Make Believe Mailer 13: Tuning Out
Suchmos As Pivot Point In J-pop
“Stay Tune” and its accompanying video arrived as the Japanese music industry found itself at a crossroads. Released six days into 2016, the clip became a breakthrough hit for Kanagawa band Suchmos, which had been finding some buzz over the last year with a smooth EP and album. “Stay Tune” transformed them into something bigger, thanks primarily to the above video in all its youthful coolness, bathed in neon and backed by a Jamiroquai-indebted groove.
By contemporary viral stats, “Stay Tune” isn’t an immediate sensation. It didn’t break a million views for months (a touch of 57 million at time of writing), and the band’s trajectory followed a more slow-burn pace, shifting from the province of “hip” music listeners. The shift it reflected, though, came quickly. Weeks after, comedy EDM group Radio Fish delivered a much bigger online hit thanks to uploads of them performing their song “Perfect Human” on a variety show doing well. This set the stage for 2016, a year of change featuring “PPAP” and “Koi” and the arrival of Spotify. Just 12 months prior, the most meme-able number in J-pop could only be viewed on YouTube in a “short version,” leaving it to fans to take creative control.
It wasn’t just a matter of distribution. Nishino Kana’s “Torisetsu” marked the last hurrah of the epoch of J-pop female solo singers towering over the marketplace. Kana herself — the biggest woman in the music industry in the first half of the 2010s — personified shifts, starting as a torch carrier for the R&B sound dominating the Aughts before taking a Taylor Swift-inspired turn to the folksy. This era didn’t end with a bang, but a twee pat on the back.
While “Torisetsu” towered over J-pop in 2015, Suchmos were already lumped into a “new city pop” movement pushed by Japanes music media, and one that had delivered a surprise hit via the trio cero’s “Summer Soul,” a song that somehow ended up being featured on boy band variety show SMAP X SMAP. This scene bore little resemblance to the Bubble Era funk-pop originally branded that way, but close enough. The group’s real influences all came from abroad, something they stressed to me when I interviewed them a month after “Stay Tune” appeared. They pointed to Curtis Mayfied, Jamiroquai and…timing!…Daft Punk, specifically 2013’s Grammy winning affair Random Access Memories.
“When Daft Punk won the Grammy for ‘Get Lucky.’ Seeing the most popular house group in the world win for that, it felt like the wave had come,” lead singer Yosuke Kasai (aka Yonce) said. “We wanted to be the young band in Japan that saw where things were heading.”
Suchmos crafted an alternative sound and vibe for a new, younger, city-based (or at least adjacent…they were from Kanagawa, a prefecture to the south of Tokyo that, over the decades, has become an escape for many from high housing prices, leading to a whole generation of creators hailing from the region) set. It’s a cycle replaying endlessly — mainstream pop goes one way, a fresh enclave of artists go somewhere else and spark a trend in the process. Unlike the achingly earnest “Torisetsu,” Suchmos celebrated youth and the possibilities of it, playing out in urban landscapes and surrounding spots dripping with cool. Rap and international sounds — not to mention Yone’s creative approach to stringing English words into his Japanese verses — served as bedrock. It helped that they initially bypassed traditional media in favor of connecting with fashion industry insiders, who understood the pulse of the nation’s young-adult listeners much better than old-school types.
This was an alternative, akin to the emergence of Shibuya-kei in the 1990s, offering the hipper-than-thou youth of Japan a different sonic world to explore than what mainstream J-pop provided (one, worth mentioning, also built on Western references from decades before the artists themselves were born…and literally mutated out of honest-to-goodness city pop). It’s not an accident either — Suchmos’ manager Satoru Kaneko told CINRA in 2017 that “Stay Tune,” specifically the punchy “stay tune in Tokyo Friday night” reminded him of the night-setting-in excitement found in one of Shibuya-kei pillar Pizzicato Five’s best numbers.
For about two years, Suchmos were maybe the most important outfit in Japan, at the very least the most cool for an entire new generation coming of age in Tokyo (or having to move their for work). Every buzzy band from 2016 to…well, kind of still today…moved at the same pace and focused on the same vaguely upbeat subject matter. Yogee New Waves, Never Young Beach, Lucky Tapes, Nulbarich and more enjoyed varying degrees of media love, but none matched the hype around Suchmos. Their 2017 album The Kids proved a hit, and tours turned into sold-out affairs (I caught one leg of this jaunt at Zepp Tokyo in Odaiba, and it was packed with fired-up fans). They played Kohaku Uta Gassen and generally morphed into a mainstream force dictating the sound and spirit of rock in Japan.
Every cycle eventually passes on, and so was the case with Suchmos. They didn’t help themselves in a few pivotal moments though — their biggest blunder might have been getting too close to NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster and very rarely in the same zip code as “cool,” during the 2018 World Cup. They provided the network’s coverage theme song (above), but also performed it at the half of the Japan-Colombia match which…whoops. Turns out soccer fans tuning in for the spectacle want soccer at the break, not Suchmos. I remember the reaction on social media being harsh, with folks just befuddled about why they had to watch Yonce pose instead of, like, a highlight package. I think this kneecapped their potential to a pretty big demographic
As did 2019 offering The Anyml, which found a band that hadn’t quite solidified their spot in the top tier getting wild, like pushing-ten-minutes-long chug sessions and just mournful slow-builds towards…something. It’s one of the most ambitious and interesting major label releases of the last decade, but also a genuine miss that hit the brakes on their ascent. Though maybe new waves in J-pop would have pushed them to the side even if that was a smash — post-Vocaloid artists creating more downbeat music reflecting the dour realities of life in the modern world rose up. The sunny future Suchmos peddled became a relic. They announced their hiatus recently.
Who knows what happens next, but for a four year period Suchmos were one of the most influential groups in Japan, both in terms of directing where music and trends went, and how it flourished. They didn’t vanish — in 2019, they held a sold-out show in Yokohama Stadium, their dream gig, giving them a fine accomplishment to cruise out on. And, for a certain generation of listeners, they gave them as cool a soundtrack to life in the city they could hope for.
Playlist: Kei Car To Chigasaki
It’s a crystal clear August Friday in 2018, no rain in the forecast and work miles away. You and the gang head to the car share lot, slide into a shiny N-Box and cruise towards the Kanagawa coast. This is economy luxury in the 21st centruy at its finest, and you’ve got the smoothest, most alive tunes to make the hour ride all the better.
Written by Patrick St. Michel (email@example.com)
Twitter — @mbmelodies