On a recent night in late April, the Grammy Award-winning rock band Phoenix exploded onto the stage amid billows of smoke, blasts of white light and a tidal wave of sound at Tokyo’s Shibuya Stream Hall.
It was the tail end of a weeklong residency in the capital, but the musicians showed no signs of fatigue. Guitarist Christian Mazzalai bounced to the infectious, jittery rhythms of the hit single “Lisztomania,” while lead singer Thomas Mars — a lithe Frenchman with floppy brown hair — leaned into the song’s cryptically brilliant lyrics. He stopped abruptly as he launched into the chorus, but the crowd didn’t skip a beat.
“Think less and see it grow,” they roared back, finishing the line, “Like a riot, like a riot — oh!”
Japan was the second country the group toured nearly 20 years ago, and they’ve returned on several occasions to perform at festivals such as Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic. However, last month’s concert series brought them to Tokyo for a very different reason.
“This time we’re doing sake,” Mars announced later, eliciting cheers from the audience, most of whom appear to be in their 20s and early 30s.
Two years ago, the band released Tatenokawa Phoenix, a fruity and elegant sake adorned with a distinctive rainbow-colored label. A collaboration with Tatenokawa, Inc., a brewery in Yamagata Prefecture, the project began as a tribute following the death of Japanese-born restaurateur Toshiro Kuroda, a friend of the band who had helped popularize sake in Paris during the 40 years he spent in France.
Kuroda ran a store called Workshop Isse in Paris’s second arrondissement, which stocked specialty food items from Japan and an impressive collection of sake. As luck would have it, the shop occupied the ground floor of Mazzalai’s apartment building, and he began stopping in on his way home after discovering the drink on his first trip to Japan.
“In 2000, after a show in Sapporo, we were invited to a dinner where sake was served. It was like a revelation because we had only known ‘fake’ ones in France,” Mazzalai told me at a reception before the concert. “After that, I fell in love with Japan and moved to the Japanese district in Paris, where I got to know Mr. Kuroda.”
Soon, the rest of the band members also became sake converts. While on tour in Japan a few years ago, Kuroda took the group to visit breweries and introduced them to Masashi Togami, the marketing director of Yamagata’s Tatenokawa, Inc.
Together, they came up with the idea for the Phoenix Sake Collection, which features Tatenokawa Phoenix, as well as the limited-edition brews Tatenokawa Junmai Daiginjo, Kaze no Mori Junmai Daiginjo from Nara Prefecture and Sohomare Junmai Ginjo from Tochigi Prefecture. A portion of sales from each bottle is donated to the Japanese Red Cross Society.
Sake consultant Chizuko Niikawa-Hilton, whose company, Sake Discoveries, helps to promote the project, points out that the Phoenix Sake Collection is more than a sentimental gesture: It’s an opportunity to build “a true bridge between rock music and sake.”
“Great music can make sake fans listen to the music, and vice versa. Phoenix’s members are always offering their audiences their sake and sharing the story of why they are collaborating with sake producers,” she says, noting that, as sake ambassadors, musicians can be instrumental in reaching younger drinkers.
The latest addition to the Phoenix Sake Collection is a sparkling number produced by Tatenokawa, released this year to commemorate the band’s 20th anniversary. It’s made with local Yamagata Prefecture Dewasansan rice polished to 50 percent, and the resulting brew is crisp and fresh with fine bubbles and lively effervescence.
It’s exactly the kind of sake that makes you want to get up and dance.
For more information about the Phoenix Sake Collection, visit bit.ly/phoenix-sake.