Puffy AmiYumi in perfect 'toon

 

August 26, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

Like the ubiquitous Hello Kitty, Puffy AmiYumi is first and foremost an efficient, multimedia, corporately concocted marketing machine.

There is the pseudo-anime TV series "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi," which airs on the Cartoon Network at 6:30 p.m. Fridays. There are the albums, including a disc of the same name that features some English-language reworkings of the group's original Japanese hits. Of course, there is the avalanche of merchandise, which includes action figures, calendars, notebooks and extensive lines of clothing for kids and adults.

And, oh yeah, somewhere behind all of this are two late-twentysomething, flesh-and-blood singers: Ami Onuki, who grew up in Tokyo and is sometimes called Jane, and Yumi Yoshimura, who was raised in Osaka and is nicknamed Sue.

Much like the Monkees, Ami and Yumi were cast in their roles as " Shibuya-kei" or "J-Pop" queens a decade ago, with their music crafted by Japanese producer Tamio Okuda (often in collaboration with Andy Sturmer, a veteran of the American psychedelic pop band Jellyfish) and an accompanying TV show, "Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa-Puffy," which featured unlikely guests such as Lenny Kravitz, Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford.

PUFFY AMIYUMI; ADAM RICHMAN

 

  • 7:30 p.m. Saturday

      Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield

      Tickets, $21

      (773) 472-0449

  • It would all seem somewhat insidious, like the old rumors of Communist plots to poison Americans by fluoridating the water supply, if it didn't happen to be so much fun: Rarely has prefab kiddie-pop so effectively blurred the lines between rock history (referencing artists ranging from ELO and ABBA to the Cowsills and the Roches) and the cutting edge (with nods to underground art-rock and techno artists such as Stereolab, the Cardigans and Fantastic Plastic Machine, among many others).

    Now, as Puffy AmiYumi tours America for the first time, the focus will be firmly on the music. I spoke to Ami and Yumi from Japan via a translator as they geared up for a tour that brings them to Chicago on Saturday.

    Q. I first saw you perform at South by Southwest two years ago, and I've been following your career since through my 8-year-old daughter. How do you feel about making your first full U.S. tour?

    Ami: It's actually the 10th year next year for Puffy to be a group together, and Yumi decided that this is the year for us to work really hard. What we do in Japan and what we do in the States aren't different, so we feel very lucky to be doing it both places.

    Q. Is it strange for you to see yourselves as these deformed cartoon characters?

    Ami: We actually watch the cartoon as if it's not Ami or Yumi. When we think about ourselves actually being there, though, it is kind of strange.

    Q. Does this incredible corporate machine behind the group ever frustrate you?

    Yumi: With a lot of tie-ins, things come along and the music part might not be as big, but the cartoon is a good way for the people to hear our music. Everyone who watches the cartoon listens to the music whether they want to or not, and it's a good window for new people to know Puffy AmiYumi. It's a good introduction for us, so we'll keep trying our best.

    Q. It seems to me that in Japan, there is less of a chasm between underground and mainstream music. Have you noticed a difference with the market in the U.S.?

    Ami: Mainstream or underground, we don't really put ourselves in any genre. We just try to do the music we like. If we were to perform at a concert, we want to do fun songs, so we'll choose songs fit for a performance. We don't want to put ourselves in a box and say, "This is our music." We don't really think about the difference between the mainstream and the underground.

    Q. How much involvement do the two of you actually have with crafting the music?

    Yumi: Of course it will come out as Puffy songs, so we're involved with everything, but we don't necessarily write the songs. We'll request songs we're in the mood for. We'll explain what we have in mind and someone will write the music. And sometimes we'll write the lyrics, but we're never forced to do anything we don't want to do.

    Ami: We don't make our own music all the time, but we're involved with every part of it and give a lot of opinions.

    Q. Where do you think the Puffy AmiYumi concept can go next?

    Ami: We've never really thought about our future. We always just enjoy the moment. The staff around us probably has years planned, but we don't think about what the next step is.

    Q. Well, what do you think is the biggest misconception that people might have about you in the United States?

    Yumi: We're musicians, first and foremost, but we don't want to say, "This is what we are." It's up to the listeners and the people who watch us on TV. Again, we don't want to put ourselves in a box, and we don't mind what people think about us. Right now, we just want to bring our music, and we hope that people look forward to hearing it.

    REASONS FOR LIVING

    The so-called "players' mags" -- music publications such as Guitar World, Bass Player and Modern Drummer -- have a reputation for being of somewhat limited interest for any readers who aren't, respectively, guitarists, bassists or drummers. But as musical technology evolves, growing more accessible to us non-virtuosic mortals by the day if not the hour, the line between "techie" instrumentalist magazines and broader interest music publications seems to be blurring as well.

    With a credo that promises "Music Technology That Rocks!," Future Music has shot to the top of my stack of must-reads since its premiere issue in May. It's partly a player's mag geared toward the home-recording computer musician, with a bevy of ads and the requisite reviews of new music-making programs and keyboards, as well as columns dedicated to "The Digital Guitarist," "The Digital Producer," "The Digital Drummer" and "The Digital Songwriter." But the most appealing aspect is the features, which cover innovative musicians from a range of genres in a smart, no-attitude style that doesn't pander to the artists or talk down to the readers.

    Including in the September issue on stands now: Chats with outlaw producer and genius DJ Danger Mouse, old-school industrial pioneer Trent Reznor and New Wave techno heroes LCD Soundsystem, and insightful reviews of new discs. Plus you get an accompanying CD with software samples and music videos of Mac or PC.

     

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