; even the title of this one (“Marriage of the Foxes”) is abstract.

Though used for “Aku no Hana” in 2019, and fitting to the film with its themes of an outcast couple, the personal experiences that led to references of fighter jets in “Hana-Hikari” (also the band’s first official single) are wholly Takahashi’s own.

“My home is near Yokota Air Base,” she says. “(In the past) I would often go to watch the fighter planes with my younger brother. There was a lot of stuff to do with war close at hand, like a lot of American soldiers walking around town in camouflage.”

Citing literary giants such as poet Shuntaro Tanikawa (1931-), novelist Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) and the avant-garde director, photographer and poet Shuji Terayama (1935-83) as influences on her lyrics, more of Takahashi’s own recollections find their way onto the album, such as in “1997,” a single taken from the album back in January.

Beginning with the thunk of a metallic bassline, the track sees Takahashi join the clattering rhythm with her distinctive voice ringing out: “I got off at Tokyo in December, 1997.” An unexpected theme of train travel that runs through the addictive track; the chorus even talks about jumping on the last train with a katamichi kippu (one-way ticket).

“I’m in a vessel called ‘myself’ running along the rails of time with only a one-way ticket,” Takahashi says.

She first came up with the idea for “1997” with the strange refrain, “I am my own laboratory bench.”

“Only I can experiment with me,” she says, by way of explanation. “When I was in my teens, I was concerned with my parents’ views, and it was easy to live like that. After turning 20, I had to decide my own way of life.”

Takahashi’s vocals and lyrics, and the band’s feel as a whole, reflect this individualism, an idea of grabbing the steering wheel for yourself. So don’t be fooled by the pop credentials of “1997,” or any of “bedtime story” for that matter. Its basslines tumble in sideswiping grooves, the drums smash and gallop, guitars wail and storm with distorted chorus, all while the silken strands of Takahashi’s vocal spin an electrifying lullaby; a bedtime story you can’t actually fall asleep to.

For more information about Regal Lily, visit www.regallily.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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