Band of the Rising Sun
On a trip that could've been scripted for a Hollywood blockbuster, breakout Seattle septet U.S.E trigger mass mania in Japan.
How the Heaven Did They Get Here?
United State of Electronica are a 14-legged sonic love machine. Their methods have been phenomenally successful since they formed by accident in 2002 from the core of baroque pop band Wonderful--so successful that the members find themselves gearing up for a six-day, two-venue tour of Japan's largest cities, Osaka and Tokyo. After charming several major-label reps at SXSW in March and scoring a hit single in Japan earlier this year, and hot on the heels of Sonic Boom Records' reissue of U.S.E's self-released, eponymous debut, the fun-loving septet are poised to become Seattle's next breakout act.
U.S.E's ascent has resulted from relentless gigging and hustling their album themselves to area stores; they've sold more than 10,000 copies with no distributor. Now that Sonic Boom and Japanese label Side Out have picked up the disc, things are spiraling ever upward for U.S.E. Momentum continues to build with features and reviews in national glossies like Spin and Rolling Stone and in online tastemaker Pitchfork.
U.S.E--guitarist/keyboardist Jason Holstrom, keyboardist/vocalist Noah Star Weaver, guitarist/keyboardist Peter Sali, bassist Derek Chan, and drummer Jon e. Rock--met at Seattle Pacific University in the mid '90s. All except Chan and singers/dancers Amanda Okonek and Carly Nicklaus played in pop-rock bands Lincolns and Wonderful before they chanced upon the embryonic idea of U.S.E. In contrast to Wonderful's fussed-over, lush sunshine pop, U.S.E's music arises out of spontaneous jamming channeled into compositions designed to levitate you on chords of euphoria and beats of bliss. It's a pure distillation of the pumpin' disco kitsch of Daft Punk's Discovery, Beach Boys' pop sophistication, and Andrew W. K.'s irrepressible uplift.
U.S.E are totally sincere in their all-consuming love of fun music. Their glowing demeanors suggest their way leads to intense contentment, haters be damned. And sometimes, like on this Japanese tour, the intangible power of their music can change lives. At least for a couple days.
April 6, Sea-Tac Airport
U.S.E's most flamboyant member, Noah Star Weaver, strolls onto the Boeing 747, beaming as he stows his spray-painted pink luggage and admitting the band members are all Japan virgins. Weaver's sharp-featured face never loses its grin.
Much is at stake for U.S.E. "We really feel like we have to prove ourselves," Holstrom says. "Japan has already been so great to us based on our record, so I feel pressure to give them a show that lives up to it or more."
From Seattle the band takes a nine-hour flight to Tokyo's Narita airport, and then a shorter flight to Osaka--the only holdup occurs when the U.S.E party is stopped at security and the bag with the tambourines repeatedly sets off the alarm.
April 7, Osaka
Once in Osaka, we take a taxi to our hotel. Holstrom peers out the window and says, "The whole town looks like a computer game. If it rains, the whole city will melt."
After checking into the Green Plaza Hotel, U.S.E roam around Osaka seeking refreshments. But the search is incredibly hard, as English is only sparingly used on products, menus, and signs. Without our guides--Side Out honcho and roly-poly bon vivant Takeshi Matamura, publicist Hide Hirayama, and tour promoter Keita Iwai--we'd be bumbling our way into dubious digestive situations and regularly getting lost. Japanese cities are not plotted on a grid and unless you can read the language, your only hope is to have a great memory for landmarks. Clueless Americans end up smiling a lot, waving credit cards hopefully, and saying "sumimasen" ("excuse me for being an ignoramus").
In the evening we gather at the Hi-i-ki-ya restaurant, where the tour organizers treat us to an insane 14-course meal including sashimi, squid, sea urchin, pitchers of beer, and carafes of sake. It must've cost as much as the GNP of Guam. The band gamely tries everything, though Sali regrets trying to chew the sea urchin's spiky outer shell. The Japanese are world-class drinkers, and with Matamura leading the way, countless toasts are made, topped off with shouts of "kanpai!" ("cheers!").
April 8, Osaka
First stop on the pre-gig promo push is the HMV record store. A huge, brightly lit U.S.E sign bearing the Japanese-only Party People EP artwork occupies a central area of the shop. The turnout is sparse, but those who are there noticeably perk up when U.S.E enter the store. The disc promptly starts playing over the PA as the group signs autographs for HMV's staff. An adorable couple buys Party People and gets it inked.
We move on to Syft Records, where U.S.E sign an autograph for a dude looking to be near 40. The same guy follows U.S.E to Tower (the band later learn that he's an obsessive autograph hound who sells his signed wares for healthy profits), where more signatures are dispensed. The band glance at glitzy Japanese rock magazines with U.S.E features, none of which they can read. Publicist Hide has been diligently working for U.S.E and it pays off: On Monday, the members will do eight interviews for print, radio, and television, and two photo shoots.
Following the record-store roulette, U.S.E sightsee in Amerika-Mura, an Osaka 'hood abounding with funky boutiques playing hiphop, and get hit up for more sigs. The band members are uniformly gracious, trying out their rudimentary Japanese phrases and bowing respectfully to their admirers. It's not quite Beatlemania, but U.S.E have the gratifying experience of having people thousands of miles away from Seattle showering them with devotion.
Most of the shops in this area sell Western clothes, but there are also some products that could only arise from Japan's obsession with cuteness. Okonek purchases a pink container in the shape of a bunny rabbit, thinking it's bubble-bath soap. It turns out to be toilet-bowl cleaner. We spy a shop called Love Smile, and it sounds like an ideal title for U.S.E's next album.
April 8, Osaka, Club Noon
Club Noon's a dingy, dank, narrow box and trains roll loudly overhead with regularity. As the guys sound-check, I approach U.S.E's female contingent, who are discussing what outfits they'll wear at tonight's gig. They opt for short, tight skirts, saucy mesh gloves, and in Nicklaus' case, a form-fitting bodice.
"We've had one fight in three years," claims Okonek. Nicklaus agrees, "We get along really well--better than my other band [the Catch] does… I'm afraid you're gonna write an exposé about how we're really not always happy." But they really are this happy. That's the scary part.
April 8, Osaka Green Plaza Hotel
After sound check, U.S.E do an interview with Music Japan TV in the hotel lobby for a show called Thunder Beats (gotta love the Japanese). The questions are astoundingly banal, but this exchange shines:
Interviewer: "What kind of band would you like to be in the future?"
Holstrom: "We want to appeal to everyone in the world."
Rock: "Especially Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme."
April 8, Osaka, Club Noon
Pre-show, Rock gets really serious, stretches, cracks his knuckles, and prays. Five minutes before show time, U.S.E whoop and shout, whipping themselves into a frenzy, standard operating procedure for them. Chan pours water over his head. There's a group hug, including a prayer they recite before every gig that Nicklaus' musician grandfather taught them. Amid all the party-rousing and hard drinking, U.S.E carry a spirituality that's evident in Weaver's lyrics, whose positivity and espousal of love make Dale Carnegie seem like a curmudgeon. "Let's fuck shit up!" Weaver yells as they romp onstage to the dying strains of Daft Punk's "The Prime Time of Your Life."
U.S.E start with "Open Your Eyes," which they launch with fist-thrusting "Hey"s and, holy shit, nearly all 250 people in the packed club are jumping and pumping fists from the first note, as if on cue from a shameless Hollywood director. Fans shout the lyrics with looks of ecstatic joy. "La Discoteca" sounds slightly sluggish, but "Vamos á la Playa" reasserts why it's one of the most euphoric songs ever--a perfectly engineered roller coaster of swooping "doo doo"s and a bridge that inspires rapturous arm swaying. "This is the best show U.S.E has ever played," gushes Okonek after "Vamos." And for those who think U.S.E are all sweetness and light, songs like "Party People" and the new "Dance with Me" offer surprisingly savage and heavy counterpunches of staccato funk and crunchy AC/DC guitar voltage.
By the gig's halfway point, Weaver's garish navy-and-purple pants slide down and reveal butt cleavage--not that he's aware of it. Okonek gets pulled into the crowd during the penultimate "There's Always Music," and continues to sing from there throughout set closer "It Is On!" Nicklaus stage-dives twice during this number. Both vocalists perform while consumed in the teeming throng of Japanese youth. The show ends and Weaver attempts to leap over the drum kit, but crashes. He then bounds up the steps to the makeshift green room and hugs me, his sweatiness like that of a marathoner at the finish line. "That was the greatest hour of my life," he blurts, as the fans repeatedly holler "U! S! E!"
Soon, eager U.S.E converts crowd the green room for autographs, photos, and chat. One dude pleads for Holstrom to swap his sweat-drenched U.S.E wristband for his own new one; Holstrom complies. Another Japanese fan keeps saying, "Ees gooood, ees gooood." Merch sales boom to ¥46,000 (and top ¥100,000 the next night). The U.S.E panties sell out. The band members mingle among their admirers until 2:30 a.m., at which point Matamura whisks the jetlagged troupe back to the hotel for some much-needed rest before the following night's important show at Tokyo's legendary Liquid Room. Matamura--a man of exceptionally large spirit and soul--actually shouts, "On to Tokyo!" with a triumphant raised arm as U.S.E pile out of the club.
April 9, Nozomi Shinkansen to Tokyo
Arriving at the train station, U.S.E are greeted by five Japanese fans who'd been wowed the night before at Club Noon and had struck up friendly conversations with the group after their gig. They want last-minute photos and glad-handing, but the band has to hurry on to the ticket booth.
Japan's shinkansen (bullet train) glides effortlessly and swiftly over the countryside; it's undoubtedly one of humankind's most glorious feats of engineering. It would only be a slight exaggeration to compare U.S.E's Japanese experience thus far to the shinkansen's smooth ride. "To come across the world and have people know your music is pretty nuts," says Sali. "And then to have people waiting for us at the train station--it's awesome."
April 9, Tokyo Hotel Excellent Ebisu
Chan goes online and shows me www.USEmusic.com stats. Hits have come from Morocco, Japan, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Norway, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Sweden… and the U.S. government.
April 9, Tokyo, Liquid Room
"This girl had me sign her cell phone," Nicklaus says in U.S.E's dressing room at Liquid Room (which resembles EMP's Sky Church, but with all-black decor) before the group ready themselves for a radio interview with Inter FM. Admiration doesn't get much higher than that in Japan, where cell phones hold the same status as crosses in the Vatican. This is a nation where sometimes it seems citizens would rather dourly stare and poke at their handheld wonders than look another human in the eye. But that notorious Nipponese insularity melts away in the clubs U.S.E play on this trip.
The radio interview includes that old chestnut, "How do you categorize your music?"
Sali says, "Arena rocktronica." Weaver chimes in, "It's a celebration," but Holstrom nails it by adding, "Collaborative goofing off."
Just when it seems things couldn't get any more cinematically perfect, Weaver's old girlfriend Saori--whom he hadn't seen in three years and who now lives in Kagoshima in Japan's deep south--shows up looking stunning in a denim miniskirt. They rekindle the fire with enviable ease. The couple spends the next day by the Meguro River watching Japan's legendary cherry blossoms blow romantically in the wind--and Weaver writes a song called "Sakura" (which means "cherry blossom") for the band Wonderful.
Not everyone in the U.S.E camp is feeling spry, however. The post-gig celebration in Osaka has taken a toll on Okonek, Nicklaus ("I feel disoriented today"), and Rock ("I feel queasy"). Even the normally unflappable Holstrom admits, "I'm nervous tonight, and I'm never nervous." Much stretching, back-rubbing, and jumping around ensue as U.S.E try to shrug off the effects of excessive partying and being in a time zone 16 hours ahead of Seattle's. With his typical gift for sartorial understatement, Weaver dons sequined blue trousers, a midriff-bearing magenta/white-striped shirt with LOVE emblazoned on it, magenta diva gloves, and a feathery magenta scarf. This is the biggest gig of U.S.E's existence and Tokyo deserves nothing less.
"Let's posse up!" Holstrom shouts and U.S.E huddle and intone their prayer in unison. Then they run onstage and the crowd--about 600 strong--roars and crushes the barrier separating the audience from the stage. Weaver leaps into the air, lands before his Juno-60 and Korg keyboards and vocoder, rips off his gloves, and U.S.E kick into "Open Your Eyes." From the first drum-machine beat, the fans jab the air and jump in an impressive display of synchronized aerobics--déjá vu, but this time with a smoke machine and killer light show.
Nearly everyone's dancing and engrossed in the show. When U.S.E's most magical song, "Emerald City," appears, hundreds of arms bob in sync to the paean to Seattle. At moments like this, U.S.E's inspirational power really manifests itself. Love ping-pongs from band to crowd and back, intensifying mightily as the night progresses. After the orgasmic celebration that is "There's Always Music" concludes, Rock throws his sweaty towel into the sea of hands and a young girl fights like hell to hold onto it.
Once again during "It Is On!" Nicklaus and Okonek enter the seething mass of fans and are welcomed with mad hugs and worshipful caresses as they coo their lines. No security goons deign to break up this love affair.
U.S.E repeat the set from Osaka the night before, but this time they're told by the promoter to do an encore--something they usually oppose, but since Matamura has treated them like royalty, and the punters' faces are upraised with U.S.Euphoria, and the adrenaline is flowing like sweat off Holstrom's cherubic mug, the band return onstage with another version of "Open Your Eyes." The cheers penetrate the finest earplugs. That Hollywood director is pushing his luck…
Before U.S.E took off for Japan, Holstrom told me, "We have been consistently and completely blown away by every bit of news that comes back from our crew in Japan. They just kept buying CDs from us until finally they wanted to press their own. I feel like this music had an intent of worldwide appeal from its creation, but you don't always count on your dreams coming true."
Guess what happened?
U.S.E perform Fri April 15 and Sat April 16 at the Vera Project, 7:30 pm, $8/$9, all ages.