A Guide To Japan’s Best Psych Rock Bands As Told By The Founders Of Guruguru Brain Records & Kikagaku Moyo
Record label Guruguru Brain is the brainchild of Go Kurosawa and Tomo Katsurada, two founding members of seminal Japanese rock group Kikagaku Moyo. Before starting the label, Tomo and Go were organizing a monthly event called “Tokyo Psych Fest.” Running the event for a year, Tomo and Go immersed themselves in Tokyo’s music scene while getting to know a lot of the local players. Realizing they’d stumbled upon something special, Tomo and Go started Guruguru Brain in 2014 as a way to shine a light on to alternative indie music from all over Asia and provide opportunities for Asian musicians by being a bridge that crosses between east and west through the record label landscape.
The label’s first release was a limited edition cassette tape, which the label’s artists packaged one by one in Tomo and Go’s apartment. Specializing in artists with a “feel good sound,” the label has since grown into one of the world’s most dynamic sources of psychedelic music, with a catalog of more than twenty albums recorded by some of the most innovative and exciting musicians around. Tomo and Go have also relocated the label to Amsterdam, where they’ve built a hub for bands to visit when touring in Europe while also being closer to record pressing plants and festivals.
As way of introduction to Guruguru Brain, I spoke with Tomo and Go about how they met and signed some of the best Japanese rock bands on their roster.
The backbone of Guruguru Brain Records, Kikagaku Moyo is a Japanese psychedelic rock group from Tokyo, formed in 2012. Their name translates to “geometric patterns,” and it’s a fitting name for a band whose sound hearkens back to the psychedelic 60s.
In the early days, Tomo and Go founded the band with a shared dream to create a new sound. Integrating influences from various regions and cultures—in particular Indian, folk and 1970s rock music—Kikagaku Moyo’s distinctive style has since garnered them a worldwide following and helped blaze a trail for other Guruguru Brain bands in the Japanese rock and Asian music scenes.
Kikagaku Moyo’s latest release, Kumoyo Island, is their fifth and final album as a band. The pinnacle of their discography, the album culminates the band’s psych rock experiments into one of the year’s finest rock records.
“Soon after, Tomo and I started Kikagaku Moyo, Kyotaro also formed Minami Deutsch,” says Go. “They were the ones among our friend group who would come to the studio in Tokyo where we used to jam all night. It was natural for us to release music from our friends’ band first, and they have stuck through with us ever since.”
Minami Deutsch combine the transcendent, repetitive rhythms of minimal techno and the raucous energy of post-punk. The band’s name, which means “South Germany” in Japanese, refers to their obsession with the German sub-genre of krautrock. Similar to krautrock pioneers like CAN, Minami Deutsch’s signature sound is the result of their heavy sense of genre exploration and experimentation, mixing swirling rhythms with fuzzed-out guitar tones and dreamy vocals.
Released last month, Minami Deutsch’s long-awaited third studio album, Fortune Goodies, is a cosmic, boundless and brilliant take on krautrock mixed with the band’s signature, trance-inducing melodies.
Since its inception in 2013, Tokyo-based Dhidalah has been rocking out in the underground as a trio inspired by the Giant Gods of Japanese lore. Their spacey, improvisational performances draw from several genres, including stoner/doom rock and krautrock.
“Actually, I met Ikuma (the band’s guitarist) before I met Tomo,” says Go. “We had a mutual friend and had previously jammed together in the studio. Dhidalah were a similar case to Minami Deutsch, as they both grew up in and were from a similar scene. Once again, we were able to help make their records and bring them to an audience outside of Japan.”
Sensoria, Dhidalah’s latest album on Guruguru Brain, explores the boundary between space and place, taking listeners on a spiritual journey through the cosmos. The album was recorded in Tokyo, largely from the band’s weekly jam sessions. The 20-minute final track, “Black Shrine,” was inspired by Japanese folklore—the spiritual, sometimes shapeshifting creatures living in the dark mountains of Japan, called Yokai.
Japanese guitarist Satomimagae is known for her subtle songs, which she weaves together out of guitars, voice and noise. Satomimagae’s music melds together the influences of Tokyo’s acid-folk scene to produce songs that are subtle, personal and introspective, but also rich in sound. Her soft acoustic arrangements combine aspects of narrative songwriting and ambient composition into a greater whole.
“I remember the first time I talked to her (Satomimagae), she was mentioning how the western labels that she sent her demos to were asking her to sing in English instead of Japanese,” says Go. “After we listened to her songs, we didn’t feel that at all. Her music was beautiful as it was.”
To help round out her one-of-a-kind sound, Tomo and Go asked their friend/artist Hideki Urawa (who’s done a lot of mixing work for Kikagaku Moyo) to mix Satomimagae’s music and add a more psychedelic texture to her songs. The result is showcased on her latest release, 2021’s Hanazon, an album which echoes the process of transformation through solitude and contemplation, evoking a kind of musical alchemy that seduces listeners with the purity of its expression.
Sundays & Cybele
A beautiful marvel of mind-melting sound and delicate stringed things, Sundays & Cybele’s music emerges from northern Japan like a warm hallucinogenic bubble. Hailing from the far north island of Hokkaido, the Japanese rock band formed in 2004 and take their name from a 1962 cult classic of French cinema.
“We booked their (Sunday & Cybele’s) show when we were first doing Tokyo Psych Fest,” says Go. “Since then, we got closer to (band member) Kazuo and naturally released their music.”
Like many other Guruguru Brain artists, each of Sunday & Cybele’s albums are distinct in a way that makes it hard not to get swept away by it. Their 2015 debut album Gypsy House (the first LP released on Guruguru Brain) leaned toward nostalgic, psychedelic garage rock, while later releases incorporate layers of synthesizer, drone, down tempo and other spaced-out tones.