Monthly Archives: March 2014

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.

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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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