Tenniscoats: “They literally play themselves to sleep”

Back in 2008, I flew to Tokyo to meet Saya, the mercurial vocalist with Tenniscoats. We initially made contact in conjunction with our 4th Tada Sampler, and – truth be told – I’d become something of a Tenniscoats junkie in the interim. Though she’d been delightful in our email correspondence, I found myself vaguely nervous about meeting her in person.

Tenniscoats have become one of the hippest bands on the Japanese underground scene, though their legion of international fans probably indicates that the word ‘underground’ is no longer applicable. In which case, it’s a triumph of the internet that a psych folk band as avant garde (‘avant pops’, to use their own expression) as this can inspire such a following, especially as they’re hardly household names in their home country. Such renown is helped, of course, by an ability to produce the kind of music that grabs your attention whatever you’re doing. When I first played their latest album to the staff at Tada, they sat in drooling silence. Even the usually unshakable Tada technician was rendered useless. I challenge you to listen to “Baibaba Bimba” (available on Tada Sampler Volume Four) and not fall head over heels in love. Many have tried, many have failed. 

Actually, ‘band’ is something of a misnomer for Tenniscoats. In essence, they are a duo; guitarist Takashi Ueno works with Saya on all Tenniscoats recordings and performances. They collaborate freely and regularly with an eclectic group of accomplices, seemingly incapable of not making music. Swedish soundscape artists Tape (co-creators of last year’s Tan Tan Therapy) have said, “Saya and Takashi literally play and sing themselves to sleep. They catch some sleep here and there, and wake up to musical work again with coffee and cigarettes as their only fuel.” Other past collaborators include Bill Wells, DJ Klock, Kazumi Nikaidoh, as well as many of the artists that they help out on their very own Majikick Label. They’re currently lining up releases with The Pastels and Secai, while Saya completes work on a collaboration with Deerhoof’s lead singer, Satomi. How they find time for it all is anyone’s guess.

Via email, Saya was a charming correspondant. Her English isn’t perfect, but she was keen to do as best she could. When I finally caught up with her in person, she continued this pattern, despite the fact that I spoke to her entirely in Japanese. She only relented after she’d come off stage, tiredness presumably taking its toll. Face to face, she came across less confidently than I’d expected. I mentioned that they’d performed one of my favourite Tenniscoats pieces, adding that it was gorgeous music. “Really?” she responded, almost as though she needed the assurance. “Well, I’m glad.”

Talking to Saya about the origins of Tenniscoats, she recalls meeting Takashi at university in Tokyo, where they were both students of Literature. “At Meidai-Mae Station, where our university was, there was an important music record shop. It’s still there now. It’s called Modern Music, and they run a label called PSF. We discovered Keiji Haino and many other improvisational musicians at that shop.”

Improvisational music seems to have been Saya’s calling from an early age. In Harmonies, a recent film documenting her musical relationship with Kazumi Nikaidoh, Saya recalls her father laughing at her childhood attempts at songwriting. Admitting that she was just thumping the piano, she points out that the sounds she was making were songs to her. While her technique has obviously been refined, much of Tenniscoats’ music – ‘Kimi ni Naritai’, from Totemo Aimashou (2007) springs to mind – is informed by a similar naivety.

I wonder whether they take their lead solely from other improvisational artists. “Ueno is a rock musician,” she laughs. “His birthday is 6.23 – ROKU NI SAN! * “

So what was he listening to in his formative years?

“He liked Jimi Hendrix, the Kinks and the Stooges, amongst others. As for me, I listened to folk, and gradually became interested in punk music.”

One would presume that it’s this amalgamation of melody, technical know-how (Ueno is a far more complicated guitarist live than you’d ever presume from Tenniscoats records – though his solo stuff is a different matter entirely) and disregard for rules that allows Tenniscoats to stand out amongst the vast ream of musicians getting nowhere in Japan. It’s a tough game to play out here, and it’s refreshing to see that Tenniscoats are happily doing things their own way.

“I like independently active artists and labels, the world over,” she confirms.

Any recommendations, I wonder?

“Recently, I like Eddie Marcon, from Himeji. And of course Secai, Tetsuya Umeda, Yumbo [the current drummer in Tenniscoats live band], and the other Majikick bands.”

Majikick, their homegrown label, began life back in 1995 when Pukka Pukka Brians – a band formed by Ueno, amongst others – needed an outlet for their music. The label has since released a large amount of what Saya terms “DIY music”, including several CDs by Tenniscoats themselves. Other artists in their stable have included, at one time or another, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, My Pal Foot Foot, Yumbo, Andersens and Cacoy. The latter was a collaboration between Saya, Takashi and the man who many observers dubbed “the future of music”, DJ Klock. Sadly, Klock took his own life in April 2007, apparently the victim of unconquerable depression.

“He was our friend from university,” she remembers. “I think he had an independent spirit and led his life his own way.”

“He understood our clumsiness well,” she adds, poignantly. “We lost a best friend.”

Saya admits that Majikick is a pretty time-consuming business that they find increasingly difficult to maintain during their hectic touring schedule. Their DIY nature is reflected in their touring style, meaning that their schedule could find them mixing with The Pastels in Glasgow one day, with Secai in Tokyo the next, before heading to Korea for a brief stop, then a whizz around their native country with the likes of Shugo Tokumaru or Deerhoof. It seems like an exhausting existence, though it occasionally throws up unlikely opportunities. A few years ago, whilst in transit in Sweden, the pair met soundscape artists, Tape, a chance encounter that ultimately led to Tan Tan Therapy, the astounding collaboration they released in 2007.

It’s the opening track of …Therapy that Tenniscoats and Hapna (Tape’s label) graciously offered us for our 4th Sampler. Probably their best-loved track to date, ‘Baibaba Bimba’ has won the band fans the world over, usually off the back of a single listen. Given that its lyrics often confuse even native Japanese speakers, I try my luck at getting the real meaning from the composer herself. No such luck.

“My idea is just “Baibaba Bimba”! I think the song atmosphere is starting to sail.”

So I try a different tack.

How important are lyrics in Tenniscoats music, Saya? With songs like “Moshi Moshi, Ueno Desu” (“Hello, this is Ueno”), I get the feeling you’re trying to be wilfully obscure.

“I can understand Tenniscoats lyrics sound obscure sometimes, but they’re very usual for me. I think it is important to say things clearly, so we can understand easily. Words should be written to explain things easily.”

How about the sounds you use? Do use a lot of synthesizer technology, or are most of your sounds analogue?

“I’m borrowing an analogue synthesizer from my friend at the moment. I think our sounds are very analogue. I don’t have digital technology. We don’t have so many instruments, so we choose the sounds which we can hear around us. Ueno likes to use effects in his guitar playing, and I think his volume style is very unique – although volume playing in itself is not an original thing. In Tenniscoats songs, it sounds like views; like freedom.”

Do you have a method for writing?

“I think the best method is not to plan, just to have a feeling. If interesting things occur, we can make a song about it. But when I miss the chance to write something immediately, it takes a long time to finish a song. I find lyric-writing hard work, as well as mixing.”

Do you have a favourite environment for making music?

“Not especially. Coffee is the most important taste.”

As I leave the venue at the end of the evening, I notice that Takashi – who I haven’t managed to speak to this evening – is enjoying a chat with several admirers. His musical partner, meanwhile, seems more isolated, perhaps comfortably so. Despite their growing fame, I get the impression that life for Saya is hectic, but untroubled by the pretensions and pressures of 21st century entertainment. As long as she has caffeine and music, it seems that the fiercely independent Queen of DIY music will be making music with someone, somewhere.

For now, though, she checks that I have a place to stay and sees me to the elevator doors. She’s still waving as I descend to the Tokyo streets.

*For the benefits of non-Japanese speakers, the joke here puns the pronunciation of the three numbers in Ueno’s birthday (6 – roku; 2 – ni; 3 – san) with the Japanese word for ‘elder brother’: ni-san; Takashi Ueno is Big Brother ROCK! 

This article was written back in 2008 for the short-lived but relatively popular blog, Tada Music. The blog dealt with underground Japanese art and music, and regularly featured a “Tada Sampler” collection of songs by bands the blog had reviewed that month. The article marked my first contact with two of my favourite Japanese avant gardeners, Saya and Takashi of Tenniscoats. I’ve since interviewed and written about them more times than I can recall, and I’ll happily cover them again for as long as they continue to make the bewitching sounds they make. 

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