Regular readers, of whom I’m assured I have a few, may have noted a certain sparseness in reporting these past few weeks. The reason for that is that I have been almost permanently either in transit, at shows, or recouperating from the exertions caused by the above, all for the greater purpose of Slovenian rapper N’toko’s most recent Japan tour to support the album Mind Business, which you may remember I released in Japan on my Call And Response label in January (CD available here or on iTunes here, thanks for the custom!) Now I gather that a few of you found some value or at least interest in my series of posts on running an indie label in Japan, so at some point over the next week, I’m planning to do a sort of tour diary series running down the N’toko tour and giving what insight I can into the experience of managing a bargain bin, no-fi Japan tour, the different environments both in terms of venues, bands, organisers and general atmosphere of the various towns we passed through, and the logistical and financial challenges faced. However, before that, there is some important housekeeping I need to do on this blog, specifically a number of articles I’ve written for other outlets to which I would like to direct your attention.
First up, and really most ridiculously overdue, I did an interview for The Japan Times with Nagoya pop/new wave band Crunch.
I say most of what I want to say about them in the article itself (it’s quite an opinionated piece for an interview, but then I find myself becoming more opinionated in my writing as I get older) but it’s worth picking out a few points I think are interesting or important. Probably foremost among them is the comment about how some indie record stores wouldn’t stock their CD because it’s too pop, despite the band themselves being pretty definitively underground. This is both a problem and completely correct for the music scene in Japan.
Firstly the problem is obviously that it perpetuates the divide between pop and underground music that is initially caused by the narrow focus of mainstream media and major labels. For every Soutaisei Riron that crosses over into the mainstream, there are hundreds of bands that are left behind — the majors just don’t need them all. With an indie infrastructure to fall back on, some of those bands might be able to support their activities and build a base for themselves from which they could launch a more mainstream career the next time the opportunity arises, but if the indie scene shuts them out, they’re left just playing fairly bland, sub-mainstream events with none of the major scene’s promotion or professionalism, but none of the indie scene’s community or core fanbase.
However, it’s also quite right that the indie scene behaves like this, because if all it’s doing is offering a less successful version of what the majors are doing, what’s the point of them as an alternative? The indie scene is organised along different business lines — in some ways what you might call a communist or syndicalist model, with bands, labels and organisers all needing to support each other in order to keep their work flowing — and it doesn’t have access to the communication channels that can deliver pop music to the kinds of people who like pop music.
Crunch are an interesting case here in that they don’t seem to be all that interested in being a major band, or at least in making the sorts of compromises that major bands have to make or in being “managed” in the way major bands are, but at the same time, their music clearly has a lot of mainstream appeal. My first instinct was to dismiss them as something inherently out of my range of interest and it was only really when I noticed a few people whose opinions I greatly respect (particularly the good people at Japanese music web magazine Cookie Scene) taking a close interest in the ｂａｎd that I started listening in a different way and started to be able to pick out the layers to what they do that my initial superficial glance over their music had missed.
The big thing about them that struck me was how when doing the interview the vocalist Noriyo demonstrated an enthusiasm for and interest in music not only as a performer but as a listener that went way beyond what most bands are ever willing or able to admit. Most bands will clam up and divert questions about what music they like, wither for fear of being pigeonholed as a certain type of band, for fear of admitting influences that would reveal their plagiarism, or because they simply don’t have much interest in or knowledge of music in the first place (this latter reason is I fear depressingly common). Even if you’re making pop music, having a wide and deep musical background as a listener inevitably leads to a richer kind of pop music — this is why Haruomi Hosono, Yumi Matsutoya and their 70s songwriting generation had such a long-lived influence, and while Crunch aren’t as technically honed as the 70s “new music” crowd, their songwriting sense feels much closer to their tradition of creating mainstream pop informed by a diverse and not necessarily musically related background musical knowledge than it does to the zeitgeisty grasping at new trends of K-Pop or the pop-art paintsplatter of nostalgic influences that much idol music is composed of.
Crunch are probably helped by being from a city the size of Nagoya too. Somewhere smaller and they’d have trouble finding other musicians who they felt an affinity with, but at the same time, the indie scene is small enough that it can’t really afford to shut them out. Somewhere as big as Tokyo there’s the danger that unless they quickly found some fellow musicians, booking managers and organisers who got what they were trying to do, they’d be swallowed whole by an endless stream of live venues all playing bland wannabe pop and never seen or heard from again.