Ditching the smoke machines

Japanese psych rockers Kikagaku Moyo have come a long way

Kikagaku Moyo
Courtesy of Powerline Agency

The live music scene in Tokyo (but not so much in smaller cities in Japan) works a little differently than it does here in the States. When a band wants to play a so-called “live house” in Tokyo, they essentially have to rent the room and pay for the cost through ticket sales. If sales are under quota, the band picks up the tab — in cash — at the end of the night, usually between $200 and $500. It’s called noruma, and as you can imagine, Japanese musicians have lots of feelings about it.

It’s a heavy burden for an up-and-coming band, as the members of Tokyo psych rock outfit Kikagaku Moyo can attest.

In an interview with The Japan Times in 2017, drummer and spokesperson Go Kurasawa relayed the band’s shock after an early gig at a traditional venue circa 2013.

“After we played, the venue person was like, ‘Oh, you guys did a really good job. That’s gonna be ¥30,000.’ We were like, ‘Fuck, yeah!’ and they were like, ‘No, you have to pay.’”

The difficulties didn’t stop there for the five-piece. They found themselves banned from one venue after an attempt at creating a bit of “mystery” led to the local fire department showing up. “That was like our second show and it was at a venue in Koenji,” Kurasawa tells Boulder Weekly.

“We were using two smoke machines to cover up the fact that we couldn’t play the songs. At the time we only had one song and all of the other songs were just a heavy jam.”

Musical proficiency was never a central concern for the band as it formed loosely in 2012 from a collection of like-minded individuals, led by Kurasawa and guitarist/vocalist Tomo Katsurada.

“We started out busking in Tokyo, so it was always a free improv with anyone who happened to be there,” Kurasawa says. “Also, we wanted to have people who don’t play or never played music before but shared similar taste in art, film, et cetera.”

The band’s lineup firmed up over the course of a year, eventually including guitarist Daoud Popal and bassist Kotsu Guy, who Kurasawa and Katsurada met on the streets of Tokyo recording vending machine sounds for a noise project. The lone exception to this free-wheeling group of self-taught rockers is Go’s brother Ryu, who has traveled to India yearly over the course of the last several years to study sitar with the renowned Manilal Nag. (Ryu even takes lessons from Nag via Skype between visits.)

Determined to create a space for themselves in Tokyo, Kikagoku Moyo hosted the monthly Tokyo Psych Fest for a year, bringing together a number of underground bands from across Asia, such as Taiwanese alt rockers Scattered Purgatory or Japanese Krautrockers Minami Deutsch.

Kikagaku Moyo dug in and shoveled out earthy folk-rock sounds for their eponymous debut record in 2013. The album — initially released via Bandcamp before Greek label Cosmic Eye Records picked it up and ordered up a vinyl pressing — generated enough buzz overseas to score the band a two-week tour of Australia that year, and paved the way for its American debut the following year.

Over the course of the past seven years, Kikagaku Moyo — which translates as geometric patterns — has continued to explore the far reaches of the psych rock galaxy via four full-length albums. Their most recent effort, Masana Temples, is their slickest production to date, employing the help of Portuguese guitarist and producer Bruno Pernadas (who Kurasawa cold-emailed after stumbling onto Pernadas’ music online). A jazz musician by education, it’s easy to hear Pernadas’ influence in the delicate xylophone cameo on “Orange Peel.”

But even with a brand new sheen, the band stays true to their roots, opening the record with the ineffable wanderings of Ryu Kurasawa’s sitar before descending into the nearly eight-minute psychedelic roundabout that is “Dripping Sun.”

In the band’s never-ending effort to steer clear of constraints, they mostly eschew using real language in their songs, opting for made-up language that keeps the band “free,” as Go Kurasawa puts it.

And while the band does play shows in their native land, Kikagoku Moyo has built its following on heavy touring through North America and Europe. The band has developed some business acumen over the years, forming a record label, Guruguru Brain, populated by the bands who played Tokyo Psych Fest. In 2017, Go Kurasawa and Tomo Katsurada moved to Amsterdam, where they basically operate as a hub for not only Kikagaku Moyo, but also other bands on Guruguru Brain.

And they ditched the smoke machines.

ON THE BILL: Kikagaku Moyo. 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 18, Hi-Dive, 7 S. Broadway, Denver. SOLD OUT.

8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Tickets are $15-$20.