Swinging Popsicle makes an unlikely link between indie music and anime/video game fandom. While its laid-back retro rock isn’t the typical soundtrack for animated entertainment, the unassuming trio has played at conventions in North America and composed the music for the well-regarded 2009 PC game Sumaga/Star Mine Girl, introducing their 12-year catalogue to a new audience. But singer Fujishima Mineko, bassist Hirata Hironobu and guitarist Shimada Osamu make indie pop with broad appeal: It’s cheerful, melodious and driven by soulful yet understated vocals. As Hirata puts it, “everyone from kids who like to watch anime to older generations can enjoy our music.” On Sept. 27, they performed their second New York City gig at The Studio at Webster Hall as part of the Far East to East Showcase, a concert connected to New York Anime Festival.
The cold weather caught Swinging Popsicle off guard this time. When they played a solo show at the Knitting Factory in 2007, it was on a balmy May night. Shimada soon regretted wearing short sleeves in an unusually biting September.
Sumaga’s manufacturer organized Swinging Popsicle’s appearance at NYAF. For Hirata, it was a chance to return to a city whose talented people inspire him. Or, as Fujishima describes New York: “It’s cool.”
During their stay in the city, the three went to a Yankees game so Fujishima could see hitter Matsui Hideki, who shares her Nomi hometown. Though Fujishima’s not a baseball fan, she enjoyed the game and the outgoing crowd, even though one well-meaning member mistook Swinging Popsicle for Chinese and said, “Nihao!” NYAF’s spectacle also entertained the band; during a walk through the dealers’ room, Shimada whipped out his camera to capture an elaborate Transformers cosplayer.
Swinging Popsicle formed in 1997 when Fujishima and Shimada responded to a newspaper ad about forming a band. Shimada doesn’t remember the origin of the band’s whimsical moniker (“It was 10 years ago!”) but Hirata says it parallels the Rolling Stones’ name because they aspire to their longevity. Sony signed Swinging Popsicle in 1997 after an executive heard Hirata playing their demo at the video store where he worked at the time. From 2001 to 2002, the band released its music on different labels before signing to the independent Flavour of Sound in 2004. Western fans can purchase Popsicle CDs and mp3s from the distribution service JapanFiles.
The band got involved with Sumaga because Hirata was friends with the music producer. The manufacturer Nitro+, was looking to make a game with wider appeal than its usual boys’ love fare, and Hirata offered to provide the soundtrack. Though he was initially hesitant, his bandmates were enthusiastic for the challenge. They based their music off the game’s story and script. (All three Popsicles use Apple computers, so they haven’t had a chance to play it!) Sumaga became popular; users on the 2channel message board voted it the best game and its soundtrack the best game music. In the end, Swinging Popsicle’s members were all happy with the choice, because it got gamers acquainted with their music. “Music audiences are separate from game audiences,” Hirata explains.
Loud Cut, the album Popsicle released last month, mixes video game and indie music. In tribute to Sumaga’s popularity, several songs use the BGM with added vocals, and the game designer contributed the cover art. Five of the tracks are remastered versions of live staples, intended for new fans that couldn’t find the band’s out of print older CDs. Two of those new editions are mono mixes “like the Beatles,” Fujishima explains. “This new album isn’t completely original,” she says. “It’s more of a project.”
Swinging Popsicle signed to Flavour of Sound in part because the label licenses American rock music that they like. The three prefer working for an independent label to a major one because of the freedom. They can set their own release dates and take the time they need to come up with musical ideas. “There was more of an obligation to come up with an idea and create an album,” Fujishima says of their major days. Moreover, they wrote most of their Sony music in Japanese because it was meant for a mainstream audience. Now that they’re independent, Swinging Popsicle can perform music in whichever language they like and think suits an individual song.
Not only has Swinging Popsicle experienced both the major and independent side of the industry, it’s weathering the transition from physical to digital music consumption. The band debuted in the late 90’s, when Japan was enjoying a CD boom and artists like Amuro Namie, Utada Hikaru and B’z released some of the best-selling domestic albums ever. But now the world is in a shift to digital music. Shimada laments the change and wishes people would buy more CDs, but thinks downloads must feel natural to the younger generation the way buying discs felt natural to him. Hirata thinks both formats have their benefits; downloading is convenient but physical media offers better quality sound and artwork. However, Swinging Popsicle doesn’t write their music specifically for CDs or downloads.
The three take much of their inspiration from the English-language music they grew up on. Fujishima’s been a fan of Western music since elementary school, when she watched music videos by Madonna, Wham and others on MTV. Though she had few companions who shared her tastes, Fujishima liked to sing in English and dreamed of fluency. Because everyone in Swinging Popsicle likes English music, Fujishima considers it “in their blood.” (She also studied German in her university years, but embarrassedly claims she’s not fluent.)
Hirata traces his musical influences back to the theme songs for anime he watched as a child, such as Devilman, but his favorite band is clearly the Beatles. He even bought the new, remastered box set—in mono. “I bought it,” he says with closed eyes and a grimace. “It was expensive.” But when he played the CDs in an editing studio and heard the music over high-quality speakers, he thought they were worth the price. No gaming console means Hirata hasn’t gotten to play Beatles: Rock Band though.
Recent gigs have taken the band around the world. On Sept. 5, they played in Korea with the singer Taru, who has covered Swinging Popsicle’s songs. In March 2008, they performed at Mexico’s 32º Convención de Juegos de Mesa y Comics. Many locals had never seen Japanese people before and took photos not only of the band, but their staff as well. The audience during the concert was young and more enthusiastic then what the band was used to, even during slow songs. They kept screaming, “Give me your pick, give me your pick!” even before the show was over, Fujishima says. Hirata had to tell them, “Wait a second!”
Swinging Popsicle held a one-man live called L.A.M.F. II on Oct. 17, the day before Fujishima’s birthday. The title alludes to both an earlier show by Fujishima and fellow musicians and the legendary Heartbreakers’ album of the same name. Since the band thought the original meaning, “Like a Mother Fucker,” didn’t suit their family-friendly image, they took creative license and rebranded it “Like a Mineko Fujishima.” Attendees received t-shirts that resembled the Heartbreakers’ cover art.
When they ask what Japanese bands are popular in the United States, all three members note that the artists that the translator and I mention, such as Hamasaki Ayumi and Melt Banana, have different styles than their music. Hirata finds it interesting that visual kei is popular here after losing influence in Japan. Would Swinging Popsicle change their sound to appeal to American audiences? “We make our own music at our pace,” Hirata says. “We won’t be rushed to be popular.”A special thanks to our translator Yukie Shibata, Hayden of Superglorious, Peter Tatara of NYAF, and JapanFiles.
Official Swinging Popsicle Site – http://www.swinging-popsicle.com/ New York Anime Festival – http://www.newyorkanimefestival.com/ Superglorious – http://www.superglorious.com JapanFiles – http://www.japanfiles.com