RULE one: Japanese bands do brilliant, brilliant things with guitars: this is just fact.
From the mind-blowing chaos of Melt-Banana to the heavy psych stylings of Acid Mothers Temple and Bo Ningen, down through the garage-rawk of Guitar Wolf and the dreamy, trippy-hippy psych of Ghost, new and deeper appreciations of how to wield and axe and a genre and bend it into new and grinsome and potent shapes are always gonna happen.
And at the very forefront of that Japanese psych-surf-garage-rock gloriousness right now is the Montreal-based seven-piece TEKE::TEKE, a band who got together just for jamming kicks and then played live just for the one night, in effect a pick-up band; their sole raison d’etre a one-off tribute show to Japanese six-string hero Takeshi Terauchi, very much the Dick Dale of the intensely groovy Tokyo scene of the Sixties.
The genesis of the band came from jam sessions that guitarist Serge Nakauchi Pelletier, drummer Ian Lettre, and horn player Etienne Lebel got going just for kicks as a little side alley to their main musical things of that time. They really began to bond over a shared love of Terauchi’s tunes.
“We started learning his songs and playing them during soundcheck, and decided we should start a band!” Serge says.
But to really bring their vision to life, they needed more people aboard than the fledgling three-piece they had assembled; thus began a recruitment campaign. Who could bring this thing to life? “We wound up with seven people -a weird mix of talent with a really wide range of influences,” Serge laughs.
Welcome aboard, then, rhythm guitarist Hidetaka Yoneyama, bassist Mishka Stein, multi-instrumentalist Yuki Isami and vocalist Maya Kuroki, who eagerly immersed in the Terauchi aesthetic; quickly, the magnificent seven began to develop style that sprung out of that initial shared aesthetic and began to take on a life of its own.
Their live debut as a Takeshi Terauchi tribute band came at a psych festival, and that and some following gigs got a great response. Original material was soon added to the mix.
The band then spent two years honing their craft and taking it to stages worldwide, periodically stopping off to demo material. A rural Canadian studio followed for a real heads down writing an album, which was recorded in Rhode Island.
“Having seven people in the room allowed us to open up and bring so many different ideas together,” says Serge. “I came in with written songs, but having something thought out doesn’t really mean anything. You can just destroy it and put the pieces back together in a different way.”
This practice – taking, smashing, remaking as something new and also newly beautiful – draws on the Japanese discipline of kintsugi, whereby broken pottery is mended with lacquers dusted with gold, silver or platinum, thus adding a new preciousness to what otherwise might be mere functional mending.
And it’s that delight in subverting, breaking conventional genre forms and reaching out beyond that informs their debut album for Olympia, Washington’s lovely Kill Rock Stars; an album they first preluded with a little digital double-A, including as is only right, a non-album track, “Chidori”, a Takeshi Terauchi cover that we chronicled as “a cracking slice of psych-scifi-surf groove to cut a rug to” (our words on that here).
Come along now: groovy weird fun awaits inside, fo’ sho’.
We don’t hang about and we’re straight into their world with “Kala Kala”, and what an opener: beginning like some temple dawn, airy sustain and free-flying flute, it gains a darker feedback edge, begins to thrum and fully flowers, riffin’ and hipswingin’ with cinematic panache. It sounds like it comes to you direct from some ultra-cool Finders Keepers compilation or the deepest depths of David Holmes’ record collection, that flute diving and swooping with fuzz delight as singer Maya brings a soundtracky, wonky sweetness. “The Japanese language allows for visual, colourful poetry, and the lyrics tell a story with a lot of different colours, strong vibes, and emotional themes,” she says. All that aside, total J-psych abandon is the thing here; wowza.
“Yoru Ni” redoubles your subsuming into a world filmed in Cinemascope 4:3, full of style and trippiness. It’s a delicious swirl of back-from-the-grave surf twang, trilling flutes, riffs, cooing vocals, and addled brilliance, all swathed with an atmosphere of order just about arising from the chaos, deliciously; a little moment of Sixties’ Bond theme here, The United States of America’s “Hard Coming Love” just slipping down the sonic stream over there.
We’re told (and we’re not speakers ourselves) that the lyrics tell a romantic and spiritual tale about letting go of a delusional quest; hence vocalist Maya Kuroki’s breathy whispers and some poetry en Français before bursting again with a desperate cry in the song’s intense choruses.
‘’‘Yoru Ni’ (which translates from the Japanese as ‘At night’) was literally written in the middle of the night,” guitarist Serge explains. ‘’I woke up suddenly and had this melody in my head, as if it had come to me from another world. It really felt like I was following some kind of spirit or ghost; it was taking my hand and wanted to take me somewhere.” Serge: when the muse takes you like this, you’re right to follow.
“Dobugawa” apparently recounts a love story upended by revelations of gender identity, and does so in a echoing bossa, delightfully Sixties’ soundtrack obscure and perfect, guitars a-shimmer and Maya hushed and melodic. Whatever film this is imagined for, you need to see it. Properly, scholarly widescreen beautiful, a crate-dug gem, by turns a brass and strings serenade and a stormier spoken-word confession to end.
All of which sophistication is nudged to the touchline by the flute-punk, one-take fun of “Barbara”, bubblegum bright and sliding into a delirious psych march, as if Gong were taking the Sgt. Peppers vibe out for a spin in their flying teapot, intensely mushroomy and dreamlike; new wave for yr very own haunted toybox.
The instrumental “Kizashi” slurs into life on a bending riff, a valium glam-racket stomp caging the exotic feathers of koto and strings. There’s something of mid-era The Fall relentlessness about its slow riffing insistence, garlanded round with psych-prog interjections and soundtrack textures. You think you have the measure of it and it blurs into a host of different colours, stalls in ominous shimmer, gradually falls apart in a regretful guitar.
“Kaminari” begins in surf-psych twang that’s almost Mount Fuji spaghetti western, such is the heat and shimmer of its rousing intro. And then … silence … and the song is reborn as some psychedelic soundtrack brilliance that you suspect collectors would drop serious dollars on, Kuroki lamenting with deft and spare accompaniment before it all starts to twang and shimmer once more. It’s a triumph of retro refashioning, a rockin’ tune for the 21st century, sharply tailored suits and beautiful slip dresses, caught in the prism of the late Sixties. Addictive.
“Sarabande”, named for a 17th-century courtly dance, gets even spacier, retrotronics and honeyed fuzz guitar washing through you with a Jean-Claude Vannier expansiveness and hallucinatory march. The bass is Axelrod-clicky, the riffs astral. It practically demands white hanging-egg chairs and huge banks of early computers, lights flashing, in some weird B-movie you tune across at a late hour. Which is, of course, perfect.
“Meikyu” was a deeply quirky and propulsive single; you can watch the video to that below. We’re kind like that. The song itself is a swirling melange of surf guitar, impassioned vocals, trilling flutes, psych propulsion, heavy chaos, the kind of brilliance only Japanese psych bands can bring us. It’s as if Andy Votel’s and David Holmes’ 7″ boxes entered a state of radioactive instability and started emitting isotopes. Think Dick Dale, think Masahiko Sato, think Deerhoof; and if there’s a script for Kill Bill 3 knocking around, well … ‘
Singer Maya says: “The song tells the story of a young character trying to escape the grasp of a twisted spirit that took the form of a labyrinth-like mansion in a psychedelic atmosphere, slightly inspired by visuals from Japanese art-horror flick Hausu.”
“Tekagami” wraps up a proper eyeball-dazzling psychedelic trip as it should, with a resolving theme that’s grandstanding, touching, breathy, valedictory, tinged with regret at some of the losses along the way; it seems to nod to The Pale Fountains’ brilliantly cinematic “Beyond Friday’s Field” in the intro – and why wouldn’t you, frankly.
Rhythm guitarist Yoneyama says of Shirushi: “This is our invitation for the audience to join our little world,” and it’s a world you should very much want to enter, and delight in. It’s proper 1967-68 psychedelic, slightly messy and cracked, baroque, dynamic, melodic, freaky, groovy. It’s like a delicious movie soundtrack to a film you now need to exist. Get filming in your head on vintage film stock. Get buyin this record. Wonky in all the right ways, trippy in the all right ways, and excellent in all of them, too.
TEKE::TEKE’s Shirushi will be released by Kill Rock Stars digitally, on CD, and on trad black and red vinyl come May 7th; do what you know you need to do and get your pre-order in with the label, here.