Serge Nakauchi-Pelletier and Maya Kuroki of Japanese Psych-Punk band Teke::Teke Take Us Inside Their Process on ‘Shirushi’ (INTERVIEW)

Teke::Teke started out as a cover band performing the music of one of their heroes, Takeshi Terauchi, but after adding vocals to the band, they began experimenting to develop their own sounds and ideas. The experience of recording their first EP together convinced them that they were heading in the right direction. Approaching their new full-length album Shirushi meant taking even the demo process quite seriously, and recording it meant a pilgrimage to Rhode Island from Montreal. It was only after recording the album and looking at different options that they got picked up by Kill Rock Stars, to their delight. The band is seven members strong, each taking a masterful approach to different instruments that bring layers to their music, and their sound is influenced by the 60s and 70s in Japan as much as by music elsewhere, as well as by film music. 

Teke::Teke have been described as Psych-Punk, but genre words don’t easily sums up how unique their music is. The album name, Shirushi, stems from a word that suggests both destruction and reconstruction and the songs span a wide range of dreamy and supernatural themes, all with a driving sense of energy. Guitarist Serge Nakauchi-Pelletier and vocalist Maya Kuroki (who is also a performance artist and visual artist) kindly joined me to talk about the genesis of Shirushi, how recording the album continued to shape the band’s identity and trajectory, and the ways in which even their visual art also contributes to their overall message. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I know that you made a video about the history of the band that’s really fun. I love the live footage and photos that are used in that. But could you recap a little how you came to work with Kill Rock Stars (KRS)?

Serge Nakauchi-Pelletier: Actually, it was a big surprise. We were kind of talking to other labels but I’m a big fan, having grown up listening to KRS artists. I wasn’t sure that KRS existed anymore, but we were in Vancouver about two years ago playing a festival and we stayed with our friends from the band Mi’ens. They had just signed to KRS and were, obviously, so excited. Later on, they passed on our music to KRS since Slim Moon, the label head, asked if they knew of any fun and exciting new bands. We had already recorded and mastered our album and he loved it right away. It made sense. It feels like a family and was the perfect match. We are so happy that the album is out on KRS.

Maya Kuroki: We’ve also been able to join the KRS 30th Anniversary Compilation. 

SN-P: They’ve been having artists cover KRS artists, so we picked a song from the band Unwound, which we love. Personally, Unwound had a really big impact on me as a musician. I think I first heard them in 1996 in Montreal. They really blew me away. We made the song completely different, though. It should be out this summer.

HMS: That’s really awesome. It took me a while to realize that both Kill Rock Stars and Sub Pop were still releasing, and I was so excited to start collecting vinyl from them again.

SN-P: We have releases on both labels, actually. We released two singles with Sub Pop. I don’t know what it is about the Pacific Northwest connection and Teke::Teke, but it feels right. Though Sub Pop is a big organization now. It’s a different story with KRS, which has about five employees and everyone that they represent seems to share the same values and vision as us. 

HMS: I know that you previously released an EP, so this wasn’t your first time in a studio, but how did this recording process compare to the last one and how did it relate to your live performance approach?

SN-P: Making the album Shirushi was our second time in the studio. Our previous EP was kind of an exercise because we had been playing some shows. There was also a transition from playing cover songs to recording new material. We used the EP as an experiment to see if all 7 of us could get in the studio and get something we were happy with, and it worked. It was only a short time before that that Maya joined the band and we integrated vocals and starting creating our own music. We prepared a lot for the recording of Shirushi. We did a lot of pre-production. We went to a house in the countryside and worked on it quite a bit. But we also thought that even in the studio, we’d be flexible enough to just revisit the songs again and allow for last minute craziness. I think that’s the part that connected with live performance the most. Songs like “Barbara” were played the way we would if we were playing a show. Some songs called for that kind of approach, but some other songs we thought should be more produced. 

MK: For example, the song “Kizashi” was at first the jam after the song “Barbara”, but it started to get a different vibe. So we started to improvise a little bit and decided to make it a different song.

HMS: That happened in the studio?

MK: Yes!

SN-P: We had jammed on that riff a little in rehearsal, and then when we were in the studio, we just went for it and improvised. Seth, the engineer, told us to go ahead. It was nice to feel free in the studio and go a little crazy. It’s nice to capture those moments.

MK: Afterwards, we added some strings to it, which made it totally different.

HMS: It sounds like being in the studio inspired you rather than feeling intimidating. For some people, it’s a little like being in church, where things are more serious.

SN-P: Maybe for us it would be more like being in a church where there was Gospel music going on. We were only there for six days in the studio in Rhode Island, so it was good to be prepared, but at the same time, that made us go for it.

MK: For six days, everyone went jogging together in the morning, exercised together, cooked together. All of that made us closer. It was so different to being at home.

SN-P: Everything that Maya just said was part of the process of making the music, too. We were in a small place, so we just stuck together and it was very intense in a very nice way.

HMS: It sounds like it was a turning point for the band in terms of how you work together.

MK: Yes, because everyone was in harmony. Usually we just practice for two hours and then everyone says goodbye. We’re all very professional, and sometimes that creates a little bit of professional distance. But when we were all together in Rhode Island, it was so much fun. 

SN-P: It was the first time that we were all together focused on one thing. We loved it. Also, of course, Seth Manchester was our engineer. We didn’t really know him beforehand, but it really clicked for us, and I think he was happy working with us too. He just knew what to do to bring the songs to the next level. Actually, he usually works with very heavy, progressive bands, but he was excited to work on something different. At the same time, his work with heavy bands was a bonus because I wanted the songs to sound heavy and edgy, for the rhythm section to be really powerful.

HMS: I can definitely hear that on the album. Some Metal bands have a lot of layers, so maybe that’s why he was so great at making all your layers on this album so audible. One song I was thinking of when you said that was “Yoru Ni”. The guitar in that is really sharp and clear even though it has a really classic sound. I think it was inspired by a weird dream that Serge had. How did it evolve, musically, for you? 

SN-P: For most of the songs on the album, I had the main ideas, the main riffs, and some of the structure, but when I bring it to the band, after we revisit everything, often chords get really changed around. That’s what’s cool about working with other people, you have to let go of the beginning idea and let everyone take part. “Yoru Ni” is a great example because I woke up in the middle of the night and I had that riff, that melody, in my head. That was the moment where I could have gone back to sleep, and then when I woke up, I would have forgotten it. Nothing would have happened. I think it’s important to do something about it when it’s there. So I got up and picked up my guitar. Then I had to take the idea from my head and translate it into my playing. 

At times like that, it feels like I’m following a flow, and that’s when I feel that it’s genuine and real. I never sit down and think, “I’m going to come up with something today.” It might seem cliché, but it’s more like the idea comes to me, calls me, and grabs me. Then, out of the blue, this French sentence came to mind, that’s in the song. It had a Ginsberg vibe, or  was something like in Jean-Luc Godard films. I had this image of following a river and that’s how the sentence goes in French. It became a kind of romantic or spiritual story. 

MK: It’s like a ghost or something appears from the other side. It follows the flow with this person until they reach the ocean. Then there’s a sunrise on the ocean.

SN-P: It’s very visual stuff that Maya developed just from the initial idea that I had. 

MK: Serge very often brings the song to me with some key words, like with “Yoru Ni”, then I try to develop the nuances of the melody and also of the nuances of key words. 

HMS: So, Maya, you meditated on the French sentence, and came up with a whole vocal approach and lyrics to expand on it?

MK: Yes. But I have almost a complete demo. Then I can easily imagine the nuances of the song and images come to me. Those are the images that I try to connect into one story. 

SN-P: I do a lot on film scoring, working on documentaries and film projects, doing soundtracks. Also, the first music that I heard as a kid were Rock and film music, so my approach is very sountrack-y and visual. Every sound to me has a vibe that can stand on its own as an instrumental. That’s why I make demos for Maya, so she can hear the instrumentals and get the vibe. Then she just goes crazy with the lyrics.

MK: Teke::Teke songs are very cinematic. It’s very easy to imagine the story or the scene, like in a movie. 

SN-P: That’s a big part of the music and I think it will always stay like that. That also allows for you to get a feeling about what the song is about, even if you don’t speak Japanese, and it’s more accessible to everyone in that way. 

HMS: Especially with the different instruments, they all seem to tell different aspects of the story and suggest so much in terms of emotion. Were there songs that didn’t make it onto the album?

SN-P: Not really, but we ended up with extras that just kind of happened, like “Kizashi”. There’s a hidden track on the physical releases, like on the vinyl, after “Tekagami”. If you wait a few seconds, there’s a hidden track there that was also very much improvised from one bass riff that Mishka had in his pocket. Maya improvised on the vocals. Our drummer actually went on the piano. So that was a “bonus”. Because we had time to record some more, we also recorded two covers. One was released ahead of time, the instrumental cover of “Chidori” by Takeshi Terauchi. There’s another one that we have which we might release at some point that’s a cover with vocals. 

HMS: Do you feel like these songs fit together because you were in a certain mood or mindset as a band when creating them?

SN-P: Very much so. We didn’t really have a concept, per se, before. We had pieces that we put together, but with the different themes, and Maya’s lyrics, one thing led to another. Everything just seemed to lay down in front of us. It’s weird when that kind of thing happens, so organically, but I feel like it’s the real thing. That’s kind of how Maya went on to do the artwork, too, integrating elements from every song. It’s all one big thing.

HMS: The visuals are wonderful, including the animations. I know how hard animation is, so that must have been a lot of drawing!

SN-P: [Laughs] That’s why we skipped a lot of frames. 

MK: It’s very DIY. Because of Covid, we had the chance to experiment like this. We’ve never done this before. 

SN-P: Because we were stuck at home, we thought we’d try the different software options. But DIY does bring a certain signature style.

HMS: It all matches the album cover artwork which Maya created. On the cover, we see a figure who combines many forms, or seems to be transforming with animal and human aspects. Does that relate to the supernatural or ghostly aspects on the album for you, or is more about creativity?

MK: Because the idea of “shirushi” has some elements of destruction, but also elements of hope, it’s ghostly, circus-like, but also destructive. I tried to explain a little bit of each song through the drawing. There was something a little bit beautiful and scary that I wanted to try to bring across, but it wasn’t enough, so I added the circus aspects. I also tried to have the beautiful ocean landscape suggest some kind of hope or melancholy.

HMS: I love the colors on the cover, too. They are very rich. That description reminds me a little bit of the supernatural character in “Barbara”, because she’s not exactly good or bad. She’s something more than that, isn’t she? 

SN-P: Yes, she’s a ghost, but she’s childish and is not necessarily doing dark things. 

MK: Also, because Teke:: Teke started as a cover band for Takeshi Terauchi, we’re influenced by the 60s and 70s in Japan. At that time, Pop music in Japan had a lot of pessimistic music that’s very dark, but at the same time it’s beautiful sounding. It’s always about dying. There’s some kind of darkness. [Laughs]

SN-P: You listen to these Pop songs and they sound really happy, but you listen to the lyrics and it’s always about suicide or dramatic stuff. 

MK: Also, in Japanese culture, ghosts and the spirit world are very connected to beauty. We love that. Teke::Teke always has that kind of imagery. We are curious about the dark side of things, but it’s not just about the dark side, it includes some humor and hope, too.

HMS: I know what you mean. Even in some American and British music in the the 60s and the 70s, it sounds so light, but there are darker ideas. Do you think you’ll do more songs that include these kinds of themes, or is that more specific to Shirushi?

SN-P: I think it might be something that’s a big part of the band that’s going to stay.


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