In 2002, when U-M music composition instructor Erik Santos traveled to Japan for a three-week band tour, a friend joked he was going there to fall in love. During the final week of the tour he met Toko Shiiki, a stage actress and painter, and his friend’s joke turned into a reality. Santos and Shiiki continued their relationship for the next three years primarily via the Internet and long-distance phone calls. In 2005 Shiiki moved to the United States to be with Santos and study photography. The move also led to the creation of the popular local band October Babies.
October Babies technically started as a birthday present. While biking to class, Shiiki often entertained herself by making up songs in her native tongue and recording them by singing into her cell phone to send to herself as voice messages. The origins of the band took root on Shiiki’s birthday, October 14, in 2005, when Santos arranged music around one of her lyrics. “I thought it would be really different and cool,” he recalls.
The result confirmed what he expected and surprised Shiiki. Santos continued to record music around her lyrics, and in October 2007, after they had married, they released the album Ao-zora Radio, named after Shiiki’s monthly podcast, under the October Babies moniker. The name October Babies was derived not only from the band’s birth but also from the birthdays of its two founding members (Santos’ birthday is October 21). That same month October Babies played their first gig, with Shiiki on lead vocals and Santos on bass, along with two musicians Santos met while hosting open-mike night at the now defunct TC’s Speakeasy in Ypsilanti: Dale King on guitar and Ben Lorenz on drums.
Ao-zora Radio has a visceral, dreamlike quality, but the band’s current live sound is very different. The newer sound has many influences but is rooted in a jam band dynamic that Santos offhandedly dubs “upbeat global soul.” They’ve recently added second guitarist Mike Ouellette, and the mix of their instrumentation with Shiiki’s Japanese lyrics and infectious dancing makes for a distinctive concert experience. Shiiki admits to having been apprehensive about singing in Japanese, but Santos and the rest of the band encouraged her, and the audience reaction convinced her.
The second October Babies album (and first with the full band) is High Hai Hi! (“Hai” is Japanese for “yes”). It sounds more like the live band sound that they’ve tapped into, and contains many of their live standards, such as “Wa Wa Wa,” “Fleeting Love,” and “Can I Be Born Again?” The latter placed in the Top 10 in the Music Hypermarket International Music competition sponsored by J-Wave, one of Japan’s most popular radio stations.
October Babies celebrate the release of their new CD at the Elbow Room, Saturday, October 16.