The music Ms. Machine makes pounds and pulverizes, meshing guitars and bass with machine-generated percussion. The result is steely songs heavy on repetition. It’s a little surprising, then, to find out the trio behind this Nordic-inspired rock band connected over the vibrant colors of Harajuku fashion.
“I was part of the Harajuku street snap community, around the same time as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu,” vocalist and lyricist Sai tells The Japan Times, referring to Tokyo’s street fashion photography scene. “The other members of the band followed me on Twitter, and we started talking and eventually met up in person.”
“She looked so cool,” guitarist Mako adds with a laugh, while bassist Risako echoes the praise, saying that Sai’s social media savvy earned a follow from her.
Out of this style-centered sorority, Ms. Machine was born. The members, who go by only their first names for privacy reasons, started out in 2015 playing punk in the cramped venues of Tokyo’s live house scene. After the departure of their drummer, the remaining trio decided to reimagine what their band could be.
“It allowed us to experiment with making music without a live drummer,” Mako says. “We started to use the computer to create songs, and experiment with different percussion and styles.”
This new approach shaped Ms. Machine’s eponymous debut album, which had been taking shape since 2019 and was finally released earlier this year. As far as debuts go, “Ms. Machine” is an excellent example of what Japanese music is capable of, with the trio drawing inspiration from punk, industrial, metal and other genres to craft a set of songs that are at times icy and unsettling, but always confident.
The trio followed up the release with another success, landing a spot on the Rookie A Go-Go stage at this year’s unfortunately downsized Fuji Rock Festival. They recently put out a single, “Var,” which includes a new track, “Sommer.”
Sai says she had always been interested in being part of a “girls’ punk band,” especially after encountering the music of English group Savages. She even tried to replicate that group’s sound in a band she started in school, and after when she wound up hanging out with a community of musicians centered around the music venue UFO Club in Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood. She and the performers who would later go on to form the band Tawings tried their own project, but it wasn’t quite what she was looking for.
“I realized I had to make something on my own,” Sai says. “I don’t really care about music technique or skill. I value what the person likes, or what style they want to bring to the group.”
These were the qualities her friends Mako and Risako had — the prior mostly developed her musical skills through elementary school piano lessons and fiddling around with her Dad’s guitar in her hometown of Hiroshima, while the latter took part in a cover band during university playing “almost all alternative rock, to the point it was painful.” Together, they took the plunge and formed Ms. Machine.
Initially, the three played punk scuzz built around feedback-soaked guitar and vaguely political lyrics (a good example being “she gotta obey him to succeed in this world” on the 2018 cut “Break the Current System”). That was when the group’s drummer left.
“It’s not like we had one theme for the album,” says Mako, who is the primary songwriter. While elements of their punk past peek through, their current pace is slower and the sounds more unsettling. The introduction of electronic elements — the siren-like stabs that open “Lapin Kulta” and the synth touches in “Nordlig Angel” — heighten the intensity in a wicked way.
Mako says it was the sounds of witch house, an early 2010s internet subgenre of electronic music built from drum machines and synths that also helped the band form their debut. The members shared an interest in artists associated with that tag, from Crystal Castles to Tzusing and White Ring.
“When I started using a computer to make music, I was surprised by how much I could do,” Mako says. “Black Sun” specifically nods to witch house as an influence, with the use of warped vocal samples and suffocating synthesizer to create a dark mood, while other tracks such as “Lapin Kulta” play with the same chilly atmosphere.
While Mako built the foundation of most of the album’s songs, the creation proved to be more collaborative, with different members providing the bass lines or main melodies to a variety of songs. “It always amazes me how the members continue to surprise one another in many different musical ways,” Mako says.
When it came to lyrics, Sai pulled from her personal life, especially after she started dating a Swedish man that she met through a language-learning app.
“That’s why there are so many Nordic references on the album, along with so much about relationships,” she says. Ms. Machine has long been categorized as a “feminist band” by Japanese music media, but Sai says “we rarely put any elements of feminism in our music, because I think I’m not confident enough to speak about it in our songs.”
It’s more complicated than that, though. “As a band, each of us have slightly different views on (feminism), or at least a different feeling on how we are categorized. As Ms. Machine, we don’t want to bring that in … yet,” adds Sai, who does identify as a feminist in our talk and features more outright political lyrics in her solo work.
Mako and Risako express similar viewpoints, however, and I get the impression that the bigger issue is how the term “feminist band” is interpreted in Japan. Sai points to how groups like Bikini Kill or, more recently, The Linda Lindas are celebrated in the United States, but says the tag is more of a pejorative in Japan. Mako even mentions times they’ve been criticized because of a descriptor they themselves haven’t fully embraced as a band.
“We’re trying to be a band that is opinionated about things we find questionable, and I think that’s what leads to us being classified that way,” Risako says. “I’m not good at expressing my thoughts out loud, so I want to express them by being a cool band.”
Coming out of Fuji Rock, Ms. Machine hopes to continue to attract new listeners to a style of music that they believe stands out from the similar-sounding bands crowding the Japanese rock landscape at the moment. That sonic edge, for what it’s worth, will at least land them on my best-of-the-year list come December.
For more information about Ms. Machine, visit https://lit.link/msmachine.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.