Few rock bands in Japan are as legendary as Unicorn. From their inception in 1986 at the height of Japan’s “band boom,” which saw the balance of chart power shift from idoru (idol) pop to real bands, through to their split in 1993 and subsequent reunion this year, the Hiroshima five-piece have left a weighty footprint.
Led by Tamio Okuda, now an astronomically successful solo artist and producer, the band moved to Tokyo in 1987 to create six wildly eclectic albums, adding a seventh this year, flirting with new wave, punk, dub, reggae, Latin, ska and more. But what set the band apart from the band-boom hordes was not only their relentless experimentation but also their solid songwriting and an injection of humor.
“I think our songwriting process was pretty natural,” recalls Okuda as we chat backstage at the Summer Sonic festival in Chiba, shortly before Unicorn’s rain-soaked set at the 30,000-capacity outdoor Marine Stadium. Despite the band’s 23-year history, this is the first time they have spoken with an English-language publication.
“We all like different music and we all think differently, so it seemed natural to pick out the best bits and mix them up,” continues Okuda, who shares songwriting and vocal duties with his bandmates. “We felt free. We all had different tastes, but our love for music was the same. That feeling helped us write music together — the writing was very easy.
As Okuda speaks, his bandmates listen. Although lead guitarist Isamu “Tessy” Teshima, keyboardist Yoshiharu Abe, bassist Kazushi “Ebi” Horiuchi and drummer Koichi Kawanishi all went on to solo or band projects in the 1990s and ’00s, it was Okuda who made the biggest solo splash, producing megahits for pop acts such as Puffy, and it is Okuda who does most of the talking today.
He speaks in the leisurely tone of the oft-interviewed, with a keen humor that borders on sarcasm. For example, when asked what Unicorn have planned for their set at Summer Sonic — a festival that was founded during Unicorn’s lengthy split — he replies: “Well, just a typical Japanese-style show. You know, making sure we come on and off stage on time. We’d better not go over our allotted time, eh?
He explains that humor is crucial, not only in music but in life in general, saying, “If you start out trying to make people laugh, you can go anywhere from there.”
“If there’s a problem, you can laugh it off,” adds Abe, who replaced the band’s original keyboardist in 1988 and whose post-Unicorn credits include a collaboration with rock band Sparks Go Go (known as Abex Go Go) and production work for comedy rockers Kishidan.
“Sometimes I wish we were a really serious, cool band,” Okuda deadpans as his bandmates crack up, “but it’s too late for us to be like that now.”
Unicorn are aware of the headache incurred by any journalist charged with the task of describing their sound. Is it rock? Maybe as a base. But there’s so much going on, so many styles splashed across their six presplit albums, that frankly it is an exercise in futility. Curious readers are better off finding the band’s music online for themselves; even Abe admits, “I wouldn’t describe it at all!
But while the majority of the band’s influences appear to be Western, their music bears a quintessential Japanese quality, something Okuda simply ascribes to cultural aesthetics.
“We never really thought about which music was Japanese and which was foreign when we were listening to it,” he considers. “But we are Japanese, of course. Even if I wanted to make music that sounded just like The Beatles, it would turn out different. And anyway, that would be extremely boring, right?”
But it was the band members’ diverse musical tastes that eventually pulled them apart. Although their albums became increasingly unusual and still continued to chart highly, they decided shortly after the release of 1993’s “Springman” to split, allowing each member to follow their blossoming side projects.
“We were too busy. We were interested in doing different things,” says Tessy, who has since played solo and in the band Big Life as well undertaking production and session work.
Unicorn play Sept. 21 at Shinkiba Studio Coast, Tokyo; Oct. 6 and 7 at Nippon Budokan Hall, Tokyo; and Oct. 19 and 20 at Osaka-jo Hall, Osaka. Their single “Hanseiki Shonen” (“1/2 Century Boy”) will be released Oct. 7. More at: JT