It’s all about lo fi! Joanna Tocher, The F-Word’s music correspondent in Japan, introduces us to the delights of Puffyshoes who hail from Chiba
A quick glance at any Japanese music show or a listen to the music pumped out in shops and cafés and you could be forgiven for thinking that Japan’s music scene is populated solely by fresh faced girls and boys singing impossibly perky songs about having crushes, or wailing melodramatic songs about breaking up. When it comes to female singers and girl bands, the prevalence of groups such as teen girl behemoth AKB48 and its sister groups SKE48 and NMB48, more overtly sexy acts like Korea’s Girls Generation and the seemingly endless parade of ballad singers all point towards an industry that often appears to favour insipid tunes, slick dance routines and the willingness to advertise just about any product imaginable. (Sweets? Check! Beer? Check! Nintendo DS? Check! Every single mobile phone available? Why not!)
A less cursory look however will reveal that even within this pop template there is no shortage of interesting acts. All girl electropop trio Perfume, for example, have, with the help of producer Yasutaka Nakata’s techno pop productions and their nifty, slightly offbeat dance routines, turned from a somewhat goofy teen pop trio into a chart conquering electronic phenomenon. (Advertisments now include Pepsi and clothing chain Natural Beauty Basic, a sure sign of success!) Other mainstream female singers such as Kimura Kaela or guitar strumming Yui prove there is definitely room for more than just girls dressed in school uniforms singing “I want you, I need you, I love you” (AKB48’s inescapable ‘Heavy Rotation’). Yet go a little further still, beyond the kind of music that features on TV or soundtracks to popular anime series, and there is no end to the number of fascinating bands you will stumble across.
One of these is Chiba’s intriguingly named Puffyshoes.
Lo-fi guitar and drum duos with fabulously sweet vocals are not necessarily the first thing that springs to mind when pondering the Japanese music scene but Puffyshoes, consisting of Neko Meows and Usagi Hops (real names Azumi Nakajima and Natsuko Watanabe) have been steadily garnering a following since their formation in 2009. I saw a picture of Neko and Usagi before I ever heard their music and the first time I heard them my brain did a little double take for a few seconds. The fuzzy guitar sounds didn’t quite sound like what I expected to hear from such an adorable looking duo!
But soon, you realise their sound is a perfect mesh of scuzzy guitars, riffs and -at times- sweet almost sixties girl band style vocals. Their two main releases to date have been the albums Something Gold (2010) and this year’s Finally the Weekend, preceded by an EP, Miracle Puffy Shoes are Coming (2009). Something Gold is a perfect half hour of mostly short sharp tracks with names like ‘Kissing In The Kitchen’, ‘Junk Food’ and ‘Lazy Seventeen’. The album is like a little explosion of intense emotions. When the band sing a slower song, such as the aching ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘My Imaginary Lover’, it contrasts with the other tracks and ends up being very affecting.
Finally the Weekend is a perhaps a little more polished but the sound is still happily dishevelled. Sultry opener ‘Baby Kiss Me’ genuinely almost sounds as if it’s from an earlier age, while tracks like ‘Jacky Jones’ continue the ramshackle energy of Something Gold. Puffyshoes don’t go in for epic balladry and as with their debut album, most songs clock in at under two minutes.
The band have recorded videos for quite a few of their songs and these only add to their appeal. They take simple concepts such as dressing up with a friend and dancing about (‘Lazy Seventeen’), sitting fully-clothed in a bath looking wistful (‘You Never Know’) or even just jumping around (‘Kissing in the Kitchen’) and make them thrilling! Equally fun are the videos taken at live shows, several of which are available to watch on YouTube. These include a few performances from this year’s SXSW. The two are the only ones on-stage and wear popstar style headsets to allow them to play and sing at the same time. The result is exciting and always wonderfully loud. Although Neko and Usagi have yet to tour in Britain their music is available to buy on Amazon UK and itunes.
The pair were kind enough to give a little interview earlier this month. Here’s what they had to say:
How would you describe the kind of music you make?
Usagi : People say it’s some kind of lo-fi, garage, or punk.
Neko : And when they describe our music most of them mention Vivian Girls, Best Coast, Las Robertas.
Did you choose your own nicknames or were they given to you by friends?
Neko : I started to call myself Neko Meows first.
Usagi : Neko gave this name because I like bunnies.
(‘Neko’ means cat and ‘Usagi’ means rabbit in Japanese)
Neko, do you think you are especially cat-like and Usagi, do you think you are especially rabbit-like?
Neko : I don’t know, I’m just obsessed with cats.
Usagi : Yeah I am. Specially when I eat.
I read in another interview that you thought you might make music with keyboards and programming at first but switched to guitars and drums. Had you played guitars and drums for a long time before starting the band?
Usagi : Just a little bit.
Neko : I’ve always enjoyed playing guitar myself but I never thought I would be a drummer.
What is your writing process like, do you write all your songs together?
Usagi : Sometimes we write together, sometimes not. Or we pick some from our sessions.
What made you decide to write lyrics in English?
Usagi : Neko writes all lyrics. I like her writings ‘specially in English so I suggested that she should write in English.
Neko : I’m super shy so when I first made a song I never wanted to let everyone know what I’m saying. I guess Japanese people don’t really care about lyrics.
What kind of music do you listen to yourselves?
Usagi : Many kinds. From classical to noise music.
Neko : I’m so particular. I think there’s no “my favourite” kind.
Who are your favourite female singers/bands?
Usagi : I like Patti Page, Lesley Gore, Judee Sill, Lio, Vashti Bunyan, Lady Gaga, Vivian Girls, Big Sirr, Mika Miko, Finally Punk, and No Bra.
Neko : Kimya Dawson is my no.1 idol. I’ve always loved her since I was a teenager. She’s my everything.
Your videos are unique and kind of fuzzy looking. (They’re great!) Do you plan your videos very carefully beforehand or are they more improvised?
Neko : Thanks. I shoot them with my cheap old camera. I don’t really plan. If I direct, its like “Jump!” “Run!” so these videos are more improvised.
And finally, do you have a message for your fans in the UK?
Usagi : I’m looking forward to seeing you guys soon.
Neko : UK is one of countries I’d love to visit. I would be very happy if you invited us over there to perform!