San Jose Mercury News: “Japanese band hopes to crack the U.S. market”

by Yoshi Kato
July 31, 1998

IMAGINE the aliens are headed toward earth, and they’ve been able to pick up only intermittent broadcasts from Western radio stations. Between commercials, they’ve managed to catch singles by Celine Dion, Matchbox 20, Shania Twain, Kenny G. and Brandy. On the basis of what they’ve heard, the aliens have compiled a report to be transmitted to their mothership on contemporary western popular music.

The problem? Although our extraterrestrial trekkers have experienced Dion’s soaring vocals, they’ve yet to hear Luther Vandross’ or Michael Bolton’s. And yes, they know Shania — but what about Randy Travis or even Alison Krauss? Then there’s another issue: the omission of entire styles, as represented by everyone from Tony Bennett and George Clinton to Gang Starr and Orbital.

Like other non-English-speaking countries, Japan’s popular music scene is similarly distorted. Historically, technopop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra, hair metal rockers Loudness and factory pop purveyors Pink ladies and Seiko Matsuda have had some success abroad, but it’s always been a challenge for Japanese musicians to succeed in North American and British markets.

In the 90’s, Japanese musicians have made strong Stateside advances, Buffalo Daughter took the middle slot at last night’s Girls Against Boys show at the Fillmore, and Shonen Knife is set to perform at San Francisco’s Maritime Hall in two weeks.

Locally and nationally, Pizzicato Five, Cibo Matto and DJ Krush all enjoy strong followings. Still, every time a Japanese act breaks through in the United States, it give domestic audiences a chance to discover another part of a diverse music scene.

The latest group to try its luck overseas is Dreams Come True (DCT), which plays the Fillmore in San Francisco on Tuesday night, a week after the release of its American debut and first all-English album, “Sing or Die” (Virgin). One of Japan’s most popular pop music acts, the trio (composed of singer Miwa Yoshida, bassist-producer Masato “King Masa” Nakamura and keyboardist Takahiro Nishikawa) is making its North American debut on a brief six-city theater tour.

Top seller

Founded in 1988, DCT released eight albums and a “best of” compilation prior to “Sing or Die.” Number five, “The Swinging Star,” became the first Japanese album to sell more than 3 million copies, and the group has done concerts for crowds as large as 50,000. On the phone from New York, Yoshida and Nakamura share interview duties through the miracle of conference calling.

Asked if it’s any easier these days to succeed in America than during the previous two decades, Yoshida (who sounds younger than her worldly-wise universal big sister singing voice) is first to respond. “I think it’s still difficult That’s why we’re still trying,” she says. “A lot of things from Japan are here, like cars and TVs — but not pop music.”

Even though cultures are becoming more globally minded, language is still the biggest barrier to international pop music success, they believe. Nakamura refers to Ryuichi Sakamoto, a founding member of Yellow Magic Orchestra and one of Japan’s most successful musical exports in his own right.

“Actually, there is a relation with words. Mr. Sakamoto said musically here is no barrier and wall. It is all over the world — classics, Scottish, Latin and especially pop music.

“But with pop music, language is a big wall, especially in the U.S.,” she continues. “In Japan, people listen to music across the world. But in America, it’s mainly in English,” she says.

“Or Spanish,” he adds. “But of course, pop music is born in America. So that’s why the style and structure is very suitable for English. This is the center of popular music.”

An English version

Since their self-titled debut, band members have always wanted to record a companion version in English for each of their releases, as Jon Secada, Peter Gabriel and Sting have done with other languages. Moving to Virgin Records after a 10-year relationship with Epic/Sony Records Japan, they felt it was the right time to try to fortify a Western fan base.

They both moved to New York (though they keep residences in Japan) an set out on a small showcase tour of their new album. But what was planned as an intimate showcase has grown into a mini-event, with the show at New York’s Irving Plaza selling out within a day.

“We can’t believe it. What’s going on? We can expect 20 or 30,” he says, “but 400 or 500? We’re just an unknown band in America.”

Although a good part of the tour interest in this country may be generated by expatriate Japanese, it’s likely that DCT’s soul-drenched brand of power pop may have more universal appeal.

“My background is mainly R&B, soul, rock and heavy metal,” he says. Yoshida, in turn, was initially inspired by jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.

“Our sound is a melting pot. We have every taste of pop music,” he says. “But everything is under control by Miwa’s voice. Our music is pop, our voice is rock & roll.” Steeped in ’60s and ’70s R&B and pop traditions, DCT makes bright pop music with Japanese shadings and international twists.

“Sing or Die” opens with the adult-oriented orchestral pop of “Will to Love.” A few tracks in, and listeners are empowered by the tight industrial rhythms and punchy funk horns of “Peace!” and its groove-along chorus. “Kelo Kelo” opens with Indian percussion and a breezy island riff, and “Songs of Joy,” the first single, features an African chorus.

As for the group’s American prospects, Yoshida and Nishikawa are philosophical and optimistic. “We are big music fans, so we just go forward,” she says. “Where there is a will, there is a way — I’m saying this 100 times!” he concludes. “But we are rock ‘n’ roll, so kick it!”