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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The final date on the road in this tour was Takamatsu. To be honest, I didn’t even really know where Takamatsu was when I booked it other than that it was in “Shikoku somewhere”. At the beginning of March I had helped organise a Tokyo release party for the Fukuoka new wave indie supergroup Miu Mau, and during the post-gig drinking session I had suggested, probably rather aggressively, that it would be lovely if the group’s leader Masami (a.k.a. Coet Cocoeh), now a resident of Takamatsu, could organise a show for N’toko there towards the end of the month. I promptly forgot about it, only to receive an email from her a week or so later saying we could do a show at a very cool little bar called iL.
Now since N’toko had a rail pass, this was no big deal, since he could just hop on the Shinkansen to Okayama and take a relatively short train from there across the water to Takamatsu, but it meant more planes and other expenses for me. The first thing I did was plunge into attempts to get a show in Osaka again to see if we could make a couple of nights in the region out of it. I’d had a gig in Osaka tentatively planned, before the organiser suggested doing it in Kyoto instead and then announced that actually she couldn’t do it at all, so I’d taken that as a message from the heavens that it wasn’t to be. Still, if we were going to be in the area, I figured it might be worth looking around again, so I spoke to Club Noon, where some of my friends had done shows in the past. They seemed amenable to doing something, but it was pretty clear they expected me to shoulder the burden of promotion, and without someone well connected with the local scene there on the ground I decided against it. Better to do nothing than to do something poorly organised and promoted.
And the show Masami put on in Takamatsu once again reinforced the benefits of someone who understands your music and ethos, and knows both the local scene and what they themselves are doing. iL was a tiny place just off the side of Takamatsu’s vast, kilometres-long roofed shopping arcade, but it was immaculately organised and put together. The venue had brought in a powerful sound system to ensure N’toko’s music played out without a hitch, Masami very kindly ran home at one point to get her own keyboard stand when things looked like they might get a bit complicated, and the DJs she booked were massive fun. Masami’s own stuff tilted towards postpunk like the Slits and New Age Steppers, while Oka took a smoother, more sophisticated tack and Kotetsu careered between a manic selection of Japanese new wave, latin, pop and curios that I couldn’t place if I tried. For my own set, I played the same basic stuff I usually play at Fashion Crisis, but since I was playing in front of a completely unfamiliar crowd edged it more towards the poppier, more uptempo stuff in an attempt to keep people’s attention.
The interesting thing about playing here was the way that people really seemed to be listening. Usually when I play, there are a handful of people coming up to me saying, “Hey, what’s this?” and a lot of people just having conversations with each other and not really paying attention, so soundtracking those conversations and dropping in enough weird or interesting stuff to keep anyone else interested is more or less what I think my job is. In Takamatsu, nearly everyone seemed to be sat, listening intently — not dancing or asking me questions, just sat there with their ears tuned into everything I was doing — which made it a bit of a weird experience, although not by any means a bad one.
N’toko played his usual 30-minute touring set, and could really have played double that time given the reaction the crowd gave him. The sound was superb and in the tiny, narrow room with the crowd surrounding him on three sides, it gave the performance a dynamic feel that isn’t really there when you’re on a stage, facing the audience behind a barrier, either physical or metaphorical. N’toko is a performer who laps up attention and I think he finds it psychologically impossible to ignore part of the audience, so playing to a 180-degree spread of people like this, he was constantly aware that wherever he was playing to, there was someone behind him and this made him mobile at all times.
So the party ended up being one of the highlights of the tour in its own right, and since we were only there for one night, I’d booked a late flight back in order to do some sightseeing. Takamatsu was the only place on the tour where we really did any sightseeing, and it was fascinating. The shopping arcade is a thing of wonder, a vast roofed enclosure apparently 2.7km long that took us nearly to the famous Ritsurin-koen, a glorious garden that was so absurdly, fastidiously beautiful that we both kept bursting out laughing at it.
Takamatsu castle grounds
Takamatsu is this:
At the other end of the shopping arcade was the castle ruins and the seafront, where we chilled for a few hours, and even the station concourse was lovely. In fact even the airport was lovely, with the souvenir stall in the departure lounge serving locally brewed ale on tap. I realise that this is becoming more like a travelogue than a rock’n’roll tour diary, but seriously, Takamatsu is really, really nice city. Anyway, the gig at Takamatsu joined a growing list of other amazing shows that set the bar absurdly high for the final night of the tour, back in Koenji tomorrow, and as the day went on, the fear continued to rise that my own cherished event that I had tried so hard to make the highlight of the tour would fall short of the mark.
The final date in Kyushu was at Rag-G in Saga. I’d been here once before, when Zibanchinka supported Bo Ningen in 2011, and both the town and the venue are interesting places.
One of many decidedly odd buildings left over from another age and largely colonised by the local sex industry.
When travelling in Kyushu, the step-changes in economic growth and reconstruction of the various cities can make each stop seem a bit like travelling ten years further back in time. While Fukuoka looks more or less like the present day (and the Momochi area is outright futuristic), Kumamoto feels more like the 1990s, with a familiar enough atmosphere, but lacking some of the glitter and glitz of the 2000s. Kagoshima is like a faded 1980s theme park, with the bright, brash, plastic bubble-era storefronts and building artifices bleached and dashed by two decades of volcanic dust. Saga then brings us back to the ’70s. On a Sunday afternoon, the town is deserted. You can walk from the station to the venue fifteen minutes away almost without seeing a single person, just passing hostess bars and brothels shuttered for the daylight hours, the whole town bathed in a sort of orange light giving it a sense of a permanent sunset. Signs advertising Coca Cola and other well-known brands showed no sign of having been changed or moved since they were first placed there decades ago, which makes a striking contrast to Tokyo where such retro ephemera is diligently collected and arranged to create a perfectly curated designer’s-mind facsimile of the past. N’toko turned to me at one point and said something to the effect that it was like India after being hit by a neutron bomb.
Saga is also crisscrossed by hundreds of tiny streams, giving it the impression of a run-down toytown Venice, and it’s on the corner of one of these streams that Rag-G sits, opposite a really quite beautiful temple, with an open space and seats laid out in front of it. Sitting outside was really so nice that it felt like an enormous hassle even to go inside and listen to the music, the only thing ruining the atmosphere being the grindingly repetitive blues music chittering away out of a portable CD player by the venue’s entrance (one that Omi from Futtachi swiftly replaced with some avant-garde guitar improv CD he had with him).
There was a panda wandering around outside for some reason.
Keeping a live venue open in a small town like Saga is a different challenge to running a venue in a competitive environment like Tokyo. In big cities, rent is a big constraining factor in the size of a venue, and basically means that a small venue will always only have small bands. In Saga (population about a quarter of a million), there are only a couple of live venues to serve the whole city, so they have to be able to accommodate anything, from tiny underground shows to washed-up old stars, and encompassing a variety of genres. Rent on the other hand is not constrained so much, which means that Rag-G is a phenomenally large venue by the standards of most larger cities. The smaller size of the city, however, means that it’s difficult to support underground or experimental music in such a space without doing, as they did at this show, an all-day event with about ten bands playing.Johnny Ohkura Daijin: Yasu Megumi no Theme
It’s a fascinating lineup though, with N’toko and Futtachi both present and correct again, the latter performing in their minimalist psychedelic duo incarnation, and an interesting mix of local and nearby bands joining them. Headlining was Johnny Ohkura Daijin from the band Suichuu Sore wa Kurushii, who’s a Koenji local that I’ve known for a long time and who was by coincidence playing the same night. He’s one of those singers “you have to be Japanese” to really get, rattling through a series of folk-punk tunes with funny lyrics and just generally tilting along the tightrope between music and variety performance. It’s the kind of thing I always find much easier to take in a small room.
Saga is close enough to Fukuoka that it’s pretty easy to visit and several Fukuoka mates came. DJ TKC and Iguz from Futtachi were partying in the street well into the evening.
I can’t pretend to even remember many of the bands who played that night, but Yaoyoloz were superb, and Hakuchi are one of my favourite bands right now. One interesting fact I picked up recently is that the word “hakuchi” (meaning “idiot”) is on the list of words banned by Japanese TV, so when the band’s drummer Ann, who is an omnivorous, oddball teenage musical genius in her own right, recently appeared on local TV, they weren’t allowed to say the name of her band. Given that Hakuchi is also the Japanese title of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (from where the band took their name), it makes you wonder what literary discussions on Japanese TV are like, with one Russian friend of mine suggesting, “Today we will be discussing Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and <BEEP!>” (I prefer to imagine the censorship effect as a comedy sound like a swanee whistle or a cuckoo clock).
Kanami from Nakigao Twintail: too cool for school.
Also attending the show were four members of another great Saga band, the quite amazing Nakigao Twintail, who split up last year. The drummer, bassist and two guitarists were present, so after Hakuchi, they commandeered their equipment and played a couple of songs themselves. Now given what an impact they had on me when I saw them in Fukuoka in 2013, this was a special moment for me, since I thought that one occasion would end up being the first and last chance I’d ever have to see them live. Given its impromptu nature and their limited gear and setup, their brief set was less the furious garage-punk explosion of their full band sets and more a chaotic, dadaist disassemblage of rock’n’roll. I’m not sure what sort of musical endeavours any of them will end up engaging in in the future, and it could be horrible, but there’s still enouch childish nonsense in what they do that it’s fun.Hakuchi: Suttoko Dokkoi
Iguz from Futtachi finds a psychedelic flower shop.
N’toko had to work his way through some sound difficulties, perhaps as a result of being the only electronic act on the bill, but after some furious mucking about with the wires and some cajoling from me in my asshole manager hat, things got pumped up to the necessary volume and enough of the cool people there stuck around to watch him. Futtachi had no such technical issues and perhaps even more than in Fukuoka their minimalist, industrial-psych was hypnotic and utterly compelling. Shiro-Boshi were a pretty good indie rock band from Fukuoka, while The Amber Tortoise had the best bandname of the evening.
It was also exhausting, and by the time the post-gig food and drink started winding down, N’toko and I were both dead on our feet. A few days rest beckoned before one last gig on the road, way out in Takamatsu, a place neither of us had ever been to or had any image of, and which I’d accidentally booked while drunk a few weeks previously. It was in the hands of good people though, so what could go wrong?
So Fukuoka was marvellous as it always is, and the next stage of the tour was Kagoshima. This wasn’t the most logical choice of destination, the city being as it is at the opposite end of the island and with another gig up in Saga, not that far from Fukuoka on Sunday. However, the schedule of the venue in Saga and the event they had planned for that day dictated that Saturday was the only day we could easily do Kagoshima, which meant an expensive train ride for us and four painfully long car journeys for Futtachi.
It was also by this point at the part of a tour where you start to be able to smell your shoes walking about town and just generally feel a bit mouldy and unpleasant, something which no amount of deodorant seemed to be able to dispel. Even the death of my jeans and their swift replacement with a fresh pair from Uniqlo did little to alleviate my discomfort. This after only three or four days on the road. How bands tour the United States in a van for weeks on end, I will never know. Yuck. Anyway, my wife had joined us in Fukuoka for the show last night and she was coming with us to Kagoshima, so we splashed out and took the Shinkansen.
Scene Queen: Futtachi’s Iguz Souseki at the non-more-punk Kagoshima Word Up!
The venue in Kagoshima was a punk bar called Word Up! with a heavily insulated and soundproofed back room rather like a miniature version of a British pub venue, and I was surprised to see playing in the background a DVD of Tokyo punk bands featuring the quite wonderful Elekids, whose vocalist Canan I know personally and now plays with the equally brilliant Compact Club. The owner of Word Up! is a hardcore musician himself and has connections throughout the country. These people who not only play music but also organise and create infrastructure are crucial to keeping music and creativity alive in smaller or more remote towns.
Kagoshima has always had a pretty strong local punk and hardcore scene though, and what Iguz from Futtachi is trying to do is a little more difficult than that. She seems to be trying to create from the ground up a more open-minded, musically cosmopilitan scene that could perhaps be comparable to the alternative scenes that exist in places like Fukuoka or parts of Tokyo. I thoroughly support her in this endeavour, which is one of the reasons I was so keen to take the tour so far out of its way to do a show in Kagoshima in the first place. There are interesting and creative musicians there, but not many, so concentrating the signal the way she is trying to do is crucial. The willingness of the punk scene to open up its unfrastructure to such events is great, although in a town of that size (Kagoshima has a population of over 600,000, but as live music scenes go in Japan, that’s small) it’s probably just as much an economic necessity — scenes like that need to coexist in the same live spaces to survive. In any case, it would be interesting if this sharing of ground could also lead to some cross-pollenation rather like the kind of scene you get at my home venue of 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu in Koenji, where the border between the punk and alternative scenes is quite porous.
The first band were Dew, who were another of those progressive/post-rock type bands of which we’d encountered a few on this tour. There’s so much of this stuff in Tokyo that it doesn’t really register, but once you step out of the seething metropolis, this music really means and represents something quite different and I find myself listening to it in a slightly different way. I’ve been to Kagoshima several times for events and bands like Dew really stand out in the context of the Kagoshima music scene. In this way, it’s important to realise that applying the same rules and standards that you would in Tokyo is meaningless here. Dew offer something special. The lack of much of a scene around them making similar music, however, might also have the effect of limiting what they do by forcing them to play to the limited attention spans of audiences not tuned in to their style. There were moments in their set where they hit an almost spacerock groove and should really have driven that home ruthlessly, droning over it for six more minutes, but they simply stopped before they could reach a really transcendent moment. They were good, but I kept wishing for more.Dew: Deus Ex Machina
Taison is another local rapper. As I said previously, really all rappers should be local rappers, and Taison is the real deal. Where KenVolcano in Kumamoto was very much a party rapper, Taison is a poet. He was playing with a live backing band, which perhaps suggests he’s an artist who likes to improvise, but in many ways he would have been served better by a more minimal musical backdrop. He has played with electronic and turntablist backing musicians as well, and I’m pretty sure he could hold up as a compelling performer with just his voice alone. He was well matched with N’toko, with whom he shares a cynical, socially-conscious worldview, and his lyrics frequently dealt with local Kagoshima society. As I said before, I thoroughly endorse this sort of thing.Taison: On The Road
Futtachi were playing in their full four-member incarnation, meaning the music was completely different from last night. They hadn’t been able to soundcheck so their sound was scuzzy and fucked up, but then their music is scuzzy and fucked up to begin with, so all it did was bring out their inner garage rockers. This was more familiar ground for me, having seen them perhaps three times in this form, but it was a welcome reminder of what a brutal powerhouse of a band they can be.Futtachi: Siam
N’toko was well-served by the tiny, black room, and credit again has to go to Iguz for putting together a diverse lineup that nonetheless led the audience neatly towards N’toko’s performace at the fulcrum of the night. Taison came onstage with him at the end and initiated a bout of tag-team freestyling, which is something that really shouldn’t work when neither rapper can understand what the other rappers are saying, but somehow the good vibes carried it. It’s also worth noting that Taison had clearly done his research and was ready to greet N’toko with a few choice phrases in Slovenian. Given that no one in Japan knows where Slovenia is and I’ve seen N’toko described variously as being from Slovakia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan, this little bit of geographical and linguistic research was commendable.
With the tour now chugging along very nicely, finances just covering necessary expenses, and constant heavy drinking obliterating all of those benefits, we were looking forward to an epic show in Saga. More on that to come.