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.