Monthly Archives: May 2013

Strange Boutique (May 2013)

My current Japan Times column discusses language in music. Language isn’t really a concern for English speaking musicians since the language of rock and pop and their own native language are the same thing, but the question of whether to sing in English or try parse rock into their native tongue is something non-English speaking musicians have to consider.She Talks Silence: Holy Hands, Holy Voices

I mention the Soviet Union as an example largely because at the time I was thinking about the column, I’d been reading Artemy Troitsky’s 1988 book Back in the USSR about the history of Soviet rock, and his remarks on the importance of Russian (and Baltic etc.) musicians learning how to make rock work in their own language(s) seemed to chime with my own research about the development of pop and rock in Japan. I’ve also worked, through Call And Response Records, with Slovenian musician N’toko, who writes music in both English and Slovenian with equal skill, and yet writes very different kinds of lyrics depending on the language he’s working in, stating that certain ideas or emotions don’t work as well in one language compared to another. This left me with all sorts of ideas to pursue, some of which coalesced into the article that was finally published, but please read the original article first, because it cuts to the core of my (admittedly pretty straightforward and mundane) thinking about the issue, where a lot of these points are really side discussions.YMO: Solid State Survivor

There were a lot of loose ends though, and there was some interesting discussion about it on my various social media ranting spots. On Twitter, one commenter drew comparisons with the debate that existed in the media in the 1970s over the relative virtues of Yuya Uchida (Flower Travellin’ Band), who sang in English, and Haruomi Hosono (Happy End), who sang in Japanese, over which was the right approach. As in my article, I think this idea that one approach is intrinsically the “right” one is silly. Uchida was aiming for overseas audiences and touring quite successfully off that, and the moment Hosono started aiming overseas (with YMO), suddenly his band’s songs were in English too.Plastics: Top Secret Man

In the new wave era, the Plastics tended to sing in English (although ironically, their most popular song overseas was probably the mostly Japanese-language Copy) whereas contemporaries like P-Model tended to sing in Japanese. P-Model’s debut album contained one English language song, Sophisticated, which at least in part was actually satirising the notion that singing in English was somehow a classier approach for musicians, and might be seen as a sly dig at the Plastics (although surely not an ill-intentioned one given that the Plastics’ Masahide Sakuma was producing the album).P-Model: Sophisticated

A friend on Facebook pointed out that nowadays, “…singing in English has absolutely nothing to do for the benefit of foreign listeners,” and this reminded me of an example from the singer Bonnie Pink, who I remember saying in an interview that her song Love is Bubble was named that way despite the grammar being all wrong, simply because it would be less confusing to the Japanese listeners that the song was primarily aimed at. This is the same as the approach of T-shirt and candy manufacturers, who appropriate English words for their half-understood impact, using them more as punctuation than as vehicles for specific meaning.

The same friend goes on to point out that among many Japanese musicians Bands from outside Japan aren’t viewed as potential peers or rivals, merely as fetish objects to be studied, deconstructed, and reconstituted or imitated in a ‘Japanese’ way.” This is interesting because it then becomes intertwined with the point that attracts many overseas fans to Japanese in the first place, and raises the issue of whether this kind of appeal is the result of simply appreciating cultural differences or whether there is something unhealthy and exoticising about it. To frame it one way, should Japanese musicians enter into the homogenising global music artistic space or should they focus on their own native environment and cultural peers? To frame it another way, should Japanese artists view overseas acts as peers or rivals, or should they remain inscrutable and aloof like good little orientals? It’s a tangled issue, but overseas fans of Japanese music should ask themselves these kinds of questions.Shonen Knife: I Am A Cat

This also links in with the brief point I mentioned in the article about how non-Japanese listeners tend to either find Japanese musicians singing in imperfect English cute or annoying. There’s a third category I suppose, which is that many of those who’ve been immersed in Japanese music for long enough tend to block it out because they’re so used to it. What I do find interesting is those musicians who sing in imperfect or limited English but make something artistic out of that. Shonen Knife play up their broken English because innocence and amateurishness are a cultivated part of their appeal, and they get away with it, somehow. Miila and The Geeks’ English is rarely incorrect, but they use their limited vocabulary as a set of restrictions that hones and focuses their lyrics into a sort of snotty punk minimalism. The English in Perfume songs is often pronounced in an exaggeratedly katakana fashion (“di-su-ko di-si-ko!”) which feeds into their electropop cyborg image (and no doubt conveniently makes their music easier to sing at karaoke).Miila and The Geeks: Want

Another area I didn’t get the chance to go into is that of Japanese-speaking foreign musicians in Japan. Pretty much all of them that I know sing in English, and while Japanese listeners would no doubt clap their hands with glee and squeal “Sugoooooi!” if they did sing in Japanese, I might be being tremendously unfair to people here, but it’s hard to see it being accepted as anything other than a performing monkey trick or some such gimmick. For English speaking listeners, there’s a different issue. While for a Japanese person, singing in English nowadays might sometimes provoke sneers to the effect that they were putting on airs, an English speaker singing in a foreign language for purely artistic reasons would seem far more alien and provoke much more widespread ridicule and accusations of pretension. For non-English speakers singing in a different non-English language, it’s perhaps different again. Italian singer Angelo Galizia of German new wave band The Wirtschaftswunder is an interesting case, singing in heavily Italian accented German. Quite what it meant to Germans I don’t know, although from a certain angle at least, it’s a great punk statement: “Fuck you and fuck your language! I’ll sing in it for you, but I’ll mutilate it any way I see fit!”The Wirtschaftswunder: Der Große Mafiosi

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RIP Hideki Yoshimura

Died of heart failure, aged 46. I wasn’t a deep or committed fan of Bloodthirsty Butchers but they were an important band and it would be foolish not to admit they made some great music. Definitely a sad loss for the music scene here in Japan.Bloodthirsty Butchers: Jack Nicolson

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Nakigao Twintail: Em (live)

I raved about this band earlier in the year, using them as an example to demonstrate the attributes that underground music has that an idol group cannot. It was a long post that was misunderstood by J-pop fans who chose to read it as a simplistic “rock is better than pop” attack from an indie elitist (which I admit I am, but that’s not what I was doing there) rather than the nuanced call for underground music, which has lately been having a drawn-out love affair with idol pop, to take stock of itself, look at its own strengths again, and start having a conversation about what “authenticity” means once more. Nakigao Twintail were partly chosen because of who they were — at seventeen years of age, they were the same age as most of Momoiro Clover Z, and they share some of the same energy, but because of the different types of groups they were, the results in all areas of their music diverged massively. Nakigao Twintail did everything themselves, and the rough edges and naivety in their songwriting show that, whereas Momoiro Clover Z are far more polished, musically sophisticated and professional, but in the end, they are a product. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just a bald statement of what the difference between the two groups is.

The other reason I chose Nakigao Twintail to write about was completely irrelevant to the point I was making about idol music — simply that I had just seen them a few days before and they had blown my mind, and that’s what I want to talk about here. They were playing at Utero in Fukuoka, the venue run by the bass player from Hyacca, and the event had been the final date of the release tour for my label’s Dancing After 1AM compilation album. Harajiri from Hyacca/Utero had called me prior to the event in a frenzy of excitement, saying that he’d found an absolute gem of a band and asking for permission to book them. Not knowing what he was on about but trusting his judgement, I’d said sure, go ahead.

Arriving at the venue for the soundcheck, I’d found five teenage girls bobbing around the venue in the funkiest shoes. One of them refused to take off her sunglasses even in the gloomy, cramped subterranean live hall, while another was painting her eyes to look like either a ghost or a panda, I wasn’t sure, before dashing off to the shops and returning with hundreds of safety pins, with which she proceeded to mutilate the pyjamas that she was wearing (I forgot to say, she spent the whole gig in her pyjamas). Of the other people playing, me (the DJ), TKC (the other DJ), Kobayashi Dorori and Hyacca had been out until 7AM for the previous night of the tour in Kumamoto, and Mir had arrived in Fukuoka from Tokyo night before and immediately gone on the lash, so there was a stark contrast between the jaded vibe that us older sorts were giving out as we went through the motions of the rehearsal and the sort of club summer camp adventure atmosphere that followed the girls around.

The gig started and everyone started to perk up, then after a while Nakigao Twintail started playing and the reaction of everyone in the room was unanimous. In the clip here, you can’t hear much applause because everyone was still picking their jaws up from the floor. People weren’t really dancing or going crazy like they did with Hyacca later, because Nakigao Twintail’s set was more like some kind of event that just happened to you, not something you participated in. It was like being punched in the face.

You can’t separate how young they are from what they did, because it was integral to the experience. It’s the kind of thing you can only do when you’re a teenager, or at least you can only do in this way. As an older musician, you’re making conscious choices to behave in a certain way, to pitch your performance this way or that, construct the music in a certain fashion, and the message you send is tinged with cynicism or irony. “I don’t care about doing things the proper way,” is what you’re saying, when actually you care very much indeed — you care enough to break those rules onstage, in front of a crowd of people. With Nakigao Twintail there’s no statement because they genuinely don’t care. It was raw, unbelievably silly and a complete mess, but it was still one of the most inspiring things I’d seen in a long, long time.Nakigao Twintail: Em (live at Utero,”Dancing After 1AM” release tour final date, January 27th 2013)

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Preview: Shimokitazawa Sound Cruising

For any of you based in Tokyo, I did a short preview for The Japan Times of tomorrow’s Shimokitazawa Sound Cruising event. It’s an indie festival using venues all over the Shimokitazawa area, with more than a hundred artists performing. For what it’s worth, here are the ones I recommend.

Chi-na: Really quite charming violin and piano-led alt-pop band. Their last album, Granville, was really good and they put on an energetic live show.Chiina: Granville Island Market

Deepslauter: At the other end of the scale, I’m not familiar enough with all the various subgenres of hardcore, metal and thrash to say with confidence exactly what kind of band Deepslauter are, but they’re ace.Deepslauter live in Kobe

Lagitagida: Lightning speed instrumental prog rock. The guitarist is a fucking maniac but the whole band is just a circus of these lunatic musicians just showing off, and it’s a pretty intense experience.Lagitagida: Terrible Boy

Tadzio: Presumably named after the character from Thomas Mann’s A Death in Venice, Tadzio are a thrilling and brutal, somewhat avant-garde garage-punk duo and one of my personal favourites from the whole event.Tadzio: Worst Friends

The Keys: On the gentler side of things, The Keys are a solid, melodic guitar pop band and will make a nice break from some of the more intense stuff on the bill.The Keys: (Everybody Was Leaving) Chinatown — Acoustic version

Mitsume: New wave-edged indiepop band who don’t always make a big impact at first impression, but reward attention with a lot going on under the bonnet. Probably another of my personal favourites from this lineup.Mitsume: Entotsu

Sono na wa Spade/The Lady Spade: Not really a music act so much as an eroticism-tinged cabaret parody of otaku culture, they’re worth watching at least once in your life. It’s hard to know to what extent what they’re doing is satire and how much is just genuine, sincere geekery, but it’s, um, interesting.Sono na wa Space: Sweetholic

Wrench: Probably the best of all the properly loud bands at this event, Wrench take in elements of industrial, EBM and hardcore. They’ve been at it for years and have a semi-legendary status in the scene now, so they’re well worth watching.Wrench, live at Shibuya O-East

There are lots of other bands worth watching, like Nacano, Ana, Lite, Shonen Knife, Kettles, and even some of the idol stuff that’s still busy colonising the indie mindset, like Dempagumi inc. and BiS is likely to be fun to watch. it’s also worth just checking out something you’ve no idea about, just for the hell of it. Anyway, if you go, good luck, and bring your walking shoes, because there’s a lot to see and a lot of ground to cover.

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Momoiro Clover Z: 5th Dimension

Last week, The Japan Times published a review I wrote of the new Momoiro Clover Z album. It was a fun album, and on the first listen, there was a very powerful sense of Wow! to it, just for the sheer audacity of trying some of these ideas in an idol record. Neo Stargate opens the album in a nine minute-plus version, the first third of which is just the O Fortuna segment of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burina (yeah, the one from the Old Spice ad) just plonked there, unembellished, for no particular reason other than as testament to its own excess. The song then just explodes into hyperactive synth squiggles a la Skrillex and typically melodramatic vocals straight out of an anime theme. Yes, I did just reference Carl Orff, Skrillex and anime music in one sentence. Listen to it: I wasn’t joking in the review when I said they should do a rock opera.Neo Stargate

The best stuff on the album is still the stuff they did over a year ago, especially Rodo Sanka, which still baffles me how it ever got made — how did anyone ever let a drug-addled British indie-dance producer cum 70s blaxploitation soundtrack enthusiast loose on a top ten idol pop hit? As I say in the review though, it’s interesting how the tracks around it also seem to adopt the tag-team vocal approach of 80s hip hop to varying degrees in how they make the group work as a collection of individuals, not just as a pop unit. The result reminds me a bit of some of the laid-back silliness of Halcali, albeit done with Momoiro Clover Z’s customary polish.Rodo Sanka

I mention Otome Senso, which I don’t really rate as a great song — it’s too much of a watered-down copy of the kind of song Kenichi Maeyamada used to do for them, although it works far better in the context of the album than it did as a standalone single. It’s still way too long though, which is a problem the album has as a whole (my theory of pop song lengths is that once a song goes over 3:45, it’s too long, and this continues until it goes over 8:00, at which point it becomes awesome again). Other stuff on there plays around with different approaches, hunting for a style, and sometimes it works, but it doesn’t quite hang together as a piece. Tsuki to Gingami Hikosen is the better of the two ballads by virtue of its overblown, orchestral, Magical Mystery Tour-era McCartneyisms, while 80s rocker Tomoyasu Hotei’s Saraba, Itoshiki Kanashimitachi-yo sounds a bit like just a Hotei track with the five members of Momoiro Clover Z stuck on top of it, but it just about works. Narasaki’s (of Coaltar of the Deepers) Birth 0 Birth does an interesting job of taking the group in a more electronic direction without leaving their essential identity behind, and he’s probably helped in that by his long association with the group — with such an important songwriter as Maeyamada seemingly on his way out, it might be a good idea to hold onto at least one songwriter with an already established association with the group, if only for continuity’s sake.Saraba, Itoshiki Kanashimitachi-yo

Anyway, in a curious parallel to the 1966 Byrds album of the same title, despite rumours of it being a concept album, it really doesn’t quite hang together, and as I say at the end, I really want Momoiro Clover Z’s next album to be a completely ridiculous, absurdly camp rock opera. Ideally it’ll feature space vampires, robot battles, crossdressing, and be set in a girls’ school in a giant castle on the moon run by a fat, disco dancing German explorer. They’d need to get someone like Kunihiko Ikuhara to write it, and anything less will be a huge disappointment to me.

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Hyacca: Uneko

First up, I need to be clear that I’m not going to attempt to review this because I helped make it, but on the other hand, I love this band more than almost anything on Earth, so it’s obviously still an endorsement. Hyacca were one of the first bands I ever released on Call And Response Records and they’re regular features at my events when I’m in Kyushu and whenever I can get them up to Tokyo. I first met them in Fukuoka in July 2006. I’d just been through a rough patch and decided to take a trip for a few days to get away from it. I met up with Shuichi Inoue from the band Folk Enough, who I knew from his shows in Tokyo, and he invited a few of his musician friends along. The next thing I remember was waking up with a tremendous hangover and my pockets full of CDs by local bands. One of the CDs was a plain CD/R with just two Chinese characters written on it, that contained the best music I’d ever heard out of a Japanese band. Later, it turned out that this band was called Hyacca (literally “one hundred mosquitoes”, although there’s a pun on the Japanese word for encyclopaedia in there as well) and I started working with them.

The most recent thing they’ve done for me is the song Uneko, which they contributed to Call And Response’s Dancing After 1AM compilation album, released last October. Given the rather, um, easygoing pace at which the band work, this first new recording in three years wasn’t that unusual a time lapse, but I was determined that at least one song from the compilation would have a video made for it (actually She Talks Silence had already made a video for their song Long Ways, although the version on the video is slightly different to the album version). Since we had no budget, no time (just a couple of hours in the afternoon before their gig with Bo Ningen in Fukuoka), and no equipment apart from my wife’s small digital camera, this was never going to be a slick or professional looking shoot, so instead, I tried to go the other way entirely and make the footage exaggeratedly wobbly and unfocused. The key thing for me was that it should just look as if everyone was having fun and that it should show the band members naturally as the sort of people they actually are.

Most of it was shot in a karaoke box opposite the venue where they were due to play later, with some shots filmed later, at the izakaya next door (featuring cameos from a few other members of the Fukuoka indie scene and probably the backs of the heads of some of Bo Ningen, although honestly I can’t really tell). I want to point out at this juncture that as shitty and chaotic as the footage looks, I did have a pretty clear idea of how it was going to cut together as I shot it, and it’s to the great credit of Matt Schley, who did the tough job of editing it all together (and who also put together the video for Zibanchinka’s Nagisa no Hors D’oeuvres based on a similarly minimalist, no-budget concept), that he instantly saw what I was trying to do when he looked at the footage.

As far as the song goes, I don’t want to go on about it because you already know I love it, but I think it’s a great example of everything I love about Hyacca. They way they make music that’s structurally complex, almost math-rock, but play it with such energy and never forget to make it fun, always making sure there are neat little pop hooks or goofy ideas embedded in the arrangement.

As a postscript to this, you can see from the video that we got through quite a lot of beer in the karaoke box, and that may have taken its toll on the band, who went on to put in one of the most bizarre and chaotic live performances I’ve seen from them in years. Yeah, my fault.

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Live: Sutekiss

Idol music is now so deeply embedded in indie and alternative culture in Japan that it’s not really making any kind of statement by combining the two worlds. Whatever alternative music could have learned from idol music in terms of not taking itself too seriously has now either been learned or not learned, and the novelty is played out. Where Sutekiss are interesting is in how they’re the first band I’ve seen who take the whole concept and performance style of idol music but the progressive, alternative and funk musicians in the band approach it from an entirely serious musical perspective. The result is music that integrates alternative and idol styles in a way I haven’t seen anyone else manage, and it certainly shows up the faux-alternative pose of groups like BiS as the gimmick that it is.

There’s something jarring about the front line of three extremely young female singers and the six extremely technically adept alternative musicians backing them, and yet it’s also strangely appropriate, recalling the classic era of the 70s, where groups like the Candies would routinely appear on TV backed by ultra-professional session musicians, and honestly, the more idol music makes use of proper musicians, the better it will be for pop music. The question with Sutekiss is whether they really are an idol group or whether they’re an alternative band masquerading as one. As it stands now, they exist predominantly in the live house scene, playing with punk and alternative groups, where their pop sensibility makes them stand out from their peers.

It’s really in their behaviour that their idol-ish tendencies come across most strongly. Talking between songs at the show headlined by postpunk/dub merchants Bossston Cruizing Mania, drummer Harie (formerly of prog rock crazies Mahiruno) repeatedly refers to his “sempai” Esuhiro Kashima, ladling respect onto the older musician. There’s an edge of irony to it, as if he’s somehow playing the part of a member of an idol group, where exaggerated gestures of respect to all and sundry are par for the course, but again, there’s some truth to it and despite the element of performance, it reveals something about the way these social dynamics between younger and older musicians are still embedded in alternative music culture.

If there’s a problem with Sutekiss, I think it’s that they don’t go far enough. The melodies are solid 90s-style J-pop, but they tend to rely a little too much on the arms-in-the-air “live your dreams” schtick. Really good idol pop like Aya Matsuura, on-form Kyary Pamyupamyu, or Momoiro Clover Z is far more aggressively pop, although it’s hard to see how something that bubblegum would integrate into the mid-paced funk and latin-influenced back line. They’ve found a way to integrate the stylistic elements of idol music with a greater level of artistic proficiency in the music, and there are moments in the performance where it’s quite thrilling, but if they’re going to take the concept to the next level though, I’d say the pop aspects are the areas they now need to concentrate on.

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