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Satellite Young: An Interview with Japan’s Biggest Synthwave Group

If you haven’t yet, you need to experience the colorful 80s kitsch of Satellite Young, probably the most popular Japanese retrosynth group on this pale blue dot.

From their first releases in 2014 to the hot “Sniper Rouge,” their recent collaboration with synthwave pioneer Mitch Murder, the trio has laced their well-crafted fare with the catchiest of shiny and sugar-dunked hooks, quirky melodic turns, and enviable visual art. Basically, they have fun.

They’ve been busy. In addition to that collaboration with Kung Fury soundtrack demi-god Murder, Tokyo-based Satellite Young founders Emi Kusano and BelleMaison Sekine recently added third member Tele Hideo, the multi-faceted musician and visual artist who wears a TV on his head.

“When we thought about the third position in the band, we didn’t think about adding [a drummer or guitarist] at all,” Kusano told Vehlinggo recently. “Rather, we thought it would be nice if we had a character that makes us think, ‘Why is this guy on the stage?!’…. [to the] surprise and excitement of the audience.”

Photo: Satellite Young.
Photo: Satellite Young.

“On top of that,” she continued, “we came up with an iconic character that is both 80s-like and modern.” What could embody that more than some kind of robot or cyborg, she said.

Satellite Young’s singles are a wonderful thing to experience as a whole. I’m not always pleased with the remixes and alternate versions that some artists tack onto singles, but the folks of Satellite Young are different.

What they have often done is package the original modern/retroesque synthpop version with a delectable more pure 80s remix. Sometimes they’ll close the collection with an instrumental mix they label as the “karaoke version.”

On “Geeky Boyfriend,” released in December 2014, there’s no karaoke version, but the contrast between the two mixes they offer is notable.

The original is a bouncy number akin to Phil Collins’ 1982 cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and has organic sounding drums and guitars, bolstered with catchy synth melodies. The remix takes the listener five years past Collins, mining the mid-tempo, synthetic bliss of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Both have Kusano’s delightful Japanese-language vocals.

It Began with a ‘Toei’

The seeds for this project were sown in 2013, when Kusano and Sekine met at their university.

Kusano had been watching an 80s era Toei Fushigi Comedy Series called Chukana Paipai, or ちゅうかなぱいぱい. She was struck with a bolt of inspiration.

I wanted to do a full reproduction of something like this, and [mentioned] it to a mutual friend… [who] introduced me to Mr. Sekine,” Kusano said.

Their enthusiasm was largely restricted to the abstract for nearly a year, until Kusano sent Sekine an a cappella recording of “Jack Doushi / ジャック同士,” which in November 2014 would become their first single.

For his part, Sekine says Kusano caught him at the right time. He had been listening to a variety of synthesizer-based music for awhile, but “I was quite fed up.”

“I couldn’t purely enjoy music,” he said.

Then he stumbled onto “Rakuen-no-door(楽園のdoor)” by Yoko Minamino and found it “very fresh.” The laid-back female vocal over a solid synth foundation had a huge impact, Sekine said, and at that point he knew he wanted to make something like that.

Kusano’s entrance into the picture completed the equation.

“When I put some sound to Emi’s a cappella recording of ‘Jack Doushi(ジャック同士),’ I got excited because I heard something interesting that I couldn’t make only by myself,” Sekine said.

The Satellite Young project is influenced by a number of other notable Japanese artists from the late 70s, 80s, and 90s as well, Kusano said.

Going back to when she was in elementary school, Kusano got into famous Japanese disco duo Pink Lady. After that, she was interested in artists like Minako Honda, Yu Hayami, and Chisato Mori.

Kusano gets additional inspiration from her time as a radio DJ, during which she played everything from electro and “dream hop” to shoegaze and anything else she could get her hands on.

Sekine got into stuff like German new age band Cusco, Journey, and, at his father’s request, Jan Hammer. He also pointed to a 1985 LP called “The 9th Wave” by J-Pop star Seiko Matsuda, referring to it as a “monumental” influence on Japanese synthwave.

‘Fake Memory’

Photo: Satellite Young.
Photo: Satellite Young.

With their sound down, Kusano and Sekine followed up their debut single with the giddy “Fake Memory / フェイクメモリー,” which has a catchy chorus I find myself singing out of the blue on many occasions. Or, rather, I sing the occasional English word and hum along with the Japanese lyrics.

The original version of that song comes off more like Japanese synthpop from the 80s, whereas the “Outrun Electro Version” gave listeners a hint at what might present itself down the road with the Murder collaboration.

They followed up “Fake” with the December 2014 singles “Break! Break! Tic! Tac!” and “Geeky Boyfriend.” Last October came the Dividual Heart EP.

Along the way Satellite Young has gained a reputation for mining the better angels of both 80s retroism and modernity to create well-structured pop songs. Even if they can be cheeky or kitschy, at their core the songs have the snappy, catchy qualities of a skillful pop cut.

Although it’s tough to compare Japanese synthwave acts to those in other countries — there aren’t many in the Land of the Rising Sun — it’s that structure that often sets the Japanese artists apart from their counterparts in other regions, Sekine says.  

“The difference… is that we are strongly affected by Japanese 80s synthpop,” Sekine says. “Japanese pop has a clear constitution — verse, bridge, and chorus.”

Wild Cards and Swedish Retroists 

Satellite Young
Photo: Satellite Young

In recent months, the group has worked its way fully into the retrosynth scene.

First, Kusano and Sekine added Hideo, who remains anonymous by wearing a television on his head. Sekine says Hideo’s purpose goes beyond music, calling his new bandmate a “media technologist.” Hideo is responsible for making videos and such, but he also can be expected to just randomly start dancing on stage or even drumming, Sekine says.

In other words, we can call him a ‘wild card’ that is allowed to do anything,” Sekine said.

For his part, Hideo is pumped to get things rolling.

“I’d like to do live performances all around the world,” he said. “I’ll go anywhere!”

With Hideo in tow, Kusano and Sekine have already been heading toward reaching a larger audience.

For starters, in January they wrote the theme song for Swedish 80s retro anime Senpai Club. The song, “Don’t Graduate Senpai,” taps into the show’s vibe of “kawaii” — the cuteness quality in the realm of Japanese culture — and pairs that with the show’s scholastic themes (after all, a “senpai” is an older student).

“[The show] is a magical-girl, school-love comedy,” Kusano says.

Photo Credit: Uemula.
Photo Credit: Uemula.

Their other big foray into retroism this year also involved Sweden; specifically, the pioneer of Swedish synthwave, Mitch Murder. Satellite Young and Murder crafted the exquisite “Sniper Rouge.”

Here’s how it came together. First, the band listened to Murder’s instrumental part, over which they crafted one of their characteristic melodies and harmonies, according to Kusano. They recorded the cut with an eye on creating a theme song for one of Japan’s classic spy/action flicks, she said.

“Senpai” and “Rouge” are stark contrasts between levity and seriousness, which is fine by Sekine.

We want to be a group that can do both ‘Kawaii’ and ‘cool,’ comical and serious,” like how legendary Japanese techno group Yellow Magic Orchestra was,” he said.

With whatever they touch, Sekine will make sure there’s an 80s component to it.

“The fascinating, and best, thing about all 80s synth sounds is the glossiness and sparkles,” he says, talking about the twinkling bell sounds of the Yamaha DX7 and the brass sounds of the classic Jupiter 8

The 8 “adds a unique sparkling image to songs. I like it very much,” he said. “Current synthesizers cannot make that sound.”

Going forward, Satellite Young is working on a full-length album, which Sekine says they expect to complete this year. In the meantime, Sekine has released a solo album on NewRetroWave Records that takes the Satellite Young instrumentation and gives it a bigger, more outrun sound.

Ultimately, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on this group. For right now they might just be satellites, but it can’t be long now until the earth revolves around them.