By Andrew Osmond.
One interesting thing about The Pillows, the alt-rock band which provided all the music for FLCL, is that its members didn’t think anime and music had much to do with each other. If you read about Japanese pop-culture, you learn about its obsession with the “media mix,” how a property can be an anime and a manga and a music album and a toy line, and much more besides. And it’s easy to think everyone in Japanese entertainment must know that, and be savvy to the opportunities in cross-media. In The Pillows’ case, the band wasn’t.
In a 2018 video interview given to Adult Swim, vocalist Sawao Yamanaka was clear that FLCL’s director Kazuya Tsurumaki did all the running. “I guess Tsurumaki liked our band. We had this song called ‘One Life.’” The 1997 single was included on The Pillows’ sixth album, Little Busters, which was especially popular; fans of The Pillows are called “Little Busters” in its honour.
According to Yamanaka, Tsurumaki asked The Pillows if the band could provide songs similar to ‘One Life’ for FLCL. “But we weren’t very familiar with the world of anime. I think that we were probably kind of rude to him… For us, our musical activities basically consisted of write music, make a CD, do a tour, and repeat every year. That’s what ‘rock band’ meant to us. So a tie-in, where our work would be used as a theme song or in a commercial, was pretty much a turn off. We weren’t interested in that stuff. It usually comes with restrictions, you know?”
The Pillows gave the FLCL director a completely different song from ‘One Life’ – ‘Ride On Shooting Star,’ which fans of the anime will know as FLCL’s end theme. The band reasoned they could pass on FLCL if Tsurumaki didn’t like the song. As it happened, the director did like it, and changed his plan for the end theme so he could use the song in the anime. Yamanaka thinks the song fitted FLCL because each of them lacked a throughline; their eccentricities meant they went together.
In the end, all the FLCL music was provided by the Pillows. The band provided another new song for the anime, ‘I Think I Can.’ For the rest of the soundtrack, Gainax was able to use songs selected from the Pillows’ three most recent albums, Please Mr. Lostman, Little Busters and Runners High, all released in the late 1990s.
It’s a happy accident story, unlike the tales of collaborations and mutual fandom that often get played up in anime. For example, there are the epic-length collaborations between Makoto Shinkai and the band Radwimps (who worked together for 18 months on Your Name). Then there’s the way that the band Bump of Chicken loved the manga March Comes in Like a Lion and released songs based on it, years before it was turned into a TV anime in which those songs also appeared.
The Pillows, though, was established and going its own way by the time anime came calling. The band had been formed in 1989 in Hokkaido. As well as Yamanaka on vocals, there was the guitarist Yoshiaki Manabe and drummer Shinichiro Sato. Initially, there was a fourth member of the group, Kenji Ueda, who wrote songs with Yamanaka, but he left after their second album in 1992. The band’s name was reportedly inspired by a British indie compilation album, Pillows & Prayers.
Indeed, the band claims to be heavily influenced by British pop, including the Beatles and the Jam. The Pillows even recorded its second album in England in the early 1990s. This pop video seems to be shot in Blighty, complete with the band enjoying tea on a beach. The Pillows also played live in Britain, but Yamanaka felt they weren’t well received. He also claimed to have turned down an offer to open for Oasis when they appeared in Japan, apparently just so he could say that The Pillows turned down that kind of offer. It’s certainly consistent with Yamanaka’s initial scepticism about FLCL.
And after The Pillows gave its music to the anime? “Our music got way more well-known than ever before,” Yamanaka said. That was especially true outside Japan where FLCL and its soundtrack became fan favourites; by the mid-2000s, The Pillows was touring America. Looks like there’s something to that media mix idea.
The FLCL soundtrack is released on UK CD by Anime Limited on 6th April 2020.