Taking the stage in matching black-trimmed white dresses and black high-heel boots, three women in their 20s evoke a long gone era of swinging, smoky Shinjuku haunts populated by gangsters, spies, movie stars and go-go girls.
Slinging their instruments, switching on the amplifiers and taking a seat at the drum kit they silently smile and nod to each other before coyly turning to acknowledge the crowd. House lights go down, the spotlights come up, their shyness evaporates and from the first notes out of the stacks, the audience understands they are in for a sweet sonic treat that is The Highmarts.
Suzu, Karin and Haruna are The Highmarts
The Highmarts don’t so much blend or bend genres but rather encompass, span and transcend them; incorporating the lean and unpretentious in-your-face-grace and DIY ethos of the garage and punk movements, irresistible hooks and incandescent guitar solos of ‘70s stadium rock, power-pop vocals and melodies along with the sounds and visions of Japanese GS (Group Sounds).
In a time when music seems focused on mass market success and is predicated upon calculated commercial coolness, auto-tuned vocals, synthetic beats and hyper-processed personalities that aim to appeal to the lowest common denominator, The Highmarts are refreshingly earnest, unpretentious and true.
Though The Highmarts’ considerable adorability is part of their appeal, they don’t fall into the predictable self-exploitive trap of being too cute or pandering to male tastes. To them, being a band is all about the music and performing. Their appearance and unapologetic femininity are simply an expression of who they are — don’t underestimate them as they are not to be stereotyped nor do they, as modern-day musical onna-bugeisha, take prisoners.
‘Lyrics are just a tool to sing’
Guitarist and singer Suzu is the remaining founding member of the band that started as an after-school activity in junior high school at the age of 13. They cut their first album at 16 (The Highmarts/Early Recordings can be found on YouTube and, if you are lucky, on CD in vintage music shops). As to what a Highmart is, “it’s a secret,” according to Suzu. Drummer Karin joined the outfit in 2017 and Haruna picked-up the bass last year.
While most Highmart tunes are about love, “I don’t care much about lyrics,” said Suzu. “I love songs which move me by their melodies. Lyrics are just a tool to sing and they are not such a big issue for truly good songs and I’m always aware of that when I write songs,” she added.
New Release Coming in November
Their latest 45, “Koi Wa Mou” (It’s All Over Now) with “Manchurian Beat” on the B-side, to be released in November is a collaborative effort with the globally known and luridly subversive Tokyo artist and illustrator Rockin’ Jelly Bean. RJB produces a yearly poster for a nonexistent film that befits his sensational tastes and asks a band for a theme song that would befit the imaginary “movie.”
This year’s title is “Sukeban Baby” (Boss Girl Baby) in reference to the long-skirted, razor-blade wielding, ass-kicking high school girl gangs of the ‘70s. “I thought, ‘Who other than The Highmarts to do the song?’ So I asked them to do it. Honestly, it certainly could more have been the fact I wanted them to do the song that I went with the Sukeban idea,” said RJB.
“They’re the youngest of all the Tokyo garage-punkers,” RJB added, “and I’ve been a huge fan of theirs since the beginning. I’m over the moon that I finally got the chance to work with them. I enjoy the whole band’s infinite potential for fiery rock and roll and I think the future will see them rise to the level of the 220.127.116.11’s or Guitar Wolf as Japanese garage punk rock and roll ambassadors to the world.”
The Future of Japanese Garage Rock
Tokyo’s underground music scene is characterized by working hard, low pay and serving time in the trenches all the while honoring and remembering those who paved the way before you. The Great City’s garage punk subculture is small yet energetic and diverse and The Highmarts are the vanguards of a new era.
As with nearly everything else, the pandemic has disrupted the live music landscape worldwide though supporters of The Highmarts have reasons for hope. “From when I first heard them play when they were 16, I could tell they were a crazy cool GS band — their original songs are fantastic. They’ve been through some tough times through the years and just when it seemed like they were set on a path towards really making it, the coronavirus hit. I’m sure they’ll be active not just in the garage punk scene but other music scenes too,” said the longtime live act producer and famed Tokyo garage punk impresario Nobuo “Daddy-O” Takahashi.
“Highmarts are the future of Japanese garage music, I love them so much!” said Naoki “Kaoru” Ueda, co-founder and vocalist of the seminal Tokyo garage punk band The Great Mongoose which recently celebrated their 30th year together.
The Highmarts music is available on Apple Music and Bandcamp. Follow their Instagram account, @thehighmarts, for upcoming shows (many of which are being streamed due to the pandemic and attendance limitations in local live houses). Check our event listing for details about their September 13 pre-launch streaming party.
Rockin’ Jelly Bean’s work, along with “Sukeban Baby” posters, T-shirts and The Highmarts new 45 rpm record, is available at his Harajuku store EROSTIKA and its website.
Photographs by Mark X. Farmer (before the coronavirus hit Tokyo)
Mark X. Farmer is a writer and photojournalist from Alaska who has documented Tokyo’s underground music scene for years. A pandemic hermit for past six months, he wishes for the world to get better soon.