Confession: I was never eager to see my favourite group perform in concert. Since they were based in Japan, my brain’s immune system had resigned me to thinking we’d never cross paths unless I happened upon Asia at the exact time of a tour. Because they were electropop, I thought I’d rather listen in a club than a live venue. And because their shows are focused on dance rather than live instrumental or vocal performance, I figured the musician in me would turn up his nose.
And then I saw Perfume, face-to-face. I was transfixed. I had been so wrong.
Six years ago, a pro-drummer friend forwarded me a music video of three Japanese 20-year-olds singing a tune called “Polyrhythm”. The track would set the perfect tone for the cognitive dissonance that is J-Pop: simultaneously fun and lighthearted while also delivering wildly technical musicianship (the song’s chorus employs four time signatures at once). It’s a song that made Disney legend John Lasseter “fall in love with Perfume” and include their song on the Cars 2 official soundtrack. Heck, Marty Friedman of Megadeth even shredded out a cover version.
Disney, Japan, and Megadeth. Remember that thing I said about cognitive dissonance?
That album, Game, would go to #1 (as would their next 3), but Cars made for the only way to find an official US release. Relentless Googling always pointed to that foreign film “Perfume: Story of a Murderer”. Those of us seeking J-Pop had to settle with YouTube rips and the occasional subreddit. With their recent international label support they’re touring the world and presenting at Cannes, and here’s me, cold and ashamed, having my biggest hipster moment since I bought a pair of Warby Parker eyeglasses. Even with years of exceptional albums from Perfume and many other J-Artists, uptake in the States has been slow.
Some trivia: In 1982, Quincy Jones took notice of an overseas hit from a crew of J-Pop pioneers known as Yellow Magic Orchestra. He and his pal Michael Jackson recorded their own cover version but could not reach a royalties agreement with Japanese management. The song, “Behind the Mask”, would go unreleased for 29 years and was withheld from the greatest selling album of all time, Thriller.
If this freaky wiki fact were not so, maybe Japanese music in the US would have happened sooner. But the past is the past and here we are in 2014, a year where at least 6 major Japanese acts have sold out major venues in New York City. At last, they’re here.
But Who is Perfume?
There are frontstage and backstage components to this group. The faces of Perfume are three girls from Hiroshima who have been singing and dancing together since they were in junior high. Yuka, A~chan, and Nocchi share a bond “even stronger than a family.” At age 26, they already have more longevity than most artists.
Behind the scenes is superproducer Yasutaka Nakata, creating music like a kid who was forced through classical piano training and then decided to use his powers for dance music. He is also the force behind Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Capsule, and more. But what separates Nakata-san from most major songwriters is that he writes, produces, mixes, and masters everything he touches. Perfume says they were surprised to learn Nakata eats Korean BBQ and doesn’t run on batteries as his image might suggest. He’s made fans of popular producers like Porter Robinson and Ryan Hemsworth who are likely to help pull him into the American limelight.
When the girls sit in a vocal booth with Nakata, he asks them to sit down and sing “without emotion.” He then works with their voices in vocoding software and plays the trio like a synthesizer patch. This not only blends the girls into the electro vibe but also allows for “the listener to put emotions of their own into the song,” an opportunity that thousands sure as hell seized when standing in a venue with the performers themselves.
I was among the first to put my hands on the guardrail at the front of Hammerstein Ballroom. Moments later, a husband-and-purple-haired-wife pair who had waited outside overnight shoved against us. You know, like when you’re alone in an empty movie theater and someone asks to sit on your armrest. “This is the best moment of my wife’s life,” said the husband. The wife exploded into tears.
“You have to understand,” I noted to my guest. “They’ve waited six years for this.”
Flanking us on the left came a mob of older Japanese men and women in matching t-shirts and bandanas. Three of them tripped and fell while scrambling toward us. “Please, do you mind if we keep this position?” they asked. A large Long-Island man stepped up: “I have steel-toed boots, don’t worry if you step on me.” A teenager rolled up to my left shoulder. “I’ll protect you from anyone pushing!” he assured me. Usually, the front row of an electronic music show is a great way to fulfill a death wish. But this is J-Pop, linked to Japan’s cultural norm of not causing trouble unto others. It keeps the Tokyo subway running smoothly just as it makes concerts positive and familial experiences.
I had heard that Nakata wrote the new album Level3 specifically to rock live arenas It only took one song until I understood why. Part of the man’s genius is his inclusion of epic instrumental introductions to his albums, which I thought had gone the way of the Dodo (or you know, the CD). This time, the intro is a synthesized journey through space entitled “Enter the Sphere.” In another life, it could have replaced Daft Punk’s work on the Tron soundtrack. If you’re gonna open a show with a laser light show, this is the song.
Nakata’s hardness continues as we learn he has remixed the classics for the tour to keep the dynamic high. The relaxed moments were the talkbacks with the audience – a common theme at J-Pop shows. The girls shined, chatting the crowd up without polish and sharing their undying love for New York bagels (“When I say bagels, you say YEAH!”). They complained about the cold weather to set up a sketch based on Frozen. The bilingual fan selected to play translator probably had the night of her life. The connection was palpable.
I’d been mesmerized since interviewing Perfume earlier that day. A~chan seized a pause in questioning to giggle and interrupted to note that my “smile was soft and sweet.” I melted. I haven’t had a clear thought since, except for one daydream where I learn Japanese and show up just in time for Christmas like Colin Firth in Love Actually. Just kidding. Maybe.
Being there, live-in-concert, helped me find something I didn’t know I was missing. In my focus on the electronic music, I’d forgotten about the human component that made people love Perfume. I was falling for them all over again.
The band’s final encore came and we noticed A~chan was crying. Then the others. All of them, crying. “Do you know us? I am surprised.” They’d found something they didn’t know they had: a legion of American fans, against all odds, at their first New York show.