Photo by Ryuhei Shindo, Interview by Vanessa Mitchell
Listen carefully / I have the night / I can’t sleep sometimes
But if I can find the first star in the black sky / then I’ll not be lonely
You are able to have prosperity / So get it!
Because you are Sid Vicious for me, darling!
So go the lyrics to Oreskaband’s “Cooler Society,” a song that might be difficult to understand with or without the above transcription, but that will energize and cheer you up nonetheless. Japan’s hottest export since “Ninja Warrior” (you know what we’re talking about) may not yet be a household name, but a tour, an album and a film just may change that by year’s end.
In 2003, six junior high school girls—Ikasu, Leader, Moriko, Saki, Tae-San, and Tomi—in Osaka Prefecture’s Sakai City decided to form a ska band. Most of the girls started playing music at an early age in the form of hated, parentally-mandated piano lessons (you’ll note there’s no piano in Oreskaband). Saki switched to trumpet in the fourth grade, because she was told the shape of her mouth and teeth would be good for trumpet. Tomi started playing alto horn at age nine but switched to bass guitar when she joined a different band with Saki. Tae-San started playing drums in the sixth grade and played percussion in the middle school brass band club. Because the brass band club was short on trombonists, Leader picked up trombone by default, a pink trombone. After being inspired by a professional saxophonist she saw on TV while in elementary school, Moriko chose tenor sax in middle school. And Ikasu wanted to play drums but took up guitar for Oreskaband, deferring to the skilled Tae-San.
In the States or elsewhere, on music shop pegboards you’ll often see flyers like “Seeking jazz guitarist for ensemble” or “Drummer wanted for hardcore band”—in other words, a band of a certain genre starts looking for instruments to fill it out. But interestingly enough, Oreskaband’s instruments came first. When Ikasu and Tae-San decided to start a new band, Leader wanted in. “I can only play trombone,” she offered.
“Why don’t we start a ska band, then?” replied Tae-San, knowing horn sections go nicely with ska; she’d recently seen the Japanese ska punk band Gelugugu at a music festival, and liked what she heard. Tomi, Saki, and Moriko joined in, and Oreskaband was born.
As you might imagine, ska music wasn’t what most of their junior high classmates were listening to at the time. “More than about playing ska music, our friends were really excited about us starting a band,” recalls Saki. “That was really cool for them,” Leader agrees, “and they would ask me what I played. When I told them trombone, they tended to say, ‘What? Is that usual?’”
Oreskaband developed its sound through trial and error; practicing in a studio or at school, they’d imitate songs featuring horn sections in the beginning, often mimicking The Specials. By ninth grade they’d worked out the kinks, and Oreskaband was ready for their first show. Though some of them were very nervous and their “uniforms”—men’s dress shirts with the band name printed on the sleeves—were too hot, they had fun. The crowd, consisting mostly of parents, relatives, friends and friends’ parents, was very supportive. “That initial push is what lets us still continue today,” Tae-San reflects. “That’s why we’re here now.” Oreskaband quickly built a following with their infectious energy and personality. And they switched to custom-designed short-sleeve outfits by clothing label Mastermind.
The band eventually developed its own sound, highly influenced by 2 Tone and third-wave ska punk bands like Reel Big Fish, with an added J-pop touch. “I think that each era of ska made music that was suitable to that era,” says Ikasu, who writes the group’s songs. Completing her thought, Tae-San, who pens the lyrics, adds, “We are making music for this era.” They are Generation Z to the Y, the fourth wave of ska.
If you’re really having fun, let’s try and have more fun. If you’re really sad, I’ll take you out somewhere and make you happy.
Oreskaband began recording their songs and released their first mini-album, Penpal, in 2005. The 15-year-olds got part-time jobs to raise 20,000 yen (about US$200) each to produce the CD. They drew the artwork and printed the CDs and lyric sheets the night before a show. Part of their expenses included a little blackboard from a 100 yen shop, upon which they’d advertise their CD for sale at shows (still being in school, their local shows were limited to weekends). Penpal had a tremendous effect. Not only did it allow fans to memorize lyrics and listen to the band at home, but it drastically expanded the reach of Oreskaband. An A&R rep from Sony Music Japan bought the CD, and in 2006 Oreskaband signed with the label.
That year, “Hana No Ska Dance,” an early song written in middle school, was used in a TV commercial for the snack Pocky, which advertised the group as much as the product. The band was filmed running with their instruments and performing on a moving train. “This song explains a lot about what we really want to do, what we want people to feel at shows,” says Tae-San, describing the lyrics. “If you’re really having fun, let’s try and have more fun. If you’re really sad, I’ll take you out somewhere and make you happy.”
In March 2006, recording was completed on the band’s mini-album Ore, which was released in July to critical acclaim. In June, the girls recorded a cover version of the ska classic “Monkey Man” with legendary ska trombonist Rico Rodriguez for his Japa-Rico: Rico Rodriguez Meets Japan tribute album. According to Ikasu, Rodriguez was a confidence booster: “He said to us that we really understand what is fun about music.” He also taught them that “music doesn’t belong to anyone; it is something which has to be shared with everyone.” A month after Ore dropped, Oreskaband shared their music outdoors to a crowd of 1,000 at the prestigious Fuji Rock Festival on the Rookie-a-Go-Go stage.
Juggling high school and high popularity as a band was not without its hardships. Students only get Saturday and Sunday off, and the girls could only go out on Saturdays. “Before tests, we had to focus on studying, and we didn’t have enough time for the band,” recalls Leader. “But the staff tried their best to schedule so we could cope with both school and the band.”
Oreskaband graduated in March 2007, which proved to be a busy month. The rocking single “Wasuremono” was unleashed on Japan, and the band’s US debut single “Pinocchio” was digitally released. This track was also used as one of the ending themes for the anime “Naruto.” The girls embarked on their first tour, hitting Austin for [the South by Southwest Music Festival] (SXSW), Los Angeles and San Francisco on the “Japan Nite Tour.” Their performances were electrifying, and the band learned their music transcends any language barrier. “We can’t communicate well with our audience with words, but we can communicate through our music,” says Saki. “I felt like we made friends through music.” Tomi was “surprised to see many people having tattoos of Japanese letters or words with wrong spellings or meanings.”
The band returned to Japan to complete their first Japan tour. Meanwhile, their single “Tsumasaki” was chosen as one of the ending tracks for the anime “Bleach.” The album WAO!! (short for “We Are Oreskaband!!”) hit stores in Japan in May. A second tour of the United States was set for the summer to promote the release in August of their self-titled first US album, compiling songs from Ore and WAO!! The band played at the Anime Expo in Long Beach, where anime otaku got to hear some favorite tunes without rolling credits, and seven shows as part of the Vans Warped Tour. The band remained in the States for three months to work on a film.
I think that each era of ska made music that was suitable to that era,” says Ikasu, who writes the group’s songs. Completing her thought, Tae-San, who pens the lyrics, adds, We are making music for this era.
The 2008 film Lock and Roll Forever chronicles the rise of a semi-fictional all-teenage-girl rock band called Oreskaband from an industrial city in Japan that visits America in pursuit of rock ’n’ roll dreams. Inspired by the real-life Oreskaband, producer Barry Rosenbush gathered his High School Musical partner Bill Borden, writer Peter Barsocchini and actor Lucas Grabeel to create what he describes as A Hard Day’s Night meets Lost in Translation. The producers tapped Canadian Chris Grismer, known for his music videos with Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire, to direct the film, letting him “go nuts” with animated sequences and music segments.
In what may be a foreshadowing of a real-life rise of Oreskaband in America, Ikasu describes part of the shoot: “When we started shooting on the set, the American staff didn’t really know who we were or why we were in the movie, but during the filming of the performance scene, the staff started to understand, and that was fun.” Moriko noticed the same thing: “There were three cameramen, and one of them was in charge. He wasn’t holding the camera, just watching the monitor. Then suddenly, in the middle of our performance, he got really excited, [grabbed a camera] and started shooting it himself. When we performed, everyone got really excited.”
Though the true story of Oreskaband is inspiring enough with a cast of young musicians vivacious enough, the film is not a documentary. The girls raise only one concern about the fictional aspect: as Moriko points out, “In the beginning of the story, the girls have no friends. This is probably the only part of the story we don’t want anyone to believe.” This is not about being perceived as popular; what they’re referring to is the importance of the support of their real-life friends, that energizing “initial push” that Tae-San had commented on earlier. Ikasu adds, “In real life, we had a lot of friends who were really supportive, and also our families, too.”
The year 2008 has been another huge year for the sextet. In addition to the film, the band returned to SXSW in March and played 46 dates on the Vans Warped Tour this time around. Despite a packed schedule, the band has also managed to record another album, due out in October. Though they’ve graduated from high school, the girls need not rely on their schoolgirl charm. Their sound is even more developed but not overly produced, and their stage presence is more engaging than ever. Oreskaband is an inspiring and refreshingly positive force on the world stage.