Phantoms of Pop: Shintaro Sakamoto and Yura Yura Teikoku

Hua Hsu

By Hua Hsu

on 10.01.12 in Spotlights

Musicians aren’t always the best interlocutors of their own work, but this is how Shintaro Sakamoto describes the vision that animated his solo debut to Bowlegs, How to Live With a Phantom: “An obscure party band of unclear nationality is playing mood music in a small bar, and the audience, normally shy people who rarely let their hair down, starts to feel more relaxed and, before they know it, starts to dance.” But Sakamoto’s songs were more than just some globo-cantina band’s imaginary hits – as the title suggests, How to Live With a Phantom is about creating a feeling, the atmosphere of the moment rather than a description of the moment itself. “I didn’t set out to make songs that would sound like the songs performed by that band,” he continues, “but rather songs that would evoke the mood of the club.”

There’s something silly and strange about Sakamoto’s description, but this kind of ambition begins to make sense once you sit with How to Live With a Phantom, an album that manages to feel carefree, buoyant and strangely detached. Sakamoto is a veteran of Japan’s rock underground, having founded the much-loved Yura Yura Teikoku, one of those bands that was massively popular at home but never really found a significant following beyond the neighboring countries. When they began recording and gigging in the late 1980s, Yura Yura Teikoku’s sound was ragged and garage-y, with the occasional guitar freak-out. Throughout the 1990s, though, the psych influence was sublimated into their very textured approach to songwriting. Their later albums were spacious and casual, the trippiness more ambient and polished. Perhaps their subtlety didn’t translate abroad. Even though they had been stars in Japan for nearly 15 years – the caliber of star whose songs end up in karaoke booths – Yura Yura Teikoku didn’t play outside Japan until 2005, when they were invited to open for Yo La Tengo in the United States.

There’s a fascinating shadow history of postwar Japan that routes through American and British culture – Julian Cope‘s legendary book Japrocksampler chronicles the brain-scrambling effects the sounds of 1960s America had on young Japanese bands like the heavy-as-bricks acid rockers Flower Travellin’ Band and feedback monsters Les Rallizes Denudes, bands who in turn became the guitar gods for future generations to either idolize or revolt against. The benefit for these postwar Japanese artists discovering sounds at a distance, with only the haziest grasp of context, is that it allowed them the freedom to range from the source, to imagine how a given sound might have evolved under different, non-American or European circumstances. There was a fidelity to the original but also a quirky edge, something lost in translation. This helps explain the Japanese groups that end up finding fans abroad – the saccharine Ramones knock-offs Shonen Knife, the breezy, Style Council-like pop of Flipper’s Guitar, the almost deranged easy listening of Pizzicato 5, the Beck-kitsch of Cornelius.

All of which makes Sakamoto and his former band’s relative anonymity abroad so baffling. In 2009, DFA (via their great Death From Abroad imprint) released Yura Yura Teikoku’s final album, Hollow Me (their final single, “Beautiful” is included in the reissue). It’s a mesmerizing work that suggests a varied record collection – there are moments that call to mind 10cc, Can and Steely Dan, but rarely in any overly devotional way. “Ohayo Mada Yaro” is a shivery, blissful ’70s groover powered by an ecstatic sax and Sakamoto’s slack soul. “Dekinai” and “Sweet Surrender” feel like inside-out versions of one another, an insistent, hypnotic guitar line and backbeat gnawing away at the listener. A version of that same guitar pattern seems to course through “Beautiful” before it gets crushed underneath the carnival weirdness of “In the Forest.” They started 20 years earlier with a kind of spiky aggression. But as their last album closes, they return to quiet, pensive moments like the intimate, Timmy Thomas-like “Lonely Satellite” and the gorgeously triumphant lounge-funk of the title cut.

When Sakamoto disbanded Yura Yura Teikoku in 2010, he holed himself up with a house full of instruments and a multi-track recorder and began piecing together the feeling of this imaginary “club” by himself. There’s certainly a timeless, placeless feel here – Tropicalia, French pop, bossa-via-1980s British bands like Weekend. How to Live With a Phantom bears a faint resemblance to Yura Yura Teikoku’s later works, but there’s an unpolished playfulness to the sprays of electric guitar, the lazy vocals, the loping bass-lines and congas, the way Sakamoto’s flat harmonies feel at odds with the sunny arrangements of “In a Phantom Mood.” “You Just Decided” sounds like a Japanese cover version of some lost 1970s AM gem, while “My Memories Fade” drip-drops along gorgeously until Sakamoto himself is whisked away in a wash of echo.

There’s something melancholy about all twee pop, and How to Live With a Phantom is no exception. Even if you have no real sense of what Sakamoto is saying, there’s a slight plaintiveness to his singing, a loneliness to his flawless creations, a hint of resignation when a harmonica closes out the title cut. Then again, Sakamoto is merely a phantom stalking the scene; maybe the songs are an antidote to all this. “Dancing With Pain” and “Something’s Different” are lovingly crafted pastiches that start somewhere in Brazil and end up, well, in a small bar, where a community of “normally shy” people are finally letting their hair down.