One-On-One: the pillows and noodles
It's safe to say that the pillows and noodles played the biggest roles in the creation of our show No Borders No Race. After first hearing the pillows in the iconic anime series FLCL in 2003, and seeing noodles play the Knitting Factory in New York City back in 2005, I knew that there was something special and unique that the Japanese music scene was showcasing. It's because of their sound that I dove head-first into the bands they were associated with, as well as other Japanese artists who managed to graze my ear drums. And somewhere along that line, an obsession to listen to all things J-POP and J-ROCK evolved into a passion for promoting Japan's vast and beautiful music scene.
Fifteen years later, and FLCL has returned with two new seasons, with the pillows back to showcase its rock 'n' roll style as its soundtrack once again. With the spotlight back on the trio of Sawao Yamanaka, Yoshiaki Manabe, and Shinichiro Sato, the pillows have decided to reclaim their rock 'n' roll throne with a small US tour, with its first stop tomorrow in Boston at a sold-out gig at the Royale. Of course, they're once again bringing along noodles, who are currently promoting last year's fantastic album Metaltic Nocturne. Via email and assistance from BAD MUSIC GROUP's Chie Arai, I had the opportunity to chat with both bands about their sound, inspiration, latest recordings, and their return Stateside!
(questions answered by vocalist/guitarist yoko)
The two of you have been playing together for over 25 years. Looking back, how has noodles evolved from the band it started out as to the band you have become?
I don't really feel that we have made much evolution. Since we've started to play together, the music that we want to play and the worldview that we are pursuing basically have not changed. I feel that we are improving a bit of the ability to arrange songs.
Where do you often find your inspiration for your music?
It is roots music like I often listened to when I was a child. And also when I listen to various good music from all over the world, I do feel that I want to write good songs.
Back in 2006, you helmed the soundtrack to the Japanese LGBT indie film Love My Life. What was it about its story that made you wish to take part in it, and do you feel that the film's overall message still stands true today?
Actually, I had decided to participate the project because I was attracted by the enthusiasm of the producer rather than the contents of the story. There are various ways of life in this world, and I affirm any shape and style that is free.
You released your latest record Metaltic Nocturne last June. How do you describe the overall theme of the record?
The theme is "Nocturne made by noodles," and I stuffed the album full of the "sadness" that we've been pursuing since we started to play.
How would you compare Metaltic Nocturne -- your most recent album -- to your very first album release The Gravity Thief?
Nothing has changed, such as theme, worldview, flowing mood. But, the lyrics have changed a lot. It is embarrassing to listen to the first album now.
You are about to embark on your first US tour in awhile with your friends the pillows. Is there something you'd like to achieve in America this time around that you didn't in the past?
Even if I have poor English skills I'm willing to communicate you a lot. Also, I'd like to have a show that would be memorable to myself as well as the audience.
Thus far, what has been the most memorable moment of touring outside of Japan?
Recording in San Francisco in 2012 was the most impressive. Although we are not a very successful super band, when recording overseas, I can have extraordinary days. I think that is happy and special.
A couple of years ago, you, the pillows’ Sawao Yamanaka, and Radio Caroline's Kusube Shinya formed a new side project called Casablanca. What inspired the three of you to start this new band, and how do you feel it's different from all of your other projects?
I wanted to write and compose music together with Sawao someday, and both of our bands were over 20 years, so I wanted to spend more and more time with music. My heart began to sprout, and we started the band with a natural flow. Although my part is vocals in Casablanca, I feel it's a vocal's band, and that is different from noodles.
After the US tour, what's next for noodles?
We'll start making a new album. This will be the first album after the members became just the two of us. I have a feeling that it'll be the best masterpiece filled with various thoughts.
Lastly, as we've asked all of our musical guests, if you found yourself stuck in a deserted island, which three albums would you like to have on you to keep yourself sane until your imminent rescue, and why?
1. American Graffiti Soundtrack: This is my roots album. I can settle in any situation with Oldies.
2. Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown: Because I want to listen to "Last Night on Earth" under a star‐studded sky.
3. GROUPLOVE - Never Trust a Happy Song: This is a masterpiece that I could listen to endlessly.
the pillows Interview
(questions answered by vocalist/guitarist Sawao Yamanaka)
First off, our J-POP music show No Borders No Race wouldn't have existed if I hadn't first heard your music fifteen years ago. How often do you find the pillows acting as the gateway to the Japanese music scene for foreigners, and how do you feel about being considered the godfathers of Japanese rock over here?
I've never found that. I didn't know that the pillows acts as the gateway!? And the godfather? Really!?? That's too amazing. Anyways, I like the film The Godfather and also Al Pacino and De Niro. I'm so glad that you value us so high, but we are very nice to our younger friends and we aren’t like "the boss".
Our Podcast show title comes from your quote, "I believe good music has no borders, no race, and is timeless," which you said at the Knitting Factory gig in New York City back in 2005. Do you feel this still rings true?
I still believe so. It would be more fun if I could speak English well. I'd like you to know that there are many other good bands in Japan. noodles, syurispeiloff, THE BOHEMIANS,which belong to my label Delicious Label, every band is unique and cool.
When I was starting to buy your albums, I was taken aback by the pre-Please Mister Lostman sound of the pillows, which is more aligned with smooth jazz and 60s-styled pop. What made you switch gears and change it up to the more rocking pillows sound we've come to know you for?
Originally, when we started play as the pillows, it was a rock sound. About four years later, I had a lot of respect for Paul Weller and Style Council, and I wanted to do something new, and changed the mood of the band by taking in jazz and soul music. But after about three years I didn't feel it was as fun, so we went back to the rock 'n' roll and British Rock sound that I originally liked. It was the rock 'n' roll and punk rock that I was interested in the most during my youth, so we tried a lot, but we got back to the sound that we wanted for ourselves.
You have made an astonishing 21 albums in the 29 years you've been together. How do you guys manage to keep both the sound and attitude that has made each album as true to your motif as it can?
I write a lot of songs anyway. I love writing. Regardless of the deadline, I write freely and steadily. I'll start recording with members whether they will or won't. I have a clear plan for a song, so I'll make a specific request and finish up. I have never met a person who likes composing music more than I do. I don't know what the other members think about this. For the pillows' music, it is always following what I decide, so I've not really cared about what the other two think.
Where does most of your song inspiration come from, and how do you decide whether it's a pillows song, a Predators track, or even something that's more for a solo work?
The Pixies, The Breeders, and many other adoring musicians simply affected me. When I touch the guitar, there are many times where I could finish writing, like it was leading me from the music. It's not a special feeling. [I write] masterpieces for the pillows. A song that I enjoy playing it with any way is for The Predators. For solo, that is for when I feel like doing solo work sometimes.
As we're a Boston-based site, we're very happy about your nods to our hometown bands The Pixies and The Breeders. Have you yet to cross paths with either group?
I only can say I've met the members of The Breeders. I met them when noodles played as an opening act on their Japan tour. They were very friendly and nice people. I've got an autograph, and it is my treasure.
The anime FLCL was a breakout hit in America, which gave you a dose of international fame & success. However, I find it funny that you were kinda hesitant at first to take part in the original series. What made you change your mind, and what would you say now to your younger selves that almost said no?
It was a time when I was getting sick of the way to promote the pillows was with a theme song for a TV program or a commercial etc. I had a feeling that something is wrong with that way for a rock band at that time. Also I didn't know the world of animation at all. However, it was not a story that the promoter politically picked, I heard that the director Mr. Tsurumaki says "I like the pillows", and then I want to take this offer! I thought. If it fits to our style, we would say yes for an official reason like "I like the pillows". Thanks to FLCL, an unimaginable number of people came to like the pillows. So I think, honestly I shouldn’t have declined the offer. I was about to miss a great opportunity.
Returning to FLCL for Season 2 & 3 has been a great way for fans to discover more of your musical catalog, especially the works from Thank you, my twilight, Penalty Life, and MY FOOT. Do you feel that -- like in the first season -- these new episodes have been able to capture the excitement and vibe of those tracks?
I haven't felt it yet. But it was just simply a pleasure to record those songs now with better sound. I was given a good opportunity to redo the reflection point that I regretted.
You've written two new songs for Seasons 2 & 3, "Spiky Seeds" and "Star Overhead." How do these songs fit both into the world of FLCL and to what the pillows stand for as both musicians and people?
I first wrote "Star overhead". I made a hypothetical story that the hero Naota has grown up and looking back, thinking about Haruko. However, the sound was standard, I liked it but I thought it might be a bit weak for the theme song of FLCL. Then I laid emphasis on sound more than lyrics. I thought alternative rock taste that had never been popular would fit, and composed "Spiky Seeds". I felt it was comfortable. Then, the theme song for FLCL Alternative, I was getting lost, so I asked the director what kind of song he would expect. When I had got his request, "Star overhead" might be perfect? I thought, and gave them to listen to this song and I got his reply: "This is the song." It was a miraculous flow. Maybe the pillows fits for FLCL.
This will be your first US Tour in awhile, with many of those shows selling out and being moved to bigger venues. What are you hoping to accomplish this time that you hadn't in the past?
There aren't things like that. The band does the same thing anytime, anywhere when we go up to the stage. I want to play as always, and want you to like us more.
What is the meaning behind the tour name "Mono Me Your Sun"?
Actually, this is a Japanese word "mono-mi-yu-san". I named it because the pronunciation is like an English word. It means like sightseeing. This is the biggest US tour ever for us, so I joked around with a relaxing name.
You're once again bringing your friends & labelmates noodles along for this tour. How do you describe the camaraderie between the two bands, and what keeps both bands feeling in synch with one another?
It was because of noodles that I came to like US alternative rock. I was listening to only UK rock before that time. 20 years ago, as soon as I met them, I became a big fan of noodles, and I started Delicious Label because I wanted to put them out to the world! noodles had gone ahead to tour the US, and later they brought us, the pillows. I am still a big fan and I feel it's a much stronger friendship than any other bands [we're associated with].
Next year will mark the pillows' 30th anniversary. Do you have any big plans yet to celebrate that occasion?
We have! But it seems to still be a secret...
You have accomplished a lot in the three decades the pillows have been together, but is there something you've yet to achieve musically that you'd like to do next?
I'd like to continue writing new songs that I like. That's all.
Do you ever hope to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
I've never imagined we would. I don't like being judged by someone else, and we have neither music nor human nature that should be commended. I've always been getting my own way for a band. It is a feeling, like keeping on a journey to meet people and having a deep sympathy and similar sense. I have met them far enough.
To all of your fans all over the world, what sort of message would you like to send out to them?
I'm so glad that you are interested like the music of a band from a small country like Japan, who can't even speak English well. Thank you. Rock and roll has been my favorite since I was a little boy. I was a strange person at school. I've done my best only with the band. It is a strange feeling that I seem to have friends from all over the world. I am happy.
Lastly, if you found yourself stuck in a deserted island, which three albums would you like to have on you to keep yourself sane until your imminent rescue, and why?
1. Simon & Garfunkel - The Sound of Silence: I got to know them when I was a kid, and I've been listening to this album for a longest time, so I can settle down. I must have this.
2. The Breeders - Last Splash: This is my most favorite album of my most favorite band in the world, so it can't be removed.
3. noodles - Metaltic Nocturne: It's a masterpiece. There are many favorite noodles albums, but among them, this is the best masterpiece. If I was on a deserted island, I absolutely can't remove noodles.
Special thanks to Audrey Kimura of Benten Label and Chia Arai of BAD MUSIC GROUP for making these interviews happen! For more information on the pillows and noodles' US tour, visit the official Adult Swim Tour Page website!