Monthly Archives: August 2013

Interview: Umez

An interview I did with Sachiko from Umez is up on The Japan Times site. I reviewed the compilation that we discuss in this interview a few weeks ago and enjoyed it. The song they did for the compilation album, Rainbow, is a great piece of devastatingly simple scuzzy garage pop with weird bits and well worth checking out.

To be honest, I could do with a bit less of the J-pop covers from them, although I realise that’s a bit hypocritical considering how many pop covers my band have done over the years. I think no more than one cover per 30-minute live set should be kind of the limit though, especially now they’re back in Japan where everyone’s going to recognise all the songs they’re playing. They don’t want to get a reputation as, “Oh, they’re that covers band.”

That said, I think their cover of Aitakatta is interesting because it reveals AKB48 at their best and worst. One thing it demonstrates is that AKB48’s songwriting isn’t the seething mire of evil it sometimes seems. At heart, a lot of AKB48 songs are basically simplified versions of the sort of thing Judy And Mary used to do, just with the baroque edges filed off, and in the hands of a different band, it’s apparent that there is a fairly solid punk-pop songwriting core to it.

Which brings me to the next thing it reveals: that in the hands of AKB48, pretty mnuch anything sounds shite because AKB48’s whole setup is incapable of anything else. The nasty production and massed vocals just stomp any beauty or fun a song might have into oblivion. Umez’ version with its garage-punk guitar and Lush-esque vocals doesn’t exactly turn it into a masterpiece, but at least it helps the song breathe again and comes out really rather nice.

But noise-pop includes noise, and Umez can be fucking noisy when they choose to be, and the way they pinball between those extremes is part of what makes them so much fun.

Given that the band are split between Tokyo and Kobe, it’s heartening to see them getting invited to Tokyo pretty often, so hopefully things will start to take off for them. The London music scene is much more concentrated than Tokyo’s so it can take a long time to adapt to the various subcultures. Their next show at Koiwa Bushbash should be interesting because Bushbash is a decent venue run by proper music people, and the bands they’re playing with are the sort of people who could dig the sort of thing they do. Hopefully it’ll lead to more and bigger things.

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Fuji Rock: A rare chance to see Japanese and overseas artists rubbing shoulders

The second of my Fuji Rock articles is up on Nippon.com. With this one I focused primarily on the main festival, looking at the way Japanese and overseas music interacts. As I say in the article, it’s very rare to find Japanese music pitched up together with foreign stuff, so festivals like Fuji Rock (and the dreadful Summer Sonic) give a rare opportunity to see how they stack up against each other and how similar audiences react to each.

One point that I felt from the festival is that it would be very hard to imagine the bigger Japanese acts successfully making the return trip to a foreign festival. For all their popularity, Brahman are a thoroughly mediocre band by most Western standards. It’s clear that Japanese people listen to music in a slightly different way to Brits like myself, with the different musical traditions training our ears to expect different sounds, and as a foreigner, you tend to focus on the parts that sound familiar and tune out the bits that fall outside your experience. I’ve been here for twelve years now and spent more of my life as a music nerd in Japan than I did back in the UK, so I don’t think I do that so much anymore. However, that said, I think I sort of hang somewhere in the middle rather than really hear music as a Japanese person would. In any case, those caveats aside, I still think Brahman are rubbish. Japanese fans seem to treat them as a sort of lovable nostalgia trip that they kind of know suck and definitely know aren’t cool, but can’t help enjoying anyway.

The Japanese stuff that seemed like it would work best overseas was the stuff that came out of leftfield and didn’t really address any musical tradition in a direct way. Shugo Tokumaru has already gained some level of international attention, and Kenta Maeno was enjoyably eclectic. Uhnellys were just fucking intense, and there were a handful of bands on the Rookie A Go-Go stage (Homecomings for sure, and oddballs like that bloody prawns band and Oni no Migiude) that seemed like they’d be warmly received wherever they went. Chara I’m less sure about, but she was definitely good, displaying a power and charisma live that is only hinted at by her recorded work.

Looking a bit wider, one wonders where the more mainstream or popular Japanese acts who could bridge the gap with overseas bands are. Mostly playing at Rock in Japan I suspect, and it would be easy to imagine Sakanaction working in an international context. Capsule I have problems with. They’re really good, and Yasutaka Nakata is the closest thing mainstream Japanese music has to a genius, but Capsule’s music drifts too often into sounds that would be dismissed as goofy by electronic music fans in Europe (Americans made a star out of Skrillex so all bets are off as far as they’re concerned). Just to be clear, I’m not saying he should be trying to make cool European-style electro, just that I suspect he’d have his work cut out convincing music fans to take his work with Capsule seriously — his Perfume/Kyary stuff would have no such problems since as idol music, it forces listeners to check in their ideas of cool with their coats.

As for me, I was blown away by Mari Natsuki, and I don’t care that she’s in her sixties, I have a bit of a crush on her. It was music that needed to be played to a Japanese audience, and really wouldn’t work overseas, but it was all the more powerful for how specific its focus was. She knew her crowd and worked them with the confidence of a diva.

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Fuji Rock: Rookie A Go-Go stage live report

The first of my articles on this year’s Fuji Rock is up now on MTV 81. It’s a report on the Rookie A Go-Go stage, where the amateur or little-known bands play in The Palace of Wonder, almost a little separate free mini-festival of it’s own just outside the main gates.

To be honest, the first night was pretty horrible, although obviously in the report I tried to be more positive than that, firstly because, you know, MTV and all that — gotta be nice! — and also because as I’ve said before, I don’t think putting the boot into new and unknown artists is a particularly edifying exercise of journalistic principle. I will just use this blog to flag up the bands I really did enjoy though, and the first one to really grab my attention was the Homecomings.Homecomings: Sunday

M’colleague Patrick St. Michel has already written about them at The Japan Times and he’s bang on in singling out their harmonies as being what sets them apart from so many other Japanese indiepop bands (although there’s a lot of other good stuff out there which I wrote about in a different article recently too and I’ve just realised I really should have remembered to blog) and if you ignore their lapse into the tedious indiepop cliché of the found-footage music video, there’s something charming and fresh sounding about their music.Oboreta Ebi no Kenshi Houkokusho: Washa-washa!! Gugyagyagyagya!!!

Mitsume are a good band but the vague, milling, casual crowd wasn’t really tuned into their more subtle charms, and while I also quite liked Suichuu Zukan, it was Oboreta Ebi no Kenshi Houkokusho (“autopsy report of drowned shrimp”), henceforth known as “that bloody prawns band” that stole the show, which they did mainly by dressing up in fluorescent prawn costumes, but also, it has to be said, by making genuinely interesting music. The gimmick started to grate a bit after 20 minutes or so, and unless they can incorporate some costume changes, I can see them being quite an annoying prospect over the 40-minute or so set they’d be expected to perform if they graduate to one of the bigger stages, but anyway, it would be spiteful and childish not to admit that they were good.

On the final night, it was all about Oni no Migiude. There’s no easy way to do justice to how awesome they were, and they were one of my top five acts of the entire festival, not just their own little indie bands ghetto. A friend of mine said their melodies sounded “Asian”, although I could hear stuff that reminded me of what might have been Bulgarian traditional music or God knows what else.Oni no Migiude: Sono Kane wo Narasu Toki

They were a bit new wave, which obviously endeared them to me greatly, and a bit krautrock, which endeared them to me more, but they were very difficult to pin down. They seemed to have an understanding of harmony, counterpoint and musical structure that went beyond your average Tokyo underground band and which suggested that they might be music students with at least some classical or music theory training. In any case, what they did was simple and complex at the same time, as well as being hauntingly beautiful and strangely funky.Oni no Migiude: Peroron

I came out of the festival still with a few questions about the extent to which Rookie A Go-Go is useful. If Fuji Rock are trying to provide a forum to develop new music and give it a chance to break out of the underground ghetto, that’s laudable, and by giving one band a year a chance to go up to one of the main stages, they’re making a small step towards that. However, the booking policy and the casual festival crowd who are going to be most of the audience at Rookie, seems set up to just reinforce the kind of thing that they already book for the main festival, since fans who came to the festival to see certain kins of bands are just going to vote for “Rookie” bands who sound like what they already came to see. Developing new music and helping new, original music grow an audience probably still needs to be done in small clubs and through touring — big festivals, even ones as diverse and enormous as Fuji Rock, are I suspect really only of marginal value. That said, however, it’s still a venture I strongly approve of, and despite a few awful bands this year, I came out of it feeling glad for having been there.

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Strange Boutique (June 2013)

Also, I just noticed that I skipped a link to my June column. It was a look at some of the alternatives the the big summer festivals, and since we’re still only really halfway through the festival season, it might be worth linking back here. Actually, I don’t think the “best” summer festivals are the ones off the beaten track (that was just editorial-side headline hyperbole) because Fuji Rock is basically the best and only Japanese summer festival anyone needs to go to, but the Aomori Rock Festival in September does look fun.

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Strange Boutique (July 2013)

Eiichi Ohtaki: Kimi Wa Ten-Nen-Shoku

A bit late posting this due to one thing and another, but here’s my most recent column for The Japan Times. The theme was Japanese summer albums, and it was primarily an excuse to rave about Eiichi Ohtaki’s 1981 masterpiece A Long Vacation, which remains probably my favourite Japanese mainstream pop album. Ohtaki was a member of Happy End in the 60s and 70s, and his old bandmates helped out in various fashions on this album, but there’s a purity of craftsmanship and vision on this record that even his old band’s most celebrated work doesn’t quite have. In a way, comparing A Long Vacation to something like Kazemachi Roman is a bit like comparing stuff by The Beatles to Brian Wilson’s work with The Beach Boys, in that the former is at heart a band’s album while the latter is fundamentally a producer’s album. Either way, there are obvious similarities and I’m not really interested in ranking stuff this good.Eiichi Ohtaki: Koi Suru Karen

By all means investigate the other stuff I mention in the article, but really A Long Vacation is all I want to talk about here. I love the way Koi Suru Karen just leaps into the chorus with so much power and gusto but does so by dropping in a bunch of new layers of sound, not by rocking out in the typical band style. I love the way the squelchy synth bass in Pap-Pi-Doo-Bi-Doo-Ba Monogatari sounds completely at odds with the light, fluffy, 60s-style melody and yet totally at one with the piece, and I love how FUNx4 just even exists, as one of the most ludicrously, unashamedly pop! pop! pop! tunes ever written. I even love the fake clapping at the end.Eiichi Ohtaki: FUNx4

In the end, it’s just one of the most marvellous summer albums ever and one of my favourite pop albums ever, regardless of where it was made. It was one of the first Japanese pop albums I ever heard, when as a first year university student, my Japanese dorm-mate lent me his copy, so perhaps I’m sentimentally biased — I still harbour warm feelings for Mr. Children’s 1997 megahit album Bolero and Globe’s Faces Places, although neither commands such power over my affections. Fundamentally though, it’s a magnificent collection of songs by a songwriter and producer at the peak of his powers, and that just rules so I make no apologies for this cascade of thoroughly un-journalistic, fanboyish pop-love.Eiichi Ohtaki: Saraba Siberia Tetsudou

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Anisakis: Uzu

Uzu

Vinyl/download, Taguchi Sound, 2013

Not really fitting into any niche in the Tokyo indie and alternative scenes, and yet viewed with a guarded sort of respect by increasing numbers of their peers, as if trying to work out whether this is a band they are allowed to consider cool, or perhaps if this is a band they’ll soon be kicking themselves for not sucking up to, Anisakis are misfits. Surprisingly so when you consider how accessible and downright conventional most of the music on this debut album, Uzu, sounds when set against the sonic lunacy of so much Japanese underground music, yet there’s definitely something defiant and distinctly independent-minded about them, with a penchant for the grotesque, as evidenced by the album’s striking artwork (by Adam Taylor of UK artrockers The Victorian English Gentlemens Club).

Anisakis inspire intense love in a small coterie of (let’s be honest here, mostly female) fans, but what makes them such a potentially important and valuable band is their dedication to wedding this occasionally confrontational, certainly dark-edged, artistic sensibility to music that sits firmly in a zone that indie rock fans will be comfortable with. They offer something similar to (although still somewhat more experimental than) what British bands like The Cribs provide, but in a way that never once feels like imitation, drawing equally as much from Japanese rock and singer-songwriter traditions as it does from contemporary UK/US indie and postpunk — something that shows up on the quirky, XTC-ish Popcorn Batake ni Kuroi Kage and what might be the album highlight, penultimate track Air Jinsei.Anisakis: Haru no Shitai

The one and a half-minute Gohan sees the band messing around with fucked up guitars, but you feel Anisakis are most at home with themselves when they’re rocking ever so slightly off-kilter, yet all the while remaining safely moored to something almost like pop music, as on second track Catastrophe, and Natsu no Hizashi to Virtual Boy. Because at heart, vocalist Jungo isn’t an avant-garde musician, he’s a balladeer in the 70s tradition, with the music a delivery vehicle for his oddball narratives. It shows up most in songs like Komori, where the music slows down and the beat loosens up enough to let his voice ramble over the top of it, but it manifests itself in a different way on the following track, Chodii Isu, where against the driving bassline and insistent beat, he comes across like a Japanese version of the world-weary storyteller Julian Casablancas plays on the first Strokes album.

I always feel it’s a bit cheesy when a punk band brings out the big, emotional ballad at the end of a set, and the same goes with this album’s closer Seoyogi no Senshu, although with Anisakis, you get the impression that the emotional rather than physical, dance-oriented electricity of the music is where the band see their main power as being, and so it fits that they would seek to climax on an emotional high rather than on a spasm of jerky nihilism. Still, if they were going to insist on that approach, the brooding Kaigandori o Aruku Hanashi with its explosive bursts of screeching might have sent the album out on more of a bang. Nevertheless, Uzu sees Anisakis defiantly announcing their occupation of a territory in the Japanese music scene that surprisingly few bands have tried for and which it’s hard to imagine many claiming so successfully.

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Aprils: New Electric / High Flying Girl

The Aprils were part of the generation of bands that sprang up in the early 2000s heavily influenced by Shibuya-kei (their early stuff is pretty much a direct copy from Flipper’s Guitar) and which added the cheap, plastic synthetic sheen of the new wave revival that had sprung up a few years before around bands like Motocompo and Polysics. Artists from that scene have gone in various directions, with YMCK doubling down on their 8-bit jazz-pop schtick, Hazel Nuts Chocolate going from bright, sugar-coated nursery rhymes through frenetic breakbeat technopop hybrid to woozy, post-chillwave bedroom electronic pop. The closely related capsule, now officially “CAPSULE” since their switch of labels (and who I shall be calling Capsule in all subsequent uses) went on to become a huge influence on the mainstream through producer Yasutaka Nakata.

The Aprils took time off between 2005 and 2010, re-emerging with a brighter, more electropop sound that channeled some of the incessantly cheerful energy of idol music and worked in elements of pop culture nostalgia, particularly from the 80s. There are obviously elements of what Capsule did in reviving electropop with Perfume in that intervening 2005-2010 period, and you can hear various formerly Shibuya-kei-influenced groups settling on a similar sort of vocodered/autotuned pop around this time, with Candles and Sweet Vacation but two examples, and singers like Aira Mitsuki approaching the same sound from the idol direction.Aprils: New Electric

New Electric, off the January 2012 album Magical Girls, is atill a pretty accurate statement of where the band and a lot of their contemporaries remain musically. In a way, it’s sad to see music born from such an eclectic and musically adventurous ethos as Shibuya-kei (even if it was at times stultifyingly snobby) congeal around a sound as wishy washy and hollow as this. The Aprils are good at it and New Electric is a very accomplished example of the sound, but Motocompo have already been there and Yasutaka Nakata has already taken it way further than any of this generation of bands are even trying. it’s electric but it’s not really new.

The more recent High Flying Girl mixes things up a bit more, with the shouty chorus barging its way insistently to the fore and a more interesting combination of sounds competing for the listener’s attention in the background. It owes back more to the 80s than to anything really new, but more than that, it suggests that more than just genre merchants, the Aprils might have genuine mainstream pop songwriting appeal.Aprils: High Flying Girl

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