“Actually, I’ve been here for about 10 times,” proclaims Youhei, vocalist/guitarist of Japanese rock quartet [Alexandros]. The band has just arrived in London, but it doesn’t stop them from attending the party held for the artists and media the day before the first day of JAPAN NIGHT. “When I was small,” – here he gestures to show how short he was during his previous visits – “I was with my family. We used to come here often…”
Youhei’s connection with the UK was not only in the form of vacations. Later, during one of the two lives they would hold in London under the banner JAPAN NIGHT, he also states how his band is influenced by British bands, citing acts such as Primal Scream, Oasis, and Blur as his ‘teachers’. They also covered Oasis’ Wonderwall on the first day of the event, and Blur’s Song 2 on the second.
[Alexandros] must realise that now they are in a country which boasts of her own strong, thriving music scene; and making a breakthrough in the UK, where there are already a lot of talented artists, can be difficult. But in the last decade, more and more East Asian acts, from various genres, have been gaining ground in the UK. Now, [Alexandros], along with three other Japanese acts – OKAMOTO’S, Ling tosite sigure, and VAMPS – are going to offer their own music to the anticipating British public. To some of them, it will not be their first time ever gracing the stage in the UK, but to some others, it will be the very first time; yet bassist Hiroyuki has already set his eyes on Glastonbury.
Hiroyuki, who is loud and exuding a warm feel, casually pipes in when Youhei is talking with other people, and the wavy-haired bassist seems keen to chat about food and other things. “Mayflower? It’s down the road, isn’t it, just there,” he pointed to his left, trying to show the position of a Chinese restaurant which Youhei said he used to go to with his family when they went to London. When asked whether he’s been to London too, Hiroyuki says that he’s just been here once, but they passed by the restaurant on their way to the party venue. Youhei chuckles.
It’s just small bantering, but the band has many reasons to smile and laugh about lately. Things have been looking up for [Alexandros]. Prior to their partaking in JAPAN NIGHT in London, they have also participated in JAPAN NIGHT in Jakarta. (“It was a good live… The crowd was beautiful, I enjoyed it,” Youhei reminisces, with a smile, sounding rather proud.) And two weeks before flying to the UK, they performed to tens of thousands of people in LUNATIC FEST. alongside legendary acts such as LUNA SEA, GLAY, and BUCK-TICK. (Another band that also went to London for JAPAN NIGHT, Ling tosite sigure, was also one of the acts in the LUNA SEA-sponsored two-day festival.)
[Alexandros] is given two days to show off their might to the British audience, and they don’t waste the chance. Being the band who gets the middle slot in both nights, they actually have a tricky task to keep the mood of the audience aflame by providing a bridge connecting the first band with the last band (which happens to be veteran VAMPS). [Alexandros] must also be able to showcase the things that distinguish them from the other acts in order to leave a lasting impression – and they do it really well.
The four-piece offers solid performance, with feel-good upbeat tune that sounds fresh and immediately gets the crowd bobbing their head and jumping to the beat each time they start playing. Youhei is also really good in riling up the crowd – he always does that from the start, without missing a beat. He goes off the stage, reaches out to the front rows, and simply gets everyone to clap along, jump, and dance to their music. Sometimes he plays his guitar alongside guitarist Masaki, other times he just puts his guitar down and commandeers the mic like a boss. Although he has looked kind of reserved during the introduction party, on stage he just radiates cheeriness which definitely channels the refined upbeat vibe the band’s sound carries. He also teases the audience with jokes: “I just shook hands with Mr. HYDE, sorry fans!”, making them erupt into laughter and envious “Ooooh!” Other time, he introduces their song Dog3 as the song in the music video of which Satoyasu, their drummer, turned into a Godzilla. Not wanting to be outdone, the bassist Hiroyuki too, also takes to the mic and speaks about various things – for instance, his love for English food, “even though people often complain about it”.
All the cheerfulness and the jocular remarks are by no means just a distraction – because their tight playing surely proves that this band is not to be taken lightly. They glide effortlessly from songs with complex beat changes and dash of classic rock and metal influence like the afore-mentioned Dog3, to total feel-good crowd-pleasers like Wataridori.
Yohei repeatedly emphasizes how much he and the band love London and England, which is met with much cheers and applause. He also talks of how he can’t wait to come back, “Next year!” and hopefully at an even bigger venue – they surely aim high. “Higher!” Again Hiroyuki confidently pipes in, beaming.
People might think that all members of OKAMOTO’S are brothers, or maybe cousins, by the way they share surnames like the members of Kings of Leon (who are three brothers and one cousin). But the truth is that the members are more like The Ramones; they have taken up the same surname, write their names in katakana, and are brothers in rock ‘n roll. They hail from Tokyo, sprouting as a fresh-faced band made up of four young men who were not even in their 20’s. That was six years ago. Now, with six albums and a string of singles under their belt, OKAMOTO’S are ready to face the British audience. They have always wanted to perform in the UK, but “we didn’t expect it to be this year,” singer Shou told us.
Just like [Alexandros], OKAMOTO’S cite some British bands as their influence. But if [Alexandros]’ mentions bands of the 1990’s, OKAMOTO’S go further back in time. They are excited to be in London because they grew up listening to The Beatles (Daytripper is a favourite) since they were in their early teens. To the list, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks can be added too. And yes, they also played a tribute for another favourite British band of theirs during their JAPAN NIGHT live: The Who’s The Kids Are Alright.
Shou (vocals), Hama (bass), Kouki (guitar), and Reiji (drums) showcase nine of their songs that night. Introducing themselves very specifically as “OKAMOTO’S from Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan!”, they show off their brave rock and funk sound. They captivate the audience with both old songs (such as their debut single Yokubou wo sakebe!!), and their newer songs, like their latest single, Dance with You, managing to make the audience on the floor moving their body to the rhythm.
“London is a really special place,” declares Shou, who sports a very rock-n-roll hairdo, observed also on the heads of members of bands like Kasabian and Kings of Leon. Shou leaves an impression of a super artsy kid who always hangs out at the back of the class but not exactly an outcast – a confident person who just cares about the things he’s interested in, and wears whatever he wants, but by no means unfriendly when you approach him. The band must feel like what he says, after their triumphant first live ever in London. And Shou has another reason to be glad to be in London: the abundance of vinyl record shops that he wants to visit.
Tube strike haunted the first day of JAPAN NIGHT in London. It was the biggest London Underground walkout in more than a decade, claims the press. Transportation in London was a mess, and getting to the venue where JAPAN NIGHT and HYPER JAPAN were simultaneously held could be difficult. But fans still made their way there, to see their favourite Japanese musicians and idols, and to just generally have fun with Japanese culture, from the kawaii (represented by the likes of Heisei Kotohime, Honey Spice), to May.J and Eir Aoi, to the rock side (represented by the bands LOST ASH, VANIRU, and X JAPAN’s YOSHIKI and ToshI).
The place was The O2, an entertainment district by the River Thames. Although the two Japanese culture events were held together and in the same place, to get access to JAPAN NIGHT, attendees must buy a separate ticket from HYPER JAPAN ticket.
And now we are on the second day, with Ling tosite sigure as the first act. Their name is written as 凛として時雨 in Japanese, supposedly to be transliterated as Rin toshite shigure, but the band settled to stylize their name so. Probably the operator of the screen over the entrance to the indigo – JAPAN NIGHT’s exact venue – finds their name too difficult or to long to spell, so the screen only says “show start 19.00”, then shows the names of the next bands to perform ([Alexandros] at 20.05, VAMPS at 21.10). The day before, the screen displayed the names of the three bands in full.
The term ‘three-man unit’ won’t suffice, because Ling tosite sigure actually comprises of two men (TK on guitar/vocals and Pierre on drums) and one woman (345 on bass/vocals). Known for their hazy, distorted, brooding sound, they start off really explosively and intensely with the aptly titled Enigmatic Feeling, which manages to leave a lot of impact on the audience of the second day of JAPAN NIGHT. Some people at the front just start jumping vigorously from minute one; probably they are fans that got to knowing Ling tosite sigure through the original soundtrack of the anime Psycho Pass. No wonder they cheer happily when Ling tosite sigure opens their show with the song.
It is hard to define Ling tosite sigure’s sound. They show what probably music writers will term ‘influences’ of many bands, but at the same time, they don’t sound exactly like any other band. Greeting the audience, TK just sums it up quickly as ‘our crazy Japanese sound’. Their sound is quite a contrast with the members themselves; the lanky TK has been mostly quiet and stayed in the background during the introduction party, but on stage he just goes away with his guitar and produces many, many shrieks and growls. The bassist with a small stature, 345, provides an amazing rhythm support for him, filling the gaps between swift intricate precise beats of Pierre’s drums and TK’s high screech with full, equally precise and technically demanding bass play. She is amazing to watch on stage, so much power – while TK is more like the personification of the band’s sound, ‘frantic and intense’ with some sort of desperation that really delivers this nuance of fragility like their lyrics. And again, this band offers shrieks, a lot of shredding and shrieks.
They thus continue performing the setlist that’s filled with hard beats, guitar-shredding layered with distortion, and the combination of TK’s and 345’s high-pitched vocals that rally one after another. It’s Pierre though who takes the job of doing the MC, shouting arigatou a couple of times and a few words in English about JAPAN NIGHT. He asks to do ‘Japanese famous call and response’, which the crowd can’t get at first, but he just says “Yattemiyou!” (Let’s try to do it!) At first he tries it with B’z “I say ‘ultra soul’! You say ‘hi’!”, then continues with Perfume’s “Chocolate! Disco!” a few times. For the last one, he mutters really quickly, “Psychedelic violence crime of visual shock! WE ARE!” This the crowds understands very well, and they respond outloud, “X!” Pierre repeats it a few times, including the muttering, and with that he really melts the ice that has already been broken between the band and the audience.
Ling tosite sigure ends with Boukan, a slower, but more haunting song, reflecting a sense of loneliness and being lost, that ended with their typical intense, almost frantic, sound. At the end of the song as TK continuously shrieks into the mic, 345 heavily strums her last few finishing notes as she slowly drops down to the floor and takes off her bass, leaving it on the stage and leaves with Pierre. TK, almost as if he is in a trance, stays to play a short, frantic solo; his body heavily shakes and sways as he seemingly rips his guitar apart with his fingers. He too then leaves, without saying much. Like a loop, two words appear again in our minds at the end of their 8-song set, two words with which the band named the song that has opened their performance that night and explain what we feel after watching them: enigmatic feelings.
“London Dungeon,” HYDE answers with a smile when asked about his favourite spot in London. An answer that can be expected from the lead singer of vocal/guitar duo VAMPS, which constantly nurture the image of blood, sex, and rock ‘n roll – and call their fans BLOODSUCKERS. He’s been to the fancy haunted house/tourist attraction for five times, and he really enjoys it. He just laughs when we honestly tell him that we think the place is scary.
Despite the stage persona, HYDE impresses us as this person who’s wide-eyed, soft-spoken, and all gentle smiles. He doesn’t rush, nor does he cut his words; he ponders on his answers slowly, even though time is not in abundance during the party.
VAMPS have changed quite a bit since they were last in London, he explains enthusiastically. The VAMPS that we are going to see for two days in a row in JAPAN NIGHT will be a different VAMPS, one which has been affected much by their experience in their latest American tour. They can’t wait to show the new VAMPS to the London audience. But it’s not all about music: HYDE is looking forward to meeting a lot of cute girls in the gigs.
Coming from a very, very, very famous band, HYDE is popular among women, and has been so even before he joined the other half of VAMPS, guitarist K.A.Z., in their prolific partnership. With VAMPS, HYDE can push his sexy image even further, and he can really make women go crazy – and men too, we can confidently add. Some people in the audience have come from far away – France, Spain – to meet their object of affection. And they also span across different generations, as proven by a male fan shouting to HYDE, “My mum loves you!”, which catches the singer off guard. (At this declaration, HYDE raises an eyebrow, slowly glances back to Arly, the drummer, before deciding not to reply and launching into the next song.)
While HYDE sings and captivates the crowd teasingly, K.A.Z. mostly chooses to concentrate more on his guitar playing, ecstatically jumping, showing off his prowess with the instrument. He goes crazy too. For instance, during MIDNIGHT CELEBRATION on the second day, he stands near the edge of the stage while propping his guitar upright on the stage, holding the neck, and a few times strums it to change the note as the guitar blares a heavy and distorted sound. It really catches the attention of everyone standing on the floor at his side of the stage. At the end he slings his guitar back, and also throws his guitar in a few perfect effortless-looking spins around his torso.
And did we mention how HYDE sings and captivates the crowd teasingly? He runs around in circles; he lies on a sound monitor with head upside down facing the audience; he throws kisses to them; he jumps off the stage to get closer to them and let them touch him and he them; he simply makes them scream. The London crowd responds well – for instance, they just chant BANG! ON! STOMP! EVERYBODY! without being prompted by the band during REVOLUTION II that begins the encore. They also vehemently swirl their muffler towels in ANGEL TRIP.
VAMPS are HYDE and K.A.Z. but the musicians playing for the duo are not just accessories. They complete VAMPS with their musical skill and personality. Keyboardist JIN, for instance, stuns with his solo before VAMPIRE’S LOVE. Arly guards the rhythm with bassist Ju-ken from start (WORLD’S END) to finish (SEX, BLOOD, ROCK ‘N ROLL), through setlists with only a slight difference between day 1 and day 2.
On the second day, things get a little even wilder when someone throws a panty to the stage. It lands on Ju-ken’s side, but does not trigger a prompt response. Only later during encore does Ju-ken pick it up, swings it twice, stops, holds it at arm’s length, and looks at it comically, before holding it up above his head and then throwing it back to the crowd. It must be a sight quite familiar with the band, everywhere they go. It’s just rock ‘n roll.
VAMPS encompasses wildness, but also elegance. At the end of their performance, HYDE holds up a few stalks of roses, plucks them off, and in a gesture that speaks of both traits, showers the crowd with rose petals. “I love London. See you soon, thank you, good night!” HYDE concludes the second night – and thus, the whole event.
It was the second day of JAPAN NIGHT. It was going to be [Alexandros] last performance, before handing over the stage to VAMPS. Youhei held his mic-stand up, proclaiming “We are Alexandros!” as the band’s last note rang bright through the hall. But he was not satisfied. As the band was about to leave the stage, he once more asked the crowd to chant a part of Adventure once more, then shouted at the top of his lungs, “Aishiteru London!” before walking off, accompanied by loud cheers, applaud and big smiles from the crowd.
It was the only time he spoke in Japanese to the audience that night.
We’re sure many hearts during the two nights were won over, not only by [Alexandros], but also by the other acts in JAPAN NIGHT. And Youhei’s proclamation of love just serves to show the fondness the bands feel towards London too.
Reporting by CL in London