Monthly Archives: November 2013

Strange Boutique (November 2013)

My November column for The Japan Times is about the minor fan community scandal that bubbled up after A-chan from Perfume made some awkwardly worded remarks about gay fans. It was obviously not intended with any negative inflection, but looked at a certain way, it’s perhaps a little clumsy. I’m not going to go into what actually happened, you should read the original article here.

(First up, the opening is paraphrased from the American playwright August Wilson. I wasn’t sure whether I should cite him or not and in the end left it up to my editor. In any case, it’s his idea and I stole it. Just putting that out there.)

Now as a straight, middle class, white man, I’m have pretty much the most privileged life and background in all human history, so I’m not going to start telling people what kinds of things are legitimate and illegitimate sources of distress or offence. On one level, all that happened was that a fan asked her a silly question and she didn’t know how to answer it, but as she relates the story, her language (“neither” gender) segues rather awkwardly into the discussion about gay (presumably just as male as anyone else) fans and then her description of the fan’s partner as a “girlfriend” (did the fan use this term or was she editorialising?)

As I said, I don’t want to dismiss this as a non-event because gender politics are a tricky subject, but that said, the story here really shouldn’t be about A-chan. I spoke to the journalist who carried out the interview and asked him his assessment based on the context of the interview and from what I can gather, she was just being bubbly and ditzy. Perfume say they’re not idols like AKB48, but they’ve been brought up by the same kind of social machinery, inside the same pop industry bubble, and also in a wider sense part of Japan’s whole cultural bubble.

One thing that starts to hit you after a while when you live immersed in Japanese pop culture is the sheer narrowness of range it offers in terms of thought, ideas, and values. The significance of the “We Japanese” mindset is sometimes overplayed, but it’s definitely true that far more than European or American societies, the idea that as a Japanese person you can sit across from someone on a train and know that they are thinking the same way as you is a great comfort. Pop culture here is completely geared towards the reinforcement of this idea, and people who deviate from it are usually only permitted a pop cultural platform if they either perform obeisance to Japanese cultural traditions (“Wow, he is more Japanese than Japanese!”) or neuter themselves, rendering the outsider that threatens the consensus harmless by playing the clown.

This is often true of transgender people on Japanese television (although it’s not quite that simple and m’colleague Philip Brasor has written brilliantly about LGBT issues in Japanese TV here, here and probably many other places), and it’s certainly true of foreigners. A commenter on my Facebook page relayed a story of the naturalised Japanese but Nigerian-born TV tarento Bobby Ologun, whose son was appeared on a show with him and popped the awkward question, “Daddy, why are you so foolish on TV but not at home?”

Not only minorities, but a woman’s role on TV variety shows is far too often simply to nod along and smile to the older male comedians. Show hints of intelligence or independent thought and there is a ritual of ridicule they must go through to ensure they are cut down to size. Only loudmouthed female comedians, usually from the Osaka/Kansai area, are allowed to openly joust with male guests and co-hosts.

OK, now someone who watches more Japanese TV than me (almost anyone in the country really) will be able to pick holes in this assessment, but the overall picture is very much as I describe it. So pop music is really part of a wider pop cultural world devoted to maintaining a certain set of values and a certain sense of what Japan is and what the Japanese are.

Why this is is another matter. I suggest two theories in my column, the first of which could be summarised as the Antonio Gramsci view, where the channels through which culture is transmitted are used by a ruling class to establish “hegemony” and instill in the population a set of values that don’t necessarily benefit them. The other view is basically that of Theodor Adorno, namely that capitalism by its very nature drives the “culture industries” towards standardisation, in which all choice is an illusion. Likely there are elements of both conservatism and commercialism at play in bringing us to this point.

Whatever the reason, the Gramsci and Adorno positions both describe a system that serve the same ends: that of limiting discourse in the public arena.

But of course Japan isn’t homogeneous. Despite strict visa requirements, it’s racially less and less so, certainly in Tokyo, and among Japanese themselves there are many different kinds of people as well. By enforcing this limited and limiting media metanarrative of Japaneseness, it at once restricts people’s ability to empathise with and engage with people who don’t fit the standard, and at the same time gives those who don’t fit the mould a stark choice between conformity and alienation.

Gay people are a particularly pertinent example here, because more than almost anyone they have no control over what makes them different. Westerners are visibly different and are freed from the choice of fitting in or not (we never will, so just suck it up and learn to enjoy it — the situation of Zainichi Koreans is rather more complex), and it’s possible to a limited degree to drive unwanted ideologies like Communism out of the media to the extent that the ideas cannot easily be disseminated, the propaganda cannot be propagated. Gay people in Japan, however, do not choose their identity or arrive at it through social circumstances the way one might adopt a political position. Also, unlike foreigners they are just like “standard Japanese” on the surface so cannot escape the subtle added pressure that going unrecognised in the media creates to put on the face of conformity.

I’ve been quizzed many times about why there are so many gay British men and so few gay Japanese, and looking at the British and Japanese pop industries, there are certainly far more openly gay stars in the UK. Is Japan a uniquely heterosexual nation? Of course not. It’s just that there is a tacit agreement in the media that it’s not part of the discourse (in Britain, Freddy Mercury’s death pretty much put an end to that). Japan’s gay pop stars remain in the closet, Japan’s gay teenagers repress their sexual identity, Japan’s gay salarymen get married, have kids and sneak off to gay bars on the sly or just simply keep it to themselves, and straight Japanese lack the familiarity or the vocabulary to talk about homosexuality comfortably.

This isn’t discrimination in the direct sense of the word, and the people who do it aren’t nasty homophobes. Japanese sociologist Yuki Senda relates a good example of how it works in practice:

“I was recently speaking with an American friend who happened to mention a mutual friend had just got married. ‘But isn’t he gay?’ I asked, a bit surprised by the news. My friend, in turn, was surprised by my own reaction, and said: ‘Yes, of course—and that’s why he married a guy.'”

“This incident made me realize that even though I specialize in the sociology of the family, my own outlook still seems to be bound by traditional Japanese notions about the family. Needless to say, I know from my research that same-sex marriage or civil unions exist. But the notion of gay marriage is still such an alien concept in Japan that the possibility did not immediately occur to me when speaking to my friend.”

Of course once discussion about offence and language gets round to the idea of political correctness, people like to whine. Political correctness is the black beast that stalks contemporary debate on media culture, but in its bare essence, as the great Stewart Lee pointed out, political correctness is really just, “…an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of formally inclusive language.”

I mention that political correctness can be restrictive and Orwellian in its extreme applications (the term itself was coined by 80s lefties as an ironic reference to Stalinist newspeak, along the lines of, “Your new girlfriend seems nice, but is she ideologically sound?”) but real and much more extensive restrictions are being put on both language and thought by a media culture that doesn’t give people the tools they need to engage with ideas, values, and even people outside the mainstream.


Filed under Strange Boutique

Book update: 70s pop

The latest book update sees me still stuck in the 70s, but this time looking into the pop music of the era rather than rock. I’ve written about this in The Japan Times, and the stuff in my book basically goes over the same ground, but it’s a good period and deserves writing about. It’s not directly relevant to any discussion about the contemporary alternative music scene, but it’s relevant to discussion about idol music, which is relevant, as well as to new wave given the way they started to converge in the 80s and eventually completely subsumed each other to create J-pop.Yumi Arai: Rouge no Dengen

It was also relevant to talk about “new music”, which means a bunch of artists I have no particular interest in. I’m a great admirer of Yumi Arai/Matsutoya and Miyuki Nakajima has a place in my heart thanks to the use of her crazy, melodramatic power ballads as the theme songs to series 1 and 2 of the downright psychotic 90s TV drama Ienakiko. Amii Ozaki did some good stuff but Yosui Inoue always bored me and Southern Allstars are simply dire, so I have mixed feelings about the whole thing really. I put it down to its roots in Japanese “hikikatari” folk balladeering, which is a kind of music I’ve always found on the cusp between boring and annoying. As I said though, there’s good stuff in new music, but it ain’t really my scene.

I’m very biased towards female singers in this period, which is probably primarily down to me being a guy, although honestly, male Japanese pop singers do tend to be a bunch of smug, punchbag-faced twats who take themselves way too seriously considering how shallow and inconsequential their music is. Let’s face it though, Hiromi Go was a funky, funky dude in his day.Hiromi Go: Hana to Mitsubachi

But yeah, I’m standing by my position that the girls got all the best songs. I’m a massive fan of Saori Minami and she’s interesting because of her position as a prototype of the contemporary idol singer, although she never liked being presented as such. Her songwriters were on her side and they came up with some ace tunes.Saori Minami: Junketsu

Momoe Yamaguchi was probably the greatest pop star of her day, and while these days I think the longevity and sheer ambition and drive of Seiko Matsuda has guaranteed her the position of greatest ever, her music itself was mostly nothing much to write home about. Yamaguchi had way better tunes and like Saori Minami seems to have had her own opinions about music to have worked quite closely with her songwriters to make them happen. From her early days as a fourteen year-old being manipulated into singing songs begging men to take her virginity, by the late 70s she was rocking it for herself.Momoe Yamaguchi: Zettai Zetsumei

The Candies I’m long on record as being a massive fan of, and they and Pink Lady are pretty much the definitive girl groups of the day. This was a long time before the days of mass idol collectives, and two or three was a perfectly satisfactory number of members for a pop group back then. Sigh. I also mention a bit about some of the 60s singers who crossed over into the 70s era although their roots were strictly speaking in a rather earlier music industry environment. Linda Yamamoto was a wild girl but Chiyo Okumura had a sultry charm of her own and probably has a stronger catalogue.Chiyo Okumura: Koi Dorobou

I’m onto punk and new wave now, which is where the book comes back to my key points about how the music scene works and how it’s structured at grassroots level. Again, I’m not sure if I’m going to carry on doing this in order, and the music history segments aren’t really what the book’s about as a whole (I don’t want them to take up more than about 15-20% of the total page count), but it feels right having the background there since I’m going to be referring to a lot of this at various points. Anyway, more sooner or later, and enjoy the pop.


Filed under Blogs, Classic Pop

Guardian Song of the Week: Hysteric Picnic, “Cult Pop”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a frantic rocker from an up-and-coming new-wave duo.

Hysteric Picnic are a two-piece new wave band who channel the sounds of 80s new-wave acts. Formed in 2011 by vocalist Sou Ouchi and guitarist Shigeki Yamashita, the drum-machine backed duo return with a new EP entitled Cult Pops, scheduled for release from Call and Response Records in early December.

The lead track, “Cult Pop”, is a frantic, forward-charging new wave rocker, complete with pulsing bass lines, industrial noises, handclaps, a deep feeling of dystopian isolation. Oouchi’s eerie, yet playful vocals sound like a more new-wave Jello Biafra, tumbling across the reverb-laden guitars and pre-programmed, repetitive drums. The overall sound is very much in the vein of 80s new-wave bands, however there is something distinctly unique about Hysteric Picnic that set them apart from other Joy Division facsimiles, whether it be the quirkiness of Ouchi’s vocals, the unconventional guitar riffs, or just how simple and catchy the melodies are. “Cult Pop” also shows off that the band aren’t all about the atmospheric doom and gloom of the industrial world, but that they can also rock out pretty good.

The track is as lo-fi as everything else the band has done, but it’s sonic traits are obviously a part of their aesthetic and charm. Past tracks with references to Nick Cave and Krautrock should assure anyone with doubts that the band very much know what they are doing.

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Filed under Guardian new music blog, Reviews, Track

Interview: group A

I’ve been doing quite a lot of interviews lately, but this is the last one for a while. There’s a Q&A on MTV 81with Group A (officially stylised as “group A” but on these pages proper English grammar rules apply unless I otherwise say so).

Group A are relatively new and the interview backs up something I’ve suspected, which is that from fairly messy, arty and conceptual roots, they’ve rapidly grown musically, and they’ve done it largely through just forcing themselves into positions where they needed to get better quickly. There’s an admirable hunger to them, although the case with ambitious bands like that is that they find a point two or three years down the line where there is nowhere the scene is really structured to allow them to go, where they’re popular enough that they feel they’ve outgrown their scene peers, but there’s no place for them on the next rung up. Some try to break out by going overseas, but there’s no money in that unless you’re Melt Banana or Acid Mothers Temple, and some try to break the glass ceiling by making nice with those still in control of the levers of power, although if you’re making DAF/Neubauten/Throbbing Gristle-style industrial noise with violins, there are relatively few openings for bands like that in major label rosters. At the rate Group A are growing, however, they’re probably going to find themselves in a position like that sooner rather than later, so how they deal with it’ll be important.

Anyway, it was an interesting interview and they’re interesting people. All the stuff about stone circles and things it’s hard to tell how seriously they take it: sometimes they sounded genuinely cosmically inclined, whereas other times they seemed to have a more of a conceptual handle on it. Anyone whose heard the stuff Julian Cope did on the none-more-pagan Jehovahkill (or recorded naked inside ancient burial mounds) would have to admit that at least the cultural associations we’ve layered onto stones of various kinds can have a power of their own, even if the mystical aspects are clearly bollocks.

The stuff about the creative process and how they scraped the band together out of a sheer desire to do something and then worked it up into the genuinely quite impressive band they are now was the bit I found most interesting. The  fact that they were really eager to talk about their music and go into detail about it really helped as well, which might have been down to them coming from an art & design background. In any case, far too many bands seem completely uninterested in examining their own art, and so uncurious about what they themselves are doing that it’s quite refreshing to speak to a new band who are so enthusiastic about their own art.

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Interview: Sheena & The Rokkets

As I mentioned in my previous post, I interviewed Sheena and Makoto from Sheena & The Rokkets the other week and the feature appeared on this week’s Japan Times music page. Makoto did most of the talking, I think because he’s rather more confident speaking English, although Sheena chipped in. We talked for about one and a half hours so there’s no way I’m writing up the full transcript, but they were very nice and said some interesting stuff.

When I’m writing a feature like this for the JT, the trick to it is always to try to find the story from amongst the chaos of what can often be quite rambling, unstructured conversations, although in Sheena & The Rokkets’ case there were several possible stories to draw from it. In the end, I think the recurring theme was the compromises a rock’n’roll or punk band has to make in order to make a living from music. I get the impression that the “mentai rock” generation are viewed with a bit of suspicion by members of the current Fukuoka rock scene, perhaps due to a kind of subconscious resentment of the jokey and reductive nature of the term “mentai rock” itself, or perhaps due to the perception that so many of the bands seemed to have sold out. Basically, if you’re an alternative band who’s been based in Fukuoka for any length of time without moving to Tokyo, it’s because your roots there are stronger than your ambitions for commercial success. Bands who moved to Tokyo and had hits, well, they chose a different path.

Makoto’s old band Sonhouse were full-on proto-punk rockers though. I was in a bar in Koenji on Tuesday night with a couple of Fukuoka friends who were in Tokyo on tour and we got the owner to put on their first album from 1975 and it was raw, brutal rock’n’roll hedonism in its purest form. Both of my friends were nodding their heads in appreciation and eventually one of them pronounced, “Yeah, this is a really good record.”Sonhouse: Milk Nomi Ningyo

The very existence of Sheena & The Rokkets seems to have more to do with the need to move on commercially without losing sight of that rock’n’roll purity. Sonhouse seem to have split partly because they couldn’t take what they were doing any further in Fukuoka, and Makoto and Sheena had had their first daughter in 1976, so it must have been difficult to marry the responsibilities of having a family with the inherently irresponsible nature of rock’n’roll. The fact that Sheena & The Rokkets moved to Tokyo pretty much as soon as they started shows this change in attitude I think.

What’s interesting about the group is the way they negotiated these opposing principles. Makoto talks a bit in the interview about how kayoukyoku and rock’n’roll were sort of seen as fundamentally opposing forces, but lots of the people who had started out in punk and new wave bands quickly started trying to make what they did work in some sort of mainstream or semi-mainstream context and the early 80s is quite an interesting time in music precisely for how these then-underground musical ideas started to bleed across into pop (in a similar way that you can see this happening now with idol music). Sheena & The Rokkets were lucky to end up with a genius like Haruomi Hosono producing them and the results are a bunch of very good songs, although there’s still a bit a shock in how they went from this…Sheena & The Rokkets: Sugaree (Rusty York)

…to this:Sheena & The Rokkets: Ukabino Peach Girl

In any case, watching them live, it’s clear that rock’n’roll remained at the core of what they did. They seem to have commanded the respect of overseas contemporaries, with Lenny Kaye, Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Wilko Johnson and others all seeming to have had an interest in the band. The collaboration with Yuu Aku is also part of this same continuum of keeping an eye on the mainstream and trying to take what’s good from it.

Of course (through no fault of their own) there’s nothing really underground or alternative about the kind of rock’n’roll Sheena & The Rokkets do anymore because the goalposts for what qualifies as extreme have moved so far since the late 70s. It’s interesting that Sheena and Makoto’s two younger daughters’ own band Darkside Mirrors, while cut from similar garage rock cloth to their parents, was a dirtier, rougher and trashier sounding proposition.Darkside Mirrors: Elevator

What’s happened is that rock’n’roll has moved on from being rebellious into being something timeless, and that in turn has made the distinction between rock’n’roll and pop music that was so strong in the 70s increasingly meaningless. Still, when you compare Sheena & The Rokkets to another 70s rock’n’roll rebel like Eikichi Yazawa, it’s obvious that they’ve retained a way closer hold on their roots and importantly still seem to be having fun.

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Filed under Classic Pop, Features, Interviews

Book update: 70s rock

There haven’t been any updates on the book in ages, although the work I’ve been doing for The Japan Times and other places is dovetailing with the book on a number of points. Still, I haven’t really been discovering anything new or at least anything that seemed worth sharing so I’ve been quiet. I finally decided to return to Japanese pop and rock history for a bit though, and so I thought a quick update could be worthwhile.Les Rallizes Dénudés: Night of the Assassins

Now 70s rock was the bit I really wasn’t looking forward to writing, partly because Julian Cope has already done such a bang-up job on it, and partly because I don’t really like any of it that much. Bands like Les Rallizes Dénudés/Hadaka no Rallizes, Murahachibu, Speed, Glue & Shinki, Flower Travellin’ Band et al are all artists you’re sort of expected to like: bands who you revere like religious artifacts and who you’ll look really uncultured if you admit that you find them boring, boring, boring. It’s not that they’re no good, it’s just that while Rallizes’ feedback fury can be incredibly exhilarating, 70s riff merchants of whatever stripe — Flower Travellin’ Band, Shinki, whoever — have never chimed with me. I’ve never really enjoyed Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix and I enjoy bands who sound like them even less. So my summary of “new rock” goes something like this: Rallizes are OK but the rest can go hang.J.A.Seazer: Ootori no Kuru Hi

I’m going to take a little moment out here and add that J.A.Seazer (sometimes J.A.Caesar) is amazing. His position as a theatrical composer perhaps puts him in a special position, but his work is transcendent (the fact that he did the extraordinary and delightfully weird choral rock compositions for Revolutionary Girl Utena, the greatest anime of all time, is an added bonus).Rouge: New York Baby

What I have a bit more time for is some of the really uncomplicated, dumb rock’n’roll that the 70s threw up. I interviewed Sheena and Makoto from Sheena & The Rokkets the other week and in the course of that, found myself thinking about Japanese 70s rock’n’roll for perhaps only the second or third time in my life. Again, most of it bores the shit out of me, but it has a bit more charm than the see-my-seriousness-and-tremble pomp of the heavy riffsters. New York Dolls copyists Rouge are a lot of fun, although I’ve always found Carol to be massively overrated. Out of the Fukuoka mentai rock crowd, I’ve always had time for Sonhouse. I find Sheena & The Rokkets’ leap headfirst into pop to be a bit confusing from a musical point of view — not so much that it isn’t good (it’s Hosono, so it’s always going to be interesting) and not because I don’t understand why it was necessary, more that I’m just not sure what it’s saying. Anyway, they were an interesting band to interview and there’ll be more on them when the interview’s published.Sonhouse: Lemon Tea

The best thing about 70s rock is that I’m halfway done with it, anyway. I still have to talk about “new music”, another deeply respected genre which is always guaranteed to fill me with inertia, but I also get to talk about 70s kayoukyoku, which is always much more fun. More on that later.

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Interview: Damo Suzuki

The other week I met up with Damo Suzuki and chatted about art, politics and… well, those two things really. You can read the full article on The Japan Times web site, so you should do that right now.

It was a really interesting interview for me, partly because he has such a different view of the world from most of the musicians I meet in Japan (he says it comes from having a European perspective, and his attitude does seem quite similar to the way a lot of my German friends think, but I suspect he was always a bit out of the ordinary by Japanese standards) and partly because he didn’t need much prompting to go into quite a lot of depth about his music and opinions, which made my job very easy.Damo Suzuki with Nanao Tavito

He expresses some opinions that look a bit harsh on the page, but you have to appreciate how good humoured his whole demeanour is, which is why towards the end of the interview, when my hastily-scrawled list of topics had run out, I felt comfortable challenging his statements. Usually if I don’t really agree with someone I’m interviewing, I just nod and let their words speak for themselves, but in Damo’s case, I thought there might be a bit more value in probing his statements a bit more to see how deeply though-out they really are.Damo Suzuki with Tenniscoats

I wish I could have got into religion more near the end there, because I’m curious how someone who has so little regard for rules and pre-defined forms can reconcile that with religious belief, where rules and pre-defined forms are integral to the structure of the organisation. I know about his history with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and I’ve read things he’s said about religion before and I guess his answer is along the lines that for him it’s more the spiritual and moral principle that he follows rather than any particular doctrine. Still, in the context of the interview, it feels like an omission that we didn’t go into it. My only excuse is that we were getting near the end of the interview and the direction that thread of the conversation was going didn’t naturally lead there. Also, I suspect that even though I brought up religion, I wasn’t really thinking specifically about religion in a formal sense when I mentioned it, and my pre-programmed reaction to his response, like many British people confronted by a directly stated belief about religion, was to just inwardly clench with sudden social anxiety and let the conversation move on to something else before, I don’t know, before what? Before I get stabbed or something? I’m pretty unflappable about most topics, but religion is a topic I still have to overcome anxieties about discussing in person and the moment just passed.Damo Suzuki with Maher Shalal Hash Baz

Finally, as a fan of The Fall I liked how he just came right out and said “I am Damo Suzuki“.

Anyway, here’s an edited transcript of the interview:

I think the last time I interviewed you was about five years ago I think. Has the way you approach your performances changed much in that time?

The concept isn’t changed so much, just playing with local sound carriers.

The musicians you play with seem to be getting younger though.

There is one reason why I’m playing together with the younger generation. Because if I play with the younger generation, then I get younger audience as well. That means I can play music for another forty years. (Laughs)

You’re playing with more than twenty musicians over seven hours at your next show. How are you going to work that?

If I say it now, it’s no good because you’ll know the concept. Actually there’s not so much of a concept, but I had to make some sort of a timetable, because SuperDeluxe isn’t such a big place, capacity is about 250 people, and also we have technicians, we should know about the technical things. So actually it could be better with 25 sound carriers onstage at the same time, but we weren’t able to make this so I must make some sort of timetable, a kind of storyboard.

Actually it’s OK, because always a new approach is not so bad. Last year at the Reykjavik Film Festival I performed a live soundtrack playing music for an old movie from 1927 (according to the RFF web site, the film was Metropolis by Fritz Lang – IM). This was also planned because the film is never going to change, so there was kind of a system, although actually I like to make much more free stuff.

How did that work? Did you watch the film beforehand?

If I see it before, it’s already kind of a system, so I didn’t see it. We had monitors and some of the musicians watched the monitors, but I didn’t because if you watch the monitor, you react a little bit later than the rhythm of the movies.

So for you, what makes a good show? What kinds of things have to fall into place for you?

Firstly if the sound technician likes the concert, because he’s controlling the sound communication between the musicians on the stage and the audience, so he’s quite important and if he likes the concert, it’s always a good concert. Secondly, after the concert if lots of people have smiles on their faces, it’s also a good concert. And also the sound carriers who joined in the concert, if they have good energy and chemistry, it’s also a good concert. But during the concert it’s quite difficult to explain, because you have to be on the stage. It’s emotion, and there’s some kind of energy between us.

It’s quite different from a recording.

Maybe recording’s not as good as live, because with regular recordings, you can’t catch the atmosphere of the place, but with the live show itself, everybody is living in this time together in the same space and creating, and also the audience is not just listening, but also we can get some sort of feedback from them, so we are creating a kind of quantum field and everybody is involved. With a recording, you listen alone at home and it’s already a material thing and it’s nothing to do with your real involvement.

If you’re watching a soccer game on TV, the TV is already controlled by a cameraman who has these same angles and you can only see these angles, but if you’re in the stadium, you can see all the atmosphere, you can see how they are moving on the field, so it’s totally different. You have much more intense feeling and you are together in this.

Do you have any places in particular where you enjoy playing?

Everything has an influence on how things happen. SuperDeluxe is a good space and a difference audience because it’s in the middle of the city, so it’s quite different from the UFO Club. The UFO Club is in Koenji, which is quite a special place and not really like Tokyo. It’s a kind of province, and I’m not saying that in a negative way, it’s a good thing because Koenji has its own atmosphere, but Roppongi is quite commercial and I think quite mainstream, although I don’t know what kind of people are going to come to my concert.

Also at a place like the UFO Club, they don’t need so much advertisement because the people are living near there and people know each other, and there’s much more communication because it’s a small cosmos.

Koenji’s a place where a lot of fringe activities take place. It was also the starting point for the antinuclear protests in 2011, which I know was something you felt strongly about.

It sucked. It’s not only musicians, but Japanese people generally don’t like to talk about politics. I know why this is, but I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories. Japanese society is like a pyramid. Each stone is exactly the same, and it’s built up into a pyramid. Each of them is able to function but all together, it’s not very flexible to react to something, so they must be part of this society but out of the society they cannot do anything. Because I live in Germany, seeing Japan is totally different if you are involved in the society, but if you’re outside, you can see much more clearly.

One example of this is the case of (Fumiaki) Hoshino. He’s innocent but he’s been in jail for 39 years. He’s something like the beginning of the ‘Occupy’ movement in Japan. He was the leader of a student demonstration. Two people died and one was a policeman. He was the leader of this movement, so that’s why the police got him because if you cut off the head, then it’s much easier to control. He’s been in prison for 39 years and many people don’t know about this story. And even if they know, young people they don’t have any interest. Fukushima is the same: there’s not so much interest for young people. I don’t like to say why, but people are manipulated, mind-controlled even, because of control over the information. For them it’s quite difficult to say ‘Help Hoshino’ because Hoshino’s movement is kind of Communist, which is a kind of dirty word in Japan. Information is controlled by the Japanese government and the Japanese government is controlled by the USA because we lost the War, and things go this.

Last year, a number of lost Can recordings, some of which feature you, were finally released. Did you listen to them or is that part of your past that you feel a bit shut off from?

It’s like talking about my schooldays now. I was eighteen when I came to Germany. Sometimes I work with the drummer of GuruGuru or some members of Faust — the Hamburg Faust, not the Hanover Faust. The ‘French Faust.'”

It seems that in the last few years some of the Japanese music from that period has been getting more attention, partly thanks to Julian Cope’s book, although some people have complained about his habit of making stuff up.

He’s an interesting person because he wrote this kind of book, but he’s also writing about stones. He’s OK. Everyone has freedom to make anything, even wrong stories, because sometimes wrong stories are more beautiful than the truth, so it’s OK. It’s only a problem if people believe all of this. Me? I like the truth, it’s much more interesting.

It’s interesting that it took a book by a British writer and all the attention in the West before Japanese people really started to rediscover bands like Les Rallizes Dénudés and all the others.

Talking of the mainstream media and thinking of the 70s, the Japanese music scene didn’t communicate so much with the rest of the world because record companies weren’t so tied to the musicians. British people are always more open to any kind of music, so now there’s some interest in Japanese music too because the British have a basis for this kind of (progressive) music but the Japanese don’t really have this basis. Most bands from the 60s were just cover bands of The Beatles or something and didn’t do something original. But if I compare Japanese music now and ten years ago, Japanese music is really getting interesting. Young people have developed their own styles, they’re not copying too much from British or American bands and that’s a good thing.

The same thing happened in Germany as well at the end of the 60s. I don’t like the name ‘Krautrock’ but they just avoided any kind of Western culture, especially Anglo-Saxon, and I think a similar thing’s happening with young Japanese people’s music. If you’re a creative person, it’s important to break rules. If you’re in the middle of the system, you can’t create much, but if you’re on the outside, you can just avoid it, start from zero and make your own stuff with no influence at all.

I feel that British musicians tend to see Krautrock and automatically gravitate towards the Klaus Dinger-style Neu! beat while Japanese bands are a bit more likely to ore complex, looser beats that Can used to do. You play with musicians from a lot of different countries so have you noticed differences in the approach of musicians from different cultural musical traditions?

I don’t see so much difference, because the musicians I perform with are already open-minded to create something together and create time and space in the moment. Japanese musicians have a lot of ‘kaizen,’ where you take something, add a little bit and create something new. Japanese music is quite like this at the moment, a lot of bands have a lot of originality, but the trouble is that major labels don’t support them. They like to have Japanese bands playing like American or English bands, or to have them looking good or stylish and things like this. But the good thing is that there are quite a lot of indie labels in Japan over the last ten years so maybe they’re going to make something.

It’s interesting that Bo Ningen recently got signed by Sony. They’re sort of between two cultures in a way but they’ve also become a bit of a bridge.

They’re quite outstanding. They’re a Japanese band living in London and they’ve managed to get an agent supporting them to get work permits to work in the UK so they’re quite different from Japanese bands living in Japan.

So moving back to your own performances, I know you never rehearse with your sound carriers beforehand, but do you ever worry that they might be preparing secretly by themselves?

I get in contact with them, ‘Don’t practice anything!’ Because I don’t like to make music, I like to make energy. Energy itself is more interesting than to make music. Music is just a way to get energy, so why not just make energy?

Would you notice if they did?

Maybe they do, but if they do, I feel like I’m singing karaoke. It’s not really my style.

And you still organise everything by yourself?

Even though there’s a lot of things to do, it’s the price of freedom. This is the only way you can find yourself.

I guess that also requires a lot of goodwill from others.

Sure, because music is communication.

So what are your plans after Japan?

I’m going to Switzerland for one concert and then one in Italy.

You’ve had problems playing in America before, is that right? Any plans to go there?

There’s no difficulties. I just don’t like to go there. It’s a political problem. If I go to any country and I cannot talk about my opinions freely, I don’t like to go. It’s a hard country and people aren’t really free.

I’ve never been.

That’s good. You don’t have to! (Laughs)

But my brother-in-law and my niece and nephew live in Hawaii!

(Laughs) No, I’m not against Americans, I just don’t like the political style. They’re playing world police and why should they have more than 700 military bases all over the world? It’s just controlling people.

It’s a shame that the American government gives the country such a bad name in the rest of the world, because there’s always been so much great American music.

I don’t think so. It’s important for any country and it’s important for them to have a domestic music scene, but the reason American music is popular is that it’s pushed by the mainstream. They won the war, and that’s why American culture is everywhere. Winner takes it all, you know!

Given the range of different musicians you play with, do you have to adapt your own performance sometimes?

No. I’m Damo Suzuki and I play Damo Suzuki. I’m happy to be Damo Suzuki. Sometimes I play together with free jazz musicians, and this year in Sheffield I performed with 40 musicians, 35 singers onstage at the same. Because I’m making energy, it doesn’t matter what kind of musicians are onstage with me. Sometimes the guitarist is playing lots of technical stuff, sometimes he’s not able to play so quick, it doesn’t matter when you’re making energy. I have to accept every kind of music.

There are some approaches like this, but it’s OK because I’m also living my life process. I don’t have any answers, so the answer’s not important so much as the process. You have to be able to break stuff. You build up, break, build up, break, always this kind of process. Look at any painter, they have different periods, they’re not always painting the same stuff.

It’s a bit like the Derek Bailey approach, where even mistakes just get incorporated into the performance.

There is no such thing as a mistake. I don’t know what a mistake is. A mistake makes you able to create the next step and if there is no mistake, you cannot create, it’s such an opportunity.

That’s an almost religious way of looking at art.

I’m quite religious too, yes. Why can’t people accept mistakes? Especially in Japanese society, everyone’s trying to be perfect, they always like to have answers. Perfect stuff always has some sort of structure, but if we are creative enough and free, then you don’t need any answer. If you have an answer, you are isolated from everyone, but if you don’t, we can still be going the same way. Not only music, but this is what we should do.

Isn’t that true in almost any capitalist, consumer society where the economic model is built around mass production though?

Yes, but I think Japan is more extreme. If you’re five years old, you should learn violin, you should get into a good kindergarten, you should go to a better high school than other people and a better university to get into a big company. But if you live in this kind of society, you’ll always be a slave and you can’t develop anything. Europeans are a little bit different. They like to have perfection, but not on such a large scale — their own perfection. I think that makes you more creative, or at least that’s how I see it with my own eyes.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Pop-Office, “Good Morning”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a beautifully crafted slice of old-school indie rock from Nagoya.

Discussion of Japanese music tends to automatically gravitate towards the twin fringes of avant-garde experimentalism and day-glo, candy-coloured pop excess and it’s natural that when looking for music from a country, the artists that stand out are the ones that seem to exhibit something distinct and unique about that place. Pop-Office, on the other hand, are a solid indie rock band like what they used to make in the 90s, and Good Morning, taken from the group’s new album Portraits in Sea, is an instantly familiar example of the form, the fuzzy guitars growling at you from the get-go like Yo La Tengo’s Sugarcube and vocalist Ryuhei Shimada’s melancholy baritone vocals revealing echoes of Pop-Office’s roots in Joy Division-influenced postpunk.

For all the undoubted similarities with 1990s US alt-rock, this is also a song with roots in Japan’s own indie culture. Pop-Office hail from a generation of kids who grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s when the ultra-sophisticated but also clinical and style-obsessed Shibuya-kei movement was coming to a close and guitar bands like Number Girl and Supercar were taking imagination of Japanese youth by the scruff of the neck, and Supercar’s epic shoegaze debut album, 1998’s Three Out Change, is clearly a bible for Pop-Office, with the rough guitar textures, desultory vocals and wistful melody in particular recalling early single Cream Soda.

There are hints, especially in the shifting drum patterns, of a band equally comfortable exploring more progressive musical territory, but at heart Good Morning is the sort of straightforward indie rock that supports itself not on pushing back boundaries but on a core of solid musicianship and melodic songwriting. Pop-Office demonstrate a skill in tweaking those notes of familiarity at the back of your mind, which is something it’s rare to find done well in a music scene where the best and most interesting material is more often the music that pushes the hyperactive extremes than that which satisfies the simpler, more nostalgic rock needs.

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Strange Boutique (November 2013)

My latest Japan Times column talks about the Tokyo Boredom event, which did a two-day extravaganza in Taipei alongside a bunch of Taiwanese bands this September, and which is gearing up for its next Tokyo installment on Saturday night in Shimo-Kitazawa.

It was all done from a very Japanese perspective, and I think it would have been interesting to get input from bands on the Taiwan side of things to see what influence or inspiration they feel they’ve got from Japan. Still, it’s good to hear of Japanese music actually having a tangible effect on musicians in other countries. It’s pretty obvious from listening that Hang in the Air had some influence from bands like Six O’Minus and Arakajime Kimerareta Koibitotachi E, for example. Mochizuki from Groundcover.’s comment that the scene there seems to have grown up a lot was interesting, although obviously when you’re talking about underground scenes in huge cities, it’s not always easy to put influences like that into perspective — Tokyo Boredom (and probably its counterpart in Taiwan) represents a very small fraction of what the music scene here is about. That said, comparable scenes influencing each other should be the norm in Asia, and this sort of international cooperation and willingness to exchange influences feels to me like a very positive thing.Groundcover.: io

Like any event run by a bunch of friends and scene insiders, Tokyo Boredom can seem a bit cliquey to outsiders (I’ve been involved in the scene for about ten years and have dealt with nearly all the Boredom bands in various capacities, but a lot of these guys go way further back with each other), but despite this, or perhaps because of this, there’s always a great sense of community within the show.

Also, some people have criticised the event for being to narrow and delivering too limited a range of music. I get the impression that the organisers recognise this and make an effort to broaden their horizons, but perhaps as a side-effect of the way the scene’s structured I think their capacity to offer a wider range of music is limited. I regularly try to book bands from different facets of the Tokyo underground scene together and it never really works: people simply won’t go to gigs unless everyone sounds the same. Add to that the fact that all the Boredom bands play in more or less the same circles, and their contact with different stuff (and more importantly their audience’s contact with different stuff) is limited. The truth is that they do a pretty good job of mixing things up within the restrictions of how the Tokyo (things are different in other cities) underground scene is structured.Subterraneans (including intro by Kaita Tanaka from Worst Taste)

Going back to my point about international cooperation, I’d just like to add as an addendum that these sorts of ground-level networks are exactly the sort of thing the government should be assisting. Touring overseas is a pretty much guaranteed money losing enterprise for underground bands. Big labels and name acts can afford it already, but ground level is where the real creative connections are made, and it’s a place where a small amount of money to assist bands with travel expenses could reap enormous cultural benefits in the long run.Milk

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Guardian Song of the Week: Umez, “Rainbow”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a song from a noise-pop duo formed in London, who are now based in Tokyo.

Umez: Rainbow

Umez are a noise-pop Japanese duo consisting of vocalist/bassist Sachiko Fukuda and guitarist Koichi “Niiyan” Niizato. Originally formed in London in 2012, the group have since moved back to Japan, and have recently become active in Tokyo.

The pair’s music has just as much duality as their stage presence: Fukuda, hardly moves as she sings simple, but catchy melodies, while Niiyan wears a gas mask and goes all out, climbing on top of equipment and letting his guitar wail. Their music ranges from catchy, shoegaze-influenced pop to disgusting, chaotic, walls of noise. Many times they have both elements present in their songs.

“Rainbow” is featured on their compilation, “International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl) Vol. 1,” which was released in September. The compilation is released from Fukuda’s label, 14 Years Records, and features artists from around the world, such as Brutes from the U.K., and a solo track from Taigen Kawabe of Bo Ningen. “Rainbow” is a fine example of the duality found of Umez, with the lo-fi beats and Niyan’s soaring guitars, fronted by Fukuda’s calm vocals. The breakdown in the middle featuring a playful keyboard part, bookended by the main guitar riff and vocal melody. Not all their tracks sound like this of course, but it’s a good taste of the band condensed into a three minute pop song.

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