See Pics of Beatles, Stones, U2 and More From Japan’s Top Rock Photographer

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When Koh Hasebe became a rock photographer in the 1960s, the word “rock” didn’t even exist in Japan. “It never even came to mind to try to become a rock photographer,” the 85-year-old lensman tells Rolling Stone in Tokyo. “I was at a dead end as a film photographer — the arrival of rock in Japan gave my career new life.”

Born and bred in Tokyo, Hasebe had gone to Paris to recharge and happened to meet the head of one of Japan’s biggest music publishers. “He offered me the job of shooting the Beatles in London,” Hasebe recalls. “After the Beatles, all my offers came from rock photography. It was just as Western artists began to visit Japan, and I somehow became the go-to guy to document tours.”

The quiet, unobtrusive Hasebe jokes that when he went to his high-school reunion and told his friends he was a rock photographer, they replied, “So, you take pictures of rocks?” It’s an indication of just how alien rock culture was to a Japan that had only just emerged from the ruins of World War II, a time of hardship etched on Hasebe’s memory.

“Rock wasn’t something that decent people listened to,” Hasebe notes. “But for anti-establishment youth, it was a beacon. I was already a bit older, so I was able to view rock a bit more coolly. But it wasn’t as if rock changed Japan overnight. It’s only now that we can look back and see that rock did in fact gradually — but, in the end, greatly — impact Japanese society.”

Over time, rock provided a powerful spur to individuality in a highly conformist society. “Japanese musicians didn’t write songs for themselves at the time, like, for example, Bob Dylan,” Hasebe observes. “Artists weren’t really able to express themselves freely. It was in the Sixties and Seventies that self-expression was born.”

Click below for the full Rolling Stone gallery:

Koh Hasebe recalls documenting legendary artists in Tokyo, London and beyond

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Klein Dytham: Expat architects make Tokyo their own

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Shonan T-Site (Photo courtesy of Nacása & Partners Inc. – Klein Dytham architecture)

When Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham alighted at Narita, little could the budding architects have imagined that, in two decades, they would have left their imprint on Tokyo in the form of some of the city’s most recognizable buildings.

“Visas weren’t easy,” recalls Dytham about their early years of struggle after launching their own firm in 1991. British-born Dytham and Italian-born Klein had arrived in Tokyo in 1988 with scholarships and hopes of interning for one of Japan’s leading architects.

Mark Dytham (left) and Astrid Klein (right)

“We pushed for it, and the authorities were extremely lenient—and if we were a different color, it wouldn’t have happened, I think,” he believes. “There were heartstopping moments when we were flying back into Japan with an office, wondering if they’d let us back.”

The pair were drawn by Japan’s freewheeling architectural spirit and booming bubble economy, and worked in the office of renowned architect Toyo Ito before creating Klein Dytham architecture.

“We feel less pressure as architects here in Japan, because you know a building is only going to be here for 30 years, whereas in London you’re building for 400 years,” Dytham observes. “In London, there’s a whole public debate by people who really don’t know anything about architecture, and that was one of the reasons we came here. We felt restricted coming out of college in London.”

Fast-forward two decades, and the modern-yet-playful Klein Dytham look can be seen across Tokyo in buildings like the Harajuku Q Plaza and Daikanyama T-SITE, the latter of which we sit in, enjoying a lunch in the cozy complex of cafés and shops anchored by a Tsutaya bookstore. And architecture is just the beginning of KDa’s activities.

There is also PechaKucha, a TED-like presentation night whose signature “20 images x 20 seconds” format now takes place in 800 cities worldwide, as well as cutting-edge Roppongi performance space SuperDeluxe, where PechaKucha was born a decade ago.

Harajuku Q Plaza

Unlike many starry-eyed artists and architects who come to Japan seeking Zen and bamboo, Dytham says it’s Tokyo’s protean energy that provides their inspiration. “Our aesthetics don’t come from traditional architecture, but from a humanistic point of view,” he offers. “We’re Tokyo architects. Sure, we see the temples—but we get inspired by Harajuku, Shibuya … contemporary currents in the city. We try to draw people in and lift their spirits.”

Being foreign works both for and against Klein and Dytham. “We see Japan in a very different way than Japanese,” Dytham says. “We see things they can’t see. For example, a standard taxi in Japan … you’ve got lace and gloves, automatic doors—but a Japanese person sees nothing. Although we’re all building in Japan, the same influences come out different.”

“Some say our work is easily read,” Dytham laughs. “When we show a model, we can’t explain it with fancy Japanese architectural speak, it has to speak for itself. Here at Tsutaya too, it has to speak for itself. There’s a massive T. We drew the T in the first three to four minutes of the briefing. Everyone understands a T. It’s storytelling through architecture in simple form. It’s fun and easily read, even by kids. [The] Japanese seem a very serious race, but they actually have a very good sense of humor.”

The love for constant renewal gives Dytham mixed feelings about the last vestiges of postwar Tokyo now being modernized—some say robbed of its essential spirit—with wide boulevards and quake-strengthened structures.

Home for All in Soma City

“People say it’s slash and burn,” he says, “but they’re making the city safer and more efficient. In an earthquake-prone country like Japan, this renewal of the buildings is useful, and could be seen to save the city in the future. It’s tough about places like Shimokitazawa and the Okura, but Japan’s always been like that. You make things of wood, they burn down, and they just rebuild, like Ise Shrine. And in Tokyo, there is no historical context anyway.”

With a building in the works at Ginza’s main crossing and several T-SITES in various states of planning and completion, times are good for Klein Dytham following a brutal patch after the financial crisis and disaster.

“What’s happened is the Olympics,” Dytham says. “It was an amazing thing to do because the country collapsed in on itself after the disaster, and the Olympics has spurred a huge amount of works for us. We’ve even now got an Olympic mondai—construction costs are thirty to fifty percent more because everything is in short supply.”

Which leads to the inevitable question as to Dytham’s thoughts on the Olympic stadium fiasco.

“It was a bad brief,” he answers diplomatically. “The architect [Zaha Hadid] built to the brief, which was over-spec’d to the site. It got out of control—they could have learned lessons from London where they made so it can be downsized after the Olympics. But they were obviously looking for a showcase project. It was convenient they chose an overseas architect so there wouldn’t be any backbiting over the job, which was a shame because there are many brilliant Japanese architects. It was a political decision.”

Räfven: The Swedish klezmer band’s Martin Nurmi on bringing back the dinos

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One of the joys of Japan’s biggest rock festival is visiting the small stages that dot Naeba Ski Resort, between the mammoth lawns where the headliners perform, and happening upon unknown bands.

So how did an obscure Swedish klezmer collective come to be a star of the festival?

Martin Nurmi

“It started when we met Jason at Glastonbury in 2008,” saxophonist Martin Nurmi says from on the road in Sweden. Nurmi is speaking of impresario Jason Mayall, who boasts a long connection with England’s Glastonbury festival as well as its Japanese sister event Fuji Rock.

“Jason invited us to play his after-party. He said, ‘If you play for me now, I’ll bring you to Japan.’ We trusted him and he followed through, and that’s how we ended up at Fuji Rock in 2009.”

Eight-member outfit Räfven (pronounced “raven”) bowled audiences over that year with their combustible blend of East-European Jewish klezmer and Gypsy music, juiced with the spirit of punk and ska. The group played eight sets and have been back to Japan four times, including an encore at Fuji Rock 2015.

The life of a hardworking Swedish klezmer band isn’t a simple one—wedding gigs and day jobs come with the territory—but Räfven have managed to keep it together since 2003.

“We started out as a street band and didn’t have deep thoughts about which songs we chose,” Nurmi recalls in gently accented English. “We just found we liked the klezmer and Romany traditions, and everyone in the band was composing with inspiration from all these traditions.

“We’ve been together 12 years,” he adds. “It’s pretty impressive and crazy for an eight-person band. We are mostly freelance musicians doing other kind of work, but there’s a lot of time spent together and a lot of love in this band. It’s like a marriage—but with eight people.”

Tonight’s concert is a sedate sit-down event for a classical music audience, but gigs have bordered on the bizarre: one promoter asked them to perform from up a tree. “It was a restaurant opening party, and they wanted us to climb the tree outside the restaurant and play,” Nurmi laughs. “I think it was a better picture in their head than the reality, but we tried—and I’m scared of heights.”

Räfven’s forthcoming Japan tour sees them promoting their new album Bring Back the Dinos. “We stretched out with longer songs and melodies this time, and changed the instrumentation a bit too,” explains Nurmi. “Sometimes, we just had this feeling the dinosaurs will run the world better than humans, and also we are kind of old and now dinosaurs in the band ourselves, so you can look at it from different perspectives.”

For Nurmi, in its own small but determined way, Räfven has meant an opportunity to use music as a springboard to connect with people around the planet—many of whom he can’t even communicate with verbally.

“Music makes people happy, but this specific music—folk music—belongs to all of us,” he believes. “You can feel the connections between the different folk traditions—for example between Irish and American folk, and I think it’s also true with our style of music, it’s easy to connect to in one or another way. It may seem weird, but I think there are even connections with folk music in Japan. 

“Music is the best kind of language,” he concludes. “I’m not so good at any other language. It’s a language for the mind, body, and soul—everything. And it’s so important to connect with each other through music. For me it’s a dream.”

Nisennenmondai: Japan’s hippest instrumental rock exports go electronic

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They don’t sing anime songs or wear uniforms, and they aren’t part of the “kawaii” boom. But instrumental rock trio Nisennenmondai—Japanese for “the Y2K bug”—are one of Japan’s hippest musical exports. Metropolis caught up with guitarist Masako Takada and drummer Sayaka Himeno in Tokyo to hear about collaborating with U.K. electronica engineering wizard Adrian Sherwood on their hypnotic new album #N/A.

Where are you at present, and what do we find you doing?

Sayaka Himeno: In Tokyo.
Masako Takada: At home; just woke up.

What brought the three of you together, and what keeps you together?

SH: We met each other in band club at our university.
MT: Probably the fact that we are not too musician-like helps us stay together. All of us are very honest and serious, and share responsibilities without thinking too much about it.

Your music has a repetitive techno quality. Why use live instruments, instead of computers?

MT: We want to pursue the possibilities that only live instruments have rather than using predictable sounds. Making repetitive music by humans creates a sense of instability and uniqueness that you wouldn’t achieve if you used computers.

What was your first impression of Adrian Sherwood?

MT: I thought he seemed gentlemanlike and kind.

Tell us about the experience of having him mix you live in Tokyo.

SH: During the performance, we couldn’t hear the mixed sound from the monitors onstage, so didn’t really know how it sounded. It looked like the audience was reacting to parts that I wasn’t expecting, which made me nervous. But I listened to the recorded audio and found that he was able to maximize our songs and lay on just the right amount of effects.

Why did you decide to record together?

SH: To be honest I only knew his name but [label] Beatink brought up the idea and I thought, why don’t we give it a try?

MT: I knew Adrian, and even though I had no idea how it would work, I thought he was the right match for our music.

How was the experience different than producing yourselves?

SH: We just released our album earlier this year and this idea came to us on short notice, so we didn’t have any new songs. They were like, “Just do a session and give it a try.” So we did, but I had no idea how this would result in an album.
MT: It was completely different from producing ourselves. We normally write music in advance, but for #N/A, almost everything was session-based. Adrian had some ideas for parts, so some were improvised on the spot.

How does #N/A evolve from your previous albums? Tell us about the making of one song on #N/A.

MT: I forgot which song it was, but Adrian asked me to play like I’d gone crazy and I tried to do so. He seemed very happy with it so I remember feeling relieved.

Tell us about working with New York rock band Battles.

SH: It was 2003 when we first played together in Shimokitazawa. Since then, we’ve opened their shows in Japan, and they also come to our shows in NYC. In 2011, they took us on their U.S. tour and we also played together at Shibuya AX, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and London Forum. Thanks to Battles, we’ve had chances to play to bigger audiences, so we’re really grateful for that.

Kazutoki Umezu: Young Turk sax explorer as elder statesman

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When Metropolis connects with Kazutoki Umezu at his home in Tokorozawa, the jazz saxophonist is coming off a five-night stint at venerable Shinjuku jazz club Pit Inn. Umezu has hosted annual Oshigoto (“Big Job”) residencies there for two decades, an indication of the central spot the still-babyfaced 65-year-old occupies on Japan’s jazz scene.

“In the past, I did 20 nights in a row—so this is mellow in comparison,” he laughs. “I wanted to do a week, but the timing didn’t work out this year.”

Oshigoto gives Umezu a chance to stretch out and call together the diverse ensembles that characterize a wildly eclectic career. Over the years, there’s been the jazz-rock-tinged Kazutoki Umezu Kiki Band, the Eastern European-flavored Komatcha Klezmer, collaborations with avant-garde dancers, and guest spots with everyone from Japanese rock legends RC Succession to the late American blues lion B.B. King.

The Sendai-born Umezu—who often returns to play for evacuees in Miyagi Prefecture—turned on to jazz in the late ’60s. It was a time when the music was everywhere in Japan.

“I wasn’t thinking to become a jazz musician,” he recalls, noting that students of his generation came of age at Japan’s numerous jazz kissa coffee shops—think Haruki Murakami. “I was exposed to the music of composer Toru Takemitsu, and became interested in improvisation. I was studying classical clarinet, but then I wanted to try improv. I asked my jazz-playing friends, and they said, ‘Learn jazz, it’s all about improvisation.’”

Happening to buy an album by the late, great free-jazz sax master Ornette Coleman, Umezu became hooked by the adventurous spirit of the scene. Like many aspiring Japanese jazz musicians, he set out for New York City in 1974, where he began playing with second-generation musicians of New York’s fertile downtown scene, like Lester Bowie and David Murray.

Returning to Tokyo in 1976, Umezu fast became a linchpin of Japan’s avant-garde, with a gutsy sax sound and freewheeling musical appetite. These days, he finds himself in the position of being a jazz elder statesman, and ambassador for Japan’s jazz community overseas.

Intriguingly, Umezu says the audience for jazz in Japan currently trends heavily toward women. “I’d like to know myself why more young men aren’t listening to jazz anymore, but women are,” he says. “Men seem more interested in games or anime or idol music. I’m not sure why, but women seem to have a more adventurous musical spirit than men these days.”

Not that Umezu is overly worried about pulling an audience. He’s playing over 20 dates the month we talk, and observes that Tokyo probably has more live jazz clubs than any city on Earth.

“Some of them are rock concerts where I appear as a guest,” he says. “The more different styles I play, the more sense of freedom I have in my own playing. I feed off other musicians … I can’t imagine playing with the same people all the time.”

Umezu’s newest offering is his all-horn band Chaba Brass’ Kabuongkyoku—an old term for “song and dance” (“kabu” has the same kanji character as in “kabuki”). It’s an astringent dose of horns and strutting rhythms, fronted by Umezu’s restless sax explorations.

Yet Umezu is cognizant of time’s passage. These days, a song’s inspiration can come from a reminder of mortality.

“My newest song is about Mitsuo Omura, who produced many of my international tours over the years,” he reflects. “He died in November. It’s incidents like the death of a friend that bring out new songs in me these days. It’s a sad waltz, with a European flavor.”

Fuji Rock vs Summer Sonic: Japan’s biggest music fests face off

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The clash of fests (Artwork by Adam Garwood)

Japan’s marquee rock festivals, Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic, started along similar lines: sprawling outdoor affairs near Mt. Fuji that cater to all visitors. But almost two decades later, they’re radically different creatures. Metropolis lines the two up to see just how distinct they’ve become.

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The skinny

Fuji Rock at Naeba Ski Resort

Eminem once headlined Smash’s Fuji Rock Festival, but it’s hard to imagine that happening now as Smash boss Masa Hidaka’s preference these days is for stadium-scale rock bands that can bring out a broad demographic. With Japan’s youth population dwindling, the aim is to cater to several generations of music fans.

The cost of travel and accommodation for punters attending Fuji is considerable, limiting attendees to settled employees with disposable income and a still-large number of younger folk who scrimp and save for a once-a-year blowout.

Ch-ch-changes

The big development this year is the end of Fuji Rock’s Orange Court stage. When the festival exploded in its early years, the stage emerged as a locus for world music, funk, blues, and jazz. With audience figures down last year, Smash seems to have made the decision to consolidate—but that still leaves it with thirteen stages.

Headliners

Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters
Dave Grohl’s indefatigable rawk machine recently released Sonic Highways, an ambitious “musical map of America” accompanied by an HBO documentary. Grohl is always psyched to be in Japan, and can be counted on to crowd surf his way to the soundboard. Pioneering artists, they are not; yet they carry the ’90s alt-rock torch with, at the very least, a sense of dignity.

Muse
A venue as big as Fuji’s Green Stage requires an act as bombastic as England’s Muse. By the time you read this, Matthew Bellamy’s behemoth will have released its new Drones—a troll through a world, Bellamy said on Twitter, of “psychopathic behavior with no recourse.”

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Sure, compared to brother Liam’s now-defunct Beady Eye, they got the songwriting talent out of the Oasis breakup. But how many songs can you name? Time to bone up. Their second and latest album is the self-deprecatingly titled Chasing Yesterday.

Survivor awards

Motorhead

Motorhead
Lemmy’s U.K. metal machine rages on, 40 years since their founding as the pioneers of the “new wave” of British heavy metal.

Happy Mondays
35 years later, Manchester rave squad has survived its days of Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, an album they plan to haul out on tour later this year.

Todd Rundgren
Having produced The Band’s Stage Fright and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, 67-year-old pop wunderkind Rundgren also penned his own hits, like “Hello, It’s Me.”

Picks

FKA twigs

FKA twigs
A sinuous British mixed-race Björk for the electro era, FKA’s slithering temptations are not to be denied.

Royal Blood
Drum ‘n’ bass/rock duo blithely smashes together grunge, rap, and clichés of alt-rock. Think Rage Against the Machine meets Jack White.

Ride
A less egotistic, more likable and tuneful Stone Roses on the comeback trail.

Of Monsters and Men
Tween rock, yet consistently imaginative.

Galactic featuring Macy Gray
Incomparable New Orleans funk meets gravel-voiced soul singer for hire.

Local color

Sheena Ringo

Sheena Ringo
Her thin, wavering vocals are an acquired taste, but the Fukuoka chanteuse’s unwavering ambitions are to be applauded.

Hiromi Uehara Trio
Jazz supergroup led by the irrepressibly virtuosic pianist known worldwide simply as “Hiromi.”

Clammbon
Candy-voiced outfit blends rock, pop, and electro with sometimes sublime results.

Jim O’Rourke and Gaman Gilberto
Veteran Chicago experimentalist, one-time Sonic Youth member, and longtime Tokyo expat meets his mysterious alter ego.

Fun FAQ

  • First festival: 1997 event at Fuji Tenjin-yama Ski Resort headlined by the Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers was canceled midway due to a typhoon.
  • Stages: Five main stages, eight smaller stages
  • Bands: 80 per day
  • Customers: 120,000
  • Staff: Approximately 2,100, including volunteers
  • Buses: 80 buses, 30 coaches on daily rotation
  • Hotel rooms for bands: 3,460 rooms required over the festival
  • Porta-potties: 450
  • Food: 120 official food vendors
  • Beer: 150,000 cans sold
  • Sound systems: 20 installed, big and small
  • Campers: 10,000 per day
  • Circus performers: Approximately 15
  • Most unusual tour rider: A helicopter—for a DJ who never came
  • Most “rock” thing a band has done: Completely smashed their executive Portakabin

(Thanks to Smash’s Johnnie Fingers.)

Info

  • When: July 24-26, 2015
  • Where: Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata
  • Tickets: ¥16,800 (one day)-¥39,800 (three days)

www.fujirockfestival.com

Survival kit

  • Galoshes or rubber sandals
  • Raincoat, preferably Gore-Tex
  • Camping chair
  • Flashlight

Tip: Arrive Thursday morning for a level campsite and the Thursday-night bon odori pre-party

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The skinny

Summer Sonic at Makuhari Messe

Creativeman’s first Summer Sonic featured James Brown. These days, the headliners could be Brown’s grandkids. Creativeman honcho Naoki Shimizu caters to the tween-to-twenties bracket, which still makes up a reasonable fraction of the Tokyo and Osaka megalopolises where he hosts Summer Sonic. Easily accessible urban venues make for a wallet-friendly day out, but for those who seek the full festival experience, the addition of Friday and Saturday all-nighters effectively makes Summer Sonic a three-day festival.

Ch-ch-changes

A new development is the integration of Hostess Club—an indie rock fest hosted by promoter and distributor Hostess—into Summer Sonic’s lineup as the Saturday all-nighter. The event features the live edition of Thom Yorke’s latest solo project, the intriguing Thom Yorke Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Spiritualized, and more acts associated with Hostess.

Headliners

Pharrell Williams

Imagine Dragons
My nine-year-old son’s favorite band, which gives you an idea of Summer Sonic’s target demographic. Hey, half a billion YouTube views don’t lie. 2013’s Rolling Stone Band of the Year.

Pharrell Williams
Time for Tokyo to get lucky—or happy? Pharrell has been huge in Japan ever since his Neptune and N.E.R.D. days. He’s also tight with Bathing Ape fashion icon Nigo, making this a homecoming of sorts.

Ariana Grande
With her four-octave range and belief in Kabbalah teachings, Floridian Grande covers all the pop-tart bases from Mariah Carey to Madonna. Her winsome, corporate sponsor-friendly appeal has made her a regular since her first Japan visit on New Year’s, 2013.

Survivor awards

Manic Street Preachers

Manic Street Preachers
20 years since their definitive album The Holy Bible was released, the Manics round out a year of shows performing the disc.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Black Keys et al. owe a major debut to these originators of postmodern skronk-blues, who have just issued Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Party 2015.

The Original James Brown Band
Longtime JB associate leads the last band James Brown assembled before his death in 2006.

Zapp
Roger and Larry Troutman may be gone, lost in the murder-suicide carried out by Larry, but the mantle of Zapp’s talkbox ele-funk is carried on by surviving brothers Lester and Terry. Both the James Brown Band and Zapp appear as a collaboration with Billboard Live.

Picks

Ariana Grande

D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Modern soul icon returned last year after 15 years with the highly-rated, socially-conscious Black Messiah.

Wolf Alice
North London quartet are garnering all sorts of accolades, thanks to the delicious, dreamy vocals of Ellie Rowsell. Their debut disc My Love Is Cool will be on the shelves by the time you read this.

Olly Murs
A lily-white Bobby Brown—and why not?

Chemical Brothers
Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons brought stadium-scale electronic music performances to the masses long before EDM—and they’re not slowing down. Born in the Echoes is out in July, and “Go,” featuring Q-Tip, is already racking up views on YouTube.

Asian Calling
Summer Sonic’s Asian stage offers a rare chance to take in performances by determined young bands from China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia.

Local color

Babymetal

Androp
Likably crunchy power-pop dashed with hints of electro and post-rock.

Babymetal
27 million views for “Gimme Chocolate!!” means Japan’s latest musical export, the metal-idol act, must be hitting the right notes with someone out there.

Kazuyoshi Saito
Old-school singer-songwriter got away with writing a Fukushima protest song and still carries on a mainstream Japanese music career.

Fun FAQ

  • First festival: 2000 event at Fuji-Q Highland amusement park, headlined by James Brown and Green Day
  • Stages: Six music stages, plus two entertainment stages
  • Bands: About 100
  • Customers: 120,000
  • Food: About 300 stalls
  • Staff: 3,000, not including
    vendor staff
  • The most “rock” thing a band has done: Nine Inch Nails performed in a thunderstorm

(Thanks to Creativeman’s Yoshinari Hirayama.)

Info

  • When: Aug 15-16, 2015
  • Where: Makuhari Messe
  • Tickets: ¥15,500 (one day), ¥28,500 (two days), ¥30,000 (platinum ticket); Sonic Mania: ¥10,500; Hostess Club All-Nighter: ¥8,500

www.summersonic.com

Survival kit

  • Hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Neck towel

Tip: To get a seat on the jammed trains on your return to Tokyo, take the train one stop outbound from Makuhari, cross the tracks, and board an inbound train.

TV On the Radio: A member down, the Brooklyn band is wiser if not wearier

It’s been almost a decade since Metropolis last talked with TV On the Radio. In 2006, the quintet were the latest darlings of the exploding Brooklyn indie rock scene—part of it, but with a lush sound distinct from the disco-punk leanings of many Williamsburg bands of the era.

Nine years later, TVOTR are, if not wizened, then wiser and more reflective in the wake of the death of bassist Gerard Smith, who died of lung cancer in 2011. Their new album, Seeds, is the first recorded without his presence.

Tunde Adebimpe

“You do a certain amount of creative work with someone who’s basically a family member, and it shifts the notion of what can be accomplished in the band that had five members,” singer Tunde Adebimpe says from their tour stop in Oakland. “For me, when someone passes away I almost think about them more than when they were alive. That’s how your heart is connected to friends. But in terms of music, he was not somebody who liked to make bullshit; so we’re conscious of that now.”

Adebimpe plays down the direct effect of Smith’s death on the album, but considerations of love and loss are central to the urgency of Seeds. On the elegiac, synth-driven “Careful You,” for example, Adebimpe sings “I know it’s best to say goodbye, but I can’t seem to move away.” It’s a sentiment that could be applied as equally to a disintegrating love affair as to the death of a friend.

Having absorbed Smith’s passing and elected to continue on, the four remaining members of TVOTR—Adebimpe, producer/guitarist Dave Sitek, guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone, and drummer Jaleel Bunton—are currently in a sweet spot. Seeds has been nicely received as a return to form, and Adebimpe says they’re having a blast touring for the first time in several years.

“We’re in a place now where we realize the value of having been able to pursue the band for as long as we have, and the good fortune to have an audience to sustain us,” he says. “We recognize how special that is—because we don’t make the most accessible music. Bands that are willing to explore as much as we do are not always rewarded with a career, and we realize it’s a super lucky thing.”

TVOTR’s music is unconventional, but on a song such as, for example, “Happy Idiot,” it’s close enough to mainstream at times that one can imagine a record exec pushing them in an out-and-out-pop direction. That’s exactly what happened, says Adebimpe. “We’ve been advised a lot to tone things down to find a wider audience, mostly by people in the music industry,” he explains. “They’ll say, ‘If you would only do this and that …’ You have to look at them and tell them it’s like teaching a fish to breathe air. We just don’t do that.”

Despite the gloss of Sitek’s production work, when you look at TVOTR, you see three aging black guys and one geeky white one—not exactly the recipe for mainstream marketing success. Yet, they’re not really part of the black rock movement pioneered by outfits like Bad Brains, either.

“Thinking about Bad Brains or Living Colour, anytime you have an example of someone who looks like you, it’s helpful to a young person,” Adebimpe recalls about his entry into the rock world. “But I’ve never considered us strictly a rock band, because, if we were, we’d probably have a few more awards by now. There are a lot of rock bands with people of color in them now, but with genres melding, it’s become diffuse.”

Adebimpe says TVOTR are looking forward to their first visit to Japan since a quick solo tour and appearance at Summer Sonic those many years ago. He says these days crowds are asking for “Staring at the Sun” off Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, and “Wolf Like Me” off Return to Cookie Mountain.

“We didn’t know what we were doing with those songs,” he laughs. “They just showed up at a time when a lot people connected with them. It was a fresh sound even though we didn’t realize it—we just knew we liked it.

“The best songs come as epiphanies. It’s like seeing a painting that might look dashed off, but it seems more alive than something that’s been labored over for years. I think it’s because you’re getting a message and you jot it down as quickly as you can. You capture the message, and the immediacy of how it’s put down carries through to the song. Especially with new wave and punk—it’s so earnest and barebones, it’s the only thing they possibly could have done, and the energy of that music is still palpable.”