Thursday 17 August 2017

The field of dreams

Emaon Sweeney

As yet another festival season descends upon us, the unlikely origins of The Japanese Popstars are worth noting. The Derry electronic trio were actually born out of a drunken idea at Oxegen 2006, not the most likely or expected environment to hatch any serious creative plans.

"I remember the lovely weather and sneaking in a bottle of vodka and going to watch LCD Soundsystem," recalls Declan 'Decky Hedrock' McLaughlin, sitting in the Northern dance music hub that's Belfast's Stiff Kitten. "We were all really drunk and decided we'd play Oxegen the very next year.

"These were big aspirations for a bunch of guys getting drunk in a field, but on the following New Year's Eve, Gary (Curran) had been DJing in Derry, so we went back to his house afterwards and decided to do it. We did one track and emailed it around. Somebody made us a financial offer to an hour set, so we just said yes and wrote enough material. I hadn't met Gareth (Donoghue) until three weeks before our first show. All we really wanted was free tickets because it's so expensive to get into a festival. It's mad to think an idea you had hammered in a field could lead to a career."

The seemingly far-fetched fantasy of blagging into a festival has realised itself on Controlling Your Allegiance, their second studio album and first for EMI.

It boasts an impressive cast of vocalists and collaborators including Robert Smith, Lisa Hannigan, Tom Smith from Editors, Green Velvet, Morgan Kibby from M83, Simon Neal of Biffy Clyro, James Vincent McMorrow and Jon Spencer of the Blues Explosion fame.

"We recorded the first album in our bedrooms and any vocals on it were our voices disguised," McLaughlin says. "When it came to the second album, we decided to ask people, so the very first person we asked was Morgan from M83. It really excited us and it worked. Our manager said to write a list of who we wanted and we did and they're all there bar one person."

So who's the spoilsport then? "David Bowie," he laughs. "We never heard back from him. But you never know, he might get back to us in time for album three."

Not only does the inimitable and unmistakable vocal of Robert Smith appear on Controlling Your Allegiance, it's an album stand out. "It came out of nowhere," McLaughlin says, "Part of the track reminded me of The Cure, even though it doesn't sound anything like them. Our manager found Robert's personal email address, so we sent him an email.

"Over six months, we wrote Take Forever. The week after we finished it, we got an email back from Robert saying, "Sorry for the delay. This went into my spam folder. I was clearing out the spam, found your email and realised I hadn't read it. I'd love to be on a track."

The rest was relatively easy and Declan and his fellow Popstars Gary and Gareth learnt a lot from the experience. "Within a week, he sent his first idea and we were blown away by it," McLaughlin recalls.

"He sent us 38 different stems of his voice and different layering and delays and all this stuff. His attention to detail is staggering and he played six string bass guitar on the track, which we didn't ask for. He's a very smart guy, a genius."

While the internet facilitates the realisation of such dreams cheaply and effectively, Declan agrees that sometimes you can't beat live flesh and blood interaction, and recording with Lisa Hannigan is his highlight of the sessions.

"She's lovely and an amazing talent," McLaughlin enthuses. "We had a 40 second idea called Song For Lisa. We sent it to her and within a week she sent back an idea which captured something we never would have thought of.

"She came up by herself, had breakfast and went to the studio. She wasn't nervous and just went and did it. All done and really funny and making everyone enjoy it. We were chuffed and felt warm inside after doing it. We did a show with her in Dublin last week, which was the first time we'd seen her since then."

Born out of the Northern dance culture that spawned Shine, Lush! and David Holmes, The Japanese Popstars decided early on to aspire to be a bona fide group with albums and live shows.

"I've been in different electronic acts, some successful and some not," McLaughlin said. ¨To me, it was always about doing an album. When we started, we were a live act. You see someone play in a club, but at home you don't have that. So it's a logical progression to release an album of your own material."

Aptly enough, another festival back in the 1990s proved to be a defining moment.

"In 1994, I went to Thurles to the Trip to Tipp. I didn't go for Prodigy, I went for Cyprus Hill , Rage Against The Machine and House Of Pain. I'd never liked dance music, but my perception of music changed at that point.

"It was a whole new culture that captured me and made me want to write music. On Beatport [online electronic music retailer], there's so many different genres. Back in the day there was only one -- rave. It was as simple as that. Drum n' bass, garage, trip hop and all that changed everything. We counted that there's 1,500 new songs released every day, so that's at least 6,000 a week.

"You're thrown in a big wash with everybody else and it's a massive pond of music. A lot of a good music gets lost, and that's just dance music! You can record and release something within 24 hours, which is great, but that also possibly dilutes things as well. It's a shame things have gone like that, but at least it's catering towards everybody's tastes."

Their burgeoning remix CV contains some truly mind-bogglings stellar names such as Kylie Minogue, Depeche Mode, Gorillaz and Beyonce. "You don't get Beyonce ringing you up, which is a shame," McLaughlin laughs.

"We were asked to do If I Were A Boy. It was us, Deadmau5 and someone else, but we were the only ones to deliver and apparently she personally loved it and asked if we could do Single Ladies, which was a great compliment. We heard Jared Leto [30 Seconds From Mars] specifically requested us and we're Damon Albarn's favourite remix out of that Gorillaz package."

He added: "We take it all with a pinch of salt. It's gone pretty well for a drunken idea in a field."

Controlling Your Allegiance is out on June 10

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