Like many artists creating music these past two years, Buffalo Daughter’s original plan to put out a new album was derailed by the pandemic. The trio instead took a proactive approach to the unexpected extra time.
“We had an extra six months to work on our album,” Sugar Yoshinaga tells The Japan Times from her home office, with several guitars visible in the background of the video chat and a pet bird chirping in occasionally. “Besides getting the chance to put the finishing touches on what we made, we recorded about two or three new songs. The songs we worked on before (the pandemic) were focused on our frustrations with the world, so with this extra recording time we emphasized our appreciation for music.”
The gratitude the band shows toward its art and the accompanying optimism provide an emotional boost to “We Are the Times,” Buffalo Daughter’s first new album in seven years. Those late-stage positive vibes, apparent on tracks such as opener “Music,” which references being in quarantine, serve as an exception to the rest of the album, which Yoshinaga and her bandmates, Yumiko Ohno and Moog Yamamoto, use to touch on serious issues such as isolation (“Loop,” “ET [Densha]”) and climate change (“Global Warming Kills Us All”). Ohno and Yoshinaga say that the frustration stemming from these problems was present prior to the pandemic.
“(Climate change) is something that affects everyone in the world, and we decided to be direct about it. It might end up making it impossible for our children to even live on the planet anymore,” Ohno says of “Global Warming Kills Us All,” a skittering and disorienting electronic number serving as an advanced single.
Ohno adds that Buffalo Daughter has avoided writing about personal experiences in favor of more far-reaching matters since the band formed in 1993. “When we sing about love, for example, we aren’t singing about ourselves but a greater kind of love in the world.”
The group, however, is more often celebrated by its fans at home and overseas for its sample-heavy take on rock, rather than any specific political positions. Their style helped them land a deal with the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label in the early 1990s. That’s when Buffalo Daughter became global ambassadors of Japanese rock cool, floating in the same orbit as the Shibuya-kei genre, a space in which the group has plenty of connections — Ohno played bass and Yamamoto synthesizer during one of the last Cornelius tours. (Yoshinaga has said before that Buffalo Daughter’s sound doesn’t quite match up with Shibuya-kei, though.)
Regardless, the band achieved a degree of success abroad that is rare for Japanese acts thanks to the Grand Royal deal and a lot of touring overseas. At home, additional success came in the form of collaborations with J-pop acts such as Ami Suzuki and contributing songs to video game soundtracks.
Buffalo Daughter took a three-year break following 2014’s “Konjac-tion,” and started working on what would become “We Are the Times” in 2017. It was a year later that the band found the inspiration to write the album’s centerpiece track, “Global Warming Kills Us All.”
“We felt the heat during the summer of 2018 and thought, ‘Oh wow, we’re in danger,’” Yoshinaga says. “It’s not something you think of in your head, it’s something you experience.”
While it’s common for musicians in the West to talk about environmental and social concerns, that’s not the case here as artists largely avoid anything that could stir up controversy. It’s something both Ohno and Yoshinaga picked up on, and it makes “Global Warming Kills Us All” a particularly striking statement coming from a Japanese act.
While they think every artist should decide for themselves whether to speak up on such issues, Buffalo Daughter sees value in shedding light on uncomfortable topics.
“I think it’s good to get people talking about important subjects, whether they agree or disagree,” Yoshinaga says. “If I were a fan of an artist, and there was a huge issue that everyone was talking about (while my artist) stayed quiet, I’d notice. But if the artist actually talked about it, I’d be happy to know if they were worried about it. Maybe I’d learn more about the issue on my own.
“We don’t want to be activists per se, but we wanted to do something that could reach people through a daily activity like listening to music. Especially since it doesn’t feel like Japan is working toward fixing the issue, we wanted to do something.”
Aside from “Global Warming Kills Us All,” however, the bulk of “We Are the Times” avoids specificity in favor of capturing the emotional whiplash of life in the 21st century. To that end, Buffalo Daughter remains as charged about the music as its politics. There are a lot of different styles on the album, with the band taking sounds associated with acid house and wrapping them around its trademark rock.
Ohno says Yamamoto couldn’t really take part in the creation of this album due to illness, prompting Buffalo Daughter to bring in Takeru Okumura, a younger electronic musician, to round out the recording. (He’s credited as “computer” on the album notes.)
“Since it’s always the same members, it’s usually hard to make something totally new,” Ohno says. “Takeru helped us speed up the creative process on this album. We had good chemistry, and he brought a new sense that we didn’t have.”
More specifically, Okumura showed the band — built around guitars, drums, bass and synths — the power of computer production, which added a new dimension to songs such as “Times” and “Global Warming Kills Us All.”
“I kept thinking, ‘How is he doing that!?’” says Yoshinaga of Okumura’s approach to creating music.
For a group that’s been around nearly three decades, one whose genre-blurring approach to rock can be seen cropping up in a younger generation of artists such as the buzzed-about high school duo Lausbub, Buffalo Daughter remains curious to explore new terrain. That applies to the distribution process, too. Earlier this year, the group launched a Bandcamp page (although they admit to having registered it years ago, but had no idea what to use it for) where they uploaded a rare Japan-only EP and a trio of new songs before a July 8 live show — their first since the pandemic started.
Environmental activism and new distribution platforms aren’t the only things the band has learned, according to Yoshinaga. “Being independent is the most important thing,” she says, adding that this is the key to artistic freedom.
The other lesson that stands out to them?
“The band is like a family, and we have to value and respect one another to keep things going,” Ohno says.
Buffalo Daughter’s new album “We Are the Times” is available now. For more information, visit buffalodaughter.com.
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.