Tokyo’s Luby Sparks Make a Name Beyond Borders

Photography by NICO PEREZ

Erika Murphy was a high-schooler in early 2018, singing Paramore and All Time Low songs in a light-hearted teenage covers band, when she was encouraged by a friend to audition for Luby Sparks. The rock band had parted ways with their original singer Emily Obaidey, had a show coming up in just a month’s time, and were in desperate need of a new vocalist. She travelled the hundreds of miles east from her home in Hyōgo Prefecture to the band’s base in Tokyo to meet them. Thankfully, they hit it off.

Erika had seen no future in music until then. When she finished high school, her plans stretched as far as a prospective trip to the UK in an effort to reconnect with her British father’s side of the family. When she joined Luby Sparks, however, it became apparent that perhaps there was something to performing after all. “My dream was always to be in a band,” she says. She had only ever written songs “for fun”, poems and lyrics scribbled down in her spare time but it soon became clear that they contained the potential for something far greater.

For the rest of the band it would also be a defining moment; Erika’s arrival would signal a significant change in sound. Where their self-titled debut with their original vocalist in 2018 had drawn primarily from British and Irish music of the 80s and 90s—like the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine—its follow-up with Erika departs almost entirely, crossing the Atlantic to incorporate grunge, emo, and in particular the pop music of the United States on which their new singer had been raised.

“That kind of music was completely fresh to me,” says vocalist and bassist Natsuki Katō. “Listening to it changed my mind when it came to making that the focus.” Their sole songwriter until that point decided to relinquish control and bring Erika and guitarist Tamio Sakuma into the process. “It was a very big point for the band,” he says, “bringing in all these new references.” Tamio, too, was able to incorporate his personal passions. He loves heavier music like Smashing Pumpkins, Deftones and A Perfect Circle. They were conscious of just how large of a leap it would be but the time and space afforded by the cancellation of a huge tour of China enforced by the pandemic gave Luby Sparks room to make the transition smoothly, releasing a host of singles, one at a time, “to show our growth very naturally,” says Natsuki. “Most of the fans loved the change, they weren’t disappointed.” The title of the first song on the record, “Start Again”, feels pointed.

What unites all of the musicians in Luby Sparks is that, whether British or American, their influences are primarily Western. The band formed when Natsuki and Tamio bonded over Sonic Youth at a university music club. This is unusual, Natsuki says, in an era of K-pop and J-pop dominance. “The western music industry here is really getting smaller and smaller. Nobody listens to music from other countries.” For both of them, foreign influences were instead passed down their parents’ generation, when artists like David Bowie and Queen were seeing huge international influence. Natsuki remembers being spellbound by his father playing Cocteau Twins videos in the house. “It was beautiful. It changed my mind.” While Erika was inspired at a young age by the feminist energy of Joan Jett; her mother, herself an alternative musician, “taught me all about her favorite music and punk. She influenced me a lot.”

Those influences have remained at the band’s core. Most obviously, the band sing in English rather than Japanese. Their name, a play on the 2012 American romcom Ruby Sparks (a film they’ve not actually watched) was chosen in tribute to the way shoegaze bands would name their songs after women. House Of Love’s “Christine” for example. In a coup for Natsuki in particular, Cocteau Twins’ own Robin Guthrie  remixed their single “Somewhere” in 2019, giving it an appropriately dreamy reinvention. “He made it like the Cocteau Twins!” Natsuki beams.

 For their debut album, they flew to London to record with Max Bloom of now-defunct British grunge revivalists Yuck. For “Search + Destroy”, Natsuki combed Discogs to find out who produced one of his favorite British groups, Sorry, and came across Andy Savours. They worked entirely remotely due to the pandemic, but fortunately “his studio in London and the studio where we record everything in Tokyo have similar equipment,” Natsuki explains. “His production was very important. We asked him to make our new music not shoegaze, to cut the reverb and make it stronger.”

 It is important to note, however, that the cultural conversation between Japan and the west runs two ways. For the cover of their new album, the band asked their regular photographer, New York-based Annika White, to shoot something that would recall the turn of the millennium aesthetics that Erika had brought to the band’s sound. They were partly inspired by British four-piece Pale Waves, whose 2021 album Who Am I? had done the same, but as Natsuki points out, “the Y2K fashion that’s around now is actually a bit Japanese! The things beabadoobee is doing right now, I think she’s inspired by old Japanese magazines like FRUITS.”

 He puts it down to the increased connectivity of social media. “Today, it’s easy to see what’s happening in other countries, to see what everyone’s wearing.” With that in mind, then, Luby Sparks are best viewed not in the reductive terms of a Japanese band trying to imitate their western predecessors, but as an equal part of a global cultural conversation. They sing in English not as any kind of tribute but in order to be heard by the broadest possible audience and aim for music of the kind of quality that can compete on the international stage. “When I started this band, the purpose was to make music that could be compared to that of other countries,” Natsuki says. With that aim achieved, their goal now is to blaze a trail for other Japanese alt-rockers to follow.                    @lubysparksband