Friday March 16 2012 8:00 PM
in association with Heineken Music
'Song For Lisa' featuring Lisa Hannigan single out 3 April 2011
'Joshua' featuring Tom Smith(The Editors) out 6 June 2011
'Controlling Your Allegiance' album out 13 June 2011.
Sometimes you need to challenge yourself to know how good you really are. It’s what the best in business, sport and the arts do to get to the top – and it’s driven by hunger.
The Japanese Popstars are ravenous. Since they first tasted success in 2006 with their first two releases on a small indie dance label, their career has been one smooth, upward curve. But now that line is about to take a sharp rise vertically. Three lads from Northern Ireland – two from Derry, one from Dungannon – who have spent the last two years racking up the air miles as they’ve taken their coruscating live show to all four corners of the globe… and still found time to make the record of their lives with their second album, 'Controlling Your Allegiance'.
The Japanese Popstars – Gary Curran, Declan ‘Decky Hedrock’ McLaughlin and Gareth Donoghue – may have been together for just four years, but they’ve carved out a reputation to rival the biggest names in dance music as a must-see live act and purveyor of raucous, foot-stomping, energetic electronic dance music.
In the two years since their debut album 'We Just Are' dropped on Gung-Ho!, featuring the twitchy, whooshing, big room anthems Sample Whore and Delboy’s Revenge, they’ve gone on two-week long tours of the States, played in Australia, across Europe and, of course Japan – a place that’s especially taken them to their hearts. No surprises there, then.
“It’s the first time we’ve been anywhere and found people waiting for us in our hotel when we arrived,” grins Gareth. “Funny thing is, they are the only interviews we ever do where they don’t ask about the name. They just accept it.”
The name? Let’s get this out of the way as quickly and as painlessly as possible. It was Decky’s idea. A fan of Japanese culture, especially it’s movies, the thought that getting Japan into the name would get them some attention over there.
“I came up with this and thought it would look good on a poster,” explains Decky. “I remember phoning Gary up in the car and asked what he thought. And all I could hear was him laughing.”
But it’s worked. At one stage, The Japanese Popstars were the only westerners in the Japan iTunes chart.
“We have thought that one day we might all move out there and live in a shack on Mount Fuji,” says Gareth, with a giggle.
It’s a hell of a long way from Derry to Tokyo. But The Japanese Popstars story started with the friendship, forged over a love for music and DJing, between Decky and Gary, which has now clocked up over 13 years.
“He’s the music,” says Decky of Gary. “He gave me my first gig years ago and we’d always kept in touch. Gary’s always been a DJ, so we’ve always managed to get on his guest list. Come New Year’s Eve he’s get us in on the door. Then one NYE he sat after his show and let me hear all the tunes he had been working on. And I thought we could really do something here.”
So they began to hang out together and it was at Ireland’s premier music festival, Oxegen, held just outside Dublin, that the idea for The Japanese Popstars began to take shape.
“We were sitting there one afternoon, watching a well known electronic artist,” recalls Decky. “And we just thought we can do better than that. We had that drunken mate conversation – reassuring each other that we could do that. Maybe we could be here in a year’s time playing this for free rather than paying 120 quid to be here. We didn’t, but that was the start of it.”
Gareth came on board when Gary’s interest was piqued by a poster on a messageboard. When Gareth’s CD flopped through his letterbox, Gary realised he had found a kindred spirit, as they were both hammering the same track had heard on a Nick Warren Global Underground mix. Turned out that Gareth was building up his own studio, like Gary.
While Gareth was teaching roomfuls of accountants how to use specialist computer programs, Decky and Gary were working together in the same call centre of well-known UK electrical goods store, going out at lunchtime to listen to tunes in Gary’s car. Decky was a supervisor in computer customer support. Alongside the call centre, Gary was a youth worker, helping out the young and disadvantaged of Derry.
“You know,” explains Gary, the flame-haired DJ, “programs to build confidence, relationship building and looking at the effects of alcohol. And then I’d come in on a Monday morning stinking of drink!”
On the back of the track that was to be their first single, Rodney Trotter, appearing on a messageboard, a promoter at The Trinity Rooms in Limerick got in contact with Decky.
“He said he would give us X amount of money to play it live and we thought ‘Kerching, happy days!’” says Decky. “Then he asked if we could play for an hour. But we only had that one track.” It was February 2006. The gig was in April. Two months to write and rehearse a whole set. That’s when they turned to Gareth, who had proved himself to be a whizz with the laptop and midi controllers, to join in.
On the morning of the gig, after two frenetic months, Gareth’s eight-year relationship ended. All three of the Popstars had been flat out from the moment they woke up until they time they went to bed working on new tunes in preparation for the gig. Gareth spent the eight-hour magical mystery tour from Derry down to Limerick with his head in his hands. Decky didn’t find out until the next day what had happened.
After that – successful– debut gig, Gareth threw all his spare time into The Japanese Popstars.
Following the singles Rodney Trotter and Dirty Popstars On Your Radio, released on Paul Jackson’s Dozer Records, The Japanese Popstars jumped into bed with Gung-Ho!, who promised them an album deal after they had remixed Rob Hawk & MySoul’s ‘So Shockin’’ for them in 2008.
Perhaps informed by the way they wrote in fast forward mode for that first gig in Limerick, The Japanese Popstars wanted to get their music out without delay. The remix commissions had started to roll in too, including one for Groove Armada (‘Get Down’) that they secured after the veteran English house duo played a gig at the same Limerick club that Decky, Gareth and Gary had made their debut.
“They’d heard one of our tracks on Tong,” says Decky. “And Fergie was giving us a lot of support on Radio1. That really helped us.”
All three ‘Japstars’, as they’re nicknamed, held down their day jobs until after 'We Just Are' was released in August 2008. Reviews for the first album saw them compared to Orbital, Chemical Brothers and Underworld (“Which we still don’t get,” says a self-deprecating Decky).
At the time they were still spending every weekend gigging across Ireland, the UK and Europe then coming back to the nine-to-five come Monday.
“That’s why we never get above our station,” says Gary.
“I think it’s lucky we live in Ireland,” adds Decky, “because we don’t really have an entourage and there’s no one to blow smoke up our arses.”
Well, that could change. Big-time remixes have been forthcoming for the likes of Beyoncé, The Ting Tings, Depeche Mode, Editors and Gorillaz. Damon Albarn, Decky says, thought their rerub of ‘On Melancholy Hill’ was his favourite of the whole remix package. They’ve even just accepted a commission for – woooooh – Kylie.
But it’s 'Controlling Your Allegiance', the first fruits of a new deal with EMI, that’s the real leap forward. The trio admit having to sharpen up in every department, not least because they’ve used vocalists for the first time. And not just any old session singer either. First single, Destroy, features an idiosyncratic and eerily compelling vocal from Jon Spencer (of Blues Explosion fame) set atop a squelching, brooding slab of nu-electro that climaxes in a unholy riot of angry synths.
“Most of the tracks on the album started as late night doodlings,” comments Gareth. “Then we develop them out. The vocals on this album were a big challenge because we have never used them before and none of us are trained audio engineers. It was a big learning curve.”
That certainly happened when Decky had the idea of enlisting The Cure’s Robert Smith for one of the rough edits. They asked their management, Gung Ho! if it was possible who said they’d give it a go. Fortunately, Robert went onto the Japstars’ MySpace site, loved what he heard and said he wanted to work with the boys.
The result is Take Forever, which, with its chiming guitar riff, low-slung bass and feint air of melancholia, is a quantum leap from anything that was on 'We Just Are'. It’s the sound of The Cure had they been born in 2006. It nearly didn’t happen, however.
“We sent Robert an email and heard nothing for six months,” explains Decky. “Then randomly we got an email to say that it had gone into his spam folder.”
Over several weeks, with emails and MP3s being slung back and forth – with about 38 different ideas, including a six-string bass guitar bit Robert had laid down – the vocal came together.
Other names to get the special Japanese Popstars treatment include Mercury Prize-nominated Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan on the ghostly, icy, melodic house of 'Song For Lisa' and Chicago house legend Green Velvet who asked The Japanese Popstars to work with him after the lads had DJed with him several times. That led to 'Let Go', a storming, tumultuous, twisted, electro barrage. Earlier in the year they had remixed the Editors. The boys then drafted in the bands lead singer Tom Smith, recording his icy vocals for 'Joshua' in Dean Street Studios.
James Vincent McMorrow, the man described as Ireland’s answer to Bon Iver, the American psych folk singer, contributes his unique falsetto to 'Shells Of Silver'. At 100bpm, it shows The Japstars have a milder side.
Perhaps their favourite track of all, 'Fight The Night', features Morgan Kibby, the American vocalist with ethereal French nugazers-cum-seventies revivalists, M83. As huge M83 fans, the lads were especially made up to have secured Morgan’s services.
“Her voice is so otherworldly,” says Gareth. “When she sent her vocals back it was a jaw-dropping moment. It was then we realised this was such a move on from the first album.”
And that it most definitely is. Too many bands crumble as egos clash and gobs mouth off. That won’t happen with The Japanese Popstars. The sound they make might be brash, loud and in yer face, but that doesn’t extend to the personalities themselves.
As one message from an American fan on their Twitter feed points out, there’s some irony to their name as they are neither Japanese or a popstar. Well, they’ll never be the former. But popstars? On the evidence of 'Controlling Your Allegiance', you wouldn’t want to bet against that now.
THE SUNDAY TIMES: “DANCE MUSIC DARLINGS”
WORD: “LITERALLY AMAZING... THEY’RE INCREDIBLE LIVE TOO”.
NME:“CROWD-PLEASING ORB-MEETS-KRAFTWERK ANTHEMS...PULSATING PRODIGY AGGRESSION... IT’S TIME TO GET THE PILLS IN”.
THE TIMES: “THE FAST-RISING ULSTER MEN COOK UP A JAGGED ELECTRO MONSTER”
MIXMAG: “THE MOST EXCITING NEW ELECTRONIC ACT ON THE PLANET”
DJ MAG: “ONE PART KITSUNE STYLE DISTORTO-RAVE, ONE PART CLASSIC STADIUM DANCE THE LIKES OF WHICH WE HAVEN’T SEEN SINCE ORBITAL”
POPJUSTICE: “F*CKING AMAZING”
THE GUARDIAN: “SINGLE OF THE WEEK: TOTALLY STUPENDOUS MECHANICAL POP MUSIC”
THE FLY: “DAMAGING DEMENTED STUFF INDEED”