By Jin Kiyokawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterNagoya band 04 Limited Sazabys (04LS) — affectionately called “Four-Limi” by fans — are making big strides with their brand of accessible rock, impassioned live performances and the youthful voice of vocalist-bassist Gen.
The group has organized an annual rock festival since 2016 that draws more than 20,000 people, turned in a smash performance at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan hall last year and completed a tour of arenas in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka this year to commemorate their 10th anniversary.
Nevertheless, the rockers chose to play small clubs for their nationwide tour of “Soil,” their first album in two years released on the Columbia label. What’s behind the move back to their roots?
Livening up club scene
On Oct. 2, enthusiastic fans packed into a club about the size of an elementary school classroom with room for 250 people in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. The musicians’ hair was tousled in the hot air, and their T-shirts soaked with sweat. After the concert, they high-fived audience members and tossed their drumsticks and guitar picks into the crowd, eliciting shrieks of delight.
The group was playing the club for the first time in five years. The gig was planned as a sort of “counter tour” to 04LS’s spring performances at three large arenas each with a capacity of more than 10,000. The “Soil” nationwide club tour kicked off soon after in mid-October. Some questioned why a band with such exploding popularity was returning to tiny venues.
“We want to liven up the club scene,” Gen said. “That way we can help out club managers who helped us in the past, and younger bands will start wanting to play at clubs. [The shows] mean a lot exactly because we’re now capable of performing at Budokan.”
The band formed in Nagoya in 2008 by students who were into punk rock bands such as Hi-Standard. Other than Gen, the members are Ryu-Ta (guitar, backing vocals), Hirokaz (guitar) and Kouhei (drums, backing vocals). They made its major-label debut in 2015.
The group has rapidly climbed to near the top of the rock scene over the past three years. Though the meteoric rise has brought changes in scenery, the members have kept their heads about them and stayed humble.
“We managed to avoid losing our edge, despite the speed of things over the past several years,” Gen said. “We didn’t set any goals, and I mean that in a good way. That’s why we weren’t burned-out after playing Budokan.”
The new album, released on Oct. 10, also has a down-to-earth feel — all the way down to its title. The band initially searched for words that expressed reaping a good harvest, before eventually settling on a name that evokes gathered earth.
The first song on the 12-track album, “message,” has English lyrics and a sense of urgency evocative of the band’s early days. On the whole, “Soil” has a classic, austere rock sound. It was ranked No. 2 on the Oricon weekly album ranking in its first week.
“We wanted to make an album that satisfied both ourselves after 10 years of playing together and the fans who have stuck by us,” Gen said.
Hirokaz recalls that around 2011 and 2012 the band almost always played the same songs because they weren’t writing new ones.
“We were fortunate the audience didn’t stop coming,” he said of the hard times three to four years after the band’s start. Also, for three years after leaving their first label, they were unable to release a CD nationwide. It was during this time that their first drummer left and the group made a fresh start with Kouhei.
“We would play gigs while also doing part-time jobs at ramen restaurants, pachinko parlors, supermarkets, whatever. I remember rubbing my sleepy eyes and going to work after coming off the road with the band,” Ryu-Ta recalled of the tough times.
At first, 04LS wrote lyrics strictly in English, but they broke their ban and began mixing in Japanese as well starting with the album “sonor,” released in 2013 after a long wait. The move helped broaden their range of expression and enabled them to directly deliver their message of fighting through adversity to the audience.
“I thought that was a good move because Gen’s voice is suited to Japanese lyrics,” Ryu-Ta said.
Live performances are still at the core of 04LS. They play more than 100 shows a year that attract more than just hardcore punk rock fans. The friendships they’ve formed with other groups they’ve met along the way have become a huge asset, helping the band gather together like-minded groups in the same generation for the attention-grabbing Yon Fes in 2016 — the first music festival in their native Aichi Prefecture.
There is a romanticism about 04LS that is hard to resist: a band formed by students who eschewed a marketing strategy and instead built their fan base through integrity and hard work.
Kouhei, who initially viewed the band objectively as a member of another group, offered up this assessment of 04LS’s early days:
“Their performances were subpar on the whole, but they somehow delivered with solid melodies and lots of energy,” he said. “That style hasn’t changed at all. Gen’s emceeing is the same as the old days, except that maybe now his vocals are more powerful.”
Each member has their own unique charms. Gen has a boyish voice and appearance that help him attract large audiences and impress those he meets face-to-face. Ryu-Ta’s good nature and love for punk rock explode onstage, while Hirokaz adds color with his sing-songy guitar phrases. Kouhei brings a rapid-fire drumming technique and ability to keep an eye on the band’s overall sound.
“I love this band,” Gen said. “Everyone is very human. We’re not elite and we have our negatives, but we can turn them into positives for the band. When you look at the world, bands and even rock music itself are becoming like classics, but I think not riding the tide is the right answer. I think those who survive won’t be the ones who change to fit the situation but the ones who stick to their guns.”Speech