Rock quartet Skye’s debut album has been over half a century in the making. The band came together in 1968, but it’s only now that they’ve started releasing music.
“Honestly, there wasn’t much we could do (when we started),” bassist Ray Ohara says of the band’s first go-around. “There weren’t many places we could play back then, and every member of the group started working on various other projects and bands. We naturally just kind of stopped.”
To be fair, the members have done a lot in the meantime — transforming Japan’s musical landscape, for instance.
Skye in 2021 looks like a supergroup designed to make music obsessives drool. Ohara played in Sadistic Mika Band before becoming a prominent session player working with the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Akiko Yano. Drummer Tatsuo Hayashi played on now-seminal albums by Haruomi Hosono (“Hosono House”) and Eiichi Ohtaki (“A Long Vacation”) among others. Guitarist Shigeru Suzuki helped found Happy End, the most influential outfit in Japanese rock history, while also going on to a fruitful solo career.
“I had never heard of Skye before,” fourth member Masataka Matsutoya, who joined in 2019, says with a laugh. While he wasn’t part of the group when it first came together, he was a close friend and collaborator with the other three members throughout the 1970s, when he was emerging on the music scene as a prolific songwriter.
Arriving on the 12th floor of The Peninsula Tokyo Hotel in Yurakucho for the interview, I realize there’s a lot of Japanese music history gathered together, fittingly sitting in a room with a view of the city worthy of four artists responsible for millions of units moved and an immeasurable amount of influence.
However, despite the musicians’ celebrated careers, for years, Skye was more like a piece of trivia you’d bring up at a Ryuichi Sakamoto show — “Did you know Suzuki, Hayashi and Ohara met as high schoolers and formed a band?”
“Sometimes we’d talk and reminisce, right, we used to do this band called Skye, but we were more focused on our own lives and work,” Hayashi says.
The project’s return came about for somewhat anodyne reasons. Ohara says he and actor Shiro Sano are friends. In 2019, Sano, who has also dabbled in music, wanted a band to back him for a couple of concerts. Ohara reached out to Suzuki and Hayashi, and, just like that, Skye returned, with Matsutoya coming on board soon after.
“We’ve been close for all these years, so it’s never been like we’re separated from one another. We would cross paths in various projects, too” Suzuki says. “When I first heard they wanted to restart Skye I thought, ‘That’s kind of interesting.’”
When the quartet got together in the spring of 2020 to work on the songs that would appear on their eponymous album, the guiding principle was “do everything by yourself.” While they describe their general sound on the album as “straight rock ’n’ roll,” the opportunity to work on their own project with close friends encouraged the members to step out of their comfort zones, too. Ohara says he wrote more lyrics than ever before. Hayashi, meanwhile, stepped away from his kit to sing on one of the songs, a rarity for him.
The sounds on display — folksy boogies, heavier chug-a-lugs, slow-burning ballads among others — are all go-tos for the members, even if they aren’t simply re-creating the past. Still, the atmosphere of “Skye” is very much that of buds catching up and reminiscing over their early days.
They were aware, too, of newfound global interest in older Japanese music from the ’70s and ’80s — much of which they actually were involved in.
“I had lived in Los Angeles and still have lots of friends there, and they told me Japanese records were becoming quite popular, especially the ones with the obi strip intact,” says Ohara. (It’s also something their label, Nippon Colombia, caught on to, leading to a steady trickle of reissues over the past five years). This rediscovery of Japanese music surprised and heartened the band, and they have theories as to why so much decades-old work is connecting with a younger audience.
“I think part of it might be because of language,” Ohara says, speculating that the drastically different way Japanese functions compared to English in music might sound fresh to foreign ears and help make melodies extra pretty.
Matsutoya, on the other hand, compares it to fashion. “When I was young, American fashion was introduced to Japan, and it rapidly grew in popularity,” he says. “Japanese fashion was in turn greatly influenced by it, and over the years I’d see American buyers of clothes purchasing Japanese clothes. Maybe Americans are getting bored of what’s coming out of their country.”
That’s true of their music as well — all heavily indebted to Western trends but presented with a Japanese perspective. “We were all born after World War II, and in the years after, America occupied Japan. Our parents’ generation suffered before and during the war, but we came into a lot of freedom, along with the introduction of American culture,” Matsutoya says. In the ’60s, electric guitar-centric music was dominant, with the Beatles-inspired “group sounds” style dominating the music scene.
“By 1968 though, a new movement centered around art rock bands was beginning,” Ohara adds. Skye started at this point, even though the combination of their youth and Tokyo’s underdeveloped rock ecosystem stymied the trio — Hayashi remembers their only performance taking place at a dance party where their psychedelic rock covers didn’t mesh with a crowd looking to cut loose. Ironically, it took their individual efforts over the past 50 years to build a scene that young Skye would have excelled in.
Memories of the band’s early days shape “Skye” and offer an extra layer of intrigue on listening. Ohashi says his lyrics are “an homage to the ’60s and ’70s, when the times were really exciting historically, and to the type of people we were.” Suzuki also looked to that period for his musical contributions, but with one eye focused on new listeners.
“The ’60s is when I started feeling the influence of new music, and I think on this album you can hear the influence and history of that period and the decades after,” he says. “I think people around the same age as us will listen to this, but I also think younger listeners can feel a sort of history and change of the past 40 or 50 years through Skye.”
Consider “Skye” a deeper assignment for new fans of Japanese music coming to older sounds from algorithmically recommended videos and subreddits. It’s a reminder of the myriad sounds shaping Japanese music post-1970, which often get overshadowed by the disco and funk of ’80s city pop. Listening to the album also offers a chance to spot echoes of every member’s past work manifest in new forms.
“We all have these different ideas, and different influences. If listeners can feel and sense that, I think that would be great, and could be Skye’s big appeal,” Suzuki says.
It might have taken a while, but Skye can now properly count itself as a part of Japan’s rock ’n’ roll lineage.
Skye’s eponymous debut album is now on sale. For more information, visit https://columbia.jp/betterdays/skye (Japanese only).
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