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.