The Penelopes

"Eternal Spring" is the Penelopes sixth album in a career that has lasted well over 10 years. Whether you want to call it Japanese Indie or Japanese Britpop (due to the band being heavily influenced by the likes of Squeeze, Elvis Costello, The Smiths et all), there's no denying that the band have made an impact on a nation which traditionally repackages American style chart hits for the domestic market. Designer Magazine caught up with Tatsuhiko Watanabe to find out how the project came to be and what's happening over the next 10 years with the four season concept.

Q: The Penelopes are still relatively unknown in the UK, so were gonna have to start right back at the origins of the band. First of all the name, taken from Thunderbirds, we have to ask why not The Brains or the Hood. What made you choose Lady Penelope?
A: Well, because lady Penelopes's pink car was one of the finest memories in my childhood. A friend of mine, whose father was a trader, had a lot of expensive foreign toys including thunderbirds stuff. Every time i went to him, i used to be tempted to take that metal miniature pink Rolls Royce away...of course i didn't, but that was a poison to an eight year kid!

Regarding the brains, i knew a new wave band from atlanta had used the name, and the hood...why on earth should i use the villain's name? It looks like a young techno / hip-hop guy who thinks what he's doing is so evil, radical and cool. I used that london agent name but there was no intention to be seen as  a kind of temporary fashion.

Q: Your first song was called "Evergreen". The UK Pop Idol winner Will Young's first single was also called "Evergreen". In an imaginary contest called Pop Song Idol why would The Penelopes version win hands down?
A: Sorry i don't know about will young, so i can't say anything. About the word 'evergreen', the definition is various. it depends on what theme lies in song. It may be about old woman's face of woe before the mirror, or declaration of pop artistry...which theme there may be, i respect it all.

Q: The Penelopes are overtly pop, but still do business in a very independent way. Is an ethical thing or a necessary way of life that you release your records independently? Do you have a personal vendetta against the major labels?
A: I resent the major labels and my personal revenge makes me run my own label....i wish things could be so easy. Of course i understand, our music is extremely catchy, and i run my own micro indie label, so people may wonder why. why not major label? But as long as any japanese major label never contacts me to give us a record deal, the Penelopes never get to be known internationally. i've only been trying to refine my music, and the major labels here don't seem to like that way. I don't hate major labels at all, but my artistic goal doesn't meet their needs, so i started my label and decided to send my art directly to the world.

Q: As our readers are reading this they're going to be thinking Japanese Indie Music or Japanese Britpop, is there such a thing. Is there a real scene out there of British influenced bands or is it still quite marginal amongst the more tradition home-grown music?
A: What i'm doing is really isolated. There are some people who have sympathy with our approach, but though i'm not sure if you western people may feel, japanese are rigid and narrow-minded in the way that they are obsessed with the delusion called the fear of being Americanized / westernized by taking in western culture too much. So in the wider area there exists an extremely domestically-marketted scene. the music sung in japanese, musically extremely influenced by american hit chart stuff, is of course quite dominant, whilst so many bands regarded as 'indie music' play what they think is 'traditional japanese rock'. the latter is seen as an 'alternative' to the major scene, but both of them are really domestic oriented and closed anyway, so there's almost no room for the artists like us at present. I don't resent or sorrow the situation though.

Q: Why did you decide to sing in English rather than your native tongue?
A: Why did english become international language? People all over the world hear my music - that was a goal when i was young. And then i have just challenged it. Singing in english was part of it. I love my language and i respect the artists singing in Japanese, but when i started it was not unique. I just found an untrodden future for myself, which i guess is for the Japanese people too.

Q: What did you grow up listening to as a band? Were they any bands that stood out as a true inspiration?
A: British music circa late 70's - mid 80's. xtc, Elvis Costello and Squeeze were the three greatest inspirations. The Smiths and REM were also fabulous. But so many artists influenced me (i think british people overlook so many precious domestic artists).

Please see our pure pop chart (updated biweekly) below:-

Q: Over here we always hear the phrase "big in japan". Who is actually big in Japan at the moment and are they're any UK bands who have a massive fanbase over there, but are virtually unheard of back here in the UK?
A: Well, i'm not sure if it's 'big in japan', but some bands from glasgow such as Bmx bandits and those from the Pastels family tree are surprisingly popular for some indie 'otakus'. That seems quite strange. I don't hate them at all, but it's only strange they are featured on the front colour pages with discography and interview on the magazine. five star hospitality! There are so many other greater artists we should pay respect to though.... the editors never may intend to patronize too much or use gimmick, but looks like they want to make another 'big in japan'.

Q: Over the years the band have had quite a few line-up changes. Is it a natural evolution or does it happen to keep things fresh?
A: Basically the Penelopes are my (Tatsuhiko Watanabe's) solo unit. So musical skill is the first priority. we are not the bands whose members have grown up in the same area and in the same musical surroundings and are still friends each other. Of course that may be ideal, but we are not.

Q: The recent album "Eternal Spring" is the first album in 4 years. Why did it take so long?
A: Simply because i had a lot to do. i had to do everything concerning both band and label activities. I wrote songs, played almost all instruments, recorded  and mixed by myself, then mastered it. and booked  a gig and set the release date. then promotional things... i needed so much money for these activities, so i had to work as a part-time worker, which was also time consuming.

Q: Is there one theme that runs through the whole new album?
A: Technically there was a drastic change between "inner light" and "eternal spring". Before the "eternal" recording i bought new equipment, 16 track recorder for the first time and new guitar as well.  It became much easier to realize what i had wanted to try, so the sound naturally became electric. i think those changes influenced the theme. Some songs had quite different moods from the past stuff and they also became independent respectively. I mean each song had some different air, so i could readily try to write short stories, not my personal feelings. And i guess it became a collection of the different characters. But in a sense they are the same. They are the stories about ordinary people i have seen.

Q: Tell us about this "four season concept" you have in plan for the next decade?
A: Well i just wanted to make four albums whose titles include spring, summer, autumn and winter. i found it nice to create something associating with season, and also appropriate as the metaphor of what we call 'life'.

Q: Finally, can we expect any UK appearances in the near future?
A: I'd love to be there. i have missed britain for the past 15 years.

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