This is the first part in 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.
Finding my way into the Japanese music scene was a slow process of trial and error. There was next to no information in English on what was going on, and precious little even in Japanese. Promotion was largely done through flyers either handed out personally at gigs or distributed by venues in packs at the door (which quickly made their ways, unread, into the bin), and bands were at a pretty primitive stage when it came to the Web, contacting fans via email, and spamming each others’ BBS pages. The advent of Myspace in 2003 provided the opportunity to check out bands’ music before listening, but it was mostly treated as just another BBS.
Anyway, the result of this was that I felt my way blindly through the live music scene, discovering bands by following other bands to their gigs and checking out who they played with. It was a habit I got into out of necessity but it’s still the main way I find stuff — the thought of spending hours scouring Soundcloud for music seems like such a joyless way of discovering music, not to mention the way Soundcloud’s format is inherently biased towards certain types of beedroom indietronica at the expense of bands with genuine stage presence and energy.
Anyway, 1-2-3-Go! Tokyo D.I.Y. Music 2005 was the result of my first two or three years crawling through the live music scene. Listening back over it now, a very naive compilation, and I can feel my younger self’s dizzy and slightly confused enthusiasm in the way the track list barrels back and forth between all sorts of mad sounds. Something similar still exists in chaotically thrown-together free or CD/R projects like that Black Sabbath cover album I did recently, but anything I’d press professionally nowadays would probably be more poised and less giddy, or in a more critical way, more self-conscious.
You can also see some of my early conceptual idealism in there. The catalogue number is CAR-99 and right from the start, I had this idea, nicked from Sarah Records, that regardless of what happened, the label would end after 100 releases. After eight years, I’m only a quarter of the way towards that even with free downloads and stuff, but it’s a rule and I’m sticking to it. There’s also the way it’s divided into “phases”, which was copied (I think) from Julian Cope’s album Jehovahkill, and which was a nod to the distinction vinyl used to make between the two sides (for some reason something I associate very closely with Gordon Giltrap’s album Visionary). The decision to stick “2005” in the title was a deliberate piece of self-destructive inbuilt obsolescence. It was always intended to be a snapshot of a time and place, and I wanted that limitation embedded in the title even if it put people off buying it. I know it wasn’t smart, but sometimes it’s more important to be right than to be smart.
Anyway, “Phase 1” was mostly punk and underground stuff. Deracine were this amazing and still very original hardcore band from Fukuoka who had settled in Tokyo and made this hyperkinetic punk-noise racket with drums, bass and a table full of effects pedals, samplers and children’s toys, with these wonderfully camp, affected vocals. Uhnellys are one of only a few of the bands on 1-2-3-Go! who are still around (Call And Response compilations can be a kiss of death) and they’ve gone from strength to strenghth to the point where they’re really quite famous now. It’s a claim to fame of mine that Call And Response were the first label to release anything of theirs, although they’d self-released one or two CDs or CD/Rs before. Anyway, they’re a wonderful but hard to describe duo, based around a series of loops made on a delay pedal. They’re far more sophisticated than this nowadays, but there’s a rawness in the track they did here that I feel is still very appealing. Saladabar were a fake-Hawaiian punk-influenced jazz-prog band led by former Natsumen drummer Yuuki Yashiro, and Usagi Spiral A are still going, now augmented by guitarist Matsuoka, formerly of the brilliant no wave band Elevation. Usagi are basically this relentless, brutal wall of Krautrock/postpunk noise that just pummels you until they get tired, break all their equipment or get the plug pulled on them by the venue and thrown out. Meanwhile Drive to the Forest in a Japanese Car were a more straightforward and song-based postpunk band in a sort of Gang of Four style (although the name is a PiL reference).Deracine: Clap Your hands — Doesn’t feature on this compilation but gives a good sense of the kind of band they were. Also, if you look closely, you can see Ponta from The Mornings and probably a bunch of other Tokyo underground scene faces in the audience.
“Phase 2” was more new wave and technopop-influenced. Audipop were one of the bands on the cult classic compilation Tokyo New Wave of New Wave ’98 that alunched the career of Polysics, although they were always at heart more of a Weezer-ish college rock band, and you can see both influences on the track here. Mosquito were one of the most important bands for me in my early discovery of the Japanese live scene, and their unclassifiable jumble of influences did more than anything else to demolish my Anglo-American indie rock frame of reference when trying to understand Japanese bands. Lie Lie is a classic piece of oddball avant-pop, bringing together catchy and noisy elements in a way that’s joyous and celebratory in a way few bands I’ve discovered since have managed. The bass player used to bring a box onstage that he’d step up onto when he did the little funk bass solo in this song. The other song on here, Momoiro, is Mosquito at their epic best, sounding like three completely different songs jammed together. Frottage (named after the art style, not the sexual perversion) shared some members with Mosquito, but were more firmly musically rooted in Shibuya-kei, while Shoot My Disco’s track is a another genuine oddity, combining shoegaze and rap in a way I’d never heard before and never have since. That sort of willful eclecticism and battering together of genres is something people still do, but it’s something I mostly associate with the early 2000s: bands influenced by the mix-and-match approach of Shibuya-kei, but needing to rock out at the same time. The last track is by Miami, who were just one of the most original groups I’ve ever encountered in Japan. A sort of technopop/rap duo with violin, but that doesn’t really describe quite what a distinctive, bouncy proposition they were. They could have been huge but their first proper mini-album came too late and didn’t quite hang together the way their earlier self-released recordings had, so the momentum ebbed away and they split up. You can hear the version of their song Shiratama Disco I released above, but I was surprised to discover this idol group cover version of it from just a couple of months ago. It’s nowhere near as good as the original, but it shows how far idol music has come if they’re covering Call And Response releases!
I should also add about one band who appeared on both “phases”: Skyfisher. They were another Tokyo New Wave of New Wave ’98 band, and the two tracks on 1-2-3-Go! catch them on each side of a transition. The first, Musubetsu Bop, is them at the pinnacle of their Japanese new wave revivalist period, while the second, Nigotta Kanshoku, sees them moving more towards dance-punk. Leader Takashi Nakayama later formed a more improvisational collective called LABSiCK Man-Machine ReMiX, styled as a sort of !!!-style outfit, with music that was often wildly different from show to show.
Anyway, as I said, most of the bands split up in the eyars after this compilation, although a few remain going. Uhnellys became pretty famous, Usagi Spiral A are still going, Watanabe from Frottage is keeping the project going and seems to be doing lots of Vocaloid stuff at the moment. Nakayama from Skyfisher is still making music, and rumour has it that Korehiko Kazama of Deracine is making music again after quitting to become a philosopher for a few years. Audipop are still nominally a going concern, although with family concerns ensuring that their gigs are few and far between. For me, this album was a very steep learning curve and I did lots wrong with it, but it helped teach me which wrong things I should keep doing and which ones were just silly. It definitely helped streamline and simplify the process for subsequent releases, although it took a heavy toll on my personal life that I was lucky to recover from. As I said, it’s weird listening to it now, and quite bittersweet for me, but I think mostly sweet.