Interview with Polysics: Each Era Each End

For the past decade, exuberant Japanese new-wavers Polysics have worked non-stop. They’ve released a stream of synth-rock albums, EPs, and singles heavily reliant on the contrasting styles of their two lead musicians, the wild Hiroyuki Hayashi and stoic Kayo.

That is about to change.

Kayo will quit Polysics after a March 14 show at the Tokyo Budokan. Instead of replacing her, the remaining three members will go on an indefinite hiatus to recharge and revamp their sound without Kayo’s signature robotic singing and energetic guitar, bass, synthesizer, and vocoder contributions.

American fans have a chance to see Kayo for the last time on the band’s ongoing United States tour, which ends on Feb. 16 in Washington, D.C. The Feb. 13 concert at the Gramercy Theatre will be Polysics’ final New York City performance with the classic, four-member line-up. In addition to promoting their latest album, Absolute Polysics (MySpace Records), it will feature more of Kayo’s songs than in past shows.

On the Polysics’ official MySpace blog, Kayo writes that though she treasures her experiences as a musician, she wants to find out what kind of person she would be if she were living a normal life. She has been in the band since high school, where she met the Devo-loving Hayashi, who sings, plays guitar, and does programming and vocoder for Polysics. Using the delicate wording common in the Japanese music industry, Kayo frames her departure as a graduation and says she will become a “regular girl doing regular things.” Right now, she does not have specific plans for her new life. “I have nimble fingers, and like making things, so I would like to make some work out of this,” Kayo says. “Also, I want to live in nature.”

Like their lyrics, Polysics’ answers are lively and cryptically worded. “The thing we can definitely say is that our sound will be completely different from that of the previous Polysics,” Hayashi says when describing how his band will adapt their sound after Kayo leaves. “The band will be re-born and go in the second stage of Polysics.” He reassures, “We’re not going to be on hiatus for long.”

Kayo’s upcoming departure has saddened fans worldwide. “It was the same for us, but now we’ve moved on,” Hayashi says, “and we are encouraging ourselves to do our best at the Budokan.”

Polysics’ comically exaggerated take on Devo’s sound and uniformed look has made them a fan favorite worldwide. They are among the handful of Japanese bands with name recognition and a devoted, respectably sized following in the American indie rock scene. While many Japanese artists perform in the U.S. just once, only to abandon their stateside efforts thereafter, Polysics have made Americans a regular part of their audience. The group has released seven of its albums here and toured the country three times in the past three years alone. They signed to MySpace Records in 2007 after MySpace founder Tom Anderson approached them excitedly at a Los Angeles concert (and, perhaps, asked to be one of their top friends?). According to Hayashi, the label helps Polysics spread their name in a non-traditional way.

Hayashi observes that U.S. fans, especially in Los Angeles, get as excited at live shows as their Japanese ones do. But, in Japanese modesty, he underplays their overseas success. “We still don’t think that we made it, so we will keep on having good live shows,” he says.

It helps that Polysics crosses the challenging language gap—not with fluent English, but with nonsensical lyrics like the titular chorus of “I My Me Mine” (2006). Hayashi notes how American fans sing along to “Kaja Kaja Goo” and “Electric Surfin’ Go Go” in concert. “Preferably, I like something other than the normal message-type lyrics,” he says. “Even if there aren’t any meanings to the lyrics I write, I try to use wordings that sting people with some sort of an impact to their ear.”

Polysics have been recording and performing music without a break since their first album in 1999, but they haven’t lost steam. They seem to genuinely enjoy making music, and Hayashi was surprised by my using the term “music business” to describe their livelihood. Never-ending inspiration is key to their productivity. “There are just so many things that I want to do,” Hayashi says. “Every time I go on an album tour, the ideas for the next Polysics record pop out and I feel like writing songs.”

Fitting because it is the last release with Kayo, Absolute Polysics was the band’s attempt to make the best album only its four members could have made. “Although it contains the passions we had at the very beginning when we released our first album, different sounds are also squashed into this album,” Hayashi says. It’s the shortest Polysics album yet at just 35 minutes—which Hayashi appreciates—and its sound is notably cleaner and tighter than earlier Polysics releases.

Since Polysics debuted in 1999, new wave and ‘80s dance-rock have had a revival in the Western world. Newer bands such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Muse released dance music last year, and classics like New Order are back in vogue. “It wasn’t possible to imagine that 10 years ago,” Hayashi says. “Myself included, if the people who aren’t in the middle of the new wave era think that ‘80s new wave punk and New York noise are interesting, we are happy to hear that. Making new music from there seems to be similar to my feelings when I started Polysics.”

The band looks forward to playing The Gramercy on the last tour with Kayo. “Last year’s New York live was on Halloween!,” Hayashi exclaims. “It was so striking for me to see the whole city in a Halloween mood, so different from Japan! We also changed our costumes and dressed up as Devo and covered ‘Uncontrollable Urge!’ It was so much fun to do a Halloween live! My best memory.”

Polysics play The Gramercy Theatre on Feb. 13.

Translation by Aya Ito