“Sometimes we feel naturally trapped in the culture. It affects us on a subconscious level.”

Nisennenmondai are collectively responding to my question on how living and creating in Japan affects their music, and their answer makes perfect sense considering the cultural juxtaposition intrinsic to a place like Tokyo.

Guitarist Masako Takada, bassist Yuri Zaikawa and drummer Sayaka Himeno have been performing and recording as Nisennenmondai for 17 years. Deriving their name from the phrase for the “Y2K bug” which loomed over us in the late ‘90s, Nisennenmondai have become a monolith amongst left-of-centre bands both here in Japan and around the world. Traces of noise, no wave, disco and dub fuse into manually executed machine music through Takada’s polyrhythmic layers of processed guitar, Zaikawa’s thunderous bass playing and Himeno’s life-affirming drums. The commitment, delivery and imagination that Nisennenmondai bring to their craft is quite frankly peerless.

“We provided the raw material for Sherwood to develop the final product”

Having lived in Japan for a fair number of years, it’s become easier for me to recognize the overarching spirit of isshokenmei (一生懸命), which loosely translates as “the will to do your best at whatever it is you do despite even the greatest of odds that may be in your way.” This can be applied to anything from learning to help with daily chores at pre-school to staying late for (possibly unpaid) overtime at a run-of-the-mill office job. When taking into account a situation that involves joint effort, each person involved has an ingrained understanding that their own toils and hard work will serve the greater good. Nisennenmondai truly embody this spirit by making the most out of a bare-bones setup and producing a sound which is truly ethereal, bucking any notion of trying to make themselves more accessible to a pop-oriented audience, which so many acts fall victim to later in their career. Though in the past they have shared bills with bands like Battles, Nisennenmondai themselves credit seeing industrial punks Factory Floor at the Supersonic Festival in 2010 as their much-needed encouragement to continue, after seeing the London band’s kindred blurring of human and machine.

One might say that Nisennenmondai’s spirit animal is a cryptid, an undiscovered creature that mutated from Sonic Youth and ESG and whose primary habitat is the far reaches of the UK sound system archipelago. When attempting to geo-pinpoint their place in the current kingdom of genre-blurring artists, it makes perfect sense to bring someone with the stature and history of Adrian Sherwood into the genealogy. Across his long career Sherwood has worked with a massive list of influential artists ranging from Prince Far I to Nine Inch Nails, not to mention his own production work as part of African Head Charge, and now he applies his dubwise touch to Nisennenmondai’s newest LP, #N/A.

Released this week on Sherwood’s own On-U Sound label, #N/A was recorded in the Red Bull Studios in Shibuya last year, where I met with Takada and Himeno to talk about the dense, layered and visceral album. “This studio has a warm resonance where the bass, drums and guitar were kind of separated but we heard a good, abstract feeling,” said Himeno. “We felt just as relaxed here as in our usual practice studio.”

The band’s previous albums were written with a direction or tone already in mind, #N/A was a very different experience altogether. “First we told Adrian we didn’t have many new songs to record,” recalls Takada. “He said, ‘OK, you can just play two or three songs [during the sessions].’ After that we found out we were going to actually make something more substantial. That then turned into six or seven sessions of recording, and we ended up with an album.”

These free-flowing sessions enabled the band to merge the energy and fluctuations of their live performances into a deep, psychedelic, yet precise record. “We provided the raw material for [Sherwood] to develop the final product,” says Himeno. “My job on this one was to really just add a little bit of flavour,” adds Sherwood. “The extra 10, 20 percent that I could bring just a little bit could add a lot to the band. Because they’re so original I didn’t want to start saying, ‘Do this, do this, do this.’ But on two tracks we did do some experiments together with overdubbing, very subtle overdubbing, very subtle percussion touches. We had a lot of fun doing that. So we created a couple of the tunes and added a different dimension to them. [In terms of] tonality, even, like, single notes in the bass and things like that just to make it even more 3D.”

“They’re so fresh and original that it was effortless for me”Adrian Sherwood

Sherwood’s dubwise sensibilities pervade #N/A and feel complementary to Nisennenmondai’s own aesthetic. On ‘#1’, flanger-infected, palm-muted guitar rings with metallic certainty and skittering hi-hats intersperse with dubbed cymbal crashes to put you into a tunnel-like trance. Bass notes keep a half-step pace amongst the swirling cacophony; it’s startlingly clear that we are treading unknown waters. Further down the rabbit hole, ‘#5’ sputters to life like a scrap metal android from echo chamber drum fills and an insistent bassline; an alternate plane of biomechanical existence.

The band credit Sherwood’s mixing techniques as well as Rashad Becker’s mastering work in developing a rounder overall sound on this record than their previous albums. Sherwood explains he employed an Eventide H9, Binson tape delay and AMS reverb unit throughout the recording to give a warmer, “not so pristine” sound. “I hate overly compressed stuff because it kills the warmth of the recording. I think using compression is all well and good but it tends to be working more for club music, where people want double compression to make it rise above the floor. I prefer something that’s bleeding and jumping out of the speakers at you.”

Sherwood says Nisennenmondai “fit in perfectly” with the bands he has worked with in his nearly four-decade career. “I tended to try to work with bands who are interesting, trying to do something off the cuff. And with them they’re so fresh and original that it was effortless for me. I was literally sparkling up what they do naturally. I think the album will sound great in years to come because it’s a very, very unique sound those girls have got. A unique chemistry.”

Asked for a prediction as to where the band’s sound might mutate in the future, Takada is steadfast about Nisennenmondai’s natural trajectory. “Rather than adding any other instruments or vocals we will continue as we’ve been doing. Manually performing our instruments in emulating mechanical sounds to the best of our abilities. At a base level, [substantial] points wouldn’t really change.”

And as long as the band’s isshokenmei spirit endures, it’s safe to say we’ll continue to reap the benefits of this admirable group effort.

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