NEW YORK – Wrapped in green and white kimono, the Yoshida Brothers looked completely at ease playing shamisen at the B.B. King Blues Club and Grill in New York last month.
The Japanese brothers’ hipster good looks and original rock ‘n’ roll take on shamisen music made them stars long ago in Japan. The Tsugaru shamisen, which originated in the Tsugaru region of Aomori Prefecture, has even enjoyed a resurgence with the brothers’ rise in popularity.
They have been working steadily to build an audience in the U.S. since their first album debuted there three years ago. Ryoichiro, who turns 29 this month, and Kenichi, 26, hope to get more fans with their U.S.-recorded album, “III,” which was released in March.
The brothers said in a recent interview that touring and recording in the United States over the past few years has increased their confidence.
“Playing on your own, you can’t cover up any mistakes,” said Ryoichiro.
During their 2004 U.S. tour, it was often just the two of them on stage. Playing alone together meant they had to pay especially close attention to one another, which they said has resulted in a more natural give-and-take.
Kenichi, 26, said that tour also helped them to connect better with American audiences.
He said before one concert, several members of the sound crew who had been setting up on stage gave them curious looks when they changed into their kimono.
After the show, the same men came to them to say their show was “awesome.” Kenichi said in that moment he felt their music could really communicate to different audiences.
Their latest album was recorded during a three-month stay in Santa Monica, Calif.
Working closely with producer Tony Berg, the brothers delved into a variety of different sounds, from blues to covers of songs by Brian Eno, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
The brothers said recording in the U.S. was very different from in Japan, where they said it is a “practical and businesslike” process, in which an album is usually recorded in a month.
“You spend a lot of time discussing the album here. It takes a while before you actually start recording,” Ryoichiro said.
“I can’t really say which is good or bad (of the two processes). But in L.A., by the time we recorded the album, we didn’t have any doubts about our playing and interpretation of the music.”
Kenichi, who wrote his first blues song, “Overland Blues,” for “III,” said working closely with Berg showed them how detailed discussions can help their music.
“Tony complained that I played the song too lightly — he said blues is like the music you play when you get out of prison after a long time,” he said, adding that the advice helped.
Even though the process was long and there was the occasional disagreement, Kenichi is happy with the results.
In a sign of their rising success in the U.S., the Yoshida Brothers headlined a show at New York’s famous Knitting Factory club the night after their date at the B.B. King Blues Club.
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