Japan, where tradition and modernity are always in close proximity to one another, has for hundreds of years fascinated us. The heady mixture of old (the Imperial House of Japan is the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world whilst Shinto has existed as a concept for thousands of years) and the new (Japan is a leading producer and developer in the field of consumer electronics, whilst Manga, once considered a slightly baffling phenomenon, has now become truly international in appeal) never fails to intrigue visitors. But that's not the only thing that's intriguing about Japan, for the "land of the rising sun" is also where Kyte, the English band from Leicestershire, landed fifth spot (one spot above rock music behemoths U2, no less) in the charts for their Japan-only album, "Science For The Living". "Sunlight" even featured at a sumo wrestling event. I asked Ben Cox, bassist in the group, why he thought the Japanese market took so quickly to their brand of electronic dream-pop.
"We're not really sure exactly why that happened. We partly think that it might be just because they're a lot more open to music. The fact that [our] songs don't stick to a three and a half minute structure sometimes – maybe they were a bit more accommodating and accepting of that, a bit more willing to get through those intros, to get to the "point" of the song. But also, we sort of feel that maybe we were just marketed better over there. Maybe the people who were releasing the album really understood what they wanted to do with it."
It’s true that Kyte's music has caused more than or two reviewers to scratch their head, wondering how to describe it. Post-rock was for a long time bandied around, due in part to the band’s penchant for stately, gradual introductions and longer than average running times (four out of the seven tracks on their self-titled debut mini-album run beyond six minutes). Even their press release for new album, "Dead Waves" (out on KIDS on 19th April) describes "Each Life Critical" as "Sigur Rós soundtracking [A] Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", a guaranteed call to arms for glacial instrumental rock aficionados. This coupled with tours with I Like Trains and School Of Seven Bells saw them lumbered with an additional irritant, the shoegaze tag.
"In the nicest way possible, we do want to distance ourselves a little bit from the post-rock and shoegaze tags that we've had," explains Ben, a little wearily. "We don't feel like that's a fair representation of us as a band."
He has a point. Listen to "Dead Waves" and it becomes apparent that a real pop-sensibility, present in earlier releases but less overt, has taken hold. "Guns And Knives", "Fake Handshakes" and up-coming single "ihnfsa" ("We're leaving that as a mystery. We're not telling anyone what that means," is all Ben will say on this curiously-named track) are decidedly electro-pop in nature, albeit as Tim Peacock notes, of the "planet-destroying anthemic" variety. Ben seems to be in agreement:
"We feel like that we probably have more in common with pop music at the moment, especially on the new album. Songs like "Strangest Words And Pictures", even though it's a very slow and soft song, I think it's got more in common with bands like Snow Patrol than post-rock music. It's all about the melody and the lyrics, and that’s very much what we feel we are about now."
And was this a natural development or a deliberate change?
"It [wasn't] necessarily a conscious decision; it's just that we've changed as people over two years. A lot of it is that our music tastes have changed: we're not as into having a long intro and outro as we were before. We quite like some of the pop music out at the moment, and we're definitely very heavily influenced by dance music."
Anyone listening to "You're Alone Tonight" or indeed "Bridges In The Sky" (from their splendid 2008 "Two Sparks, Two Stars" EP) cannot fail to be in hearty agreement with that last sentence. In an interesting quirk of circumstance, it would appear that the constant "post-rock" tags contributed in no small part to their music taking this direction.
"We ended up touring with a lot of post-rock bands [and] it kind of gets a bit boring. When we're travelling around, we don't want to be listening to the same music that we've been listening to while we're in venues every night. Instead of that, everyone [in the band], individually, [went] seeking out new kinds of music, and we all sort of realised that we were getting into dance music. So there's definitely an element of that on the album. I've always found that the "post-rock" and "shoegaze" tags [have been used for us] because people don't really know how to categorise us. Because we do have influences from that sort of music, but I think what we do is quite different, at the same time."
I put it to Ben that Kyte's brand of stratospheric pop, build on layers upon layers of sound (particularly on the earlier records), may have encouraged reviewers to plump for the relatively easy "shoegaze" or "nugaze" ("It's just an awful name, isn't it?" laughs Ben down the phone-line at that particularly utterance) tags.
"Yeah, I suppose so. But it's awfully strange though, because we've never really listened to shoegaze. People ask us if we like My Bloody Valentine and Slowride and all these people. We were kind of aware of them, but we've never really sat down and listened to them. It's not something that's ever really interested us, so while people are saying that there's definitely an influence there, it's more that there are similarities. They aren't influences though. It's more coincidence than influence."
Although the band has been together since 2006, "Dead Waves" is actually Kyte's debut general release album. In a musical industry that values immediacy and making as much money as quickly as possible above all else, I asked Ben quite why four years passed before they felt able to release their debut.
"We got a lot of interest before we'd even played a show. It was incredibly fast, the way it sort of happened for us. Someone who was in the industry found us on MySpace and invited us to go and play a show down in London to see what we were like. And at that point, we literally had only put songs on MySpace; we'd never played a live show. So even though we've been going for that long, it's taken us this long to get to how we really feel like 'this is what we want to do and this is how we want to present ourselves', so in a sense, we kind of did a lot of our growing up and becoming the band we are in front of everyone. We were putting music out ["Switch Motion to the Sky" EP in 2006, “Kyte” mini-album in 2007, "Two Sparks, Two Stars" EP in 2008] and trying to develop as a band and really, you know, learn how to make it happen live, and how to act like a band and be a band. So, we had these songs that were good enough and people wanted to release them, and it seemed a bit of a shame to say, 'actually, we're not ready yet [to release our debut]'. So rather than just sit on them and wait, we thought 'let's get all the material out and take it from there'."
It was these tracks on Kyte's early EPs and mini-albums that, alongside a couple of new tunes that would feature on "Dead Waves", made it onto the Japan-only "Science For The Living", released in 2008. During the course of our conversation, Ben reveals that the album was initially intended for a larger audience.
"["Science For The Living"] was originally meant for a general release but we actually had to have it ready more quickly than we wanted. We had to make sure that we got it out in time for the Japanese market, [so that they could] have it before we went out to play the Supersonic Festival over there."
With a quick release planned for the album, the general release plans had to be shelved.
"At the time [of the "Science For The Living" release], we had sort of been shopping the album around, and a lot of the feedback was: 'although it was really good, it wasn't quite ready' and we felt the same way about it. We felt like, 'ok, we've got something here, but we don't want to force it or really make something out of it that's not there'. We didn't release the EPs ["Kyte" and "Two Sparks, Two Stars"] in Japan, so we put those tracks on ["Science For The Living"] – it made it slightly stronger anyway – and then we thought we can wait and make sure we get the album right when we eventually release it here [in the UK]. [In the end,] we kind of rushed it a little bit, and then when we looked at it again and thought about how it would work in the UK market place, it just didn't feel quite ready. So rather than release it here as well, we thought we would really take our time on it, think about what's going to work, what doesn't work [and] how we can change that."
And so Kyte returned to the UK to re-think their debut.
"It was interesting in the way that that happened, because we almost took time away from playing in England. We didn't have an album and there didn't seem to be a lot of point touring for the sake of touring. It wouldn't be helping our reputation, and it wouldn't be pushing us in the right direction, so rather than do that, our main songwriter, Tom [Lowe], went back to some of the older songs, and sort of tried to figure out which ones worked and which ones didn't. While he was doing that, he was just writing new songs anyway. So some of those songs that were being written ended up being on "Dead Waves". That's why there are a few songs that are the same [as "Science For The Living"], and a few that have changed, and a couple of new songs on there as well. For "Fear Of Death" we went into the studio, and we worked on it with a producer, along with "The Smoke Saves Lives" and "Designed For Damage", where the producer had a few ideas of what he thought we could do to make them better. And when he presented his ideas to us, we just really liked them, and thought it was worth giving it a chance. So we ended up going in and redoing those songs. Part of us was thinking, for those people who have already heard those songs, they may be wondering why we've done this. Maybe that they're not going to like it as much, because a lot of time you find that people prefer what they already know, rather than when you've redone something. But, at the same time, we didn't really feel like we had a big enough fan-base that that would be a really big problem. And we thought that if we can make these songs stronger and make them better for the album, then we should try looking for ways of doing that."
In particular, the track "The Smoke Saves Lives", 5.32 minutes on "Science For The Living", is shorn of its brooding introduction for its centre-stage role on "Dead Waves".
"It's got such a long intro, and while it's really nice, we wanted it to be the lead-off track on the album – that had always been the intention, that was the idea in mind when it was written – and we just thought we wanted to get to the point a bit quicker. We wanted it to be a bit of a mission statement: you're not going to have to wait around, we're going to give it to you straight away, and if you're enjoying it, then we can kind of take it back to our original style. On "Each Life [Critical]", we still have the long intro. So it was quite a conscious decision to change from the long intros and outros to try and condense it a bit more. It's actually a lot harder to write strong songs when you haven't got the long, build-up introductions. It's harder to do it within the style that we're trying, if you're actually working within a slightly more "commercial" structure, if you know what I mean…"
It's clear from what Ben has to say, taken alongside the tracks on "Dead Waves", that the band are looking to sharpen up their game. Having taken Japan by storm, they're intent on finally breaking their homeland. A particular criticism levelled at the band in the past (including on this very website) has been their live performance. In this highly competitive world of changing fortunes and falling album sales, live dates have become the key to unlocking a fan base. Ben, somewhat candidly, is happy to admit that their live show hasn't always been as appealing as their albums.
"We do quite well elsewhere in the world, without a lot of effort, so it is strange that we aren't that well known or that we don't have all the hype that a lot of other English bands get," muses Ben. "I suppose you could partly put it down to the fact that we don't – or at least we certainly didn't – have a scintillating live show. We're not strutting around the stage, you know? We just play our music and hope that people like it."
"Maybe it wasn't for a lot of people – the ones who go to a concert for the experience of really being involved in it, perhaps, rather than letting it wash over them," he continues. "With all these new songs, we've put a lot of effort into our live performance, so hopefully that's going to show, and people are going to want to come and see us more. [The new songs] are a bit more up-tempo and I think that the audience will be able to get into it a lot quicker and hopefully enjoy the experience of actually being there and watching it [a lot more] than maybe they did in the past."
But people expecting dancing robots, or anything revolutionary in Kyte's new approach to playing live may be slightly disappointed.
"We just don't feel like it's the kind of thing where you need a really big, visual performance," says Ben. "We were going to start wearing masks and prancing around, but we decided that perhaps that wasn't the best idea (laughs). We don't like the whole idea of people who are completely different onstage to who they are off-stage. There are bands that play up for the live show, and it feels contrived. It doesn't feel natural and it doesn't feel like they really mean it. And so we've always just thought that the better way of doing it is to just go up and play, and if the audience is really into it then we'll be really into it."
"Dead Waves", which comes out on Monday, will be followed by a three-week UK tour in May. The perfect opportunity, it would seem, to take a look at the new live show and see just how far Kyte have come. With the new album demonstrating that they can indeed do immediacy and variety without waving goodbye to what makes them "Kyte", these next couple of months could finally see the band put an end to their low profile in the UK.
19th April – The Lexington, London
5th May – Jericho, Oxford
6th May – Swan, Ipswich
7th May – Sumo, Leicester
9th May – Joiners, Southampton
10th – Freebut, Brighton
13th May – Hoxton Bar & Grill (Oh! Inverted World), London
20th May – Moles, Bath
22nd May – Plug, Sheffield
25th May – Stereo, York
Kyte on MySpace