Perfume @ Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC 11/15/14

Japanese pop artists rarely come to the US. So when Perfume — the female vocal trio who’ve spent the last decade embodying a unique and amazing techno-pop sound and visual presentation, rising to J-pop prominence in the process — announced that they’d be playing Hammerstein Ballroom (as well as L.A.’s Hollywood Palladium), the response from their US fan base was, basically, hysteria.

The members of Perfume are three women in their mid-20s: Ayaka “A-Chan” Nishiwaki, Yuka “Kashiyuka” Kashino, and Ayano “Nocchi” Ōmoto. Since 2003, they’ve worked exclusively with producer Yasutaka Nakata, also the man behind capsule and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

Perfume’s style has evolved quite a bit over the last decade and a half. They started out as teenagers, and dressed accordingly, but have gradually adopted a glamorous, high-fashion image, wearing matching designer outfits and performing precise choreography onstage that owes something to tai chi, a little to Balinese dance, and a little more to game-show-style sweeping hand gestures. There’s no cutesy giddiness to their act; indeed, at times, it’s a little posthuman, which perfectly matches the music. Nakata’s tracks are usually electronic dancefloor stompers, with soaring choruses, but the girls’ voices are always cool and subdued, blending together in close harmony and frequently blended into the music. This approach reached an extreme on “Laser Beam,” from their 2011 album JPN — their voices were diced into digital phonemes that became a stuttering melody recalling ’80s electro.

The afternoon of the show, I was one of five journalists invited to interview Perfume. We’d get fifteen minutes in a roundtable setting, which would be followed by a meet-and-greet for members of the trio’s international fan club. A dude from Vice, a woman from i-D, a woman from MTV Iggy, a woman from an outlet I didn’t catch because she announced herself in Japanese, and I sat on one side of a table, with the trio and a translator from Universal Japan on the other. The members of Perfume were all wearing matching black-and-white designer outfits, with slight variations; Nocchi (bobbed hair) always wears shorts, while A-Chan (ponytail) and Kashiyuka (long straight hair, forehead-covering bangs) favor skirts. They entered the room wearing bulky winter coats and fluffy slippers, but changed into glossy black heels for a group photo with us.

It’s hard to accurately summarize an interview conducted through translation. Each writer got to ask one question; mine was about the remixes of “Spending All My Time,” the group’s sole English-language single to date, included on the recent US issue of their 2013 album Level3. This was the first time in over a decade that anyone but Nakata had worked on Perfume’s music; how did they feel, hearing someone else’s interpretation of them? A-Chan did most of the talking during the interview, and her response was at least a minute or two long, including hand gestures and sung mimicry of the rises and falls of the Dimitri Vegas and Like Mike remix of the song. Filtered through translation, I was told that they were worried what fans would think of the remix, but that Nakata had approved it, and once they sat down and listened to it, they liked it a lot because it added a lot of elements and was exciting; they planned to perform that version at the concert.

Even through the two-stage filtering of translation (questions into Japanese, answers into English), though, their personalities came through. A-Chan was the most “on”; as the leader of the trio, she dominated the conversation, but when Kashiyuka or Nocchi had something to offer, she listened to them as attentively as we did. They were friendly in a calm, self-assured way that mirrored their onstage personas: smiles, and laughs, but no showy hand-over-mouth giggling. Before sitting down, they introduced themselves with a little routine, each stating her name then saying “we are Perfume” in unison — they’d repeat it onstage — but after that, we were talking to real human beings, not media-trained robots. They had the poise and helpful friendliness of flight attendants, but not the ones you ever actually see on a plane; they were the flight attendants you only see in the commercials.

Onstage before a packed Hammerstein ballroom filled with a pleasingly broad cross-section of New Yorkers, they were superb performers. The music was explosively loud, the bass shaking the walls as the sold-out crowd bounced the floor so hard I left with my knees aching like I’d just climbed up and down 40 flights of stairs. There were multiple costume changes; there were goofy crowd participation chants; there was a brief performance of “Let It Go,” from the movie Frozen. But most of all, there were amazing songs, 16 in all, spanning their entire discography from early breakthroughs like “Chocolate Disco” and “Polyrhythm” (featured on the Cars 2 soundtrack) to a pair of tracks from their newest EP, “Cling Cling” and “Hold Your Hand.”

The show was broadcast live to Asia, so multiple cameras flanked the stage, and the girls periodically addressed their fans at home. But the portions aimed directly at Americans were overpowering and hypnotic. Lasers and elaborate video projections helped pump up the energy, but A-Chan, Kashiyuka and Nocchi were magnetic presences at all times, executing flawlessly synchronized dance moves. During “Game,” the title track from their 2008 album, they picked up what looked like lightsabers. The screens projected lyrics to a few of the songs; when translated from Japanese, as in the case of “Dream Fighter,” these proved surprisingly poetic. If the performance had a flaw, it was that 14 songs (plus a two-song encore) was nowhere near enough; a Springsteen-esque marathon, running through the entire catalog, would have been the only possible way to satisfy the fans who’d waited years to experience Perfume live. Still, the sheer joy coming off the stage — A-Chan’s cool façade cracked a few times, and she squealed with excitement mid-song — and reflected back from the bouncing, hand-waving, singing audience made this the most purely fun concert I’ve been to … shit, maybe ever.

Tags: Perfume