Louder Than Bombs
The Fader
April 2005

Japan completely missed the Psychedelic Era of the late '60s. While American youth were sucking on Owsley-flavored electric sugar cubes and Brits were haplessly throwing droning tambouras into the backgrounds of their rock songs, the Japanese were too busy rebuilding their scorched economy to indulge in the multihued carnival of consciousness expansion. Even with the new freedoms of American-installed democracy, the authorities fought youth culture with the fervor of a strict father: Japan's few manufactured rock bands like the Tigers or the Beavers were banned from national television in late '67 after schools and local communities started to crack down on the noise and degeneration. The rioting student Leftists rejected rock & roll and embraced folk as the earnest soundtrack to their red hardhat revolution. In the end, a mass Japanese counterculture never blossomed in real time.

This may explain why Japan is now host to a whole mess of explosive psychedelic music - from the lysergic dirge of Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paradiso U.F.O. to the minimal psych-folk of Ghost. Most of these bands, unfortunately, have not found a wider audience outside the underground - except, however, for the psych garage three-piece Yura Yura Teikoku. Led by the severe-looking rock-alien Sakamoto Shintaro, the band moved gracefully out of the underground into the mainstream in the late 90s and never looked back. The music is raw and tight - like the sound of keying someone's hotrod - with the thematic backdrop of fantastical science fiction - well, like keying someone's flying saucer. Attempts to take Kirlian photographs of Sakamoto's overblown, otherworldly guitar sound would probably break the camera. The sheer amount of noise generated by these three mere men became stuff of legend in Japan: only Yura Yura Teikoku could pull together a sound this brutal, this large and make into something this meaningful, this unique.

Born directly after the Summer of Love in September 1967, singer/guitarist Sakamoto studied graphic design at Tokyo's elite Tama Art School where he originally founded the band with a fellow student in 1989. Sakamoto, however, drew the line at being called an "art school" band. "When you say art in Japan, it has a very lofty image, and what we are doing is very much more for the common person." Regardless, Yura Yura Teikoku's fuzzed-out grooves boast a certain Can-like art-jam sensibility, and the ex-student's designs have become large part of the band's public image - all the band's album art was done in Sakamoto's signature groovy trippy San Francisco meets Sci-Fi style. The artwork for their Best of 1998-2004 album depicts the band's staff members as Dr. Who-style hairy, ghost-faced aliens, posing nonchalantly in front of hotrod racecars.

In the early '90s, the band gigged around Tokyo's underground, dropping and adding members along the way. The line-up finally settled with Kumekawa Chiyo on bass and Sabata Ichiro on drums. The band took great influence from both Western progressives like Captain Beefheart and late '60s sentimental Japanese folk rock like Jacks and Mikami Kan. Sakamoto's goal was to create what those Japanese in the '60s never could quite get together: a Western-sounding rock music with a distinct Japanese originality. From the beginning, Sakamoto shunned the purist predilection for English and wrote his lyrics in Japanese. The band name, as well, was a specific Japanese language joke. "Yura Yura Teikoku" translates as something like "softly swaying empire" - an underhanded attack on the stern coldness of the old WWII sense of Imperial government. "I meant it with the nuance of an empire lacking substance, light and fluffy, but now I think I made a mistake with the name. People outside of Japan will hear it and just focus of the 'empire' part. I meant it as anti-empire."

Their initial fans in the underground world also missed the satire of the band's name and became religiously devoted to Sakamoto as if he were some kind of Imperial presence. In the early days of the group, the long-haired Sakamoto shaved off his eyebrows, and soon a whole cadre of eyebrow-less girls would prostrate themselves at the front of the stage, recording the show apostolically with small cassette recorders. The band themselves greatly disliked this, but Sakamoto admits responsibility for the cult-like nature of their shows. "I don't like when music becomes like religion, when there's a feeling of oneness in the concert space. I'd rather people be hooting and hollering and smoking cigarettes and talking in the back." After a couple of small-scale releases on the aptly named psych imprint Captain Trip Records, Yura Yura Teikoku signed to the large indies label MIDI in 1998. They were happy to escape the tunnel vision of the underground and get the music out to a larger variety of listeners.

Soon after their first releases on MIDI, Yura Yura Teikoku found mainstream success and a new legion of less zombie-like fans. The band's massive three-piece assault stunned the citizens of the Japanese rock world who could not believe a pop sound this dangerous could be created in Japan. More than his penetrating visage, Sakamoto's crazy leg movements became renowned, and soon fans were arriving early to shows to get seats close enough to watch the two jeans-clad sticks wiggle, bob, shake, and shimmy with the groove - only of course, when they weren't flying through the air from some kind of rock-inspired psychic energy. Yura Yura Teikoku had achieved their aims of creating a uniquely Japanese experience and being the first Japanese band to accurately recreate the Western psych rock vibe. Sakamoto also became revered like a hero, described to me by one casual fan as "someone not from this planet - a man with his feet floating inches above the ground." This overground success bewildered the band, but they just pressed on with the original blueprint without feeling any of the new demands of stardom.

Yura Yura's albums are a mix of crispy, angular rock, freeform freakouts, groovy talkers, and sometimes, beautiful jangle pop with female backing vocals. Sakamoto doesn't particularly see pop and rock as opposing forces, and his holistic lyrical vision ties the disparate parts into a unified vision. Tales of ghosts, cars, guitars, green liquids dripping from the head, and pants covered with lamé should be embraced symbolically, warns Sakamoto: "I want my lyrics to be interpreted in various ways. I don't like it when there's a definitive interpretation." A line from the track "Grapefruit choudai (Grapefruit, Please)" sums up the Sakamoto lyrical mode:

I want a car like a horse
and a guitar like a car
and a girl like a guitar

More important than the content, however, is Sakamoto's rhythmic delivery. The band often mixes the vocals super hot - uncomfortably close to the listener's ear - and as a result, the singer's punctuations and spasms can be just as piercing as the over-distorted guitars. The vocals rock as hard as the backing band.

If there is one theme to the band's and Sakamoto's existence, however, it's the desire for freedom - no matter how much alienation that freedom entails. Yura Yura Teikoku may have played with other like-minded bands as Ghost and appeared on compilations with legends like Haino Keiji, but they do not see themselves as part of a community. "When we were underground, we were never really part of a scene, and even now, we aren't friends with other bands. I don't really understand the whole idea of everybody being happy just by being with each other." This explains his distaste for rock cultism and audience zealotry that too often develops in the Japanese music scene. Sakamoto seems highly uncomfortable with unconditional praise. "The first time I saw a review of my band in a magazine, I was really excited to see us be praised by the writer. But, then the second or third time - when you realize they have to praise you - it just loses all meaning." Sakamoto bemoans the glossy, advertorial of today's institutionalized rock magazines and longs for the good old days of Japanese rock crit when elitist writers would freely slam records. He wants love the hard way - only when you know you can be hated does it feel good to be loved.

Since their inception, Yura Yura Teikoku have always recorded at the same small studio Peace Music in the suburbs of Tokyo, and they are back again now recording their new album. This new record aims to combine the loopy "head music" of their last effort Yura Yura Teikoku no Shibire (The Tingling of Yura Yura Teikoku) with their usual body-based visceral rock. In the chorus of their self-referential song "Yura Yura Teikoku de kangaechu" (roughly: Thinking in the Yura Yura Teikoku) from 2001's Yura Yura Teikoku III, Sakamoto exclaims, "Crazy World - the world of manga is actually not easy at all." Underneath the psychedelic text of the band's high-speed, outer-space rock journey, there is the evidence that Yura Yura Teikoku have learned the sad lessons of the entire Psych Era far-out promises: you can't escape alienation, no matter how far you wander from reality. The songs' ideas and sounds may be cartoonish and crazy, but the underlying message is one of profoundly human pathos. Sakamoto is no longer a comic book fan, but he sees them as a perfect metaphor for his own music.

"When you're a kid, you just see comics as cute pictures, but the truth is that there is an adult writing that story - with great loneliness and sadness. I think this is reflected in my lyrics. Picasso at the end of his career only did line-drawings, like manga, and I like that."

copyright W. David Marx, 2005