Perfume are Poised to Make It in America

Patrick St. Michel

By Patrick St. Michel

on 11.24.14 in Features

The three members of the Japanese pop group Perfume didn’t expect much when they traveled to the United States for the first time together in 2011. The trio of Yuka Kashino, Ayaka Nishiwaki and Ayano Omoto had become staples at home, but hadn’t made a mark outside Japan until Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter selected one of their songs to appear on the soundtrack of his Cars 2. They were featured in a brief scene set in an auto-centric version of Tokyo, and Lasseter invited the group to the premier of the movie in Hollywood.

‘Perfume are the highest-profile J-pop act to attempt to cross over in a decade, and they hope to succeed where so many others have failed.’

“We didn’t expect anyone to know who we were,” Kashino, nicknamed Kashiyuka, says. “We were saying to one another, ‘Let’s be brave,’ and then stepped out onto the red carpet. But then people started calling out our names, and complimented our outfits. We were really surprised.”

“America was the turning point of our international career,” Nishiwaki, known as A-chan, adds. The exposure from the trip helped them book tours around Asia and Europe, yet ironically it took them three years to finally lock down shows in the United States.

Those recently completed U.S. dates — a November 9 show in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Palladium and a sold-out gig on Nov. 15 at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom — were part of Perfume’s third world tour, which also featured return trips to Taipei, Singapore and London. And that’s just one component of their international expansion: Their 2013 album Level3 was re-released worldwide by U.S. imprint Astralwerks, while the group members recently made a cameo in American band OK Go’s video for “I Won’t Let You Down.”

Even if their name recognition has come up wanting, Perfume’s music has been influencing Western artists for years now. Produced by Yasutaka Nakata (who is also the force behind the songs of Harajuku-model-turned-pop-star-turned-YouTube-hit Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), their songs are maximalist blasts of synthesizers and digital beats, with the voices of the three singers doused in Auto-tune and other effects. It’s overproduced, but purposefully so, in a way where everything clicks together. And, most impressively, despite being commonly described as “robotic,” by representatives at their label Universal Music (and by playing that up in music videos), Perfume’s music radiates joyful emotion out of its computer core. Their 2009 single “One Room Disco” is a flurry of synthesizers and Auto-tune-glazed vocals, and yet a very human warmth shines through. Nakata’s production has inspired EDM producers such as Porter Robinson and Madeon, wonky Internet track makers such as PC Music head A.G. Cook (who has included Perfume’s music in mixes he’s made), and Brooklyn-based band Passion Pit.

“I’m pretty sure I was listening to [Nakata project] Capsule every day during the making of our debut album Manners,” Michael Angelakos, lead singer of Passion Pit says over email. “And in a lot of the pop production I do today, I try to see how much I can get away with, and most of my left-of-center approaches are at least influenced by Nakata’s energy.”

“Musically, it’s as euphoric and exciting as anything else you’ll hear in the world it essentially lives in,” Angelakos adds. “If I’m making electro-pop, I’m always channeling some Nakata. I have been doing so since I started making electro-pop on a more regular basis.”

Now, Perfume hope to drum up the same sort of recognition they have among artists with audiences. This has been long been the unattainable goal for Japanese pop artists. Kyu Sakamoto, reached number one on the Billboard charts in 1963 with “Ue o Muite Arukou,” but it was all downhill after that. The duo Pink Lady tried to break into the American disco market in the late ‘70s, but ended up starring in what many critics consider one of the worst network television shows ever. Popular ‘90s pair Puffy gained some recognition in the 2000s in North America — as cartoon characters. Ten years ago, Hikaru Utada — responsible for the best-selling album in Asian music history — teamed up with American producers such as Timbaland and The Neptunes to try to break into America. She fizzled out. Perfume are the highest-profile J-pop act to try in a decade, and they hope to succeed where so many others have failed.

‘We once performed in the parking lot of a bowling alley, and once in the middle of a typhoon. — Ayaka Nishiwaki, Perfume’

Nishiwaki and Kashino formed the group in 2000 while studying at the Actor’s School Hiroshima, along with classmate Yuka Kawashima. They each had the Japanese character for “fragrance” in their names, so they chose the name Perfume and stuck with it even after Kawashima left the school the following year, before the trio could even debut. Nishiwaki sought out a replacement, and found Omoto (nicknamed Nocchi), a singer from the school’s advanced voice class. Perfume’s line-up was cemented.

The group debuted in 2002 with a single only released in the city of Hiroshima, “Omajinai Perori,” and would release one more local song before graduating from the Actor’s School a year later and moving to Tokyo. The three tried to win over fans wherever they could.

“We used to hand out flyers we made outside of supermarkets, to grandmas and grandpas,” Nishiwaki says. “We once performed in the parking lot of a bowling alley, and once in the middle of a typhoon.” Their perseverance, though, didn’t pay off, and the group was given one last chance to turn things around or be disbanded.

“We had basically released three debut singles — one in Hiroshima, one on an indie label and then one on a major — and we thought there was no going back. If the third one didn’t sell, the label told us ‘Well, this will have been a good memory, right?’” Omoto says.

What happened next ended up being a far better memory. Their single “Chocolate Disco” led to them scoring a spot in a nationally broadcast recycling campaign, which gave them all the exposure they’d need. Perfume, months earlier on the verge of being scrapped, suddenly shot up to the upper echelons of Japanese pop music. Their 2008 debut album Game cemented their position, and all their subsequent releases have sold as well. Today, they can sell out baseball domes, and the three members of the group are regulars on popular TV shows and in advertising campaigns. They’ve become a household name in Japan.

The group’s sudden climb to the top made for a great underdog story, but it also signaled a change — arguably the last major change — in Japanese pop music. Perfume’s buzzy, grandstanding music sounded like nothing else on the Japanese charts. At that time, the market was clogged with clean-cut boy bands such as Arashi, Kat-Tun and NEWS, who made near-identical mid-tempo pop and were all managed by the same talent agency, Johnny and Associates, who were more interested in getting their performers in as many TV shows and movies as possible. They had also overseen artists releasing same-sounding music since the ‘90s. Besides boy bands, long-running rock groups such as B’z and Mr. Children kept chugging along and moving thousands of units with a straight-ahead rock approach that hadn’t changed since they started nearly two decades prior. J-pop felt stuck in the past, while Perfume hurtled forward.

Game was the first “techno-pop” album to go to number one in Japan since pioneers of the genre Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1983 LP Naughty Boys. That’s an especially appropriate torch passing, as Nakata was heavily influenced by YMO, a group who made electronic music mainstream in Japan and who influenced many in America’s then-burgeoning hip-hop and dance communities. Perfume represented an updated, more emotional take on their sound.

“Perfume, at least to me, represents a hyper-modern take on girl groups that flooded the market in the ’90s, and now he’s taking that and spinning it in such a unique way that I find simply irresistible,” Angelakos says. “I’ve always just loved the music, but conceptually it manages to be both meticulously executed and really fun.”

‘Nakata’s music made me embrace the potential of pop in electronic music fully. I’d loved stuff by Daft Punk and Skrillex and many others, but it had never connected with me on such a deeply personal level as when I’d heard that music. — Peter Berkman, Anamanaguchi’

One of the most recent examples of Perfume’s subtle reach into America comes in the form of a Target ad featuring a song called “Pop It,” by American 8-bit-loving band Anamanaguchi. “Nakata’s music made me embrace the potential of pop in electronic music fully,” Peter Berkman, Anamanaguchi’s guitarist, says. “I’d loved stuff by Daft Punk and Skrillex and many others, but it had never connected with me on such a deeply personal level as when I’d heard that music. ‘Pop It’ definitely exists directly because of Nakata.”

His band also had an opportunity few other Western outfits have had — Anamanaguchi virtually opened for Perfume at the 2013 Ultra Korea music festival in Seoul. “I remember how many bugs there were on the stage,” Berkman says. “It was very distracting during our set and I was worried for them! They powered through it — standing perfectly still at times as if there were no bugs at all — they gave a perfect performance that had the crowd in awe.” When mentioning the Seoul show to Perfume, the first thing all three members remember is “the bugs! So many bugs,” many of which were flying into their mouths.

Bugs or not, Perfume’s live show has become one of their strongest selling points in 2014. Nakata receives a lot of credit for the group’s success due to his production work, but the members of the unit have also become some of the best dancers in J-pop today.
They’ve also become known for their dizzying visuals. Perfume’s biggest concerts feature giant set pieces and hi-tech segments, and they’ve displayed some of their most cutting-edge approaches to a show in Cannes, France. Those backdrops, though, will be scaled down for their international shows, which take place in more intimate halls.

“In a big venue, we don’t have to look at each and every person in the audience to see their reaction, we can just do our own thing on stage,” Nishiwaki says. “But it’s the other way around in smaller places. We are really nervous in those situations, but when we get a good reaction it makes us really happy.”

They’ve been greeted by other surprises at shows outside Japan, though. “For the encores during the European tour, we listed three songs that we had heard were popular in the EU. So we had the audience choose one,” Kashino says. “When we called out a song that wasn’t some fans’ choice, they started booing! That never happens in Japan. We really felt the enthusiasm from them.”

The members of the group also share fond memories of their first trip to L.A., beyond red-carpet recognition. “We were able to go shopping, without having to hide our faces,” Kashino says. “And we went to supermarkets, like Walgreens, everyday to buy frozen food and make up. It was so cheap!”

“We saw a squirrel in the middle of the city,” Nishiwaki adds. “We were really surprised.”

A month before heading back to Los Angeles, Perfume went to a house tucked away from the bright lights of the capital’s downtown every day to lock down the choreography for their world tour. It’s the same building the trio lived in over 10 years ago when they first left their hometown of Hiroshima to make it as pop stars, and a residence where an agency-installed web camera recorded them goofing around for fans at home.

“We start by preparing the set list, though with places we go to for the first time, we already know what we want to perform,” Omoto says, the only member that day wearing rehearsal-ready clothes — sweatpants and a Woody Woodpecker t-shirt.

Perfume appeared confident about their first-ever American dates, but history isn’t working in their favor. While J-pop performers such as the colorful Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and the heavy-metal-meets-cutesy-pop trio Babymetal have grabbed attention from American web sites and been able to stage shows Stateside, a lot of the focus on them has been of the “weird Japan” variety — earnest pockets of fans surrounded by voices refusing to engage with Japanese pop culture in favor of painting it as “zany.” Perfume have to also battle this perception of J-pop to try to make inroads internationally.

‘American’s have this weird idea of Japan that’s hard to really articulate because, to put it bluntly, it’s a bit xenophobic. Mass media has generally depicted Japanese culture as impenetrable and alienating.
— Michael Angelakos, Passion Pit’

“In my opinion, American’s have this weird idea of Japan that’s hard to really articulate because, to put it bluntly, it’s a bit xenophobic. Mass media has generally depicted Japanese culture as impenetrable and alienating,” Angelakos says.

“One of the reasons we are going out to the world is to tell other countries what’s good about Japan,” Nishiwaki says. Whereas older crossover bids from Pink Lady and Utada saw the singers switch to English in order to win over American audiences, the members of Perfume will stick to their mother tongue when it comes to performing. “We’ll try to speak English between songs,” Nishiwaki says. “But singing in Japanese during these shows is very intentional; we want to share the uniqueness of the language.”

“I’m still trying to learn a little English,” Omoto says with a laugh.

At their Los Angeles show, the group appeared to have no problem connecting with the audience despite a potential language gap. The songs were, as promised, sung in Japanese, while the group’s between-tune banter connected, in particular a segment where Nishiwaki lead the crowd in chanting the word “cheeseburger” after shouting out the region’s famous In-N-Out Burger chain. The New York show, which sold-out quickly, went as smoothly, with Perfume shouting out bagels and cupcakes. Both legs also saw the group giving the popular song “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen a go…if even for just a few seconds.

These recent American shows are just Perfume’s first venture into the American market — several times during the interview, the group express hope of playing a festival in the States sometime in the near future. But first, they want to see how they are received in the states. Nishiwaki says that in Japan, listeners are often divided on how to classify the group, either as pop idols or more serious artists. “But we don’t have to fit into one of those categories. We want to be a genreless, borderless group. I’m interested how Americans will interpret us.”

“Language is very, very important,” Kashino says. “But the music really overcomes all of that.”