For the past few years, Big in Japan has been one of the more enigmatic bands on the Baltimore music scene.
Made up largely of former members of electro-rockers Lake Trout, Big in Japan gigged sporadically around town, changed lineups fairly often and recorded music but never released it. They were a live band first and foremost, with a reputation for putting on killer dance shows. Much of their music was improvised.
"It was a one-time-only kind of thing," said Matt Pierce, who plays keyboards and flute. "You had to be there to experience it. … We didn't think we'd ever capture what we did live on record."
This year, Big in Japan might finally shed that image. They have a semi-solidified lineup, structured songs — with vocals — and some new studio recordings lined up. This spring, they're planning to release two tracks featuring singer Katrina Ford, who fronts the experimental Baltimore rock group Celebration. The songs are titled "Mockingbird" and "What's on My Grave." Ford makes a guest appearance with Big in Japan Friday at the Ottobar to sing both songs.
"It's very primal, the way she sings," Pierce said of Ford. "She makes sense to me. We love working with her."
When Lake Trout went on hiatus, singer/bassist James Griffith, drummer Mike Lowry and Pierce were hired to join the 16-piece live band for the ever-evolving British music project UNKLE. They toured with UNKLE for about two years, until this past year, when UNKLE was forced to lay off half the band because of expenses, Pierce said.
Griffith stayed in England to work on new songs for UNKLE, and Pierce seems always on the move, playing with Big in Japan and experimental rockers Arbouretum and doing studio work with UNKLE.
Now that Pierce isn't touring with UNKLE, he's devoting more time to shaping Big in Japan's studio work. The new album is still a work in progress — Pierce said some of the songs have a '70s feel — but 2011 could be Big in Japan's biggest year yet.
The album "doesn't have a home yet, and it doesn't have a name," Pierce said. "We're getting songs out there, piece by piece."