Monthly Archives: January 2012

Strange Boutique (January 2012)

First, you need to read the column itself on The Japan Times web site on the “Akihabarisation” of Shibuya-kei.

The point with this piece, which I hope was clear from reading it, wasn’t to say that Shibuya-kei has become absorbed by otaku culture but rather that the popularity and media attention that has been lavished on the otaku as a result of their consumer spending power has made cultural reference points like anime, idol music and some of the more superficial elements of cosplay acceptable among the indie elite where they would have been considered frightfully déclassé or even shameful in Shibuya-kei’s 90s heydey.

In the 90s, a band like Soutaisei Riron would have fallen pretty squarely into the Shibuya-kei camp, but their success in the 2000s has a lot to do with their references to classic manga like Jigoku Sensei and their wistful ramblings about science fiction concepts. A group like Sweet Vacation are self-consciously cut from the Shibuya-kei template (sharply-dressed, professorial guy, possibly with a beard, plus chick singer) and yet they find themselves playing alongside people on the fringes of idol culture like Saori@Destiny, who started out singing on the streets of Akihabara dressed in a schoolgirl uniform, to crowds waving glowsticks in that eerily synchronised way that idol fans have. Sono na wa Spade are a cabaret act whose image changes with the winds and who have nothing to do with Shibuya-kei really, but their rejection of the 60s Euro-chic they started with in favour of schoolgirl uniforms, maid costumes and cat ears is evidence of the same trend.

Sono na wa Spade: Sweetholic

Part of this is just the musicians following the money, and possibly even more importantly the media narrative, and I’m willing to bet that part of this is due to the trend of Japanese culture just generally losing interest in anything outside Japan, as evidenced by the way gyaru fashion and otaku culture, both inward-looking rather than internationalist in perspective, are coming to dominate Japan’s cultural space. More than that, however, it feels like a deep-seated nostalgia for childhood, judging by the easy way these post-post-Shibuya-kei groups allow 1980s American pop culture references to sit alongside the more idol and anime tinged stuff.

Sweet Vacation: The Goonies’r’Good Enough

What’s interesting though, is that as the influence of Akihabara widens, so the core loses control over what people are doing on the fringes. As it starts to become more inclusive, the otaku themselves cease to be able to dictate its direction. You can see this in the way the artist Takashi Murakami took the influence of otaku culture and twisted it into a distinctive shape of his own. He was initially pilloried by the otaku community for ripping off their work and just generally doing it wrong, but look at one of the most successful animated films of recent years, Summer Wars, and Murakami’s influence is all over it, and even the more openly otaku-orientated smash hit TV series Madoka Magika seems to show some influence of Murakami’s work in its surreal nightmare imagery.

Clip from Madoka Magica (massive spoiler alert!)

The same thing is almost certainly happening in music. While the Euro-centric image of cool that dominated Shibuya-kei hasn’t exactly gone away, the centre of gravity has moved, and by bringing such an array of creative talent together with elements that used to be the preserve of otaku, I think it is inevitable that otaku culture itself will be changed as a result.

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Profile: Praha Depart

This is the last of my posts about the Japanese indie bands at the Call And Response Records New Year party at Kichijoji GOK Sound on January 22nd and this is actually a double layered bit of self-promotion since in addition to the party tomorrow, Call And Response are going to release their new CD, Dot., on February 1st.

Dot.

Aside from being one of the hardest working and most self-motivated bands I know, Praha Depart are one of the most explosive live experiences there is. I saw them for the first time somewhere around 2007 performing as a bassless three-piece with Mai Yano singing and doing strange little Gypsy dances over this intense, propulsive, tribal dance-punk. The name “Praha Depart” means “Prague department store” and is I think an obscure reference to the group’s fashion sense (they think it looks like the kind of thing you’d buy in a department store in Prague) but there’s this curious Eastern European atmosphere that runs through their music. It’s not as explicit as a group like Gogol Bordello, and it’s hard to know if it’s even intentional (it may just as easily be the influence of Japanese festival music, which can sometimes sound similar).

Portrait Man (bassless version)

Mai eventually started playing bass — they have experimented with adding bassists to the band to free her up for dancing, but they have never lasted long — which filled out the sound, but it’s really the sheer, tribal intensity of Junpei’s drumming and Tsukasa’s multi-layered, almost psychedelic guitars that’s the group’s signature. There are echoes of the poppier moments of Rip Rig & Panic and possibly Bristol contemporaries Pigbag in their sound, primarily in the rhythm, but there are reference points scattered all over the place. What sets them apart from other rhythm-orientated Tokyo artpunk bands (apart from Junpei’s occasionally ludicrous drum solos) is that while many of their contemporaries treat melody as something alien, to be handled with suspicion, employed as a conceptual component and delivered with perhaps an apologetic layer of self-deprecating irony, Praha Depart embrace it, Mai’s vocals running the full range from deep and rich to piercing Lydia Lunch style shrieks and Tsukasa’s guitar picking up hook after hook.

Praha Depart: Portrait Man (album version)

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Tessendorico, Tantan to Tantan, Girls Pancakes

Continuing my notes on some of the Tokyo indie bands who will appear at the Call And Response New Year party on January 22nd, here are some short descriptions of three more of the bands who are going to perform.

Tessendorico are a postpunk quartet with a percussive twin-drum setup and a neat line in scratchy, dance-orientated Gang of Four/Contortions type angular punk-funk. They emerged out of the similar sounding Chewz a little over a year ago and they continue to organize the semi-regular Future Music event, bringing together similar artpunk spirits from around Japan.

Tessendorico: Chika Song

A minor but interesting point about Tessendorico is that they’re a rare band in Japan with a lone female guitarist. Japanese indie is pretty good at giving boys and girls something closer than usual to equal status, with plenty of female sound engineers, lots of excellent bassists and drummers, and some outstanding female-dominated bands – overall I’d hazard a guess at a ratio of something like 70/30 male/female which is a lot better than you seem to find in, for example, the UK. Obviously all-girl bands and a lot of female-fronted bands have female guitarists, but you rarely see girls like Mayumi Sekiguchi just lurking in the corner, cutting awkward shapes on guitar in male dominated bands. Part of it might be the opportunities for customization of sound through multiple effects pedals lending itself to the still largely male tendency towards tech-geekery (I remember before a gig once seeing a guitarist arrive at the venue, then casually sit down, take out a portable soldering iron and start customizing his guitar just for fun while he waited for his soundcheck), but I’m open to other explanations.

Tessendorico: Demo

Tantan to Tantan are a band I must confess to knowing rather less about other than that they are a young, Stooges-influenced garage punk band, so I’ll just direct you to their Myspace (their only web presence at this time) where you can hear a couple of rough and ready demo tracks (I recommend Shocker).

Girls Pancakes: Crash

Girls Pancakes are what Time Out Tokyo describes as an “unashamedly twee” Tokyo indiepop group. More than “unashamed”, they wear the label proudly, with guitarist Sumire Taya a founder of all-girl DJ collective Twee Grrrls Club and owner of ultra-indie clothing/accessories/record shop Violet & Claire. The above video of Girl Pancakes covering The Primitives’ Crash is a bit old as they have now brought in Makoto from Smilelove, but it gives a good picture of the kind of fragile, indie melodicism you can expect from them.

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Hysteric Picnic: Abekobe

I’ve written about this duo before both here and in The Japan Times, and I’ll also ask you to excuse the self-promotion as I note that this new track is a timely release, coming just a week before Hysteric Picnic appear at the Clear And Refreshing/Call And Response new year party at Kichijoji GOK Sound on January 22nd (yes, I did warn after the Tacobonds profile that there would be more of this on its way, and I’m nowhere near finished yet), and take a moment to listen to this rather fine piece of new wave-influenced sonic violence.

Hysteric Picnic: Abekobe

As on most of Friends’ similarly noisy 2011 album Let’s Get Together Again, the scuzzy guitars and distant, isolated echo-effected production make the vocals next to indecipherable. However, the insistent, pounding, programmed industrial/krautrock drums and the twofold assault on your ears of the twin guitars, with one making an insistent buz, buzz, buzz in your eardrum and the other a shrieking, repetitive Joy Division-influenced cry of despair, creates an atmosphere from which the vocals seem to be yowling at you from inside the depths of some infernal machine as it clanks, thunders and rattles away in a crumbling, blighted industrial dystopia.

All of this is, of course, a rather affected way of saying that Abekobe is crappily recorded. If time has taught me one thing, it’s that I have a broadly higher tolerence for crappy recording than some people so take that for what you will, but the fuzzy recording genuinely does feel right here. A layer of slick, studio polish can often make this kind of bleak, 80s-influenced new wave sound like no more than a fashion statement — more like U2 with Shoreditch hair and eyeliner than the dirty business of real, harsh, 80s psychocandy — but Hysteric Picnic bring a fearsome aggression to it. They sound like a band battling against the limitations of inferior technology, like they had no choice but to make it sound like this, and in that sense it hits the same emotional spot as their 80s forbears.

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Classic Pop Corner — The Kyary Pamyu Pamyu of the 1990s: Tomoe Shinohara

With her new, not-as-good-as-the-last-one single Tsukema Tsukeru and advertisers increasingly pushing their products at us through her face, it seems like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is getting set to take the big leap up from cool but relatively minor pop culture phenomenon into being something genuinely pervasive and irritating. And more power to her.

Tomoe Shinohara (L), Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (R)

We’ve actually been here before though, or at least a very similar place. A quirky, flambuoyantly fashion-sensitive, charismatic pop culture icon who can dazzle and impress on TV variety shows whilst retaining offbeat credibility among arty, creative types; self-assembled costumes throwing together trashy trinkets and taking fringe fashion from a previous decade to gaudy extremes; infectious, wacked out pop music produced by the decade’s leading electronic/pop crossover artist; music videos with dodgy, tacky computer graphics? I name thee, and thy name is Tomoe Shinohara:

Tomoe Shinohara: Kulu Kulu Miracle (produced by Takkyu Ishino)

Tomoe Shinohara was all over TV in the late 90s, with her kooky hairstyles, extreme version of patchwork 80s new wave era “nagomu gal” or Jun Togawa style fashion, famously squeaky voice and wonky tooth, and her sharp, offbeat wit. In addition to her TV work, she went to design college and started her own fashion brand, and in her music work she worked with people like Takkyu Ishino of technopop/dance music legends Denki Groove, hung out with the New York hipster Sean Lennon/Yuka Honda axis, and more recently has sung with new wave/avant-pop experimentalists Hikashu.

Hikashu + Tomoe Shinohara + Steve Eto: Biro Biro

In an ironic sort of way, we might be able to see her as a product of the late 90s just as much as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a product of the early 2010s. In the 90s, the music industry was making money hand over fist, with both mainstream J-pop and quirky, arty, offbeat Shibuya-kei music doing the business commercially, and it probably didn’t seem like so much of a risk unleashing something like Tomoe Shinohara on normal people. Kyary is first and foremost a Net phenomenon, whose popularity has grown through harnessing technology to gather a niche, subcultural audience. She comes onto the scene at a time of plummeting sales for the music industry and it is perhaps ready to grasp at straws, to have a crack at this Internet thing and see if there is any money to be made.

Tomoe Shinohara (L), Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (R)

It will be interesting to see if Kyary, upon reaching the sort of mass media saturation she seems destined for, follows Shinohara’s role and maintains contact with the creative fringes of popular music. The thought of a collaboration between her and some fringe artists with compatible philosophies like HNC/Hazel Nuts Chocolate would be far more interesting than seeing her simply melt into the pastel goo that makes up most contemporary Japanese pop.

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Profile: Tacobonds

I’m helping to organise an event in Tokyo on Sunday January 22nd that features a lot of my favourite local bands so over the next week, I’ll be profiling a different one every day. Obviously part of the hope is for anyone in the Tokyo area to find something that catches their interest and come along, although this is just as much an opportunity to wax lyrical about bands that I think are wonderful and/or lovely for anyone to enjoy.

The first band I’m going to talk about are Tacobonds:

BPM4

Tacobonds have been around in one form or another since 1998 and are part of a generation of bands emerging from Rikkyo University in the late 90s who were at least in their own minor way influential in the Tokyo indie/alternative scene. Joshua Comeback and The Hangovers are a couple of other examples of bands who came out of the same Rikkyo band circle; Tokyo Pinsalocks were members of a different club at the same university.

Originally Tacobonds were formed by vocalist Toshikazu Sasaki, with guitarist Naoki Ogawa joining a week or two later. They ditched their original bassist and drummer in 2003 and broughit in Arito Yano on drums and Yukiyo on bass, with their sound slowly evolving from the old-school emo-ish alternative rock/punk sound that was common to many Japanese bands of the post-Number Girl generation towards the more progressive, rhythmically tricky and riff-heavy sound displayed on their 2005 full-length debut album Sick of Listening (produced by AxSxE from Natsumen).

By 2009 Ogawa had stopped using effects pedals and the group were moving towards a more stripped down, postpunk-influenced sound based on quirky but confident grooves and a less heavy, more scratchy, furious and dynamic sound. The same year, Sasaki left, leaving  Ogawa as the group’s de facto leader and forcing them to reconsider their sound again. What followed was six months with a rotating cast of guest vocals from local luminaries such as Panicsmile, Bossston Cruizing Mania, Groundcover., Mahiruno and others before they emerged at the other end with a new, more confident, slimmed down lineup, that took more of a tag-team approach to vocals, often emphasising the contrast between Ogawa’s punk boy yelling and Yukiyo’s demure, cooing melodies, but with subtle changes in time signature still forming the key to the songs’ dynamics and Ogawa showing a revived interest in effects pedals.

This Count

It was this lineup and these songs that formed the basis of the group’s 2011 album No Fiction, released on Disk Union affiliate label Take A Shower Records (who also released The Mornings and Bossston Cruizing Mania the same year). The great thing about Tacobonds is the way they are able to make quite complicated, technical, even fiddly things seem so natural, intuitive and accessible. Throughout the music they keep dropping hooks for the audience to catch onto, each member seems instinctively aware of what the others are doing even when they let things fall out of synchronisation or descend into a tightly controlled spiral of chaos.

For me the best thing about them is hearing audience members break out in screams when they drop from one time signature into another. I mean, isn’t that brilliant: audiences going nuts, punching the air and getting all stagedivey at a change in goddamn time signature? Well you might not think so, but trust me, it is. And it’s the passion and sheer rocking-outness of it that makes it so kinetic, so immediate. I remember once seeing them at a gig where Ogawa broke the guitar amp during a particularly frenzied wig-out, but the other two kept up the same dance groove for what may have been only five or six minutes, but from the sweat pouring off Yano’s face looked like far longer, while problems were diagnosed and a replacement was found, before Ogawa plugged back in and casually as you like all three members swung straight back into the song at the exact moment they’d left off, drawing their energy out of the air and spitting it back in the audience’s faces. And in Tokyo there are few bands around who can touch them.

Fiction

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Connect And Receive, December 2011

Connect And Receive is a series of monthly Japanese indie music podcasts I’ve been making since the summer. I skipped last month because I was too busy with various bands’ tours but I’ve made the December one into a sort of end-of-year review focussing on some of my favourite bands and releases of the year, as well as a couple of things from previous years that I either only discovered recently or came back to in a big way this year. Anyway, here’s the pod:

CONNECT AND RECEIVE, DECEMBER 2011

And here’s the track list:

1. cynicalsmileisyourfavorite: Crazy Disco (self-released 2011 CD/R)
2. Kobayashi Dorori: Pickles (Yarukoto Yattara Kaette yo, 2011)
3. Hakoiri Kibun: Hakuchuu Sosou (Fudoutoku Pops Kouza, 2010)
4. Bossston Cruizing Mania: Low Down (Loaded Lowdead Rawdead, 2011)
5. Extruders: Vertical Point (Neuter, 2007)
6. Lihappiness: Eikoku ni Tsutawaru Dance (Drums & Lihappiness, 2011)
7. Hysteric Picnic: Persona (Hysteric Picnic EP, 2011)
8. She Talks Silence: Dead Romance (Some Small Gifts, 2011)
9. Uhnellys: Subliminal Orchestra (To Too Two, 2011)
10. Mothercoat: No Music Yes Life (Egobag, 2011)
11. Sloppy Joe: Still Be a Little Roof (With Kisses Four, 2011)

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