Timelessness in the music of Fishmans
I remember pedaling my mother’s bike machine as “BABY BLUE” by Fishmans — a Japanese dub band prominent in the 90's — popped up in my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist. The song was simple and long: six minutes of a repeated keyboard chord on every upbeat of the drums, supported by an occasional flute-like melody in the background and a bass-line that you wouldn’t notice unless you listened carefully. It sounded like any modern indie song with its nostalgic feeling and high-pitched vocals, yet it maintained its own uniqueness that left me repeatedly pressing the back button.
I was surprised to see that, despite its sounding so of this time, it was released in 1996. I came to later learn of Fishmans’ complicated history, from its foundations as the core trio of frontman Shinji Sato, bassist Yuzuru Kashiwabara, and drummer Kin-ichi Motegi to their tragic end after eleven years when Sato suddenly died from heart failure in 1999.
Approaching the music of a group that I already know has an end (at least for the core trio) inherently led me to dive into their music thinking I would enter an unfamiliar time period and genre and leave with no closure. But what I have found is a timelessness in the band’s music that captures the present as a frozen moment.
Motegi describes capturing this sensation during the recording process with their producer Kazuyuki “Zak” Matsumura in a Japan Times interview, saying, “I feel like Zak taught us a lot about how to generate a sense of tension. When you keep adding sounds, you lose that.” It’s this bit of “tension” that captures those frozen moments in time, the placement of sounds so minimal that a small shift adds a weight to the song that wasn’t previously felt. You feel it in “BABY BLUE,” when the guitar that was previously quietly following Sato’s high-pitched vocals gets pushed to the foreground, overshadowing the keyboard and drums to establish the melancholy undertones that the lyrics seek to emanate through its story of loss.
Stripping music of its extra components in such a way is a feat most people desire and appreciate yet one which few people can accomplish. But Fishmans seem to do it at many turns of their career, crafting singular compositions that I probably would have been able to learn in my beginner piano classes and combining them to make cohesive, long tracks that feel like they go by in seconds. This accomplishment is most evident in their final three-album run from 1996–1997, in which they released Kūchū Camp, Long Season, and Uchū Nippon Setagaya, albums that took an experimental departure from their former ska-inspired sound yet found their niches through individual forms of simplicity.
Perhaps their most reductive sound is presented in the thirty five-minute Long Season, the one-song album that integrates the same keyboard arpeggio in the first and third parts that sets the foundation for screeching vocals, chimes, drum crescendos and accordion riffs to layer on top of it, only to be interrupted by an interlude of swishing water, bird calls, and occasional triangle chimes.
In the same Japan Times interview, Motegi describes the recording of this stream of consciousness as a task that required “real single-mindedness,” adding, “It’s about devoting yourself completely to the task and moving gradually forward.” You see the group embrace this philosophy while hearing these final three albums, imbuing their songs with a sparkle of hope that confronts their melancholy natures in a way that will make you want to dance or sway past the sadness.
It is this hope that permeates their bittersweet final concert before Shinji Sato’s untimely death, the two-hour long performance that has now become an album that most fans consider their masterpiece — 98.12.28 男達の別れ (98.12.28 Otokotachi no Wakare).
The album, currently rated Number One on RateYourMusic’s Top Live Albums of All Time chart, perhaps most effectively demonstrates the band’s ability to capture moments frozen in time, each song honed by further reducing the layers of instruments to emphasize Sato’s vocal performance. The sequence of the songs are such that they flow naturally into one another, despite their existences in separate albums. The constancy of the performance remains throughout, even in “Long Season” as the water swishes are substituted with the keyboard arpeggio from the first and third parts.
The concert was already to be their final performance as the core trio before the departure of bassist Yuzuru Kashiwabara, but who is to say that they wouldn’t have delivered such a singular, emotional performance had it not been? To encapsulate one’s prolific discography in a two-hour stream of consciousness is evidence of the group’s victory over their creative hurdles and their willingness to move forward as Motegi remarked. The bittersweet “end” that the energy of the performance suggests, whether from the lens of 1998 looking towards Kashiwabara’s retirement or in hindsight now looking at Sato’s death, sticks to you as you wonder where your journey with them goes next, as if to say, “this may be the end, but we’ll always have this moment.”
Explaining music you just discovered and fell in love with is a difficult task made harder by the need to legitimize its excellence due to its language barriers and antiquity, but when that music captures the tension in every sinew of a note within a song within an album, it requires you to strip your anxieties and projections just as it does with itself. To think single-minded in regards to my connection with Fishmans’ music just as the band did when producing it, I have had to return to what brought me to them. That moment on my mother’s bike machine when I decided not to dismiss “BABY BLUE” as a simple indie fluke, I found a tension in the layers of sounds through which I experienced the same moment in time that the band captured in 1996. To rid myself of the obligation to legitimize the band’s antiquity meant realizing the impact that music of a past life can have on my present one.