Fujiya & Miyagi - 'We are not Japanese lawyers'

The sound has changed over the years, but the name has stayed. Fujiya & Miyagi tell Andy Gill about techno and body parts

Friday 20 March 2009 01:00

In a pub near the Brighton seafront, a roomful of lookalikes is getting ready for the evening's fancy–dress pop quiz. Resplendent in bedraggled beehives, abundant mascara and fake tattoos, "Amy Winehouse" is everywhere, about a dozen of her – and yes, that's just the boys – while over there, in full slap, a tableful of Kiss wear the self–satisfied looks of a team that knows its hours in front of the bathroom mirror have been worth every second.

Few contestants have made quite as little effort, however, as the quartet of fairly nondescript types over by the wall. They are Fujiya & Miyagi, and they seem to have come as themselves.

Fujiya & Miyagi: the name sounds like a Japanese photocopier manufacturer, and indeed, many have mistaken their sly, Krautrock–influenced techno grooves for some new strain of oriental electronica, a supposition reinforced by singer David Best's gentle, deadpan delivery, which recalls the quirky timidity of one-time Can vocalist Damo Suzuki, and by his whimsical lyrics, which suggest some Japanese art-rock cut-ups, or the misheard song translations one sometimes finds on Far East reissues of classic albums.

Their breakthrough single "Collarbone", for instance, incorporates fragments of the old "Them Bones" guide to the human skeleton alongside Best's staccato assertion that he's "Got to geta new pair of shoes, to kick it with you"; while the latest single "Knickerbocker" starts out with the non-sequitur "Vanilla, strawberry, knickerbocker glory/I saw the ghost of Lena Zavaroni", and gets no more sensible from there. In fact, Fujiya & Miyagi are neither Japanese nor a duo, but an English quartet.

"Somebody said it sounded like a firm of Japanese solicitors," says Best, aka Miyagi. "When we first started, there was just me and Steve [Lewis, aka Fujiya, who plays synths and handles most of the programming and production duties], and we started out a lot more electronic. So we thought we'd be more like producers, and having a Japanese-sounding name made a little more sense than it does now. The name came from this poster of a lot of old record players, one of which was called a Fujiya; and Miyagi is the name of the old mentor in The Karate Kid. We ended up meeting the daughter of the actor [Noriyuki 'Pat' Morita] who played Miyagi in the film: she came to one of our shows in Los Angeles, and was relieved that she liked it. But in retrospect, we kind of regret the name – we didn't ever expect that we'd become a band, so it didn't really matter what we called ourselves."

That was the best part of a decade ago, when the core duo of Lewis and Best first started working together.

"I was trying to do some electronic music – techno, Warp Records sort of stuff – with this other guy, and we asked David to play guitar on one track," explains Lewis. Before long, the other guy had gone, and Fujiya and Miyagi were recording their debut album Electro Karaoke In The Negative Style, which Lewis describes as "very electronic and mellow, nothing like our stuff now".

"You can hear where our sound comes from," says Best of the album's soothing tick–tock techno grooves, "but we weren't so much into writing songs then". Nevertheless, there are distinct similarities between these tyro exercises and the more mature F&M pieces, not least Best's distinctive vocal stylings. "Dave was never intending to sing," admits Lewis, "so when he put some vocals on these tracks he just sort of whispered, and he's carried on from there."

"Can't stop me whispering now!" chuckles Best.

No sooner was Electro Karaoke In The Negative Style recorded, however, than Lewis upped sticks and went off travelling for a year. "My gap year!" he notes sardonically. "Dave and I both had really boring jobs, so it was to escape that. Fortunately, we're now doing this."

"He disappeared for ages, and tried to keep in touch by the internet," adds Best, a confessed techno-illiterate. "He complained, 'You haven't emailed me for months', and I said, 'I don't know how to!' But while Steve was away, before Matt [Hainsby, bass] and Lee [Adams, drums] joined, I got two other guys into the band, which was where it all started getting more upbeat. Then those two guys left and Matt joined, and more recently Lee, and it became more stripped–down, like we wanted it."

With Lewis returned from his antipodean jaunt, the Fujiya & Miyagi sound was cemented with 2006's Transparent Things – named after the Nabokov novel – on which their techno beginnings were reinforced with an additional layer of Krautrock-influenced motorik. If most techno music could be described as simply footnotes to Kraftwerk, the new F&M style added footnotes to the likes of Neu! and Can. The result, on tracks like "Collarbone" and "Ankle Injuries", was a potent, infectious new groove style that felicitously caught the upsurge in interest in German psych-rock.

"Well, obviously Can are a big influence," confirms Best. "When we started, our blueprint was an attempted combination of Can and Carl Craig. And some Neu! and Harmonia too, the electronic thing. Apparently [Neu! guitarist] Michael Rother thinks we're all right, which is quite nice."

Slowly but surely, they began picking up glowing reviews, and when the album was reissued with more promotional back-up six months later, it acquired a second wind, especially when "Collarbone" became an in-demand backing track for Jaguar cars and Miller Lite beer TV commercials. Before long it had clocked up sales of around 15,000 in the UK and another 15,000 elsewhere – not bad for a band rarely played on the radio, although a change in strategy from gigging to releasing singles, they acknowledge, paid dividends.

"It's good, considering we only pressed a thousand of the first album," admits Best, "of which 750 were sold and the rest given away! In between the first and second albums, Steve and I were thinking, 'Why is nothing happening?', then we started releasing records, and that's when people started taking notice. It's a good strategy, releasing records, rather than playing loads of gigs to no one!"

With the recent release of their third album Lightbulbs, the Fujiya & Miyagi sound has developed a confident, assured musical physique, a combination of Lewis's techno-trained production techniques ensuring each track builds its own momentum, while Best's vocals and left-field guitar parts – what he calls his "free-jazz, Derek Bailey moments" add further layers of interest. And on tracks such as "Pterodactyls" and "Goosebumps", the benefit of Adams's addition to the ranks is evident in the muscular dynamic ebb and flow of the beats.

Best's lyrical tropes, meanwhile, provide a constant source of curiosity. With Transparent Things titles such as "Ankle Injuries, "Collarbone", "Sucker Punch" and "In One Ear & Out The Other" now joined by Lightbulbs' "Goosebumps" and "Sore Thumb", there's an evident interest in bodily matters.

"I'm trying to get away from them now," he admits. "A sore thumb's not as bad as an ankle injury! When Transparent Things came out, I realised there were all these accidents and illnesses and body parts in there. But as regards 'Collarbone', I really did break my collarbone. People say it's a bit silly, but I'd say, 'You try breaking your collarbone!'"

So presumably you've had a sore thumb now, too? "No," says Best. "That song's actually about Vivian Stanshall. I really like his Seventies album, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead, which cost me an arm and a leg on eBay – something like £67, which is the most I've ever spent on a record."

Another theme is domestic and office hardware, with the previous album's "Photocopier" and "Cassettesingle" now joined by "Dishwasher" and the title-track. "Well, they say you should write about what you know," he chuckles, "so the last album was about body parts, 'cos I didn't go out much, and I thought, you can't write about body parts all the time, so what else is there? Lightbulbs, dishwasher ... goosebumps?"

The immediate prospects for Fujiya & Miyagi involve gigging, and lots of it, with their current European tour followed by more UK shows and European festivals.

"I'm not complaining – it's definitely the best job I've ever had!" says Best.

As I take my leave, they're settling down for pop quiz duty, a quartet in mufti amongst a totter of Amys. Their disguise, I later learn, does not serve them particularly well; but such trivial drawbacks surely only make their successes all the sweeter.

Fujiya & Miyaji's single 'Sore Thumb' is out 6 April. They tour the UK from 8 to 17 April

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