On All Cylinders: An Interview With Fujiya & Miyagi
The British trio completes their first US visit to cap off their unexpected rise.
"It's a bit overwhelming, really." David Best is sitting in the rear corner of Katz's Deli, the venerated Lower East Side culinary landmark and erstwhile tourist destination for those who wish to catch a glimpse of an increasingly antiqued New York while enjoying an overstuffed pastrami sandwich on rye.
In a way, it's fitting that Best and his Fujiya & Miyagi bandmates have chosen this Manhattan institution for our meeting place. It is their first time in the States, they're only in New York for a handful of days, and they're trying to take in as much as possible.
"It's overwhelming, but I think it's probably less overwhelming than if we didn't have those six or seven years where no one was interested," continues Best, the group's lead vocalist and guitarist. "It's kind of like you can take it in stride a bit more." He is referring to the accruing hype surrounding the band: a glowing write-up in the NME, the backing of Pitchfork, and the upcoming write-up in the New York Times. After seven long years of playing together and working hard in relative obscurity, Fujiya & Miyagi are on the verge of making it. big.
"I first met David about eight years ago, playing soccer," says Steve Lewis, the trio's synth player, programmer, and other founding member. "I was in a techno band at the time, I asked David to play guitar for us and it just kind of went from there."
Less than a year later, in Brighton, England, the duo went on to form what eventually became Fujiya & Miyagi. The band was conceived initially as an instrumental project. "We were very much into that Warp Records sound," explains Lewis. "I was coming from the whole electronic angle. Throughout the whole '90s I wasn't really listening to songs, I was just listening to electronic music ... David kept coming up with choruses and it was probably my fault they never saw the light of day."
Fujiya & Miyagi released their first album, Electro Karaoke in the Negative Style, in 2003 to little notice. The band was growing increasingly frustrated with the quality of their live performances as well. It wasn't easy for "two guys with laptops" to put on an entertaining show.
"The first album was so slow ... that it didn't translate well live at all," Best explains. "So playing live we kind of looked back on the stuff that we'd forgotten about, like Bowie, Roxy Music, and Iggy and the Stooges."
Lewis adds, "Dave thankfully got me back into listening to stuff like David Bowie again ... and certainly the choruses sound[ed] as if they should be there." Finally, the band decided to "try and entertain people rather than just stand there". They decided that Best would be the lead singer and, after some switches in personnel, settled on Matt Hainsby as their bassist.
"I joined a few years ago but, actually, they were my favorite band to go and see and I knew them anyway ... I still can't believe it!" Hainsby laughs. Once an earnest fan, he now rounds out the group as the only musician backing the original duo.
Fujiya & Miyagi currently perform without a drummer as all of their beats are preprogrammed. At this time they remain undecided about any future addition of manual percussion.
Truth be told, the absence of a drum kit serves the band's minimalist approach well. There is a marked Krautrock feel to the Fujiya & Miyagi sound and the band is not the least bit hesitant to admit the impact the German aesthetic has had on them over the years.
"I was about 15 or 16 when I heard [Can's Ege Bamyasi], and I thought, 'What is that?'" Best remembers. "I think, certainly, the great thing about the ... German bands is that there's no fat there. There's no guitar solos ... Each note is there for a purpose and that's kind of what we like."
The band is also quick to mention several post-punk icons as towering influences. "Wire's Chairs Missing was my favorite album," says Hainsby, "It's still a great album and I discovered it quite late, along with Talking Heads as well."
Lewis is clearly the most techno-inclined of the trio and mentions Warp Records' Artificial Intelligence series as being among his favorite records.
F&M's newest collection, Transparent Things, has been in the works practically from the moment Electro Karaoke in the Negative Style hit shelves in 2003. "We were all still working at the time [of recording] so it was like when and where we could find time to do it," says Best. "It wasn't like a two-week [recording] period. It was more like stretched out over four years or something."
And the amount of time and effort that went into the recording of the album shows. Fujiya & Miyagi have cleaned up their sound and tweaked its accessibility with danceable rhythms, effortless hooks, and sharp, witty lyrics. "It's a nice difference in our sound because we already have the Krautrock influence, yet, at the same time, it's very, very hooky," says Lewis.
Due to the unusually long gap between albums, F&M's record company began issuing singles from Transparent Things in 2005, nearly two years before the album's eventual release date. "In One Ear & Out the Other", "Collarbone", and "Ankle Injuries" were all released on 10" and began generating a fair amount of excitement on the Internet. Soon, the band developed its critical backing, and by the time the record was released in the States, Fujiya & Miyagi had become one of the most talked-about "new" bands in the indie community.
"We're just really appreciative that people are into us because of Pitchfork, which is great. We like our records, but that doesn't mean we thought anyone else would like them as much." Best grins helplessly. Talking with the band, one gets the impression that they are still shocked by the enthusiastic reception of their record and are enjoying the ride, a little startled by their good fortune.
After asking them about Jaguar's use of "Collarbone" in a recent commercial as well as an MTV Europe special about the band, Best laughs "Hey, give us anything, man! Give us Jaguar, MTV, we'll take it! We're too tired!" But after the laughter dies down, Best returns to the subject at hand, with a smile that shows he realizes just how lucky he is, "It's funny when you turn on the TV and hear yourself ... It's good inasmuch that people get to hear it. It enabled us to leave our jobs the week before we came to America."
The rest of the band smiles; it is clear that the fantasy of shedding their day-jobs in its realization was a fine, fine symbol of their new and pending fortune, their lives fortified, and now supported, by their art.
Upon arriving in America, the band played the Pitchfork show at SXSW. Hainsby grins as he recalls the band's experience in Austin: "We weren't quite prepared for it because there was just so many people." Needless to say, the band won over their American audience with their fun and energetic live shows, all of which were well attended.
"There were so many industry people and you're expecting them not to dance but by the middle of the shows it looked like the entire crowd was getting into it. It was a lot of fun," says Best. However, Hainsby, once again displaying the band's contagious enthusiasm, exclaims that he'd "love to go down [to Austin] and not play, get drunk, and watch some shows."
As for the New York, it's been treating the band "just lovely". "I've just been walking around trying to gather my bearings. I went up to the Guggenheim today and I like Frank Lloyd Wright so that was good. Glad to get over there," says Best. Lewis has been playing tourist as well. He just returned from Rockefeller Center before our interview.
I met the band before they were to play the second of two sold-out shows at the Mercury Lounge and if the scarcity of motionless arm-crossers at the show later that evening is any indication, it's safe to say that Fujiya & Miyagi have won over the notoriously fickle New York audience as well.
Having just completed a successful maiden voyage to the US, the band is returning to Europe for a tour and to work on their next album. If you missed them on their first visit Stateside, you can catch Fujiya & Miyagi live on their current tour as they open for fellow overseas buzz band Peter Bjorn and John.