In 2007, Julian Cope brought classic Japanese rock ’n’ roll to the indie literati’s attention with Japrocksampler—an astute, awkwardly named analysis of early Japanese rock music and the cultural revolution it helped precipitate. Groups like Flower Travellin’ Band and Speed, Glue & Shinki aren’t exactly household names in America, but they’re respected immensely by those who know.
Comparatively, not a ton has been written—in English, at least—about contemporary Japanese rock. This is probably because rock ’n’ roll in Japan, like everywhere else, has been supplanted by other, newer forms of pop music.
“[Rock music is favored] mostly by people with high antennas, but it’s never ranked high in the hit chart,” Sawao Yamanaka, the guitarist and lead singer for Japanese rock band the Pillows, tells me over email. “In Japan, I believe dance music is much more popular.”
Moreover, rock bands from Japan have to try twice as hard as their western counterparts because they’re competing with an inherent bias. As much as we fetishize diversity in the arts, many Americans still have a subconscious tendency to dismiss music performed in a language other than English as second-rate. Yamanaka concurs: “Before one can accept and appreciate [our music], it’s probably important that they accept Japanese culture. I personally feel that it is very difficult for Japan’s orthodox pop music to do well outside of Japan.”
Despite these barriers, the Pillows have achieved bona fide cult status in the US. The band’s Portland show was originally scheduled for the Hawthorne Theatre, but was moved to the Crystal Ballroom after it sold out almost instantly. (This relocated show is one of only two dates on their current tour that isn’t already sold out.) That the Pillows have been able to maintain this degree of popularity is all the more impressive considering they haven’t exactly embraced the streaming age; currently, none of their albums are available on Spotify (unless you have a Japanese account), which means you can either import the band’s CDs or endure low-quality YouTube streams.
Most American listeners were exposed to the Pillows through the band’s work scoring the hit Adult Swim anime show FLCL. The Pillows’ music is an integral part of the show—their butterfly-inducing, sugar-high power-pop underscores FLCL’s coming-of-age pathos in a way stock background music never could. (The Pillows’ songs in the new season of FLCL are used to a similar effect.)
Many of the songs on the FLCL soundtrack—principally, “Last Dinosaur,” “Little Busters,” and ending theme “Ride on Shooting Star”—have become the band’s de facto hits. But they also barely scratch the surface, considering the Pillows’ daunting discography includes more than 20 LPs and several smaller releases. Casual fans may be surprised to learn that their earlier releases bear little resemblance to the jagged, mid-fi melodic rock the band is commonly associated with. Early singles like 1994’s “Daydream Wonder” (whose music video features Yamanaka sporting a full-on Jason Mraz getup years before “Wordplay” would ruin music forever) and 1995’s “Girlfriend” are more Prefab Sprout than early Who. (Yamanaka actually cites tourmates Noodles as being a big influence on the band’s tilt toward loud guitar-pop.)
It’s unlikely the Pillows will do much digging through their extensive and stylistically varied back catalog on this tour. After all, this is partially an Adult Swim-sponsored press junket for the new season of FLCL. “The songs you hear in FLCL are [mainly alternative rock], so we feel that’s what the fans are expecting,” Yamanaka says. But they’re not bitter or pandering—the Pillows value their fans and aim to please, a trait that seems positively alien in an industry plagued by feigned indifference.
“I feel grateful that the Pillows are well-received by fans outside of Japan,” Yamanaka says. “We’re not that much [more popular] in Japan, but I’m pretty happy with where we are right now.”