Bringing us the best local music from Japan Paul Spicer gives us the low down on the new album from four-piece The Lost Numbers as well as exclusive free downloads of two album tracks for Louder Than War readers.
Japan has a history of taking things from all over the world and making them that little bit better.
For example in the 1930s, this chap called Goro Yoshida took German cameras, stripped them down, meticulously inspecting and cataloguing every part. Noticing that there was nothing particularly special inside, he and his team remodeled, redesigned and improved on the originals, their first camera being the Kwanon 35mm Rangefinder. Even during the periods where the country was innovating, the Japanese continued to do this fantastically well. Aesthetically better, more reliable and with a ton of features. Finally pop a Sony, Canon or Toshiba badge on them and Viola, job done!
This same process can also be seen in the entertainment industry where for over 50-years, a similar method of ‘borrow, study and adapt’ has been attempted. However, here the results have been considerably shaky, and often baffling.
When the Beatles first came to Tokyo in 1966, there were already a slew of copy and cover bands such as; The Tokyo Beatles, The Spiders, The Dynamites and The Voltage. These were clones from a highly successful and predominantly British blue print. Take the Beatles, strip them down, inspect their inner workings and then re-package into a Japanese friendly consumer item.
Much like Yoshida’s cameras, these ‘new and improved models’ were perfect for the Japanese; cleaner, non-threatening, no high profile arrests, no drugs, and no appearances on television to debate with Jesuit Priests and newspaper editors. It was all so nice!
Inoffensive lyrics, coiffure hairstyles, and toned down stage moves were all part of the cultural rebrand. Sell, sell, sell! Of course, Japanese kids bought, bought, bought and these more familiar idols were loved. The harsh truth is however, all but a small handful were actually very good. And here lies the problem with such undertakings, playing around with music is dangerous, it has passion, it has soul … cameras, TVs and DVD players don’t!
Not too much has changed to be honest. Nowadays music is still rebranded, and sold like everything else. If you despair about the British music scene, spare a thought for the more ‘switched on’ musical kiddies in Japan. The charts are full of saccharin sweet idols, horrible faux-metal and drippy ballads, woefully performed by here-today-gone-tomorrow, three minute heroes. It can get pretty depressing!
Also, music that has gone before seems to be forgotten, and many a good Japanese band kind of fades into the mists of time. The question here is why? Well, firstly the Japanese penchant for all things new and fashionable could be a reason, the latest fleeting trend being more important than an ‘old song’ that your parents would listen to. Secondly, it is kind of the norm that when you reach a certain age, you are expected to grow up, to take on responsibility and to act like an adult, with all the hassles that accompany that past-time.
Music (or passion for music), is seen as a bit of a worthless pursuit. In the UK at least, it is perfectly normal to chat with people of all ages about their passion for certain bands or songs … here, not so.
The visceral element of music is missing, that gut wrenching feeling of hearing a certain song or band is strangely absent. Music is a commodity, something that is bought and sold with little regard to artist or fan.
So, to find a bunch of 40 somethings in a band, who play music the right way, are brimming with attitude, understand the importance of music to the soul, and stir up recollections of a whole bunch of great artists, well, it is so rare, you have to pursue it!
Like the bands of the 1960s, Fukuyama based four-piece, the Lost Numbers, have taken various musical styles and fashions, and managed to repackage it with passion and soul firmly intact. Add to this their live performances, which are reminiscent of those early Jam gigs at the 100 Club or the Marquee, all suits and sweat. Mod revival, 2-Tone, 70s British punk, it is unashamedly referenced in the music, lyrics, style and attitude.
It is also interesting to see how the band’s reputation has grown, their fan-base steadily increasing in size. With every gig there are more and more people in parkas, boating jackets, dogtooth shirts, trilbys, and bowling shoes and sometimes you could be mistaken for thinking that this is the Britain of 1979, as opposed to Japan heading into 2014! So, with their reputation installed as one of the area’s most talented – and unique – bands, they have finally released their anticipated debut, Beating Targets.
To anyone with the same musical passions as the band, the album is immediately familiar. The Lost Numbers sound is rooted in a British scene, remembered for being filled with political strife and racial disharmony, but played out to a smart soundtrack. Beating Targets is not just a reminder how good these times were musically, but also highlights the influence of the period’s music, not just at home, but across the world. It is also a wakeup call to us – who sometimes take these things for granted – to remember just how important it all was.
To this end, the Lost Numbers have invested time getting to grips with the intricacies of the lyrical context and meaning of lyricists such as Lydon, Weller, and Strummer. This is evident in their own songs which, in Japanese, offer similarly emotive issues. Of course, the focus is on Japan, but the messages have a somewhat universal nuance, a constant theme being one of escapism; breaking the restrictive shackles of society and trying to shed the ‘work and work and work till you die’ mind-set!
In terms of singing style, lead singer Tokkun has got things just about right. Unlike those that have inspired him – Japanese band the blue Hearts being the most obvious – his vocal does strikes a perfect balance between Japanese and western familiarity. The delivery is intense and it is quite clear that there is a strong belief in what he is singing. I suppose that if you mean it, it comes across in any language.
The songs are solid, uncompromising affairs. Dirty Air and Never Ending Melodies, and Who Will Save the Numbers are pure 70’s Jam. Early Weller style riffs puncture a solid rhythm section and charge along with unbridled confidence. Rude Boy is an unashamed nod to the 2-Tone era. Just Make Me Tomorrow carries an overriding influence of the aforementioned Blue Hearts, and Radio Star is an upbeat three-minute homage to the spirit of the Chords and Secret Affair.
Do You Tonight, a favourite amongst Japanese colleagues, relies on the tried and tested You Can’t Hurry Love/Lust for Life/Are You Gonna Be My Girl bass riff. Of course some readers could be forgiven for thinking ‘not again’! However, there is a cultural issue here and as a Japanese friend of mine revealed, “Japanese people have probably not been exposed to it (the riff), as much as you Brits”. Cultural and musical anomalies aplenty!
And there lies the challenge for bands such as the Lost Numbers, if you want to appeal across cultures, how do you approach it? Do you go fully one way or the other, or do you sit in the middle, trying to please all, but running the risk of alienating everyone? It is a difficult conundrum to deal with.
Of the album’s eight tracks, there are a couple of irritations; I Wanna be Me sounds messy. The song has so much going on, and is played at such a rapid pace that it feels as if every member of the band is trying desperately to catch up with one another! Also, there is no huge pop-art bang to finish the album and closing track Tomorrow’s Heart, although solid with its Remote Control vibe, is a little underwhelming in comparison to what preceded it.
Aside from these minor annoyances, this is a fine album and will resonate with people versed in any, or all of the various musical styles referenced.
The Lost Numbers have done what many Japanese bands before have failed to achieve. They have produced an album which has managed to pay homage to the bands that they have been inspired and influenced by, but have also kept the integrity and passion firmly intact. Beating Targets is an album which will have people reaching back into their memory banks to identify various riffs and tunes. Of course, enjoyment does depend on whether you can listen past the ‘non-English’ vocal elements of the songs. If you can, it is well worth the effort. Fire and Skill, baby!
Louder than War caught up with the band prior to a live show to discuss, amongst other things, the new album and their influences.
Louder Than War: Soundwise, what was your aim with the album?
Tokkun: We wanted to try to get the kind of sound and atmosphere that we produce live. We recorded it pretty fast …
Kouchan: Yeah we rattled through it pretty quickly
So was it recorded live?
Tokkun: No, we recorded in layers you know? Drums, bass, then guitars, then vocals
Koniy: There are no overdubs though, we tried to avoid it
Song-writing credits are listed as a band effort, how does that work?
Tokkun: I usually come up with the lyrics and the melody and then will take it to the band and of course it goes through some changes, each band member puts their stamp on it. We then go through it, adjusting bits and pieces you know? So although the original idea would often be mine, songs are created collectively.
Of course there are those Louder than War readers that may be able to speak and understand Japanese, but for those who can’t, could you briefly explain the themes represented in the lyrics?
Tokkun: It is about escapism really … I write about kind of, getting away from everything, the hassles and shit that comes with everyday life. It is a kind of universal theme I think, I am sure loads of people feel the same way.
With a lot of local bands, well Japanese bands in general, there are influences but they are often difficult to pinpoint. After listening to the album, would it be fair to say that you pretty much nail your ‘influences’ to the mast from the off?
Tokkun: For sure, we are not afraid to let people know what we like and what influences us
Koniy: We are lucky because of course we listen to Japanese stuff, but also many different bands from overseas …
Tokkun: A lot from the UK …
Koniy: … Yes of course, but our influences are many and varied
In terms of influences, what kind of bands do you listen to?
Koniy: Really? There are a lot … The Clash, The Jam of course, The Chords, The Beatles, The Stones, The Sonics, Secret Affair, XTC, Dr. Feelgood and Japanese bands too of course … Laughing Rose, Teen Generate, Carol …
Mark: And 60’s mod too, bands like The Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces, that sort of stuff
Tokkun: I think the bands that Koniy mentioned do play a huge part in us wanting to play music … there are so many though and we are always listening to something. I mean the late 70’s British 2-Tone scene I love, like The Specials, The Selecter. Japanese band the Blue Hearts are a big influence and of course the Sex Pistols, they are easily one of the greatest bands …
Kouchan: My musical background is a little different, I grew up listening to rockier stuff like Deep Purple, Rainbow, Mötley Crüe, Nirvana … when I joined the band it was really amazing to be introduced to the bands that the guys listen to, on many occasions for the first time. It was really inspiring.
And this stuff drives you to play?
Tokkun: Well, for me of all the bands we mentioned, I think it is the Pistols that are probably my greatest inspiration … Rotten especially. The attitude, the swagger, the voice, and the lyrics … fucking incredible. I remember at high school listening to Seventeen, I wanted to be him. Great front-man and really intelligent too, people forget that. I mean I don’t emulate him, I couldn’t of course, but the Pistols, and especially the singer, are a massive reason that I had the bottle to get up on stage in the first place.
Mark: Same for me really with the Pistols, but in terms of the guitar it is people like Townsend, Marriot, Wilko, Paul Weller.
Do you think it is difficult taking these ‘mainly’ British influences and then changing it enough to suit a Japanese audience?
Koniy: No, not really
But surely you need to be mindful of this? I mean bands that have done this before have usually gone more down the Japanese route, which tends to restrict the amount of people who can, or want to listen …
Koniy: Well, we sing in Japanese, so of the course the sound and rhythm of the language dictates that we have to do things in a certain way … I mean we feel quite self-conscious at times, being Japanese and playing music in a distinctly western style.
Plus it is always a little difficult being taken seriously by people from outside of Japan. Like, for example you could have a British actor who performs something traditionally Japanese, I don’t know, like Kabuki. He could perform it perfectly, just as well as a Japanese actor, but Japanese people watching it would be kind of indifferent because he is a non-Japanese, performing something that is distinctly Japanese, you know?
I think sometimes this is the case with music, other countries, mainly the UK and US, have such a rich musical history, it is sometimes tough to break into it … to get people to listen …
Tokkun: But we don’t worry whether people will like us or not, I mean we hope they will, but we don’t really think about it too much. Like, if people get it and can see where we are coming from, then great, you can’t turn everyone on, right?
You guys are a little older than the majority of bands playing in and around the city, do you think that this is an advantage?
Koniy: Yeah I think so, I think we are a little more experienced in life, the music we’re into might be a bit different, like the stuff we grew up with and stuff like that …
Tokkun: But we don’t hold back though, we still give it everything … I think that maybe when you have been through the crap that life throws at you, when you are on stage you appreciate it more, … that’s not to say that we don’t mean it. Like sometimes, people come up to us and say ‘you’re such a serious band’ and I am like ‘of course we are’! Music is fucking serious, right?’
Finally, you have made two of the tracks on the album available as exclusive free downloads for Louder than War readers – is there anything you want to say about the songs?
Tokkun: Well, firstly we hope that people will like the songs. I am sure that readers will be able to pick up on our influences. The first song is called Dirty Air and Never Ending Melodies and it is basically about hanging about with your mates in a kind of backwater town, where nothing ever happens and where your only escape is music. The second song is called Who Will Save the Numbers and … how can I explain … you have heard Away from the Numbers by the Jam, right?
Yes, of course.
Tokkun: Well, that … but in Japanese.
Get your exclusive free download of Dirty Air and Never Ending Melodies by The Lost Numbers here.
Get your exclusive free download of Who Will Save the Numbers by The Lost Numbers here.
All words by Paul Spicer. More from Paul on Louder Than War here.