Any connoisseur of Japanese underground music will be familiar with Melt-Banana. Going 20 years strong, they have managed to gather a cult-following around the world, thanks to touring Europe and the States relentlessly, with luminaries such as Mike Patton, John Peel, and Tool as part of their legion of loyal fans.
The band triumphantly return this week with Fetch, their eighth studio album. Now touring as a duo, they’ve come a long way from their Steve Albini-produced, tinnitus-inducing cacophony of their early days, with now a heavy emphasis on electronics and danceable beats (and still just as loud as ever).
“The Hive” is the lead track from Fetch, and has everything you would expect from a Melt-Banana track, and then some. Guitarist Agata’s sounds seem to be beamed down from space, the line between guitar riffs and samples becoming more blurred than ever – music pundits claiming the guitar to be dead should take a few notes. Vocalist Yako provides the searing track with a poppy, sing-along melody, until delivering the goods with the meticulous precision she’s become known for.
Fetch is a culmination of a band who has been through everything – from a constantly rotating roster of drummers, running over deer while on tour in America, and earthquakes and nuclear melt-downs. Don’t let the slimmed down line-up fool you; this is the tightest, most daring the band has ever been.
The joy you get listening to Puffyshoes is always tinged with an edge of frustration at all the could’ve beens in their career. For all their fiercely lo-fi ethos, their songwriting has an undeniable power to make people swoon, lovestruck, and yet they’ve never quite been able to capitalise on the goodwill their charm and sweet, sweet tunes have brought them in the Tokyo indie scene through which they have for the past few years drifted like ghosts. The announcement that their newly released cassette album will be their last gives an extra bite to the 60s girl group melancholy of songs like Goodbye to You.
A lot of bands (the Vivian Girls have obvious parallels here) use the aesthetics of lo-fi and indie fanzine culture, and as mainstream pop music becomes ever more corporatised and alien, the appeal of something more wilfully down-to-earth in its production values and tunesmithery is obvious, but with Puffyshoes, you get the sense that it goes deeper: that the band exists as a kind of window into a faintly dysfunctional private world, like the “Fourth World” of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures”. In that sense, the goodbye that the duo bid in this song could be read as both a heartwrenching farewell to each other, and to a future that they deserved but never seemed to really want.
There is a series of introductions/guides to local scenes that I’ve been contributing to for MTV 81 that I realise I haven’t been posting up here. The series started with Akihabara, because that was the easiest one for me to sell. For those who don’t know, it’s the otaku place, known for electronics, anime, maid cafés and child pornography. From a music point of view, it’s basically idol stuff, if you’re into that sort of thing, although Club Goodman, out the other side of the station from the worst of the weirdness, is a great indie/alternative venue.
Creepy dolls in Akihabara
The next one I did was Shinjuku, which is pretty much the best place for punk in Japan. It’s so overwhelming with its towers, vast department stores and bright lights that you can kind of forget that it has culture as well. I got some tips from a mate about jazz clubs, of which there are also many. Shinjuku is also home to the biggest and most shamelessly in-your-face red light district in Japan (which is going to be wiped out in time for the 2020 Olympics, along with all the cool culture that nestles in alongside it).
Shinjuku: All tastes catered to
My friend and colleague James Hadfield did Shibuya, and another mate of mine, Mike Sunda, did Yokohama’s club scene, while my latest one just went up.
Koenji Penguin House. Fact: I had my wedding party here. One of my favourite tiny venues.
Shimokitazawa is a really nice neighbourhood too, despite the ongoing plans of The Man to sanitise and homogenise it, and while I often slag it off as a teenage hipster theme park, I don’t really mean it. It’s probably a friendlier place for outsiders than Koenji, where you really have to know what you’re looking for, and really both towns are pretty similar.
There are differences in the sort of music they cater to, although two bit snoreballs indie bands sound the same wherever you go in Tokyo. Koenji is better for offbeat acoustic acts, off-their-head avant-garde weirdness, heavy psychedelia, fucked-up hardcore and artpunk, that sort of thing, while Shimokitazawa is actually useful as a stepping stone for bands who might go on to get reasonably popular. I think it was the writer Jun Miura who once said, when asked what advice he had for young bands trying to make it big, simply, “Get out of Koenji.”
No Nukes: Tit Cai in Shimokitazawa (left) and Salon de Vamp in Koenji (right)
British newspaper The Guardian is starting a bloggers’ network introducing new music from around the world weekly. Ian and Ryotaro already do the “Quit Your Band!” Japanese indie zine together in addition to their pop culture blogging exploits, and they have teamed up to push Japan’s corner in this new project. Ryotaro has taken the lead with this first post, revisiting BiS-Kaidan’s ‘Suki Suki Daisuki’:BiS-Kaidan:
Suki Suki DaisukiJapan is currently in an “idol” boom, and they’re seemingly creating groups catering to every type of subculture imaginable. In the midst of it all is BiS. Branding themselves as the “anti-idol”, they’re the group tailor-made for fans of 80s hardcore punk, Einstürzende Neubauten, and David Lynch films.Here,
with Japanese noise rock legends Hijokaidan, they’re covering “Suki Suki Daisuki”, a song originally by 80s new wave icon Jun Togawa.
The track is another example of BiS’s recurring juxtaposition between underground aesthetics and a cute, “school girl” idol image. While the song choice and collaborator give BiS a lot of underground cred, the song loses the original’s subversive punk feminist message when an “idol group” sings it. Listening to the two back to back is a good look into how subculture — and society — in Japan has changed in the last 20 years. Jun Togawa: Suki Suki Daisuki
As regular readers of this blog will already know, Hyacca are one of those bands I find it impossible to be objective about even if being objective were something music writers should particularly aspire towards anyway (it isn’t). Anyway, to reiterate: I love this band, I released both their albums through my label and regularly book their gigs when they visit Tokyo, so while I might tag this as “review”, all I’m really doing is telling you to go listen.
I wrote about Hyacca’s song Uneko a few months ago, which is a track I released and the cheap, tacky video to which I shot, but Telephone Number is a slightly different case. I had nothing to do with the video and while the original version of the song appeared on the band’s debut album Sashitai about seven years ago, this is a new recording that the band decided to do for no real reason as far as I can work out.Hyacca: Telephone Number
Anyway, in the absence of a new album from them, a new version of a great old song is nonetheless welcome. For many years, Telephone Number used to close out every Hyacca live set and frequently devolved into utter chaos and violence (that role is mostly taken by Hanazono now) and it’s one of the songs where the band lay aside the tricky rhythms and disorientating song structures that characterise some of their other work in favour of just pummelling you. The drums and bassline just drive into you from the start, and one of the guitars locks into a percussive loop. In Hyacca’s catalogue of songs, it’s also probably the track that makes most use of the call-and-response vocals that they often deploy to great effect and a rare song whose lyrics are entirely in English or some approximation of it, not that you’d know beneath the squall and squee of the feedback and fuzz.
So as I said, my feelings about this band and this song were carved out long ago, but since this new version just emerged, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to share this with y’all and do a bit of cheerleading for this brilliant group. As you were.
Hitodama is the solo project of Tokyo-based British experimental musician Dave McMahon, and occupies a position at the more ambient pole of a range that runs through the sometimes blistering soundscapes he creates with the band Jahiliyyah to the ferocious noise rants he co-creates as half of Shigai.
Kujaku (Screwed & Chopped) is a remix of a track originally recorded for Wigan-based On The Grind Records’ limited-edition Colours compilation cassette, with the original’s synth loop slowed down to about half speed, and gradually overwhelmed by echo, distortion and noise that eventually resolves itself into the recognisable sound of a guitar. This isn’t harsh, confrontational noise though: it’s far too romantic and nostalgic for that, coming at you in washes of melody and fuzz, like mist rolling in over hills or TV static in a dream. In fact, more than anything (apart from the obvious hat tip to DJ Screw) the way this track resolves itself reinforces in my mind the continuing relevance of frequent Clear And Refreshing reference points Flying Saucer Attack and their distinctive brand of rural psychedelia.
While Kujaku (Screwed & Chopped) is defiantly ambient, it’s when you turn up the volume that the richness of its layers and textures, as well as the care and attention McMahon lavishes on the mid, stands out. It’s a beautiful piece of music, and listen LOUD.
One of the worst things in the world of blogging is blog posts apologising for the recent lack of blog posts: those short notes saying, “I’m still here, don’t leave me, I promise I’ll write more once these unspecified events pass over,” that always seem more like attempts by the writer to convince themselves than anything else.
In any case, this is one of those posts. After a productive May, posting has dropped off rather, firstly due to a series of live events I was organising, plus the release of the Quit Your Band! zine in July. The other thing that’s preying on my time is that I’ve started writing a book.
I’ve been nervous about mentioning it on here for fear of jinxing it, but the good people at Awai Books have been very encouraging and seem genuinely enthusiastic about the project, plus I’ve started making some meaningful progress with writing now, so it seems as good a time as any to mention it.
The content is primarily based around the same kind of stuff I write on here and in my Japan Times column, although I’m doing some additional research and trying to set up interviews with a few musicians and local specialists to fill in the gaps. A number of much more professional and respectable people than I have already written books in English on Japanese music so it’s going to be difficult to make my own offering stand out, but hopefully readers will find something of interest in it.
It won’t be ready for a long time yet (next year perhaps, and probably not early), but since the process of writing it is causing me to listen to all kinds of things, I’ll be posting updates with notes and comments on some of the bands I’ve been researching or writing about so the place doesn’t look too dead, and I’ll continue to try to post new stuff whenever it comes up.The Tempters: Tell Me More
I was looking at the 60s most recently, and thinking about Group Sounds. For those who don’t know, Group Sounds (“GS”) was the term applied to bands that sprung up in Japan in the wake of The Beatles’ legendary 1966 gig at the Nippon Budokan. The Tigers, The Tempters, The Spiders and The Mops were among the best known. There’s a lot of nice stuff, but for me, the only one that really stands out (and that really stands up to modern scrutiny) was The Golden Cups.The Golden Cups: This Bad Girl
The rough edged garage fuzz their recordings have really makes a lot of their contemporaries (I’m looking at you, Kenji Sawada) look like the weedy sellouts they were (check out the proto-Sonic Youth freakout in The Golden Cups’ version of Hey Joe). One thing I thought was interesting though, was how despite the way the progression of 60s rock’n’roll is usually presented as a shift from “eleki” (surf-style instrumental music influenced by The Ventures) to GS, there was a fair amount of overlap, and some of the leading practitioners of eleki, like Takeshi Terauchi, produced fascinating and brutal work, what I guess you’d call surfadelic music, in the late 60s.Takeshi Terauchi & The Bunnys: Tsugaru Eleki Bushi
I suppose the distinction I’d make though, is that I don’t think eleki and GS should really count as “Japanese rock”. The form is too deeply rooted in foreign forms and relies too much on cover versions, or else artists just allowed themselves to be coopted into mainstream Japanese pop. For me, The Jacks are where a distinctive Japanese rock music really starts. Their most famous song, Marianne, is an amazing achievement. Like if American rock’n’roll had gone straight from the Everly Brothers to The Velvet Underground, it really must have scared the shit out of people in 1968.The Jacks: Marianne
Anyway, I’m not really writing it in any kind of systematic order, so my next update might be on something completely unrelated and who knows when it’ll be, but this is my plan for now. Keep ’em peeled.
My August (and I like to believe also august) column went up on The Japan Times’ web site last week, on the subject of Shibuya-kei. The event that kicked it off was when we noticed that September 1st, as well as being the 90th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and my wife’s [CENSORED] birthday, marked twenty years since the release of Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada’ first solo single.
Obviously he’d been around for years before that with Flipper’s Guitar, who were almost certainly of greater importance in terms of bringing indie music into the mainstream in Japan, sort of like a weedy-voiced, twee Nirvana, and The Sun Is My Enemy isn’t his best song by a long shot, but in its style, its release though Oyamada’s Trattoria label, and the significance of the name Cornelius in Shibuya-kei’s popularity and influence overseas, it’s a useful benchmark.Cornelius: The Sun Is My Enemy [Sorry for the annoying twat talking over the intro]
There was some discussion on Twitter afterwards about what song would be a better choice if there were to be a single track chosen to define Shibuya-kei, and I think there is a general agreement that it would probably have to be something connected with Oyamada. One suggestion was Flipper’s Guitar’s track Dolphin Song, which is almost certainly the band’s tour de force, bringing their neo-acoustic melodic sense together with experimentation with sound production and sampling that pushes the boundaries of what indie and pop music in Japan were doing at that time way back.Flipper’s Guitar: Dolphin Song
Another possibility would be Kahimi Karie’s Good Morning World, released by Oyamada through Trattoria, which takes the sort of faux-sixties aesthete-pop that Pizzicato Five had been doing for a while, and adds an arrangement and lyrics — courtesy of British songwriter and (tender) pervert Momus — that are some of the oddest and most subversive things ever to sneak into the upper echelons of the Oricon charts.Kahimi Karie: Good Morning World
I also used the article to have another go at “Cool Japan”, which is one of my recurring bugbears about Japanese pop culture. A lot of interesting discussion came out of that as well. At the end of the article where I contrast the enduring overseas respect afforded to Cornelius with the declining fortunes of anime and video games abroad, it’s obviously not meant to be a direct comparison of a single artist to an entire industry. My point is that creating an environment where original artists can emerge is going to be more helpful to Japan’s image overseas than just treating culture like venture capital and chucking money at marketing stuff that’s been born out of particular economic conditions.
Anime in particular is an embarrassment at the moment, and despite the popularity of cosplay among certain groups of people, there is no one who actually thinks it’s cool. Its cultural cachet is confined to a niche group and is considered a joke by outsiders. Video games are in a better position, but the Japanese games industry isn’t what it once was. Sony seem to be getting some positive advance coverage of the PS4 but they’ve done that partly through Microsoft’s propensity to shoot themselves in the foot at every opportunity and partly by going back to the old ways of scrubbing the machine’s Japaneseness from it, creating something blankly international like the Walkman.
My belief is that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry isn’t the best institution to be dealing with cultural matters, and that rather than wasting it on evil bastards like advertising giants Dentsu, the money would be more usefully spent in a similar way to how it’s been used in British theatre, i.e. in providing infrastructure that allows artists to experiment and develop ideas free of commercial constraints. Out of that, you’ll surely get a lot of wank, but you’ll also get uncommercial but notable art that would have been strangled at birth under the current system, and you’ll also get works that do have commercial potential that can then be developed into something bigger under the existing commercial infrastructure.
Encouraging international collaboration and cooperation too will be beneficial. A system of grants to help artists with the expensive business of touring overseas should be a basic given (almost every European country has this), as well as helping to build up connections with similar overseas organisations. Relaxing visa requirements for overseas artists wanting to visit Japan would also be very helpful (the opposite of what Canada is doing here, basically). As it stands, Cornelius and Shibuya-kei was a fantastic one-off, but so much more could be done to build an environment where more one-off talents could emerge.Cornelius: Gum (Ultimate Sensuous Synchronized Show)
The relationship between indie and idol music is something I keep coming back to on these pages with each new manifestation. It should be obvious by now that the distinction between the two subcultures is porous and getting more so with idol management companies recruiting songwriters and collaborators from the indie and underground scenes and indie organisers increasingly booking idol groups at their festivals and events. It always seems to have been a one-way thing, however, with indie talent employed in the service of idol imagery. One thing we haven’t seen much of is people from the idol scene reconsidering their identity in the other direction, and this makes Chome Chome an interesting proposition.NTsKi: Chome Chome
Ntski started out performing a few years ago as a full-on idol-type singer under the name Sichicken, complete with schoolgirl uniform, horrible songs and furiously para para-ing fans, but here her identity has taken a sharp turn away from that world.
Chome Chome is an understated, offbeat pop tune based around the core of a simple beat and a cut-up acoustic guitar sample. There are similarities, especially in the vocal delivery, with the kind of stuff singers like Yuki and Chara were doing (albeit with much bigger production budgets) in the late 90s and early 2000s, and it builds effectively without losing sight of its essentially amateur, bedroom vibe. It’s also one of those refreshing sorts of pop songs that manages to be catchy as hell without rubbing your face in it.
In terms of the visual aesthetic as well, while the video is awash with cuteness, it’s a world away from stage-managed idol-ish cuteness. The fashion and accessories Ntski plays with reflect more the sort of carefully nurtured cuteness that comes from having a personal awareness of style (and the time and money to cruise the fashionable backstreet boutiques of Tokyo) than the cartoonish parodies of clothes more common to idol culture. In the end, despite the teddy bears and children’s toys that proliferate throughout the video, Chome Chome is actually a disarmingly mature piece of work.
Foreign musicians based in Tokyo exist in a peculiar sort of half-world. Not having done their time in the university band circles, dead Tuesday nights at pay-to-play live venues, and local music scene event ladder, they often appear disorientatingly context-free and difficult to pin down musically to musicians who have grown up in the local scene, which makes them hard to book. There’s also often a lingering suspicion that they might just up and leave at a moment’s notice, which can make organisers reluctant to invest the time in the gradual process of introducing them to and helping integrate them into the scene.
Perhaps partly as a result of this, a little micro-scene of bands based around a core of foreign musicians has built up, often playing at foreign-owned bars, to a more generally party-friendly crowd than the often gloomy but more dedicatedly music-orientated fans that populate the alternative scene. It’s a strange little bit of segregation and it’s hard to know whether it’s just a setup that’s grown up to everyone’s benefit (or at least to no one’s loss) out of different people wanting different things, just as how mod, punk, technopop etc. have all gravitated into their own exclusive scenes, or if it contains embedded in it a problem.
All this is really just to point out what a rarity a musician Matt Guay is in the Tokyo music scene in that through his band The Oversleep Excuse and now Glow And The Forest he’s managed to work himself over the years into a position in the Tokyo alternative scene where he’s seen just as a musician rather than as an American musician.
Pheromone Chemicals is Glow And The Forest’s second release and continues in a similar vein to their self-titled 2010 debut, both albums featuring nine tracks worth of falsetto-voiced jangly guitar rock delivered by a stripped-down power trio setup and with the emphasis on melodies and whimsical lyrics.
The opening one-two of the driving Suspension Bridge, with its heart-surge chorus, followed by the short, simple and lyrically fragile Banker is a powerful intro to the album, with the latter’s final line leaving the listener hanging poignantly in midair. Sometimes, however, Guay’s lyrics bring him to awkward places, and the line “Your smile makes me take my clothes off,” delivered with with a heart full of passion and earnestness might leave some wondering quite how seriously he means to be taken.
The third song, Monster, more or less establishes the range that Pheromone Chemicals is going to cover, with a more middling pace and a dynamic built around lulls and spine tingling climaxes, and it also sets the album’s outlier in terms of length, coming in at a bit over four minutes. For the most part, Glow And The Forest’s songs are admirably restrained, preferring to hover around two and a half minutes, which as any 1960s pop songwriter would have told you is how long songs should be.
Closing track Aliens performs the neat trick of bringing the whole album together in one song, combining poignance with propulsive, percussive guitar and a powerful sense of ebb and flow. With a low-key opening, it picks up pace and flowers into something poppier and more uptempo, whilst retaining a sense of when to switch a chord change one beat out of the rhythm or simply change and start playing what sounds like a completely different song altogether. It’s the album’s most complex song, but in many ways the most rewarding and a fitting closing track.