Interview: The Bathhouse Show

For those of you in Tokyo tomorrow (Saturday, February 13th), I recently did an interview with Ella Krivanek and Dorothy Siemens, who have put on this fascinating looking free art and music event at an abandoned bathhouse. The event features Melt-Banana and Hikashu, who are two of the best bands in Japan, as well as relative newcomers The Fin and The Boys Age, so get on down there early and check it out.

Here’s the interview in The Japan Times, so please check that out.

Because of the limited space, there was a lot of fascinating stuff that I just couldn’t include. Obviously as a music writer, the musical aspect of the event was the angle that I approach this from, although the event is clearly designed so that the art and music interact conceptually in various ways. As the person in charge of the music, I was particularly interested in some of what Siemens explained about how the music functions as art and how the borders artforms can be crossed, subverted or blurred.

“I was interested in getting bands that bridged a certain gap between art and music,” Siemens explained, “Koichi Makigami from Hikashu also works as a sound artist, and Melt-Banana have broken a lot of barriers – there’s a juxtaposition there in the whole descriptor of ‘noise music.’ Meanwhile Boys Age make music out of their bedroom – it’s very DIY and it’s very immediate.”

In the context of my travels around Japan and my interest in the relationship between music and the place in which it happens, this event touched on a lot of themes that I find interesting as well. I remarked on the way smaller towns and more remote areas push different kinds of stuff together that would never usually interact in Tokyo, and how this often leads to more interesting, unexpected or imaginative work as a virtue of necessity.

“The most exciting projects have taken place outside Tokyo,” agreed Krivanek, “There’s a side of it that says because there aren’t as many spaces, people have to make do with sharing space, but the other side is that they have the opportunity to do that because space isn’t nearly at such a premium, so you can rent physically bigger buildings. And people who are slightly weird in the countryside are drawn to one another regardless of whether they’re all fine artists or all musicians or whatever.”

There is also a sense that through this approach, it might be possible to point a way towards a new way of thinking about and doing music and art in Tokyo as well. In the music scene especially, I get the impression that some of the structures, like the live house system, are fraying at the edges, with people increasingly looking to alternative spaces to perform.

“There’s a need to look at new ways of doing things and beak out of these rigid structures of ‘this is how you become an artist or a musician’,” explained Siemens, “There are people who get sponsorship from galleries or sign to a major label, but that’s not the majority of people. It’s an opportunity to start a discussion in Tokyo about how we can do this in a new way, how we can create a new community of artists and musicians that support each other here in Tokyo.”

As Krivanek adds, “In terms of an intersection between fine art and music, I don’t think either that’s a new thing or something to be afraid of.”

This also brought to mind one of my pet concerns about music, which is the way that as it loses its value as a commercial product, it increasingly seems to be becoming subservient to lifestyle accessories and fashion, when really it deserves respect and consideration as an art in its own right. Perhaps aware of the near-Satanic position that one particular kind of goods holds in Call And Response Records demonology, this point kicked off a little exchange that made me chuckle:

SIEMENS: “There are so many of these lifestyle-branded bands that come with the pins, the t-shirts, the mechandise…”

KRIVANEK: “The tote bags!”

SIEMENS: “We have this opportunity to pull music back into this conversation of exploring it as a fine art”

All of which I absolutely agree with (even if they were taking the piss out of my irrational disdain for poor, innocent tote bags a bit).

Another related point we discussed was the way they decided to keep enough of a separation between between the musicians and fine artists, so that each has the space to be considered in their own right rather than as simply a soundtrack to the art or a visual accompaniment to the music. However, Krivanek and Siemens are intrigued by the possibilities this juxtaposition might open up in terms of what visitors take with them from the music into the art and vice versa when travelling between areas. In any case, like I say, if you get a chance, check out the show.

The event page on Facebook is here, or on Tokyo Gig Guide here.


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Top 20 Releases of 2015: Afterword

With the end of this latest countdown of the past year’s top Japanese music, it’s worth drawing attention to what other writers did for their own rundowns. The other main English language sites that go deep enough to put these kinds of extensive lists together are Make Believe Melodies and Beehype. Neither list had anything in common with mine, and precious little in common with each other, which just goes to show how diverse the indie scene in Japan is. In any case, both lists are worth checking out in order to get a different perspective on what Japanese indie (and a bit of pop – Patrick at MBM remains inexplicably attached to E-Girls) music has to offer.

Make Believe Melodies: Best Japanese Albums of 2015

Beehype: Best of 2015 – Japan

As I said before embarking on this latest countdown, the fact that my own label’s releases were disqualified had a big influence on the makeup of this list. It’s always an issue, but it was a bigger one than usual this time round since we released so many albums and EPs featuring so many of our favourite bands in 2015.

Looking forward into the rest of 2016, I’ll be dealing with a similar situation next time round, with a lot of new Call And Response releases already in the pipeline. Looprider’s debut only came out six months ago, but they already have a second album recorded and ready to go this spring, and a third album written. Lo-shi have already recorded their third album and first CD release, with the album currently being mixed with a view to a summer release. Mechaniphone, whose first EP came in at No.4 in my best of 2015 countdown, have a new EP ready to go, which I’ll be helping them put out in a limited release very soon. Other bands in the wider Call And Response family have new material at varying stages of completion, including Han Han Art, Sharkk, Trinitron and Tropical Death.

More broadly, I’m (maybe hopefully) picking up vibes that indiepop may have peaked and that the cool kids are ready for something a bit more discordant. If there is even the faintest possibility of a postpunk/no wave revival, I’ll be doing everything I can to jolly it along and then report on it as if it’s some spontaneous thing I just discovered.

Basically, my theory is that the indie hipster cred Hysteric Picnic/Burgh have been building up over the past couple of years has now reached such a level that young, cool kids want to hang out with them and be in bands like them. There has always been a seam of arty, angular Japanese underground music scraping away metalically beneath the surface of the music scene, and the emergence of younger bands like Deviation and Ms. Machine, as well as the welcome return of the still ludicrously young and inspired Nakigao Twintail, suggests that at least in some limited sense Japanese skronk might be getting a shot of young blood.

Any look at stuff to look forward to should probably begin with Afrirampo’s spring reunion tour, followed by an appearance at the Taico Club festival in June. Whether any new recordings will emerge is still uncertain, and I’m not sure if that would even be a good idea at this stage. Pika already has a new album titled Sun Ra New, in collaboration with Yuji Katsui and Yoshihide Otomo, and quite what role Afrirampo could play in her ever-evolving musical explorations I don’t clearly see.

New releases I’ll be looking out for include Kyoto bubblegum hardcore/postpunk band O’Summer Vacation’s new 7 Minutes Order, which I’ve already heard and is awesome, and hopefully a full album by my favourite band in Tokyo right now, the wonderful Falsettos.

I’ll also be embarking soon on the second stage of my travels to every prefecture of Japan to research its indie music scene. Following my return to Tokyo, my long-promised book on the Japanese indie music scene is now back from the editor and pencilled in for a summer release, so keep your eyes open for more on that.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.1 – Hikashu – Ikitekoi Chinmoku

Ikitekoi Chinmoku

CD, Makigami Records, 2015

Any Hikashu album would be a contender for album of the year, and it’s only the fact that they come so thick and fast that I haven’t always heard the avant-garde ‘pataphysic rock band’s latest offering in time for compiling these rundowns.

This time round I have, and here it is. I wrote about this album back when it was initially released, and the way its overarching sense of playfulness and fun links together the music that ricochets back and forth between melody and experimentalism continues to elevate it above almost anything else out there. To Hikashu, the tools of pop and the avant-garde are just different elements in the same bag, available for them to reach for at any moment, to achieve a particular effect. At times they seem to have abandoned the idea of composition entirely in favour of this grab-bag of different elements, but they are by now such assured performers that they carry it off with aplomb.

Hikashu: Naruhodo

Frontman Koichi Makigami’s voice remains the group’s most striking and versatile instrument, bouncing back and forth between extraordinary range of sounds, from rich baritone to helium-voiced babble and sandpaper growl. Where his own mouth proves an insufficient tool to achieve the sounds he wants, he is able to draw on a range of other instruments, with theremin and trumpet among the most conventional. He throws it all into the nearly seven-minute Altai Meiso, a virtuoso display of doing everything except pop music and apparently having immense fun doing so.

I keep coming back to the idea of pop music when writing about Hikashu, because no matter how weird they get, the relationship between what they do and pop music is nevertheless ever-present. The moments where more traditional songwriting collides with Hikashu’s more freeform approach are often the most thrilling, with Iroha Moyo recalling a Berlin period Bowie in its mix of jazz-influenced soundscape and tormented, claustrophobic guitar, albeit with a lighter touch and less pervasive sense of portent. Even so, they provide moments of beauty on tracks like Konna Hito, where the band just seem to allow themselves to be pulled where the music takes them, and the more straightforward tracks (this is always a relative term where Hikashu are concerned) like Shizuka na Shaboten provide occasional reminders of what a normal pop song might sound like.

Hikashu are a band whose range continues to grow with every new release, and if anything the pace of their creativity seem to grow faster as they get older. On the basis of Ikitekoi Chinmoku, we should hope they never stop.


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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.2 – DYGL – EP #1

I’ve already written a lot about DYGL and their position as the most vibrant act in Japan’s small but increasingly hip indiepop scene, but this rundown of last year’s best nevertheless provides a good opportunity to underline just what an important band they are.

Opening track Let’s Get Into Your Car has been knocking around for a few years now, but this version perfectly captures its jangly energy – like Head on the Door-period Cure, all chiming melody (with echoes of Angelo Badalamente’s Twin Peaks theme) delivered with an edge of yobbish charm. I’m Waiting For You builds slowly but surely to its fist-pumping climax of melancholy euphoria, while Just Say It Tonight returns impressively to uptempo jangle pop territory, buoyed by Yosuke Shimonaka’s gorgeous, wandering guitar line.

The closing All The Time is the track that perhaps points most clearly towards the band’s future, and could in the long run prove significant beyond DYGL’s own musical development. The most recent track on this EP, it draws less on ‘80s-influenced guitar pop and more from new wave-influenced early 2000s indie rock, most notably The Strokes. Newer material the band are playing out live recently suggests the band see their direction lying more in a spikier sound, reminiscent of bands like The Libertines. The same amount of time has now passed since The Strokes’ Is This It as lies between Is This It and The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead, so perhaps the time has now come round for young bands to start resurrecting and reinterpreting the music of that first millennial generation.

Where it leaves the rest of Tokyo’s indiepop scene if their most accomplished flag bearers are starting to leave the jangly riffs and sweet, emotional sentiment behind and start cutting and bouncing their way through gritty tales of urban life, I don’t know. I don’t even know where it leaves DYGL, but as a high water mark of this generation of melodic Japanese indie, this EP is vital.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.3 – Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

jim orourke - simple songs

CD, Drag City, 2015

This album differs starkly from everything else on this year-end rundown in the weight of expectation and breadth of interest its release attracted. Never having heard Jim O’Rourke’s 1999 landmark Eureka and only really having encountered his work through his numerous collaborations and production credits, there is a huge wealth of context behind Simple Songs that I’m not a party to.

My first reference point coming into Simple Songs is the backing band, including Tokyo indie and experimental scene veterans like drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and pianist Eiko Ishibashi, while there are elements of the lineup (including O’Rourke himself) that connect this album to singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno, whose brand of folk and chamber pop shares some similarities with O’Rourke’s own. Yes, he has been doing his thing since way before any of this mattered, but here in Japan now, this is the context into which O’Rourke’s music more or less fits.

And Simple Songs excells, the musicianship an immaculate vehicle for O’Rourke’s meandering musical vision, drifting with ease from one movement to the next, making the dense, rhythmical and melodic complexity of the album feel completely natural. These are not really simple songs then, but while songs like Friends With Benefits and Last Year contain multiple songs’ worth of ideas, each of those ideas has at its heart a simple, memorable pop hook that anchors them in something immediate and accessible without hemming the song in from taking any of its multiple excursions into more abstract sonic territory.

The lyrics feel like a trap for the amateur psychologist, their barbs open to interpretation as possibly a series of vicious put-downs or a maybe a more reflexive exercise in self-laceration. O’Rourke’s lyrics defy easy analysis, but they are sharp and intelligent in their wordplay, and he is a master of his craft when it comes to leaving a word hanging at the end of one line that then gets cruelly undermined by the next.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Simple Songs from the perspective of music in Japan is the production, with the sound striking in how far back it appears to sit, in contrast to the heavily compressed, up-close sound that seems to prevail on so many other people’s records. More than any other record I heard in the past year, Simple Songs seems to want you to feel a sense of the room in which it was recorded – to use the speakers to draw you in rather than to push the sound out.

In the wider music world, the reaction to Simple Songs felt like it had been (not unjustifiably) coloured by all manner of expectations, although it seems to have satisfied most of the anticipation projected onto it. In the more microcosmic space of the Japanese indie scene, it also has a place where it feels at home though, and that it excels in both contexts pays fine testament to Jim O’Rourke’s songwriting and musical vision.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.4 – mechaniphone – i ∞ u

One lovely sounding idea that I completely disagree with is the idea that all artists and all recordings are somehow equal at the point of issue, their merits divorced from the context of their production and discovery. People who claim that they see mainstream and undeground music in essentially the same way are through that very process choosing to favour the mainstream, the very existence of which has been helped along by numerous factors before you even encounter it.

An underground record, especially one from a remote corner of Japan with minimal music infrastructure, by musicians whose day jobs make touring next to impossible, does not come to you on an equal footing with a mainstream release, which makes its discovery all the more precious a thing and all the more worthy of your excitement and interest.

Mechaniphone were probably my biggest new discovery of 2015, and their position as the most part-time of part-time bands, in the far western outpost of Nagasaki, means they will never enjoy even a tiny percentage of the credit even a similarly noisy, rhythmically complex band would receive in Tokyo.

I wrote about what makes i ∞ u such a terrific EP back in September, and on its musical merits alone it deserves praise as one of the most exciting new releases of the year. The mixture of post-hardcore rhythms and energy with moments of towering Sublime Frequencies-esque melody is as spine tingling today as it was then, drawing influences from many of the best Japanese underground bands of the past ten years (Afrirampo and Hyacca to name the two that jump out most immediately) without ever seeming like a straight copy.

However, the intersecting factors that made its existence such an unlikely thing in the first place add an extra layer of urgency and importance to it. Would I have ranked the exact same album from a buzzy Tokyo band this highly in my list? Yes, sure, but would I have taken quite as much pleasure and satisfaction from doing so? Not by a long shot.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.5 – Platskartny – Dabai

platskartny - dabai

CD, Cheese Burger Records, 2015

Platskartny refers to the third class carriages on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which makes a curious but apt parallel with the wilfully rough, naive, lo-fi music on Dabai. There are also ramshackle parallels with shambling turn-of-the-millennium prog-pop acts like My Pal Foot Foot, Maher Shalal Hash Baz and bits of the Tenniscoats (playing for a year or so in the Tenniscoats is a sort of compulsory National Service for Japanese indie musicians, and members of Platskartny have dutifully done time themselves).

There’s a rougher-edged, more anarchic energy to Platskartny than those twee-as-fuck, Pastels-loving forebears though, and it hits you in the face at the get-go with the frantic postpunk Beefheart of minute-long opening track Despaigne. The desperately simple and insanely catchy I’m a Little Airplane is even more ludicrously enjoyable with its straghtforward four-chord rock’n’roll chopped and distorted playfully and once more delivered with a rough-and-ready mixture of innocence and yobbish insouciance, like, I dunno, The Modern Lovers being covered by Sham 69 via The Contortions.

The gentle melodica and stylophone-led reggae of Ryokou appears twice, being reprised as a coda to the mini-album in a more elaborate dub arrangement featuing a gloriously out-of-tune pub piano and the addition of brass that teeters throughout on the brink of total collapse. In between, Izu is a heartfelt ballad featuring a passionate and infectiously tuneless vocal tour de force, while Tekkaba starts and ends like a stop-start sequel to Despaigne via a diversion into almost louche, Pavement-esque lo-fi rambling.

While Dabai is a wilfully awkward collection of songs, its heart is pure pop and Platskartny deliver it with such energy and aplomb that you can’t help but get swept up in their enthusiasm. Beyond that, however, there’s a wealth of ideas, both simple and more oblique that make this mini-album not only a fun but also a deeply rewarding listen.

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