Monthly Archives: March 2014

DYGL: Next Day

One of the bands I’ve been most vocal in recommending over the past year or so is DYGL, a young indiepop band from Tokyo and one of the most promising up-and-comers in a scene that seems to be going through a mini boom at the moment, driven perhaps by a growing international online network of indiepop aficionados and perhaps also helped by the network of local scene curators that has grown up from Fukuoka to Kansai to Nagoya to Tokyo. It’s a scene that has a reputation for being a bit effete, and that stereotype is one that more often than not, Japanese indiepop bands are more than willing to confirm with their cute tote bags and accessories and general herbivorous tweeness, but DYGL have thankfully bucked that trend, incorporating progressively more driving punk and powerpop elements into their music thanks to the addition of a bass player to the lineup and vocalist Nobuki Akiyama’s increasingly raw vocal inflections.

With Next Day, the band seem to be channeling The Strokes at their The Modern Age best, especially through Akiyama’s crackly baritone Julian Casablancas vocal performance, but also through the repetitive, Velvetsy, proto-Krautrock drums and monotonous guitar line. It also shares that repressed energy that ran through The Strokes’ early material, but where Casablancas & co. crashed against the flood defences of mild disappointment the moment they tried to really let loose their repressed energy, DYGL already have material like I’m Waiting for You and Nashville that rips through the embankments and floods your heart with passion and joy, so in that context, Next Day has a valuable role in establishing and reinforcing a dynamic between repression and expression in the band’s repertoire.

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March 11th 2011: thoughts from three years after

As I write these words, it’s been three years to the minute since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of March 11th 2011. At that time I was preparing, organising and co-ordinating a tour to promote an album that my label had just released in Japan by my Slovenian friend N’toko. Three years later and here he and I are again, with a new album, a new tour, an eerily similar situation.

On March 11th 2011 at 2:46pm I was at home in Koenji checking messages. I already had Twitter open and was able to immediately see the deluge of comments that came through. My immediate reaction was just along the lines of, “Wow, that was a big one,” and in Tokyo, if we’re really honest, it was far from being anything like as bad as it was further to the northeast. It was clearly a bad one, but I didn’t want to feel that it was as bad as all that. The immediate response on Twitter was alarmed, but reassuring at the same time. People were OK. The Internet was my lifeline that day, allowing me to instantly reassure my family in the UK that I was safe, and instantly check up on my wife and my friends.

On March 11th 2011 at 2:46pm N’toko was just stepping out of the ticket gate of Koenji Station after a gig in Nagoya. He stepped out of the exit, the ground leaped and the beacons dropped as one from the streetlights. Welcome back. We were able to get in contact pretty much as soon as he got home and decided to take a walk around town to see if the places and people we knew were OK. Koenji One was fine, Bamii was fine, the weird little bar we used to sometimes hang out was fine. The 24 hour Seiyu supermarket was closed. False advertising! I was outraged. It felt nice to affect outrage at such a mundane thing. It was a symbolic act of affirming our own daily reality over the enormity of the tragedy that had occurred.

My wife was sent home from work but had to walk home because the trains weren’t running. It took her four hours, but others took way longer. Live venues that had been preparing for events that were now never going to happen opened their doors and served coffee and refreshments to those on their long walks home. The main street outside was full of people in a way that you only ever usually see in Koenji at the Awa-odori dance festival every August. Other friends of ours came by and our flat became a sort of meeting place. I just wanted to drink and listen to music. I didn’t want to think about the horrors that were occurring out of my control further up the coast.

My wife turned on the TV and it just showed miles after miles of flames burning over a black sea. I didn’t want to see it. I was safe, my friends were safe, and this apocalyptic reminder that so many others weren’t emphasised the dissonance between the heightened normality of my immediate surroundings and the oblique or otherwise removed echoes of the horrifying reality elsewhere. Reports started to emerge that something was wrong at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I didn’t know there was a nuclear plant at Fukushima and I didn’t know where Fukushima was to begin with. It seemed ridiculously unfair for a nuclear disaster to have been piled on top of the earthquake and tsunami. I looked away from the news and I still refuse to watch videos of the tsunami itself for the same reason I’ve never watched videos of the flames and bodies pouring from the World Trade Center. There are people dying in those images, and they die again and again every time you watch it.

The next night I met up with a friend. He’d had a bad month and was still walking with a crutch after a motorcycle accident. The izakaya where we met was occupied by only one other group of people and they were being particularly raucous. It would have annoyed me under normal circumstances, bit it reassured me this time. My friend took off his shirt and downed a tall mug of beer. Fuck you, disaster, we made it through what you threw at us with our lives intact and now we’re going to rub your nose in it. Where are you?

The supermarkets and convenience stores were starting to look bare, although for some reason beer and chocolate were in plentiful supply. Hoarders had no sense of priorities! Hahaha, see how unfazed we are? Electricity was apparently being rationed, although it never seemed to affect us where I lived. Streets were just a little bit more empty than usual, and there was an atmosphere of uneasy tension that pervaded everything, every place, every event. Or more likely it was just in us and we were projecting it out around us. Radiating it even.

Radiation was everywhere. Not the kind that you can measure with Geiger counters — that was pretty much constant at a level somewhere higher than background radiation in New York and lower than Hong Kong — but in the media and on people’s lips: man, you couldn’t escape it. It turned out Hong Kong had been a popular destination for wealthy Japanese fleeing Tokyo, and my brother-in-law in Hawaii informed us that hotels there were booked solidly with ultra-rich Japanese. The posh private academies where the children of government ministers and corporate CEOs went were teaching to near-empty classrooms as the elites shipped their families out before turning to the cameras to bleat that everything was safe. I believed that Tokyo was safe, and the scientific consensus seemed to back that up, but just hearing these two-faced bastards telling me so made me question it. The Internet wasn’t helping now: it had run out of real information to disseminate and was swarming over every spurious report, blinding us with a blizzard of conflicting stories laced with bitterness and accusation. I wanted to get out.

On Thursday March the 17th I DJed at a small fundraising party at Koenji One with the band (M)otocompo. Their drummer was from Fukushima and their leader had family ties there. They performed a reggae cover of Radioactivity by Kraftwerk and we all relaxed. I wrote about it for the charity book 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake. The next day N’toko and I left for our next scheduled tour date in Fukuoka and within six hours we were in another country.

Kyushu has always been like another country in many ways, and Fukuoka is its capital and cultural centre. There was a charity concert taking place at the Canal City mall but it had less of the sense of immediacy that infused the hastily produced Tokyo fundraisers: we’d experienced the quake firsthand, albeit in a limited form, and it had literally and figuratively shaken us. Tokyoites’ relief efforts were also tinged with guilt and responsibility: it was our insatiable thirst for electricity that the Fukushima Daiichi plant had been built to provide for. Everything we did was shot through with those relationships. The relief concert at Canal City was every bit as well-intentioned, but it was done from a distance both geographical and emotional. It was like a charity fundraiser for a disaster in Indonesia or Bangladesh, for unfortunate people far away. With people in Fukuoka, where they asked about the quake at all, it was with the mild curiosity of someone who had no concept of what it was like. It was heaven to be among such normality.

In the end, we in Tokyo got good at enforcing a sense of normality on our lives. When the government told people not to have cherry blossom viewing parties in the public parks a couple of weeks later, everyone roundly ignored them and had a rousing weekend of drinking and partying anyway. The government position was understandable — putting on a conspicuous show of celebration with the attendant dramatic lighting effects while the northeast was suffering like that would have looked terrible. For those of us who lived here though, it was just as necessary that we mark this tradition and damn well enjoy ourselves doing it.

But we got too good at it, and we forgot. people in Tohoku are still living in portacabins to this day, and with the Olympics coming up in 2020, Tokyo has something else to occupy its attention. I come from Bristol in the UK, and you can still drive past fields of those portacabins housing people who were moved there after German bombs flattened their homes. The cabins became homes and they didn’t want to move; now they are a half-conscious reminder of the destruction that brought them into existence. In seventy years time, will people in Tohoku will still be living in those homes? Will anyone in Tokyo give two shits if they are? In March 2011, music was how we helped drive the immediacy of the tragedy from our minds, but three years later, I wonder if music has more of a responsibility to ensure we don’t forget.


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Interview: Jesus Weekend

In The Japan Times a couple of weeks back I interviewed Osaka indie trio Jesus Weekend in advance of the release party for their mini-album/EP Agleam in Tokyo. The album actually came out towards the end of 2013, but the article in the end took longer to put together than I’d anticipated so we decided to use the release party as the event to hang the article off instead of the CD’s release.

That’s actually one of the things I always find a bit awkward about writing about music. The Japan Times is very good at taking music seriously, and it doesn’t take part in the Japanese music press practice of taking money from labels in return for coverage. It’s also a a big no-no to have me writing about bands I personally have on my label, although it’s got to the point now where I’ve released so many bands that it’s also deeply unfair to ban my acts from appearing in the paper at all, so sometimes other writers write about them (and I stay out of their way). In any case, ethics are important and foremost among those is maintaining the distinction between journalism and PR. The thing is, however, that because music journalism is journalism, it basically has to be writing about something new or in some way tied to events that are happening now, i.e. bands who have a new release or a big event or festival appearance to promote. This means that basically everything we do kind of is PR whether we like it or not, because we will only write about bands who are currently trying to sell something.

Of course with interviews, I don’t think there’s necessarily much of a conflict there, since your interest in making the article interesting for readers and the band’s interest in making themselves seem interesting to a potential audience are closely aligned. As a writer, you want to find the story in what they say, and to tease out something from their comments that sheds light on their music. I do wonder sometimes whether by focussing on releases, we miss something important sometimes, denying coverage to bands who’ve simply chosen not to release anything and focus on developing their sound live, while bands like Jesus Weekend who have taken the equally admirable approach of developing their sound out in public in the recorded medium are fair game.

Anyway, Jesus Weekend are an odd band. The bit about animal suicides and my subsequent discovery that contrary to the band’s claims, suicide is apparently a well-observed occurrence in the animal kingdom was a fascinating discovery for me and honestly, callous bastard that I am, made me laugh out loud in some instances. Personally I feel the song in question, Animal Suicides, is more eerie than sad, but then the article’s about them, not me.

I mention in the article about the album sounding like fragments of a picture, but it was recorded last summer and when I went to the release party in late February and saw them live, you could see that there was this coherence that was far better developed than on the album. Puberty Bell sticks out as a particular oddity in the album, but live it became apparent that they now have other songs that place it in more of a context. There’s also a confidence and assurance in how they play that gives you a sense up close that while the sounds may be diverse, they are all aspects of the same group of people.

It was a very short set, although a bit longer than when I saw them in Tokyo last year, and this underscores just how early Jesus Weekend have been picked up and hyped (not least by me). The gap between a cool new band appearing and everyone on the scene scrambling to get a piece of them is getting shorter and shorter, especially among the indie or crowd (as opposed to the slightly more traditional alternative crowd — I’m not going to go into the differences here) and while at the moment I don’t see too much of a problem given how small that scene is to begin with, there is the danger that when a band becomes cool too early, it can stymie their creativity, subtly influencing them towards just making more of what people already like and unconsciously holding back their own development. I don’t see that happening with Jesus Weekend, who seem very serious about what they’re doing and appear to be quite earnestly exploring how to express themselves. They’re in a musical adolescence, which is exciting and interesting in the possibilities it presents, but it would be a waste if they were to become trapped there.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Awesome City Club, “Lesson”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a song from a new band that unashamedly makes feel-good, mellow indie pop.

Awesome City Club: “Lesson”

The Tokyo underground is full of all sorts of unique, strange, and at times abrasive sounds. And there’s always that weird indie stigma that comes along with it. And mainstream Japanese music is so candy coated and manufactured, that while despite all the fun it does get a bit grating after a while. So it’s nice to occasionally find good pop music that’s as sincere and unironic as Awesome City Club.

Inspired by disco, soul and R&B, along with American indie and Britpop, Awesome City Club formed late last year. But don’t let any of that fool you; these guys have all honed their chops through various bands, such as Thatta and This Is Panic, and are anything but amateurs. They’ve only released two music videos so far, “Children” and the above “Lesson”, but it’s clear that with their clever, rhythmic arrangements and beautiful melodies that Awesome City Club are definitely a band to look out for.

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Strange Boutique (February 2014)

My Japan Times column for February touched on a couple of topics I’ve written about before, in the issue of how pay-to-play works in relation to bands, and tangentially in the senpai-kohai dynamic that somehow still persists in the music world. The linking premise of young musicians graduating from university was something my wife suggested and once the idea had nested in my mind, it started to gather to itself various things I’d been thinking about in relation to my book.

It takes a pretty cynical tone, and people who’ve been following my column will perhaps remember that I’ve discussed the upsides of some of these problems as well. Looking at it from the perspective of a young band making its first baby steps in the larger music world, however, it really must be a pretty grim experience, and it’s clear from speaking to musicians over the years that they feel exploited and dispirited by how eager the gatekeepers to the infrastructure of exposure are to suck money out of them and how little the bands seem to get in return.

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Kyu-shoku: Dub Attack of the Avenge

Tracing influences in Japanese underground music can sometimes be tricky because there may not be anything obvious in contemporary pop culture that seems to relate to it. Music rarely springs from nowhere though, and in cases where there is no obvious influence, the influence is probably something less obvious but no less powerful. University band circles create their own closed circle (the clue’s in the name) of influence with older, more senior bands often exerting a lot of influence on their younger protégés. Once out of college, musicians often fall into similar if less clearly defined circles of influence, with key senior bands in a particular scene intentionally or otherwise being influential focal points for younger musicians. There’s not necessarily anything intrinsically unhealthy about this in that all it really does is replace one set of influences with another for those who want them. It can even be positive in that it propagates underground ideas where otherwise people might have to look to the charts (yikes!) or the music press (shudder!) for guidance, but the mark of a band’s growth remains their ability to outgrow their seniors and develop a sound of their own.

In the case of Kyu-shoku, they emerged from a band circle at Meiji Gakuin University with a particularly punk-orientated mindset. Junk guitar noise duo Gagakirise were well-regarded alumni, as was the organiser, occasional musician and general pseudonymous subculture scene face Choshu Chikara. It was through Choshu that I met his juniors Saba, and through Saba that I met Kyu-shoku. Through Kyu-shoku I met their own club juniors Ykiki Beat and DYGL. The university band circle’s loosely punk ethos (not all bands follow this pattern, and Ykiki Beat and DYGL are testament to this) is one thing that informs Kyu-shoku’s harsh, loud, heavy sound.

As I say, step outside of the small world of university clubs, and there is another ecosystem for bands to interact with, and it’s not uncommon for young bands to latch onto the sound of certain scene figures not necessarily because they’re popular but just through the sheer respect they command. Again, not necessarily a bad thing as generally speaking, this respect is usually more or less deserved. In the current Tokyo alternative scene, it’s easy to hear the influence of local scene curators Bossston Cruizing Mania and the more minimal dub funk shapes of 54-71 on the increasingly hotly tipped Triple Fire, and part of the key to their growing popularity is how they’ve gradually managed to carve out an identity for themselves beyond that.

You can hear the influence of Bossston Cruizing Mania on Kyu-shoku as well, with the mixture of spiky postpunk and dub, not to mention the half-rap, half-rant vocals. The shadow of another group of influential underground scene curators Groundcover. also hangs over Dub Attack of the Avenge, especially in the sheer heaviness with which the dub elements are delivered. All three tracks on the EP are shot through with growling, dirty riffs that grind slowly and forcefully onwards over otherwise minimal drums and sparsely deployed guitar embroidery that ensures the band always have another gear they can step into any moment they need a flurry of feedback and noise.

Now I’ve talked a lot about the possible influences and musical context of Kyu-shoku here, but I think what Dub Attack of the Avenge makes clear is that they’re at the stage of moving past their strongest early influences and are now identifiable as a discrete entity who have carved a place for themselves. Part of a particular underground tradition certainly, but getting beyond the stage of surfing anyone else’s artistic coat tails. The title track opens with a crash of noise as a warning of what’s to come, before dropping out and letting the drums, riff and vocals carry the song for a while. It then holds off for several minutes before answering its earlier promise and letting the thunder roll. Of the three tracks, Void most clearly retains the group’s punk roots, with its scratchy guitars drifting between stabbing out a reggae off-beat and skittering off into postpunk dugga. Again though, the big crashing riffs are always waiting to come in. The album’s closing track, the eight-minute Fūten, is really everything that’s just happened and then a little extra on top. In all tracks the contrast between the underlying minimalism and Kyu-shoku’s propensity for juddering heavy riffage is a key part of what is coming to define their musical identity.

Kyu-shoku are still rough-edged, and the recording still doesn’t really do justice to the sonic immensity their live shows can reach, but Dub Attack of the Avenge shows they’ve taken an important step in defining themselves and have chosen a particularly loud and satisfying way of doing it.

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Call And Response Records — Appendix

As an appendix to the series of posts on the release history of my Call And Response Records label which started here, I’m just going to add a few more comments and thoughts.

First up, you’ll notice that the catalogue numbers often skip a few (and actually it doesn’t show here but in some cases are out of sequence). The reason for this is that some releases are free downloads or private CD/Rs and things that I chose to pass over in favour of the CDs I pressed and released professionally. They also sometimes fall out of sequence because I’m disorganised and sometimes things get delayed and something else slips into the gap. Anyway, this isn’t a big deal, but just in case anyone was wondering why the N’toko album was CAR-77 but the Black Sabbath Paranoid covers compilation was CAR-75, it’s because CAR-76 hasn’t been released yet die to production delays (next month, maybe?)Jebiotto (live at Kichijoji Planet K)

Looking forward, there’s a Jebiotto album (the much-delayed CAR-76) in the works, and a new issue of Quit Your Band! gradually taking shape, with Slow-Marico on the accompanying CD. There are friends of the label also working on new albums that even if they’re not on Call And Response, I’ll certainly be loudly cheering on, with Iguz Souseki’s psychedelic post-Zibanchinka band Futtachi foremost among these. September 27th 2014 will also mark the ten-year anniversary of the first Clear And Refreshing live event, so there’s going to be a big party to celebrate that.

Finally, in a purely hypothetical exercise (the last one was too recent for it to really be worth doing another one right now), I’m going to talk a bit about what a new Call And Response compilation in the Dancing After 1AM/1-2-3-Go! mould might look like if I were to make one now.

Firstly and obviously since it was only a year and a half ago, a lot of bands would be the same. Futtachi, Hysteric Picnic, Hyacca, Mir, Slow-Marico and Jebiotto would be right at the top of my list of people I’d be mailing. However, there are some bands who were on DA1AM who are probably a bit too famous or at least operate in a slightly more professional milieu now — bands who wouldn’t really benefit from being on the album and who I’m not really doing stuff at live events with these days. She Talks Silence, Extruders and The Mornings for example are bands I still very highly regard, but who are kind of above my level now, and while I’m not opposed to getting in popular bands who work musically with what Call And Response does, there is a balance between that and finding out new stuff that I feel should tilt more towards the latter than the former.Umez: Lingering Dream

Bands that have come onto my radar over the past year and a bit and who I’d definitely be trying to get something from for this hypothetical CD include indiepop jangleteers DYGL, noise-pop duo Umez, industrial/EBM duo group A, Fukuoka electronic glitchgaze duo Deltas, jittery Saga punk trio Hakuchi, Krautrock-kayoukyoku three-piece Fancy Numnum, new wave/artpunkers Compact Club, and Tokyo postpunk band illmilliliter. The marvellous Buddy Girl and Mechanic, who I missed out on with DA1AM, would be well up there among my priorities too, while it would please me greatly to get original 1-2-3-go! band Usagi Spiral A back to do something as well.Hakuchi: Suttokodokkoi

As I say, I’m in no hurry to make another compilation, but I’m not short of stuff I’m still excited enough by to do something with. Anyway, back to regular posting after this. Your attention has been greatly appreciated.


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CAR-77 – N’toko: Mind Business

Mind Business

CD/download, Call And Response, 2013/2014

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.

I mentioned when talking about his album Ex Shanti / Future Shanti that an artist like N’toko poses some challenges for a label, partly due to his being a foreign musician and partly due to the way his music doesn’t fit into the Japanese record industry’s established promotional model. He’s a very good artist to work with in other ways though, especially when it comes down to touring.

Firstly, he is able to commit solid lengths of time to touring, and as a solo artist with all his own equipment, not only are the travel and hotel expenses are minimal but the choice of venues is far more flexible than it would be for a rock band. Now preparing for his third or fourth tour in Japan, the people who book his shows are getting the hang of finding the right kinds of people to book with him and audiences are starting to figure him out, so many of the problems of selling his music through CD stores are mitigated by it being that much easier to tour his music live.N’toko: Staycation

When discussing music with Japanese friends, one of the scenarios that often arises is that I will express an opinion contrary to the popular position with regard to some well-respected underground musician or band, to which others will then respond, “Ah, this is because you’re foreign. If you could understand his lyrics, you’d get it.” This situation bothers me, partly because I often will investigate an artist’s lyrics where it’s possible and where they seem like they would be important, and partly because if you need to understand someone’s lyrics to enjoy their music, it means they’ve only written half a song. Go write a book of poetry if the lyrics are the only bit that matters. It also bugs me because it shuts down the conversation and invalidates my position by setting criteria for participation that I don’t meet.

Anyway, with N’toko, I’m aware that the music I’m promoting here is in a language that most people in Japan don’t speak (English on the Call And Response Releases and Slovenian on some of the other songs he performs), and so it’s important to me that I’m not seen to be playing that same card. His music has to stand or fall on its musical value alone, and you can make no assumptions of any level of comprehension of the lyrics. In this sense, N’toko’s music I feel passes the test with flying colours. I can’t understand a word of Slovenian, but I can dig the album Parada Ljubezni as a dirty electro hip hop album in its own right, and Ex Shanti is packed full of material that just instinctively moves the floor. To top it off, he’s a compelling live performer, who is able to give the audience a sense of being in a state of communication regardless of language rather than simply being performed at.

Mind Business is in many ways more low-key than his 2010 material (both Ex Shanti and Parada Ljubezni came out in 2010) and uses a wider sonic palette, perhaps drawing on the experiments with various synthesisers and samples that he employed on the Fight Like a Girl EP that he released under a Call And Response banner in 2012. Reviewing the album for Japanese music site Cookie Scene, Japanese journalist Toyokazu Mori compared Mind Business to Throbbing Gristle, pointing out how despite being a hip hop album, there’s a tension and stripped down rawness to it that has a lot in common with early industrial music. It comes through strongly on No Brakes, but it’s a thread that despite its poppier synths, you can pick out in the DAF/Liaisons Dangereuses style EBM/electro of Ex Shanti as well.

There’s a bit towards the end of Minor Celebrity where N’toko suddenly realises he’s ripping off LCD Soundsystem and starts castigating himself, but it’s a pertinent observation, especially on Mind Business. The album doesn’t really sound like James Murphy in any meaningful way, but there’s a similar approach in its synths and cheap, dirty beats. Both N’toko and I are fans of LCD Soundsystem (although I’m a bit more tolerant of what N’toko calls, “that shit where he’s trying to be U2”) and when we started working together on our bedroom synthpop project Trinitron part of how we conceived ourselves was like “a shit LCD Soundsystem”. In any case, it’s a useful point of comparison not so much in the music as in the sort of pop cultural headspace between dance and alternative music that both artists occupy.N’toko: Mind Business

The lyrics are interesting if you can understand them though. While Ex Shanti was really pretty much nonsensical stream-of-consciousness party album punsmithery and Parada Ljubezni was political and socially conscious, Mind Business combines the pop cultural consciousness of the former with the social analysis of the latter. On one level, it’s essentially a guy moaning about his career, but it’s it’s actually much more interesting than that. The character N’toko plays in many of these songs is a self-deprecating parody of himself, suffering from mid-career anxiety, haunted by the contrast between his superstar success in the small pond of Slovenia and his near total obscurity in the outside world. He frets over whether he should be doing more to promote himself and mulls over all the cheesy gimmicks he could employ, and through this skewers the pretensions of the blog-centred music world and how cheaply many indie musicians are willing to sell themselves out for in return for the sake of a few extra page views and Facebook likes. Just as a lot of Parada Ljubezni was really an attack on the shallow bourgeois posturing Slovenia’s political left from its own left flank, Mind Business is no simple message of “us underground types are keeping it real against the major label fakers” but takes aim at the alternative music scene and in the process reveals how much of its “alternativeness” is simply fashion and branding, just done on a cheaper budget. The fact that there’s a kernel of truth to the dilemma he cynically expresses gives the album pathos rather than the self-obsessed whining a more straight delivery would have come across as or the supercilious “I’m above all this” self-aggrandisement a more removed, less frank assessment of his own position would have felt.

With the videos, our regular video dude Matt Schley worked with N’toko to make a proper, slick promo styled after Japanese punk filmmaker Sogo Ishii and filmed around Koenji and Asagaya in the summer of 2012. Originally intended for the song Time Machines off the Fight Like a Girl EP, it took so long to edit that there was an entire new album ready by the time it happened, so Matt re-edited it for the title track of Mind Business. The video for The Baddest was by Tomaž Šantl, who had previously done the video for N’toko ne Obstaja. Edited together from shots of suburban Slovenes looking unfashionable and eating ice creams, but in its sheer plainness giving everyone a sort of dignified, transcendent cool for precisely that reason. It’s both an ironic comment on N’toko’s own self-perceived provinciality and a powerful riposte to the music scene pretentiousness that N’toko sends up elsewhere on the album. Taken together with the Mind Business video, it also expresses the twin backgrounds that inform the album in Slovenia and Japan.N’toko: The Baddest

It’s also the first Call And Response album to be available on iTunes. This is something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, but have resisted at first on principle due to my love of physical media, and then later through sheer hatred of paperwork. iTunes brings its own set of problems, in particular pricing, leading to a situation where the album has three different prices depending on whether you buy the CD, the iTunes album or buy it directly from N’toko himself via Bandcamp (and of course also depending on exchange rates between the Yen, Euro and whatever fucked-up currency they use in your part of the world, not to mention the different pricing conventions of the various markets and formats. Personally this balkanised (heh!) set of sales models is a massive pain in the arse, but it’s perhaps an inevitable result of the confusion over the direction the music industry is taking. When the N’toko Japan tour starts next week, it’ll be a massive relief to be in the old-school grind of just selling physical CDs at gigs to real humans. Right on.

Mind Business is available now on CD from Call And Response’s online shop.

It is also available worldwide from iTunes.


Filed under Albums, Call And Response, Reviews

CAR-78 – Hysteric Picnic: Cult Pops

Cult Pops

CD, 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.

Hysteric Picnic are a band I discovered at Enban. I’ve mentioned it before but not talked about it that much, so let me explain. Enban is a small record shop in Koenji, where I live. Koenji is pretty much the centre of all weird, underground and subculture-related music in Tokyo (Shimokitazawa is the indie centre and caters to slightly more normal musical taste but to be honest they’re both similar kinds of places) and Enban is one of the key spots. In the afternoons it sells CDs by a variety of oddball local musicians and in the evenings it hosts music and talk events by similarly unusual characters.

When I started Call And Response, Enban was one of the first shops to stock my CDs, and while I think nowadays the stuff I promote and the core trade of Enban have diverged a bit, it’s still a place I check in on every once in a while. It was a key place in promoting the early careers of Nisennenmondai, Afrirampo and Midori back in the day, and it’s always been good to Hyacca and Mir, so if you’re smart, you never ignore the place.

Hysteric Picnic are a kind of odd fit for Enban really. With its obvious superficial resemblance to The Jesus & Mary Chain and Joy Division their music is on the surface far more fashionable sounding than the kind of stuff Enban would usually be interested in, but then again, there’s a sort of dark, dry humour running through their music that separates them from some of the more self-consciously imitative Japanese bands in that vein, and they push the envelope on noise and distortion a little bit further than other bands with similar influences. They’ve obviously got a solid and instinctive understanding of postpunk rather than just a vague wish to be like The Horrors.

The EP I picked up at Enban was fantastic. Very lo-fi, but no more so than that kind of music should be, and the combination of occasionally borderline psychotic guitars with the metronomic click, click, click of a drum machine made for a compelling dynamic. They initially reminded me of a more raucous male version of She Talks Silence. I saw they were down to play with some friends of mine at the UFO Club just down the road from my flat and I recommended the show to a mate of mine, Tomo, who organises the Style Band Tokyo nights, which caters to a rather cooler crowd than my coterie of weirdos, so Tomo and I both checked them out live.

The issue of the rhythm track came up immediately and I think it’s the core issue with the band’s identity. I like the Kraftwerkian metronomic repetition of the drum machine, but Tomo felt that to work best live, they needed a full band. I see his point, and other people said the same thing. Still, there was something dissonant and fascinating about seeing them work with the rhythm track. Rather than using a drum machine, they kept all the tracks on cassettes, which vocalist Sou Oouchi would faff around with between songs as he switched to the next song. The fact that the band never spoke to the audience accentuated these awkward moments, and I always suspected there was a mischievous element of theatre to this (something Sou later confirmed to me, and which other favourites of mine Sayuu and Extruders also seem to play up to). The use of cassettes also lent this analogue hiss to the rhythm tracks, which again recalls Extruders and the deliberate electric buzz that they underlaid their contribution to my Dancing After 1AM with.

When it came time for Dancing After 1AM I immediately asked Hysteric Picnic to contribute, which they did with the song Abekobe, although after hearing it in the context of the album, they later expressed some dissatisfaction with the way the song was mastered, feeling it was a bit too flat and in your face. Personally I don’t think that’s such a problem given that the CD was always going to have a wide variety of different levels of production, and in fact it was one of the tracks most commonly picked out by bands as a highlight. Still, Hysteric Picnic are nothing if not serious about their sound. They’re one of those bands who carefully and thoughtfully mull over every aspect of their music, and it shows. It’s easy to see why they admire Extruders so much, because the bands clearly share a similar attitude to sound.

Putting out a band like Hysteric Picnic despite the obvious appeal of their music even to the sort of cool people who normally wouldn’t be seen dead at a Call And Response event still has its risks. Firstly, they’re almost completely unknown, which I can mitigate by putting them on at my own shows and introducing them to as many other organisers I know as possible, but which does mean there’s always going to be a limit to their reach. Secondly, they don’t play live very often and find touring difficult for the usual reasons (work, money), which really compounds the first issue. It’s a very similar position to Mir really (another band Hysteric Picnic seem to have an affinity for and rightly so because Mir are wonderful). In any case, they were worth the risk, and in any case, since when has worries about commercial reach of an artist stood in the way of me releasing something I love? That’s right, I’m a fucking saint.

The recording of Cult Pops clearly builds on the lessons of earlier recordings, with a much richer, deeper sound. The near-title-track Cult Pop is a propulsive rocker with some disarming new wave vocal squeaks, while Shiosai and Memai are slower, more brooding tracks that give away a little of the band’s Birthday Party influence, Mirror reveals a Krautrock influence in the beat, while the synth-disco Obecca Dance is a deliberate curveball at the end, designed to disorientate anyone who thought they were getting into a self-consciously grim and moody indie goth band. No way, kids, Hysteric Picnic are a party band, albeit one who wears a lot of black and doesn’t talk much.

The tape thing seems to have got to them a bit though. Sometimes in Tokyo it’s impossible to have a soundcheck before a show, for example at events like my annual “Koenji Pop Festival” shows where there are too many bands on the bill, or at venues like Shibuya Home where building regulations forbid them from making a noise before 7pm, and getting everything wired up was taking too long and leading to problems with the sound. As a result, they recruited a bass player and drummer (who also plays in the brilliant Buddy Girl and Mechanic) with the idea of playing sometimes as a duo and sometimes as a four-piece when possible (although all the shows they’ve done since have been as a full band). This led to a band with a very different stage presence and sound, with the band losing the subtle dissonance between the deliberate, mechanical rhythm track and the aggressive guitar and vocal delivery, but gaining more of a fierce, driving energy. Many songs are rattled through at a much faster pace, and as things stand now in the early stages there’s a ramshackle quality that wasn’t there at first and which is either a good or bad thing depending on how you see those things (me, I’m cool either way). The danger I think is that playing with a conventional band format can make a band become more conventional as they settle into a format where the lines, directions and possibilities are well worn, but it’s clear that having a live drummer makes it easier for a lot of people to take the first step into listening to them, and it certainly seems to be a more comfortable format for the band themselves at this stage.

In any case, certainly with songs like Cult Pop and Mirror I think playing with a live drummer and bass player is definitely beneficial, given the driving role the rhythm plays. It’s also important given that the last new band I released was back in 2011 that with Hysteric Picnic Call And Response is back to doing what it really should be doing, namely finding and introducing fresh music from new bands.

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

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