Monthly Archives: February 2014

CAR-94 – V/A: Post Flag

Post Flag

CD, Call And Response, 2008

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.

By 2008, I was looking to do another compilation. Bands come and go, and I’m always discovering new music, so every three or four years, I always find myself looking to do another compilation, not just of Call And Response artists (there are few enough of those) but also of artists around me, that I like, that I book for my live events, and that represent something of where my head is musically at that time. At about that time, I’d been getting into the alternative scene that seemed to have coalesced around Akihabara Club Goodman at that time. In 2005 it had all been about the Kansai area, but that scene had started to die out by 2007, while there were a lot of good Tokyo bands reaching maturity, if not quite the same levels of buzz. At the same time, a lot of what was interesting about the music these bands were making was in how it seemed to be reconstructing rock outside the constraints of Anglo-American 60s forms. It was like being in a parallel world where instead of The Beatles and The Sex Pistols, the dominant creative forces behind rock and punk had been Can and Public Image Limited. So what I thought of doing was making an album of cover versions of 1970s Krautrock as a way of drawing a parallel between the way bands from 70s Germany and modern Japan were both remaking rock without paying tribute to the Old Gods as it were. As I discussed that project with various people, it seemed like it would be quite daunting, and I found the project running away from me. At about the same time, I heard the album Never Mind The Bollocks “Here’s the Softly!”, a compilation put together by neo-Shibuya-kei label Softly! Records that covered The Sex Pistols’ album track by track. Now I hate The Sex Pistols. They’re the utterly overrated, musically uninteresting and regressive, and they suck suck suck. But the covers album was really interesting, partly because the songs are so simple and stupid that they forced the bands to reconstruct them a bit in order to add their own character to them. This got me thinking about another, much better but still minimal and musically simple 1977 album: Pink Flag by Wire. Now to say Wire are my favourite band ever would be an understatement. Nothing comes close to them for me. They opened my eyes in a way no band had previously and I doubt any band will be able to again (maybe Guided By Voices had a similar impact on me… maybe), giving me that inspiring feeling that anyone can make music, but at the same time steadfastly refusing to be normal, laughing at convention, and delivering everything through a cloak of lyrical mystery. Chairs Missing remains my favourite album, but Pink Flag is simpler, probably still better known, more iconic, and most importantly had 21 songs on it, which meant I could get a really broad range of bands involved. So the project became a Wire covers album, taking apart Pink Flag and reconstructing it track by track. I wanted to do it properly, so I spent $1,500 buying the song rights through JASRAC (I still legally can’t sell the album in foreign shops or on iTunes), and set to work recruiting all my absolute favourite bands. Getting Totsuzen Danball involved was a coup, because they were one of the very first Japanese punk bands and are in many ways a kind of Japanese equivalent of Wire, and getting Panicsmile was perhaps even more important given their role at the time as a lynchpin of the Tokyo alternative scene. Of Call And Response’s own bands, Mir and Hyacca both joined, the two bands representing the two different angles bands involved in the project were coming from. I didn’t want the album to be a “tribute album” so much as a radical act of reinterpretation, so I didn’t restrict my recruitment to bands who were already Wire fans and the end result was a mix of musicians who knew and loved the band and those who were approaching their music for the first time. Mir were enormous fans (one of the reasons I fell in love with them was that Yoko used to have a Wire reference in her email address) whereas Hyacca despite their similarities and second- or third- hand influence had never heard of them. Some artists took it even further. Groundcover. leader Ataru Mochizuki knew the song they were doing, Lowdown, but didn’t let the other members hear it, instead letting them jam with him on it until something that sounded like Groundcover. came out. Hajime Yoshida from Panicsmile took it even further, recording Strange (based on the REM cover from Document rather than the original) alone in the studio on one night and then giving the result to his band members to improvise over the following day. Eiko Ishibashi (also then a member of Panicsmile, and the only musician who took part in both the Sex Pistols album and this one) just listened to Fragile a dozen times over and over again, and then played an improvised solo piano instrumental based on how the song made her feel. Electric Coma Trio turned 40-second instrumental track The Commercial into a twelve-minute NDW electro-dub epic. When I heard Yolz in the Sky’s version of Pink Flag, I was at first a bit disappointed because of the straight approach they had taken to the source material, which sounded a lot like Wire, but not much like Yolz in the Sky themselves. Once placed in context, however, it became clear how necessary their track was, as a rare anchor in the original amid a swirling sea of radical oddity. This was a lesson I had at the forefront of my mind when doing the Black Sabbath Paranoid covers Valentine’s gift earlier this month, and I made sure that somewhere in it there would be at least one straight take on the song. I was surprised that more bands didn’t do anything with the language, with Mir translating the lyrics of Mannequin poetically into Japanese, Groundcover. gutting Lowdown of most of its contents and just bellowing the title over and over again, and Agolay Culkin just free-associating brand new Japanese lyrics over the chords to Brazil, but as a rule, bands stuck to some approximation of the original English words. With ramshackle and gloriously cute punk-pop party band And About Hers, this was essential, and the sweary lyrics of Mr. Suit work brilliantly with their irrepressibly happy vocals, emphasising the absurdity and satire of the original song (surely Wire were taking the piss out of the dumb anti-authoritarian stance of so many of their contemporaries with likes like, “I’m tired of fucking phonies, that’s right I’m tired of you! No no no no no no Mr. Suit!”) The cover art was done by my friend Akiko Yoshida, who is one of the most important people in my whole involvement in Japanese music, with her band The Students being the first group I really discovered and who really were singlehandedly responsible for introducing me to the live scene back in 2002. Unable to hold down a steady lineup and never satisfied with their own recordings, Akiko was at least able to contribute to this project by doing her own “cover version” of Pink Flag‘s jacket art, reconceptualising the flag as half a dragonfly in a way that no doubt seemed logical to her. Again, her approach was just right though, preparing you for what you’re getting before you even break open the case. Given that Wire remain pretty much unknown in Japan and bearing in mind the idiosyncratic approach to recruiting bands, it was never going to be a big commercial success, but it did OK and seems to have achieved some sort of cult respectability in underground circles. I’ve always been rather wary about Wire themselves hearing it though. I informed them that I was doing it during the early stages of its production, but never tried to contact them after that. The whole don’t-meet-your-idols thing really, but I think the resulting album in its utter lack of respect for the sanctity of the original material is at least true to the spirit of what Wire continue to stand for, and more than that was a teriffic document of the Japanese underground scene.

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

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CAR-96 – Mir: This Tiny World

This Tiny World

CD, Call And Response, 2007

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.

In the last post I said that Hyacca were very important in defining Call And Response Records’ identity, but they weren’t the only band who did that. Just a few weeks after Sashitai came out, I released This Tiny World by Mir, which was equally important in a rather different way.

I discovered Mir at around the same time as Hyacca, in the summer of 2006, or rather they discovered me. They contacted me through Myspace and I listened to some of the rough no-fi demos on their page and fell in a sort of confused love. It was the first time I’d really discovered a great band through social networking, and I made a point of going to their next show.

One feature of the Tokyo music scene that anyone who’s spent time in it will have encountered is noruma, the pay-to-play system where bands are set a quota of tickets they must sell and pay back any shortfall in cash to the venue afterwards. Of course everyone hates it, but ways around it are limited. One way though is to play shows in studios, which are generally cheaper to rent and provide a cosier atmosphere for bands with small audiences. It was at one of these such shows that I first saw Mir live in all their ramshackle glory.Mir: Jidai to Kojin

Musically, they played the most heartbreaking melodies with this all-encompassing atmosphere of loneliness. Named after the Soviet space station, I initially described their music as sounding like being “alone in space in the ’80s”, and there was something sparse about it, often based on casiotone synth drones that the group made by taping down notes on the keyboard, and rhythm alternating between cheap drum machine presets and new wave and Krautrock-influenced live drums. Like Hyacca, one of the things that appealed to me was the way many of their songs incorporated call-and-response elements between the male and female vocals, with Kyohei Hiroki’s emotionally taut delivery often descending into nihilistic yowls of existential pain providing contrasting sonic texture to Yoko “Yoko3” Yamazaki’s clean, sweet, yet icy vocals — a contrast reflected in the music’s tense balance between melody and violent, chaotic noise.

I wasn’t the only person to see similarities between them and Hyacca either. Mr. Taguchi, the owner of Koenji underground record shop Enban, also saw it and did his best to push the two bands together. Once I discovered that this was what he was trying to do, I added my weight to his attempts and once the two bands found each other it was like they’d discovered long-lost siblings. Hyacca had that effect on almost everyone such was the assurance of their musicianship (despite their self-destructive performances, they were obviously damn good musicians) and their easygoing off-stage personae, but Mir were more of an oddity. They were much less certain onstage, far less technically proficient, and the emotional rawness of what they did so often spilled out into what felt alarmingly like real life that most people simply didn’t know what to make of them and approached them warily. On some people, however, they had this intense, magnetic pull and one of the ways Mir have been important for me is as a sort of weathervane when dealing with other people in the music scene: If you get Mir, then you get the core of what Call And Response is about. If Hyacca are the label’s heart, then Mir are its tortured id.

Mir contributed a track to my limited edition 2007 Valentine’s CD/R and then started work on This Tiny World, which as I say, came out a few weeks after the remastered Sashitai. The title was simply a line cribbed from the lyrics of one of their songs, but rarely has one been more apt. Watching Kyohei and Yoko onstage, there always seemed to be a level of communication beneath what we could see, and even when they were down in the audience pushing everyone into a conga line during the song Dance, there was a sense that we were being used as materials by the band as part of some abstract point they were making rather than really being invited inside. It was a world of two, with even drummer Yama-chan somehow separate. Sometimes it was marvellous, and for those who bought into Mir’s tense, beautiful, precarious philosophy, those moments were touched you emotionally in places you didn’t know you needed to be touched. At other times, it was terrifying and disturbing, like seeing Yoko break down in tears onstage at the UFO Club and remain crouched down in a foetal ball for the rest of the show (afterwards, Kyohei comes out with a big grin over his face and announces, “Best gig ever!”) On another occasion their onstage antics ended with them being thrown out by the (admittedly mad) venue owner and punching a member of the audience in a restaurant. Those extremes were rare, and as with Hyacca’s more violent outbursts, largely a feature of the band’s early years.

The opening track, Jidai to Kyojin, remains one of their most powerful, and is a textbook example of the power they managed to get out of the contrast between the twin vocals, ricocheting back and forth between discord and harmony. Pistol and Damashiteirunosa are both what you might call ballads if the term hadn’t been so poisoned by syrupy major label pop over the years and both display Mir at their most emotionally raw, without a punk or Krautrock beat to cling to for momentum, they have to carry it with their voices alone for much of the time (Kyohei’s tense, edgy, will-he-pull-it-off-or-won’t-he guitar solo on Pistol serves a similar function). Hyakunengo and Yononaka Minna Hihyoka are where the group’s love of Krautrock (and they really are obsessive fans of all things Kraut) really comes to the fore, the former starting out with the chords from Pachelbel’s Canon in D over a rhythm preset before the drums kick in, and the latter taking cues from the way David Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging had the members switch instruments, and cribbing the archetypal Klaus Dinger motorik drum pattern in the process.

There’s something of the perennial outsider to Mir, and I’ve never found the right way to sell their stuff so that it reaches the quite specific set of people who seem to get what they do, because with Mir despite the obvious love they have for 70s and 80s music, everything is personal. They’re never less than completely emotionally honest onstage, giving you their best or their worst in accordance to where they’re at in the precise moment, and their appeal is purely emotional as well, tapping into something distinct and hard to single out in the listener. Which is of course what makes them so precious in the first place.

This Tiny World is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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CAR-97 – Hyacca: Sashitai

Sashitai

CD, Call And Response, 2007

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.

The release of 1-2-3-Go! Tokyo D.I.Y. Music 2005 took a lot out of me and led me to question whether it was worth continuing. It certainly left me in no mood to think about what the label would do next. However, I was still looking for new bands, busily exploring the live scene and starting to make headway in my music journalism, so I never quite switched off.

One of the things about the compilation was that it really had all been Tokyo bands, and of course there was a massive world of music outside the capital. Deracine, who had featured on the album, were originally from Fukuoka, and some of the other key bands playing in the Tokyo underground scene at that time, most notably Panicsmile, hailed from the same place. Hell, Number Girl were from Fukuoka, and even three years after splitting up they were still pretty much the most important band in Japanese rock. I made my first connection with the Fukuoka music scene through this bizarre sample-based hip hop musician called Moth and a lo-fi alt-rock blues band called Folk Enough. I met them on tour in Tokyo in the runup to 1-2-3-Go!‘s release, and saw Folk Enough again the following spring. They said I should come down to Fukuoka at some point and I filed that thought away for future reference.

Then in the summer of 2006, I was going through a period of extreme distress and upheaval in my personal life and I decided that fuck it, yeah, I’m going to just scoot on down there for a couple of days and check it out. I hopped on the shinkansen to Hakata and randomly checked into a hotel near Tenjin, and then met up with Inoue from Folk Enough for a drink. He quickly got busy on his phone contacting a bunch of his friends in the local music scene, and a steady stream of people began showing up. The next day I woke up in my hotel with a blazing headache and pockets full of CDs from people I didn’t remember meeting.

One of those CDs was a white CD/R with two kanji written on the front that I couldn’t read. I put it into my laptop and gave it a listen, and my life changed.

1-2-3-Go! had been great for me because it had helped break down the British indie mode of listening that I’d had ingrained in me during my teenage Britpop years, but at the same time, I was still dizzy with the exoticism of it all. What this CD/R from Fukuoka did was make music that sounded like it could have come from anywhere: that was great not in a Japanese way or a British way, but in a way that was simply distinctive, thrilling and catchy without either sounding wacky or imitating anything else too hard. I frantically mailed Inoue to ask what it might be and he said it was probably a band called Hyacca.

It turned out that it was a copy of a mini-album called Sashitai that they were self-releasing through a few indie CD stores. The title, like the band name was a fairly dubious pun. Hyacca comes from the kanji 百/hyaku meaning “hundred” and 蚊/ka meaning “mosquito”. However, write it as 百科 and the word suddenly means “encyclopaedia” or change it to 百花 and you get “many flowers” (although the pronunciation of this one depends on how you choose to read the Kanji). The meaning “one hundred mosquitoes” is not the first one most people get when they hear the name. The title Sashitai literally means “I want to stab” and is obviously a pretty violent image, although in the context of a mosquito’s behaviour, it’s probably the main thing mosquitoes think about. Or female mosquitoes at least. In the album’s title track, vocalist Hiromi Kajiwara whispers the word almost seductively before a blizzard of sonic violence is unleashed by her and the rest of the band, and it’s worth noting that “sashitai” sould also be read as “I want to penetrate”. With Hyacca it’s never worth reading too much into their intentions though. Where the explanation “a dodgy joke” is possible, Occam’s razor suggests that’s probably it.Hyacca: Angel Fish

The other thing I really loved about them was the way Kajiwara, Goshima and sometimes Harajiri would trade vocals back and forth between them. The name Call And Response for my label came partly out of liking the acronym “CAR” from Clear And Refreshing, but also from this thing I have for bands that make use of a mixture of male and female vocals. There’s just something it does for a song’s texture and dynamic that really appeals to me.

So anyway, time went by, I was able to catch Hyacca a couple of times on trips to Tokyo and started booking them myself. They were absolutely insane live in those days. There was a legendary show they played at Shibuya O-Nest that was put on by the Koenji record store Enban, where Kajiwara made it through one song before hurling herself into the drum kit, ripping all the strings out of her guitar, abandoning the music almost entirely, and spending most of the rest of the gig crawling around on the stage, moaning into the mic, occasionally getting up to commit random acts of violence on guitarist Goshima, who responded at the end of the gig by running at her and doing a flying kick into her. Twice. For a long time, the opening bars of the song Sashitai were a prelude to horror, violence and chaos.Hyacca: Sashitai

I eased my way back into the label with a short Valentine’s Day CD/R (the first of several such small-scale, silly projects) I did with a few friends and released as a limited edition thing through Enban, and then started work on putting together a remaster and getting a proper distribution deal for the Hyacca mini-album.

In the end there wasn’t much difference between the original and the remaster, just a bit of cleaning up of the sound and slightly wider stereo. It was such a good lo-fi album that I feared polishing it anymore would have ruined it. Getting it in shops like Tower Records was important though, for the band and for Call And Response. Foreigners in the indie scene are often treated with a bit of suspicion, not out of racism exactly, but more a sense that they’re more likely to be transitory elements: tourists apt to jet off at a moment’s notice. Getting a brilliant album like Sashitai out probably more than anything else forced people in the indie scene to take me more seriously.Hyacca: Sick Girl

And it really was brilliant. The violence of their stage shows was encapsulated perfectly in the music, but here it was controlled. The opening of Angel Fish draws on ambient, shoegaze-ish influences, before suddenly reversing direction and turning into staccato, rhythmical postpunk that leads into the combination of rollercoaster punk rock and bubblegum new wave melody with sudden intrusions of death metal growling that is Riot. Songs like Sick Girl and Telephone Number are similarly riotous new wave/postpunk raves, while Sashitai ricochets wildly between languid melody and outright warfare, with a wandering piano that always reminds me of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. Then there’s the heartfelt balladry of Single Coil, a love song by Goshima to his guitar pickup, and it all closes by returning to melodic, shoegaze territory with the sweeping, romantic Skyline. Like Wire and Sonic Youth, Hyacca showed a capacity for bold pop statements and outright punk noise fury, as well as giving every sense that they saw no difference and certainly no contradiction between the two.

More than just being a great album though, Sashitai helped to establish the identity of Call And Response Records in its early days, and at a time when Kansai bands from Osaka and Kyoto like Afrirampo, Watusi Zombie, Limited Express (Has Gone?), Midori, and Oshiri Penpenz were all the rage in Tokyo, working with Hyacca built a bridge between Tokyo and Kyushu that has remained at the core of the label’s operation ever since.

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

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CAR-99 – V/A: 1-2-3-Go! Tokyo D.I.Y. Music 2005

1-2-3-Go! Tokyo D.I.Y. Music 2005

CD, Call And Response, 2005

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.

1-2-3-Go! Tokyo D.I.Y. Music 2005 is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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A bit about Call And Response Records and some polite begging

I touched on this in the introduction to my Top 20 countdown of 2013’s best Japanese music, but let me just explain myself in a bit more detail. When evaluating and reviewing music, I try to be fair to the artists as well as personally honest, and then on top of that, I try to put everything into some sort of context. It’s a balancing act, but it’s a necessary one to try to make, even if it’s not always possible to carry it off perfectly. At the same time I am involved with a lot of different activities in the Japanese indie and underground scenes, including running my own small label, Call And Response Records. As a rule, I don’t write about Call And Response artists as often as and never in the same way I do other bands because obviously my relationship with the band means I’m compromised; however, there’s a paradox there because the fact that I poured so much of my own time, energy and money into these artists is directly down to how much I love them. That time, energy and money both compromises me and stands as testimony to my sincerity (although I realise that sincerity and honesty are by no means the same thing).

Anyway, I’m going to continue posting the usual pieces on new Japanese music, discussions around my other music writing work and musings on classic pop and rock, but I hope you’ll forgive me for getting a bit selfish. My income derives entirely from writing and music (in large part writing about music), and it probably won’t be that surprising to learn that it doesn’t amount to much. Now I’m going to spare you another one of those dreary navel-gazing posts from journalists or music industry types bemoaning how free content on the Web is destroying their industry and rather than resort to begging for donations (which in any case is illegal through PayPal Japan), I hope instead that over the past few years (more than ten years if we count the original site) of writing Clear And Refreshing I’ve enough credit in the bank to ask my readers to indulge me in a bit of self promotion.

While writing my 2013 Top 20 series, I didn’t include any of my own label’s releases because firstly it would have devalued the list, and secondly, I’d in any case have been unable to honestly assess what position they should go in the ranking. So instead, I’d like to separately do a rundown of key Call And Response releases, talking a little about each disc from a personal and involved stance rather than affecting any sort of journalistic distance. Obviously anyone wishing to buy the CD would be doing me, and I humbly suggest also themselves, a huge favour. Most of it will eventually make its way onto iTunes, and I will no doubt be posting suitably caveat- and apology-laden updates whenever that occurs, but the CDs are available now at this very moment.

The response I’ve had to the free Valentine’s compilation I posted on February 14th has been very generous, so if only a few people who enjoyed that album were to buy some of the official releases I’ve put out over the years, it would be a world of help and greatly appreciated. Yes, I know I’m sounding needy; I’ll stop there.

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A Valentine’s gift from Call And Response Records

Every couple of years or so, my label Call And Response Records likes to put together a compilation project for Valentine’s Day, usually themed around cover versions of one band or another. The idea is always to do something lo-fi and throw together all sorts of things, regardless of genre or recording quality and to release it only in a limited fashion, either as a CD/R or download. Bands are encouraged to spend as little time on it as possible and just to mess around and have fun, although this is usually a pretty futile thing to ask given the neurotic perfectionism of most musicians we know. In any case, the result is always going to be more or less lo-fi.

I’m not sure where the idea of asking every band to cover Black Sabbath’s Paranoid came from, but I’m pretty sure it was partly inspired by the compilation A Houseguest’s Wish, in which 19 bands took turns covering Wire’s Outdoor Miner (and indeed Wire’s own album The Drill, where the band did numerous covers of their own song). The decision to pick Paranoid as a song came out of an ongoing obsession with Black Sabbath that the Quit Your Band! zine’s editorial team developed (and which culminated in our decision to rate albums using a system called the “Sabbath Scale”). It’s a good choice of song I think because it’s so utterly, utterly stupid and simple that it leaves huge amounts of room for interpretation by expanding, elaborating, or honing it in various ways. A similarly well known song like War Pigs or Iron Man would have imposed itself a bit too much on the artist and been less flexible in its scope for interpretation.

I also think the idea of a whole load of different bands covering the same song is artistically incredibly interesting in its own right, with the similarity of the underlying song forcing you to be conscious of what the musicians are doing to it in terms of structure, arrangement and performance. Over the course of an album, the repetitiveness of the same theme, each time in a different iteration, has a curiously trancelike quality to it as well. Rather like the documentary film The Aristocrats (also perhaps an influence), where dozens of comedians tell the same filthy joke in all manner of different ways, each adding their own twist on the familiar theme, I think seeing the same song played by a lot of bands gives an interesting insight into the creative process.

In any case, the response to this project overwhelmed me. I recruited bands pretty indiscriminately over a period of several months, assuming that for such a low-key project, it wouldn’t be particularly high priority for most of them. As time went by, I realised that interest in the project was way greater than I’d anticipated, and I started happily telling people that there could be as many as 15 different artists taking part. The 21st track arrived in my inbox at 8:30 this morning and the finished album runs to almost one and a half hours.

The tracks cover as wide a range of genres as my taste allows. It features mostly Japanese or Japan-based artists, although a couple of tracks hail from overseas. The core of the album was recruited from among the underground music oddballs who hang out at Call And Response’s monthly Fashion Crisis event at Koenji One, and it’s the inclusive, eclectic, but passionately knowledgeable atmosphere of Fashion Crisis that I think defines the overall feeling of the album. Some bands took their tracks very seriously, and the album contains moments of quite staggering beauty, while others followed my initial advice and took it as an opportunity to have fun, creating some moments of laugh-out-loud silliness in the process. Every track approaches the song in an interesting way, and there’s also I think a joyousness that runs though it that’s partly from the inherent qualities of Sabbath’s original song and partly from the sheer scale and expression of human creativity that’s on display.「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」

DOWNLOAD 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」 FREE HERE (114mb so might take a long time — sorry!)

(Alternate link here)

The album title is 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」which basically means, “Thanks for the chocolate… What’s your agenda!?!?” (I’m just going to refer to it as “Choco Kureru…” from now on) and here’s a rundown of the track list:

1. Fidel Villeneuve
Originally from Wolverhampton, Fidel is near enough a hometown brother of Sabbath themselves, although with a rather different musical background on Atari Teenage Riot’s Digital Hardcore label and in London powerpop band Applicants. Nonetheless, the same hot Bovril runs through both Fidel and Ozzy’s veins, and his sample-based approach gives early warning of the excesses to come.

2. ロア/Loa
I had to get these guys on the album. There’s so much Sabbath in what they do anyway that it would have been criminal not to have them involved, and their high-octane approach to the track plays it more or less straight, but with the emphasis on speed and shot through with a prog rocky virtuosity.

3. 経立/Futtachi
This psychedelic band from Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu are the latest band from Iguz Soseki of post-hardcore garage-punk band Zibanchinka and their approach sounds like early Captain Beefheart, or maybe Faust covering I Want Candy. Apparently their aim was to do “Sabbath in the jungle”.

4. Human Wife
Usually feedback-heavy riff merchants, Human Wife’s take on the track slows it down and draws out the emotional core of the song, turning it into this really quite affecting junkie’s confessional.

5. Client/Server:Q
With music where drone and sonic texture are more important than melody and songcraft, the cover naturally takes on a more abstract flavour. you see this a few times on Choco Kureru…, but this is the first, building up a wall of noise and feedback that ebbs and flows throughout the track.

6. Abikyokan
Abikyokan are a genre unto themselves, although “avant-pop” serves them well enough most of the time. Here, Paranoid acts as a distraction to them from their current obsession with the influence of early Christianity on the Roman Empire, and they swing at it with all their synthpop electro-funk bats at once. They’re also one of a few bands on here to break down the original song’s structure and reconstruct it around just the bits that they like.

7. うるせぇよ/Uruseeyo
This Tokyo post-punk band exemplify something that’s actually true of a lot of the bands on Choco Kureru… in that they’re a band who usually play in a genre of which guitar solos aren’t really an integral part, but at the same time, the solo in Paranoid plays such an integral role in the minimal structure of the song, that something has to go there. They dive eagerly into the challenge and pull off a spiky, dance-punk solo with aplomb.

8. Han Han Art, featuring Fukusuke (Owarythm/Nature Danger Gang)
Former Mornings bassist Shingo “Rally” Nakagawa has been on a Z Records tip for a long time now and with his new band Han Han Art brings his love of no wave/disco in spades. The decision to recruit guest sax player Fukusuke came from listening to too much Pigbag, and this was probably unintentional, but I keep hearing the intro to Duran Duran’s Girls on Film in the guitar intro. Also on guitar, this track has another excellent example of a postpunk solo.

9. Under
This mysterious artist does another abstract, instrumental, drone-based take on the song, but uses more ambient tones rather than noise. A good example of the extent to which sonic texture alone can influence the mood of a track, and the result is beautiful.

10. Artless Note
Clearly recorded on an MP3 recorder or something while messing around in the studio, this track sounds like it’s an edit culled from a much longer improvisation session with the band playing around with a couple of key themes from the song. There are moments where it sounds impossibly messy, and then they do something suddenly out of thin air that reminds you that this is a talented, musically intelligent band. This is actually one of the most interesting tracks on the album, because the studio improvisation setting has seen them jettison the entire structure of the song, all the lyrics, and just focus on the famous, catchy elements, which they return to every time the intervening bits of musical deconstruction seem to lose their way. In that way, it’s similar to The Muppets’ famous rendition of Mahna Mahna and really quite funny in a music nerdy kind of way.

11. Umez
When this arrived in my inbox the night before the album was supposed to be released, I was busy working on sequencing the track list and working out how to balance all the different genres and styles, working out what gaps there were that needed to be filled. When I listened to it, a bell rang in my head and I thought, “Drum’n’bass! That’s what I was missing!” So thanks, Umez.

12. スロウマリコ/Slow-Marico
Lo-fi indie duo Slow-Marico are heavily influenced by The Jesus & Mary Chain and that shows through in this rough-edged and noisy cover, although the way they play it over a cheap drum machine gives it something of The Vaselines’ indie charm rather than the rock swagger of the JAMC.

13. Trinitron (featuring Gloomy and Ryotaro Aoki)
This is one of the ones I worked on, so fair warning about that. I have this idea that as music is more and more easily globally accessible, it also emphasises our mutual incomprehensibility, and Trinitron sometimes play games with this. Trinitron’s members are a mix of British, Japanese and Slovenians, and we speak at least four languages between us, often switching between them mid-song or overdubbing them so as to bury the meaning. In this case we decided to do the whole song in a language that none of us understand either, so we had a friend translate the lyrics into Italian and had the girls read them out without preparation, just as they imagined they might be pronounced. So apologies to any Italian readers (which basically means Mark and Zio as far as I know) but it’s not a calculated insult to your language: it’s art! With the music, we were aiming for a sort of Flying Saucer Attack-style Kraut/shoegaze vibe, with Tokyo synthpop chanteuse Gloomy providing the cute “ba-ba-ba”s in tribute to Stereolab and Ryotaro Aoki on cataclysmic thunderstorm guitars in tribute to the gods of Valhalla.

14. Carl Freire
Carl’s background is in the 80s and 90s US alternative and punk scene, and his downbeat, minimal cover has echoes of that, particularly in the Velvetsy repetition and combination of punk and psychedelic elements.

15. Kaki
Kaki is the alter ego of Zana from Trinitron, so this downtempo electronic track is her second track on Choco Kureru…, providing a more sophisticated and musically and conceptually pure take on the original than the mishmash of approaches that Trinitron usually ends up being.

16. Loser & Ribbons
Indiepop/new wave duo Loser & Ribbons’ track has echoes of Shibuya-kei, particularly early Capsule, in its arrangement, with the introductory synth pattern reminding me of the music that plays when you get the invincibility star in Mario and giving it a technopop, video game music vibe. One of the interesting things about their approach is that they place much more emphasis on the “Can you help me / Occupy my brain?” line that only appears once in the original, rewriting the melody slightly and repeating it over and over until it becomes a proper chorus rather than the interlude it is in Sabbath’s version.

17. Oa (featuring Hatsune Miku)
Ryotaro Aoki makes his second appearance on the album with this piece of bubblegum hardcore, clearly influenced a lot by Melt Banana and featuring the vocals of Vocaloid voice synthesiser character Hatsune Miku. As with the Trinitron track, this one plays games with language. The latest version of Hatsune Miku, which this is, can sing in English, but this track uses the Japanese version anyway, phonetically approximating the sounds of the English words, but unable to do so completely because of the different, stricter rhythm of Japanese, meaning that some parts of the song descend into incomprehensible babble.

18. Jahiliyyah
The longest track by far on Choco Kureru…, and one of the most brutal and hard-hitting. Jahiliyyah are basically a noise group, but the drum machine and synth pulse that they incorporate into this track give it a lot of industrial and EBM too, taking a page right out of the Throbbing Gristle playbook. The results are fearsome and brilliant.

19. 人魂/Hitodama
Dave from Jahiliyyah making his second appearance with another noise track, although where Jahiliyyah are more about melding numerous layers into a single, rich wall of sound, Hitodama allows the layers to breathe, to exist as discrete elements in a salad bowl of sound, dropping in and out as necessary and leading to a track that is more ambient overall.

20. Voided By Geysers
Confession: this is another of my bands. VBG are a tribute band to US lo-fi rockers Guided By Voices (hence the name) and it amused us that our only recorded output would be a cover of a different band entirely. The take included here was the second time we’d ever played the song and so there are a lot of rough edges to the performance, but we felt it was the take that had the most heart. The idea here was to have just one straight garage rock take on Paranoid right near the end of the album as a reminder of the original after the excesses that have gone before, although when the Loa track came in doing a similar thing with greater technical virtuosity, that complicated the plan. I’m still proud of this track and it gets across something simple and stupid in the original in a way other tracks on this album don’t, but if I was making this as an album for professional release, I’d have used the Loa track here instead of VBG. However, I was working on a strict principle of “include everything that’s in my inbox come the morning of the 14th”, so Loa and VBG act as kinda-sorta bookends to the album instead. Ryotaro Aoki appears yet again on this track as the bassist, while Carl Freire makes his second appearance, on guitar. Tokyo indie bandspotters might be interested to know that drums are by Sean from Henrytennis.

21. Tiny Tide
Basically the solo project of prolific Italian indiepop singer-songwriter Mark Zonda, Tiny Tide’s simple, slowed down version of the song is classy where most tracks on Choco Kureru… fought for the extremes, as well as genuinely touching and quite beautiful. It was the first track I received in Autumn 2013, just after I’d first conceived of the idea, and even before I knew what else was going to be included it was always going to be the closing track. Mark also wrote the Italian lyrics that Trinitron so wilfully butchered earlier, so sorry to him for that.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Mothercoat, “Trickster”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a new song from a completely DIY band dabbling in electronica and folk, with a decade-long history.


Mothercoat: Trickster

Tokyo’s independent music scene is rife with all types of bands. But when it comes to the truly original, independent artists, there are only a handful of acts. Mothercoat is definitely one of those bands.

Formed in 2002, Mothercoat have been combining elements of electronica, folk, rock, and hip-hop for more than a decade. The band are known in the Tokyo scene for constantly evolving their sound and also for being a truly DIY entity, producing and distributing their records exclusively by themselves at their private studio, Bonjin Studio, in Fukaya, Japan, where the members live together (complete with their own vegetable garden). Constantly touring, the band have also played in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. They are scheduled to play at SXSW 2014 in Austin, Texas in March.

“Trickster” is the lead track from their new EP “5 – 1 + 1=“. The track is the first song the group have released since welcoming new guitarist, Fukunosuke Abe, into the band. The music video, also directed by Abe, displays the guitarist’s playful energy both visually and musically, adding a layer of whimsical youthfulness, complimenting vocalists Giga Dylan and Tokirock’s quirky call and response singing.

It’s amazing for any band to be around for more than a decade, but even more so when it has been done with the sheer determination and willpower Mothercoat have consistently displayed to do things their own way.

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