One of the first bands I ever worked with in Japan was Usagi Spiral A. They are a band I don’t think I would have had the context to really get if I’d seen them even a year or so before, but my budding love of Krautrock and my increasingly noise-tolerant explorations into postpunk and no wave gave me the tools I needed to appreciate them, and through Usagi Spiral A (the “A” is pronounced the Italian way, as in “Serie A”) and by extension a whole world of other noisy alternative artists like Panicsmile, Tacobonds, and especially bands like Kuruucrew, who Usagi still resemble in many ways. These days, Usagi’s live performances are fewer and further between, and they never really released anything other than one solitary live CD/R and a track for Call And Response Records’ debut release, the 1-2-3-Go! compilation, a track which epitomises the band’s fusion of no wave noise and motorik rhythms. One welcome addition to the band now, however, is new guitarist Matsuoka, whose scratchy, freestyle Contortions doodles and stabs add an extra layer alongside Usagi leader Ryo Kokura’s wall of pummelling ferocity. Matsuoka himself is an important figure for me personally, being formerly of the wonderful no wave band Elevation, who remain to this day one of the best bands I’ve ever come across and were a massive inspiration to me when first getting into the business of organising my own shows.His As with everything in this series, Usagi Spiral A are playing at my ten year anniversary party on September 27th at Higashi Koenji 20000V/二万電圧.
Monthly Archives: September 2014
I started writing about music in Japan in 2003, at that time focusing on overseas bands and only gradually increasing my coverage of Japanese music to the point where it became exclusively local (seriously, I don’t write about overseas music on here so stop sending me your fucking emails). After one year of gradually feeling my way into some loose understanding of how the Japanese indie scene works, I decided to start promoting my own events, and in September 2004 I put on my first show, at Higashi Koenji’s legendary UFO Club. On that night, the bands were The Students, a brilliant, wonky, technically inept but wonderfully imaginative off-kilter new wave/punk-pop trio; Do the Boogie, a garage-punk band who later found some degree of fame as The Fadeaways; Buchibuchi2, a quirky alternative band with elements of Pavement and Fugazi and a disorientating sense of humour; and Mosquito, a frankly marvellous psychedelic alt-pop band. This September on the 27th, I’m holding an anniversary event at 20000V (二万電圧), also in Higashi Koenji and just down the street from the UFO Club, with ten bands, drawn from some of my favourite musicians here in Tokyo and from Kyushu, the region of Japan that has given me some of my happiest musical experiences. Details are on the Call And Response Records blog here.
So, in an act of further arrogance and self-promotion, for the next ten days I’m going to be making daily posts about the bands playing at this event. Many of them are connected with Call And Response Records so you may find me going over familiar ground here. I’ll keep things short and sweet as much as possible. The first band I’m going to talk about then is Mir, because when I think about why I’m still doing this stuff after so long, Mir represent so much of what draws me back again and again: Their complete disregard for professionalism in the pursuit of art in its purest, most direct expression; their unashamed love of music and willingness to not only wear their influences on their sleeves but shout them from the rooftops, while at the same time remaining utterly distinctive in their own right; their fusion of the sweetest pop with utter cacophony and chaos. I released two of their mini albums and as I’ve said this before, Mir are a barometer of taste for me — if another band likes Mir, that’s usually a safe guarantee that I can work with them.
A recurring theme in my writing over the past couple of years and I think a key idea in understanding the layout of the Japanese music scene these days is the idolfication of the indie scene and the parallel indiefication of idol music. As subcultural scenes like anime and manga fandom, and indeed idol culture itself, have been led out of the shadows and into the mainstream by an entertainment industry attracted to the consumer patterns of otaku, elements of those subcultural roots have been caught up in the net and found themselves with a route out of obscurity by employing some of the same commercial practices.
Those subcultural figures are often the most appealing aspects of this new indie commercialism simply because the things they do in order to sell themselves are things they were already doing purely for the love of it anyway. Julie Watai could perhaps be seen as an example of such a figure, packaging and promoting herself in a distinctly idolesque way, but at the same time quite clearly a massive nerd in her own right. And this is where XXX of Wonder enters the picture. A collaboration between Watai (whose musical role in the group is rather ambiguous), pop singer Shiho Nanba, illustrator Mel Kishida, lyricist Frenesi and composer/producer Dr. Usui, it is a project born of people who all exist somewhere around the nexus between pop, otaku and indie culture.XXX of Wonder: Meiseki Yume Madonna
I have some issues with this kind of thing, in that by opening up this particular path towards commercial respectibility it reinforces a certain cutesy, idol-ish pop orthodoxy. A producer as talented as Dr. Usui could have put his skills to work in the service of something like The Knife, but there’s no established protocol in place for promoting something like that, so short of doing full-on idol or anime music (both of which he has also done), this sort of twee, pastel coloured pop is the only route on offer to people like Usui.
And it must be said that in this kind of thing Usui is a past master. Through his work with Motocompo in the late 90s and early 2000s he had a pioneering role in introducing Daft Punk-influenced electro into technopop and the moribund remains of Shibuya-kei — an idea later applied by Yasutaka Nakata to the idol trio Perfume to massive commercial success — and melodically, structurally and productionwise there’s a lot in Meiseki Yume Madonna that could easily be part of one of Motocompo’s later releases.
All of which is to say that it’s a rather fine pop song and refreshing to see Usui back doing what he does best. It does, however, leave me still dreaming of what kind of sounds he might produce were he able to really cut loose creatively. Also, while we’re in the realm of speculation, if this project is to continue long term, it would be fascinating to see what might result from Frenesi being given space to play around melodically as well as lyrically. A terrific composer in her own right with wonderfully eclectic taste (her DJ sets are superb journeys into both familiar and unknown places), XXX of Wonder could be a great canvas for her own songwriting.
In any case Meiseki Yume Madonna is a slick piece of synthpop that while it’s superficially very much a product of squeaky-voiced contemporary kawaii aesthetics, has a classic pop musical heart that reveals itself most clearly when the song sheds its cutesy eccentricities and leaps into its soaring dance-pop chorus. The music itself may be only part of a project that, in tune with current music industry trends, spans various media including visual arts and fashion, but it’s clear that XXX of Wonder has at least gathered people who are genuinely invested in the various niches they explore. If the future of music is as a relatively small component part of such multimedia projects, then Meiseki Yume Madonna demonstrates that music’s diminished status need not go hand in hand with a loss of craftsmanship.
Looprider is the latest band/musical project of former Kulu Kulu Garden guitarist Ryotaro Aoki, who longtime readers may recognise as an occasional contributor to this blog and a frequent collaborator with various Call And Response Records projects. Writing about the musical output of someone you know very well is always a challenge, because of the difficulty in stepping back and hearing the music with fresh ears. On the other hand, it can also make it easier to see where a musician is coming from and put a song into context.
In Aoki’s case, a few key reference points it’s always worth bearing in mind with his music are Black Sabbath, My Bloody Valentine, Judy And Mary, Smashing Pumpkins and Melt Banana. More broadly, we can boil that down to a love of shoegaze and US alt-rock, an appreciation for pop, and an understanding of the value of dance beats, all underscored by a sense that whatever he does should rock.
Farewell is a contrary title for a debut, but as a distillation of the above ideas and influences that nevertheless stands apart from them all musically, it’s as good an introduction as you could hope for. The place it ends up lends it most obviously to comparisons with Futurama/Highvision-era Supercar, with the insistent underlying beat and the interplay between the dreampop-esque male and female vocals (the latter courtesy of Merpeoples’ Charlotte) recalling the 2000 single (and this song’s near namesake) Fairway. Farewell is rhythmically more intricate though, with drummer Sean McGee (of post-rock/prog band Henrytennis) working an almost Madchester-like shuffle around the strict 4/4 dance beat that remains the song’s rhythmical core — an organic mask that only slips briefly when the rhythm breaks down around the 3:30 mark and shows a glimpse of its cyborg soul.
Despite the dance thump that underpins the rhythm, Farewell is still a song that holds tightly to its rock influences, leaning heavily on Yujiro Imada’s bass, Aoki audibly throwing shapes on his guitar, and unashamed to tear into a desperately unfashionable hair metal guitar solo at the midway point. There is apparently more to come from these sessions, which can only be welcome in a Japanese indie scene that’s crying out for a propulsive, melodic and unpretentiously rocking band like this.
To coincide with the release of their new mini album Docci, I interviewed Chi-na for The Japan Times. Chi-na aren’t the sort of band I would normally expect to like, but there’s such an irrepressible joy to their music and performance, and they manage to avoid falling into the songwriting clichés of both J-pop and Rockin’ On-style indie rock in such a way that any time spent with their music is happy time. Docci is more eclectic than 2012’s Granville, and you might say more introspective. Again I find their devotion to putting the music first charming where I might sneer it off as a cliché from someone else — Chi-na walk the walk, as they say. You can read the feature here.Chi-na: Syllabus
My July column was on Yoko Ono, who took a lot of flak for just basically doing at Glastonbury what she’s been doing for decades and people still seem to enjoy being surprised and shocked at. She played at Fuji Rock the weekend after the column came out with a band packed with local avant-garde royalty, while her band at Glastonbury was Yo La Tengo.Yoko Ono: Don’t Worry Kyoko (live at Glastonbury 2014)
Originally I wanted to have the headline as “Don’t Worry Yoko” and the opening line as, “Just what is wrong with Yoko Ono”, but that got condensed down and had the ambiguity taken out resulting in the headline “Just what is so wrong about Yoko Ono”. I preferred my earlier phrasing because it sounds like I’m going to take a shot at her, but then the more benign meaning takes hold once you realise I’m actually defending her.
Anyway, I don’t love Yoko’s music but certainly don’t hate it. Other artists now do what she does better than her (Laurie Anderson is a hero of mine) but she did a lot of it first and still sounds fresher than a lot of hyped young contemporary musicians and singers. Good on her is all I can really say.Yoko Ono: Don’t Worry Kyoko (live at Toronto Rock & Roll Revival 1969)
I’ve been very slow in updating links to my column lately, but I’ve continued writing it monthly, My June column deals with the way Japanese popular music has no widely understood corpus of generally agreed-upon “classic” works that could act as a starting point for new listeners looking for a way in or journalists looking to put some new buzz band into context. Of course people would disagree on such a list, but that disagreement would itself help work towards keeping the “canon” as I term it a living thing able to incorporate new discoveries and new interpretations. Film has this, literature has this, but, in the English language at least, music doesn’t. Some people are obviously going to hate the idea — “Don’t tell me what to listen to! Music should be discovered freely, not decided by elites!” — but as it stands now, it’s mostly the commercial elites of the music industry that decide what we can even find information on. A lot of criticism of “elitist” journalists is really just pop fans scared of their pet faves being put into a context that makes them look bad. Anyway, read the full thing here.