Monthly Archives: May 2014

Interview: macmanaman

Another feature I had in The Japan Times recently was this interview with Fukuoka post-rock band macmanaman. There’s not much to add here, but it does feel relevant in relation to a little incident that happened recently.

I launched into a bitchy little rant on Facebook a few weeks ago about the quality of English language coverage of Japanese music, which was provoked by a mixture of annoyance at the fawning idol worship that comprises most of the J-Pop blogosphere and my own frustration at the limited range of places for me to pitch my own ideas. A lot of people seemed to agree with my sentiment but it was also pretty clear that they all agreed for different reasons. Everyone had their own frustrations with the media but they were all different frustrations born out of their own particular pet faves not getting coverage, which is of course all I was really complaining about as well — I can’t honestly claim any higher motive.

Anyway, one friend of mine commented that for him The Japan Times was one of the worst because most of the bands featured were just groups that it felt like no one apart from the writer and a their friends cared about. Now I have strong doubts that many of my friends care about the bands I write about either, but I think this cuts to the core of the problem. Now I’ve had pitches to places rejected by editors because the band wasn’t big enough, and I get that. Media, especially on the web, runs on hits. Whenever I write about Babymetal or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu on this blog, my page view stats shoot through the roof, and in a media world where page views are money, it’s natural that media tends to naturally start skewing idol after a while. On the other hand, if music media isn’t about introducing new artists to people who’ve never heard of them before, what is the point at all? The fact that The Japan Times is the only place writing about so many of these bands is precisely the reason The Japan Times is valuable.

I’m lucky enough that I have an editor who trusts my writing to be interesting enough in its own right that I can write about bands like macmanaman and he’ll let it through without rigorously screening it for page view potential, and I daresay the fact that the JT still runs a paper edition helps too. Anyway, in my lonely little corner of the blogosphere, they’re an important band and they deserve every column inch they get.macmanaman: AxSxE-ken

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Shoegaze in Japan

I wrote an article for MTV 81 a few months ago about the current state of Japanese shoegaze, which seems to have got a bit of a shot in the arm from the My Bloody Valentine comeback and with Slowdive on their way to Japan this summer that little wave of interest perhaps hasn’t quite crested yet. Anyway, it took ages to be posted, which means it missed the Lemon’s Chair album release that I wrote it to coincide with, but it’s up now and a lot of what it says is still current. You can read the whole article here.

One of the things that came out of it was the way that shoegaze seems to have bled out into a lot of other genres now, and it’s especially interesting how many visual-kei musicians are involved in shoegaze as well. I suppose this has some parallels in the way bands like Deafheaven have drawn metal and shoegaze together.BP.: Goodbye Love

The article has a few embedded videos of some of the bands I talk about, and looking back, it’s worth noting that the Sugardrop album is one I definitely keep coming back to. The BP. album is probably the more interesting of the two though, mixing more styles together. On Goodbye Love you can hear it in the way it suddenly goes all metal at about the two-minute mark.The Earth Earth: Beautiful Future

I also really want to draw attention to the two new bands I mention in there. I’ve talked about The Earth Earth before, and they proudly wear their MBV influence on their sleeves with that perfectly recreated Kevin Shields distortion. When the vocals come in, however, it sounds more like Lush, without the washed out textures MBV drench their vocals in.Azma: Thousand Lights

Azma are less of a pastiche and perhaps a bit more musical in the sense of being technically minded. The Earth Earth feel essentially like a garage-punk band and their songs like pretty conventional pop tunes whereas Azma have that post-rock mindset that puts them more in the ballpark of local Fukuoka indie scenesters macmanaman. Both bands are good, but in different ways. The fact that they come from opposite ends of the country and have such contrasting approaches to the style made them a nice choice for the examples anyway.

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For Tracy Hyde: In Fear of Love

In terms of the songwriting traditions at play, indiepop in Japan can be divided into two loose categories. On the one hand you have the stuff that’s basically a Japanese version of jangly overseas bands and which could be defined as part of loose international collective indie/guitar pop consciousness. This category includes self-consciously retro pastiches like Sloppy Joe, as well as younger, less historically rigorous bands like Teen Runnings and pretty much anything on the Dead Funny label — the factor that links them is melody based around “foreign” chord structures. On the other hand, you have music that’s essentially J-Pop using indie arrangements and production. Into this category you find stuff like Soutaisei Riron, The Keys and pretty much any post-Flipper’s Guitar Shibuya-kei type guitar pop — again, the styles can be quite disparate, but the songwriting here generally follows “native” melodic lines.

On the basis of In Fear of Love, For Tracy Hyde are in the latter category. While the chiming reverb and cascading guitar descent of First Regrets are straight out of 80s Manchester or Glasgow, the melody is pure 90s Tokyo of a sort that would have been equally at home in the hands of nouveau-hip singers like Kahimi Karie or dead-centre-of-the-mainstream MOR pop-rock merchants like Presents-era My Little Lover. You can hear it not just in the chord progressions but in the rigidly enforced way every syllable gets its own note, forcing the melody to keep hopping up and down where an overseas band would be far more likely to let a few syllables run along repeating the same note before going on to stretch a single syllable over two or three notes. You can also hear it in the way the closing Waraibanashi (probably unconsciously) apes the melodic tropes of Soutaisei Riron songs like Cinderella and Jigoku Sensei — these are almost certainly not intentional so much as independent manifestations of a songwriting tradition that simply exists outside the Western-dominated international indiepop consensus.

And for a lot of people, that’s what will make In Fear of Love appealing or interesting. It’s an example of a Japanese indie tradition rooted in Japan’s own pop history even while it’s aware of sounds and influences from overseas and this allows it to sit comfortably alongside more mainstream domestic pop, at the same time offering listeners from overseas music possessed of a different sort of structural complexity while retaining many of the sounds and musical signifiers that mark it as part of a familiar genre. In addition to the 80s-influenced guitars (that themselves had roots in the 60s), the naive-sophisticated synth and drum arrangements and cotton-candy shoegaze washes hint at contemporary bedroom indietronica, most notably on the instrumental Saraba Atlantis Tetsudou.

In Fear of Love is also music that really needs to exist at least close to the mainstream in order to make the best sense, because despite its obvious affection for the sounds and textures of indiepop, at its heart it’s a J-Pop record, and insofar as it has any kind of outsider’s voice, it’s the whimsically disaffected voice of the perpetual dreamer, the romantic. Indie kids don’t need to be told to dream — they already do practically nothing else — but out there in radioland, the indie-influenced sounds that adorn For Tracy Hyde’s songs could help define them more clearly from the crowd and give them a real voice.

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Strange Boutique (April 2014)

A bit late updating this, but my April column for The Japan Times was on the local organisers who keep grassroots music culture going in Japanese towns outside the cultural gravity well of Tokyo. I hate using the word “curator” to talk about this amalgam of live venue staff, organisers, musicians, record store workers and journalists, but that’s what they are and it’s hard to come up with another, equally useful term for what they do.

As I mention in the article, it was being on tour that really drove this home. I often hear people remarking with an air of worldly wisdom that music should be left to sink or swim based on its own merits and it’s always hard to justify the existence of a shitty band, but anyone who seriously thinks popularity is this magical division bell that separates out the wheat from the chaff is operating under a delusion. There are numerous factors that influence popularity, very few of which have anything to do with how good something is. People can’t even agree on what a definition of “good” is, so what hope for an impartial measure?

In the mainstream music industry, popularity is influenced to a vast degree by who has access to the media and the infrastructure (basically only the majors) and in this sense, even popular taste itself becomes “curated” through constant reinforcement of certain images, and lyrical or musical tropes. As I mention in the article, once you step away from the big cultural centres, geography, age distribution, economics and transport connections become important factors. “Let the market decide” ends up denying areas the infrastructure to even allow anything to happen for reasons totally unconnected to the actual quality of the music.

So going to places like Kagoshima, Saga and Takamatsu, and seeing people working hard, against the prevailling market conditions, to make uncommercial but artistically vibrant music happen is exciting. It also suggests that as more conventional, mainstream music becomes increasingly remote, dedicated local curators could end up having an influence in curating taste as well. Because taste is to a large degree social, based on your peer group and your exposure. I’m a big cheerleader for local music as anyone who read my recent tour diary will I think know, and I’m particularly interested in anything that subverts the influence of the mainstream music industry (this is why I was so alternately intrigued by and suspicious of groups like BiS, because I was never entirely convinced that they offered any real kind of subversion, operating within a very conventional marketing structure and business model and merely substituting gross or violent images into it).

Anyway, the event is really just a bit of rare praise for all the great local organisers, including those who helped out with my tour and many more all over the country. I’ll just leave you with some more of my favourite “local band” in Japan, Saga’s Nakigao Twintail.Nakigao Twintail: full live set at Saga Rag-G

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Convex Level: State of Things / Ashy Sleep

Despite having been around for what seems like forever, Japanese postpunk trio Convex Level only really came onto this blog’s radar due to their touring relationship with Clear And Refreshing favourites Extruders. And from these two tracks which the band are giving away for free, taken from the band’s current donotcl album, it’s easy to see to appeal Convex Level would hold for a band as deeply immersed in minimalist postpunk dynamics and sweet, but understated melody as Extruders.

State of Things is a more pretty conventional new wave/80s rock tune with that chugging mid-paced beat and “Ah-ahh” backing harmonies that a lot of songs of that era seemed to have but you can’t really put your finger on a single one that memorably did so. It’s still very well put together though, with the harmonies and key changes dropping in at the moments of maximum effectiveness to either disconcert or give a heartstopping endorphin surge — not to mention a proper guitar solo slap bang in the middle of the song. Played a bit faster it could have been as good as Martha & The Muffins’ Paint By Number Heart, but as it is, it’s still solid. Of the two tracks, Ashy Sleep is the killer though, alternating between a taut new wave-reggae bass/drum interaction that underlies the verses a the driving, powerpop chorus. There’s something terribly reminiscent of Roxanne by The Police to it, and although it’s hard to know how flattering the band would consider that comparison, be assured, I definitely mean it in the most favourable sense.

It’s also worth noting about both these songs just how nicely produced they are. Between the flat, soft-edged tedium of mainstream pop production and the equally flat, scuzzy amateurishness of most indie recording, Convex Level (who absolutely not coincidentally share an engineer with Extruders) seem to have found a niche that captures the mixture of glacial and intimate that characterised so much of the best music of the late 70s and early 80s.

Download both tracks from Convex Level’s web site here.

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Compact Club: Subete wa Template

Compact Club: Subete wa Template (live)

After the past couple of months where this blog has been preoccupied with touring, a bit of a backlog of stuff has emerged, with a huge pile of CDs and tracks to talk about, some of which I picked up on the road and some of which emerged in Tokyo during my absence. First up is this debut CD by oddball new wave band Compact Club. While the membership seems to be rather fluid and the people who appear in the videos are not always the same ones who appear onstage, the group features a few familiar features, including vocalist Canan Togawa, previously of Elekidz, Yasuhiro Onishi of illMilliliter and previously Imamon, and Yurako Iwama of Be Aggressive.Compact Club: Liber Stewart

What you have on Subete wa Template is three perky, punky new wave songs in a Devo/B-52’s mould, edged with a sort of joyous guitar-mangling noise that shows itself in particular on XTC-like closing track Roommate, which descends into Eno-esque sonic wibble as it approaches its climax. And it’s where the pop is set off against something harsher and more discordant that Compact Club are really at their best, because shorn of the immediacy of a live performance, the outright pop of the title track seems to be crying out for a little extra kick. Sitting between these two extremes lies Liber Stewart, with its unusual arrangement that foregrounds the bass and uses the guitar and synth to provide disconcerting textures and bleeps. There’s a lot of fun to be had with Compact Club and this CD is a solid introduction to the group — given the talented collective at work in the group, I have high hopes of them being able to build on it in the future.Compact Club: Roommate

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Diary of a Japan tour part 11: March 29th at Higashi Koenji 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu – FINAL SHOW

20000V goes by the name Ni-man Den-atsu now in its new location for contractual reasons, but true believers know what it's really called.

20000V goes by the name Ni-man Den-atsu now in its new location for contractual reasons, but true believers know what it’s really called.

The final date of the tour was a show I had organised myself with the help of Tsuchi from synth-punk lunatics Jebiotto. As the final show, and as the official Tokyo release party, this was one I needed both to go off with a bang and bring in a properly big crowd. The shows leading up to it had all been good one way or another, most of them had been fantastic, and some of them — in particular the secret show at Koenji Ten, the Friday night in Fukuoka and the wonderful little show in Takamatsu — had been truly, truly sublime experiences. I was nervous.

Doing the opening night on a Wednesday in Tokyo and doing the only other Tokyo show as a secret gig had been in part an attempt to ensure that the greater part of N’toko’s audience was funnelled into this one show, and the decision to space out the two openly promoted shows at opposite ends of the tour was an attempt to avoid Slovenian rap fatigue in audiences and make sure as many people from the first date came back for the final one.

In terms of the bands, I had hoped to get a reasonably well-known name on the bill, but that’s a dangerous area. Once you start trying to book “name” acts, you’re paying the bands in addition to the venue — yes, I’m one of those shitty promoters who doesn’t always pay bands — which often means given the limited size of the venues and the limited reach of underground music anyway, you’re forced to increase the price for the people who do come rather than radically increase the audience. At best it’s a balancing act, where you have to book the right bands together with the “name” act because “name” acts rarely do anything to promote shows themselves, which means the way they bring benefit is more through acting as a booster to the other bands playing. Put simply, any audience Melt banana will bring themselves will likely be cancelled out by the cost of paying Melt Banana to play, but more Jebiotto fans will come if Melt Banana are on the bill. This can work, but it also means that you’re paying one band simply for being themselves, while you’re not able to pay other bands who are actually the ones whose fans are making the event such a success. I’ve been willing to do this in the past, but only for the right band, and this time round, I just couldn’t find the right band, so instead I went with people I liked and trusted, crossed my fingers and hoped.

The balance of artists was just about perfect for what I was trying to do though. Jebiotto were down from the start, and their brand of manic, synth-based punk/new wave was ideal, feeding into N’toko’s industrial side while at the same time anchoring the event in venue 20000V’s underground punk ethos. Tsuchi from Jebiotto brought in Dubideb, a techno-industrial noise duo featuring Ataraw Mochizuki from Groundcover. (also the manager of 20000V) and drummer Yana from Numbs, who also plays support drums with Jebiotto on occasion. It was the first time I’d seen them, but they blew the room apart from the get-go and were probably N’toko’s favourite band of the entire tour.Mukokyuu Kakokyuu Shinkokyuu digest (intro by YMO)

Takashi Nakayama, punk rock god.

Takashi Nakayama, punk rock god.

Next was Mukokyuu Kakokyuu Shinkokyuu, a postpunk/new wave orchestra in a definitively Japanese mould, taking cues from the Plastics and P-Model. The band’s leader Takashi Nakayama had worked with me before through his previous bands Skyfisher and Labsick Man-machine Remix, but Mukokyuu Kakokyuu Shinkokyuu was him at his best, all hyperactive pop melodies delivered with fierce, postpunk intensity, with added balloon animals.

Tommi Tokyo from group A.

Tommi Tokyo from group A.

group A were one of the first bands I booked for the show, and they were nervous before going on. They have a tendency to strip half naked and paint themselves white onstage but both members had needed to rush to the venue from other engagements and in the process had forgotten some of their stage gear. They went on in pants and t-shirts like primary school kids who’d forgotten their gym kit, and put in the most furious, raw performance I’ve ever seen them do, vocalist Tommi Tokyo channelling Genesis P Orridge at his most intense. When a band relies on a constructed stage image, that image can often become armour behind which the band hides, and I think that’s what happens a bit with group A. Here, clothed, they felt more stripped bare than they ever had naked.Jebiotto: AxNxC

Tsuchi from Jebiotto: Pop Zeus

Tsuchi from Jebiotto: Pop Zeus

Jebiotto might have had a hard time following such a powerful set, but they always have something in reserve and threw themselves into their set with reckless abandon, getting things whipped into a frenzy that peaked during N’toko’s headlining set. Where he could easily have done an encore in Takamatsu but shied away from indulging himself, here he let it all out and sent the room wild in a way that compared with the tiny, cramped experience of Koenji Ten on the 16th but which he carried off this time with a much bigger crowd. Throughout the tour, he and I had been binging on standup videos by the British comedian Stewart Lee, and through his work, deconstructing the art of performance to the point that by the end of the tour, N’toko was eager to start incorporating Lee’s lessons into his own shows. You could see that a little in this show, where he started his set by pre-narrating what he was going to do with his set, trivialising and diminishing the tricks he was going to play before hitting you with them every bit as effectively as if they had been delivered to you blind. At the end of the set, he started a song using an unfamiliar beat before sighing and saying, “Oh, you all know what song this is going to be,” flicking a switch and letting it turn into his theme song of sorts N’toko ne Obstaja. There are a lot of themes in common between Lee’s comedy and N’toko’s most recent Mind Business album, in that both artists play this slightly confused-seeming satire of themselves, seeking to reject and place themselves above commercialism and mocking themselves for having this attitude, and in both their work, there’s a sort of carefully constructed desperation of someone frantically pursuing relevance but not quite being able to make it work.N’toko: Minor Celebrity

So it was a bigger success than I could ever have hoped for and despite all the amazing shows that had preceded it, it was the highlight of the tour and one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. There’s an enormous pleasure in setting up an event and then sort of hitting “play” and seeing it roll along on its own wheels, like seeing a child walk for the first time or watching a meticulously constructed arrangement of dominoes tumble in sequence. It left me exhausted though, not wanting to do another event for the forseeable future. It was so good, I just wanted to stop there.

It also meant time had come for counting out the costs and income of the tour. After taking into account all transport and hotel costs, deducting some of my wife’s and my costs in Kyushu that came under “family holiday” expenses, we had come out of the tour with a small profit. This is obviously absolutely nothing in commercial terms: my 50% share of that profit is what I might drink in one evening while on the road, and N’toko’s share accounted for perhaps 10% of his plane ticket, but there was something psychologically satisfying about having gone through eleven gigs in the Japanese live house system and taken out more than you put in, even if that figure can only be gleaned from calculations that operate within severely constrained parameters.

Modest, qualified success.

Modest, qualified success.

Still, that was for a three week tour with one solo musician and a tour manager. I occasionally get mails from bands wanting to tour or sell their music in Japan, and I used to politely explain to them that I wasn’t a big enough operation to help them. Now I just ignore them, and this is why. Take that modest, qualified success, make it a band of three people and that figure immediately becomes an enormous loss — all that we achieved on tour in March evaporates upon contact with anything resembling an actual band.

That doesn’t detract from the wonderful feeling of achievement that came from pulling it off though, and in particular from the incredible people who made it happen. Tomo from Style Band Tokyo, DJ Rally, Kouhei from Come To My Party/Servals, Joe from VVDBLK, Eric and Julien from Lo-shi/Tententen, Ryota from Kumamoto Navaro, Harajiri from Fukuoka Utero, Iguz from Futtachi, Yoshida from Rag-G, Masumi from Miu Mau/Coet Cocoeh, Tsuchi from Jebiotto and Mochizuki and Ishida from 20000V. To that list, we could add Ayako and many others who I don’t even know, who designed flyers and helped promote the shows, plus more than a hundred musicians, some of whom had their own staff and drivers, nearly all of whom worked unpaid or for minimal fees to do something simply because it was artistically valuable. I salute them all.

Thank you!

Thank you!

 

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