Lihappiness: 2nd Pattern

Lihappiness is a bedroom-based solo project, but unlike most such units you find these days in Japan, it’s not one obsessed by woozy indietronica and dreampop. Instead, Lihappiness draws from a point in 1980s new wave that hangs between outright pop ambition and utter derangement. This isn’t new wave repurposed as a fashion vehicle and nor does it follow the contemporary Japanese trend of repackaging new wave as simpering idol-ready comedy cabaret: this is art pop in the grand tradition of The Passage, Jun Togawa, Andreas Dorau and Potpourri/Perspective era P-Model, with Vinyl Puppet sounding like a long-lost Kraftwerk demo from around Computer World, Yurameite Iku coming over like early Simple Minds in its combination of stadium ambition and overbearing, histrionic delivery and A.K.A. Virtue running Susumu Hirasawa through a meat grinder.

2nd Pattern is also a big move on from similarly self-produced and even more lo-fi debut Drums & Lihappiness (that’s an XTC reference right there), with the production much clearer and the clatter of sounds that Lihappiness bombards you with more clearly defined. It’s also a step onwards in the songwriting, with more melodic variation, a more ambitious rhythmical palette and generally what feels like more confidence in the way the album swings from the rather sweet Mada to the almost industrial Tetto to the minimal, sequencer loop-based NDW-techno B.P. 2.

Anyone who knows me well will know that this is an album that pushes all my buttons and appeals to all my prejudices, but even bearing that in mind, it’s an impressive work from a developing talent, and it’s one of the things I’ve heard this year that has made me smile more than almost anything else.

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Interview: Panicsmile

There’s a lot of Japan Times stuff I’ve had published over the past couple of months that I’ve been too distracted to post here, so I’m going to start getting round to that now. First up, I have to talk about Panicsmile here, who are one of my favourite bands in Japan, have undergone a massive upheaval in their lineup, and come out with Japan’s best album of the year so far.

Obviously the kind of thing they do is an acquired taste, which is why they’re an underground band and not riding the Rockin’ On Japan gravy train all the way to a mid-afternoon summer festival slot, but as I say in the article, there’s a vibrancy to it that just hasn’t been there for a long time — not really since the sweet spot the band hit live midway between the releases of Miniatures and Best Education. Anyway, Hajime Yoshida from Panicsmile is always an intelligent, interesting person to talk to and you can read the interview feature I did on the band on The Japan Times web site here.

Below, I’ll post a full transcript of the interview, although be wary of the imprecise and maybe a bit dodgy translation.Panicsmile: Nuclear Power Days

PANICSMILE, HAJIME YOSHIDA INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:

There have been some big member changes since A Girl Supernova. Can you tell us the story behind how the band came to be in its current position?

Eiko Ishibashi (drums), Jason Shalton (guitar) and Kenichi Yasuda (bass) left Panicsmile at that time. However, I had been thinking about the new members before they left, so new members and I started sessions from April. Then, Yasuda got in contact and said he said he wanted to come back and play with us again, so he rejoined in our band as a guitarist. There was a period after that where we made twenty songs in two years, but none of those twenty songs made it onto in our new album. The concept of our sessions with new members was originally “back-to-basics” and we made loads of very orthodox rock’n roll tracks. However we felt a bit weird about them so we didn’t use them. Eventually all ten songs on the new album are fresh material.

Where are the members all based now? Does that make it difficult to run the band?

DJ Mistake (bass) and Yasuda (guitar) are still in Tokyo, while Geru Matsuishi (drums) lives in Toyota city, Aichi prefecture, and I’m in Fukuoka. At the point we started the new sessions in April 2010, our drummer was already living in Aichi, and no real problems happened even after I moved to Fukuoka. We don’t often hang out together outside of our band activity, I’m so used to going all the way somewhere to play. When we do band practice, we gather and stay over at Matsuishi’s house in Aichi prefecture. His house has converted into a recording studio, so I’ve never felt any difficulties about the situation.

What influence did the new members have on the sound?

DJ Mistake is pretty much a beginner, but she’s really active in sessions, while Matsuishi’s background is in jazz and R&B, so he brought some funk to the sound. Yasuda played guitar back in ’93 so that was a return to basics. Any session with me and Yasuda is going to come out weird, but the rhythm section helped put everything together. I’m always surprised at the way they approach things.

In some ways, it sounds a bit like a return to old style Panicsmile, with a simple, energetic, post-punk sound. How do you feel Informed Consent fits into Panicsmile’s catalogue?

When Eiko left the band, she said, “Why don’t you try to make new tracks with yourself in charge and a group of new members you want to play with?” I could take her suggestion in a positive sense, like “Aha! I see!” In a word, it was back-to-basics. Though we had already made seven albums over a twenty year period, I think we could say that we’ve done something new.

What does the title mean to you? “Informed Consent” is a medical phrase, but it feels to me like a phrase that describes a lot of politics now.

Right, it’s a medical term, but you can see this both in the political world and in your daily life. It’s like, “I’ve explained that to you!” It comes down to you, whether you get ripped off shopping, you fail at work or even if a nuclear power station has an accident. The important thing is I’m not warning or preaching though, because I’m always so careless in this regard myself.

Was the nuclear disaster important to you in this album? References to radioactivity appear in a couple of songs.

Hmm. Rather than thinking about the disaster itself, I got a terrible sense of regret, like, “I should have done things differently,” “I was just having an ordinary life, not thinking particularly deeply,” or “I guess I kind of knew, but I still didn’t do anything.” I’m still pursued by the balance of profit and loss, time and money, so this album is a kind of record of my regrets from 2010 to 2013.

You moved back to Fukuoka between the last album and this one. Did moving back home influence how the album developed?

Almost all of tracks were made when I was in Tokyo, but tracks 1 (Western Development2), 2 (Out of Focus, Everybody Else) and 4 (Antenna Team) were written when I was in Fukuoka. So yeah, I think I’d agree that the tracks suddenly become more aggressive. I’m working here as basically a salaryman so there are several kinds of pressure from my Fukuoka life that might be reflected in these tracks.

You also produced Headache Sounds Sample Vol.5 last year. Vol.4 was back in 2005, so why revive the series now?

The time gap between the previous instalment and the latest one wasn’t really the issue. It was really that bands between 2010 to 2012 were very interesting and fun. Bands I come to like tend to be bands that do something I can’t do. That’s my criteria when I choose.

What bands do you especially like from the compilation?

I love all of them! Like I said before, it’s because they are all tracks I couldn’t have thought up myself. This time there are some bands that have instrumental tracks, and I think tracks that don’t need vocals are great.

As I mentioned earlier, there seems to be a simpler sort of energy on Informed Consent. Where does your energy come from, or what gives you energy to keep making aggressive new music?

Maybe it’s something like desire and despair: These things come from an attachment to life. There’s negativity and darkness in the lyrics, but there’s a bit of irony in there. Anger is what you feel when you have a strong desire to live, and that’s something that’s everywhere in our daily lives. It’s possible that these emotions came up after the earthquake. I think people’s minds changed a bit after seeing so many people die.

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Suichu Zukan: Nami

What’s the timespan it takes for nostalgia to start making a tangible influence on the music scene? Apparently about 15 years judging from this short, fuzzy stab of alt-rock. Now I’m going to take a huge leap here and suggest that Suichu Zukan have listened to one or two songs by the the band Quruli, particularly from their early 2000s period. The band name is a portmanteau of the song Suichuu Motor (from 2002’s The World is Mine) and the album Zukan (released in the year 2000) and the most obvious tribute you could pay to the band’s best and most creative period. Dive deeper and their web site and video are littered with the sort of sketchy illustrations and paintings that characterised Shutoku Mukai’s Number Girl artwork, while the sounds on Nami also recall some of the shoegaze-inflected indie rock on Supercar’s 1998 debut Three Out Change. Most bands hate being explicitly linked to the influence of other bands, but when they make it this obvious, they can have no complaints.

Instead, what this tells us is something of the nature of the music scene’s cycle of influence. The decade after Supercar, Quruli et al was characterised by their direct influence: artists from among their immediate contemporaries and those who grew up under the shadow of their immediate pop cultural influence. What seems to be happening now is that the music of that early 2000s generation is becoming seen as explicitly “old music” and something distanced enough to safely pay explicit tribute to. Their influence remains strong, but its nature seems to be changing, and Suichu Zukan seem to be an exemplar of that.Suichu Zukan: Nami

Of course musically those turn-of-the-millennium bands were themselves heavily influenced by US and UK alternative and indie rock, and that shows through in Nami too. This is a good thing, because 90s alt-rock was ace and hasn’t stopped being ace at any point in the interim. The song has a neat little break in the middle where the vocals and guitar dip into a decidedly Quruli-esque faux-Asiatic melodic lick before all the effects pedals kick back in again and it’s all Hüsker Dü tussling with Ride again all the way to the climax. Suichu Zukan are a band that are very hard to hear in any context other than that of their very obvious influences, but while there is absolutely nothing original about this song at any level of its creation — in the video they even do that thing of filming the band pretending to play their song on a beach, which has featured in every Japanese indie video of the past decade — the zone in which it places itself is one where they would be hard pressed to put a foot wrong, and they carry it off very successfully. The phrase “does exactly what it says on the tin” has rarely been more appropriate.

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New Call And Response releases from Futtachi and Jebiotto

After months of too-ing and fro-ing, gathering materials, putting together and checking documents, sending out futile emails, and making stuffloads of mistakes anyway, my Call And Response label has two new albums out on the same day. In both cases, rather than being put together and put out by me solely, the releases were carried out in collaboration with the bands themselves. In theory, this offered a compromise between self-releasing and doing an actual label release in which everyone benefits, although in practice, it’s hard to tell to what extent that’s the case. The feeling you get at opening a box of CDs fresh from the manufacturer and seeing the physical product finally there and existing at you in all its glory is still the greatest feeling you can get as a label guy though.

Futtachi: Tane to Zenra

Futtachi: Tane to Zenra

Futtachi are a band I’ve been working with since they began and before even that through vocalist Iguz Souseki’s previous band Zibanchinka. They’re a psychedelic band whose music varies depending on which collection of members happen to be working together, from fierce, heavy rock at one extreme to this first album Tane to Zenra at the other. Based around Iguz and guitarist O-mi’s iteration of the group but featuring all members on the recording, it features a single thirty-minute track built around a throbbing, almost industrial beat and layered with spectral, kosmische sounds and effects. Watching Iguz and O-mi perform live as a duo on N’toko’s last Japan tour back in the spring, the material that now features on this album was spellbinding. As a half-hour track, it’s hard to provide any audio material to hear the album from, but there will be some sort of digest or edit up at some point to give you an idea. The physical CD is available via the Call And Response store here, and I’ve blogged a few other places where it’s available (including iTunes) here.

Jebiotto: Love Song Duet

Jebiotto: Love Song Duet

The second release of the day is Jebiotto’s Love Song Duet. With Jebiotto, the challenge of recording the album was in how to get a popular live band, whose appeal is to a great degree based around their unpredictability and general scuzziness, across on record. Added to that is the fact that most of the songs themselves are built around synth parts and melodies that are clearly coming from a much poppier place. So what do you do? Do you emphasise the scuzziness and make a lo-fi album that fans will at least understand as the same band they enjoy so much live, or do you try to make something that works as a pop album and accept that some of the raw energy of the band will be lost in the sheen. You can see these contrasting pressures in the way the recording credits are shared between Takaaki Okajima, who is a proper pop producer, and Yuichiro Kusaba, who is an engineer at legendary Tokyo punk venue Ni-man Den-atsu (20000V).

I think the balance worked out superbly, and makes Jebiotto a really fun band to write about. Some of the little journalistic turns of phrase I’ve used over the past couple of months to describe them include: “three punks who set out to be an 80s stadium band but got lost somewhere between Dan Deacon and Sonic Youth,” “like Bon Jovi wrapped in tin foil, falling down some stairs,” and “like TM Network in a washing machine with some rocks.” These sorts of phrases are the stock-in trade of music writers everywhere and once you break them down, they’re quite formulaic, but when you’ve got a nice image and a band that really suits it, they can be really fun descriptive tools. Again, the physical CD is available from the Call And Response shop here, and I’ve blogged a few more places here (no download release yet, but a Bandcamp is in the works). You can also listen to a couple of the poppier tracks from the album here:

We did something a bit fancy with the Jebiotto album by making an EP of remixes, featuring tracks by Nature Danger Gang, DJ Memai and Ataraw from Groundcover. as a free gift for people buying it from Disk Union, which was new territory for me. With Futtachi, I’m still hopeful to get some sort of live disc as a promotional extra for one of the indie record stores who’s been nice to us. As usual with any new releases, the time leading up to and around the release is fraught with stress, pressure, and usually edged with disappointment as ambitions and dreams give way to harsh realities of a local market that seems to be both shrinking and coalescing around a model for selling indie music that I both dislike on an aesthetic level and disapprove of on an ideological level, but in any case, we’ve done it now and no one can take that away from us.

Both Futtachi and Jebiotto are playing next month on September 27th at an all-day live extravaganza at 20000V along with many other friends of the label to celebrate ten years since the first Clear And Refreshing live showcase, so as one font of anxiety starts to dry up, another emerges. The cycle continues.

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Jebiotto documentary and U.S. tour

One of the bands who works with my Call And Response label, Jebiotto, have a short film now available to view online in advance of their new album (more on that later). It was made by Matt Schley with assistance from main man Ryotaro Aoki, and acts as a sort of rambling, vaguely coherent introduction to the band (if you know the band, you’ll know that “rambling and vaguely coherent” is the only accurate way to introduce them). It features snippets of live footage from Higashi Koenji 20000V (Ni-man Den-atsu), which remains both mine and the band’s favourite live venue in Japan.

Jebiotto are currently on tour in the U.S. and still have three more dates to go, so if you’re around New York, Newark or Baltimore over the next few days, check them out:

August 5th (Tue) Astoria, NY @ Shillelagh Tavern
August 6th (Wed) Newark, DE @ Blue Door (house show)
August 7th (Thu) Baltimore, MD @ Club K

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Sanm: Cassette Tapes Club #1

The limited edition cassette version of this release by new Tokyo indiepop band Sanm may already be sold out but you can still listen to it on Miles Apart Records’ Bandcamp and Sanm are a band worth paying attention to. Like nearly all Japanese indiepop bands, the vocals generally do that dreamy and disaffected thing that seems to pass as an acceptable substitute for actual singing. Now I’m already on record as saying I disapprove of this and that Japanese indie bands really need to grow a pair (one of the reasons why Leather/DYGL and Half Sports are still the best bands in the scene) and Sanm are at their most compelling where they do something that jumps out at you a bit more, like the nonsensical, effects-laden vocals on closing track Abduction and the reverb-heavy shouting that suddenly leaps out at you during opening number Bohemians Love. Both songs are simple, based around familiar-sounding jangly guitar lines, but shot through with an experimentation that the more conventionally structured pop songs like Same as Before and Ivy don’t really have. What those songs demonstrate instead is the coming together of U.S. chillwave and Japanese indiepop that bands like Mitsume and Hotel Mexico pioneered now filtering down to the kids starting to make music — something that’s even more apparent in the desultory synth washes of another new track, Sea, which popped up on the band’s Soundcloud recently.

Sanm are a band still not completely set in their direction, and being students there’s every chance they won’t exist in a year or two, but of the current crop of young indie guns, they’re one of the most promising and this cassette showcases four tracks that reveal both craftsmanship and imagination

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Buddy Girl and Mechanic: Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvy

CD/download, 2014

One of this web site’s top albums of last year was Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s eponymous debut, and it’s heartening that they’ve been able to follow it up so quickly (or at least what passes for quickly in the Japanese indie world). While a lot remains consistent with before, with the blues-inflected melodies combined with an obvious love of krautrock, and vocalist Xiroh’s habit of suddenly squeaking like a 1960s secretary who’s just been touched on the bottom by a roguish co-worker. However, the transition from the bands debut to Topsy Turvy is far from seamless, and it’s clear a lot’s been going on in the studio in the interim. While Buddy Girl and Mechanic was characterised by expansive, reverb-drenched sonic vistas, Topsy Turvy is a far more claustrophobic album, with the group’s “Mechanic” aspect expressing itself in the clockwork clinks, clanks, rattles and creaks of songs like Mechanic Nonsense and Cat’s Scratching, and the tightly compressed drums of the Circe’s Kitchen. Rather than all blending together into one sultry sunset soup as the 2013 model BGM did, the band’s 2014 incarnation sets each sound scrapping it out in a closet.

One effect of this more claustrophobic production is that where in the past Xiroh’s vocals have tended to be indistinct in the reverb and overdubs, here they are occasionally pushed closer to the surface, as on the title track. Language can often be a problem for Japanese acts as the needs, expectations and interpretations of domestic and overseas audiences can lead to very different responses. Most obviously this lies in comprehension, where Japanese is obviously easier to understand for Japanese audiences and English for those in many other places. Differences also lie in how exotic or fashionable a language can make something sound, and how the inflection the singer places on the words can affect the impression they make. The vocals on Topsy Turvy are in a mixture of English and Japanese, processed through a variety of effects, sometimes in the group’s familiar distant and abstract manner, sometimes right close up in the listener’s ear. Now where a group like Shonen Knife make a virtue out of the naïvety of their English pronunciation, Buddy Girl aren’t that sort of band. The persona Xiroh projects is more adult, more vampish, and this lends an odd sense of not-quite-rightness to the English language material, where the naturalistic and the obviously foreign grate against each other.

And yet break it down and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong going on in their either. Topsy Turvy kicks off with a song that purrs its desire to “make it nonsense” and is an album constructed entirely of sounds and ideas designed to clash against each other. Release the Fish sets what sounds like a sanshin, an instrument primarily associated with Okinawan folk music, against a song that’s comes over like one big sexual come-on, while closing track Nature/Property takes all the grinding gears, tensing wires and general “mechanic nonsense” that have clattered through the album and builds an ambient psychedelic crescendo around them before releasing it all into a throbbing, motorik conclusion that lasts for about a minute but could have gone on for about twenty.

So amid all this wilful chaos, does something coherent emerge? Well, firstly I’m not sure it really needs to, and secondly yes it does. Aside from the obvious point that the thematic clash of elements that runs through the album is in itself a point of consistency, the group also never let it sabotage the songs. “The melody, it’s my remedy,” is the opening track’s response to the “nonsense” it professes to promote, and while Buddy Girl and Mechanic play the mischief makers, they’re fundamentally a band very much like Can in that the fun and games is always set in service of the greater musical good.

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