Monthly Archives: February 2014

CAR-81 – Quit Your Band! (zine) and CAR-80 – Mir: Я не могу без тебя

Я не могу без тебя

CD+zine, Call And Response, 2013

This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.

When talking about Mir’s first album This Tiny World, I noted that they’re a band I’ve never found the right way to sell. Part of that comes down to just how personal everything they do feels. When you instinctively feel that something is speaking to you personally, it’s hard to know how to present it to someone else. I mean, it just seems obvious why you would love Mir: how do you convince someone else they should? What is the profile of a Mir fan?

Given how unpredictable their live performances are and the limitations their work puts on their ability to play shows and tour, there had to be another way of getting their music out there. One idea I’d been toying with for a while was of putting together a Japanese language indie/punk zine and packaging it with a CD. That way, the zine could act as a vehicle to get the music out to people who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily know of the band.

I got the title of the zine, Quit Your Band! from a line from a song by this teenage garage-punk band from Saga called Nakigao Twintail who I saw in Fukuoka during the Dancing After 1AM release tour. I’ve written before about how they affected me, but basically it comes down to the sheer anarchic, everything-in-the-moment-of-now rock’n’roll smack in the face of their set and the snotty, self-destructive immediacy of the phrase. I wrote a long article on this blog about the sort of false equivalence between punk and idol music that has been growing in the underground scene and used Nakigao Twintail (who clearly enjoy idol music as much as anyone, but are also clearly not idols themselves) as an example of what teenage girls playing punk really sounds like. A slightly updated Japanese version of that blog appeared in the article (including an illustration I did of an idol waving a nationalist flag and holding a gun to her temple), along with a couple of long pieces occasional Clear And Refreshing contributor Ryotaro Aoki wrote on his own blog, a couple of interviews, and a few short reviews. We also recruited Konatsu from Nakigao Twintail to do some art, Iguz from Zibanchinka/Futtachi did a short column and some disturbing but brilliant body horror artwork, and Yukari from Kobayashi Dorori drow a short three page manga about love and punk rock.

It was a deliberate strategy to include people and music from throughout Japan, not just Tokyo, partly to get copies of the zine circulating far and wide, but also because there’s so little coverage generally of music from outside the big cultural centres. Why should Tokyo have a monopoly on what’s cool?

The Mir album Я не могу без тебя was their first new material since the 2010 experiments, and it’s easy to see why some people who had come to them from those songs on Soundcloud might have been disappointed. Where the 2010 tracks were slick and quite modern sounding in their beats, synth and vocal effects, the recordings on Я не могу без тебя focussed more on decidedly retro, shrill-sounding Casiotone keyboards. I have to admit this was a less striking shift for me, since the Casiotone side to Mir was a staple of their live set, and I suspect the main reason they took that approach to the recording was out of a need to make the album something that they could reproduce a reasonable approximation of live without messing about with samples and things.

Without a live drummer, the Krautrock side of the band also had to take a back seat to the Casiotone side, and the choice of songs reflects that. The one that works best is probably Machiawase Basho wo Kimete Okou, a simple, repetitive duet built over a simple chord pattern built over a cheap sounding preset beat, with the building intensity of the song emphasised by the repetition in the lyrics, and the two members wringing moments of horrendous noise out of their tiny keyboards. TV has been through numerous incarnations, as has Dance, although the pace of the latter lends itself better to the synth-based format. The really rather dark Minna Shinu (“Everyone Dies”) extracts a surprising amount of menace from the simple equipment, while Ai no Kobune wa Uchikidakarenai is built over the same basic preset beat that Mir seem so fond of but focusses primarily on Kyohei’s more emotionally wrought vocals rather than Yoko’s icy melancholy.Mir: Machiawase Basho wo Kimete Yokou

Of course Mir being Mir, having made this statement about their new sonic identity, started fucking with it immediately upon its release, bringing guitar in for some tracks during live performances, including on TV, which is a song I’m increasingly starting to suspect that they’ll never be satisfied with their version of. The more they sing “Sayonara, sayonara” at the end of it, the more they keep returning to give it another go.

If that means they keep making music forever, I for one will be very happy, and they have enough unrecorded songs that they could record another mini-album right now. It’s just that every time with them it’s always like starting fresh, and so what direction it would take is anyone’s guess.

Personally I couldn’t have been any happier with the whole package. The Mir artwork was wonderfully minimalist and they finally got their dream of having fluorescent paint on one of their jackets. The magazine came out really well too, and I maintain the contents are more insightful, intelligent and witty than anything else currently happening in Japanese music journalism (ahem). Distribution had its own challenges though. Setting a price was difficult, because while a six-song mini album could normally expect to sell for around ¥1500, an indie or punk zine would normally sell for about ¥500-¥600. If we wanted people to buy it entirely on its merits as a zine, we had to keep the price closer to the lower limit than the upper, even though we were actually offering something much more comprehensive than either a CD or a zine on its own. We settled on ¥800 because of the psychological feeling of paying less than a single banknote, and given the cost of producing it, that was pretty much the minimum price that allowed us to break even. It also meant that using Call And Response’s distribution company to get it in Amazon (spit!) and Tower Records was probably a waste of money because of the extra cut the distributor takes. We may row back on that for the second issue, but to be honest, I don’t think it makes much difference. In fact, in many ways it’s better to keep it in indie stores only because that funnels all the sales to those stores and puts more back into the community.

In any case, it did well enough that it was worth doing an issue two (although not well enough to pay for it), and we’re fortunate that the content, focussing on interviews and non-time-specific features, remains relevant a year after we wrote most of it. If I were a cynical man, I’d suggest that thanks should perhaps go there to the Japanese music scene for never really changing or developing in any real way.

Quit Your Band! and Я не могу без тебя are available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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CAR-84 – V/A: Dancing After 1AM

Dancing After 1AM

CD, Call And Response, 2012

This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.

As 2012 rolled around, I started thinking it was time to do a new compilation. It had been four years since my last one, the Post Flag Wire covers album, and obviously I’d discovered a load more bands since then and picked up new audiences along with them, so it was time to lay down another marker about where Call And Response was. I settled on the title Dancing After 1AM in response to Japan’s absurd anti-dancing laws that saw a bunch of club owners arrested in 2011 and 2012, and completely devastated the club scene in Osaka. In Tokyo we weren’t affected, but on tour in Kyushu you could see the poisonous effect it had had on the club scene there. I added the subtitle “Japanese electric music in the year 2012” as a way of instantly dating it, and then wrote some text in Japanese for the sidecap/obi strip reading “Compilation albums are a waste of time because they’re already out of date as soon as they’re released”. I did a little illustration of a dancing policewoman with a hippy flower in her hair and N’toko contributed by designing the sleeve around my drawing. I kept it to Japanese bands, which meant the design was his only contribution, but I tried to get all the other bands from the label involved. Praha Depart were very much doing their own thing by this point though, and when I mentioned it to them, they gave the impression that it would be difficult to get any new recordings done. Zibanchinka agreed to do something and then promptly imploded, but vocalist Iguz was keen to keep things moving with her new band Futtachi, who contributed a thundering psychedelic monster of a track in Kaiko no Oto. (One other band I really wanted to get on the album was the brilliant blues/Krautrock band Buddy Girl and Mechanic, but they were absorbed in the recording of their own album, which they released finally in early 2013 and was one of the best albums of the year, so they obviously used the time well.) Neither Mir nor Hyacca had released anything for a long time, so getting them involved was essential for more than just their role as the heart and soul of the label. They both needed a kick up the arse to get on and do something. Mir had lost their drummer somewhere between their recording of Wire’s Mannequin for 2008’s Post Flag and 2010 when some electronic recordings they’d done as a duo emerged. It was from these sessions that the version of their perennial closing number Dance (which naturally closed out the album too) came from. I chose that over their excellent 2010 version of the song TV partly because of its appropriateness to the compilation’s title, and partly because Mir’s TV is a song I’ve over the years become very superstitious about. it’s a beautiful song and the 2010 version of it is brilliant, but there’s a sadness at its heart that starts sucking you into itself the more you think about it, and the closing refrain of “Sayonara, sayonara” feels way too much like tempting fate. In Hyacca’s case, the bassist, Seiji Harajiri, was by this time managing the coolest and best venue in Fukuoka, Yakuin Utero, and so he and his band used Utero and its PA engineer to record a new song, Uneko. Uneko was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for from them, both catchy and musically intelligent — the exact right balance of smart and dumb that only they can really pull off in this particular way. The video we later made for it where I filmed them with a cheap pocket camera just goofing around and getting drunk in a karaoke box was actually one of the spare ideas for Zibanchinka that their indefinite hiatus had left us with, and Hyacca attacked it with gusto. Looking to the label’s future, Hysteric Picnic went on to record an EP/mini album for Call And Response, while hopefully Jebiotto and Slow-Marico will follow in one form or another.Hyacca: Uneko There were a lot of other bands on DA1AM who were in similar positions, having been out of the recording game for a while and happy for the opportunity (and the deadline) that the compilation gave them. Extruders had just recorded a wonderful live album at a Buddhist temple, and were looking to go into the studio to record an album proper soon (the result, Colors, was another of 2013’s best) and so they came up with Collapsing New Buildings (translate it into German and see what you get) with its constant electric buzz running through the whole song in the background, causing me and the friend who was helping make the master copy to spend a while debating whether it was intentional or not (it was). The Mornings’ debut had been my album of the year back in 2011, and they were just starting to put together material for the follow-up (Christ alone knows what’s going on with that — I heard a full album’s worth of rough mixes last summer but no final version has yet emerged) so Fu-ji was what got them back into gear. Puffyshoes contributed the short and sweet girl-group garage rocket Oh My God, went on to have a busy 2013 and released a great cassette album before exploding in a shower of unfulfilled potential, while Otori recorded the brilliant Hanten (which is their best song and I’m incredibly smug that I got it), Anisakis did the XTC-esque Popcorn Bata ni Kuroi Kage, She Talks Silence gave the album the eerie Long Ways, and New House did the sampledelic Natural Blessings (the last song to arrive, just a couple of days before the album went off to press, and which much to my shame I misprinted as “Nature Blessings” on the jacket — and which also ensured I’d be an insufferable grammar nazi come time to print the Hysteric Picnic CD jacket the following year).She Talks Silence: Long Ways The main problem was in knowing exactly what was going to be on the album, and as with the New House track, right up until the final day or so it wasn’t completely fixed. It wasn’t just a problem for printing the track listing, but also for the CD itself. Bands like Futtachi and macmanaman delivered songs that ran to over seven minutes, and at one point there was real danger of it becoming a double album (I went as far as making an alternative track list where I worked out how the tracks would divide over two discs just in case). There were also moments where tensions ran a bit high. New House didn’t make a fuss over the mistake on the jacket, but one of the other bands (no, I’m not naming names: they did a very good song and it didn’t turn into any kind of feud) was very particular about every aspect of how they wished to be presented with tempers flaring on both sides. The problem of projects like this where everyone (myself included) is working pro bono is that you never have the cushion of money to fall back on, so everything comes down to self satisfaction, and often in a related sense to pride. In a small society like the indie/underground scene, however, the axiom of “don’t piss people off” is a solid general rule. It’s a contradiction of rock’n’roll and punk: both bands and labels are in it in the first place because they’re in some way dissatisfied or disaffected, but within the circle you find yourself, you often have to keep under control the same impulses that led you there in the first place. In addition to Hyacca, fellow Fukuoka crazies macmanaman (the best band named after a twinkle-toed former Liverpool winger in the whole world) recorded a live version of their song Michael, which I retitled Michael in Utero partly because it was recorded at a venue called Utero and partly because the combination of a Michael Jackson reference and a Nirvana reference amused me. Along with Tokyo postpunk trio Tacobonds’ superb Ane with its deft boy-girl vocal call and response (by now you must know how I dig that sort of thing) and slowly building dynamic tension, that made three superb recordings at Utero by the same engineer. You want to do good recordings cheap? Get yourself your own live venue and get the staff to do it.Tacobonds: Ane Still in Kyushu, Kobayashi Dorori and cynicalsmileisyourfavorite from Kumamoto are also on there. The former contributed an oddball nursery rhyme about whales called Shepherd, while the latter contributed the baffling Carnival. I’m still not sure what I think of Carnival now. It has so much going on, with the insistent dance beat, the post-hardcore shrieking, and you’ve got to admire the balls of the way the one guy just throws everything he’s got into his bit of the vocal melody with zero regard for whether he even gets close to the right notes. But at the same time, cynicalsmileisyourfavorite are one of those bands that are all about what happens in the moment. Carnival is usually a chaotic babble of freshly improvised nonsense, but for the recording they tried to work something out and make a proper song of it, and so while the results are, well, they’re something, they’ don’t quite sound like the band when they’re just left to be themselves. Jebiotto are a very similar kind of band in that regard, but their track, Deacon Punk, with its mad cat meows, dirty synths and semi-inebriated sounding vocals, treads that path more assuredly. But like I said, with cynicalsmile you can’t not admire the sheer weight of passion they hurl at it and for some reason I always come out of hearing Carnival with a smile on my face. I’m just not sure why.The Mornings: Fu-ji One of the biggest motivating factors for me while putting DA1AM together was the existence of Nagoya label Knew Noise’s wonderful Ripple compilation of local Nagoya bands. Throughout the production process I was listening to Ripple and my gradually forming compilation and comparing them. I would just not be beaten by this collection from one mere city (and not even Tokyo!) Pop-Office contributed to both Ripple and DA1AM, and it’s interesting that both they and Extruders off this CD went on to make albums for Knew Noise. In any case, both albums to me seem to come from a similar kind of taste, and I’ve been keen to make more connections in Nagoya ever since. On the current rate, Call And Response’s next proper compilation is due towards the end of 2015, which will be just in time for the label’s ten year anniversary. In the meantime, there were new Mir and Hysteric Picnic releases to think of.

Dancing After 1AM is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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CAR-86 – Praha Depart: DOT.

DOT.

CD, Call And Response, 2011

This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.

Praha Depart were a band I first heard back in the early days. I think I first saw them at a studio gig organised by Drive to the Forest in a Japanese Car (who had appeared on Call And Response’s first 1-2-3-Go! compilation). At that time they were a simple drums, guitar and vocal trio, with no bass but a very cool, scratchy postpunk sound that had elements of The Slits and Maximum Joy to it and a singer who did this wonderful, mad gypsy dancing. I kept seeing them at shows on and off over the years and became more and more of a fan. At one stage the singer, Mai, took up bass and stopped her dancing, then they experimented with bringing in bassists (including one memorable spell with Takehito Kono of Mahiruno (now of Lagitagida), and then finally settling once more on Mai as bass/vocalist.

I’d been trying to book them more and more as time went by and they’d been rapidly rising in my estimation as (along with Tacobonds) one of the best bands in Tokyo. Their sound filled out, their music became less punk and more expansive, epic, psychedelic and contemporary. Their sound filled the small halls of the Tokyo underground circuit and seemed to be bursting at the seams, straining for bigger spaces. Zibanchinka loved them and N’toko thought they were marvellous — I think it’s very important to pay attention to the opinions of other Call And Response artists; not everyone’s going to like everything, but it helps massively if they get along — so I did my best to help them where I could.Praha Depart: Dreamer / Swan (Slovenian studio session part 1)

Praha Depart were a rare item in the Call And Response roster though, since they were a band who’d already been around for a while and were reasonably well known in the Tokyo underground scene. The Dot. EP was originally recorded as a free giveaway for a “one-man live” they did at at the beginning of 2011 (a “one-man live” just means a gig with no other bands performing and is a really big deal for Japanese bands for no good reason), then over the summer, Praha Depart and N’toko started talking about touring Europe together and decided having something new to sell on the tour would be a good idea. With that in mind, I suggested pressing up the EP properly and putting it out to coincide with Europe.

N’toko felt the recording as it stood wasn’t ready to be released, so we contacted Slovenian producer Igor Vuk (a.k.a. BeatMyth) to punch up the recording and give it a bit more energy and power. He had to cheat a bit with the remixing but I’d say he did a pretty bang up job of it. Iguz from Zibanchinka lent her graphic design talents to the album jacket for free, and due to time constrictions, we had it pressed in Slovenia so that the CDs would be waiting for Praha Depart when they arrived rather than risk having them delivered to Japan too late.

Now Praha Depart had made a decision to focus on overseas touring, and this was a big commitment from the band. They had to find jobs that would allow them to take large amounts of time off, which usually means low pay and makes it far more difficult to participate in the money-sucking enterprise of playing in Japan. It killed Praha Depart’s prospects for touring in Japan even though by working theirs and my connections, they could probably have made a Japan tour pay for itself. Instead though, they devoted their energies to Europe and America, and got what looked like some solid progress out of it in some areas. The progress was piecemeal though, and you can argue that they gave up too soon, but given how much they had already sacrificed, I don’t want to be the person to say how much time one should devote to such a quixotic goal. In any case, something happened and they started to sharply curtail their activities.Praha Depart: Sanzeila / Stone (Slovenian studio session part 2)

As far as the album was concerned, there were some serious problems, with most of the units arriving with me damaged, necessitating the removal and replacement of discs into new cases. Given the number of unsold CDs I had from the early days of the label, I wasn’t short of spare cases, but it was still time-consuming. Fortunately the discs themselves were beautifully done, with full colour labels and no problems with the audio quality. I still don’t know the cause (if it was the press themselves or the postage) but it has made me very suspicious of using overseas companies.

The limits of my own powers to help bands with overseas booking were also very clearly revealed by Praha Depart’s touring experience. I’d booked some UK gigs for Uhnellys and Deracine round the time of 1-2-3-Go! which had been a humbling and frankly dispiriting experience, and even with a few slightly more reliable connections under my belt, the sheer scale of a continental tour enterprise would have crushed me were I attempting to do it myself. I didn’t make a specific decision, but I think around this time, I drew a sort of mental red line around Japan and resolved to limit my ambitions to areas where I had face-to-face working relationships with people. I didn’t turn away from the rest of the world and I still help bands and overseas organisers who are interested in making connections or contact with bands where I can, but I became reactive rather than proactive. In that sense, I suppose I became part of that “Galapagos syndrome” that I myself have occasionally criticised Japanese music and pop culture of wallowing in. Anyway, bite me.

Anyway, back to Dot. There are only four tracks on it, but it’s as long as a lot of the mini-albums I’ve released. The ten-minute title track is one of the most powerful and exhausting pieces of music I’ve ever put out. The repetitive dot-dot-dot morse chime of the guitar is a deceptively minimalist opening given the contortions of twisted rock energy it explodes into, but it’s always there, an insistent, propulsive backbeat that the song keeps returning to, while Mai’s voice rips itself to shreds. As an opening track, it’s ambitious. Portrait Man is probably my favourite track though, and actually my favourite of any of the songs they’ve done. It’s the track that I think combines all the elements I associate with the group most powerfully: the off-kilter gypsy-punk, the Japanese festival drums, and the harsh, abrasive guitar squalls. Lesson is a bit more restrained but no worse for that (and it’s not saying much anyway with a band as expressive as Praha Depart could be), while the deliberate, plodding doom of Faust Class demonstrates why Praha Depart are one of the few bands whose slow emotional songs I can honestly claim to like.Praha Depart: Rhumba / Dot. (Slovenian studio session)

As I said, the band seem to have curtailed their activities a lot lately. Drummer Junpei Yamamoto also plays with Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots (along with Lagitagida, Sajjanu and Lailailai Team one of the several successor bands to Mahiruno) and as they have become more successful and busy, it has perhaps put limits on what he can do with his other bands. Also Mai and guitarist Tsukasa have formed the rather fine Yokan System, playing synthpop with elements of 80s kayoukyoku mixed with a sort of The Knife/Grimes-style offbeat pop sense. To watch Yokan System play shows alongside cutesy “girls group” acts at cavernous but three-quarters-empty venues is to watch the workings of a very different side to the music scene from the cramped clubs that Praha Depart’s immense sound seemed to be straining against. It feels weird and wrong to me, but then I’ve wilfully and arrogantly set myself up in opposition to the established promotion and booking model that the music scene tends to use. My notion of “right” and more objective measures of “effective” are often at odds. In any case, Praha Depart still exist, and this is by no means a story of failure. Like Zibanchinka though, there’s a nagging sense of what could have been.

DOT. is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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CAR-87 – Zibanchinka: Hatsubai Chushi

Hatsubai Chushi

CD, Call And Response, 2011

This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.

Since the start of Call And Response I’d been cultivating connections in Kyushu, and been lucky enough to almost immediately hit on the magnificent and life-changing Hyacca from Fukuoka. The wonderful Accidents In Too Large Field, also from Fukuoka, had contributed to my Wire covers compilation Post Flag, and I’d done stuff live with others. Fukuoka was and remains a musical hotspot in Japan, I think partly because its dominant position as the only really big city in Kyushu (and really the only properly big city west of Hiroshima) means it’s a centre for culture for a much larger area than its actual size.

I first heard about Zibanchinka from Hyacca. Hiromi Kajiwara also plays in a new wave/avant-pop trio called Miu Mau and she came back from a Miu Mau tour in Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu raving to her Hyacca bandmates about this utterly mad band they’d played with down there. Hyacca then booked Zibanchinka for a show they were putting on in Fukuoka with Call And Response’s other main band Mir, who subsequently returned to Tokyo with a mad glint in their eyes. There was this really special, very young band from Kagoshima with a weird name and a lunatic live reputation (yes, this was becoming a theme for Call And Response bands) and we were the first people to discover them.Zibanchinka: Hari to Uruoi

I rarely book bands I haven’t seen for events, but enough people I trusted had been blown away by Zibanchinka that it seemed a safe bet, and yeah. Yeah it was. They were really good.

They were also very prolific, releasing four home made CD/R mini-albums in the space of not much more than a year, which amounts to more songs than Hyacca have recorded in their entire career. We started talking about releasing an album, and so we agreed to wait a while and try to get people interested before going all out with a CD. We put together a live DVD/R which was a bit of a mess if truth be told, and the process of which put me off DVDs forever, and they came to Tokyo a few more times. They recorded a wonderful cover of the song Abunai Doyoubi by 1970s idol group the Candies for the second of my private Valentine’s compilations in 2010, which went down well, then they found a good producer in Kagoshima, selected some favourite songs from their back catalogue plus some new ones they were currently working on and started recording.

The album was recorded, the artwork done, the band had settled on the title Hatsubai Chushi (literally “Stop Sale”) and it all went to press in February the following year. The recording went really well and the sound had really retained their energy and rawness but also captured the depth and richness of sound that the earlier recordings hadn’t got. It sounded professional, but it was still punk. It was a great recording. The songs were crazily short, with the whole album clocking in at shorter than the Hyacca record despite having twice as many songs, and tracks ranging from stuff like Still I’m Sad which was basically hardcore to the nonsensical avant-garde, psychedelia of Chugoku no Niwatori. Then the March 11th earthquake hit and the distribution company refused to put it out.

The problem was the band name. Zibanchinka means “ground subsidence” and while it’s a pretty dry geological term, it was one that was appearing a lot in the news at that time and was linked to a lot of people’s lost homes. No, the distributors couldn’t be seen to be promoting something like that at that time. When might they? No idea. Not for a long time. Tower Records wouldn’t stand for it.

Except that Tower Records in Kagoshima were desperately clamouring for it. The earthquake hadn’t affected Kyushu and while there had been plenty of benefit concerts and things, day to day life in Kyushu hadn’t been disrupted the way it had in Tokyo and certainly not the way it had in the real disaster zone. The weekend after the earthquake I was in Kyushu on tour with N’toko (who himself had been hit by the quake the moment he stepped out of Koenji Station on his way back from Nagoya) and the difference between the atmosphere in Tokyo and Fukuoka was present in everything. After that tense, stressful, anxiety-filled week, Fukuoka was like another country. Kagoshima lives in the shadow of a massive, continually erupting volcano so they’re no strangers to danger from nature, but subsidence was not a controversial issue for them. On the other hand, Zibanchinka had gone from weird, possibly clinically insane garage-punk weirdos to local celebrities in a snap once word had got out that a Tokyo record label was releasing them.

So the CD was here and ready to go, but the distributors were holding it back. In the end, an agreement was reached to let Hatsubai Chushi (the title taking on more and more irony with every passing day) out a couple of months late but only via Tower Kagoshima and online sales. Indie CD stores stocked it and it went down well. In Nagoya in particular they seem to have become extremely hip without them ever having played there. UK-based Japanese psychedelic riffsters Bo Ningen took a shine to them, perhaps bonding over hair styling tips, and toured together with them in Kyushu. In fact I suspect that the exploding popularity of Bo Ningen in Japan did a lot for not just Zibanchinka but any loud bands with that sort of long haired, straight-fringed “hime cut” hairstyle and hippyish clothes. Every time I see how popular the Osaka band Gezan have become, I always get a little bite of regret: that should be Zibanchinka up there!

In January 2012 Hatsubai Chushi was officially allowed in shops, by which time despite its troubles it was a qualified success. Then in the summer the band went on indefinite hiatus with bassist Nana already living in Yokohama and guitarist Maitake moving to Tokyo, the band just couldn’t make it work anymore.Zibanchinka: Nagisa no Hors d’Oeuvres

The last thing we did before the band shut up shop was make this silly and very simple video for the song Nagisa no Hors d’Oeuvres, shot in the space of about half an hour in the toilet the venue Heaven’s Door in the cool Tokyo suburb of Sangenjaya. It’s really the worst possible song to do as a video because it’s a very poppy “Showa pop” (60s/60s style Japanese pop) pastiche and totally unrepresentative of the album as a whole, but it was intended as the first in a series of equally simple videos that would cover the full range of material.

I’ve always loved videos where the director just sticks the camera in front of an intrinsically interesting bunch of performers and films them goofing about. The process of making N’toko’s Superhuman video showed me that things like that can work, and one of the things that I find most irritating about bands in Japan is the tendency among many of them to faff about endlessly trying to do something properly (and then often announcing after several weeks that no, they’re not satisfied with the results so sorry) rather than just getting out and doing something. I hooked up with matt Schley who’d done the N’toko video and explained the concept to him. He could dig it, the band were up for it, and it went so smoothly it was a joy to do.Zibanchinka: Syrup / Still I’m Sad / Toso

While Hatsubai Chushi was predominantly garage-punk with these off-the-wall postpunk arrangements and sudden bursts of Black Sabbath riffing, they’d been hinting at heavier, more psychedelic material by the time they came to a halt, which vocalist Iguz Souseki (her real name is far less dramatic) has been pushing further with her new band Futtachi. She’s starting again from scratch though, and all the momentum that Zibanchinka were building up has been usurped by other bands now. There are lots of other things I have to work on and I’m never short of bands I want to release, but every once in a while the thought stabs me like a knife, “I wish Zibanchinka would get back together…”

Hatsubai Chushi is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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CAR-88 – N’toko: Ex Shanti / Future Shanti

Ex Shanti / Future Shanti

CD, Call And Response, 2010

This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.

Because this is a Japanese music site, as a rule I tend to avoid overseas artists on this page. In the case of non-Japanese musicians who are based in Japan of course I’ll write about them, and in the case of Japanese musicians based overseas I’ll usually write about them as long as there’s some sort of meaningful connection with the scene in Japan.

With Call And Response Records I have no strict principle about this, but as a result of the way I operate, it’s nigh impossible for me to do much with musicians from outside Japan. N’toko is one exception and this blog is really about the benefits and challenges of taking an artist like him and trying to help him find a place in the Japanese music scene.

I met N’toko (real name Miha Blažič) and his wife Zana (a.k.a. Kaki) at the monthly DJ party I run with a friend and fellow music writer James Hadfield. Fashion Crisis isn’t a club event in the sense of there being thronging crowds of people dancing into the small hours or anything: the name was a joke, loosely punning on a friend of mine’s event called “Style Band” and it’s a generally low-key party in a smallish music bar in Koenji where people can come and have a drink and listen to music after work. There’s no specific music policy although I play a lot of minimal wave, postpunk, EBM, new wave, synthpop and garagey guitar music, while James seems to play an esoteric selection of African and Middle-Eastern dance and folk, old American roots music and more, stitched together with various kinds of experimental and noise stuff. Guest DJs are mostly free to play whatever they want as long as it’s not Oasis or Coldplay or something equally vile. Anyway, the point is that it’s pretty easygoing within certain boundaries but certainly attracts a cult of oddballs in terms of its clientele.

Because of the kind of event it is, everyone there tends to know pretty much everyone else, so when new people show up, they’re easy to recognise. Seeing Miha and Zana there, I was naturally curious about how they’d even found out about it, so I had a chat with them. It turned out that they from Slovenia and were in Koenji for a couple of months and I came away from the event with a demo CD of some of his newest recordings. The working relationship that we built up came out of a number of very long stays in Japan that the two of them made, an enthusiastic interest and participation in the events that I was involved in and regular gigging and DJing at most of them.

One of the reasons Japanese indie labels will very rarely take an interest in overseas (or indeed most domestic) artists who contact them hoping to get released is because indie labels, lacking much access to wider media and certainly lacking big promotional budgets, rely on cultivating small, devoted fanbases or hooking into existing scenes with their own word of mouth networks. With anyone they sign they need to be able to plug them into that world.

Now while N’toko is known in Slovenia for his socially conscious lyrics and his opinions on all manner of social and political issues are much sought after, his English language material tends to be much more scattershot, nonsensical and fun, playing with hip hop clichés and undercutting them at the same time by dissolving into mischievous wordplay. It feels like an escape from the pressures of constantly having to mean something. Playing in Japan where no one understands it anyway means the focus is necessarily on the performance, the beats, and the energy and musicality of the words themselves rather than their portent. It works very specifically in the little crowd of punk and alternative types who hang out in Koenji (and particularly with the eclectic and musically knowledgeable Fashion Crisis crowd) but at the same time it makes it very difficult to sell outside that scene.

Japanese record stores divide domestic and overseas music into different sections, often on different floors, which means that someone like N’toko whose fanbase in Japan is really part of the alternative and underground scene, gets his music filed in all sorts of weird places. Tower Records in Shinjuku filed Ex Shanti / Future Shanti in “World Music”. On the other hand File-Under Records in Nagoya, which is much more in touch with the actual way the underground scene works, files his stuff together with other Call And Response releases, which makes much more sense in terms of N’toko’s likely listeners and a small shop like File-Under’s clientele. In any case, foreign and domestic artists tend to be segregated, which is problematic for small labels trying to promote them, especially when they’re people like N’toko who don’t easily fit into the standard set of genres.

On the surface, his music is hip hop, but break it down and there’s a lot of EBM and industrial going on, as well as bits of technopop and all of it coming together with this alternative sensibility that places him at an angular path from the hip hop scene both in Japan and in Slovenia. With Ex Shanti / Future Shanti, you can also hear elements of his time in Japan breaking through the gap. The song Fashion Crisis obviously takes its title from the event, and it is also a collaboration with Japanese rapper Kim from Uhnellys, who appeared on Call And Response’s 1-2-3-Go! compilation back in 2005 and who are another band who place hip hop in an alternative context.

In the sequencers and synths, there’s also something that feels like it falls between the grinding industrial synth brutality of DAF or Liaisons Dangereuses and the pumped-up electro anthems of Yasutaka Nakata, whose Flash!!! events we were obsessed with at the time. There was something in the contrast between the obvious extreme cleverness of a lot of what Nakata does musically and this knack he has for utter dumbness at the same time, which is what all great pop is, but he pitches the balance in a way that sometimes just makes you wonder what’s really going on inside his head. There were echoes of that Nakata obsession in Ex Shanti‘s title track and in elements of Masterplan, especially in the closing BeatMyth remix.N’toko: Superhuman (VHS-’82 Version)

The video for Superhuman was shot inside Koenji One, and the Version 1 edit was designed as a sort of parody of the Tokyo indie scene, where the room’s half empty and no one’s really listening to the band anyway. Most of the people in it are Fashion Crisis regulars, with James appearing as the frizzy haired Othello player and director Matt Schley as his opponent, Zana is at the bar smoking, my wife is reading, and a chubby-faced version of me is flicking through some records. The whole thing’s very in-jokey. The Version 2 edit (the “VHS-’82” version) took the same footage of N’toko, edited out all the other people, and then was dubbed over and over between two VHS players to make it look like an old DAF or Suicide video from the early 80s. It’s less slick, but it’s probably the better of the two videos truth be told. It’s just a simpler, smarter concept, and one that influenced some of the other even quicker and much stupider videos Call And Response subsequently made.

Anyway, the album Ex Shanti / Future Shanti is pretty important in that it was the first Call And Response release of the “Fashion Crisis Era” — the first product of the time when the label was actually starting to get its own hinterland outside of scenes that already existed. That was what gave me the freedom to release something outside my usual comfort zone and it got me looking at music in a looser, more fun way again after the stress of establishing the label and its identity.N’toko: Superhuman (Fashion Crisis Version)

Ex Shanti / Future Shanti is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Lemon’s Chair, “My Favorite”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is an epic explosion of modern shoegaze.Lemon’s Chair: My Favorite

One of the prime movers in the Japanese shoegaze scene that’s had such a lively twelve months riding the back of the My Bloody Valentine revival, Lemon’s Chair were key figures behind 2013’s Yellow Loveless MBV covers compilation as well as being organisers and promoters of the rapidly expanding Japan Shoegazer Festival. This March they release a new album of their own and if nothing else, you have to admire the balls of them putting out this twelve-and-a-half-minute monster as a teaser. It’s all atmosphere and chiming, reverb-laden chords for the first six minutes before appearing to stamp on all their effects pedals at once. The result is loud, overblown and absurdly epic, which is honestly as this kind of thing should be.

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CAR-93 – Hyacca: Hanazono

Hanazono

CD, Call And Response, 2009

This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.

While Hyacca are I think without doubt one of the most magnificent bands in Japan, I don’t think they could ever easily be accused of being particularly hard working. The two year gap between their first and second mini-albums is more or less standard for bands in the Japanese indie/underground scene, but it was actually three years since they first completed the record.

In any case, the truth is that a live culture that’s based around 30-minute live sets with usually four other bands on the bill doesn’t really encourage bands to develop their material beyond that level. Songs grow slowly out of messing around in the studio rather than bands really getting down and writing new material out of necessity. It does mean, however, that when the new material does arrive, it’s often very well developed and has been road tested live pretty extensively.

Hyacca’s second album, Hanazono, was in all areas a honing and tightening up of what they were doing on Sashitai. The rhythm section was much tighter and incorporated much more complex patterns, but never at the expense of the music’s energy. 34 Dance opens with the scratchy, metallic reverb of Hiromi Kajiwara’s guitar, a sound that she increasingly incorporated into her playing not just with Hyacca but also in a very different way into her work with new wave art-pop trio Miu Mau. It’s a fierce, forceful opening with rhythms that don’t like to stay in one place but still propel the song forward relentlessly. Olympic brings Goshima’s vocals to the fore and again it rattles forward full of kinetic energy, this time the guitars dissolving into shoegaze-like feedback. The more complex rhythms come to the fore in Aflac and Hair Nude (a different version of which had trailed ahead of the album on the compilation album 14 New Rips. Charlie, a nonsensical tribute to the band’s weird friend from the band Bonkura Togen, sees Kajiwara’s vocals channeling the quirky new wave pop jitteriness of the Plastics, albeit against a more sonically abrasive background. Goshima’s Ya su ku ni, which appears to have as much to do with the controversial war shrine as Aflac does to the duck-loving insurance company, is the album’s one real stab at a proper soaring epic rock song and it goes for it with all effects pedals blazing. It’s the frenetic closing duo of Hanazono and Stress that really drag you back to Hyacca’s core essence, the former forming the madcap, crowdsurfing finale of many of their live performances and the latter split into a first half that’s built around a simple, cyclical melody interspersed with Harajiri’s death-screams and funk bass, and a second half that’s just pure, two-chord postpunk dugga-dugga-dugga disco with a distinctively Wire-esque cold stop at the end.Hyacca: Hanazono

Whereas Sashitai veered wildly between pop and discord, Hanazono integrates the two strands more into the fabric of each song, relying on the group’s growing musicianship to effect changes in tone, pace and texture. It’s tempting for me to suggest that the experience working on Call And Response’s Wire covers album helped focus them on ways of making punk interesting without losing its accessibility, although really Hyacca were doing that from the start, a long time before any of them had heard of Wire. Still, I think Hanazono has a bit more of Wire’s strident, brash affection for the brutal joy of a hard edge.Hyacca: Charlie

Hanazono also seems to mark a shift in the band’s behaviour, with some of the shows building up to and around its release quite the most violent and chaotic of their career. One gig at Meguro Rokumeikan, a converted cinema more used to visual-kei bands, was probably the most insane performance of their career, with Kajiwara smashing the headstock off her guitar within the first two songs, then spending the rest of the gig hurling herself off the stage at the terrified, sitting audience, bodyboarding across it and dancing on its smoking remains. The picture of a broken Flying V that this blog uses as its profile image was taken just after that show. Gradually after that, however, Hyacca started tightening up their performances and focussing their energy into their music more. Perhaps the more technical nature of the music forced them to concentrate a bit more, perhaps the novelty of playing in Tokyo wore off (being from Fukuoka, they tended to treat Tokyo trips in much the same way American college students treat Spring Break) or they may just have grown up a bit. In any case, they didn’t become any less totally wired, but they would more often finish gigs with all their instruments still in working order.

Hanazono is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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