More Than Twee: Pajama Pop with Lullatone
Once a week on a local television channel in Nagoya, Japan, viewers can catch a short segment in which a lanky white American guy teaches kids how to make instruments from household objects — in fluent Japanese. The DIY instruments range from rubber-band guitars to cardboard drums and a xylophone made from a paper roll.
The host of this unique little production is Lullatone — a husband-wife musical duo (one part Japanese, one part American) who have pioneered a genre that Shawn James Seymour (the American half) calls “pajama pop” (not to be confused with “twee”). With a blend of lo-fi instrumentation, soft vocals (from wife Yoshimi Tomida), and simple (like really simple) lyrics — Lullatone’s songs range from “Growing Up” to “Going to Buy Some Strawberries” — Lullatone has emerged as a critical voice in commercial sound design. They’re also just about the cutest band on the face of the planet. James fills us in on their easy mystique.
You’ve described your music as “simple on purpose” and “slightly naive.” How’d you get your start?
Before I ever moved to Japan I was making similar music, like really simple electronic music. I never released anything. Then I met Yoshimi and we started a band, just the two of us, called Music for Nintendo. I moved to Japan with her, and she had this really tiny Sony Vaio in her room, like the size of two postcards. I downloaded some free software and programmed lots of sine tones and tried to make some lullabies for her to go to sleep. Hence the name of the band — it was sine tone and lullaby.
But you guys first started playing together in college — Louisville, right?
We played a lot of art openings and those kind of parties. Yoshimi was singing in Japanese about really simple things like ice cream or going to the dentist. Not so many people in Louisville knew Japanese, so no one caught on that all the words were about ice cream and cavities.
It’s all very … cute. Has that element always been there?
One of the things that makes something cute is being simple. We wanted to find that special magic point where it’s just simple enough to be inviting.
That’s a good way to describe it. I hesitate to use the word “twee,” but your music is definitely welcoming.
Yeah … twee. When you hear a lot of twee bands, I feel sort of embarrassed, like, “Oh, I hope no one catches me listening to this.” Our goal is to be … more than twee, to be optimistic.
What was it like going from Kentucky to Japan? You didn’t speak a word of Japanese.
I didn’t know what to expect. I just really liked a girl and followed her here. Then when I got here, I was like, “Oh, this is it. This is place I was supposed to be.”
The country has a quirkiness to it, it seems.
Really quirky and really extreme. Just the level of craftsmanship in everything is really amazing. We have a son, Miko, and he goes to the preschool. Sometimes Yoshimi makes the bento for him, on special occasions. These bento that moms make … it’s really intense, artistic creation. Yoshimi made a Super Mario for Miko. It’s rice shaped like Mario. So awesome. Lots of little details like that make it a treat to look at.
What’s it like being in the studio with Miko?
I have to be careful because he really likes funny sounds, like when you put your finger in your mouth and pop it. If I’m not careful, I put too many funny sounds in the song, which might put us over the twee mark.
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