In 1977, America unleashed The Runaways on Japan. More recently, the Land of the Rising Sun countered with all-girl Japanese J-pop band Scandal. Together the girls have churned out droves of singles and anime theme songs—all in Japanese—since the band’s formation in 2006. Members Tomomi Ogawa (bass and vocals), Haruna Ono (lead vocals and guitar), Rina Suzuki (drums and vocals) and Mami Sasazaki (vocals and guitar) are all self-taught musicians who regularly sell out shows across Asia.
Music Connection caught up with Scandal at its House of Blues show in May on the Sunset Strip while on tour in support of Hello World, the band’s latest offering. The girls shared some insights into how they started and where they’d like to go.
“We formed in high school,” lead singer Ono recalls by way of an interpreter. “We all went to [Osaka dance and vocal school] Caless together. One of the teachers suggested that we pick up instruments. So we did and taught ourselves to play.”
To make a mark as a band often demands exceptional ingenuity. The girls soon struck upon the idea of performing in parks near venues and covering songs of the headlining bands. “That was a learning experience for us,” drummer Suzuki says. “Gathering a crowd is the most difficult thing. In the beginning, there was no audience, no matter how many times we played. So we started making fliers, looked up what bands were playing at Osaka-jo Hall and covered their songs near the venue. We’d always dreamed of playing there and that motivated us.” The band ultimately did play the venue in 2013.
The strategy worked and soon they showcased for a number of labels, which led to a deal with Epic Records Japan. “Several of the labels there were interested, but as a band we decided that Epic was the best choice,” Ono explains. “We were on the rise as indie artists at the time and a few teachers from our dance school invited some of the label people. We already had [Kitty Records] management then and they also brought in people.”
Most of Scandal’s songs are inspired by the girls’ experiences and they hope that they resonate with listeners. “Making this album was a natural process,” Ono says of recording Hello World. “It was part of our everyday life. The ideas [for songs] came from spending time with each other. Emotionally, we were going through a lot of changes.”
Scandal came to the notice of American audiences, in part, due to the theme songs the band recorded for various anime shows. “Some of that came about because we were asked to do it,” Suzuki says, “and others because we approached the show. When we were starting out, it was a good way to get heard, to get our music recognized. But we’d like to change that perception and be known more for our [non-amine] music. We want to show people how cool girls can be.”
The members are variously influenced by bands including Foo Fighters, Maroon 5, Green Day, Taylor Swift and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Indeed, bassist Ogawa was inspired primarily by Flea and on the flight from Japan, Sasazaki checked out the Foo Fighters’ HBO documentary Sonic Highways. She noted similarities to how Scandal approach the record-making process. “That was one of my motivations to come to the U.S.,” the guitarist says. “I like knowing that we’re in the same city as them.”
Hello World dropped last December and the girls have hit Chicago, Los Angeles and Mexico City on this round. Scandal commonly plays to sold-out crowds in Japan and its YouTube channel has earned more than 15 million views to date. One of the things that the band loves about touring is the opportunity to sample local foods such as pizza in Chicago and tacos in Mexico City.
Off stage, the girls are soft spoken and polite. On stage, it’s like you’d be afraid to owe them money. In short, they rock. Indeed, the House of Blues show in West Hollywood was packed—largely by American guys. It seems that Scandal has tapped into a musical formula that feeds an undernourished need in its audience. Even if that audience only speaks English.
By Rob Putnam