The Japanese psych-rock troupe wasn’t ‘big in Japan,’ so they left to get ‘big in the West’
Gothic Theatre | November 5
By Michael Chary
Photo by Jamie Wdziekonski
Earlier this year, Dinosaur Jr.’s hit song ‘Over the Shoulder’ landed at #18 on Japan’s Billboard Hot 100, outpacing Ariana Grande and skyrocketing the song’s YouTube stream count to over eight million plays — all despite the fact that it was released in 1994 and never even had an official YouTube video. And while many are still baffled by the sudden Nipponese interest in a 25-year-old indie-rock tune, Japan has always been known for its quirky and anachronistic musical taste — hence the “We’re big in Japan” alibi that western bands struggling to find relevance often tout.
Ironically, Kikagaku Moyo, the psychedelic rock quintet from Tokyo, that has enamored a rather large niche of western listeners, experienced the exact opposite effect of that often pejoratively perceived claim to fame.
“That’s why we had to leave Japan and start touring in the first place,” Kikagaku Moyo singer, drummer and founding member Go Kurosawa, told The Marquee in a recent interview.
“Well you know, busking doesn’t make any money and nobody cares, so we were really just playing for ourselves. Then we played a couple shows in Tokyo and felt like ‘Oh, well this isn’t going anywhere’ and nobody came, nobody cared. We tried organizing some events and shows, but the scene was really limited. And then we learned that, overseas, you can get paid to play. So, we said ‘OK, let’s go.’”
Yes. They learned that they could actually get paid to play their music, which astounded them. That’s because Japan has this bizarre policy of making bands pay to play at venues; a strange tradition Kikagaku Moyo protested by taking their act to the street corner. Though, unlike the western world, busking in Japan won’t get you noticed by local talent buyers, because there apparently aren’t any talent buyers.
“Yeah we had to pay to play, and that’s the only place we could play as long as we wanted,” Kurosawa said. “In Tokyo it’s generally pay to play, it’s slowly changing, but that’s basically the rule.”
Though with the precipitous rise of revivalist psych-rock and retro-instrumental jam groups, a la Khruangbin or Wooden Shjips, Kikagaku Moyo found themselves poised to quickly become “Big in the West.”
The band’s success even prompted them to start their own record label, Guruguru Brain, to bring the western-inspired music of aspiring Asian rock bands from Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, and Taiwan to the rest of the world.
Kikagaku Moyo’s particular rise to acclaim may have also had something to do with the fact that they had a secret weapon. One of the most arguably underrated, but definitive, instruments of the ’60s psychedelic rock scene, pioneered by George Harrison’s apprenticeship with Ravi Shankar — the sitar. In Kikagaku Moyo, the unmistakably eastern twang of that 21-stringed gourd is meticulously plucked and strummed by Kurosawa’s brother, Ryu, who studied the instrument under sitar legend, Manilal Nag.
“He (Ryu) was in India when we started and he came back to Japan after he was trained in classical Indian music. So, he had no rock background or anything like that, which we thought was good. Most sitar players in bands are guitarists who (later) picked up the sitar, but it was a different case for us. And that was also a good challenge, to not have the sitar be like raga rock, compared to how we’re trying to define a different way of using the instrument.”
That distinction is certainly noticeable when listening to Kikagaku Moyo’s tracks, which have undoubtedly evolved since their self-titled EP released in 2013. Ryu’s ability to jam on sitar, makes it a somewhat unexpected focal point of the band’s sound, rather than an occasionally exotic and novel solo, which speaks to Go’s assessment of his brother’s role.
However, Ryu isn’t the only one in the group with a taste for uncommon sonic elements. In fact, the band’s bass player Kotsu Guy, was in the midst of recording the sounds emanating from a vending machine in Tokyo when they decided to bring him onboard.
“He was making this experimental solo project and concentrating on sounds you can find on the street,” Kurosawa said just before playing a gig in Osaka.
“I don’t know if you can hear right now, but I’m on a big street, a big market street in Osaka, and there’s tons of different noises, and music, and sounds you can find. And each city has a unique sound. So, he was concentrating on those sounds you can ignore, but it’s actually music in the street.”
According to Kurosawa, these eccentric musical predilections are distinct and varied among each member of the band. Much like Japan’s unique penchant for variously sourced music, every member of Kikagaku Moyo has their own particular taste in the arts, which, Kurosawa said, is highly influential and equitably represented across the band’s discography.
“We gather ideas, and then digitally, we use the internet to gather our inspiration. ‘Oh, I saw this show’ or ‘I saw this artwork’, or ‘I saw this movie.’ Then we all share and try to write and make music from those inspirations that we have called to our attention,” Kurosawa said. “Anything in daily life, even if we see art from an advertisement on the street, those things can be used as inspirations.”
Kikagaku Moyo translates to “Geometric Patterns,” a name Kurosawa said was decided upon due to its transcendent and universally recognized relevance. “‘Kikagaku Moyo’ has 5 kanji characters, which is visually kind of heavy when written in Japanese,” Kurosawa said. “These patterns are inspired by, and can be seen in, all these traditional designs in Japan, as well as in different cultures and nature, like in leaves and snowflakes. When we play for a long time we could see these patterns in the back of the eyelid. So, I felt, this has to have some kind of meaning — you know there’s no connection between ancient South American, Japanese, and African cultures, but they all used this kind of pattern to express their identity, so we chose that name.”
Gothic Theatre | November 5
Go if you dig:
- Wooden Shjips
- King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard