When the Tokyo techno-rock band Boom Boom Satellites performs tonight at Nation, the novelty will be that Japanese acts are no longer such a novelty. Tokyo pastiche-rocker Cornelius played at the 9:30 club last month, and Osaka noise-chant group the Boredoms were there in June.
It seems that J-pop, as it's labeled in the music superstores of Tokyo's bustling Shibuya youth culture district, has arrived.
But has it really? Cornelius played to a full house, but that was because he was on a bill with such better-known Anglo-American rockers as Flaming Lips, Sebadoh and Robyn Hitchcock. When he performed last year at the Black Cat, the crowd was sparse. The turnout wasn't much more impressive when Kahimi Karie, a Paris-based Japanese singer who is Cornelius's ex-girlfriend, appeared at the same club a few weeks earlier. In fact, the biggest turnout for a Japanese act in Washington last year was for Dreams Come True, a mainstream rhythm-and-blues-based band that drew a predominantly Japanese audience--and whose American album promptly stiffed.
Of course, what Americans might deem typically Japanese actually represents a small sampling of various subgenres. Shonen Knife, one of the first Japanese bands to develop an American following, plays bouncy pop-punk. Cornelius and Pizzicato Five, whose music is released in the United States by New York indie-rock label Matador, practice genre-bending aural collage. The Boredoms' music is noisy, primal and tumultuously free-form. Guitar Wolf, another Matador act, plays clamorous punkabilly in the tradition of the Cramps. Boom Boom Satellites give techno a rock swagger, which has earned the band comparisons to Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers.
None of these have anything to do with the mainstream J-pop that is almost never heard in the States. A 1997 U.S. sampler of Japanese chart hits, "Modern Tokyo Connection, Vol. 1," had about as good a shot at stateside popularity as the bean paste doughnuts sold at Japanese Dunkin' Donuts outlets.
Practitioners of the various styles don't necessarily celebrate one another's work. "I think that we are very separate from Pizzicato Five and Cornelius," says Boom Boom Satellites bassist-programmer Masayuki Nakano, speaking via a translator. "They're great at bringing influences from various musical genres and putting them together in a cute Japanese way. What we try to do is more direct. The sound that comes out of our instruments is what it is."
Since he presides over his own custom label, Trattoria, Cornelius is perhaps the Shibuya scene's most influential musician. The boyish 30-year-old, whose given name is Keigo Oyamada and whose stage name comes from "The Planet of the Apes," traces his eclecticism to growing up in media-saturated Tokyo, but also to being one of the few kids in his high school who could play guitar. "Luckily, there was a lack of guitarists but loads of bands," he explains by e-mail. "I played in a lot of bands doing a lot of styles."
Still, Cornelius's wide-ranging taste was forged before that. His cryptic account of his musical education goes like this: "TV theme songs as well as the special-effects sounds during fight scenes or space adventures. Animation sounds and action-hero sounds. Kiss on TV. Eclipsed with monsters, etc., on Japanese TV. Queen and Rainbow during junior high. First hit chart music and hard rock, then punk and new wave."
Today he claims Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys (for "sound production, harmony and chord structure") and Michael Jackson (for "entertainment and show") as principal inspirations.
Cornelius still plays guitar, but he shifted his emphasis to digital samplers in the early '90s, while he was a member of the band Flipper's Guitar. "I thought hip-hop style/technique fit what I see and hear in my head," he explains. "I try to capture the different moments of feeling. Feeling happy, sad, awkward, awful, ecstatic. Different moods, different ways of expression, twisted, straight. People have said the music is like an encyclopedia of music in the 20th century."
Encyclopedic music is trendy in certain circles, but art rock's post-grunge explorations have ceded the charts to a new crop of producers who specialize in back-to-basics pop: simple beats, simple tunes, simple sentiments. This music doesn't necessarily have to be made in the United States, but it does require songwriters--like the Swedish brain trust behind the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears--who can feign sincerity in English. Ironically, such Japanese musicians as Cornelius and Boom Boom Satellites sing mostly in English, but aren't comfortable enough in the language to attempt an interview without a translator.
"We didn't want to limit ourselves to Japan only. Looking at the world, English is understood by the most people," explains Nakano of the English lyrics on his band's new Epic album, "Out Loud." When he and guitarist-vocalist Michiyuki Kawashima founded Boom Boom Satellites as college students almost a decade ago, "We wanted to be able to communicate to as many people as we could. So English was the natural choice."
Away from the top of the pops, electronic dance music serves as a new global musical language. Beat-heavy music with few, if any, vocals reverberates from Moscow to London to Rio de Janeiro and on to Tokyo, which Nakano says "has a massive club scene."
In this demimonde, Japanese musicians' interest in sheer sound and recombinant dance-pop-lounge-rock is perfectly intelligible. Indeed, Boom Boom Satellites' "Dub Me Crazy" was a dance club sensation in both Japan and Europe.
"I believe that electronic music has the potential, and actually is, connecting people who don't have to communicate by words, who can communicate by the vibe of the song," says Nakano. "I think that's an awesome power."
That may be as much power as Japanese pop musicians can expect to achieve in the United States, yet Nakano doesn't want to limit his band's possibilities. "At the beginning we were more influenced by club music, but now we're more rock-oriented," he says. "On our next album, we want to do more songs with lyrics."
CAPTION: Boom Boom Satellites perform at Nation tonight.