It’s a band, but there’s no escaping that Shunkan is the vehicle of Marina Sakimoto, a clear thinking 22-year old who just a couple of years ago was a fully-fledged California musician. Somehow living in Southland has unlocked the breadth of potential she has likely long held, including allowing Japanese influences to appear alongside her smart re-presentation of classic American ’90s indie rock culture. Briar Lawry talked with Marina and some of her musical collaborators, bass player Reese Jensen, guitarist Sonny Heremia and drummer Andy Gibbs, in Christchurch.
There are many paths people follow in pursuit of their dreams. Some common, some less so, and some only walked by one person. Marina Sakimoto, the woman behind Shunkan, is probably one of those stand out people.
Originally from Los Angeles, Marina has been based in NZ for coming up to two years. Until a recent shift a little further north, she called Invercargill home. Trading sunny California for the deep south does seem extreme – but sometimes, extreme is just the order of the day. Especially when love is on the line.
“I didn’t have much going on in LA, and I was at that point just before you hit your 20s, and you’re like, ‘What can I do with my life?’ I figured I would follow my heart. A lot of people thought I was crazy, because NZ is just so far removed from where I’m from –– but I was pretty interested in learning about a new country and a new culture and everything. I think I’m better for it.”
Our local music scene is definitely better for it, too. Contrary to the usual success route of ‘make it in NZ, head overseas, try to make it overseas’, Marina has found her feet making music in a Kiwi provincial paradise – and back overseas people are paying attention. Spin, NME, Vice, Noisey, The Guardian – Shunkan are making some beautiful noise.
Marina’s own story began as a kid, raised with a New Wave and U2 soundtrack to her early years.
“I remember I first just really wanted to play guitar. Because boys played guitar, and I didn’t want to be stereotypically girly – I wanted to be like The Edge. It wasn’t like I wanted to shred, I just wanted to make nice riffs that were kind of simplistic and melodic. I took guitar lessons at 10, and that was a 10-week course. After it finished, from then on I just taught myself, until I was in a band and was able jam with other people.”
Although already busy songwriting, it was definitely all about the instrumentation for mini-Marina, who even then wanted to upset people’s gendered expectations.
“I didn’t want to focus on the vocals at all – I wanted to be known for playing guitar and I didn’t want to fit the mould of the female singer with the male background.”
Prior to Shunkan’s ‘The Pink Noise’, released in November, all of Marina’s recording experience had been self-administered and self-taught.
“I’ve been recording Garageband and Logic stuff for myself since I was about 13 – and now I’m 22. I’m sure many musicians can relate – it’s what you’ve got on your laptop, and you’ve grown up with it. I haven’t really progressed too much on it since, but I think it’s just being patient with the process and song-writing and stuff.”
The basic tools used for her earlier recording played a key part in the sound and structure of ‘The Pink Noise’ recordings.
“It was all really lo-fi. That wasn’t for aesthetic purposes or anything, it was just because I literally had nothing except my laptop, so it involved being as creative as possible with a tiny amount of tech.”
Minimalist though her set-up may have been, the sound made an impact, which in turn helped bring about the Shunkan band as it currently stands. In 2014 95bFM’s Fancy New Band showcase came knocking – and in a needs-must type situation, Marina quickly threw together a music-making gang, with the help of her guitarist/partner Joseph Boath.
“We got some friends together and practised extremely briefly – and it was pretty intense – but now we have five people in the band.”
The most recent addition is drummer Andy Gibbs, providing a particularly vital addition to the new sound.
“She’s jazz-trained, and she really ties us together performance-wise.”
Having only met the band a few times before recording, Andy is clearly delighted to be a part of the Shunkan crew.
“The tunes were so fun and well-crafted – I think something just clicked. I needed to play them more. So we did.”
Sonny Heremia provides the third guitar, while fellow Californian (and soon due to return to American shores) Reese Jensen takes bass duties.
“Marina and I played for years in a band in LA. I love making music with her so much that when she started Shunkan, I had to come here and join the band,” explains Reese of his own NZ music industry stint.
NZ On Air Making Tracks funding followed hot on the heels of the success of ‘Honey, Milk And Blood’. The EP was self-recorded in early 2014, and released soon after. NME describing it as ‘…swamped in shoegazy, unfuckwithable fuzz [and dealing] with loneliness, melancholy and malice’. Getting recording-plus-video funding for Our Names was a game-changer, but being able to make the music she’d always meant to did bring its own fan-related complications.
“I was kind of worried – a lot of bands do this and then the fans don’t like the more hi-fi studio album sound,” Marina laughs about the issues that funding brought with it. She was prepared to take a chance on the material, confident that the songs were strong enough.
“I tried to make it sort of ‘boom-y’, with a wall of guitar – basically what I’ve wanted to do since forever, and I was finally able to do it.”
There is a decidedly ’90s indie rock vibe to ‘The Pink Noise’, and that’s no coincidence. Weezer’s ‘The Blue Album’ was a huge inspiration she admits, but Marina definitely has other musical forces driving her that don’t necessarily make themselves obvious in the sound.
“There’s so many really weird inspirations that trickle through, like the bands I grew up listening to. But when you hear it, you may not think that’s what it sounds like.”
Spin made comparisons with Japandroids and Tiger Trap, noting: ‘Sakimoto’s voice is a uniquely fluttering, seasick thing that neither comparison really does justice to, so you’re just going to have to listen.’
‘The Pink Noise’ came together nearly a year before release, from a week spent recording at the Sitting Room in Lyttelton with Steven John Marr, best known for his involvement with Doprah. Time constraints proved a challenge.
“I can write songs pretty quickly, but having to finalise recordings and to mix and to master was hard. I’m so used to being in control of that stuff that having someone else do it was nerve-wracking. It was definitely liberating, though. Like, ‘I can’t do 100 takes of this one line, I just have to do it, and if it’s good, it’s good’.”
Shunkan’s album was mixed, mastered and recorded by Marr – evidently the first album that hes had such a full role in.
“He was able to teach us a lot. He was super picky with the instruments that we used and how everything was set up. It was cool to learn from him. There wasn’t a heck of a lot to do in Lyttelton, but it was fun in Christchurch at the end of each day. I was more exhausted than I can even remember, but we would go back to Steven’s and play some video games and chill out.”
The starving artist lifestyle is one that most musicians have to get accustomed to at some juncture or other – for Marina and her band, recording proved a bit of a financial low point.
“Our food supply was so limited. I had Up & Gos and Doritos throughout the whole time – and that was as exciting as it got. But the weather was really nice, and we were really near the bay and the harbour. It was really awesome to just hang out in this pretty place that we hadn’t been before.”
After a little metaphorical door-knocking Shunkan signed to UK-based indie label Art Is Hard Records. ‘Honey, Milk and Blood’ was released by the label, and ‘The Pink Noise’ is up next across a variety of formats (including a particularly gorgeous pink 12″). The label’s belief in the band has led to some major PR coups.
“They’re crazy. People look at them, and they think, ‘Oh, a small DIY label’ – it’s literally just two dudes trying to juggle a million things at once. But that makes it really cool, because it’s straight from the heart and genuine – and they just want to put out good music.
“One of them works within music PR and they just know so many people – big places that there’s no way in hell I’d be able to get a hold of. I didn’t even know what NME was when I first saw our piece – every day was just a new thing. I mean, I was in a band for five years and we couldn’t even get in the local newspaper, so it was pretty wild.”
Of the new album, the label says: ‘…there’s Weezer-esque choruses, melodies to make Radiator Hospital proud and shoegaze interludes that might even cause Kevin Shields to fathom a grin,’ all of which is 100% accurate. With extreme exposure comes a range of listeners and commentaries – which can be a scary prospect.
“It’s kind of weird in this day and age, with people on the internet – you assume that people are just saying the worst things and critiquing you for everything. But it’s been so positive, so extremely positive, I’m almost worried. Obviously I don’t want people to make fun of me, but it’s really just been overwhelmingly positive.”
Having been that The Edge-idolising kid, the issue of sexism in the music industry is simultaneously an important and frustrating topic for Marina.
“It’s such a huge thing that I’m constantly battling. A lot of front-women want to be up front – they want to make it political. But I do what I do because I kind of just have to. It’s who I am and I never really wanted attention, I just wanted to do what I wanted to do – to make a band, to share my songs.
“I’ve worked with pretty cool people for the most part, and people have mostly been really respectful. There were total scumbags in LA, but compared with bigger places in the world, there,’s such a sense of community here. There are some really bad, hard places to be a girl musician in parts of the UK or the States.”
Marina is also hyper-aware of strange nuances of the music business faced by artists across the board.
“The brutality of the LA music scene is just so stupid, in this era of the internet allowing artists to control their own content.”
The brave new world of genre classification, especially by music nerd bloggers, amuses her.
“It’s not like I make music and think, ‘I want to make a specific genre album’. It’s just whatever I’m into at the time. People try really hard to come up with the right label so they know how to classify it in their head – I mean, I tend to try to do that too – but it gets pretty funny. For now, it’s really just indie rock.”
For now. The new material Shunkan has been working on since recording ‘The Pink Noise’ has been labelled by Marina herself as “…a weird combo of Brit-pop, shoegaze and anime theme song… whatever that turns into!”
As she gets older, Marina is getting more in touch with parts of her heritage that she ignored – or actively tamped down – in her younger years.
“A lot of what I love in Japan and Japanese culture is flowing into what I do now, along with a mixture of English and American culture.”
The Pink Noise’ is a testament to years of musical development – as a guitarist, a vocalist and songwriter. Woven into its fabric are elements of cultures born into and adopted, inspirations assimilated and actively sought out – and some of those melodic riffs that kid-Marina wanted to create. Joseph sums up the collective positive vibes of the band.
“Playing in Shunkan has been the best experience of my life. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Sonny is on the same page.
“Playing with Reese, Marina, Andy and Joseph is the best thing ever. I’ve never felt so close to people with music… it’s like opening up your soul.”
Shunkan means ‘moment’ in Japanese. Marina is seizing all of the opportunities the world is sending her way, and making some serious magical moments in the process.