With all the action happening in Tokyo, it’s some times easy to overlook other regions in Japan for quality music, especially if it’s not that far away.
Hailing from Shizuoka prefecture (which is only about an hour away from Tokyo by bullet train), The Piqnic perhaps have benefited from their isolation, melding traditional shoegaze sounds with a more gothic approach, creating a sound that’s unique from other bands in Tokyo.
“Saoirse” is the lead track off of their debut EP. Clocking in at seven minutes, the track goes from a quiet guitar drenched intro to a steady eight-beat, while vocalist Shuya’s androgynous vocals float throughout. The track may remind people of fellow countrymen Boris’s quieter moments (think “Rainbow” or “Präparat”)
Fukuoka is by far my favourite place in Japan outside of my adopted home in the Tokyo suburb of Koenji. It’s not so much for the town itself, although it’s a lively city, a little more spacious and les hurried than Tokyo, with an buzzing central shopping district in Tenjin, a nice fashion district in Daimyo, a scary nightlife district in the Oyafuko-dori area, a beautiful park in the castle ruins and nearby Ohori Koen, a neat little shopping street district in Nishijin, and a fascinating and weird reclaimed seafront development in Momochi. Other towns have similar things, but Fukuoka does all these things a little bit nicer than most. The main reason I love Fukuoka is just that I know a lot of people in the music scene there, there are lots of great bands, and the people in them are generally really friendly and easygoing. Whenever I go there, it’s always a source of great regret that I can’t stay longer, and it’s always the highlight of any Kyushu tour for me.
Last year when I was talking with Seiji Harajiri from the live venue Utero about plans for my next tour, he suggested I come down a day early and we do a free DJ party on the Thursday night before the main gig. I have no doubt this was largely because of the difficulty in getting audiences out on weekday nights, but since N’toko usually stays in Japan for longer and spreads out his live shows, interspersing them with DJ gigs, often at my Fashion Crisis event in Koenji, it felt like a nice interlude in the tour for me as well.
I mentioned in the last post about how while Kumamoto has always been good to me, I’ve also always felt a bit of distance. One way I experience that most strongly is when I’ve played there as a DJ. The reactions to songs just doesn’t quite match the reactions those same songs usually get in Tokyo, so it’s difficult to judge the right thing to be playing. At most of the events in Tokyo I take part in, if people don’t know a song I’m playing, they come up to me and ask. In fact, that’s how you know you’ve got the balance right: if no one’s asking you what you’re playing, it means your set was too obvious. It sounds snobbish, and it can be sometimes, but as a rule, it just means people are curious, eager to find out about new stuff, and confident enough in their own knowledge and taste that they don’t feel self-conscious admitting when they don’t know. In Kumamoto, no one ever asks. Maybe it’s a cultural thing and they’re shy to interrupt, maybe it’s a self-conscious thing about seeming ignorant in front of a visiting DJ, or maybe they’re just not interested, I don’t know, but I’ve never felt quite right. The only time I’ve ever got a noticeable reaction from a crowd there was when I played the (excellent) song Fire by K-Pop quartet 2NE1 after Bo Ningen’s set.
Fukuoka on the other hand has always been a pleasure to DJ at, especially Utero. The crowd there reminds me so much of the little scene we have around us in Koenji in their behaviour, listening and drinking habits. They’re not just curious when they don’t know something, but they’re enthusiastic when they do know something, which makes it a really fun atmosphere to play in. Usually I’m just playing between bands, so having a proper set together with N’toko and local Fukuoka friends was just a great opportunity to draw out our stay in this great city.
As with many of the most fun events of the tour, I talked it through with the local organiser first, and based on my experience with Fashion Crisis gave him some suggestions about what kind of schedule would work best. Since the room would probably only fill up gradually, giving each DJ an hour split into two 30-minute sets seemed like the best option. Sometimes if you have a DJ playing dance music, it’s better to give them a single, longer set, but certainly when most of the DJs are playing indie and punk music to audiences who are primarily live music audiences, it’s best to treat the sets the same way as live sets and aim for a similar attention span. I also gave him a list of the Fukuoka DJs I personally liked and he talked over his own recommendations.
I didn’t know some of the people he put on, but the variety was about right to keep the night interesting and to prevent it falling into a rut of too many people mining similar record bags. I was particularly stoked that he was able to get Hajime Yoshida from Panicsmile to DJ. I saw him DJ a few times when he lived in Tokyo and he was always an interesting selector who I’d tried to get at Fashion Crisis before, so now that he was back living in Fukuoka, I was eager to get him involved. to-ya is the drummer from the excellent z/nz who I’ve had play at my events in Tokyo before, while Harajiri himself played under his nom de disque 100hip.
To be honest, my first set didn’t go brilliantly. I was still getting to grips with the soundcard and DJ software on my laptop (no way I was lugging a pile of CDs and/or records around Kyushu with me for five days) and I was having problems with popping that disrupted things at one stage. Yoshida was playing a mix of vinyl and CDs and had problems with the balance at first as well, although the way he divided his two nostalgic sets between old underground music, including (quite movingly actually) a great track by his friends Bloodthirsty Butchers (whose leader Hideki Yoshimura died unexpectedly last year) and a retro J-Pop set. It was handy for me too that he divided things along those lines, because it left me free to play the stuff by Wire, The Feelies and Stereolab that I might otherwise have worried he was planning on playing.
One thing Utero did that no bar in Koenji would ever be stupid enough to try was set up an all-you-can-drink offer, giving people six hours worth of unlimited booze for ¥2000. Even on a Thursday night, the result was lively, with people alternately riding around on each other’s shoulders and collapsing elegantly on the bar. Given the way DJ events in Tokyo are often so closely demarcated by genre or scene, it was great to play at something that fit so closely with the combination of nerdy musical depth and anything-goes genrecide that I’ve tried so hard to cultivate in my own parties. After the solid organisational competency of Kumamoto the previous night, it was also a welcome blitz of unstructured mayhem before the big event at the same venue on Friday.
As I’ve mentioned before, Kyushu has generally been good to me over the years. I’ve released albums by Hyacca (from Fukuoka) and Zibanchinka (from Kagoshima), I’ve featured the likes of Accidents in Too Large Field (Fukuoka), cynicalsmileisyourfavorite (Kumamoto), Kobayashi Dorori (Kumamoto) and macmanaman (Fukuoka) on compilation releases, I’ve included work by Nakigao Twintail (Saga) in my zine, and I’ve brought a list of bands as long as your arm from Kyushu to Tokyo to play shows. Thanks to that connection, Kyushu has been pretty welcoming to me whenever I’ve tried to do things there, but at the same time, because tours generally last three days over a weekend, I’ve tended to get stuck doing the same two or three towns and the same two or three venues. This time round, I wanted to hold onto those connections but also try to go a bit further.
The first problem with that is that most of Kyushu is what people in Tokyo call “countryside”, i.e. cities with populations of less than a million, and small town venues just don’t really command much of a crowd on weekdays. In fact many venues just don’t even open during the week. Even in Fukuoka, the undisputed regional capital, weekdays are hard going. I remember when Seiji Harajiri, the bass player of Hyacca and the manager of the Fukuoka venue Utero, was in Tokyo last year, he was looking at the schedule of a venue and marvelling at how stayed open and putting on shows every day. Most Tokyo venues manage it by charging bands between ¥20,000 and ¥50,000 to perform, which the bands promptly fail to recoup, often playing to crowds of perhaps a dozen or fewer people. Venues elsewhere in Japan generally don’t have this system, instead focussing on big weekend shows to cover the bulk of their operating costs.
So booking five days in Kyushu meant finding somewhere we could do a show on a Wednesday what wouldn’t be a disaster. Fukuoka and Kumamoto are the only cities that really have music scenes big enough to support something even remotely like the kind of leftfield, alternative-ish tour I was doing, and I was already determined that Fukuoka was going to be a weekend show. I had more friends there and a weekend gig offered a greater multiplier than a show in Kumamoto could. So I booked Wednesday the 19th for a show in Kumamoto and crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t be too depressing.
“It’s behind you!” – N’toko looks for branded goods of the nation’s favourite local city mascot
Kumamoto is a city of perhaps three quarters of a million people, making it the third biggest city in Kyushu after Fukuoka and Kitakyushu. Despite this, it has a much more lively music scene than Kitakyushu due to the effects of urban mass relative to distance. Kitakyusyhu is right next to the larger cultural centre of Fukuoka, which tends to absorb all of its alternative culture in much the same way Tokyo does to Yokohama. Kumamoto is just far enough away from Fukuoka as to be outside its gravity well, but close enough that bands from the two cities can easily play together. The result is that Kumamoto is able to support a couple of decent venues, one very good record shop, and some of the region’s finest bands.
That said, I’ve never felt at home there in the way I have in Fukuoka or Kagoshima, where I have much closer personal connections with bands. I always get the self-conscious anxiety of being perceived as an arrogant big city asshole, the sense that my musical ethos is just a bit too niche for what audiences there are prepared to put out for, and that the cool local bands deal with bigger fish than me anyway (the Kumamoto scene, largely through the excellent Doit Science, seems very close with the more respectable side of the Tokyo alternative scene, but there’s a bit of a disjunct with the slightly more maniacal Koenji subscene that I’m sort of part of). It’s an awkward mix of inferiority and superiority complexes, heightened by the fact that both are grounded in some truth.
The result of that is that while Navaro in Kumamoto is quite simply the nicest venue in the whole island and one of the nicest venues in Japan, I’ve always felt a bit disconnected from the events I’ve been involved in in Kumamoto. I’ve always felt like a guest, indulged by the local establishment but not invited to play a serious part in shaping the proceedings. It’s a subtle thing, but one that has a definite (and not by any means negative) influence on the way the events are set up and go off. Basically, Navaro are an alternative-minded venue that hosts a wide range of events, have a deep knowledge of their own town’s local scene, and are the best people in town at putting together a collection of bands to get the most out of a show on a given day. Unlike in previous on-the-road shows on this tour, however, they’re not my mates: this show was about business. This was the only gig on the tour where I asked for money guaranteed in advance, and as a result, I didn’t interfere with how they arranged the event.
Of the bands, the first ones on stage were pretty good. They were called New Hawaii and seemed to be a side project of some other local bands, at least I recognised the singer from Doit Science on drums, and they reminded me of a lot of the kinds of bands you get in Tokyo playing faintly jazz-influenced, slightly progressive rock, but with a melodic, understated poppy edge at places like Shinjuku Motion. The next band seemed to be called Kanmuri Groove, although I may be misreading their kanji quite badly (冠GROOVE if anyone wants to correct me) and whatever the merits of their music, which I honestly still can’t work out, they did manage to bring a crowd, which local rapper KenVolcano did a great job of getting into the vibe and setting up for N’toko.
As I’ve mentioned before, I was wary of booking N’toko with other rappers because that’s not really the scene he fits, especially not in Japan, but he did play with a few on this tour. We always used the term “local rapper” as a bit of an ironic term on the tour to refer to the one guy in a lot of smaller towns who organisers can call on to warm up the crowd when a touring rapper is visiting but rather than letting it be a derogitary term (of course in Slovenia, N’toko himself is a “local rapper”), it’s actually one of the most interesting things about touring. The very localness is what gives the music its character and unique voice — punk has this a bit as well, but the problem with punk is that the localism often transmutes into ethnopunk, which is the worst thing in the world, while with rap, the localism more often often seems to retain a sense of contemporaneity along with its grounding in a specific environment. All rappers should be local rappers. In KenVolcano’s case, he was a party rapper, making a lot of use of samples in a way that reminded me a bit of the stuff oddball Fukuoka rapper Moth used to do back in the day (before he went acoustic disappeared from the scene). He also did a terrific job of making N’toko welcome as a touring guest playing last in front of an audience, none of whom had seen him before.
Weekday gigs in Japan are nearly always battles, especially when you’re playing away from your home crowd, and with neither Call And Response Records nor N’toko really having a reliable core of friends or fans in Kumamoto, we had to rely on the knowledge and booking nous of Navaro’s staff. They did as good a job as could be expected under the circumstances, bringing out a small but comfortable sized crowd and booking acts that on the whole complemented rather than jarred what N’toko did. At the same time, it felt afterwards like the tour was in a bit of a holding pattern. At gigs, I’m usually quite active around the room, talking to people and suchlike, but at this show, I felt like much more of an outsider, even among the two or three people who actually did know me. I was able to exchange pleasantries with the guy from Doit Science/New Hawaii, and I had a chat with one guy at the merchandise table who bought a few CDs and introduced me to his (pretty good) post-grunge/punk-metal band Syllabus. The result was that we left the gig feeling that things had gone pretty nicely but also strangely subdued. The momentum that the Nagoya and secret Koenji show had built up had been arrested slightly, but despite the rain that always seems to follow me to Kumamoto not quite dampened.
The day after Nagoya, we were back in Tokyo for a secret gig. The event was Tententen, a show I organise together with my friends Eric and Julian, a.k.a. Gotal and Ralouf from the band Lo-shi on the third Sunday of every month at a tiny little music bar in my home neighbourhood of Koenji called Art Bar Ten. I do two monthly parties in Koenji, the other being the DJ party Fashion Crisis at the nearby Koenji One. Since Ten has a proper drum kit, we focus more on live acts, but we also incorporate video, art and DJs into the show, while at One it’s more about chilling out and listening to the DJs, although we do sometimes have live electronic or semi-acoustic performances. One and Ten are not connected in any way other than being down the street from each other; the naming is just coincidence.
Anyway, there are a couple of advantages to having these regular events going on. One is that it anchors my activities in the Koenji neighbourhood, which helps establish an identity for what I do. The Internet does great propaganda about breaking down boundaries, and to an extent it does do something along those lines, but region and locality are still very important, even within Tokyo itself. Just look at the way anime over the past 10-15 years has increasingly focussed on real locations, almost fetishising the sheer locality of the place. Koenji itself has played stage to a few anime series, the tedious looking (I haven’t watched it) Accel World and notably parts of the bizarre Penguindrum. Hello Kitty has a special mascot for practically everywhere in Japan (Koenji again has its own version, dressed in Awa Dance costume) and everywhere has its own “special” ramen and manju or biscuit souvenir. Locality still carries weight, and local music scenes have a lot of appeal, perhaps more so the more the Internet appears to make them irrelevant.
The other advantage of these monthly events is that they gradually build their own audience. Fashion Crisis has been going for five years now, and while Tententen only started last September, it carries over a lot of the same audience. It helps foster a core audience for Call And Response events and provides a slightly looser environment for me to try new or different things that wouldn’t fit easily into any of my bigger and more strictly genre-focussed events.
With the N’toko tour I didn’t want to skip Tententen, but at the same time I didn’t want to be promoting another N’toko gig in Koenji just a couple of weeks before his big Tokyo release party at the nearby 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu on the final day of the tour. Ten costs me nothing to do, but do something at a proper live venue and you have to guarantee about ¥100,000 in takings, so I didn’t want people looking at the tour schedule and thinking, “Let’s see, the release party is on the 29th, but oh, I can see N’toko for a quarter of the price two weeks earlier. I’ll just go to that instead!”
So N’toko was a secret guest at Tententen, although a lot of our regular crowd (the people who tend to show up to my events anyway) already knew he’d be there either because I’d told them or just through the simple art of deduction. We needed an event that would work on its own regardless though, so Eric suggested Communication Breakdown, a sample-based instrumental hip hop unit formed by two of the guys from avant-garde rock band Bathbeer and indie-dance band Nacano. I was wary of booking another hip hop act with N’toko, but their sound was reassuringly old-skool and since they were from an indie background, it helped smooth the transition to the next act, Gloomy. Gloomy is basically Aya Yanase, an indiepop singer with a synthesiser in the mould of someone like Grimes. She is sometimes joined on drum pads by Kohei Kamoto of indie bands DYGL and Ykiki Beat, leading to some charming stage interactions that remind me of nothing so much as a couple in a car arguing over a map but trying to keep their voices down unless they disturb the kids. Aya has also worked with N’toko before, albeit remotely, providing guest vocals to mine and his band Trinitron’s Valentine’s Day cover of Paranoid by Black Sabbath.
Anyway, the room was packed more tightly than any Tententen so far, which is to say there were about 35-40 people over the course of the night in a room that can really hold comfortably about 25 max. If there’d been a fire, people would have died, but the only fire was in the hearts of the musicians and audience. We were all burned, but it was a nice burning, like eating a spicy curry, or drinking strong liquor. Gloomy would have finished the show perfectly in their own right, but N’toko put in one of his best shows of the tour, and the Tententen crowd proved themselves one of the best audiences he could have asked for.
It was an interesting comparison with Bar Ripple in Nagoya the previous night, with both shows in similar small bars with no stage, both shows bringing in a mix of Japanese and foreigners in the audience, and both shows having a decidedly non-“scene” vibe without compromising the essentially nerdy musical atmosphere. You could have transplanted ONOBLK and Rock Hakaba from Nagoya to Koenji and done the same show and it would have felt very similar even with totally different audiences.
By this point in the tour, it was starting to feel like the motors were beginning to run. Most of the shows had been in unusual places and were far from typical gigs in proper live venues with the exception of the first night at Shibuya Home, which had been on a weekday night, but there was plenty of that to come. The next few dates would all be very far from home so we had many hours of planes and trains to look forward to. The next block of gigs, which would form the core of the tour would be in Kyushu, where Call And Response at least has fairly credible past form, so there was a lot to look forward to. I’d never done so many dates there all at once though, so we were trying a few new things too. In Hollywood terms, this was the end of Act 1.
Nagoya was the first night really and truly on the road. N’toko had been able to get a Japan Railways travel pass so he could use most of the Shinkansen lines freely for a period of two weeks, which would see him through the worst of the travel, but as a resident of Japan, I was disqualified from such cost-saving niceties, which meant I had to bus it. Now for my North American and continental European friends I realise that a six hour road journey is just what you do to go and buy pretzels, but it’s a long journey for a Brit. It’s also the cheapest way to get to Nagoya, so that’s what I did. Other cost-saving measures included both of us cramming into the same hotel room, quite against the hotel’s rules. Usually you can sneak in and out easily, but this hotel was more vigilant than most. We managed it, but not without some suspicious glances. Net cafés are another option, but for two people, the difference in cost was negligable so the hotel won out — anyway, suffice to say that cost nearly always trumps comfort.
Nagoya is still kind of new territory for me. I did a show there in early 2013 with one of my favourite local bands, Pop-Office, I went there in my capacity as Zibanchinka’s label manager in 2012, and in 2011 N’toko played a quiet Wednesday night there at which I wasn’t present. The 2013 show had a bit of the atmosphere of a holiday booze cruise from all the visiting musicians from Tokyo and Fukuoka, which was huge fun but I didn’t come out of it feeling I’d made any real inroads into what was happening locally. N’toko’s previous show had been a pretty low-key event but he came away from it with some of the recordings that formed the basis of the track Nagoya off his new Mind Business album.
There are good reasons why Nagoya should be a good home away from home for Call And Response Records though. Local indie record shop File Under Records has been very good to Call And Response over the past few years, selling more CDs for me than every Tower Records in the country combined. It’s closer to Tokyo, so there is more two-way musical traffic between the two cities than any of the other places I deal with, and Nagoya-based music journalist Toyokazu Mori of the web site Cookie Scene is the only person in the Japanese language music press who’s ever paid even the blindest bit of attention to what Call And Response does.
My local hookup this time was my friend Joe, a.k.a. Japanese noise musician VVDBLK (pronounced “vivid black”), who organises shows under his A Ghostly Ghost Productions moniker. He and I talked quite a bit before the show to make sure we were on the same page about how the event should be, what sort of acts, good places, etc. I cannot emphasise enough how important this is: as the Yokohama gig showed, if everyone’s on the same page, things go off OK regardless of how many people show up. If there are people left thinking, “Why am I here? What’s this even about?” you’ve lost. I sent Joe the link to N’toko’s album and talked a bit about the other places he was playing and the kinds of bands he was playing with. As I had throughout the promotion of Mind Business, I emphasised the industrial and EBM aspects of N’toko’s music, which aren’t necessarily the most obvious ones, but I’ve found through trial and error that with their combination of electronic and underground sensibility they’re the ones that are most likely to get organisers thinking about him and conceptualising his position in the right way. Cookie Scene’s review of the album was massively helpful in this regard because it had instantly latched onto the parallels with 80s industrial music and used that as a framework for its analysis of the record (I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Cookie Scene write the best, most detailed and most intelligent music reviews in Japan, and not just because they’re nice to me!)Rock Hakaba
It turned out that one of the musicians N’toko had worked with on his previous visit to Nagoya played in a noise duo with Joe called ONOBLK, so that sealed the deal that this was a show that we could make work. He brought in one more band, Rock Hakaba, some DJs from the local underground event Boredom (not to be confused with the live event Tokyo Boredom), and then Joe and I completed the DJ lineup.
We settled on Bar Ripple for the venue. It’s a small venue, but one of the coolest places in Japan, so I was thrilled (the bar name has been immortalised in Knew Noise Records’ excellent Ripple compilation album of Nagoya bands). It’s not ideally equipped for loud electronic music though, which led to some quite intense messing around with the equipment beforehand in order to give N’toko’s sound the requisite boost. There was going to be no low-key intimacy tonight: he needed to be loud. The owner of Ripple had none of the squeamishness many bar owners have about letting things get noisy, so he, Joe and N’toko managed to re-organise the sound, putting much of it, including the vocals, through Ripple’s vintage amps, creating a raw, scuzzed-up punk sound.
As I say, it was necessary. ONOBLK put in a loud and by the end utterly thrilling noise-improv set, while Rock Hakaba did thirty minutes of really quite exceptional psychedelic skronk in what felt at the time like a sort of Rocket From the Tombs vein. In the end, whatever difficulties it put N’toko through (his lyrics were indecipherable amid the fuzz and skree of his set), it had the visceral power it needed to follow what had gone before.ONOBLK: full live set at Bar Ripple on March 15th
My first DJ set was hampered by problems with my own equipment, with an external sound card that I was using for the first time, and by the second set, I was too easily distracted by two or three separate conversations I was having at the same time as playing. Basically, if I was hoping to impress people with my DJ skillz, I failed. On the other hand, the fact that I was involved in so many conversations throughout the night meant that I’d succeeded at least a little in forging connections with the scene there. It was also a genuinely thrilling and exciting night. The owner of Ripple, who I gather is a legendary figure in his own right, was fiercely into the stuff that was going on, and several people I knew, either in person or online, were there. The musicians I spoke to were very cool people, and all-in-all lots of credit to Joe for getting everyone together. It was fun, the music was great, and more than that, it felt like progress.
The second night of the tour was in Yokohama. This was really a pet project of mine since there are a lot of bands I really like in the area and I thought a small show there would be a nice warmup before the more demanding travel requirements to come.
Shicho Shitsu during soundcheck
Yokohama is a weird place for gigs really, being just a little too close to Tokyo to really have the full sense of being a different place, but just a little too far to be worth travelling to of an evening. This was partly intentional on my part, since after the opening night in Shibuya, I was keen to channel as much of N’toko’s Tokyo audience as possible into the closing night at Higashi Koenji 20000V. I worked with a local Yokohama musician, Kouhei Itou from the bands Servals and Come To My Party to book the show, since I didn’t know the lay of the land as well as he, and we settled on the lovely Shicho Shitsu2, the Yokohama arm of a venue that also has a branch in Tokyo. Kouhei agreed to play with Come To My Party, and I booked one of my favorite new bands, Sayuu. Local experimental/improv weirdo Kitsch Hitori Gakudan completed the live bill, who I’d been keen to get since more than any of the other artists on the bill, he not only lived nearby but was at least a semi-regular feature on the Yokohama/Kanagawa scene.
CDs sold in garbage bags
Things started to go wrong a couple of days before the show, when a flu epidemic that had been sweeping the country claimed Kitsch Hitori Gakudan and ruled him out of the gig. It was helpful in a way because it shifted the start time of the event later, but it meant we were relying rather more on friends than we’d hoped. The next problem was a vicious storm that hit the Yokohama coast on the afternoon of the event, ruling out any but the most dedicated visitors. I’ll spare you the suspense here and just say outright that four people showed up, which in addition to the six musicians, two DJs and two venue staff gave us a grand total of 14 people in the room.
This is the sort of thing that’s a disaster in Tokyo and any venue where you’re paying the venue a rental fee. Fortunately we weren’t, which meant that the event turned over into something else: that special kind of atmosphere where everyone there knows they’re trapped in a situation that’s now only going to go as well as they make it, the peculiarly intense camaraderie that only really happens in the face of utter disaster. The battering rain, harsh winds and apocalyptic skies outside just emphasised the welcoming warmth that existed inside.
Scenes from a Chinese ballet
Shicho Shitsu in Yokohama is part live venue, part art studio, part used clothes shop, part record store, part bookshop, part cafe, part bar. Wandering around the venue, you find different corners devoted to different things, all of them in their own way fascinating. I was able to pick up a book of Chinese communist propaganda art for ¥500 and spend a few minutes browsing a comic book series about the adventures and scrapes of a porn actor.
The venue is better equipped for acoustic or at least relatively gentle sounds though, and Sayuu had to fight a valiant battle against a constantly sliding bass drum throughout their set. Given that their music was channelled almost exclusively through the onstage amps, however, they were able to control their sound and sounded great. They’re a duo who seem to thrive on awkwardness and discomfort, wither eschewing or else subverting through their delivery most of the standard inter-song pleasantries that most bands in Japan feel compelled to engage in. The only thing I can remember them saying was telling me to get out of the way of the camera they’d set up. What they did do that was of more value than a thousand tedious stories about ramen they ate or funny things that happened to their dog last week was stick around and pay close attention to all the other artists performing. A genuine interest in music and sense that they’re part of the event even when they’re not onstage is a precious thing in a band.Sayuu: Yellow Hate (Live at Shicho Shitsu2 — note the moving bass drum)
N’toko had no access to the amps and had to rely on the PA instead for his entirely electronic set. This meant it was considerably quieter than Sayuu’s performance as the PA staff, always wary of complaints from neighbors and visits from police kept volume to a minimum. In order to make the set work the best way it could, N’toko and the staff had arranged to set up his gear on the floor rather than the stage, so he was performing with audience on both sides of him, on the same level as them, fostering a sense of intimacy that would hopefully counterbalance the lack of the viscerally of noise. He’s a versatile performer and was able to re-jig his set to focus on the more experimental, less dance-orientated tracks, and it worked.
Come To My Party
Come To My Party are a poppier concern than Kouhei’s other band, the behavior, more psychedelic Servals, and they were more comfortable playing a quieter set in the first place. Clearly heavily influenced by the indie rock and synth-based dreampop elements of Supercar, but with less of an urge to rock out like a stadium band, they brought the live music to a close in a way that was both pleasant and better than the word “pleasant” makes that sentence sound.
One curious point about Yokohama when compared to the far better-attended Shibuya gig the previous night was in CD sales. Shibuya resulted in a grand total of zero, while the closer interaction between artists, closer attention people seemed to be paying each other, and sense of everyone being in something together meant that there was more action on the merchandise table after the show. The venue staff too seemed to be genuinely interested in what people were doing there, and ended up stocking a few of Call And Response Records’ CDs for their small record store corner. It’s a pat truism that there are no such things as worthless gigs, and it’s of course nonsense — there are terrible gigs that benefit no one and should never have happened — but where the people involved are interesting, musically curious people who get what each other are doing, there’s always some value that you can get from it. In a wider sense, this is an argument for infrastructure and groundwork. The best venues are the ones where the staff have a musical vision, the best local scenes are the ones where there are organizers and cultural curators willing to do the work of sorting and filtering music according to something more than raw numbers — it’s what I’ve tried to do in my ten years of activity in the music scene, and when the rails I’ve helped lay down can allow an event to trundle along relatively painlessly when it’s gone horribly wrong from a commercial perspective, that gives me a little glow of satisfaction, not necessarily of a job well done, but at least of a job operating on the right principles.
Booking a Japanese tour for an overseas musician is a difficult job and a task that I would never let myself get sucked into unless it was something I was strongly invested in it myself. In the case of N’toko, the Slovenian rapper and all-round underground/alternative partymaker, I’ve been releasing his English language material and hooking him up with shows in Japan for a few years now. When it came to the release of his latest album Mind Business, I was adamant that there be a Japan tour to support it.
The main reason for this is that record shops in Japan never seem to know where to file him, and without money and scene recognition supporting him, no one’s ever going to buy his CDs simply on the off-chance that they might like it. His fanbase in Japan was always going to be something we needed to build from the ground up.
There are advantages to though. As a solo artist whose gear all fits inside one travel case, it’s easy to get him from place to place, and his travel and hotel expenses are minimal. Not only that, but as an artist who while he’s an extraordinarily talented performer with bags of amazing music, he’s also a bit of a blank slate as far as the japanese music scene is concerned: they just don’t know what to expect of him. In short, cheap and crude as it is to put it like this, he’s an easy person to experiment with, and while I’ve booked piecemeal tours for him before, this short, compact tour was the first chance we’d had to test the results of the foundation work we’d done over the past few years. It was a test not just for him but for me, since most of the shows had been booked largely off my word and my reputation, so I made a point of accompanying him on all dates, many of which I took part in as a DJ.
The first and most important thing about the tour was the people we’d be working with. Of course you can just contact a venue and ask them for a gig, but that’s usually a waste of time. Venues in major Japanese cities have gigs on most nights, and there’s no way they’re going to be able to give your night the attention you want unless you’ve got someone in that town who buys into what you’re trying to do with the tour, knows the local scene and is able to find some way of tying those strands together. With that in mind, I as the tour manager have to be clear about what we’re bringing to the table and what benefit they can expect from us. When you’re introducing a new artist that no one in that city knows, you can’t in all honesty claim you’re offering them any financial benefit, so finding artistic common ground is of the utmost importance.
The first show on the N’toko tour was in Tokyo, at a small venue in Shibuya called Home. It was part of a fortnightly live music showcase that my friend Tomo a.k.a. live promoter Style Band Tokyo does, and Tomo in turn hooked up with another friend, DJ Rally a.k.a. former Mornings bassist Shingo, to do the show. Again, I remained in close contact with them and helped out with promotion, while another friend, Ayako, designed the flyers. These networks of friends, all working for free, are the key to what allows almost anything to happen in the Tokyo underground music scene.
Booking bands with N’toko always throws up problems. Since he’s a rapper, people’s automatic reaction is to book him with other rappers, but the Japanese hip hop scene has very little musically to do with the kind of thing N’toko does and even at home in Slovenia he always seems much more comfortable playing with punk, alternative, electropop and industrial acts. What Tokyo does have, however, is a grey zone between hip hop and punk/alternative that is inhabited by a number of acts whose interests lie on both sides of the divide. Also, increasingly there has been a growing awareness of how to promote music that crosses genre boundaries, which can basically be summarised as “subcul“.
Defining subcul is difficult. In its most basic form, it’s just an abbreviation of “subculture”, i.e. anything that falls outside mainstream pop culture. However, subcul has all sorts of other associations in Japan. In some ways it has a faintly derogatory aroma to it, rather like “hipster” in English, yet subcul people aren’t fashion-conscious elitists in the same way. Subcul people are the mini-Tarantinos of contemporary Japan and the derogatory edge to the word I believe comes from the indiscriminate nature of their acquisitive trash culture magpie sensibility and the vague sense that this is somehow shallow. That by mixing so much culture together, they divest it of meaning. Subcul is cooler than “otaku” and far more welcoming of women. It is also far less right wing, simply by virtue of having no real values of its own to begin with, but otherwise the two share some of the same characteristics. Most importantly for us here, subcul is a marketing tool that enables the linking of aspects of music and pop culture that would otherwise be locked in their little boxes.Nature Danger Gang
Nature Danger Gang are a classic subcul band. Musically they’re a mixture of rap and cheesy 90s techno, wearing a paintsplatter of brightly coloured clothes that various members remove throughout the set to various degrees. The girl in the schoolgirl uniform whips it off to reveal bright red rope bondage beneath, the dude at the front drops everything and gets into a wrestling match with another member on the dancefloor completely naked, another girl seems to be a trained dancer although it’s hard to see what she’s doing behind the chaos of the other members. There’s something very appealing about the spectacle of a bunch of people bopping about onstage, none of them playing instruments, although as you might imagine, the spectacle completely overwhelms anything the music might have been doing. They’re great entertainment, they put on a spectacular show, the willingness of the guys to one-up the girls in the bare skin stakes helps blunt some accusations of sexual exploitation, and the whole thing doesn’t seem to really mean anything. If you want a definition of subcul, they are it.
The group leave as soon as their set is over, taking all their audience (including some of the staff of subcul bible Trash Up magazine, natch) with them as they head to Ebisu for another gig. This is an occupational hazard of booking anyone with a bit of a buzz about them: they’re always in demand.
Boys Get Hurt is on next. N’toko has past form here, with him having played at Boys Get Hurt events on past visits. Here the situation is the opposite. Boys Get Hurt is essentially part of a kind of indie-electro scene, and that crowd is usually a midnight crowd. With Nature Danger Gang having gone and most of the rest of the audience N’toko’s friends and fans, he was caught in an awkward position between two poles. It was a smart gamble, taking the subcul alternative/rap crossover of Nature Danger Gang, following it with the electro of Boys Get Hurt, and then leading into N’toko who combines elements of both, but the departure of half the audience early stopped the momentum from building. When you organise events, you make these calculations and it doesn’t always pay off.
It was the first night of N’toko’s tour though, so he was well represented. His audience were the bulk of what was left and they went crazy. It left the slightly surreal sight of a crowd of people in front of the stage going wild, crowdsurfing and generally hurling themselves about like lunatics, while the back of the room, where you’d usually expect to find the other artists’ fans drinking, talking and cautiously watching, was completely empty. At this point a couple of touring pop-classical musicians from Slovenia and Croatia wandered into the room and I have no idea what their impression was. Is N’toko popular in Japan or not? The room was giving contradictory messages. That’s the nature of Japan’s fragmented underground scene.
Signals for the tour so far then are mixed. N’toko has loyal followers and event organisers willing to think carefully and hard about how to promote him, but it hasn’t quite gelled. We’re still in Tokyo though, and N’toko is sleeping on the floor of my apartment, so (discounting the flight, which was always going to be a loss) the tour is in profit so far.
Last week I had an article up on Nippon.com about the fall in Japanese music industry revenue in 2013. A few places made a big deal last year about how Japan bucked the global trend and posted growth in 2012, but as I said at the time, those figures were a blip largely down to a load of albums and compilations by venerable oldies. In the article I break down the figures a bit more, but the gist of it is that they really have to start figuring out ways to make the Web work for them. Figures for online music sales have been disastrous and the Japanese music industry can’t keep relying on millions of what are essentially dummy sales from AKB48 and its sister groups to keep its numbers up.
It’s not a complete disaster, and as I mention in the article, the dramatic fall of 2013 is really just the fall that the trendline predicted for 2012 (and which was disguised by the confluence of comebacks and re-releases) plus another for last year. I still don’t know if Spotify and other streaming sites are the answer, and I’m kind of resentful of the way so many new platforms keep appearing and jostling to undercut each other by paying labels and artists less and less each time. All the arguments I see in favour of Spotify seem to fall into two main categories:
(1) Look at Scandinavia: labels make more money off Spotify than they ever did off real sales. My question here is, “Who is making that money?” If most of that is just people going back and listening to old artists they already know, or big artists that are promoted a lot, then it’s not working in the long run.
(2) Look at me: I didn’t use to make much money off CDs, but now I’m raking it in off Spotify plays. In this instance I’m instantly suspicious of any anecdotal arguments because there are so many reasons why something can take off and those conditions are not necessarily replicable.
Whatever happens in japan, the majors will find a way of sewing it up for their own benefit, while all the best, most talented, most interesting and imaginative musicians will be left fighting over scraps. In that sense, I don’t see things being that different for the music I actually care about. For pop, I’m sure if there’s a way of making it worse, someone is already busily working on making that happen, but it remains to be seen.
Nee, Taxi is a textbook contemporary example of the style of the style of folk/singer-songwriter music that flooded Japan in the early 1970s, by one of this current generation’s most talented and versatile songwriters. Largely out of fashion now, Kenta Maeno nonetheless dives headfirst into the genre, recreating with the utmost sincerity and affection the bittersweet melodrama, with both his vocals and the music itself shifting in and out of its own rhythmical constraints. While the songwriting is deeply rooted in the 1970s Japanese folk tradition of artists — in particular the legendary Yosui Inoue — Maeno’s approach, aided by producer and musical collaborator Jim O’Rourke, also owes a great deal to contemporary alternative and alt-folk in its delivery.
The Japan Times ran a page on punk in Japan to coincide with the shitty Punk Spring event that happened on March 29th, and I was recruited to do something about the verious venues around Japan where you can go to see the local punk scene in its natural environment. I won’t repeat the stuff I’ve already written in the article, so just go read it on The Japan Times site here (if you run out of your free view allocation for the month, you can increase it to 20 articles by doing a free registration — they don’t spam you!)
In a music scene where there are very few venues dedicated to specific genres and event organisers and bands are constantly shopping around for the cheapest options, punk is a rare case where the scene does show a tendency to become fiercely loyal to particular places, once those places show themselves equally committed to the relationship. I think it’s a combination of the size (there are tons of punk bands all over the place) and the distinctive and subcultural nature of the music that allows this to happen.
I wrote the article in the airport in Fukuoka waiting for my flight back home from the tour I was on in Kyushu, where I’d been frantically picking the brains of everyone I met and texting and messaging local experts I knew all over the country. We were lucky enough that the show we were doing in Kagoshima was at a dyed in the wool punk venue, and the Fukuoka show featured Accidents In Too Large Field, who are punk royalty in their hometown, so I got good advice there. The photo for the piece is from 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu near my flat in Higashi Koenji, which is one of the greatest punk venues in the country. The guy in the picture is one of the venue’s managment staff, Tak Ishida of the brilliant band Firebirdgass, who everyone should see live at least once in their lives. The man is so punk rock he actually has the words “punk” and “rock” tattooed across his knuckles.