Music

J-Pop Trio Perfume Make Music for the Future

As the iconic girl band prepares for the release of its seventh album, 'Future Pop,' the trio looks ahead to what's next
Reading time 10 minutes

"In the near future, electrons and light flow freely, and corporate computer networks eclipse the stars…"—Ghost in the Shell  (1995)

It’s the week of a big cryptocurrency conference in Tokyo, the spiritual center of robots and cyborgs and A.I. and all things techno-futuristic, when the three members of Perfume sit in front of me. To my left is Kashiyuka (or Yuka-chan); to my right, Nocchi; and across from me is A-chan.

Perfume’s new album is called Future Pop. Their live shows incorporate A.I., image mapping, and facial and audio recognition. Their style is sleek with wearable tech. Even their movements seem to suggest that the group is some sort of computer-generated effect on stage. On their last world tour, a fleet of choreographed drones flew in formation over the audience.

On November 8 of last year, they split apart to debut a song, “FUSION”—a Kraftwerk-inspired chugger featuring motorik drums and a robotic chant—with Japanese telecom business NTT Docomo to launch the company’s superspeed 5G network. Nocchi went to New York and Kashiyuka to London while A-chan stayed in Tokyo. Separately, they performed the song on a live telecast on split screens, complete with Perfume’s signature intricately congruent choreography.

The effect was that of a band on the same cosmic plane, pinging through the satellites, merged in the same place at the same time by connectivity, united by waves and electricity, moving together like a digitally stitched three-headed glitch of exquisiteness.

Kashiyuka speaks in Japanese while Aya, the band’s rep and oftentimes translator, relays: “Looking back, [the technology aesthetic] began with our first Tokyo Dome show. After that, the outfits went in that direction, and everything followed. In terms of the music genre that we do, everybody started saying that it would be a good collaboration with the technology—the stage sets, the videos. It all came together gradually. People started saying that we sort of look like androids, like not humans. That’s why we started lighting up our outfits. But when we got our concept concrete, that really opened up our future.”

I wonder what it felt like when people started calling them androids.

“I was happy,” says Kashiyuka.

Happy!?

“Yeah,” she continues. “I thought it was a good thing. With our synchronized dance moves, as a group, it actually represents our character as a whole, instead of having to put our characters out individually. When people started saying that we look like androids, I thought it was a compliment, because that’s exactly what we want people to see.”

My advice on how to get into Perfume: Start with 2008’s Game album, which features the funky-cute sing-along “Chocolate Disco” and the group’s breakout hit “Polyrhythm,” featured not only in the video game Dance Dance Revolution but in the Pixar film Cars 2. From there, Triangle, their 2009 follow-up, features “Love the World,” which is a pretty clear transition into a sleeker, more technology -influenced act.

My introduction to Perfume was through “Spending All My Time,” a single from 2013’s LEVEL3, a track whose syncopated beat is accompanied by a video with a mysterious and obscure choreography that mimics psychic-study and occultist symbolism, leading up to a psychokinetic mind-meld. Future Pop builds on all of this.

 

Take a song like “Tokyo Girl,” an anthem for the women of the city if I’ve ever heard one, where metropolitan malaise (“In an aquarium that doesn’t allow mediocrity/How can I swim pleasantly?”) gives way to a chorus where the modern Tokyo girl goes out on the town “boom-boom” dancing. Or the smooth verses on the title track that give way to a driving beat and a triumphant chorus—a perfect example of “Future Pop.” Or the huge, broken beats behind the catchy “If You Wanna,” or the kawaii “Tiny Baby” that reminds one the group has a history of cute songs.

"I actually only heard [the album] three days ago—we all did. I’ve only heard it twice, because we’ve all been really busy with promo. You’ve probably heard it more than we did.”

It’s important to remember that the members of Perfume, each 29 years old, are veterans, their staying power allowing them to grow up in front of the Japanese public’s eyes. Their first songs were more idoru (idol music is manufactured pop made by teens in Japan), but now they’ve achieved a sort of pop transcendence into sophisticated techno-pop with a message of singularity.

Future Pop is Perfume’s 7th album as the group approaches the 13th anniversary of its major debut song, “Sweet Donuts,” in 2005. A-chan (née Ayaka Nishiwaki) and Kashiyuka (Yuka Kashino) have been together since meeting at a dance school in Hiroshima when they were about 10—nearly 18 years ago. A third member had just dropped out of the group to attend school, when Nocchi (Ayano Ōmoto), who had been at the same school, and admiring the other two girls, joined shortly thereafter, unknowingly forming arguably the biggest group in Japanese history.

There’s some anxiety around the record. It came in a bit late from Yasutaka Nakata, Perfume’s dyed-in-the-wool producer, and one of the most fabled figures in Japanese pop (he also produces Perfume’s peer Kyary Pomyu Pomyu). Nakata has a string of number-one albums, eight in total. Future Pop, by the time of publication is almost certain to be his 9th. But timing is tight, and a hi-tech Japanese arena tour is around the corner.

“Before we heard the entire album, because the schedule was so tight, we had to choose a single, come up with the concept, decide on the outfits and the artwork and shoot the video,” says A-chan. “Then, when we were doing that, after two days of video and photo shoots, we finally got the album. I actually only heard it three days ago—we all did. I’ve only heard it twice, because we’ve all been really busy with promo. You’ve probably heard it more than we did.”

It’s a testament to the machine built around Perfume. Their live shows are spectacles, hugely technological achievements that feature things like the aforementioned drone fleet. In the opening sequence of a show in March of this year, an A.I. analyzed each of their past music videos for similar poses and facial positions to project a glitched-out version of a Perfume video. On a computer, a recording of the concert is unsettling to watch—Perfume does come across as cyborgs, opening a rift into the uncanny valley—but it’s also one of the most unique experiments I’ve ever seen a pop group try.

Later in the show, a moving set with mapped projections turns the stage into a Tron-like computer world while Perfume’s thumping techno plays. Their dances are precise and cyborgian. The choreography is by one of their longest collaborators, MIKIKO, who also creates the dances for the idol-metal trio BABYMETAL, and is rumored to be working on the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics alongside the team who creates Perfume’s forward-thinking sets and technological advances, Rhizomatiks. The machine around Perfume is the best in the country, and maybe even the best in the world, at putting together a total techno-spectacle. Another way of putting it is: Perfume, along with the team around them, is a national treasure in a country besotted with hi-tech.

“We get very interesting reactions from different groups of people, because we have such a broad audience,” says Nocchi, when I ask her about their fame in Japan. “We see our fans meet from different genres of people, and then they actually got married and had kids, and then they brought their kids to our shows.”

What is behind Perfume’s enduring success? Perhaps it’s their commitment to a single vision. Perfume is one of the most constant pop groups, and each member has the same haircut she’s had since…any of them can remember. As the group became popular, Nocchi’s bob spread like wildfire to the heads of young Tokyo women; Kashiyuka’s bangs and long straight hair and A-chan’s wavy, layered locks are equally recognizable on streets of the capital.

“We try to be iconic with each of our characters,” says A-chan, emoting with perfectly manicured long, pink glossy fingernails, taking breaks to sip on a lime boba. “Nocchi always wears pants. I tend to wear dresses, and Yuka-chan wears very short skirts all the time. We haven’t changed our hairstyle or color for years, so everybody will recognize our iconic style. That’s our philosophy behind it. Even our heels are philosophical for us; we always dance in high heels, and have our own heel lines (called “Perfume Dance Heels”) that we produce.”

"Even our heels are philosophical for us—we always dance in high heels."

Soon, it becomes clear that despite all the effort put into their harmony, individually, they couldn’t be more different. A-chan has a presence few people I’ve ever met command, a kind of half-smiling power of sweetness that expands around her like a force field. Nocchi is quiet, and I get an almost geeky-cool vibe from her within seconds, even before I knew she was a gamer, and she also gives off a kind of goth-y darkness. I can tell Kashiyuka has a badass streak, tempered by a calm control.

But I wanted to hear it from them, so I ask them what they think about each other. As an exercise, I’ve asked this of bands and pop groups in the U.S., but rarely have I ever gotten the impression that it was perhaps the first time anyone had asked it. Later, Aya tells me that Japanese press doesn’t often ask groups about their inner lives.

KASHIYUKA: “I think A-chan is so good at involving everybody and makes everybody smile. And the words that Nocchi wouldn’t use is, ‘I can’t do it.’ If something is decided, she just goes for it without fear.”

A--CHAN: “I think Yuka just sees everything, and she knows everybody on the team, like who does what. She knows everything. And Nocchi is a weird person. Beautiful, but very weird. That’s why they’ve been friends forever. She keeps the balance of the team.”

NOCCHI: “Yuka-chan is a great listener, but she’s also very goofy in a way that we do really weird voices of weird characters together. We just have fun together. A-chan, even her dog is nice. When we were just shooting the ‘Let Me Know’ video, I had a solo part that I kept on screwing up at four in the morning. Finally, I got it okay, and then went back to the dressing room. Then her dog came to just be with me. That almost made me cry.”

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