Renowned for their futuristic sound and the enhanced reality of their hologram-heavy performances, Hiroshima’s Perfume have transcended the boundaries of J-pop. Yuka “Kashiyuka” Kashino, Ayaka “A-Chan” Nishiwaki, and Ayano “Nocchi” Omoto are national icons at home and are, for only the second time in their fifteen-year career, performing in New York this weekend, at Hammerstein Ballroom. Their ultimate aim, they say, is to become the first Japanese pop act to hold a concert at Madison Square Garden. “Last time we came here, Madison Square Garden became our goal and the staff said that we can make it happen,” Kashiyuka told the Voice via a translator. “But we want to make sure that we build it right and make sure the local fans come.”
Japanese pop music has seen sizable growth in the US in 2016, with acts like Babymetal finding a serious foothold among fans in big cities. But the genre is still a niche, and its squeaky-clean formula combined with Japanese lyrics can make it unapproachable to American audiences. Perfume know this, so to give local audiences an easy inroad, they’re running a costume exhibit in Chelsea concurrent with their shows this weekend. “Fashion is one of the most important elements of Perfume,” said Kashiyuka. “Even when we collaborate with technology, we incorporate that into our clothes, and we wanted the New York audience to be able to see these details close up.” Each of the three women has a prescribed style: Kashiyuka wears sweeping hair that reaches mid-back paired with straight bangs while A-Chan keeps hers shoulder-length and occasionally ties it back. Nocchi, who only wears pants and shorts (her bandmates wear skirts and dresses), stands out with a short bob.
The costume experience will feature some of Perfume’s most memorable stage outfits, including dresses that incorporate LED lighting and projected images, courtesy of the creative team Rhizomatiks, whose collaborative work with the group is the focus of the gallery show. Rhizomatiks, as well as Perfume’s producer Yasutaka Nakata and choreographer Mikiko Mizuno, were involved in creating the high-tech performance displayed by Japan at the 2016 Olympics Closing Ceremony — a nod to how Perfume’s sound and cutting-edge style have come to embody current Japanese pop culture. “It’s a gift for the fans, but we also want to make sure that the tech people who are Rhizomatiks fans know Perfume as well,” said Aya Nogami, a Universal Music International marketing representative, on a Skype call. (Perfume signed to the label in 2012.) “We want to expand the fanbase to the tech people, the fashion-oriented people.”
Such broad appeal has been years in the making. Perfume debuted in 2001 with a more typically bubbly image, but when Nakata started working with them in 2003, he turned the act away from the bubblegum pop and highly-sexualized youthful images endemic to female J-pop groups. By 2008, when their hit “Polyrhythm” became the first technopop song to top charts in the country since the 1980s, Perfume’s digitally altered vocals and surreal performances had made them bona-fide stars, transcending the expiration date stamped on many of Japan’s manufactured “idol” pop groups. “Since we’ve been together since we were teenagers, as we’ve matured the songs that Nakata writes for us have also matured,” said Nocchi, who is the group’s eldest member and will turn 28 next month.
Cosmic Explorer, Perfume’s fifth studio album, debuted in April at number sixteen on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart, the first time Perfume charted domestically. According to Patrick St. Michel, who has written about Japanese pop culture for The Atlantic and Pitchfork, Cosmic Explorer is typical of Perfume’s polished style. “Their sound has changed in small ways, but is very similar to what they’ve done over the past ten years.” Which, says St. Michel, has always been remarkable: When he first heard the group’s music in 2009, he realized Perfume was doing something no other act in Japan had done. “The music itself was kind of like hearing Daft Punk or Justice. But despite all of this, it sounded very sweet, happy, and, ultimately, very human.”
Their otherworldly music and surreal performance style has enabled Perfume to sell out arenas, but they had to adjust the scale of their productions down for US audiences. While there will be changes, it will still maintain Perfume’s signature performance style — and they’re hoping the shows will translate to a new fanbase. “Cosmic Explorer has more English lyrics more than we used to have, so I want fans to listen to the album carefully and memorize the English words,” said Nocchi. “Please practice and be ready to sing along in New York!”
Perfume play Hammerstein Ballroom on September 3 & 4.