Strange Boutique (July 2015) – Rockin’ On and the eternal afternoon

My July column for The Japan Times talks about the Rock in Japan festival, but more generally what it’s about is the effect of Rock in Japan and its founder magazine Rockin’ On Japan on the music scene.

The idea of “a mid-afternoon slot at Rock in Japan” is a running joke among some of my friends, referring to the mediocre creative ambitions of a certain type of indie-ish band that stands for nothing, is happy to sell out in any way required of them, but hasn’t the balls to make real pop music either. This sort of polished, musically slick, blandly positive, utterly insubstantial faux rock music is basically what counts as Rockin’ On-kei right now.

And it’s popular, kind of. At Fuji Rock this year, it was notable how the organisers had brought in more of these Rockin’ On-type bands, and the attendance went up from last year as a result. It’s also notable how many of the very worst bands at Fuji Rock were bands who are also appearing at Rock in Japan – the risible [Alexandros] and the vile Gen Hoshino being the worst offenders, but Gesu no Kiwami Otome and Ringo Shiina frustrating in their own particular way, if only because of how much visible talent they seem to be wasting on such unambitious, MOR music.

So the “mid-afternoon at Rock in Japan” represents the middle of the middle of the road. The core, rich essence of mediocrity. The highest artistic ambition for the cronically artistically unambitious. And then I noticed that everyone at Rock in Japan is playing in the mid-afternoon. The whole festival is an eternal afternoon. There are no lows, no highs, no challenges, no discomfort. Rock in Japan is the slack, etherised smile of music euthanising itself.

In the article itself I’m more scrupulously fair than that, and I look into a bit more of the hows and whys, but what it all comes down to is the same thing: fuck Rockin’ On Japan.

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Strange Boutique (June 2015) – Is music in a slump? (No, it isn’t.)

My June column comes out of some of the thoughts that I had going through my head while I was in Kyushu in May, on tour with first Sayuu and later Umez.

The little dialogue I relate at the beginning is literally something I hear whenever I travel around Japan or meet an acquaintance I haven’t seen in a long time. I hear similar complaints all the time, from people of all ages – it’s not just me getting old: there genuinely is a sense that music is in a slump.

But is it? It’s so big that it’s hard to say, but I’d be wary of people who say that these things all just go in cycles. Technology has completely removed many of the barriers to creating and distributing music that used to exist, and all art is to a very large extent defined by the constraints within which it has to operate. I don’t know to what extent technology is behind this perceived slump, but if it is, then its changes may be more permanent than some people think.

However, as I say in the article, a lot of it really is down to perception. If we just click a few of the links that whiz by us or even better actually get out to a show, (Hint: there’s an excellent show I’ve organised coming up VERY SOON!) there are loads of really good bands still out there.

What there isn’t, from what I can gather, is quite so much in the way of a scene these days. This makes it more difficult to perceive any sort of unified energy coursing through indie and alternative music as a whole, but on the other hand, it makes what value there is that much more eclectic and exciting.Falsettos: Dig

In the article I mention a handful of bands, mostly deliberately limited to ones I’d discovered in the previous month or so, although I made a point of mentioning the Falsettos who I’d known for rather longer simply because they’re so fucking awesome. My editor Shaun went through and sought out links to most of the bands, so you should check those out within the article itself. I’ll also probably be writing about some of them in more specific detail on here soon (Mechaniphone and Platskartny both have new Eps out, so they’re going to feature here for sure, while both Platskartny and Falsettos are also playing at my next event).

One band that doesn’t have a link in the article is Narcolepsin. They have been around for a long time, but only since they settled into their current three-piece lineup with a keyboard player have they really started to jump out as something really cool. A few scrappy YouTube clips are all that’s available online of them in this form.Narcolepsin

Missing out on Sonotanotanpenz is a source of terrible shame to me when not only did I find their name scrawled on a napkin two years ago by a Fukuoka-based friend of mine but also discovered that one of the members is someone I’ve known for years and has played several times at my own events, albeit in different bands.

Finally The Noup I picked up old-school on the recommendation of Takehiko Yamada from File-Under Records in Nagoya. It’s got to be said that having reliable curators of taste who can filter the information for you is invaluable. Every time you fail to follow up on a recommendation from someone like Yamada, you’re killing music.The Noup

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Strange Boutique (May 2015) – The 80s band boom and Tokyo’s live music infrastructure

The topic of my May Japan Times column deals with the relationship between the 1980s “band boom” and the current state of the live music scene in Tokyo and some other parts of Japan.

It came out of a conversation I had with Koichi Makigami of Hikashu when I was interviewing him for my book (which is nearly finished now, so keep your eyes on this space), when he noted that the explosion in the number of bands in Japan in the early-to-mid-80s went hand-in-hand with both a rapid growth in the number of venues and a rapid reversal in the financial relationship between venues and bands. If anyone wants to know where Tokyo’s annoying pay-to-play live system comes from, this is it.

As I’ve said before, I dislike the “noruma system” but at the same time I’m ambivalent about it in some ways. Basically, noruma means that a large majority of shitty, no-mark bands subsidise a huge, well-equipped infrastructure for those who can make it work for them. This may not seem fair, but a system where venues depend not on bands’ pockets but on their fans for revenue would be unfair as well – it’s just that a different sort of music would benefit (a sort of music that already does pretty well out of the current system actually).

However, I do wonder if that system is finally crumbling after all these years. Young bands (those that even bother playing live rather than just making wispy indietronica on their laptops like wusses) increasingly seem drawn to the many alternatives to paying noruma at regular live venues, and that may be starving the more traditional venues of the next generation of bands. When Shibuya Echo was open, it became a sort of hub for young indie musicians and DJs, and that role seems to have moved mostly to Ebisu Batica now. Neither Echo nor Batica are/were good venues by typical Tokyo standards, but they are/were cheap to use, and in the end the compromises in terms of sound quality, space and (at Batica) high drink prices appear to be worth it to many.

Similarly, the small studio complex Koenji Dom, which has always hosted occasional gigs, now seems more like a venue than a studio, with events on every weekend. It’s leading to a slightly frustrating trend towards over-stuffed gigs at venues that are too small to handle it, simply because the venues are cool and easy to make money from, but then who is to blame for there not being a viable alternative?

The counterpoint to this argument, however, is that these venues are simply petri dishes where bands and scenes can grow before stepping up to the “real” venues. Shibuya Home seemed to occupy that role for a while, and perhaps thanks to friendly booking staff Shimokitazawa Three seems to have taken its place now. In this sense, maybe a sort of new synthesis between DiY and “real” venues is forming.

Still, making that step up is difficult. At a small 30-50 capacity venue, you can set a ¥1000 ticket price and not lose money – maybe even make a small profit – but as soon as you step up to a 50-100 capacity venue, suddenly the rental bar necessitates a new standard of ¥1500-¥2000 tickets, instantly wiping out a large part of the attraction of your smaller events. You either have a choice between overcrowded and shitty sounding but financially viable events or spacious and nice sounding but money-losing events. The infrastructure as it currently stands really doesn’t provide much in between.

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Strange Boutique (April 2015) – How to make a subversive tote bag

For my April column in The Japan Times, I tacked the important issue of indie bands making tote bags.

The indie tote bag is an interesting phenomenon, serving any number of functions. One of them is to divide the old-school underground/alternative scene from the cosmopolitan indie/fashionista scene which – in an era where everyone listens to the same basic kinds of bands – it does in a way far more effective than mere music ever could. How long underground tradition can resist the branded tote bag’s irresistable march, however, who can say?

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing though: Yeah, I know they’re just bags.

Secondly, I should also be clear about another thing: No, of course they’re not just bags.

I don’t object to bands making money, although I don’t think that should be in any way a matter of importance to them. What I object to in the article is the “boutiquing” of indie culture – the turning of the alternative into a miniaturised facsimile to the same homogenising capitalism that made the alternative necessary in the first place. This is a conflict or discourse between art and commercialism that has been going on since the dawn of pop, and however it manifests itself it ain’t going away.

On a personal aesthetic level though, there’s something else that bugs me about tote bags, in a way that t-shirts don’t, and which goes beyond the simple fact that t-shirts are established but tote bags are relative newcomers. There’s something pleasingly direct in the way a t-shirt dominates your ensemble and blares its message rudely and front-on, whereas the tote bag embodies the coyness and lack of conviction that characterises so much contemporary indie culture. You can have a Black Sabbath t-shirt, but a Black Sabbath tote bag only works either by adopting it as an ironic statement or by divorcing the band’s meaning from its superficial signifiers.

That’s not to say that no one should make tote bags. City Pop and post-Shibuya-kei bands already exist in a realm of commercialised faux-artisanal aestheticism, so there’s nothing there for the bags to to undermine in the first place. Other people get away with it thanks to their own particucular characteristics or creative virtues.

A bag. From Umez.

(Making tote bags, however, can be very expensive in Japan.)

Umez make tote bags, and they get away with it partly because their design sense is good and partly because as a band they carry their position on the fringes of the indie/fashionista scene with such awkward, occasionally brutal originality. They should have tote bags because they’re in the tote bag scene, but at the same time, they challenge the musical and creative boundaries of what a tote bag band can be.

Another side is the branding aspect of it. When I was in Nagasaki this past spring, I saw a girl from a band selling home made jewelry and accessories at a gig. I bought a brooch from her for my wife and very nice it was too. These weren’t band-related products that she was attempting to leverage as part of the band’s branding – they were simply imaginative, attractive pieces of design and craftsmanship that she made.

The way the article is framed raises the possibility, partly facetiously, of a “subversive tote bag”, and while the idea made me laugh, it also increasingly felt like a challenge. With that in mind, I came up with two possible approaches towards bringing out the radical potential in tote bags.

The first was to consider how the tote bag’s form and function differs from the blunt weapon of the sloganeering t-shirt. Hanging coyly at the side, a tote bag attracts attention in a different way, drawing your attention in sidelong, not requiring you to gawp directly at the wearer’s chest. A tote bag is a space for a more intricate message – one that would draw viewers in as they stand next to you on a train, or that would show people brief fragments as they pass you in a shop. You’d reach fewer people, but could perhaps affect those people more profoundly. A block of text or a design that offends, disturbs, challenges or confuses, even (or perhaps especially) in a fragmentary form could make the tote bag’s form work towards more subversive ends.

The other idea was to sell branded tote bags that are only available with a brick in them – perhaps even sewn into the body of the bag. You know, just in case you need to swing it at a cop. The sheer impracticality of it, both in terms of selling and wearing them, could neutralise the commercial nature of the bag and emphasise its radical purpose.

Naturally, I’m not going to start making tote bags now, and indeed, the tote bag-hating friends of mine I mention in the article actually responded with something like rage when I even suggested these ideas, unwilling to buy into it even as a theoretical exercise. What I mean with all this, silly though it may be when pursued to this extreme, is that – much like when I talked about making music for advertising earlier on in the year – musicians should consider the relationship between their commercial activities and their art, and how the former affects the meaning or value of the latter.

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Strange Boutique (March 2015) – Gaming the charts

My March column in The Japan Times was a response to the news that chart organisation Oricon was changing the way it calculates the charts to prevent idol groups of the XXX48 cult and their pretend-rivals in Nogizaka46 from using download cards to game the charts.

I’m not going to spend much time on this subject here because frankly I’m sick of writing about idol music right now. It passed the point where it had anything interesting to contribute a couple of years ago, and in particular the big idol corporations that sit on top of the pile are of rapidly diminishing interest to me nowadays, even as a phenomenon. However, (and there’s always a however in these things), it’s worth noting how this news underlined two things.

Firstly, what a feeble, impractical, face-saving move this was by Oricon. Download cards are such a small part of the way idol groups fix the charts, that this amounts to mere lip service to dealing with a much bigger problem. Even if Oricon were to follow the lead of other countries and set a limit on the number of formats and versions of a single that are eligible for the charts, they can’t stop individual fans from buying hundreds of copies of the same CD, and dumping them unlistened-to.

Secondly, it reinforces what I’ve been saying for a long time: that idol music isn’t about music and idol fans aren’t music fans. That’s not to say that their naked, competitive pursuit of the emptying of their own wallets is in itself wrong (each to his or her own), but simply that calling this stuff music is making a category error.

With these kinds of groups and their fan cultures, I’m right now way past irritation and deep into disgust, and this issue conjures up nothing so much as the image of ravenous hyenas ferociously picking the last pieces of gristle off the bleached bones of a once proud beast.

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Strange Boutique (February 2015) – Snobbery

A much busier work schedule and greater activity with the label and event side of my activities over the past few months has seen this site go to sleep for a while, but my Japan Times columns have continued at their usual monthly pace. In lieu of giving you anything new, I hope those few of you who remain will bear with me as I run over this old ground for a while.

My February column was triggered by vinyl snobbery, but is really about snobbery more generally. I’d suggest having a read of it first to get the gist before coming back and finishing this post.

Now I’ll happily call myself a snob, and the central irony of the piece was that I was on my way to a particularly exclusive and in-crowdy event when I saw the “Fuck PC. Real DJs play vinyl” sign that pissed me off so much. The truth of it is that some kinds of snobbery annoy me more than others, and I suspect this is true of most people – someone who honestly didn’t sympathise with any kind of snobbery would be a very strange creature, and probably utterly unbearable to be around. To me, snobbery over the technology used to deliver the music feels like the worst kind of fetishistic capitalism, while snobbery over the content of the music itself makes more sense. In either case, however, I think there’s a defence you can make that snobbery functions as a sort of protective layer around something.

Fuck Vinyl Snobs: Real DJs Play Great Music

Whether that “something” is a set of values or of aesthetics is probably where I start to draw lines (where I become snobbish over the kinds of snobbery I can accept), but the distinction between aesthetics and values is itself a fuzzy one with a lot of overlap. Aesthetics are often built up to reflect values (the home-made, customised, ruined aesthetic of punk is an obvious and easy example) but once constructed, they’re always open to appropriation that ignores or even inverts the values they were designed to express (again, see punk).

As with a lot of my JT stuff, the column picks a side based more on the need to present a focused argument rather than out of an absolute belief in the position I’ve chosen to advance. My defence of snobbery is a relativistic position based less on any sympathy I really have with snobs than on my irritation at the way poptimists and their ilk employ the language of anti-elitism with the (admittedly often unintended) result of promoting trends that reinforce hegemony. On the other hand, the moment the wheel turns and po-faced rockist snobbery begins to dominate, guarantee I’ll be there tearing at it in all my pop-ist fury. As I say, my position is a relativistic one.

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Hikashu: Ikitekoi Chinmoku

Ikitekoi ChinmokuOccupying a respectfully regarded but also somewhat at-a-distance position on the fringes of the Japanese music scene, Hikashu are in the midst of one of the most productive periods of a career that is rapidly approaching forty years, releasing material at a faster rate than the music scene can really process, imbued with a level of inventiveness, imagination and creative energy that few younger bands can match.

Hikashu are a band who were born out of Koichi Makigami’s need for music to soundtrack his theatre group in the late ‘70s, and there’s a theatricality running through Ikitekoi Chinmoku, both in the dramatic vocal delivery of songs like Iroha Moyo and Magma no Tonari, and in the song structures which rarely conform to the traditional pop format, instead painting winding musical narratives of their own. The album itself projects a semi-theatrical structure with the opening title track and closing Okitekoi Densetsu bookending the album with shared, and rather eerie, musical motifs.

Given that they are a band who coined the term ‘pataphysic rock to describe themselves, it should come as no surprise that it’s a particularly absurdist, Dadaist kind of theatricality too. Makigami’s vocal arsenal of squeaks, rattles, baritone drones, throat singing and other nonsensical interjections is engaged in a near constant dialogue with the brass, keyboards and Mita’s erratic guitar phrases. Tengri Kaeru and Melon wo Narase! Beluga in particular are alive with a broad cast of musical voices engaged in a furious if largely incomprehensible conversation.Hikashu: Naruhodo

The synthesiser that ricochets between the speakers in Konna Hito and the rhythm machine that underscores Naruhodo refer back to the band’s technopop roots, but Hikashu are a far looser, more jazz-influenced band – they always had more in common with Henry Cow than Kraftwerk. Despite the album’s New York recording, there are also echoes of the band’s recent Siberian tour experiences, as in the babbling scat of Altai Meiso, where Makigami’s vocal workouts express themselves to their (il)logical extreme – although who would bet against him finding a new border to push in time for the band’s next album.

What remains remarkable about Hikashu, however, is that through all their freeform rambling, they never completely lose the sense of themselves as a pop band. Shizuka na Shaboten is a fine sub-three-minute pop song, albeit with more theremin than the average Oricon chart topper, and even at its most avant-garde, Ikitekoi Chinmoku overflows with a joyful sense of childish fun.

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