The America that guitarist Azusa Suga knew from his childhood in Seattle and Tuscon, Arizona, in the 1990s has long since disappeared. Or, perhaps like most childhood memories, he just remembers it with rose-tinted glasses.
“Most of the stuff I remember is really good — making lots of friends, having fun, playing computer games like Oregon Trail,” says Suga, the founder of Tokyo rock band For Tracy Hyde. “I don’t really recall any instances of racism, but obviously that’s not the reality for everyone. There are people who experience a lot of nasty stuff.
“Over the past few years, I’ve been really worried about the direction the U.S. is taking, due to Donald Trump, the novel coronavirus, everything that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and more.”
In order to preserve his more upbeat image of the United States, Suga made the country and its ’90s rock culture the theme for the band’s new album, “Ethernity.” The quintet’s fourth full-length puts giddy shoegaze-influenced indie-pop on the same roster as grunge-embracing melodies, all with lyrics centering on youth and references to the less-than-euphoric realities of the nation as viewed from adulthood.
“Life is inherently political. You can’t really separate yourself from politics, but people in Japan don’t really perceive life as being political,” he says. “I don’t consider myself very political, but I wanted that to change … in a good way.”
For Tracy Hyde has seen a lot of change since Suga founded the group in 2012. The band consists of Suga on guitar and vocals, vocalist and guitarist Eureka, guitarist U-1, bassist Mav and drummer Soukou. (Everyone goes by a nickname for privacy issues, though Suga says he’s fine putting his name out there, adding, “I’ve never really seen what the matter is.”) Debut album “Film Bleu” consisted mostly of jangle pop with nods to trendy internet microgenres like vaporwave, but For Tracy Hyde didn’t shy away from experimenting, with subsequent albums boasting a variety of lyrical and sonic themes each time out — including synth-dappled tracks with a cinematic bent (“he(r)art,” 2017) and melancholy shoegaze (“New Young City,” 2019).
While the group has built a solid following at home, it has also attracted attention overseas, particularly in other parts of Asia. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed much of the band’s plans last year and, at first, Suga saw this as a chance to take a year off and relax.
“In late July, though, that dude over there,” Suga says pointing to P-Vine representative Kota Yoshida, who is sitting in the label’s office with the band, “asked me if we could actually release an album within 2020. I was totally unprepared for that!”
For Tracy Hyde went for it, though, and Suga started crafting the demos, albeit with some constraints.
“I didn’t really have time to think out rhythm patterns, so I left the drums and bass to the guys in the band,” he says, adding that while they began recording in late August, the pandemic presented further challenges. “The studio we usually work at had personnel restrictions, so only three people (could work in the studio) at a time. We were used to recording the whole band at once, so that was really different. We had to start with the rhythm section and overdub everything afterward.”
The final track was recorded in late December, and mastering wrapped up just a week before our interview in late January, less than a month before the album’s release on Feb. 17. Despite the rush, Suga has managed to create a fully formed ode to the United States. The songs on “Ethernity” revel in the idea of youth, with mentions of highways, basketball courts and the now-defunct video-rental chain Blockbuster on “Interdependence Day (Part 1).” The rest of the album presents an idyllic version of growing up in the U.S., delivered sweetly by Eureka, who is half-American and brought her own childhood memories into the mix.
“There was a time where I lost my identity, who I was, during elementary school,” she recalls. “I wasn’t treated as Japanese, so I tried to learn more about America to find my identity.”
For his part, Suga really did love Blockbuster, which provided him with a lot of pop culture experiences via film.
“I’m drawing more from that image of America, from movies and stories I’ve heard from others,” he says. And this sampling of suburban experiences makes its way onto “Ethernity” through the grungy “Chewing Gum USA,” which Suga affectionately describes as “a Nirvana ripoff,” and the straight-up banjo-sporting country tune “City Limits.”
However, nothing is more surprising than hearing the voice of former U.S. President Barack Obama echo throughout the entirety of “Interdependence Day (Part 2).”
Obama’s 2016 Fourth of July speech — an uplifting call for togetherness coupled with observations on just what a “miracle” America is — came only months before Trump won the presidency, a fact that casts a sense of unease over the song. A similar vibe emerges throughout “Ethernity,” balancing out the sweetness of straight-ahead rockers “Just Like Fireflies” and “Sister Carrie,” which came in part from one of Suga’s quarantine binge-watching sessions.
“I tried to watch (TV show) ‘Twin Peaks’ several times before, but could never get into it,” he says. “But during the pandemic, I had so much more time to kill, so I watched the whole series and got hooked..
“In a sense, it’s a perfect summary of what we tried to achieve with ‘Ethernity.’ It shows how much sex, drugs and violence is intertwoven in American life and youth in general. It has this kind of down-to-earth, suburban vibe with a surreal touch.”
The “Twin Peaks” inspiration comes through on the opening track “Dream Baby Dream (Theme For Ethernity),” which features a guitar riff that plays on the TV show’s iconic opening theme by Angelo Badalamenti.
For all the dreamy escape the music can conjure, For Tracy Hyde has a way of sneaking real-world issues into a style of Japanese pop that often avoids them — whether that’s by working in visual references to violence in its video for “Interdependence Day ( Part 1)” or writing lyrics about topics like the glass ceiling.
“Shoegaze bands don’t do political albums very often,” says Suga, who believes there’s a cultural significance in producing a politically motivated record in a typically apolitical genre.
It’s also a reminder of For Tracy Hyde’s biggest strength when it comes to longevity — avoiding complacency. The band’s members say it’s easier for anyone to get involved and earn attention thanks to the internet, but also easier to be co-opted and smoothed out by major labels. They argue talented young musicians such as Mega Shinnosuke and Ohzora Kimishima lost some of their edge once they began working closely with an industry that avoids risks.
“The rock sound is getting similar, too, just look at Yoasobi and Yorushika,” Soukou says, referring to two acts that currently serve as J-pop’s pace-setters. For Tracy Hyde wants to zig when everyone else zags by playing with genre and looking outward when their peers are focused inward.
For more information about For Tracy Hyde, visit fortracyhyde.com.
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