JPOP Summit 2015 with Anamanaguchi

Hailing from New York, 4-piece electronic band Anamanaguchi performs entrancing upbeat music that takes you away to fantasy world. Most recently, the band has performed at events celebrating Japanese culture such as Anime Expo 2015 and JPOP Summit 2015. The band has often cited various Japanese creators from musical artists to game designers for playing a role in influencing their unique game-like electronic pop rock music.

APA chats with Anamanaguchi’s lead co-songwriter Peter Berkman on their “hot fire fire swag” music, Japanese musical and cultural influences and upcoming album titled USA.

How did you come up with the group name Anamanaguchi?

It doesn’t really mean anything. It was my (Peter’s) screenname when I was in 7th grade on AOL Instant Messenger. It actually wasn’t even something I came up with. Back then, I was in a band with a bunch of older kids in high school and they would practice at my house. One night, we watched Star Wars and the guitarist (Jeff) was doing a Jabba the Hut impression and he said something that sounded like Anamanaguchi. I thought it was a fun-sounding name, so I made it my screenname and it eventually became our group name.

How would each of you describe your music in one word?

Ary: Swag

Peter: Fun

James: You took my word. Happy.

Luke: Hot

James: I want to change mine to fire.

Peter: Me too.

We’re gonna go with “hot fire fire swag.”

In July, you performed at Anime Expo and now you’re here at JPOP Summit. Can you share how Japanese culture plays into your music and life?

Peter: It started with video games from the late 90s like Katamari Damacy, Parappa the Rapper, and Shadow of the Colossus. They had this really strong artistic feel where the music and the artwork are meant to put you in this total other world. I remember when I first played Taiko Drum Master, I loved so much of the music in it that I started looking it up. Through that, I got into Japanese music and artists like Shiina Ringo and Cornelius. I enjoy how Japanese music, art and games all have such attention to detail. It’s exciting on so many levels.

Luke: For me, I watch a lot of anime. I feel that the production is like the whole package, where there are so many different parts all playing its own role perfectly. It’s an immersive experience, where art meshes with music. I enjoy work by directors like Masaki Yuasa and Makoto Shinkai because you can’t help but really get pulled into the worlds they create.

Are there any Japanese artists you’re interested in collaborating with?

Oh, totally. I love Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy. I think it’d be really fun to work with him. Around 2010, I got into producer Yasutaka Nakata, who’s #1 in my book for music production. Lately, we’ve been working with ASOBISYSTEM, home to a bunch of artists and models. We’ve been talking and working on some musical collaborations with singers who are trying to break out.

Have you had a chance to travel to Japan?

Yeah, we went back in March and last July. We met a bunch of amazing independent musicians and that’s when we met the ASOBISYSTEM crew. It was really great meeting some independent labels like Trekkie Trax and Maltine. I think they’re bringing the next generation of incredible electronic Japanese music and they’re fantastic.

While you were in Japan, did you have any memorable experiences?

Well, I got to meet Yasutaka Nakata because we were performing at the same DJ night and he gave me a bunch of whisky. I was like this is amazing. [laughs]

The best moment was when we got asked last minute to play a party that Maltine Records was throwing at this place called Shibu House. It’s like an art collective, which would be really easy to find in Brooklyn but was really surprising to find in a quiet neighborhood in Tokyo. We went downstairs into the basement and it’s this tiny room just filled with fog. I guess the difference between DIY stuff in Brooklyn and Tokyo is that if we were in Brooklyn, there would be a crappy PA and the sound would be garbage, but in Tokyo, there was an incredible system and subs and strobe lights were just going. You couldn’t even see a foot in front of you and the music was so loud. The guy controlling the lights was just jumping on the table and throwing champagne everywhere. [laughs] That was a really good night. I think somebody broke their laptop. [laughs]

Did you experience any culture shock?

Rather than culture shock, it was more like culture awe. I wish New York was like as clean, quiet and beautiful. I guess sometimes New York is good, but what I love most about Tokyo is how sound is such an important element to the culture. Like I imagine if I was blind in Tokyo, I’d still be able to know where everything is around me like if there was a biker in front of me or whether a shop was open or closed (due to the sound cues). In New York, there’s just noise all the time and it’s like there’s no empty space. I especially like how different train lines in Tokyo have different jingles. I find that kind of stuff really beautiful and it’s just a nice way to design life into something.

Going back to your “hot fire fire swag” music, how would you describe your creative process?

The last album we made, Endless Fantasy, was pretty much about harnessing a very specific virtual memory like a forest in a game. I visualize an image or scene and it inspires music. The album’s music was meant to be fantasy-oriented or larger than life in some way. Ary and I were the main writers of that album. The song Endless Fantasy was inspired by a super old melody I wrote. I literally re-discovered it on a file from 2007 on my Windows 98. I was reminded of it when I was walking down the street in Chinatown and I heard this Buddhism music playlist at this one shop which reminded me of the melody I had written years ago. It was really inspired by the euphoria of trance music.

With a lot of the stuff on Endless Fantasy, it was like scrolling on Tumblr, finding images and going “This totally goes with the song I’m working on now.” Like seeing a bike sitting on top of a hill with a city in front of it. With the new album USA, we’re kind of early in the writing process, so it’s hard to say how the process is different, but it’s going to have a lot more vocals and lyrics in it because our music has previously mostly been instrumental. Who knows what’s next.

Since you started talking a bit about USA, can you tell us a bit more about your new album?

We may be in it somehow, but we’re definitely working with a lot of featured vocalists. We previously released a song “Pop It” with our friend meesh and she’s gonna be on the record with some other people we can’t say yet. Conceptually, I want this album to be about the overlapping of the real and dream worlds like that span of time when you’re waking up from a dream. And also that dreams can be almost realer than reality and whether or not that’s a problem. That and also the idea of being overwhelmed by nature like when you look at a tree over there and know that it’s fractally infinite and more complex than any dream could be. I think it’s important to be aware that dreams can be a very selfish endeavor and I’m very into the idea of the collective unconscious in that we’re all connected in this dream space. I like to think that dream space is what we call the real world. That’s a lot of words that I’m not sure how it’ll translate into music, but I’m excited to write a bunch of stuff and that’s where I wanna be coming from.

I find it interesting that your new album’s aim is to represent the overlap between dreams and reality, but your album will be titled USA. Can you talk about how those two link together?

I think that titling the album USA grounds us in reality. Listening to our previous albums, Dawn Metropolis and Endless Fantasy, it’s like the band could exist in this fictional world. Titling the new album USA says that a) we’re humans and b) we live in the world that exists today. It also says that we’re American and I think that’s kind of important to say now.

I remember when we were in Japan a year ago, we were setting up for our 2nd show and I saw a tweet that was something like “Oh, I like Anamanaguchi, but I found out they were a bunch of white dudes.” At first, it hurt my feelings and then I thought about how they must feel. I don’t really know. I feel like the US has this thing of being… It’s hard to describe. The concept of cultural appropriation is something we’re very sensitive to. I think the better way to say all of this is something that struck us all heavily when we first went to Japan was its very different approach to global culture. When you’re walking around Tokyo and you go to a French bakery, you can kind of expect the respect to French baking like it would be almost like it is in France, but with a Japanese touch. But if you go to a French cafe in the US, it seems more like a mutation that is far removed from its origins. I think it’s important to pay respect to the origin that something came from.

Mainstream culture in the US is usually taking the lowest common denominator and amplify it everywhere. I’ve always had a very tense relationship with the country that I’m from and it just seemed right to name this album USA. Ultimately, I wish that the US was a bit different and this is our vision for it.

Mai Nguyen

Editor-in-Chief at Asia Pacific Arts.
Feel free to send me a note on Twitter to @hellomailee.

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