In a perfect world, For Tracy Hyde’s Film Bleu wouldn’t be such a rarity. Echoing the spirit of ’90s Shibuya-kei through its carefully curated set of music-nerd references and name-drops, rather than merely aping the boutique-pop sound as many Shibuya-kei inspired acts have saw fit to, it’s an album that could have fit right in during the height of the genre at the turn of the century. However, it’s coming out in December 2016, and the musical landscape has changed drastically in the years since Shibuya-kei ruled the scene.
I met with three members of the band – chief songwriter and guitarist Natsu-bot, bassist Mav and drummer Marcie – in the heart of Shibuya to discuss Shibuya-kei, their new album, and the contemporary Japanese music scene. Their thoughts, and the video for lovely single “Favourite Blue”, can be found below.
It was a cool November’s day when I met with For Tracy Hyde; band leader Natsu-bot (alias of Azusa Suga, who also played in indie-pop act Tenkiame and distributes music through netlabel Canata Records) had picked the iconic Hachiko statue as our meeting place, although when he saw my black Disk Union shopping bag he remarked that we probably should’ve met there instead. There was still a significant crowd – as there always is, so close to the busiest intersection in the world – but you could still get close to Hachiko, and a constant stream of tourists were posing for pictures with the representation of Japan’s favourite dog. Not staying around the statue for long, the band members and I got acquainted and then it was off to find a suitable interview space.
One of the most striking things about Shibuya, for the Shibuya-kei enthusiast, is just how little of the subculture bearing its name still exists in the ward’s central areas. The Tower Records in Shibuya has a small section devoted to Shibuya-kei and its source material (including beautiful vinyl reissues of some choice cuts from Pizzicato Five and Original Love’s back catalogues), but the primary focus of the shop’s displays is currently a novelty miniature frying pan, with which one can make small pancakes with the logo of South Korean boy-band EXO embossed in them. Similarly, the dining selections in the main drag on Center-gai often resemble a Middle American shopping mall moreso than they do an idealized mixture of jet-setting retro chic and Japanese futurism; places like Burger King, Starbucks and McDonald’s have already taken hold, and posters gleefully advertise that a Wendy’s is coming soon.
Among the generalized homogeneity of the Shibuya center-gai, Natsu-bot found us a nice interview spot in Western-style café Coffee Shakan Shuu. With a quaintly affected old-world atmosphere, Shuu’s indistinct reminiscence of a generalized Occidental sensibility made it quite an appropriate place to discuss Shibuya-kei. Natsu-bot did most of the talking, as Marcie was unfortunately feeling under the weather and Mav seemed to be most interested in listening, but all got their chances to present their insights.
The three musicians were each dressed fashionably; to the point where anyone seeing them could probably have guessed right away that they were in an indie band. Natsu-bot wore a thick-knit sweater of wide horizontal stripes in black and yellow, black skinny jeans and vintage New Balance sneakers completing the Brit-pop inspired look; Mav wore jeans and a chambray shirt with a Coca-Cola logo embroidered above the left breast pocket, his thick-rimmed glasses with square frames giving a touch of an academic appearance to his rock-star getup; and finally, Marcie was in all black with a thick muffler around his neck, very befitting of his generally withdrawn demeanor. We all ordered coffee, although only Natsu took any sweetener in his – betraying a bit of a sweet tooth, he also ordered a slice of a rather delicious-looking chocolate cake that he shaved pieces off of throughout the interview.
I started at the beginning; I asked why “for Tracy Hyde?”, wondering what it was about the ’70s cult actress that inspired the group to take her name. Surprisingly, though, the choice of name actually came from a different source entirely. “The band Wondermints had a song called ‘Tracy Hide‘, which I really liked, and I took the title of that song,” Natsu-bot told me, adding that he “changed the ‘i’ into a ‘y’ to make it look more British”, utterly unaware at the time that an actress of that name had even existed. Summing up the reasoning behind the name, he explains “in my imagination, Tracy Hyde isn’t the actress Tracy Hyde, but is the sum of the ideal girl that lives in my mind, and all the songs that our band is making are dedications to that ideal girl”
Mav’s conception of the band is a different one, though. For him, it’s a place to showcase his talents as a songwriter, as well as his mutual respect for Natsu-bot’s ability. “[The group] is a place to make the best songs we can, out of the shared roots that we have as musicians,” Mav said, referring there to the shared musical heritage between him and the group’s chief songwriter. “We come from very similar backgrounds, musically.”
Mav’s main influence is the shoegaze style that can be heard on many For Tracy Hyde songs, such as Film Bleu‘s lead-off single “Favourite Blue.” He didn’t get into shoegaze from a conventionally Shibuya-kei source, though. “I really liked Coaltar of the Deepers, and so I looked up what the genre was and I found shoegaze through that,” he explains, showcasing the diversity of influences that makes For Tracy Hyde’s music so wonderfully appealing. As a stark contrast to the dark sounds of Coaltar of the Deepers, Natsu-bot grew up listening to the Beach Boys, and so it was hardly a stretch for him to gravitate towards the sun-drenched sounds of other Shibuya-kei influences; however, it was only much later that he discovered Japanese artists were making music inspired by the same music he had grown up on. “I got into Flipper’s Guitar because on their Doctor Head’s album they had this song that sampled ‘God Only Knows.’ I heard there was this crazy Japanese band that sampled the Beach Boys, and I thought I wouldn’t like it, but it was actually really cool.”
Drummer Marcie was the only one of the three who got into the music through Shibuya-kei first; “I listened to bands like Cymbals, and these musicians are always making reference to the Western musicians that inspired them,” he says, adding that he “traced these roots” and discovered the genres that formed the stylistic background of Shibuya-kei. It’s appropriate that musicians from different approaches and backgrounds found common ground in Shibuya-kei, as the aesthetic philosophy behind Shibuya-kei has always been one of mixing and matching at heart.
I asked the band if they thought there were any other groups right doing the same kind of thing they were doing; if there’s any other current Japanese acts they could name with the same kind of Shibuya-kei spirit and cut-and-paste attitude they have. While they were unable to name any other contemporary indie bands with a similar approach save for their former vocalist Lovely Summer-chan‘s “pastiche of Weezer, Oasis and other UK bands” (Natsu-bot’s words), they were happy to say that they see a lot of life in the realm of anime music. “We’ve always been big fans of anime music, and in fact Round Table was the first band I ever knew as ‘Shibuya-kei'” Natsu-bot explained, mentioning as well that there’s a distinctively anime-inspired sensibility to For Tracy Hyde’s vocal arrangements. The group has been incredibly impressed with the quality of recent album releases from anime voice actresses such as Kana Hanazawa, whose albums Natsu-bot explains “are full of all these Shibuya-kei guys just doing whatever,” adding “it’s great.”
While the realities of producing and promoting a proper album – For Tracy Hyde’s previous material had largely been made up of amateur recordings released to Soundcloud, and Film Bleu is an utterly gorgeous-sounding studio LP – have worn on the band and its members, they’re still a group of passionate music fans seeking to share the music that they love with the world. Dedications to one’s dream girl, an expression of respect for a fellow songwriter and musician, a tribute to the music of one’s past. Film Bleu is many things, and it excels at being all of them.
Film Bleu comes out December 2 on P-Vine Records in Japan, and internationally through iTunes.