They met in a hazy, tightly squeezed hookah bar in Shimokitazawa, a Tokyo neighborhood distinguished for its alternative music scene, and aptly bonded over their dreamy music tastes. Holly knew it was serendipity when Tomo breezed through the place and put on one of her favorite bands, Pavement, an influential slacker-rock band of the ’90s.
“…and of course, we start talking and discover we like so much of the same music. And we start hanging out, going to shows together. The first time I went to his apartment, I saw he had guitars and basses and stuff, and I’m like, ‘Wow, what are you doing with music?’ and he said, ‘Nothing.’ So, I told him, ‘Let’s change that.’ ”
Tomo recounted his time trying to form a band in college but was often spurned because of his differing music ideas. He always retained a connection to music, working in record stores and studying sound engineering, but nothing came to fruition until he encountered Holly. Since then, they’ve made good use of those instruments and formed their band Santa Dharma, a name chosen for its connection to California, where Holly’s from, and Japan.
Creating the Sound
Their psychedelic synth-pop sound, akin to lo-fi, new wave or experimental pop, is impossible to fit into only one genre and that complements them well.
“We often will hear music and think, Oh, this really reminds us of ourselves and then we’ll look and it’s late 70s disco or afrobeat or something. We do definitely take from a lot of different genres.”
Tomo added, “…punk. I like that do-it-yourself spirit and we play by ourselves, record by ourselves. We do everything by ourselves.”
They aren’t wrong about that; the computer is always the last port of call in their house. To create these other-worldly tones, without artificial assistance, they need a wide range of musical apparatus and help from MIDI syncing and live looping.
Their studio is a trove of long-forgotten, nostalgic instruments including a 60s drum machine, tin-can ukulele, synthesizers, Omnichord and an 80s Casio keyboard with that memorable pre-recorded ‘dog bark.’
As Holly said, “Sometimes at an open mic or gig, there will be some older gentlemen in the crowd and they’ll come up and say, ‘Oh my goodness, I used to have this.’ I like instruments that can provoke a conversation.”
The Effect of Covid-19
“It’s really about the community. It’s not about just making something and putting it out.”
Last year was tough for everyone but undoubtedly the live music scene was one of the hardest hit. Holly and Tomo’s adopted homes such as SUBStore in Koenji or Space Orbit in Sangenjaya were now under siege.
Their song ‘Coronavirus Doldrums’, written at the start of the pandemic, touches on the alienation and claustrophobia that has inhabited day-to-day life. My personal favorite line being, ‘Wear a mask, get the f**k away from me.’
Holly remarked, “it could be something I wrote this morning.”
Their in-home studio allows a respite from Covid-19 worries but while once full of artists jamming together it is now used as an online hub. Live-streaming became the norm for them, including our very own TW Live House Special.
When discussing their online collaborations with global artists, Holly said, “It’s really about the community. It’s not about just making something and putting it out. It`’s about coming together. I think that’s the best part about music and art.”
Their first full-length album, self-titled Santa Dharma, tells their journey as artists and is full of footprints from their most beloved places, Colombia, Okinawa and Tanzania. Themes of reincarnation, Buddhism and philosophy run throughout their story, sending the listener into a therapeutic state of meditation.
One track on their album, “Happiness Glasses”, expresses their respect for the flora and fauna they found in East Africa.
“(In Tanzania,) a lot of times we didn’t have electricity, so we were just writing and making songs in our house. It was a really cool experience, very different from Tokyo where there’s just always excitement and there’s always something going on, to being a lot more at home and being inspired by nature.”
Album art by Colombian artist, Glenda Torrado @glendatorrado
Photos by Enrico Ciccu