Monthly Archives: March 2012

capsule: Stereo Worxxx

I reviewed capsule’s new album, Stereo Worxxx, for The Japan Times last week. It’s an interesting record that does a few different things and seems like a transitional stage in the duo’s career, combining elements of recent capsule material with ideas that have more in common with Yasutaka Nakata’s work with Perfume. I got more space than usual for the review this time and I was able to say everything I wanted to about the album in the review itself, so I’ll just leave you here with the video for the first track, Feelin’ Alright:

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Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Candy Candy

I got some flack last autumn for my jibe about Perfume’s recent singles being glorified advertising jingles, with one of the main arguments being “So what?” I disagree in that my diagnosis was that Perfume’s music had exhibited a drop in quality and I was blaming the constraints of advertising work rather than seeing the connections with advertising and deducing from that that the music must be rubbish, but at its core it is a fundamentally good point. Since pop music, and especially bubblegum pop, relies on simple, easy-to-grasp melodic hooks and repetitive, catchy choruses, it shares many characteristics with advertising jingles; the only difference is the product that they are trying to sell (ad jingles are selling carpet cleaning products or racist orange juice while pop songs are selling, well, themselves).

Ten years ago, there would generally be some distinction made between the official video and the commercial, even if the former strongly hinted at the latter, as with this idol pop classic by Aya Matsuura…

…and this shampoo advert:

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s latest song, Candy Candy, blurs even that fine distinction with the advert, the video and the song’s lyrical content all unified around the theme of “GIVE MONEY TO GLICO CONFECTIONARY PRODUCTS!”

(Videos of the commercials themselves can be streamed here.)

Of course this kind of whoring about is nothing new, with The New Seekers/Hilltop’s I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing being written to sell soft drinks to fans of cloying sub-McCartney sentimentalism in the early 70s, and for that matter pretty much every great artist of the Renaissance having made a living shilling for the Catholic church. Obviously the difference is that (gobsmacking levels of corruption aside) people at the time of The Renaissance found genuine spiritual inspiration in the religious themes that art carried (and which it often transcended). Even with The New Seekers/Hilltop, what you have here is Coca Cola trying to appropriate the idealistic, hippy-era message of peace and love for the purpose of providing global branding for their product – that is to say that the cultural driving force behind the music comes from a movement with origins beyond the advert’s narrow commercial purpose, with Coca Cola simply parasitically latching themselves onto it after the fact.

Candy Candy pretends to no such countercultural ties, with even the Harajuku subcultural finesse that gave Kyary’s Ponponpon so much of its spark here watered down. What it does do is link into a tradition of bubblegum pop (the clue’s in the name) and confectionary references that goes right back to the genre’s origins. Again though, the meaning is different. When The Archies sang “Pour a little sugar on it honey,” they weren’t talking about sweets, they were talking about (whisper it…) s-e-x.

Similarly, when French teen idol France Gall sang “When the barley sugar / Flavored with aniseed / Sinks in Annie’s throat / She is in heaven,” she may have thought she was singing about lollipops, but writer Serge Gainsbourg was most definitely not writing about them — and the set designers on this video were clearly operating on Gainsbourg’s rather than Gall’s level:

Now in the 1960s, for all the era’s (probably undeserved) reputation for free love and youth rebellion, sex was still very much a taboo topic for pop music, which meant that children on the cusp of puberty, who were the target audience of bubblegum music, could only play out their new sexual feelings vicariously through metaphors that their parents were too innocent to decipher. In present day Japan, where the image of teenage girls is hypersexualised to frequently disturbing extremes, this kind of metaphor is mundane (it’s present in a limited fashion in the way the lyrics pun on the English verb “chew” and the Japanese onomatopoeia “chu” — the sound of a kiss), and in fact many girls reject it. The kind of cuteness Kyary Pamyu Pamyu represents is basically a rejection of the sort of sexual objectification represented by AKB48, which it does by retreating into a pre-teen, prepubescent world, both sexually and socially. This is part of the key to her attraction, because contained within this kind of childishness is also a kind of punkish self-reliance rather than the helpless dependence of Japanese culture’s more eroticised preteen fantasies – she doesn’t need boys and she takes no shit from no one. It’s also what makes Kyary Pamyu Pamyu the perfect marketing doll to reach these kinds of female consumers. The character she plays may be attractive to guys, but she exists independently of the male gaze and exemplifies a child’s self-absorption, selfishness and I-WANT-IT-NOW! simplistic consumerism.

As Kyary sings in Candy Candy:

“I heard your request, but I didn’t have time to attend to it / Because, because after all, I’m a girl, so ‘now’ is precious.”

With the melodies too, Yasutaka Nakata understands Kyary’s image, and as he hones her musical style down, he is drawing further away from the early-capsule/post-Shibuya-kei musical motifs he employed in Ponponpon and more and more towards ultra-simplified nursery rhyme melodies. It’s better than the thoroughly naff Tsukema Tsukeru, and musically it’s still a fairly effective application of Nakata’s chosen Pamyu Pamyu formula of “don’t use too many notes, have one melodic hook, and have a chorus where the lyrics are just the same two sounds repeated endlessly”, but among his various contemporary projects, it’s third grade stuff.

The problem is that the appeal of bubblegum lies in how it balances on the edge between childishness and sophistication. It projects something superficially simple, but peel away the layers and there is something more complex at its heart. Nakata’s best work with Perfume does this, usually by interlinking different musical elements in a creative and surprising way, although he’s not averse to slipping in a little Gainsbourg-style naughtiness where he can get away with it. 

Candy Candy, on the other hand, is like the onion that graces its promotion video. Peel away the layers and all you get is more of the same. There is no heart, even in the limited sense that bubblegum pop offers, only surface. It is conceptually smaller than even The New Seekers/Hilltop’s cynical reduction of naïve idealism to what is at best empty commercialism (with a dubious side order of cultural imperialism). The self-reliant island state that is key to Kyary’s charm and appeal is subverted once she is reduced to a dancing doll for a commercial entity like Glico. Thanks to the overt commercial branding across all facets of its being, Candy Candy’s message is simply “Candy, candy, candy. Buy candy. Buy candy from Glico. Because girls are shallow and superficial.” It’s music made totally subservient to advertising and branding, and it’s worse for it.

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Miu Mau: Future Classic

Download, Girlfriend Record (2011)

This isn’t a new song by any means, appearing about a year ago on iTunes, but band leader Masami Takashima has recently put it up for anyone to listen on Soundcloud, so this is a first chance for a lot of people to get a good listen at this really quite fantastic song.

Miu Mau are an all-girl Fukuoka indie supergroup featuring Masami Takashima, a.k.a. Coet Cocoeh on synths, Hiromi Kajiwara of postpunk noiseniks Hyacca (full disclosure: Hyacca’s music is released via my own Call And Response label) on guitar and Miwako Matsuda of garage-punk duo Masadayomasa on drums. They released a lovely album called Design in 2008, which showcased their rough-edged yet stylish Shibuya-kei influenced (Daimyo-kei?) sound with echoes of mid-period Stereolab, but with Takashima moving away from Kyushu to Shikoku, the group’s subsequent work has been sporadic. All of which makes the existence of any remotely new material something to be celebrated.

Productionwise I’ve always more or less felt that lo-fi is as lo-fi does, and while this is by no means a slick, professional recording, it’s good enough and seriously, who gives a fuck? What it is is a gorgeous piece of early 80s new wave pop Asiatica, with Takashima’s keyboards going all retro-futurist oriental over the melody while plugging away at the synth bassline, Kajiwara’s flat, metallic-sounding guitar, an effect that sounds brutal and industrial on Hyacca recordings, here adding to the refined early 80s faux-Asian YMO vibe and the lyrics lauding with wide-eyed optimism the brave new world of music, science and fashion that the “future classic” of the song proudly declares repeatedly in flawless harmony.

If this song had been written by a band like Chakra in 1981, it would now be held up as one of the great songs of the new wave era, but it wasn’t, and the modern age is far less tolerant of beautiful, intelligent, offbeat pop. In its simplicity and easy grasp of pop hooks and melody, however, this song, if not yet exactly classic, at least may become a minor future retro-future classic.

Links to the various online stores where the download is available can be found on the Girlfriend Records homepage.

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Chocolate Discord: Noise inside idol music / Idol music inside noise

Moving on from Bo Ningen, Momoiro Clover and Dempa Gumi inc., it’s also worth looking into the mechanics of how compatible experimental/alternative music and idol pop really is. One way that some friends of mine and I examined this recently was by a number of us going away and trying to tackle songs by Perfume in each artist’s own style. The result, entitled Chocolate Discord (named after a band formed by some of my Fukuoka friends) was made just for fun and given out as a free gift to audience members at a friend of mine’s Valentine’s Day live event last month.

Chocolate Discord (Perfume covers project)

Firstly, a quick note on the artists who took part. None of them are famous, and nearly all of them produced their covers quite quickly (time frames ranged from a couple of weeks to a single afternoon). The majority of the songs are by non-Japanese artists based in or at least who spend a lot of time in Japan. There was no particular decision on my part to make it like this — it just ended up this way. Perhaps the short timeframe and the white man’s legendary lack of fastidiousness combined to exclude their more conscientious Japanese peers. The musicians cover a range of styles, but generally lean towards the avant-garde/noise end of the musical spectrum. However, there are electronic, indie and rock musicians also involved. I’ve added Soundcloud links where the artists have made their songs available online.

Now I think it’s kind of debatable now to what extent Perfume are an idol group anymore. In fact, apart from their naff “Akihabalove” diversion and maybe that pair of shockingly bad early songs they made in Hiroshima, they’ve always had a bit too much of Yasutaka Nakata’s post-Shibuya-kei fashion-consciousness to them, too much of a distinctive, easily recognisable style for them to be absorbed entirely into idoldom. However, it’s certainly fluffy, bubblegum pop that hits a lot of the buttons of idol music, so bearing in mind these caveats, I think there were some interesting points that came out of it.

One thing that was true almost right across the board was that nearly all the cover versions, and certainly those by artists at the more avant-garde end of the scale, tried to bring some degree of minimalism to Yasutaka Nakata’s original arrangements. Part of this, I suspect, was a combination of the short timeframe and musicians’ own laziness. It’s also a logical response for someone looking for a new approach to Nakata’s style, given that more than almost any producer in Japan, he prefers to over- rather than under-produce his music.

A lot of the groups extracted just one or two aspects of Perfume’s originals and built their own material around those. The no wave/postpunk band Uruseeyo’s take on Baby Cruising Love just takes the title, which the singer bellows over and over while the rest of the band build a doom-laden, crashing industrial cacophony around it. Human Wife’s brutal take on Game is also a case in point (you may want to turn your volume down to safe levels about now):

Rhythm guitarist James Hadfield (who doesn’t hate Perfume as much as drummer Clay Jarvis) explains the process thus:

“Human Wife instinctively recoil from any song with more than three chords in it (we’ve discovered that one chord is often more than enough), so it didn’t take long to rule out just about every track in the Perfume canon. In the end, it was a toss-up between “Game” and “Edge”, and since Trinitron were already planning to do the latter (and would probably do it far better than we could), we went for the former. I’d originally thought of taking the opening chord sequence and playing it in a monolithic sludge/doom metal style, but Clay, our drummer and Christian Vander-esque MD, felt that it sounded too much like grunge. He voted that we do it in a Brainbombs-esque midtempo scuzz rock version, which seemed to work better, and after a few run-throughs we’d pared the song down to a couple of basic chord progressions and a whole lot of distortion. We recorded three takes, overdubbed vocals on the best one, then Clay took the recordings home and spent about five minutes mastering them. Nakata would be proud.”

Electronic project Floppy Knobs’ version of Linear Motor Girl just takes the lyrics, translates them into English, passes them through a voice synthesiser and chops them up, combining the result with fragments the producer already had lying around.

“Well, it started out as something else. Lately, I’ve been making instrumental music using only an iPhone and had thought to try and remix an unused track I had previously been working on. Anyways, it ended up sparking my synapses in all kinds of un-usable ways and on the morning I had arranged to hand in the piece, it went out the window and thereupon it was decided to opt for a Jac Berrocal / Flying Lizards / pop-on-a-rope approach.”

Curiously though, despite the musical backdrop not being taken from the original song, the repetitive, chiming loop in the background is startlingly reminiscent of another Perfume song, Chocolate Disco, which appears in two versions by other artists on the collection.

Kanterbury, a.k.a. Kantaro Sato of indie rock band Randy & The Pyramids, did an irony-laced, exaggeratedly cheerful take on it. He says:

“The most important point in the song is the phrase “Chocolate Disco” itself. It’s a funny phrase. I liked it. The original has a story to tell, but my version is the anguished cry of a lonely guy who’s desperate to get chocolate on Valentine’s Day, although basically I just wanted to do a song like Prince. The other thing is the line “The classroom turned into a dancefloor.” I repeat that line twice because it’s the most ridiculous line in the song. It’s a good phrase.”

Kaki, a.k.a. Zana Fabjan Blazic also draws attention to this phrase in her epic, dark electro version of the song, intoning the line blankly during a lull in the arrangement:

Neither Kanterbury nor Kaki take explicitly minimal aproaches, although Zana’s vocals on her “Shockoladige Disko” are at least emotionally minimalist, and the beat grinds the original’s bounce down into a relentless, Teutonic panzer assault, stripping the original of its joie de vivre, leaving a hollow rhetorical shell. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of the approach to cover versions of Zana’s Slovenian countrymen Laibach, and like many of the artists on Chocolate Discord, it interprets pop music primarily by stripping layers away, even if it then builds it back up quite slickly in its own image.

I worked with Zana and co-vocalist Kaname K, as well as producer N’toko on Trinitron’s version of Edge. Again, we stripped away a lot from the song, basing it on the more minimal Love the World b-side version than the eleborate remix that appeared on Triangle and replacing the disco beat with a motorik Krautrock drum pattern. We also stripped away the heart-stopping harmonies in the “loving you” segment, instead having Zana and Kaname intone the lyrics, one in English and one in Japanese, overlapping their words to create a disorientating babble of voices:

Part of the reason for cutting this stuff is simply because it’s difficult, but also some of the sweeter parts of pop music just don’t work in alternative rock. If you’re The Jesus and Mary Chain or The Velvet Underground, you can take honey-sweet 60s pop and make it dark and forboding, but that’s because both types of music share a common set of blues-based chord progressions. J-pop on the other hand, does not have a common base with most alternative/indie rock. Krautrock tried to abandon blues, but in the case of the Neu! style minimalism that Trinitron sometimes plays with, they also abandoned pretty much everything else too. Playing motorik with more than two chords is gilding the lily.

Sato picked up on some of the same points with his and rakugo performer/former Lolipop Guitar Lesson backing singer Koyomi’s version of Vitamin Drop. Rather than gutting the original as Trinitron and many other groups did, they kept mostly to the original structure, but performed it as a guitar-led piece of 60s pop/indie rock. Says Sato:

“We chose Vitamin Drop because it was one of the most pop songs Perfume have, and we just tried to make an indie version of it. The chord progressions are actually very strange though, and quite complicated chords. Before I tried to cover it, I didn’t think of it as a J-pop style song. It sounded more sophisticated, simpler, but actually it was very J-pop. It uses a lot of jazz chord progressions, and the chord changes twice in the space of one bar, which is typical for Japanese pop.

On the other hand, the synth in the original version of Vitamin Drop keeps going on in one speaker, which productionwise is quite radical. There are lots of things that make it seem simpler than it really is.”

Jazz chords are a staple of Shibuya-kei, and should probably be attributed primarily to Nakata’s background, although Japanese pop generally has since the 50s and 60s been strongly jazz- rather than R&B-influenced. Deceptive simplicity is also a feature of Nakata’s work, but it’s also a feature of a lot of the best idol music. Something bright and brash to catch your attention, but something complex happening once you get in. Momoiro Clover take simple melodies and arrange them in an unusual and often complex way, not wearing the process on their sleeves so much as hitting you round the face with it, but with Perfume the complexity insinuates its way into you more subtly.

Tokyo-based noisenik Dave McMahon was possibly the most enthusiastic participant in the whole enterprise, producing three separate tracks with different groups or projects. I’ll leave him to outline each track in his own words:

Ne~e – Shigai:

“This was an obvious choice for Shigai to cover because of the way the jaunty form and insipidly optimistic lyrics seemed to present a nice potential contrast with our sexually repressed hooligan posturing. We’ve used samples of Yuukorin and Bakunyuu Yankie in the past, so I guess there’s a sort of intersection with the dank underboob of idol culture there. Our regular co-conspirators from Napalm Death is Dead / Frozen Panty and His Dirty Hearts are also confirmed Momoclo fans, so it seems to be a recurring thread – maybe even moreso in the psychosexually scatalogical noise/grind scene than with other areas of the J-underground because of the Maruo Suehiro esque Undo-Gi sporting paedopop qualities of acts like Aka Inu Shimai and the Akiba vibes of Kuzuha, Gejirekuto Orugan, Abisheika, etc… Chris and Kenny weren’t familiar with the track, so I boshed together the pitch-shifted tatters of the original track’s intro in my computer, before heading out to the studio, reaming that through all my effects and felching the results back into the PC for further abuse. I managed to get hold of Chris one night after work to record do a vocal take down a Nishi Shinjuku alleyway, around the corner from Los Apsom, just before last train time.”

575 – Jahiliyyah

“My initial idea for this was to do a ‘straighter’, chugging drone reading, following the actual song structure fairly closely and with a full, multitracked vocal. To this end, I supplied the others with a recording of me jamming along on synth and FX whilst listening to the original on headphones (in the same studio session as with the initial Ne~e detonations) and sent it to Ezra, James and Cal, hoping to get at least one sticky, four-way, collective session after they’d each had their own individually wicked way with my discharge. Schedule constraints ruled this out, but luckily the dark master Cal was on hand to sort it all out ‘in the mix’. The final cut is probably not recognisable as 575 even to those who know what they’re looking for, but it definitely sounds like Jahiliyyah and rest assured that to keep the lawyers fed and clothed, there are still some samples of the actual song drooping feebly forth at strategic points.”

Dream Fighter – Hitodama: 

“I got unreasonably excited about the prospect of recording this as an ‘actual song’ with ‘clearly defined’ multitracked parts well before I actually had any idea of how I was going to tackle it, having never ever done such a thing in all my years as a ‘musician’. I knew that I wanted to use my reed organ and guitar, and was thinking along the lines of Galaxie 500 and Space Needle, as well as Dolly Collins’ organ arrangements. With the deadline looming, I found YouTube vids of folk doing guitar and iPad covers, worked out the chords, improvised around them for a few days to try and strike something like a stylistic fit and then set about recording on the last night before the deadline. Unfortunately, in a schoolboy error, I neglected to lay down any type of rhythm track or metronome and started with two layers of reed organ taped in my kitchen, before decamping to the studio from 1am, to get the two guitar parts and doubled up vocals. Seeing as they were all simple parts, I’d expected to be done in about an hour, but the eccentric timekeeping of the organ tracks kept throwing me off and had me in the studio until after the first train had already gone. The timing is still clearly out, but hey ho… I’m not sure where the idea to use birdsong came from, but in the end the dawn chorus, replete with cock-a-doodle doing seems to fittingly frame a fitful night battling with the creeping fear and sadness of the subconscious… or… ‘dream fighting’… if you will…”

These are really the kinds of techniques that these musicians would employ in covers of pretty much anything — stripping away the parts of the song that don’t work with what they’re trying to do and either cutting out the beating heart to replace it in a new body, or just selecting a few prime cuts, dicing them and making a casserole. In terms of idol music, what does it reveal?

Obviously from a musical perspective, it reveals what we knew from the start: that these are two opposite poles of the music scene, with little overt similarity in sound or style. However, what’s come through in previous posts this week is also the idea of the “anarchic energy” and “anything goes” nature of idol music, as well as the power to bring you back to a childlike way of thinking about music. Bearing that in mind, I think what comes though in these covers is something similar. There is a cavalier air towards the source material rather than a sombre and respectful approach, a sense that the musician can pick and choose which bits they like, taking a bite here and there, chucking away, discarding bits that taste bad, mashing them up together into a paste like Jahiliyyah or only eating the red bits like Human Wife. There’s also an attitude like children kicking over towers made of building blocks in the gleeful way some of these songs are mutilated, or more subtly of rearranging letter blocks to say rude words as in the way the likes of Kaki and Kanterbury elegantly but mischievously altered the meaning of Chocolate Disco.

The full compilation is available to download from this link for a while, although obviously it is ABSOLUTELY NOT for commercial use:

V/A: Chocolate Discord

1. Ne~e – Shigai
2. L-I-N-E-A-R Motor Girl – Floppy Knobs
3. Edge – Trinitron
4. Chocolate Disco – Kanterbury
5. 575 – Jahiliyyah
6. Baby Cruising Love – Uruseeyo
7. GAME – Human Wife
8. Dream Fighter – Hitodama
9. Vitimin Drop – Kanterbury and Koyomi
10. Shockoladige Disko – Kaki

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Bo Ningen and Dempa Gumi inc: The love affair between experimental and idol music

Continuing with the theme wrote about in my last post and Japan Times column about the intersection between experimental and idol music, and what it is that attracts freaky hippy longhairs, dirty punks and art-school pretenseniks to idol music, here is the full text of Taigen Kawabe of psychedelic rock band Bo Ningen’s comments, in which he discusses Momoiro Clover Z and his work (as Dempa Ningen) with the idol group Dempa Gumi inc.

Studying and making music has changed the way way I think about music compared to as a child. Music always makes me think, but when I heard Ikuze! Kaitou Shoujou by Momoiro Clover for the first time, I found myself listening over and over again without thinking at all. It was like the way I used to listen to music as a child. It wasn’t a particularly experimental song, but then after that I began to listen to other songs that were more challenging.

Key to the appeal of idol music for noise or punk musicians might be that both types share a kind of anarchic energy. it doesn’t have to be in the music itself, you might have to hear it live — even for Bo Ningen it’s a different experience hearing us on CD and seeing us live.

Dempa Gumi inc. are older than Momoclo but they have a similar approach. It’s all about capturing the energetic momentum of youth. In their case it’s quite striking because they all used to be social shut-ins and couldn’t use their youth, so they’re sharing with their otaku fans this reinactment, trying to reclaim their youth. In their case, idol music is like a time machine.

I don’t like AKB48 because what they do is so regressive. Even stuff like Perfume or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu are kind of challenging. This is music that is tryiing something new and has a sense of moving forward. In a way, idol music nowadays is on the cutting edge of what Japanese people like. The producers might have backgrounds in other genres or take influences from other sources. In fact idol music’s background gives you access to quite a wide range of music. What attracts me is that you might find noise music hiding in idol music or idol music hiding in noise. Merzbow did a track called “Yumin, Non-stop Disco” which was a noise track comprised entirely of Yumi Matsutoya’s idol-ish early music.

Especially with recent idol music, I think it has the potential to cross over. Punk, rock, metal — especially in metal you have the “metal manner”, a very strict form, but with idol music it doesn’t matter what you do.

I also got in touch with Dempa Gumi inc. for a couple of brief comments, although my deadline for the original article ran out before their comments arrived. For anyone interested in hearing their music, here they are:

It’s hard to know how much one can draw from these comments (while their backstory is interesting, I don’t think you can really say their music itself is “totally different from regular idols”), but since all members of the group took the trouble to send some pretty thoughtful replies, I thought it would be useful to add their comments here too (English translation generously contributed by Dave McMahon).

1. How was the experience of working with Bo Ningen?

FURUKAWA MIRIN: I didn’t know much about them but there was some common otaku ground and they liked to talk about the same things, so although we may look different, I felt we were all essentially the same type of people.

YUMEMI NEMU: I had spoken to Taigen on the phone before we did the session, so I wasn’t worried. But at the same time I had no idea how it would all turn out… Performing live with Dempa Gumi inc there are lots of fantastic moments as an Idol, but there were moments in the session with Bo Ningen which moved all five senses.  I’ll never forget that shock.  I have no doubt that, in those moments, it was the coolest live in the whole world.

MOGAMI MOGA: In one word, it was CHAOS!!!

AIZAWA RISA: I felt that the collaboration was a chance to transmit Dempa Gumi Inc.’s ‘heat’ and ‘unique seishun’ to the audience.

NARUSE EIMI: It was very very stimulating!  But I didn’t really feel a big difference between us all as artists. And maybe, to anyone watching it would have seemed that way too.

FUJISAKI AYANE: We’re totally different from (regular) Idols and so is our music. Just as Dempa Gumi can seem to be smashing boulders to pieces with our sounds and voices, Bo Ningen also seem to be striking and smashing boulders to pieces, so I felt like we were breathing the same air (we had a lot in common) and it was fun. I personally like Bo Ningen’s music, so I was pleased to get the chance to work together.

2. How do you feel about music of the sort Bo Ningen make given that it seems at first glance an unusual combination?

FURUKAWA MIRIN: I think that we share common roots. I guess the same could be said of any music but the prospect of making something amongst yourselves was the same.

YUMEMI NEMU: Listening, I thought it was music which vibrates the feelings and the senses. But the way I think about idol pop, it doesn’t follow a set pattern — It can often suddenly switch to metal or enka, etc… So even when you mix Bo Ningen’s music with Dempa Gumi inc., they’re still idol songs. Really really cool idol songs.

MOGAMI MOGA: For me personally, I like music like Bo Ningen ’cause I’ve always been into metal and rock. My mum has told me before that she doesn’t understand the difference between ‘otagei’ (otaku’s synchronised audience gestures at idol concerts) and headbanging, so it was probably a bit like that. To people who want to feel music and enjoy it, I don’t think the genre really matters. The fans reacted well to Denpa Ningen too, so that just served to drill that idea home even further.

AIZAWA RISA: I love it!  Dempa Gumi aren’t a band as such, but the way our fans cheer and dance at our shows is similar to at a live band’s show. I mean, Dempa Gumi’s very existence is a big tangle of maniacs, so I could really identify with what Bo Ningen are very focused about trying to get across through their music.

NARUSE EIMI: The truth is, I like music like Bo Ningen, so I felt like I wanted to know more about it. Even though I’m an idol (Guffaw).  In fact, we all feel like we don’t just want to do idol pop, but that from here on in we’d like to keep on including more of the different types of music that we like. As long as we don’t lose sight of our roots, anything is possible for Dempa Gumi!

FUJISAKI AYANE: You can feel the weight their music has from playing their guitars, bass and drums with all their might, so we were overpowered by that totally different power. It was very moving!

As I say, it’s hard to know exactly what to take away from this since idol music comes with a set of assumptions that aren’t necessarily going to be the same as those in alternative music so phrases like “anything is possible” might operate within very different sets of limitations depending on one’s starting position. Nevertheless, the idea that hopping from style to style and not following a “set pattern” is not only permissible but also an integral part of the musical experience comes through in both Taigen’s and Dempa Gumi’s comments.

Also a point I think is interesting is Mogami Moga’s comment about her mum not seeing the difference between audience behaviour at idol and metal shows. I think this point can be extended to a wider observation on how “ordinary” people view subcultural products and behaviour. While idol music and otaku culture have been normalised to a large extent in Japanese mainstream culture, AKB48’s music still makes a point of not veering even remotely from the dead middle of the road down which J-pop has been puttering since at least the mid-90s, and most idol music still sounds freakish and subcultural to “ordinary” people in much the same way (although depending on the music and the particular type of “ordinary person”, the extent might vary) that music at the opposite avant-garde extreme might.

The last thing is the idea that genre doesn’t matter. I’m not sure about this, and the reaction of some Momoiro Clover Z fans to Ian Parton from The Go! Team being brought in for one song suggests that genre does matter to idol fans, but that the choice of genres is subject to more complex strictures. One obvious point is that any sign that an idol group is becoming more mainstream will be taken as a sign by otaku that the group is being taken away from them, which they will clearly not be happy about. On the other hand, Parton’s song, Roudou Sanka, was an unusual song by both mainstream J-pop and otaku standards, and I suspect the source of fan discomfort was more its “foreignness” — not specifically the use of a foreign writer (they accept Marty Friedman on its follow-up) so much as that despite the video piling in every nostalgia-ready Japanese cultural cliche it can manage, the music itself is built on a whole structure of sounds, musical references and motifs rooted in a different culture of what’s cool. While Parton’s music would have been cool as fuck to the 90s Tokyo indie generation that formed main Momoclo producer Hyadain’s background (Hyadain has a background in Shibuya-kei and The Go! Team are on Japanese label Vroom Sound, home of post-Shibuya-kei electronic pranksters Plus-tech Squeeze Box and Eel), otaku reject the role of trendsetting elites, preferring to build culture from the bottom up (recognising this and tricking fans into the illusion that they have this power has been key to the marketing genius of Yasushi Akimoto and AKB48). As a result, when fans complain about Roudou Sanka being too mainstream, perhaps part of what they mean is that its mishmash of funk, Motown, Britpop and mutant disco sounds dangerously fashionable.

Combine this with Taigen’s point about idol music’s role in recreating youth, and I think the freedom of idol music has limits set not by record industry convention but by the audience’s own cultural horizons and sense of nostalgia. Idol music is certainly more musically outgoing than its mainstream competitors, but it won’t have its direction imposed on it by “elites” from outside its own cultural milieu (and certainly not by the sort of people who use words like “milieu” in their blogs).

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Filed under Features, Interviews, Strange Boutique

Strange Boutique (February 2012)

A bit late in posting this because I actually have a lot more material related to this topic that I wanted to gather and post on successive days, but here’s last month’s Japan Times column.

This topic came out of a couple of long, rambling conversations I had with Taigen Kawabe from UK-based prog/psych band Bo Ningen during the Kyushu leg of the band’s most recent Japan tour, in particular the post-gig drinking session after the final gig of the tour in Fukuoka, which ended up as a fiercely fought discussion among a group of people who shared two main things in common: a background in underground and experimental music and a love of idol groups. Following on from that, I got back in touch with Taigen again the following week and carried out a short interview with him on what he thinks the reasons behind this love affair between the music’s noisiest and poppiest fringes might be. Thanks also go out to Ryotaro Aoki of the band Kulu Kulu Garden, who I didn’t quote directly, but who took some time out to talk to me and was very helpful as well.

This is nothing new of course, although what is new is that in Momoiro Clover Z, there seems to be an idol group that could have been made for freaky music people. I managed to say most of what I wanted in the article, but here are a few links that illustrate some of what I’m saying.

When I talk about Bo Ningen shifting rhythms, this video gives some idea of what I mean, although it’s really their longer, more psychedelic songs that see it in full force:

Next, here’s the latest Momoiro Clover Z single, which is a pretty typical example of their penchant for chopping between different melodic segments:

And here’s Taigen’s Bo Ningen/Momoclo mashup:

One thing I didn’t go into, and which Patrick Macias has written about more extensively than I, is the way Momoiro Clover play up to a certain fascination with pro wrestling, an influence which Taigen also admits to in this Time Out Tokyo interview, and which relates to the point he makes in my column, where he talks about the way idol music can recreate some of the feeling he used to get from listening to music as a child (wrestlers’ intro music affected him in the same way as a child).

Anyway, I’ll put the second stage of this up tomorrow, including the full text of Taigen’s interview, and we’ll see whether this love affair is requited or not with some comments by the idol group Dempa Gumi inc. who have collaborated with Bo Ningen.

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Filed under Features, Interviews