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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