If you’re playing in a group in Japan and your members all happen to be female, sooner or later you’re going to get slapped with the “girls’ band” tag. The term has been used willy-nilly to describe everything from the manufactured guitar-pop of late-’80s chart-toppers Princess Princess to the experimental rock of Nisennenmondai.
For long-running Tokyo quartet Falsettos, it’s an awkward fit. But what’s the alternative?
“I saw someone on Twitter describe us as a ‘moms’ band’,” says Miuko Nakao, the group’s guitarist, singer and lyricist.
“That makes me feel like apologizing!” says drummer Fumie (who, like bassist Ingel and keyboardist Yukiko, goes just by her first name). “I’m the only mother in the group, and I don’t think there’s anything remotely special about being a mom and playing in a band.”
Still, if the nomenclature is a bit iffy, Falsettos won’t deny that gender matters, if only a little.
“When you make music with only women, I think it creates a particular kind of atmosphere,” says Miuko. “When I introduce myself to people, I’ll often tell them I’m in an all-female band. I think it’s the quickest way to express that we’re doing something different from the usual macho rock.”
That approach has earned Falsettos a small, loyal following on the Japanese indie scene, but until recently the group seemed to have little prospect of achieving wider success. The band’s self-titled debut, out this week, has been over a decade in the making.
Miuko describes reaching an impasse last summer, as the group’s DIY ethos collided with her desire to produce more polished recordings. She describes how she eventually resigned herself to self-releasing the band’s music, despite knowing that “it wouldn’t be as good as what I had in my head.”
“I thought, ‘Let’s just put something out there and then call it quits,’” she says, laughing. “We’d been doing the band for years. I was like, ‘Screw it!’”
Fortunately, friends encouraged her to set her sights higher. Tetsumaru Fukuda, of the group Kaisoku Tokyo, hooked Falsettos up with a good recording engineer, Hozumi Suzuki, whose own experiences playing in a major label band made him an invaluable source of advice. A staffer from Tower Records introduced them to heavyweight indie label P-Vine Records, which is releasing the album.
While debut LPs normally capture bands in the first bloom of creativity, the songs on “Falsettos” have had plenty of time to mature; a couple were included on the first CD-R the group self-released in 2008. How have they evolved over the years?
“Not much,” says Miuko, laughing.
“I know that what I’m doing hasn’t changed,” adds Ingel.
“The first CD-R had a bit of a pastoral feel to it — it sounded quite relaxed,” says Fumie. “When we’d finished re-recording the songs and I compared them to the ones on that first CD-R, they sounded like they had a bit more force and urgency. It’s not like it was a conscious thing, though.”
Given the chance to record a summation of their careers, many bands would be inclined to sprawl: release a double album, perhaps, or include an extra disc of demo versions and live recordings. But with just nine songs, clocking in at less than 40 minutes, “Falsettos” is disarmingly succinct.
“We chose songs that would directly express what kind of band Falsettos is, without any bias,” says Fumie. “I think all of us probably love every song that’s on there. There’s no filler.”
“There’s no filler when we play live, either,” Miuko interjects.
“There were songs we really wanted to include, but we had to cut them because they didn’t fit with the flow,” Fumie continues. “We paid a lot of attention to the transitions between tracks and the way they were mixed in order to get things just how we wanted.”
The album covers a range of styles: While the four-part harmonies of “Newborn Baby” and “Hejira” hark back to the sound of Phil Spector-produced 1960s girl groups, at other times the band recalls the spikiness of ’70s post-punk (“Johnny”) and the earnestness of ’90s alternative rock (“Kid Retreated”).
They’re a tough bunch to pin down. When Ryuichi Sakamoto played a demo of their tense, brooding “Ink” on his radio show in 2015, he said it reminded him of industrial act Throbbing Gristle. The group’s Facebook profile helpfully categorizes them as “Punk/Rock/New Wave/Folk/Psychedelic.”
“We couldn’t really play our instruments when we started out, so we spent the first year or so practicing in the studio,” Miuko recalls. “We were a bit more punk then, playing Slits covers and stuff. We started to include more folk-y elements as we went along.”
Falsettos developed a process of recording sessions together and then developing the choicest morsels into fully formed songs. Miuko’s lyrics — which are entirely in English, save for the odd smattering of German — tend to come later.
“Some of the songs have a bit of a message, but it’s not a case of me going, ‘This is what I want to say, so these are the lyrics,’” she says. “The picture comes out of the song, and it’s like I’m trying to put that picture into words.”
Yukiko’s keyboard work is another distinctive component of the Falsettos sound, though she says it took a while to find her place within the band. She describes how she had to slough off her training in classical piano and teach herself to respond instinctively to what the others were playing, a process that she calls “learning spiritual punk.”
Nowadays, if someone inquires what kind of band she’s in, she answers “punk.” Miuko opts for “alternative,” while Fumie says she just shows them some of the group’s YouTube clips.
“Some people take more of an interest if I tell them I play in a band with four women,” says Ingel. “You only ever get asked by people who don’t know about genres, though. They’re not going to understand ‘alternative’ or ‘post-punk.’ If I tell them it’s an all-female band, they’ll say, ‘Oh, like Princess Princess?’”
The others burst out laughing.
“And I tell them: ‘Yeah, something like that.’”
“Falsettos” is released on Feb. 2 on P-Vine Records. For more information, visit www.falsettos.beer.