Monthly Archives: May 2014

Diary of a Japan tour part 10: March 27th at Takamatsu iL

Death disco at "Noise café" Takamatsu iL.

Death disco at “Noise café” Takamatsu iL.

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.

DJ Masami

DJ Masami

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.

Kotetsu: manic

Kotetsu: manic

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.

Ritsurin-koen

Ritsurin-koen

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 castle grounds

Takamatsu is this:

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.

Takamatsu seafront

Takamatsu seafront

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Diary of a Japan tour part 9: March 23rd at Saga Rag-G

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.

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 Rag-G

Saga Rag-G

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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Diary of a Japan tour part 8: March 22nd at Kagoshima Word Up!

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!

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.

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Diary of a Japan tour part 7: March 21st at Fukuoka Utero

After the Thursday night DJ party, we were ready to kick off the weekend with a live show at the same venue. This was perhaps the show I’d been most looking forward to on the tour, partly for the reasons I outlined in the previous entry in this tour diary (Fukuoka is always an enormous amount of fun, and it’s great to hang out with friends there) and partly because of the bands.

As I’ve said before, I always keep in contact with Harajiri from Utero over the lineup, and make suggestions where there’s something I think is relevant, but at the same time, I will nearly always defer to his judgment when it comes to booking. He knows my events and my artists well enough by now to be able to choose bands who fit the sound and the vibe I’m looking for, and he’s also eager to constantly introduce new people into the mix, which ensures that through my roughly twice-annual events there, I’m able to keep a step ahead of most other people in Tokyo when it comes to cool music from Kyushu.

There was another reason why Friday was a big one for me as well, because it was the day that my friends Futtachi from Kagoshima would be hooking up with us for part of the tour. Futtachi is the new band that Iguz Souseki formed after the implosion of Zibanchinka, and their first recording was a song they did for Call And Response’s Dancing After 1AM compilation. They’d also contributed a track to my recent Black Sabbath Valentine’s covers project, and Iguz and I had been working on plans to put out their first full album through Call And Response. Futtachi are a psychedelic band, but grounded in garage-punk roots which gives them an earthiness and directness that lots of other psychedelic bands lack. They operate on quite complex principles though, with the band existing in four different incarnations depending on which members are present, all of which play quite different music.

The recordings they had done for me had been of the group’s four member incarnation, Futtachi’s most common touring incarnation is a duo of Iguz and guitarist Omi, and Fukuoka was the first chance I’d had to see them. Based around a slow, minimal, throbbing rhythm loop, Iguz wails hypnotically over spectral guitars and droning keyboards. It’s psychedelic but it teeters on the brink of industrial, insistently coaxing you into a hallucinatory, nodding trance. It’s an amazing sensation when you see a new band do something that just plows you away, but it’s something else when someone you’ve known and admired for years does something totally unexpected and completely brilliant. You’re knocked sideways not just by the surprise, but also by the fact thay you’re able to be surprised. Futtachi were astounding.

The first band up, however, were Escape From New York, a sort of progressive/post-rock band of a sort that you get a lot of, especially in Tokyo, but nonetheless a very good example of the form. They don’t have much in the way of recordings but you can get a bit of an idea from this rough-edged demo from Soundcloud.

The Perfect Me were another very good, young Fukuoka band. A difficult band to describe, they’re essentially an avant-pop band, with elements of postpunk, a little something of Animal Collective to them, and a bouncy, almost Madchester party vibe. If that isn’t very helpful, it could be that after a month, my memory is a little foggy, but I remember being mightily impressed. Their recordings are a bit more low-key and lean more towards the postpunk elements of what they do, with Joy Division, Fad Gadget and Wire jumping to mind, but it really has to be stressed how much fun they are live.

AmrFas is the current preferred spelling of Amorphous (the illogical English spelling was probably causing problems for their Japanese fans), a dance-pop duo who had played with N’toko on his previous Fukuoka tour. They’re one of those bands you suspect would be dreadfully fashionable and end up playing exclusively in cafes and boutiques with other bands who sound exactly like them if they lived in Tokyo, but being in Fukuoka they’re often forced to play together with punk, post-rock and other assorted noisy fuckups, which I’m going to suggest here is definitively a Good Thing. The multiple layers of sound they employ gives their music a richer, more textured feel than the Tokyo boutique bands they sometimes resemble, which is perhaps partly the result of being forced to stand alongside other bands on their music alone and not just the quality of their wardrobe and rolodex. They also helped balance out the lineup to place N’toko closer to the centre ground in a lineup that inclueded at the other end the furious funk-punk of Accidents In Too Large Field.

N’toko’s set was probably the best show I’ve seen him do in Fukuoka. In the past, he’s struggled with the sound system a bit, but the venue seems to be getting used to him now and he was able to hit as hard as any punk or post-rock band. With the almost industrial throb of Futtachi and the richly layered electronic pop of AmrFas already burned into the audience’s minds alongside the more conventiopnally guitar-structured bands, he was positioned in just the way I had hoped he would be on this tour, and being his third visit to the city, there were a growing number of people there who knew him. It gave that warm feeling of making progress again.

Accidents in Too Large Field are local legends and they blow the roof off pretty much any show they play. They’re one of those bands who whenever I meet them, they always seem to be looking at me sidelong with this mocking twinkle in their eyes, as if everything I do and say is hilarious and deeply uncool, so I’m always torn between the conflicting urges to hug them like brothers or punch them hard in the face. There’s something of that in their music too, mixing these joyously funky dance beats with music full of discord and aggression. They drove the audience into a crowdsurfing frenzy, as you might expect from a crowd many of whom had been charging around piggyback at the same venue the previous night over not much at all really.Accidents In Too Large Field: Nonfiction Rakka

I was DJing again, this time alongside TKC from macmanaman, one of my favourite DJs and an old friend from back when he was with the wonderful Ruruxu/sinn. With none of the technical problems of the previous night, it welt off pretty well, and playing between bands allowed me to come off whatever the previous band had been doing and then work my way towards the kind of thing I knew the next band would be playing.

One of the best nights of the tour so far, I was worried it had set the bar impossibly high for subsequent shows, but neither of us were complaining. By this point, we were more or less breaking even on hotel and travel expenses, although the next few dates would see us exploring more challenging ground in towns without the musical heritage and scene magnetism of places we’d played so far. But then what kind of progress would it be if we were just going over the same ground again and again?

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