10 Years of JPN: A Conversation About Perfume's Trajectory-Changing Third Album
A chat with writer and friend Patrick St. Michel all about Perfume and their 2011 album for its 10th anniversary
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Perfume’s third album JPN marks a pivotal point in their history. The album’s significance in the electro-pop trio’s career had already seemed evident in 2011. The singles had cemented Perfume’s place as A-list acts in J-pop while they had producer Yasutaka Nakata twisting the popular sound according to his own adventurous image. But 10 years later, JPN stands as an album responsible for launching the three into worlds unforeseen by them at the time, earning them critical recognition as well as international attention.
To celebrate the album’s 10th anniversary, I chatted via Zoom with writer Patrick St. Michel all about the album and, really, our love of Perfume. We covered what J-pop was like in 2011 and what kind of environment JPN landed into. We talked about our favorite songs and moments, enduring qualities of the album, and why the record remains an essential title from their catalog for both fans and critics. This conversation has been edited down from its original length. Trust us when we say we could’ve went on and on.
Patrick St. Michel sends out the Japanese music newsletter, Make Believe Mailer. His writing has appeared on The Japan Times, Otaquest, Bandcamp Daily and many, many more. He also wrote a 33 1/3 book on Perfume’s GAME.
Ryo: Was JPN your first experience with a new Perfume album coming out when you were a fan?
Patrick: I guess it was. So for a quick history, I moved to Japan in the summer of 2009. I want to say it was like two weeks after Triangle had come out, and that was the first album I had encountered in the wild, like an electronics store PA system. That was the first one I caught up with. But the singles for JPN were the first stream of new Perfume material that I encountered while I was living in Japan as a Perfume fan. The culmination of all that to this as an album was definitely… I experienced almost two years of this roll-out campaign, so this was extra special for me as a listener.
Patrick: It’s so funny to remember. I really dove into being a Perfume fan in CD-loving Japan—I remember buying every physical single, which is something I don’t usually do. I was sort of like, oh, when I go to Osaka to have a like “civilization weekend,” I’ll just get as many singles as I can.
Other than that, I was keeping up via YouTube of course. At least in Japan. I don’t know then if they were accessible internationally, at least easily. And traditional things like TV commercials even, encountering while you’re out and about in the day in a Family Mart or a department store.
Ryo: It must be such a strange feeling to be walking in a mall and hearing Yasutaka Nakata beats. That seems like a surreal feeling to me.
Patrick: It’s so strange. I mean, even today: You’ll sometimes go to a convenience store, “Polygon Wave” would be playing, and you’d be like, “how is this something that plays at a 7 Eleven?” I’m thankful for it.
Ryo: And when you were keeping up with the singles… I know Triangle had just come out and you were still getting used to Perfume, but did you feel like they were going somewhere different or there was something unique to this era going forward? In retrospect, we know all the singles, and to me, it’s when Nakata honed in on a sound finally. But in real time, did you feel any changes while you were following the singles?
Patrick: That’s a good question. I remember spending a lot of time with Triangle and then GAME as a crash course, just totally sinking myself into that: it’s a much fuzzier, maximalist sound from that period. And then JPN, when the singles for it would emerge, I remember subtle changes to it.
A lot of them were still in that “One Room Disco” or “Love the World” vein of upbeat electro-pop—Nakata-core. As more of them came out, though, you could see more of a variety unfolding. There’s “Natural Ni Koinishite,” which was slower than other Perfume songs at the time, and I remember that catching me off guard. There were a lot of weird little details to this song that weren’t necessarily coming through in what I’ve experienced until then. And they just kept coming. Some were still in that similar territory, like “Nee” and “Fake It,” what I saw at that point as traditional Perfume. But then you’d have “575” where they rap. [laughter] Like, wow, they’re really going for it.
And it really all comes together in the album itself. To me, it was the sound of Perfume settling into J-pop stardom. GAME was an out-of-nowhere surprise, and Triangle was them trying to maintain that momentum. But by this point, they were cemented as A-list J-pop artists and they can relax a little bit. Listening to it, it does feel like them trying to latch on to what made them stand out but also adjusting to their new lifestyle as people who will be in commercials all the time or guaranteed to be on Kouhaku Utagassen.
“Natural Ni Koishite”
Ryo: Stepping back to how J-pop was… I was checking back Oricon for 2011… To be fair, Oricon in the 2010s is less useful to measure popularity with AKB48 and Johnny’s groups always at the top. But K-pop would also come around the list. What was the climate like in J-pop around 2011, and how did Perfume fit into that?
Patrick: You hit it on exactly with K-pop because this is when… Summer of 2010 was when KARA and Girls’ Generation, they had really big breakthroughs with “Mister” and “Gee,” respectively. During summer vacation, those songs were everywhere on TV, and K-pop was suddenly huge again. This was the first time I encountered K-pop as a big, cultural phenomenon. For the next six months, everything was K-pop whether it was the discussion, Japanese entertainment embracing it, like you’d see KARA on variety shows.
There was also this conversation of, like, what’s the J-pop sound like? Is it good that K-pop is taking over? And those can go into like problematic, nationalistic territory. I don’t want to say an identity crisis, but it did get people talking about that. That really defined mainstream Japanese music up to the next year.
A lot changes because of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. That is almost a reset of honestly everything. The months after that was, like, what does music sound like now? Because nobody wants to sound overly happy. Nobody wants to sound like we don’t care about this very horrible tragedy that unfolded, so there were a lot of things pushed back. A lot of songs that were coming out that were like “let’s persevere.” There was a charity single, like a “We Are the World” almost. Perfume was a part of one of them with other Amuse artists, like A-chan and Keisuke Kuwata of Southern All-Stars next to each other, belting out this message of hope for the country.
It was a really weird time in retrospect. But in the summer of 2011, people were looking for escapism. Funny enough, Nakata kind of provided it? It’s telling that just a few months before JPN, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s “PONPONPON” comes out. That becomes a massive hit—a real surprise. From there, you see more… People were more willing to be happy, let’s say. They’ll allow themselves some escapism. JPN sort of built towards that, and I think it benefited a lot from people wanting a pure, upbeat pop album to get into.
Ryo: It’s funny you bring up Kyary. That’s definitely the other thing happening with Nakata’s whole production world. It’s funny you bring up Japan might have been going through an identity crisis because Kyary ended up becoming the sound of Japan, but for Westerners. Do you think Perfume and JPN in particular also carry that impression?
Patrick: One thing I have always been curious about was the name of the album. The impression I had at the time—I don’t know where I heard it—it’s JPN because, you know, post-disaster, Japan. But I was reading ahead of this chat, and Nakata met with the members of Perfume at their first creative dinner party together, which was something they’d never done before. They were talking about what the album should be like, and in very Nakata fashion, he was like, “how about JPN?” So I don’t know if there’s meaning there.
But I do think for 2011, which was a weird moment where J-pop did kind of get some international attention with Kyary and, to a degree, this album, it did become a representative sound. Songs like “GLITTER,” “VOICE,” those made a little inroad abroad, and they were able to show that this is J-pop: this is what J-pop sounds like. It did help that it didn’t really sound like what K-pop was doing at the time. It did actually give this direct identity that people can gravitate towards easily that this is the sound of Japan and none of that confusion that comes later.
Patrick: I’m curious. When was the first time you listen to JPN? What’s your background with it?
Ryo: My exposure to Perfume was actually COSMIC EXPLORER, which is notorious for being their least loved.
Patrick: [laughter] What the fans say, yeah.
Ryo: So if I like COSMIC EXPLORER, I can probably like anything else that they’ll put out in the future. It’s why, too, I always had an appreciation for JPN from a distance. Because I had heard of its reputation as the most sophisticated production work, most defined and stuff.
I got into Perfume through “Spring of Life,” so LEVEL 3 will always have a sentimental place, and GAME has that post-Daft Punk sound that really introduced me to electro-pop, so I had those two to work with. But obviously, I love JPN from top to bottom.
I wanted to ask, are you aware of some of the reputation of JPN within the fandom?
Patrick: Maybe not the fandom reputation, but there was a lot of conversation from—I don’t know what to call them—English-language pop-culture writers covering Japanese pop culture around this time. A lot of them were anti of what JPN was doing. People of a generation of 10 years older than me at the time, they liked Perfume’s whole science-fiction thing that they were playing around with early on. And I just remember one blog post in particular by Patrick Macias—he’s a great writer, very informed about anime and so forth—where he was talking about how Perfume had been ruined because they weren’t doing this sci-fi thing anymore.
“Spice” in particular, people who weren’t fans and more critics at large were like “oh, this sounds terrible for Perfume. It’s so different.” But—and I think its reputation to today in particular bears this out—it ends up, for fans, having some of their most defining songs. I went to one of the first “new normal” music festivals in Japan, Super Sonic, couple weeks ago, and Perfume performed. They did like four songs from JPN, and they were maybe the most rabidly received. I think for actual fans this one has grown quite dear to many people’s hearts.
There was the Music Magazine thing—our 50 favorite Perfume songs, ranked—that they did last year, and there’s just so much from JPN. It has become one of their more beloved albums, I think! This and LEVEL 3 might be them at their peak visibility, at least in the Japanese market.
Ryo: This is probably tough, but what’s your favorite song on the album?
Patrick: I was listening to it a lot during the past few days to jog the old memory, and I was surprised how there’s so much good stuff! I remember the song that left the strongest impression on me initially in 2011 was “Natural Ni Koishite” because it was honestly kind of strange. Not just because of the tempo being a little slower, like it’s a Perfume song in half time almost. But there’s so many strange sonic details that Nakata puts together in the production. This one point, like midway through the song, there’s like a scream in it?
Ryo: I totally know what you’re talking about.
Patrick: And listening to it today, I was like, what in the world is this? This is so odd for a Perfume song. Now, it makes sense where Nakata was going because he gets into this minimalist breakdown thing with CAPS LOCK by Capsule few years later.
Ryo: That whole technique, that chopping one, has been so beloved, people miss it from him even to this day.
Patrick: Yeah. When he gets into EDM, and he has like Afrojack on speed dial, that disappears a little bit from his repertoire. But this was the period he was really playing around with it… Even with “Fake It,” where there’s really fast, chopped-up elements is just so great.
One of the things about this period, especially with Nakata, is that he really balanced his identity across projects. JPN is both Perfume and general pop while Kyary has more of a different texture, very different sonic palette that’s kind of like a play room: bells, guitars, music-box stuff. And this is the year Capsule does WORLD OF FANTASY. It’s him sticking to this big club sound and 7-minute-long rave-outs. Each one was so distinct, and his ability to do that at the time is really interesting.
A good example of that, around 2011 in May, I went to Tokyo for the first time post-3/11 to see people, spend the weekend in the city. And I was able to see Nakata DJ for the first time at a venue called Club Asia. I remember his set crisscrossing all of the Perfume singles that had come out to this point—“VOICE” and I think “575” was in there too—then he would pivot to what would happen in WORLD OF FANTASY with this really club-centric, early EDM, pounding sound. Just the variety he had at that point was so interesting for a producer in Japan.
Ryo: Going back to what you mentioned, the J-pop-ness of JPN, a song I love from JPN is “Nee.” That hook where it’s saying “nee” a dozen times, it’s really catchy, but it was also the first J-pop song that I liked in terms of the Japanese language and how it uses lyrics. I feel like with Nakata, no one really talks about his lyric-writing as much. It’s a shame, especially with “GLITTER,” which is a really resonant one, lyrically. It’s very emotional; they literally say, like, “I’m praying for your best.”
Patrick: “GLITTER” is a really interesting one because that—and I don’t know whether it’s just because circumstances at the time—was somewhat connected to post-3/11 life in Japan. It was the closest thing to make a direct reference coming from Perfume or Nakata. That makes “GLITTER” a very special song.
Something that JPN demonstrates really well about Nakata and his lyrical side, which speaks about the J-pop experience, is that more than half of the songs are created as tie-ups or ads. “575” is for a phone; “Laser Beam” is for a chu-hi. And that can be a tricky thing because you find that some songwriters are too eager to please advertisers. Something Nakata is good at, especially at this point, is that he knows how to strike a good enough balance, where “575” will mention that the protagonist of the song is using a phone, but it doesn’t turn into an overt advertisement.
It’s something that he wasn’t good at in the past. There’s an anecdote of him writing “Polyrhythm,” where he didn’t know how to work in AC Japan’s message of recycling, and he made the chorus just Perfume repeating “recycling” over and over again. Which, c’mon, Nakata, you can do better than that.
Ryo: It’s funny that the ones that do have the overt references, like “Kokoro No Sports,” those aren’t tie-ups.
Patrick. Yeah. [laughter] That’s just him—you couldn’t find a sports drink for this?
Ryo: “MY COLOR” too, which is one of my top 10 Perfume songs. It’s basically Perfume in that they’re talking about the internet, connecting with people via internet, message board or phone. It’s a surprise it’s not a phone tie-up.
Patrick: That’s the magic of Nakata. “MY COLOR” is a good one. It’s like the history of Perfume in song form, or what really made them stand out, just owing to how many fans especially in Japan really like this album. That song is usually their closer at Japanese shows, and it’s a great get-together moment.
So you said “MY COLOR” is one of your top 10. Is that your favorite from JPN?
Ryo: My favorite would have to be “Laser Beam,” but “My Color” is a close second. For “Laser Beam,” the choreography, the lyrics… Previously, Perfume had an idol-like, soft image in their singles, and the album tracks would be the harder, tougher ones. But this single, it’s like “we mean business. We aren’t talking about this lovey-dovey stuff.” It kind of is, with it being saccharine in the metaphors, but musically, like how they use lyrics, especially in the choreography where it’s literally them pointing a gun at you… It’s so direct, tough, a whole different change. That’s the turning point in terms of the artistry and the attitude that they wanted to take with the group.
Patrick: That song in particular, or I should say the entire package of it… The choreography for that one is so good. “Laser Beam” might have been the first music video with Perfume where their dancing for me clicked. Until then, their dances in their videos have been… “VOICE” is a very fun and creative video, and the choreography is a real throwback to the early 2010s—a riff on human Tetris. You’re not seeing them show off their dancing abilities. And I haven’t seen Perfume live at this point, so I didn’t know they could do that.
I was reading up on “Laser Beam” yesterday—a good ol’ JPN deep dive. One of the funny thing about the choreography that I didn’t know but totally makes sense now is that this one move where they kind of throw a ball, that was inspired by the Japanese baseball player Ichiro Suzuki because he was famous for throwing “laser beams” from the outfield to get people out. I didn’t know that, and I was like, ah, so many references packed into a single hand movement.
Ryo: Nakata and Perfume’s choreographer MIKIKO also don’t talk to each other at all about what songs mean. It’s always a happy coincidence or them riffing off each other.
Patrick: Before JPN, the way Perfume’s music was created basically sounds like Nakata having the members of the group go into a closet—his recording booth—and he’d just tell them what to do and then play with their voices. Perfume themselves didn’t really have creative control over GAME or Triangle. But with JPN, he really did ask them a lot for their input. You can kind of hear it come out. You also hear more of their natural voice this time around—I’d imagine they asked for that, to show off their natural singing. There’s more of a collaborative spirit. And I think it speaks to Perfume becoming more of an established thing, like “OK, we’re an actual unit that’s successful now. Let’s bring everybody in.”
Ryo: What do you think was introduced in JPN that played important to the group later on?
Patrick: For their music specifically, I do think stuff like “Nee” or “Fake It,” those became important reference points not just for listeners. “Fake It” is another one that pops up so much in their live shows, and it defines their sound during this period, that sort of quick cuts, things thinly sliced. That’s something they return to when they want to flex that future sound.
I actually think the most surprising thing about JPN is how it changed the trajectory of their career, even though it had no intentions of doing so. When I listen to JPN, I hear Perfume trying to settle into J-pop stardom, and that’s not what happens.
Ryo: When you say “change trajectory,” do you mean how they get international attention?
Patrick: Exactly. To this point, Perfume is on Tokuma Japan, which is a decent-sized label. They have notable acts, but Perfume easily become their star performer in the wake of “Polyrhythm.” But Perfume never had any international ambition at this point. I just remember trying to explain Perfume to people overseas and them not knowing how to access it.
JPN was never really pushed in markets outside of Japan, but it got surprising reactions from overseas. I remember—and this was so weird at the time—a lot of music critics and music blogs were putting it on year-end lists. Rolling Stone did a top 20 international albums of 2011, and it was number 6 or something. Gorilla vs. Bear, the indie-rock blog, they put “GLITTER” on the top 100 songs of 2011. They never wrote about Perfume before, but it’s now there. And I think someone realized there’s a lane there that they hadn’t seen before. After JPN’s success, Perfume switched to Universal Music Japan, and they start to see what’s possible overseas.
Possibly because they weren’t trying to be big overseas, they weren’t really changing their music to try and court international listenership. They actually hit on something different than what was happening in the music industry at the time or they were able to find a niche that they didn’t know was there. They built from there and what we see in the years after, them performing Coachella, and all that stuff.
Ryo: And they were in Cars 2!
Patrick: How could we forget! The Cars 2 red carpet, very important moment in music history.
Ryo: Perfume was really popular, but I don’t think they directly influence domestic acts. The closest link is that an act uses synths in more elaborate ways, but you can’t directly identify it. It’s also hard because electronic pop from Japan starts to equal Nakata at this point, and it’s hard to escape his shadow.
Patrick: By then, everyone would start to take a part from Nakata’s sound domestically. And I’m thinking a lot of like… There’s a lot of Vocaloid people. There’s a lot of cross-pollination of Hatsune Miku and Perfume getting big kind of at the same time. Someone like HachiojiP, who’s a big Vocaloid producer, his stuff to me always sounded very Nakata-esque. Otherwise, there’s a lot of netlabel people who are inspired by Nakata, and some of them would go on to become prominent producers in J-pop. Only direct thing I can think of from this time is mostly idol producers. Negicco had a song that sounded so much like JPN, and there were other smaller groups that would do that electro-pop sound every once in a while.
Ryo: When Perfume did future bass for “If You Wanna,” I think it was you but someone mentioned how the chopped-up production of “Natural Ni Koishite” seemed like proto-future bass. I think you can trace some of the modern EDM styles to him, though I never know if it’s exactly a direct route.
Patrick: For some artists, it definitely is. I know Zedd knew who Nakata was. If you listen to stuff like “Spectrum” from around this time, which was a big US radio hit, it’s a Capsule song except with a more dramatic, festival-ready vocal. Porter Robinson is a really good example; I know for sure he was following Nakata’s stuff, and that really bleeds into his music. This is actually not EDM, and this is one of the reason why I think was susceptible to Perfume, but Passion Pit was really big when I moved into Japan. I listened to their first album a lot, and to find out it was them directly making Perfume and Capsule songs was surprising. It showed how far his influence really snuck into music. So I do think Nakata’s sound especially from this time has been secretly absorbed globally.
JPN comes out at a time where this busy, sliced-up electronic music is having a moment as well. I think a month before JPN, that’s when Rustie’s Glass Swords comes out—that’s just a mind-bending electronic album especially when it first came out. But even listening to them today, there are a lot of similarities with them playing around with what’s possible in electronic music. Just thinking of what SoundCloud would look like, that SoundCloud electronic scene in the next couple of years. You can see a lot of DNA moving around at this point, and JPN carries it for sure. Even if it’s not necessarily influencing anything directly, it’s still in that conversation.
Ryo: Yeah, someone like Yunomi carries that influence for sure.
Patrick: There’s also a generation of younger Japanese artists like Yunomi, Ujico*/Snail’s House, TORiENA maybe? There’s this enclave of young producers who Nakata has actually taken an interest in. I’m pretty sure if you dig through their Instagram and Twitter, you’ll find them… They’ll get together with him and just hang out. They probably grew up listening to Perfume, and now they’re applying that... If you dare call it, kawaii future bass. Nakata has definitely noticed, and he has in recent years tried to cultivate them and allow them to find their way forward. A fun little tidbit from someone who looks at social media too much and see the parties that electronic producers gather at.
Ryo: It goes the other way around too. In recent times, Nakata has been trying to do what they’re doing, like a loop.
Patrick: Oh, absolutely. You listen to something like Digital Native, Nakata’s solo album, and it’s him trying to imitate artists that were kind of trying to imitate him? It gives that feedback loop of where does this start and where does this end?
“Have a Stroll”
Ryo: Is there anything we missed about JPN?
Patrick: I don’t know if it’s a favorite, but a song I always return to is “Have a Stroll,” which I feel is the first time Nakata dips back into the really early Perfume stuff, playing around with that, as some people call it, neo-Shibuya-kei. Going back to that “Vitamin Drop”-era sound and updating it. It’s something he would eventually do later on too; in recent times, he’s been really drawn to that. Even if you remove the Perfume nostalgia, it’s such a good song. It has such good layers of electronic production. And I just love the vocals; it’s a great example of how to use digital processing and filters to make a great sound without losing the humanity.
The other thing I remember about JPN, the first time I saw Perfume perform live was at a music festival in August 2011, Summer Sonic in Chiba. They played not the main stadium but at the side. They attracted such a diverse crowd. That of course owes to this being a music festival with all kinds of groups playing. I think Red Hot Chili Peppers were headlining that day? So you’d see Red Hot Chili Pepper fans who don’t seem to listen to Perfume. Whether they were ironically into it or unironically, they loved it. It was really interesting how this was a sound that could reach everyone in Japan.
The other noteworthy thing about that festival was Girls’ Generation. They performed at the same stage, same day but later. K-pop is so good at selling itself, like “the K-pop sound,” everyone has an idea of what that is, and seeing Perfume, you could market this as “this is what J-pop is.” You could see a clear definition. I remember the differences and appreciating how there were both things you can connect but still themselves.
Ryo: Do you feel that Perfume is more at the forefront of J-pop or one of many things?
Patrick: As you said, they haven’t directly influenced much of J-pop. There was an electro-pop boom after GAME, where everyone wanted to work with Nakata. A brief window where Ami Suzuki was like “Nakata, make me famous again!” [laughter] But yeah, it didn’t last. And it’s not like what Perfume were doing became the definitive J-pop sound; it really was their unique color. But I do think it shows the range on display in J-pop and shows what’s possible within it.
Perfume and Kyary were a good summation of what Nakata was capable of and how he could bring interesting angles in pop that no one else was doing at the time, presenting them in a way that was still pop-centric. Plenty of Perfume’s stuff, you could easily tinker with it and make it an EDM, big-tent thing. But Nakata’s ability is to keep it focused and make it something you can play in an electronics store or a convenience store and not lose anyone.
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