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Lost gaijin: Damon & Naomi return to Japan

Damon & Naomi "The Sub Pop Years"
Damon & Naomi “The Sub Pop Years”

TOKYO (TR) – As the title “Lost Gaijin Tour 2009” might imply, the folk-pop duo Damon & Naomi are aiming for something a little different during their upcoming slate of live shows that will extend up and down Honshu over the next week.

Guitarist and vocalist Damon Krukowski explained during an email interview that he and his wife, bassist Naomi Yang, once comprising two-thirds of the legendary indie-rock band Galaxie 500, have been performing as a duo quite often, in part because it is simple and inexpensive to travel to places that bands do not normally go.

“The idea for this tour was to travel further north and south than we do usually,” said Krukowski. “And since we have a lot of musician friends in Japan, we have invited different ones to join us onstage in different areas, for a few songs each night. It should be a very relaxed, intimate kind of show.”

The pair hailing from Boston, Massachusetts have been making delicate and dreamy records since their 1992 debut “More Sad Hits.” Material from the compilation CD “The Sub Pop Years,” released in September and including tracks culled from five albums dating between 1995 and 2002, will be showcased in Japanese cities as remote as Sendai and Misawa — a treat for the group given that Japan has truly been an inspiration.

“So much about the culture resonates for us,” explained Krukowski. “The melancholy we love in some of our favorite music seems to be echoed in Japan by everything from the gardens in Kyoto, to actress Setsuko Hara, to the slightly mournful slogans used to sell snack foods.”

Their first substantial musical connection with Japan began in the mid-’90s, when they were introduced to Japanese folk-rock band Ghost in the U.S. They subsequently invited them to tour with their band at the time, the psychedelic group Magic Hour, for which Yang and Krukowski played as the rhythm section.

“Damon & Naomi with Ghost”

Damon & Naomi then covered Ghost’s “Awake in a Muddle,” a drifting acoustic piece about dreams and looking back. “By the time we made our album ‘Playback Singers’ in 1996-97,” said Krukowski of their 1998 release, their third as a duo following the breakup of Galaxie 500 in 1991, “we were already good friends with Masaki Batoh (vocalist and guitarist in Ghost), and we wanted to sing one of his songs. We chose ‘Awake in a Muddle’ for the wonderful lyric.”

Two years later the relationship continued through the collaborative album “Damon & Naomi with Ghost.” In 2002, “Song to the Siren: Live in San Sebastian” captured a selection of recordings that were accompanied by the shimmering guitar work of Ghost’s Michio Kurihara. “The Sub Pop Years” is filled with a healthy sampling of tracks from these albums, among them are “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce,” softly sung by Yang, and “Song to the Siren,” a Tim Buckley cover punctuated by a Kurihara solo.

Also released in September was “1001 Nights,” an anthology DVD of films by Yang, music videos by Cédrick Eymenier and concert footage, some of which was recorded in Japan. In addition to displaying the band’s ability to depart from atmospherics into droning guitars, the DVD also includes a seldom heard rendition of the Galaxie 500 classic “Blue Thunder.”

This summer also marked the vinyl reissue of all three Galaxie 500 albums, originally released between 1988 and 1990 and whose guitar pop has been praised by groups like Sonic Youth and Low. “The original vinyl has become quite rare, and we wanted people to be able to hear these records in the format they were originally intended for,” Krukowski said. “Back then, vinyl was the only format we really cared about, because that’s how we listened to those albums, that’s what the radio played, that was the object we felt so proud to place next to the favorite records in our own collections at home.”

“1001 Nights”

It is perhaps ironic that Galaxie 500 was scheduled to tour Japan just prior to its disbandment. But a visit for Damon & Naomi was eventually realized through an invitation from their sound man, Mark Kramer, who also works as a solo musician. “Naomi and I were so excited to be invited to Japan then,” Krukowski explained of the time before the split, “it was one of the crushing disappointments of the end of the band that we had to cancel the tour. Kramer felt the same way. So when he asked us to open for him on his first tour there, in 1995, it was a lovely way to make that trip finally happen for me and Naomi, as well.”

Damon & Naomi would make their headlining debut in Japan three years later. They have not looked back since, touring the country regularly and providing captivating music for their fans — likely now pleased with the Japanese Web page — in spite of the substantial language barrier.

“I think music is a language that can make use of words or not,” Krukowski believes. “We sing lyrics, but we are trying to convey emotion through them. That can succeed, or fail, with or without understanding the words themselves. We listen to a lot of singers in other languages — from Brazil, from West Africa, from Spain, from Japan — who move us very much, even if we don’t always know what their lyrics mean.”

Note: Damon & Naomi play November 7 at Garo in Misawa; November 8 at Cafe Mozart Atelier in Sendai; November 10 at Jive in Hiroshima (Tel: 082-246-2949); November 11 at Urban Guild in Kyoto; November 12 at K.D Japon in Nagoya; and November 14 at Tsukimiru Kimiomofu in Tokyo.