The Japanese Popstars Release Second Album
Remixing Beyoncé is a happy distraction for the acclaimed Derry dance trio
How many bands do you know that have had a brand of Nike trainers named after them? Well, it’s one of a list of accolades that the Japanese Popstars have notched up since starting out in 2006 (their Nike trainers, incidentally, were called Air Force Japstars 01).
With a slew of music nominations and awards, collaborations with some of the biggest names in the business and countless prestigious festival slots under their belts, the Derry~Londonderry trio have earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as electronic giants Underworld, the Chemical Brothers and Orbital. Although they might not agree, such is their modesty.
The band – comprising Gary Curran, Declan McLaughlin and Gareth Donoghue – have come a long way since the release of their first album, We Just Are, written in their bedrooms on a £400 PC and a £150 hi-fi.
The guys signed to New York-based record label, Astralwerks (owned by Virgin/EMI), last year and have been touring, writing and remixing non-stop ever since. They’ve just returned from playing a string of dates in some of the most acclaimed venues and festivals in America and Curran is still buzzing.
‘It was totally different to our first tour of the US,' he says. 'We played big clubs with decent crowds like Pacha in New York and Avalon in LA, which has the most amazing sound system.
'We were in the right warm-up slots too – we were on before Benny Benassi and Laidback Luke at the Dance.Here.Now Festival in New York. It’s great to be on such decent line-ups and play the right venues so that we can showcase what we’re about.’
And it’s not just America that has cottoned on to the brilliance of the Japanese Popstars. The Japanese have rather taken to them; they’ve toured Australia and much of Europe, including Exit Festival in Serbia; it’s even possible that Samantha Cameron checked them out in Ibiza this summer when they played on the line-up with Pete Tong.
But while they may be living the dream, the lifestyle isn’t without its perils, as Curran explains. ‘I nearly lost my eyeball at a particularly mad festival in Vienna. I was just about to shake hands with the crowd after the gig and ended up in a stage-dive type effort. I didn’t know what was going on and then a finger poked me right in the eye. It was good craic though,’ he adds with a laugh.
Injuries aside, touring has afforded the Japanese Popstars the opportunity to grow and experiment with their sound. ‘We’re developing confidence all the time, confidence to become better producers. I mean, you can have all the ideas in the world but it’s how you develop those ideas that makes the difference. You need to trust in yourself to be able to do that.’
But while they may be maturing professionally and have access to some slightly fancier production equipment, they’re still bedroom producers at heart. Except they haven’t seen much of their bedrooms lately, such has been the intensity of their schedule.
Yet somehow amid tours, festivals and remixes, they managed to snatch moments in which to write their second album, Controlling Your Allegiance, which they released in June. Album No. 2 boasts a more commercial sound than We Just Are, which has maybe come as a surprise to some.
‘People were probably expecting a follow-up to the first album, but instead they’re getting one which is more musical and has more vocals. So some of the underground dance magazines are not really feeling the vocal tracks. They’re feeling the older, instrumental-type stuff that harks back to the first album.
'But because we put vocals on it, it’s more accessible so there are loads of brilliant reviews floating about, especially from the States. There are loads of blogs and a lot of magazines saying that it’s just an amazing piece of work.’
Testament to this bold statement is the number of prolific artists that have signed up to appear on the album. It features a host of collaborations with the likes of Tom Smith from Editors, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Chicago house legend Green Velvet, Lisa Hannigan and Dublin folk hero, James Vincent McMorrow (listen to 'Shells of Silver' in the video above).
And while their own material may be garnering high praise, their remixes are getting them just as much recognition. The group has remixed some of the biggest commercial names around, and they don’t come much bigger than Beyoncé at the minute.
The Japstars remixed 'Single Ladies' and both a dance version and a chill-out version of 'If I Was a Boy' for the First Lady of Pop, although they have yet to find out if she liked them. ‘I don’t even know if she ever got the tracks because there’s so many label people involved.’
They may never know what Beyoncé thinks of them but they can definitely count Damon Albarn among their legions of fans, having received some positive feedback from him about the remix they did of 'On Melancholy Hill' for Gorillaz. They’ve also received praise for their Underworld, Editors and Depeche Mode remixes.
Although they were working with well-known artists before EMI came knocking at their door, Curran admits that opportunities present themselves that bit more readily now that they’re signed to one of the ‘Big Four’. However, with such opportunities comes pressure.
‘You have to deliver, often within a short timeframe. To give you an example, we were actually given less than a week to turn around the Daft Punk remix that we did this year. We got the parts on the Thursday and the deadline was the following Wednesday. So it was a matter of getting stuck into it straight away. It was a bit stressful but we got it done.’
It’s this kind of aptitude and dedication that has earned them several nominations and award in recent years, including four nominations at this year’s Irish Dance Music Awards. Not content with winning prizes for their music, the Japanese Popstars have also scooped awards for their videos with 'Let Go', winning Best Animated Video at the Antville Awards last year.
The moniker of Best Music Video went to Destroy at the AICE Awards (the Association of Independent Creative Editors) in New York recently – it features Jon Spencer (of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion fame) both as the video’s protagonist and the track’s vocalist.
Their star may be on the ascent but Decky, Gareth and Gary aren’t resting on their laurels. ‘We need to keep touring while we’re producing and remixing. We have to because the world has changed. People can download music for free now and that obviously affects everyone who earns a living in the music industry.
'And as well as that, you can put out an album and it might be well received but people can just go online and buy individual tracks instead of buying the full album. So, we’re going to keep writing but we’re going to focus more on underground club material, start working it that way again and then just keep doing remixes for a while.
'We have ideas for another album but it’s way on the back burner. We’re still putting the feelers out to keep that option open and to keep the underground stuff open and we really want to keep the collaborations going as well. So, we’re constantly writing, every spare minute we have, we’re focusing on it.’
Controlling Your Allegiance is out now on Virgin/EMI. James Vincent McMorrow will be performing in the Grand Opera House as part of the 2011 Belfast Festival at Queen's.