It's been six years since the release of Anamanaguchi's last album, Endless Fantasy, but, in that time, the electronic-rock outfit hasn't been quiet. They released the singles "Pop It" and "Miku," remixed Porter Robinson's dance hit "Sad Machine," dropped the video game and soundtrack Capsule Silence XXIV and toured with virtual pop star Hatsune Miku.
Through it all, they were slowly building their third proper full-length album, [USA]. In the midst of that, the world changed.
"The general shift from Endless Fantasy to [USA] for me comes from a shift between a world shaped by TV to a world shaped by computers and the environments that come with those technologies," says the group’s Peter Berkman, by phone from Brooklyn. The seeds of [USA], out tomorrow (Oct. 25) Polyvinyl Records, were planted near the end of creating Endless Fantasy.
"We had just gotten the sense that there was almost too much fantasy going on," Berkman explains. The name of the album, which they announced in 2014, is derived from the tag that would appear after the band' name on promotional material for international events. Known for their innovative use of electronic instruments, ranging from old-school gaming hardware to vocal synthesizer software Vocaloid, and guitar-based rock, Anamanaguchi built up a strong cult following online.
In the process of making the album, the cultural landscape they inhabited changed. Tumblr was bought by Yahoo, which was then acquired by Verizon. "Gamergate" rocked video game fan communities. Discourse surrounding cultural appropriation prompted the band, long influenced by Japanese pop culture, to reflect upon their own work. Meanwhile, Anamanaguchi saw the best and worst of internet culture IRL as they toured. All this went to inform [USA].
"We wanted to look at ourselves in our real context," Berkman says, "and our audience in its real context."
There were also changes within the band. Luke Silas moved to Los Angeles at the end of 2015, and James DeVito relocated to Rhode Island last year. Berkman and Ary Warnaar are still based in New York. BillboardDance caught up with the four bandmates by phone while Berkman, Warnaar and Silas were in Brooklyn and DeVito was in Rhode Island, to talk about [USA] and their forthcoming tour.
Did the meaning of this album title change as you were working on the album?
Berkman: Yes, totally. It evolved in a weird way. It started as a dare. Ary described it as going to get a tattoo we're going to be stuck with and then seeing what it means later. At the time, it just felt interesting. We were questioning, "do we even still want to be Anamanaguchi in a world after this huge social division with things like Gamergate, where people we were friends with are no longer friends with each other, and all the general social tension that had been going on? Does it make sense to make Anamanaguchi music anymore?" So, it started as a dare, "let's look at this darkness and wear it, and see what happens.
Warnaar: A big part of using that title and playing with labels is that it doesn't go anywhere or change regardless of the state that it's in. We're always going to have [USA] tied to our name no matter where we're playing in the world. Forever. That's always going to be the label given to us, regardless of how American or un-American we may feel. It's like having a passport or something. We have all sorts of feelings about the state of the country, but our passport hasn't changed.
There seem to be environmental themes on the album. What prompted you to explore those ideas?
Berkman: For me, a lot of my interest in environment, human environments in general, comes from my interest in [Canadian philosopher] Marshall McLuhan, who describes all media as environments that shape perception, shape sensibilities. When you're talking about environment, you have the word pollution, and pollution really comes from a lack of awareness, the stuff that happens when you don't know what you're doing. Human beings today have certainly forgotten a way of understanding the boundaries and limits of their own power to shape themselves and the world and each other.
Warnaar: For me, there was a lot of painting emotional environments this time; portraying a wide section of positive feelings [and] negative feelings. Happiness, loneliness, loss or connection.
What's going into putting together the new live show?
DeVito: One thing we're paying a lot more attention to is not showing all of our cards at once; having more of an arc to the show and slowly revealing elements of the stage design and, musically, having more flow. Most of our previous songs and sets were always pedal to the metal. Now, especially with [USA], we have a lot more variance to the songs, and the list and the stage production will reflect that.
Silas: The album itself is definitely, in a lot of ways, more dynamic than things we've ever done. It feels like we're being very mindful of that. We want to preserve that as best as we can. That's what makes it more effective … We want it all to feel more cohesive and impactful in a desired way than we've paid attention to in the past.
Berkman: On the actual show front, something that we're trying to do that we've never been able to do before is, we want to be able to play this album from start to finish. We're not going to play the whole album start to finish at every show. We're doing that only at these events we've been calling [USA Expo]s. What that is is a daytime and nighttime event that we put together in order to fill a social void that comes from going to a concert and it's dark and loud and you show up with your friends. Maybe you meet up with a friend or two and then you go home after the show and listen to the music. We really want to give the opportunity for people who listen to our music — probably many of which don't go to a lot of shows — we want to give them the opportunity to socialize with each other and hang out with us, whether that's to play video games or inviting local restaurants or local entertainment of any kind, local artists, things like that, just to let people know what's around them. We're only doing this in a few specific cities right now, but that's something that we want to do more of and it's almost like a little convention.
You had the chance to play Second Sky, Porter Robinson's festival in Oakland, this summer. Did you get to play much of your new music at the event?
Silas: We played a few songs at Second Sky. That was actually the first or second time playing out that new stuff. It felt like the perfect environment to bring it out.
How was the reaction?
Berkman: I know exactly how the reaction was, because day one was streamed on Twitch at a time delay, so right after the set, I went back with the band into the trailer and watched the set on Twitch with my parents and all the homies, and we watched the chat roll in. I don't know if you're on Twitch often, but the chat that plays live next to the video is not always the friendliest thing in the world. I was so happy that the comments were overwhelmingly positive, specifically for the new stuff. It made me feel really good and really confident to play it out and go full on with it.
To talk about the more immediate response of actually performing it live for people at a venue, it felt great. I love playing those songs live and it looked like people really enjoyed it. One of the songs that we played there, "Air Online," we had worked with Porter on somewhere in the process of writing that song. There was this part that kicked through, and you could tell that the audience was like, "who's that?"There was a cool feeling there.
[USA] is out everywhere in full Friday, Oct. 25. Watch the official video for "Air Online" below.