Some bands have all the luck. While many of their peers will probably be toiling on the live circuit for years before gaining any recognition beyond their immediate circle of friends, the college kids of Luby Sparks are already going places.
Thanks to a combination of good luck and some undeniably cracking songs, the quintet is releasing its polished debut album this week — recorded in London with one of the band’s musical idols — before any of the members have even graduated university.
The self-titled “Luby Sparks” pairs wistful girl-boy vocals with a punchy guitar attack that recalls the early-1990s U.K. shoegaze scene and the noisier elements of the Britpop era that followed. In this respect, the band has something in common with ’90s-influenced acts such as U.S. indie-rockers The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and U.K. group Yuck (whose frontman, Max Bloom, co-produced the album).
“I’ve no idea if there’s an audience for this kind of music in Tokyo at the moment,” says Natsuki Kato, Luby Sparks’ bassist, co-vocalist and songwriter. “It’s not a fashionable sound and the lyrics are all in English.”
“We’ve got quite a few people who keep coming to our shows,” says guitarist Tamio Sakuma.
“Yeah, a lot of middle-aged guys,” quips fellow guitarist Sunao — who, like vocalist Emily, prefers to go only by his first name. (Drummer Shin Hasegawa rounds out the lineup.)
Given the band’s Anglophile tastes, it’s surprising to hear that Natsuki, Sunao and Shin first met at a university music circle dedicated to funk, soul and R&B. They discovered a shared taste for indie rock after Sunao noted — correctly, it turned out — that Natsuki was modeling his bleach-blond hairdo on Jonathan Pierce, the singer for New York band The Drums.
But it was the moodier sounds of the U.K. that exerted the biggest influence on Luby Sparks. In addition to Yuck, Natsuki name-checks lesser-known Brit bands Joanna Gruesome and Exlovers, saying there’s a distinctive flavor that sets them apart from their U.S. counterparts.
“The groups from the U.K. somehow have more of a melancholy quality than the ones from the States,” he says. “They’re basically doing the same thing, but British guitar pop bands like Exlovers just sound darker.”
Formed in March 2016, Luby Sparks started recording before it had even played any shows, and quickly got picked up by Japanese cassette label Miles Apart Records. This paved the way for a support slot with international bands The Bilinda Butchers and Manic Sheep in July that year. It was only the third gig the group had ever played.
They got another lucky break when Natsuki visited Stereo Records, a discerning vinyl emporium in his mother’s hometown of Hiroshima, and got chatting with the owner.
“About a month later, he called me and asked, ‘You said you really liked Yuck, right?’” he recalls. “They were coming to Japan, and he said we could play at their Hiroshima show.”
The band ended up becoming good friends with Yuck’s Max Bloom, who offered to mix their next release, a 7-inch single released early last year. When summer vacation rolled around, they hopped on a flight to London to record an entire album with him.
“He’s got all the equipment at his home, apart from drums, and he told us we could use everything,” says Natsuki. Without the worry of racking up studio fees, they were able to spend a few weeks recording, which by indie-rock standards is positively decadent.
Most of that time was spent on guitar parts, leaving Emily just a day to record her vocals for all the songs.
“Even with simple phrases, I had to play them so many times that I lost my mind and kept screwing up,” says Tamio.
“We were also developing the sound as we went along,” says Sunao. “It’d be like, ‘What kind of sound do you want to capture next?’ and sometimes we’d be discussing that for the next hour.”
Luby Sparks is part of a wider shift in Japanese indie rock, after a decade in which Rockin’On Japan magazine and its associated music festivals set the agenda, nurturing a scene that at times felt cut off from overseas influences.
In the past few years, there’s been an upswing in bands conspicuously referencing international sounds, and often singing in English, at times recalling the work of turn-of-the-millennium Japanese groups like Number Girl and Supercar. One name that comes up repeatedly during the conversation is DYGL, who recently made the transition from indie darlings to more mainstream success with an album steeped in the influence of The Strokes and The Libertines.
Natsuki says his decision to write lyrics in English for Luby Sparks was guided by his own musical tastes.
“I wasn’t listening to much Japanese music,” he explains. “The Japanese songs that I did like — such as Supercar’s — often sounded like they were in English, even if they were in Japanese.”
Like anyone trying to sound natural in a second language, he learned through imitation — specifically, by poring over lyrics by other bands.
“With most of the groups I like, the lyrics on their first albums aren’t usually all that deep,” he says. “Rather than trying to depict scenes from real life, they were more focused on expressing emotions directly, so I deliberately set out to write in the same way.”
Emily, who grew up in Japan but has a British father, is responsible for checking and correcting the lyrics after they’re written.
“Then my dad does the final check,” she says.
And if the precise meaning of the words drifts over the heads of many of Luby Sparks’ Japanese listeners, that may not be such a bad thing.
“I read a Japanese translation, and I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t make it to the end,” says Tamio, drawing howls of laughter from the others.
“Yeah, I tried translating them myself, and it’s pretty embarrassing,” agrees Natsuki.
“They’re better off staying in English,” says Emily.
“Luby Sparks” is out now. For details of upcoming shows, visit twitter.com/lubysparksband.