A Guide To Guruguru Brain, The Gate To The Best Of The Asian Underground

Jamie Wdziekonski

A Guide To Guruguru Brain, The Gate To The Best Of The Asian Underground

Jamie Wdziekonski

Kikagaku Moyo hail from Tokyo, but they might as well descend from Atlantis, Oz, and the Shire all at once. A mighty five-piece that blend multiple guitars with a hodgepodge of pedals alongside a roving sitar, the band threads an evocative reinterpretation of stoner rock as something more worldly, ambient, and atmospheric. They’re musicians that trade in the transportive power of psychedelic soundscapes, but are also very tangibly bringing another world into those of their listeners.

The band originated with drummer Go Kurosawa and guitarist Tomo Katsurada loosely jamming together in 2012, before fleshing out into a sturdier, permanent lineup with Daoud Popal (guitar), Kotsu Guy (bass), and later Go’s brother Ryu Kurosawa on sitar, an instrument he studied in Kolkata, India under the tutelage of the classical performer Manilal Nag. The group cut their teeth and pieced together a sound busking on their local streets, but today tour the world selling out shows in theaters and concert halls that host hundreds to thousands.

Their success has been especially notable in the West, marking a gradual shift in the receptiveness of US listeners to music crossing over borders. Throughout every dominant genre from indie rock to mainstream pop, the mechanisms within the music industry are largely centralized and geared towards replicating the existing successful homogeny. Yet over the last few years, these traditionally Eurocentric spaces have become increasingly inclusive to foreign expats.

More and more, our most prominent icons are proving to be non-native insurgents. We’ve recently seen 88Rising flip the script on whose faces can be cast as leading roles in hip-hop. Meanwhile, Chai have rapidly come to be the most exciting punk band since PUP to break into the NPR-sphere. Even formats that originated outside the US are coming to eclipse here those that are homegrown, with Latin American and Korean idols like Bad Bunny, BTS, and Blackpink selling out arenas that household names like Lorde and Arcade Fire can’t manage.

It’s written all over the charts and across festival posters that what’s abroad is in, and domestic stars are increasingly playing up their privy to globalism in order to maintain their old footholds. Rather than edge out existing artists, this development has opened up avenues for new ones to thrive; it’s been beautiful to see individuals like Camila Cabello and Mitski achieve greater success for staying true to their heritage when in previous eras they might have had to white-out that part of their identity to have a shot.

As the acting ambassadors for this shift in the realm of psychedelic rock — embodying the exciting possibilities derived from the international evolution of genres typically taken for granted as American-made — members of Kikagaku Moyo formalized their implicit mission with Guruguru Brain in 2015, the now Amsterdam-based record label dedicated to highlighting the best of the Asian underground for the rest of the world.

“I think people are more open and curious about what’s going on in other parts of the world, not only music from the UK and US,” Kurosawa tells me over the phone. “There are many other places that make music of course, and then now Spotify and the Internet have all increased access.”

We form our perceptions of genres around the iconography we learned them from, but music is a conversation, not a monologue, and to truly understand its history you have to listen to the responses from whoever it’s speaking to. If you know Biggie and Tupac but haven’t heard Rosalía or Thailand’s Rap Against Dictatorship, you have an incomplete picture of hip-hop’s reach and scope. As is true for fans of rock music who never ventured beyond the 1960s or became dismissive of whatever didn’t ascribe by its hallmarks. We have these notions of authenticity built around artists looking and sounding like their original source material, a conditioned conservatism that strips context from creation.

As Kurosawa succinctly puts it: “Psych surf-rock band from Thailand is different than a psych surf-rock band from LA. It’s a different beach [Laughs].”

Kikagaku Moyo sound like Pink Floyd and The 13th Floor Elevators. But their music also channels from Southeast and East Asian legends like White Heaven, Nikhil Banerjee, Nobuyasu Okabayashi, and Speed, Glue & Shinki. They are descendants from many branches of the same tree, but are also part of the exchange, and in turn have opened up their lineage to a more inclusive composite of voices.

The band used to bring together their peers across Japan for a monthly event called Tokyo Psych Fest, but when Kikagaku Moyo’s touring schedule became too demanding to keep it going, they opted in 2014 to instead release a compilation featuring the artists who would have played the event. Guruguru Brain Wash became an influential artifact in the community, and with it Kikagaku Moyo began to play a central role in releasing records and helping set up live shows for their fellow bands. When those appearances in the West began to awaken latent curiosity in their audiences, it became clear the need for their casual efforts to come together as an established force in this industry.

“When we started we didn’t have this ambition of a label, but we wanted to do something that people were not doing yet,” Kurosawa says. “We wanted to do something that didn’t exist, and we were convinced that people will know that we were doing something different.”

Unlike international exports who chameleon into the markets they hope to enter, Guruguru Brain explicitly avoids selling back to the West what it already has. “It’s very difficult, because many bands from Asia grow up listening to or being influenced by indie bands from America,” Kurosawa explains. “Our goal is not domestic entry, but to expand the Western scene.” When choosing artists for the label, he looks out for those with an original idea, because he believes simply being a copy of an existing band won’t find you an audience: “People want something different that we can only do.”

That ear for what’s uniquely taking place in Asia has brought the label a vast talent pool, one pushing forward the possibilities of age-old traditions in folk, punk, and blues. Half a decade into their run, Guruguru Brain has amassed 19 releases spanning continents and styles, and will be celebrating their 20th later this year. Kikagaku Moyo’s most recent record, Masana Temples, was a creative landmark for the band that also happened to be the label’s biggest release yet, portending an even greater purview for their objectives ahead.

Yet their existing output has already established Guruguru Brain as one of the world’s most dynamic sources for psychedelic music, one that embodies all of its eras. From Minami Deutsch’s wandering post-punk to the experimental drone folk of Taiwan’s Prairie WWWW, the common ground between each artist is interlocking strains of Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads, Toro Y Moi, Black Sabbath, Darkside, Ravi Shankar, and everything in between. But none of it plays like homage. Instead, it’s all evolution, affirming Guruguru Brain as both the genre’s clear torch-bearers and the ones to transcend its path entirely.

As a way of marking their achievements thus far before they begin the next chapter, we’re highlighting 10 records from their catalog that together offer a summary as well as a launching point for the frontiers Guruguru Brain and their still-growing roster will open up for us next.

Various Artists – Guruguru Brain Wash (2014)

This is where our story nominally begins. Truthfully, it had already long been in motion. The Guruguru Brain Wash compilation was just a snapshot from a much larger narrative. But its release opened a new path forward, one that set up Kikagaku Moyo to be leaders in the Westward expansion of the Japanese psych rock sound. Here the group compiled 21 wide-ranging tracks that incidentally serve, to some degree, as a blueprint for what their label would come to embody in its eventual discography. Looking back, you might recognize familiar faces like future signees Sundays & Cybele and Dhidalah, as well as Deigen, the band Kurosawa used to play bass in.

You’ll also find a number of less familiar but equally vital Japanese ensembles who represent a vast landscape of inventive artistry in the country that no one collection could ever capture entirely. Particularly notable are the Icecreams — whose “tachikurami (dizzy)” was one of only a handful of idiosyncratic, interdisciplinary tracks they released in their brief flashes of activity — as well as the Tengokubatake Japon, a cheery outfit that blissfully never gave up on the heyday of the early ’00s new wave revival. It’s a primer that pays forward the past without losing sight of the present, and is a good sample of the fertile soil from which everything ahead germinated.

Scattered Purgatory – Lost Ethnography Of The Miscanthus Ocean (2014)

Although hardly old enough to have yet had a reputation, Guruguru Brain subverted expectations of what they might have been with the band they chose to follow their survey on the Japanese underground. Not only were Scattered Purgatory from almost 3,000 miles away in Taiwan, the trio sounded like they came even further still from Germany. Specifically, they drew from the likes of krautrock heroes such as Popol Vuh, what with their venturing approach to open space, but also cited Kyuss, Sunn O))), and the Japanese film soundtrack composer Shinichiro Ikebe as inspirations on their work.

That work — as introduced on their debut Lost Ethnography Of The Miscanthus Ocean — is vicious, stomach-churning drone suites punctured by minimal electronic accompaniment, such as the kiddy-plinks on “Thee Ancestral Glistening Tai-Bai” or the acid rain reverberation dotting the back-half of the epic “Cloudburn.” At times the music is discomfiting and violent. Take “Limbo Litter,” which sounds like knives sharpening against steel violin strings. Other times it’s so even-tempered in its lurch as to invoke tranquility in spite of omnipotence, as on the opener “Ramming The Town Roaming The Mountain.” Often the album hits both sensations at once, the musicians Lu, Li-Yang, and Lobo achieving a harmonic balance between non-complementary conditions that revealed them to not only match their influences in tone but also instinct.

Minami Deustch – Minami Deutsch (2015)

Guruguru Brain’s third official album release as a label continued to establish a niche at the intersection of psychedelic post-punk and krautrock. Minami Deutsch is Japanese for “South Germany,” and the band’s sweltering fuzz indeed sounds like a Munich nightclub fraying at the edges. The artists Taku Idemoto and Kyotaro Miula used to jam with Kikagaku Moyo before each group split off into their own independent projects, and you can hear a similar knack for precisely executing controlled chaos. But Minami Deustch’s sound is informed by an entirely different set of materials, mainly minimal techno and agitating repetition.

The latter attribute is displayed at its most potent on the pair of “Ubergleich” tracks. “Part 1″ runs through a parade of licks at increasing intensities like a broken treadmill dragging you into a sprint, while “Part II” brings your heart rate back down to rest with meditative focus. The two pieces are separated on the tracklist by “Sunrise, Sunset,” which loops an effusive guitar riff ceaselessly like a turbine to astral heights. The combined effect of taking the whole album in at once is to have taken your body through an experience your head won’t ever understand in the same way. For those paying attention in real time, this was the album that really marked the moment Guruguru Brain established itself as a singular force.

Ramayana Soul – Sabdatanmantra (2016)

Ramayana Soul spent a decade as a band before Guruguru Brain released their breakthrough Sabdatanmantra. That time shows, with each of the LP’s eight-tracks showcasing a trained mastery over a diversity of disciplines. The very first song is an odyssey shuffling between full-bodied Muzak, megaphone rallying cries, and Wild West riffage, and the rest of the album similarly does not lack for variety. Across its 40 minute runtime, there are meditation bells, choral vocals, jazz percussion, tributary horns, puncturing throat howls, spiritual ragas. Of the wide-encompassing Guruguru Brain catalogue, Sabdatanmantra might just be the most expansive entry.

An Indonesian five-piece founded by vocalist and sitar player Erlangga Ishanders, Ramayana Soul puree various elements of equally quintessential but sonically distinctive 1960s outfits like Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Yardbirds into a smoothie, one that goes down effortlessly yet requires real concentration to pick apart its discrete ingredients. At its most fine, you get a song like “Demensi Dejavu,” which lays a mellow, steady groove between layers of oscillating resonance and warps it seamlessly into a medley of distorted shapes, like explosive vocal outbursts and bluesy shivers. But best of all is “Rhaksasa,” which sounds like an endlessly refracting prism spinning like a top, blasting color out in all directions faster than you can process at once.

Nawksh – Mythic Tales Of Tomorrow II (2016)

Video game music is one of society’s most overlooked sources of musical riches. Soundtracks from titles like Chrono Trigger are as canonical as this decade’s traditionally championed classics, while recent entries such as Toby Fox’s improbably accomplished UNDERTALE Soundtrack and Lena Raine’s striking atmospheres for Celeste stand up as some of the best albums of 2016 and 2018, respectively. A number of contemporary musicians have owned up to being influenced by the medium’s composers in their own work, such as TOKiMONSTA, Danny L Harle, and Japanese Breakfast. However, few have internalized and expressed back outward the principles of the genre as intuitively as Danial Hyatt, a Pakistani electronic producer whose album Mythic Tales Of Tomorrow II — the sequel to a digital-only release — builds its own internal world and shares with us the rumbles, crinkles, and breath that make up its life.

The fabled land we experience on the album is called Ceratyl, a place Hyatt continues to expand upon when making actual video games. But you need only listen to his music to fully enter his vision. Nawksh — as he calls both the project and the fictional character at the heart of his songs — navigates ruins, specifically those of decomposing synthesizer fragments piled in torn apart percussion and a moss of scraggly sound effects. Mythic Tales Of Tomorrow II has no through line in its story; instead its intent is to flash you with endless detail to flesh out a feeling. Even without seeing how point A connects to B, the journey through each track fulfills a satisfactory cycle. As with the genre he draws from, the whole of the meaning comes from the immersion.

J. William Parker – Shadowmen (2016)

The Shadowmen album is largely the same as the demo that originally sparked Guruguru Brain to pick up Hanoi songwriter J. William Parker. That means it’s retained its home-recorded gruff and shamble, which gives its taut folk songs an almost inflamed quality. Parker’s vocals flood the headspace of each track; his tremoring croon sounds like Elliott Smith with an awful cold or Tom Waits after sucking down a handful of lozenges. His style evokes the nostalgia of a hallowed alternative mixtape, but his storytelling is intricate enough to strip the grain from their sonic floorboards.

Yet beyond the words themselves, it’s how he bites down on those words that give them their weight. He frames each track with economical production, leaving room only for his vigorously choppy fingerpicking and its own slapback. A number of the tracks fade out just as the verse or chorus is getting in its groove, mimicking the experience of previewing an album on the iTunes store (remember that?) and evoking a shooting star quality that matches the one on the album art. You almost worry that this might be the only album Parker ever pieces together — his talent recalls those of other creative castaways whose interest in full-length statements just barely lasted long enough to make it through the first one. Yet none of the music on Shadowmen comes across as restless; Parker is simply succinct in getting his point across, feeling no inclination to overstay his welcome.

Tengger – Segye (2017)

Tengger’s music is not simply hypnotic — their songs actively sound like hypnosis. Dense analog synthesizers are cooked at a searing temperature until they coagulate around buzzing harmonium, to the point the two meld into a single resonance. The resulting frequencies pulsate almost subliminally throughout each of the eight tracks on Segye. The album was recorded in the heat of political dissent against the South Korean president, with the duo of Itta and Marqido composing the music in parallel with the demonstrations taking place on the streets of Seoul. Itta’s vocals are a tranquil instrument, lithe and airy, but the brittle rumble they hover on top presents an unnerving tension, as though any one piece might suddenly give way and bury the whole thing, reflective of the fervid social context the music was born from.

On the shorter tracks (“Eeeum” and “Gogae”), the effect is self-contained, like a prolonged, full-body ohm. But when stretched out as far as Tengger will take it, as with the opening and closing tracks “Donggrami” and “Geuglag Wangsaeng,” the suggested horizons gradually blur into unresolved tangents. Tengger’s approach is perpetual drift without destination, wind beneath homegrown sails unafraid of bumping into the unknown. The thrum of the harmonium reminds me of temple, specifically my childhood routine of zoning out to familial prayer music. For those without that reference point, the effect is not unlike naturally leaning into an involuntary sleep during a long bus ride, that feeling of comfortably succumbing.

Sundays & Cybele – On The Grass (2018)

If the point wasn’t already made clear by now, Guruguru Brain are currently one of the most compelling products of cross-continental influence. A Hokkaido quartet named after a 1960s French film — and one of Guruguru Brain’s earliest ambassadors — Sundays & Cybele are emblematic of the power the label is able to draw out of borderless anachronism. Spearheaded by guitarist and vocalist Kazuo Tsubouchi, the band mixes psychedelic rock with Japanese folklore and melodies and then turn the dial back a couple of decades. The result sounds like dusty classic stacked between Traffic and King Crimson on your parents’ record shelf.

Their fourth full-length On The Grass calibrates their curated reference points to be as vintage as possible. “The End of Summer” sounds golden with its mix of Byrds-ian harmonies and gelatinous guitar tones. “Arms #2” has riffs that sting with precision and puncturing percussion, but is also so melodically waxing and waning it hits like a ‘70s FM classic. The band keeps the epic closer “Incarnation” at a tight three minutes, although you could envision any of their decades-past predecessors having drawn it out into an unnecessary 16 minute odyssey. Despite a sound nostalgic in its overtones, the group’s retroism isn’t the point so much as it is a byproduct. They recall the canon not because they copy its representatives, but because they operate at that same level of execution.

Kikagaku Moyo – Masana Temples (2018)

Kikagaku Moyo have played a major role in establishing new space for Japanese musicians, and East and Southeast Asian musicians in general, to thrive. Yet their existence was informed almost not at all by the contemporary music of their home region. In interviews, Kurosawa has noted how “music shows in Japan are too expensive for us now, especially so when we were younger.” Accordingly, “We took pretty much zero influence from the local music scene in terms of the towns where we grew up.” It’s natural then that the band would look outwards for influence. What might not have been anticipated is that they’d draw from worlds that had not yet been created, acting as a conduit for improvisational euphonies with reference points more abstract than material.

On the band’s 2018 career-best Masana Temples, their delicate, drip-off-the-bone harmonies, pond-ripple percussion, and willfully lackadaisical delivery coalesced into a kind of magical realism. Drawn from the natural world but executed on a higher plane, it blurred the border between a dream and waking wonder. The music is richly crafted, but it’s not intended for inspection or assessment. As Kurosawa has also said in interviews, he doesn’t see his music as “art” that “means something that is highbrow or conceptual”; he sees it instead as “something more primitive and impulsive, something that brings pleasure to both the body and soul.” With Kikagaku Moyo, you can feel the very forces between the fundamentals — the interlocking gravity and kinetic energy that brings together melody, rhythm, and timbre as one.

Khana Bierbood – Strangers From The Far East (2019)

Thailand’s Khana Bierbood are Guruguru Brain’s most recent signee. At the top of the year the label released their charmingly coastal debut full-length Strangers From The Far East. Moreso than any act they’ve put on so far, this band sounds familiar to Western sensibilities, articulating a strand of laid-back surfer rock that recalls the style labels like Burger Records and Mexican Summer popularized earlier this decade. You could imagine Khana Bierbood starting the most breezily carefree mosh-pits at something like the Growlers’ annual SoCal festival, or go back in time and they’d fit right in as one of the shaggy ’70s ensembles that defined the era.

But as songs like the rippling “Plankton Bloom” showcase, Khana Bierbood are a distinct phenotype of that bright psych-pop style. Circuitous Eastern modalities balance out their more direct vocal deliveries, stretching out tracks to feel less repetitive but still pack the same immediacy. On “Jeanmaryn,” a three-note synth line gradually comes to encompass an acro dance bassline shadowing the lead vocal, call-and-response tremelos that tear the song in half, and a slurry of sun-washed melodies that then put it back together. There’s a showy muscularity to their work not unlike the expressionism of classic rock, but also a dextrous sensitivity, with highlights like “Bangsaen Lady” occupying a unique midpoint between the heavier spark of the past and the dreamier strut of today. They are an asynchronous linkage, but also an island all their own — and may represent the epitome of Guruguru Brain’s underlying argument: If you think you’ve heard it all, just try a different beach.

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