Monday, December 29, 2008

Deeper Into the Tokyo Underground...

Almost all of the bands I have been following up until now have been amateur, at least in the professional sense of the word. I think Tatti and Chris Silva are the only guitarists who make a living as full-time musicians.

As of late though, my investigations have taken me to yet another deeper level of the Tokyo underground. You may remember the coda to my story about Chris from last week. After our jam session, I met an enthusiastic Japanese woman who was eager to tell me all about her band. Her name is Izumi Okawara and her group's name is Qypthone. We were in touch since that night and made plans to meet tonight and have a chat about our musical projects.

A week prior, she sent me links to her band's website and myspace, where I got to listen to samples of their music and get a better feel for the group. I also poked around the internet to verify her claim that Qypthone had a song on The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift soundtrack. As I said before, their music is in the tradition of The Pizzicato Five, electro lounge pop with a bossa nova groove and a modish flavor. If you check out their myspace page, you can see Izumi in the video dancing and singing right in step to the music, even her outfit exhibiting a touch of retro. Click here for the page. Also, check out my favorite song, Girl 100. Izumi told me that she wrote half of the piece. You can also see their official website at

I have to say that Izumi is a beautiful woman, truly in the Vogue sense of the word. She is tall and slender with a sophisticated sense of style and an inviting glare in her eyes. This was my first impression of her as well as the conclusion I've arrived at after becoming more familiar with her personality and musical style. I'm not one to judge female musicians for appearance, but in her case, the same qualities of her physical flare go hand in hand with the hipness of her music.

Tonight, we met near Gamuso-Chroma in Asagaya and went to a Japanese style bar to grab a little food and drink. Having done my homework, I was eager to ask Izumi more about her band, their international tours, and how they attained so much success. Again, she exhibited her eager spirit and went on for a long time with her musical backstory.

The band formed while she was studying English in Toronto. Guitarist and songwriter Takeshi learned of Izumi's talents as a vocalist and invited her into the new group he was forming, provided that she would return to Japan. Qypthone took its name from a UMASS scientist who did research into building a time machine (taimu masheen in Japanese). As the group gained presence in the Tokyo music scene, the members eventually had to quit their jobs and pursue music full-time.

Success came fast. Within a few years they had recorded three LP's and were playing throughout Japan, including the chic southern city of Fukuoka. Soon, they were on international tours of Asia, Europe, Russia, and the USA. Izumi told me about their cult following in South Korea, their jam packed shows in Germany (they had a German concert promoter), and unexpected success in New York City.

For Izumi, the New York leg of their travels had two significant experiences. First was her introduction to well known DJ, Ursula 1000, who became one of her close friends and musical mentors. The two would later tour and do concerts together with Izumi as a featured singer.

The second experience was an uncanny performance opportunity. Their first stop over in New York, prior to 2001, included a stop at the World Trade Center where they performed on the 107th floor at a party honoring The Pizzicato Five. Izumi said that there were at least 600 people in attendance and that the Olympian view was like nothing she had every seen. She joked that after her band's set, she tried to go to the bathroom but was intercepted by a swarm of new fans who all had bought albums and were begging for autographs. After telling me the story, she slapped her face a few times and wondered if it had all been a dream.

In awe of her account, I then asked Izumi about what impressed me most about Qypthone, their experience with film soundtracks. She mentioned that she was extremely surprised and honored to have a song on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift soundtrack but was disappointed that the movie wasn't widely viewed. I told her not to worry, that even though the film didn't gain much exposure, it was still part of the immensely popular Fast and the Furious saga, a series that every American under 30 would know well. Indeed, I was learning to drive when the first film was released, perhaps a bad influence on me. From my American perspective, when she told me about this credential a week ago, it gave her instant credibility. I knew I was talking with an accomplished musician.

I was curious to know if Qypthone had songs on other film soundtracks. Izumi told me that one of their songs was used in a French action movie but unfortunately, the scene was ultimately cut. She said the director wasn't very popular and that I probably wouldn't know him. Of course this roused my curiosity, so I had to ask his name.

"Luc Besson," she replied.

My jaw dropped. I don't know if this was Japanese modesty at play or if she honestly believed that I wouldn't know his films. I mean, Besson is not a huge name in the American cinema scene, but he did direct a handful of knockout blockbusters, most notably The Fifth Element and The Professional (Leon).

The movie in question is called Wasabi (her facts weren't entirely straight; Besson was actually the producer). In the story, a tough guy French cop played by Jean Reno is assigned to protect a Japanese teenager, who by some freak of cinematic literacy turns out to be his biological daughter. I'd actually seen half of the film quite a few years ago. Now I'm intrigued to seek it out again and see if I can find the cut scene with Qypthone's music.

As a side note to the cinematic business, Izumi said that Besson was rumored to have made an appearance at one of the group's European shows, but she wasn't able to confirm it for herself.

Throughout the course of the night, I was able to piece together Qypthone's current status from our conversations. Like the leading members of many successful bands, Izumi's musical relationship with Takeshi was productive yet heated. She said the two of them were like siblings with strikingly similar personalities. They hold each other in high esteem, but when working together, small quibbles quickly arise into vehement arguments. At the moment the group is on a break while the two of them are pursuing solo projects. She says that they have been talking about getting the band back together soon and are in need of a new drummer. The prior member was a driving musical force behind the band, but now he works as a nurse and has too much responsibility to regroup. This could be presumptuous, but I suspect one of her motives in meeting me is eventually to hold a jam session and see if perhaps I could substitute at some point. Given my lack of professional experience, it would be tough, but I'm all in to give it a shot.

A little bit before midnight, we ordered a last round of beer and I mentioned that I had to catch the last train back to Ikebukuro around 12:20. Izumi actually caught the bill for me. I insisted on paying my share but she stopped me and remarked that once I have a full-time job here, I'll owe her one back. For such an in-depth story, I feel like I owe her quite a bit.

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