Tokyo-based band Kikagaku Moyo’s vigorous and improvisational blend of psychedelia, folk, trance, noise, and Indian influences isn’t the preferred taste in Japan, but the underground band has been able to carve out a cult following, across oceans and borders.
The quintet is taking their brand of Tokyo underground music through America to support their new EP called “Stone Garden.” The group performs at Seattle’s Sunset Tavern on May 19.
“Yes, we have played Seattle twice [before],” said Go Kurosawa, drummer and singer. “First time was at Barboza and last October at The Sunset. Our impression of Seattle is that everyone listens to grunge and drinks coffee at record stores in the rain.”
“Just kidding! We think it’s very beautiful and have had a great time there each time.”
The group got started in 2012, when Kurosawa and guitarist/singer Tomo Katsurada spent several months busking on the streets of Tokyo.
“You are supposed to have a license” for busking, said Kurosawa, but enforcement of that law “depends on the time and train station, for what’s allowed.”
Street culture sounds run eclectic, Kurosawa said, but the stuff he and Katsurada came up with was still unique.
“You can see everything, singer-songwriter, classical, jazz, even played noise [noise music] in Shinjuku. But we have never met anyone who just does improvisation, as a group, like we do. The area we live is called Koenji and busking is acceptable, and you usually see many different kinds of people playing out.”
Bassist Kotsu Guy met the first two while he was recording his own brand of noise rock — sticking microphones into vending machines.
“Guy is from Fukushima,” Go Kurosawa snickers, “where they are famous for radioactive boars.”
The drummer’s brother, Ryu, studied sitar in India with master musician, Manilal Nag.
“Learning the sitar was not so hard physically,” Go said about his brother’s studies. “The biggest challenge was how [Nag] explained tonality through human emotion. For example, he would explain that a certain part should be played like talking to a lover — and the emotion was more important than just playing the notes.”
Daoud Popal completes the lineup, on a second guitar.
“Kikagaku Moyo” translates as “geometric patterns,” but the quintet comes off more organic than mathematical. Flourishes of guitar and sitar flutter through the mix, often, though not always, anchored by a pulse of woodsy bass and the light, fleet touch of Go Kurosawa’s sticks and brushes on cymbals and the snare.
Psychedelic and experimental rock don’t hit the top of the charts in their native country, but the band is forging their own success outside of Japan. They created their own record label, Guruguru Brain to support other Asian artists with a unique sound.
“We thought there are many artists in Asia that were not getting the exposure they deserved,” Go Kurosawa explained. “We just wanted to help spread their music throughout Asia and the rest of the world. We try to release all styles but most importantly bands that express their own culture through modern music.”
Rob Schwartz, Tokyo bureau chief for “Billboard” magazine, and a music and film producer, describes Japan as a country of “so many underground and niche scenes, that just about every type of music is represented.”
“Kikagaku Moyo seem to me as if they’re in a kind of unusual position,” elaborates Ian F. Martin, a columnist for the “Japan Times,” and author of the recently-published “Quit Your Band! Musical Notes From The Japanese Underground.”
“They seem to have actively courted an overseas audience and quite consciously rejected the Japanese music scene’s normal ladder of ascent (if you can really call it such a thing),” Martin said. “A lot of younger bands these days seem to have hit a wall of frustration with the Japanese music scene and started refusing to play ball, looking for ways to chart their own path. Branching out overseas is certainly a way to do that.”
For Kikagaku Moyo, that means a long string of live performances.
“This particular tour doesn’t have an end date yet!” said drummer Kurosawa with a laugh. “We’ll work on a new record once we have some time to chill out, and we’ll keep releasing new stuff we dig up…”