Monthly Archives: October 2014

Strange Boutique (September 2014)

My September column for The Japan Times was about live venues in Japan, and Tokyo in particular, so read it here.

This is a topic I’ve visited before, and I stand by my earlier position that there are some benefits that the pay-to-play (“noruma“) system has brought to the scene, primarily in allowing bands to experiment free of commercial considerations. It’s also something no one really likes to say, but the truth is that for a lot of venues, the shitty no-mark bands paying noruma are subsidising the actually good bands who while they don’t bring big crowds, the venues still want to support. A good band, even if they aren’t that popular, can usually play without noruma easily enough.

However, the point in this latest column isn’t about noruma so much as simply ways venues can encourage audiences and help make shows a better experience for them. It poses the question in terms of what venues should do “if they want to attract customers” and of course that presupposes that they actually do want to attract customers, which for a lot of venues really does seem to be an afterthought. But assuming a lot of them do, there are a few thoughts I have on the issue.

Personally I don’t like the idea of a smoking ban — smoke can be annoying, but it’s not as annoying as all my smoking friends buggering off outside every 20 minutes for a fag — and the food aspect is going to depend massively on whether the venue is big enough to accommodate a seated section in addition to the dance floor. Financially, a lot of these ideas seem to be a little idealistic given the extra staff and extra space needed. In addition, the idea of halving ticket prices to increase audience is one that while I like it, I have my doubts about its effectiveness. As a general rule, cutting door prices from ¥2000 to ¥1000 will increase your audience by about 50% when it needs to increase it 100% to maintain balance, especially if you go ahead with eliminating compulsory drink charges. The idea that eliminating the compulsory one drink order and cutting drink costs will encourage people to spend more at the bar is also questionable. Young people in particular don’t drink very much — one venue manager friend of mine had a show with a hundred people in attendence, and when they counted up the money at the end of the night, they had only sold two drinks in addition to the compulsory orders. Without the compulsory orders, they would have hardly sold any. Several venues have experimented with cheaper drinks, and most of them have been forced to jack the prices back up — ¥500 seems to be the market level unfortunately. Combined with some other ideas, it might work as part of a more comprehensive re-focusing of the venue though, and it’s certainly an ideal state of affairs.

One suggestion someone made that I liked was the idea of giving over one slow night to a band to perform a residency, where they would play every Monday or Tuesday for a month, booking their own support acts. This would help the venue build an identity, build its relationship with bands, and by doing some of the booking manager’s work for them they might be able to pay the band a bit. It needn’t even be a band doing the residency: it could be a label, a DJ, an event organiser or even a shop, fashion brand or restaurant. It would certainly be a difficult idea to pull off in smaller cities with fewer bands, but certainly in Tokyo it could work. I’m tempted to discuss this idea with some venues to see if they think it would be plausible.


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Strange Boutique (August 2014)

Seiko Oomori is a good contender for the breakout star of the year, and she’s someone who is worth paying attention to for a lot of reasons. She seems like the sort of person who would crankily dismiss any attempt to draw any meaning out of what she is and does, but that needn’t stop us.

For a start, nothing happens in a vacuum, and when you’re a musician from one sort of background (weirdo Koenji avant-folk shrieking stuff) and you appropriate imagery and sonic affectations from another (idol music), you’re playing a game with meanings no matter how hard you protest that “I just like the clothes and enjoy the music!” For a start, one question is “Why?” Indie and idol music never used to cross paths, so why has it suddenly become so easy?

Well, one reason is money, or more specifically marketing. There’s a widespread disaffection with J-Pop, and idol culture, by marketing based on character rather than music, offers an easy way to market alternatives to the bland mainstream. Oomori’s music has been a vehicle for a lot of different indie musicians, with Lailailai Team having backed her in the past, and her current band The Pink Tokarev generously stacked with musicians from the Tokyo indie scene’s current “funny bands” mini-boom. Much as she may protest her position as a discrete entity just following her muse, Seiko Oomori is also the poster girl for the fixation a significant part of the Japanese indie scene has with idol culture.

Still though, she’s not really an idol. It’s not her background, and her music is still singer-songwriter music dressed in the production tropes of idol music. She presents an unhinged image in her videos, she rants and raves at her fans via her blog, and at a recent festival she crowdsurfed up to one of the audience members and snogged him in front of the whole crowd, purportedly as revenge for the infidelities of her significant other. So is this subversion of idol music then?

The word “subversive” gets tossed around too easily with too little thought for what it actually means, so that’s what I discussed in my August (I like to think in both senses of the word) column for The Japan Times. Have a read of it here, because I’m not going to summarise the whole argument again.

Done that? Good, because the rest of this post assumes you’re familiar with what it discusses.

OK, so just a few days after my article was published, Oomori was in the news again after an interview she did published on music web site Natalie led to her making a few troubling remarks about feminism. The interviewer suggested that in contrast to the male-manipulated world of most idol music, by taking control of her own work she could be a role model for women and girls in the music scene. Her reaction was to flatly reject this and defensively disassociate herself from feminism in any way, even to the point of denying that discrimination exists.

Now this is patently bullshit as should be obvious to anyone with a basic familiarity with Japanese society, but in the context of my column it made more sense. Oomori isn’t interested in society and wants no part of it. She’s been able to do what she wants, and even thinking about the context of that (Why does she want to do those things? Would it have been as easy for her if she had wanted to do something less easily marketable?) is an imposition. Her attitude is basically, “I’m not going to play.”

And that’s an attitude that you see in a lot of the more popular indie acts now: a focus on the details at the expense of the narrative. You see it in the willfully blank, repetitive, comedic nonsense-poetry of Triple Fire, in the goofy, good-humoured, bedsit manchild schtick of Guessband (possibly not coincidentally one of the recruiting sources of Pink Tokarev members), and in the brash, anarchic, cosplay techno performance nudity of Nature Danger Gang. These acts might all be coming from different places, cosmically speaking, but their appeal has coalesced around a very similar kind of audience (primarily in the Shinjuku area and let’s face it, probably a reader of Trash Up! magazine). Where the previous underground generation bands who are now elder statesmen of the scene — groups like Panicsmile, Bossston Cruizing Mania, Groundcover. — tend to evoke a sense of individual details as invariably bound up with some wider world (Panicsmile’s excellent recent album Informed Consent encapsulates a lot of this even in just its title), a large part of what appeals to audiences now is in picking up on and identifying with details that resonate with the minutiae of fans’ lives without alluding to any wider context — or just simply absorbing yourself in funny nonsense.

This is the point where people usually chime in with “But what’s wrong with that? Why should everything have to mean something all the time? Why can’t stuff just be fun?” (Admit it, you actually had that thought somewhere a couple of paragraphs back, didn’t you?) Well, firstly I’m not sure that right and wrong has anything to do with this; it’s first and foremost an observation of how a noticeable section of the music scene seems to behave, although I shan’t pretend it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. But to respond to this string of hypothetical questions on their own terms, I could perhaps say that of course stuff doesn’t need to mean something all the time, but I’d point out that in the greater music ecosystem, stuff that’s not about anything and just wants to have fun has never in my lifetime been an endangered species to begin with. It’s the stuff that does grapple with the world for meaning that is in short supply and the indie and underground scenes have traditionally been the place you’d go to find that stuff. To get that answer, you’d need to look at the wider context though, and as we’ve seen, a lot of people just don’t want to do that.

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Fat Fox Fanclub: Good Job

If you want to get yourself known in the Tokyo indie scene, you might as well know that these days it has no time for moping. Lately the events with the buzz about them have been all about fun and frolics, and be damned if you take yourself even remotely seriously. As you might expect, this leads to stuff that is irritating and frustrating just as often as it does simple charm and easy thrills. Fat Fox Fanclub are fortunately in the latter camp. Trading in a sort of funky, mutant disco goofiness, Good Job sees the antropomorphic amazons in fine Talking Heads-via-Was Not Was party form. As an Easter egg for Tokyo indie bandspotters, yes, that’s Xiroh from Buddy Girl and Mechanic in the wonderful video (she used to play in the magnificent LoveBuyLove with FFF’s bassist).

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Page views, AKB48, and the economic right to bore

One of the key differences between writing on the Web and writing for a magazine or paper is the speed and precision of feedback, and this undoubtedly has an impact on the form the writing takes. In print media, the reader may choose one title over another, and may choose to skim over one article in favour of another, but in the end, they’re at the mercy of the editors when it comes to what they see. A music magazine could be able to reel readers in with attractive cover stories featuring artists readers already like, and then once captured, introduce them to the artists the editors think they should like. Readers’ natural bias against reading about the unknown is overruled by the fact that they’ve already paid for the magazine and so might as well get their money’s worth out of it. On the Web, the power dynamic has shifted over to the readers’ side, and media must now compete for their attention. Great! Democracy! Smash the elites! Except no. Readers are lazy, conservative creatures, and will always click on something that reinforces their pre-existing biases than something that challenges them. This is well observed in political journalism, but equally true in pop culture. People will always click on something about an artist they already know about over something new, and ideally that article should be parroting something they already feel about that artist. For the online media outlets, their stats provide instant feedback on what’s getting page views, and over time, there’s always pressure to cater to that stuff. When the Japanese music web site Natalie started, it had high ideals – it would be bilingual, and give coverage to independent musicians that the mainstream music press ignored – but sure enough, once the page view stats started rolling in, the English page was the first to go, and then the content became overwhelmed with idol music and popular rock music. MTV 81, which I have on occasion written for, still publishes some interesting stuff but has followed more or less the same path. It’s not personal, kid, it’s just business. I get the same pressure on this blog too. Whenever I write about Perfume or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, or Momoiro Clover Z or Babymetal, my page views spike, and I get that little nagging voice asking, saying, “Finally, this site is getting popular! Now maybe if I just wrote a bit more about this kind of stuff…” before my rational brain takes over again and reminds me that since I’m not making any money out of it at all, my idiot audience can go hang. Anyway, the fact remains that Akihabara and Harajuku are what get the clicks, and any media that considers itself a business is going to be under immense pressure to pander to these audiences. The one case where these idol-induced spikes fail to occur is when I write about AKB48. Now part of this is perhaps that AKB48 just aren’t cool in the way the acts I mention above are. Another might be that I’ve been so beastly about them in the past that their coterie of English-speaking fans has been definitively warned off this site (and good riddance). AKB48 are such a divisive presence in Japanese pop culture that you’re either a mad, frothing-at-the-mouth fan of them, or you just don’t want anything to do with them – either way, it doesn’t translate into shares or retweets. People like me who have zero interest in either their music or the girls themselves as characters, but find what they represent on a pop cultural level fascinating simply don’t fit into the equation (again, no problem with that). What there is a demand for in the clicks marketplace is analysis of otaku-related culture that gives a supportive critical foundation to widely derided, usually for reasons of perceived sexism or outright creepiness, pop cultural artefacts or trends, giving fans a sort of intellectual shield behind which they can carry on consuming just as before, without allowing their bubble to be pierced by unwelcome alien ideological critiques or reflecting on any subliminal ideological assumptions their own consumer behaviour might be predicated on. These kinds of articles are the intellectual big guns that fanboys can wheel out and then duck behind whenever their hobby penetrates the mainstream consciousness with something outright icky, like the 2013 AKB48 hair shaving incident, or easily mockable viral curiosities like Babymetal or Hatsune Miku. Partly this is to be expected because of the way so many observations from outside come at otaku culture, idol culture or whatever from an inverted version of precisely the same mindset: revulsion followed by a need for an intellectual foundation for that instinctive reaction rather than any real need to deal with the assumptions and ideological positions underlying it. These two poles are essentially moral rather than analytical arguments, and the fighters on both sides are really just driving each other further and further into their trenches rather than making any progress. The comments under my Japan Times article on Babymetal earlier this year demonstrated this pretty well. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with Babymetal, but I tried to come at it from an explanatory point of view, so that newcomers will at least have some understanding of what kind of mechanics are going on behind the scenes. Fans liked my article because they felt shielded by it, while critics just ignored most of it and continued to focus on paedophilia as their main concern. Matt Alt’s very good article for The New Yorker on Takashi Murakami, lolicon, and Pharrell’s new video had a similar effect in discussions I saw. It’s understandable, because when issues of underage sexuality loom so large in the wings as they do in idol music and lolicon, it’s difficult to simply put that aside and have a disinterested debate about the semiotics and pop cultural meta-discussion that’s going on. Still, get into one of those debates and don’t expect it to go anywhere fast. Anyway, over the summer, another bit of AKB-related strangeness hit the news when a man attacked two members of the group with a saw (yeah, I know, a saw!) at a handshake event, where fans can line up to briefly meet and touch their favourite girls in exchange for purchases of goods. Coupled with this was the way the incident coincided with the annual extravaganza of the group’s “election”, and I felt there was a parallel between the two events in the way they both speak to the central problem the group has balancing the need to be credible as a mainstream pop cultural commodity and the need to maintain the illusion of connection with fans. If you want to see a stark visual evidence that this conflict exists, just check out the photos of a post-attack handshake event at the bottom of the page here. published two articles about AKB48 this summer, both touching on different aspects of the same issue. In one of them Jun Mamiya I think correctly dismisses the notion that the group’s popularity has anything really to do with something zeitgeisty and forward-thinking in their music – the hits are a result of the popularity, not the other way round. Instead he discusses the group’s elections and fan meeting events in terms of people’s alienation from the democratic process. Mamiya projects the group as a largely positive force here, shining light on the failures of society through a carefully structured artifice of meritocracy that mirrors how fans wish the country still was. Whether it ever really was like that, and whether such ruthless competing for favour is desirable in the first place, is a question Mamiya doesn’t really discuss. To get to this point, Mamiya has to put aside the saw-wielding fan and any question about what the sexuality/sexualisation issues that concern so many overseas observers. That doesn’t mean the issue has gone away, but clearly not every article can address it as the core of its argument. In the end, Mamiya’s article provides just the sort of legitimising analysis many fans of derided subcultures seem to need: “We’re not perverts. We’re just ordinary, good people disenfranchised by the elites.” (You see the same arguments made by the racists in the Tea Party and Ukip, so in that context, AKB48 might be pretty benign.) Mamiya’s article is interesting, but what it provides first and foremost is a cultural explanation, and I’m instinctively suspicious of arguments that appeal to culture. The little Marxist homunculus that controls the levers in my brain always wants to think about the economic factors, and in my article I try to look at fan culture through the lens of the business model’s response to the changing economic conditions in which idol groups have had to work. In the end, economic and cultural factors will always intertwine. Extend Mamiya’s argument just a bit and you can perhaps see the disaffection he talks about more broadly from the sense of economic vitality and meritocracy in people’s professional lives due to an ageing society and stagnating economy. Take my discussion of idol music’s changing economic environment a step further and you have to question what underpins the changes in fashion that saw idol music drop out of the public eye to such an extent in the 90s. Looking back on it though, I think one other reason for the attraction economic arguments hold for me is the way economics is a rare area of discussion in pop culture where its appeal to numbers, or at least the implication of a numerical underpinning, creates a framework for discussion that feels rational and disinterested – it provides an intellectual mooring amid the stormy conflict between the unthinking and the uninformed, between self-justification and knee-jerk outrage. Of course this rationality is an illusion. Economic discussions are just as capable of dissolving into furious, spitting insanity, and they are (I think rightly and inevitably) just as ideological as cultural arguments at heart. Also, while I try to be openminded, I’m far from neutral in the cultural skirmishes that rage around idol and otaku culture: I just try to be honest with myself and conduct any argument I make in good faith, from as well informed and well thought-out a position as I can. Not that any of that has an effect on page views. There as well, however, economics is my friend: where there’s no money at stake, there’s no obligation to please or court one group or another. I can insult, irritate and bore my readers all within the space of one rambling blog post and none of it matters one jot.


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Under: 4 girlls soooooon

Under is a difficult artist to write about because there is so little reason and rhyme in the prolific and seemingly indiscriminate way she releases her material that it’s hard to know what exactly to write about. The excellent short demo collection that was one of my picks of last year has already disappeared, absorbed anonymously into a pair of compilations that selectively round up a couple of years worth of work. That little act of house cleaning hasn’t stopped the flood of cryptically titled tracks from this enigmatic artist’s bedroom though, with this gorgeous collection of four songs the closest thing to a coherent EP or mini album to recently emerge from the clutter.

The atmosphere of misty rural sunrises that characterises almost everything Under records still dominates the sound, with the vocals this time buried so deeply in the pastoral drone that they are a barely distinct, yet still hypnotic presence, a Lady of the Lake singing hymns to Avalon from within her watery dwelling. The new material keeps emerging, but these are songs that work best sharing each other’s company rather than as discrete tracks and this little collection is all the more precious for its unity and shared context.

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Servals: /99

Servals are a relatively new band, formed as a spinoff from Yokohama’s still extant but recently less active Come to my Party and trading in a slightly harder, more driving take on the older band’s Supercar-influenced indietronic pop. /99 is a desultory dream pop disco, drenched in minor chords, with the same melancholy atmosphere of loss and longing, like someone at the moment of realising they are in a dream, desperately trying to stave off the morning. Just five more minutes, it seems to be saying from within the duvet of synth swirls, as the metallic blue-grey of the urban morning seeps through the curtains.

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Crunch: Simple Mind

Crunch have already released one of 2014’s most charming and melancholic pop-rock albums in January’s Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto, but they’ve already followed it up with this EP featuring two new songs and a remix, led by Simple Mind. While a towering, epic tribute to Jim Kerr and Glasgow’s finest would have been something to behold from the fragile Nagoya trio, Simple Mind follows on directly from where Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto left off, with a poppy, octave-straddling vocal melody over new wave-inflected guitars and a rhythm section that nods towards funk and dance music, but none of the constituent parts pull apart to the extent of compromising the essentially pop core.

Holiday is a more sparse affair, beginning with call-and-response vocals playing out over a lone guitar, the rest of the instruments gradually coming in to fill out the arrangement. Rather than being formed in a traditional verse-chorus structure, Holiday uses the interplay of the different layers to create its dynamic. The EP also features a remix by Nagoya electronic producer Fredricson that takes a similarly layered approach to reworking the title track, with the additional of a heavy, stripped-down beat and sparse synth loops and effects and cut-up vocal samples that on occasion reduce Noyiyo Hotta’s voice to more texture than words.

More an appendix to the band’s previous release than a next chapter, it’s nonetheless pleasing to see Crunch following Futoshita Nichijyo no Koto up so swiftly and Simple Mind suggests there’s more to come.

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Suiyoubi no Campanella: Mitsuko

As you might hope from a group who named a song on their first album Hikashu, Suiyoubi no Campanella seem to exist permanently at an angle slightly askew from the rest of the music scene in Japan. Other groups whose backing tracks were composed of similarly tastefully produced electronic pop would most likely do something wistful and dreamy with just a hint of weary disaffection over the top, while for groups with similarly charismatic vocal delivery (I’m not going to lie: I get a little thrill whenever vocalist Komuai says the words “call and response”) the default musical setting would these days most likely be something far more gaudy and brash.

So the combination of credibly sophisticated trackmaking and the offhand, offbeat half-rapping of the vocal performance is unusual and demands our further attention. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s still cute — the Abe administration recently introduced prison sentences of up to ten years for any Japanese female-led vocal music that doesn’t meet at least a minimal standard of “Cool Japan”-approved kawaii — but the important thing is that it’s not idol-cute. Beneath the hood it conforms and then some to the standard “girls group” formula of pretty girl out up front and anonymous guys not only hidden at the back but fully locked away in a room somewhere making all the music. This is really only correct, since if there’s one thing worse than some dreary looking dude in a trucker cap directing all the music behind the scenes, it’s a dreary looking dude in a trucker cap up there onstage, pretending to rock out from behind his MacBook. The physical disconnect between the performance and production aspects of the group then mirrors the awkward way the vocals hang over the track, both conceptually in their subtly contrasting styles, and technically in the flat, weirdly close-sounding way the vocals are pasted over the richer, more spacious synth and rhythm backdrop.

If this sounds like a criticism, it isn’t meant to be. With Mitsuko, Suiyoubi no Campanella manage to do two subtly contrasting things at once with the psychic abrasion they work on each other not only leaving both intact but also creating a playful dynamic of its own that lifts the track into becoming more than the sum of its already rather charming parts. 

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Quruli: Liberty & Gravity

It was around the time of their eighth album, 2005’s Nikki, that I gave up hope for Quruli. Shigeru Kishida had decided to try to make the band into this generation’s Happy End, leaving behind the experimentation and playfulness that had made The World is Mine such a glorious generational masterpiece in favour of earnest, wistful, sentimentally-tinted folk rock songs that just didn’t really seem to go anywhere. It was the perfect music for a generation whose greatest ambition appeared to be gently jogging on the spot and I hated it.

Which is why Liberty & Gravity feels like such a breath of fresh air. The folk influences remain but they take their place in a more eclectic mix. It’s still whimsical, but it’s also musically ambitious, playful and fun, rich in little musical nooks to explore without ever letting its complexity get the better of it.

The video is by award winning director Jun Tamukai (Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Ponponpon), who is someone whose work I find unaccountably annoying – I think it’s got something to do with the choreography’s combination of ostentatious goofiness and self-consciously mannered presentation – but which people otherwise seem to insist on finding adorable so feel free to ignore grumpy old me on that point. Another gripe I have is with the way the YouTube clip’s accompanying text refers to the song’s parent album as the band’s eleventh, when it is in fact their thirteenth. This may seen like an insufferably nitpicky point, but it’s symptomatic of something I find quite poisonous in the Japanese music world: the way all indie releases are traditionally airbrushed from a band’s official history once they sign for a major label. So let’s just take a little moment here to say fuck you Victor Entertainment. Done that? Good.

Naturally none of that should be allowed to detract from the song itself, which is bright, catchy and brash enough that it even gets away with having a rap section. It’s also great to see that even this deep into their career, Quruli still retain the capacity to surprise, charm and delight. If only they showed it more often.


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cryv: K.O.B.E.

Cryv (pronounced “Cruyff” as in the Dutch footballing legend and not to be confused with the Japanese shoegaze band Cruyff in the Bedroom) are a synth-and-guitar-based unit who I first encountered about a decade ago. I then lost touch with what they were doing, their name occasionally making blips across my radar to remind me that they were still around, and this new video is the first music I’ve heard from them in a long time.

K.O.B.E. incorporates electronic, Shibuya-kei and post-rock elements, multiple stops, starts, chops and changes, into what turns out to have been a rather fine three-minute pop song all along. The rhythmical hiccups themselves quickly settle into a loop, with layers adding on top to the point where the organic and synthetic elements of the arrangement blend into each other to a point where they become almost impossible to separate. The video does rather highlight the dangers of Japanese bands putting their English lyrics up on too obvious display without rigorous, native-level proofreading, but it visually nails the band’s wistful early 2000s sonic aesthetic pretty damn well.

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