mechaniphone: i ∞ u

Mechaniphone are a band I encountered when I was in Nagasaki back in May. They were one of those bands where the moment they started playing a ripple of electricity went around everyone who was seeing them for the first time. Little glances between me and my friends from Tokyo, those knowing looks that presage a torrent of effusive, excited praise waiting to be unleashed as soon as the final song finishes: “Who the fuck was that? They were fucking cool!”

This EP inevitably doesn’t quite have the raw, wired intensity of their live set, but there’s more than enough in the way of lo-fi thrills in here to give you a good sense of what they have to offer. In the combination of complex, stop-start post-hardcore rhythms and rough-edged garage rock, there’s something nostalgic about it for those of us who privately and not so privately mourn the passing of Afrirampo, the self-imposed hiatus of Tacobonds and the grindingly slow pace of new material from Hyacca.

Killkilli, with its pounding waves of scuzzy hooks, squeaks and shrieks, is the art-punk disco contender of the EP, while the closing instrumental Theme alternates between off-kilter melody and squalls of ferocious noise. The opening one-two of Maware Maware Maware and Pool shows a more inclusively and multi-layered side to the band’s song construction, with the former combining a hypnotic, cyclical vocal melody with some righteously heavy riffage and moments of sublime harmony. The latter, meanwhile, alternates between octave-leaping vocals and instrumental duels, with overlapping sonic layers and rhythms adding a layer of complexity to the simple loops that define the song’s surface.

This juxtaposition of superficial accessibility, playful musical contrarianism and a rather elegant touch of multilayered complixity marks Mechaniphone as a band well worth seeking out, and we can only hope that the small but creative and diverse underground scene around them in Nagasaki can support them long enough for them to get the breakout success that they deserve.

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Strange Boutique (August 2015) – Fuji Rock and making the audience work

My Japan Times column this August kind of follows on from what I was writing about in July, where I discussed some of the problems I have with Rockin’ On Japan magazine and the Rock in Japan festival. In this instance, I look at the same issue from the other side, focusing on Fuji Rock.

What I like about Fuji Rock is that it actively makes life difficult for you, forcing you out of your comfort zone. It can be annoying at first, but once you get past that wall of irritation and absorb yourself into the festival’s way of doing things, it opens out into a much more reqwarding experience. I shan’t go into the specifics of that here, since you can just read it for yourself in the actual article, but I’ll mention briefly that Moon♀Mama (Pika from Afrirampo’s solo work), Oshiripenpenz, Hysteric Picnic, Bombori and Jim O’Rourke all did a great job of representing the Japanese underground scene, while Manic Sheep flew the flag for Taiwan with pride.

Instead, it’s this idea about making the audience work that I think is interesting. I’ve mentioned this before, but the meaning behind the label name Call And Response (apart from retaining the same CAR initials as this site, Clear And Refreshing) is really about the relationship between music and audience. We will reach out to you, but we expect you to meet us part way – you have to do your part of the exchange as well: you have to contribute your half of the conversation. To put it another way, music is not a service industry.

Except of course that for most people music really is a service industry, which is really at the heart of my dislike of the philosophy behind Rock in Japan. It’s also an attitude that filters through into audiences and can lead to a particularly obnoxious sense of entitlement and incredibly lazy listening habits. “I paid money, so entertain me!” sounds like such a hard-nosed, sensible, bottom-line thing to say, but by even considering money as part of the transaction, you’re shifting the whole meaning of art onto commercial terms, which is something I don’t accept.

Exchanges of money happen all the time in the arts, but they are separate, parallel operations to the actual experience the artist and audience share – and the prices have pretty much nothing to do with the actual value of the work to which they are assigned. The really important transaction that’s happening in art is between the extended hand of communication that the artist offers and the open palm of acceptance that the audience extends in return. It’s a transaction that has more in common with sex than commerce.

Fuji Rock isn’t perfect, and anyone who would voluntarily have sex of even the most metaphorical kind with the vile Owl City should be sectioned as a menace to both themselves and to society at large, but it deserves praise as an event that recognises the importance of breaking down the traditional framework in which audiences consume music and constructing a fresh context of its own that you have to make an effort to enter. More generally, I think this process is important in recognising that music isn’t a “pure” thing, free of the sort of lifestyle-orientated branding that I often complain about, but at the same time, that lifestyle can be constructed in a way that is more amenable to a positive and openminded relationship with art and music.

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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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