Category Archives: Blogs

June 2020 Bandcamp recommendations

Earlier this month, I wrote a rundown of ten recent Japanese Bandcamp releases over on the US-based Undrcurrents blog, covering punk, experimental, indiepop and a little bit of electronic and hip-hop, with releases by Barbican Estate (also covered on this site), a new Puffyshoes, My Society Pissed, Uhnellys, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto & Riki Hidaka, Phew, Yoshida Shoko and Getageta, plus compilations from Tokyo’s Discipline underground event and from the local music scene in Kumamoto, Kyushu. Check out my comments and links to the music here.

And if you’re still in the mood to explore, my own Call And Response label has been going through its back catalogue and uploading old releases to Bandcamp where the artists themselves haven’t already made them available. The page also has Call And Response’s new release, the Secret Code Y single from Hiroshima noise-punks Jailbird Y, so check that out if you only check out one new release today (all funds go to helping out one of our local live venues, Nakano Moonstep). All non-compilation releases are now available to listen/buy, with links to them all on the label’s top page here.

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Burn Your Hometown

Another prolonged bout of quiet over here may have had some of my few remaining readers wondering if this blog is dying out, although any longtime readers will probably have noticed by now that updates tend to come in fits and starts. In this case, however, there has been a bit more to it than that as for the past two months or so I have been travelling around northeastern Japan on a bicycle, researching the local music scenes in various places and just generally going mad from loneliness and isolation in the middle of the Japanese countryside. In the course of my travels I’ve been keeping another blog dedicated solely to this trip.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve made reference on a few occasions to a book I’ve been writing about my experiences in the Japanese music scene and some of the issues I discuss on here and in my Japan Times column. That book, Quit Your Band (subtitle as yet undecided) is with the publisher and due out spring or summer next year. It became pretty clear quite early on in the process of writing the book, however, that its focus was inevitably very much on Tokyo, and this new project, which I titled Burn Your Hometown as a sort of answer to my book’s title, was intended in part to remedy what I felt were some of my book’s limitations in scope.

The fourteen prefectures I visited over the course of this trip amounts to less than a third of the forty-seven that make up Japan, although they cover about half of its geographical area. I have a few places I want to visit over the winter (without my bicycle) before embarking on the epic final stage in the spring, covering everything from Kyushu back to Tokyo.

The blog as it currently stands begins in Sapporo and threads its way through Japan, back to Tokyo over the course of six weeks or so. A lot of the posts are long and many have very little directly to do with music, but they do develop a handful of increasingly interrelated themes over time, so if you want to read the whole thing in order, start here.


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Paying the Piper — Art, value, and why musicians don’t get paid

I was originally planning to write about this for one of my Japan Times columns, but as I thought about it more, I realised it was really a personal issue related to my own rather parochial experiences and concerns in the Tokyo indie scene, and not the sort of thing I should be bothering my editor with. It also struck me as the sort of idea that I could end up rambling about for pages on end without reaching a satisfactory conclusion, and a selfish fear gripped me that the sort of tightened and simplified version I’d need to present for a column wouldn’t allow me the space to take the reader on the convoluted journey through my thought process that I vainly hope might protect me from some of the criticism I’m opening myself up for.

And this is a fraught issue, because it’s about money.

An increasingly common complaint that arises from all around the music world is one of musicians being asked to play for free or “for the exposure”. Musicians are doing work, the argument goes, and we wouldn’t treat any other worker in this way – we wouldn’t ask a chef to cook us a free meal “for the exposure”, we wouldn’t ask a doctor to operate on us as publicity for his surgical services.

Or would we? I’m from the UK, and I absolutely would expect a doctor to operate on me for free, because the UK has a system where medical care is free at the point of delivery and funded behind the scenes through the tax system. In fact, to a certain extent a system somewhat like that exists for musicians across Europe, with government funding supporting the arts to a greater or lesser degree across the continent.

It’s a system that brings with it a host of its own problems for musicians of course, because unlike surgeons, outcomes for musicians are not so easy to measure, which leads to musicians crafting their art to ensure it ticks the necessary boxes to receive the funding. “Why should I have to suck up to these ignorant pen pushers? What do they know about the value of my work?”

Outside of the arts funding model, the standard measurement of musical “outcomes” is sales – either of tickets or music or whatever – but this doesn’t necessarily chime with the musician’s demand to be compensated fairly for their work either, because it leaves the assessment of their value entirely up to what the market decides it is. An excess of supply (lots of people making music) and finite demand (not that many people willing to give up an evening to watching it) leads inexorably to a situation where musicians are playing for free.

This isn’t limited to the music world. Across the creative spectrum, people are now expected to work for free. If you enjoy what you do, the argument seems to go, you shouldn’t also demand to be paid for it. Now this is a bit of an odd argument. What has your enjoyment of the work got to do with how much time, effort or skill it takes to do? And what kind of economy would we be living in anyway if the only work people were allowed to make a living from was stuff they hated?

Of course that’s not really the argument: it’s a post-rationalised moral explanation for something that’s just mundane market forces. Enjoyable work leads to an excess of supply in the labour market and therefore its market-assigned value drops.

This can be exploitative, and without a doubt there are clubs, bars, promoters, labels etc. who use the fact they can get away with not paying people as a means to make money. It’s not only that though. In a world where mainstream music across the board is all unmitigated garbage and the industry itself is sick to the core with creativity kryptonite, the willingness of creative people to work for free or next to nothing is the only way anything good gets made.

In Tokyo, you find yourself in a position where people are paying you for playing gigs and you instantly put yourself out of the range of the organisers and suchlike who are doing the most interesting stuff. It usually means you’re playing in that muddy nowhere realm of gigs at places like Shibuya O-Nest, with beige coloured, dazzlingly technical but musically dreary Rockin’ On-style bands with ticket prices hovering around the ¥3,000-¥4,000 zone.

I work as a writer and I face the same situation. If you can find the work, you can make good money as a writer by doing advertising and corporate copywriting. You can make a bit of money here and there in the media, writing about a topic that broadly interests you like music, although the kinds of places that will pay you are mostly looking for what basically amounts to PR for major label or major-wannabe acts. Or you can write about stuff that interests you, or do stuff that you find creatively rewarding, and get paid jack shit. There is no connection between the time, effort and skill you put in and the compensation you receive at the end of it.

So what writers tend to do is they accept their work occurs on multiple scales: stuff you do for money, stuff you do for exposure or to maintain your profile (and occasionally a bit of money), and stuff you do for creative satisfaction (usually for no money). It’s not easy, and there are certainly plenty of eager idiots out there willing to do corporate PR for free (hello there to pretty much all J-pop blogs), but it’s a balance that’s just about possible with the right amount of perseverance and luck.

Musicians are in a similar position: if you want to get paid, your best chance is to suck up your pride and start making stuff to other people’s specs, and even then it’s a lottery whether you’ll get anywhere.

I’m reluctant to romanticise the situation, but the truth is that, in Tokyo at least, whenever anything good happens, there’s a whole network of people – not just musicians – making fuck all out of it. The organiser might cover the cost of making flyers and get a bit of loose change to give to bands or subsidise part of the post-gig drinking party with, but basically they’re working for free; the DJs and bands might get a tiny bit of money if they’re lucky, but basically they’re working for free (Tokyo’s live scene is mostly pay-to-play, but the good events almost never are); the artist who made the flyer and poster did that for free; the people who wrote about the bands on blogs or music web sites mostly did it for free (you can get paid as a music journalist in Japan, but again, not for writing about anything good); the people who took the photos and made the videos probably did it for free; the people who went around distributing flyers probably did it for free.

“So what, am I just supposed to bow my head and be grateful, and say thanks for giving me the opportunity to work for nothing? Is that what you’re saying?”

No, although as someone who does all of the above tasks at one time or another, it’s always nice to get a nod of appreciation from the artists I work my nuts off trying to get people to listen to. What I’m trying to lay out here is that the problem is much more fundamental than any simple confrontation between musicians and organisers/bookers really addresses. There isn’t much money around the place, and even a crowded gig in Tokyo is often operating on a pretty narrow financial margin, with bands touring from out of town getting priority on any cash that comes in. Certainly some organisers and especially venues exploit the fact they can get away with paying bands nothing, but often the organisers and the bands are in the same boat: enthusiastic hobbyists who lose rather than gain money from their work, and who rely on people working for free to ensure they are able to make something that they love happen.

Let’s look at two scenarios here. The first is the one we’ve already discussed: A band plays to a decent sized crowd, the venue brings in a solid amount of money off the bar, but the band walks away with nothing. The band complains to the organizer, but the organizer can’t help because they only just made back the cost of renting the venue in the first place and the venue keeps all the money from the bar. Complain to the venue and maybe they’re being dicks, but maybe they’re just doing what they need to stay afloat given the rental costs, payments to local mobsters and various other overheads in a town where audiences don’t flock out to shows every night and where they often have to make it through many a slow night on the bar to get to the occasional good one like this that brings in a solid crowd. Who now? Complain to the building owner? Can’t pay the rent, get out and I’m sure a sex club or pachinko place will be able to pay the market value, and probably bring in a better class of clientele too. Was the band unfairly treated there? Certainly it’s unfair in that they didn’t get paid for work they did, but then they’re doing something they love.

Here’s the second scenario: An organizer wants a certain band and invites them to play an event. That band is widely agreed on as being very good by people in the music scene, and they are in a lot of demand by organisers. The band says they can play, but they want a guarantee of a certain amount of money. Now while this band are popular among event organisers, they don’t bring very big audiences, so the organiser here has to balance their artistic value against their financial value and decide whether to take a hit on the money side in return for the satisfaction of having done the best event they possibly could. The organiser can argue that the band don’t understand their own market value by setting a financial demand disproportionate to the audience they bring, or the band can argue that hey, the value is decided by the willingness of organisers to book them, so if you can’t pay, just don’t. Is the organiser being treated unfairly here? Certainly it’s unfair that they are paying out for something that won’t return a value commensurate with that outlay, but then they’re doing something they love.

In both instances, the real problem is that people are trying to bring to light art within a commercial mechanism that has only the crudest means of measuring value.

To some people, the answer is simple: Be better at working the levers of that commercial machine – musicians reading inspirational biographies of entrepreneurs and implementing five-step business plans that they got from a book somewhere, organisers shifting their role from something akin to an arts curator to something more like a retailer. Both these moves might bring benefits, and navigating a path is certainly possible, but let’s not mistake them for anything other than what they are: They’re artistic compromises, and compromises of this nature are never simple.

There’s always an attraction of falling back on the market for answers, because its rules seem simple. There’s also an attraction in the way adherence to the market reflects a sort of tough, hard-nosed, no-nonsense image back at oneself – in fact if you find yourself thinking like that, basking in the glow of your own tough-mindedness, you ought to take a moment to catch yourself, because you’re probably in the middle of saying something facile and idiotic. In any case, the market is not the artist’s friend here, and no matter how loudly you insist on your value, you’re up against a system that doesn’t have the best interests of anyone except those at the very top at heart. The market can explain, but it can’t justify.

So the difficult question, as always: What can be done?

Well, bands can just refuse to play for free and see how they do with that. My guess is in most cases not very well. Bands in Japan will most likely have to spend a long time playing for free or even doing pay-to-play gigs in order to build up the connections and get well enough known that they’re getting enough gig offers to be able to start putting the squeeze on organisers.

And even then, unless they’re super-popular with audiences as well, they’re just pushing an additional share of the burden onto the organiser, who’s already getting squeezed by the venue from the other side. Musicians can self-righteously declare at this point that this is none of their concern, and sure, go ahead and pat yourself on the back for being so tough, hard-nosed and no-nonsense, but you’re still being a dick.

More ideally would be a situation where a rising tide raises all boats. This would require cooperation and compromise, and would be fraught with contradictions (art is inherently unequal in that it lays itself open to judgment – a process that would have no value if it were equal). It would mean creating a sort of parallel economy incorporating the means of delivery (venues, labels), of dissemination (media, promotion) and content (bands, artists) and then ensuring the benefits are fairly and transparently distributed. Much of this infrastructure already exists, but not in an integrated way.

Integrating it, however, brings its own problems, since there is often tension or even opposition between the roles of these elements. Curatorial roles like the media, labels and organisers pick and choose which artists to promote, so asking musicians to support a system that inevitably excludes a large number of them is going to meet resistance and leaves open the danger that you’re just recreating a smaller-scale version of the same industry system that has already excluded all of us.

But then as long as money is the driving factor, you’re already implicitly buying into some form of capitalist economic model for art, and the inequalities and power dynamics of that are always going to be recreated along recognisable patterns. You can try to keep access to the infrastructure as open as possible, but you need the filter provided by the various curators to get an audience, which inevitably ensures only a select few artists get to be in the club. You can let people set up their own “clubs” but the more those proliferate, the more the system fragments, the more the audience dissipates and the smaller the pie gets for everyone.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not a pessimist, and I do think the situation can be improved for musicians and other participants in the music scene. Even just being aware of these potential pitfalls can help make things better.

  • If everyone just asks themselves, “Am I screwing someone else over here?” and avoids self-serving justifications along the faux-hard-nosed lines I’ve bitched about above, there’s a chance that even if there’s not more money, at least there’s a bit more fairness and understanding within the scene.
  • If we all recognise that the scene in Tokyo is still at the stage where it has to get over pay-to-play before it can consider “play-for-pay”.
  • If we can accept the financial reality that there’s a certain threshold that any musical endeavour has to reach before it produces profit for anyone.
  • If we accept that there are multiple people, not just ourselves, involved in reaching and exceeding that threshold.
  • If the curatorial side can get its act together and start integrating its efforts in a more coherent, accessible way.
  • If the creative side can make the compromises in terms of quality of equipment they’re prepared to use, their own promotional efforts, and either appreciate that whether they like it or not, by seeking to put their art in the public arena they are subject to the judgments and whims of others (or to adopt more of the roles of curators themselves, which many bands already do).

If all these things happen, maybe then we’ll start to see a meaningful alternative growing (again, there are people who do these things in a scattered sort of way and it basically works).

To return to my own personal experience, I realise that in my discussion I’m being rather selfish and self-justifying too. As a label owner and event organiser, I do better than I used to, but nearly all the money flows upwards, to the venues and CD presses, and the whole thing would collapse into financial ruin if I didn’t rely on the good will of people invested in simply being part of something good for its own sake. Part of my problem here is also a very personal fear of money, and in particular a fear of how money can poison the relationships I’ve forged. When I find one of my own events lurching into profit, the money feels ugly and awkward in my hands, and I usually can’t wait to get rid of it (I nearly always bring bands from outside Tokyo to play my shows, and they usually get most of the money, while anything left goes on subsidising a post-gig party – and I realise this is partly a way of dodging the responsibility of money).

As a DJ and someone who occasionally plays in bands, I’m always happy when I get paid for a show, but I try not to expect it: again, the good will that drives much of what I find beautiful in the music scene in Tokyo is poisoned by financial expectations and demands. There are people out there who will screw you over, and that’s an environment that fosters a me, me, me attitude among participants. That’s an environment and mindset I’ve never wanted part of, and I try to avoid those kinds of people and venues.

I also realise, however, that as a part of the broader picture, the scenario of this little artistic niche is not a model for how the music industry as a whole should operate. I don’t run a business, but lots of people do or aspire to, and they shouldn’t be able to cannibalise the values and methods of an essentially cooperative subculture for their own gain. And the borders between art and business aren’t so clear that it’s easy to separate them and say, “Well, this doesn’t apply to me.” Even those of us operating on the fringes – protected from difficult decisions by our own unprofitability – need to be aware of how money interacts with and influences the shape of the scene as a whole. And to return to my earlier point once more, if money is going to be made, the only fair way is as a tide that lifts all boats.

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New Call And Response releases from Futtachi and Jebiotto

After months of too-ing and fro-ing, gathering materials, putting together and checking documents, sending out futile emails, and making stuffloads of mistakes anyway, my Call And Response label has two new albums out on the same day. In both cases, rather than being put together and put out by me solely, the releases were carried out in collaboration with the bands themselves. In theory, this offered a compromise between self-releasing and doing an actual label release in which everyone benefits, although in practice, it’s hard to tell to what extent that’s the case. The feeling you get at opening a box of CDs fresh from the manufacturer and seeing the physical product finally there and existing at you in all its glory is still the greatest feeling you can get as a label guy though.

Futtachi: Tane to Zenra

Futtachi: Tane to Zenra

Futtachi are a band I’ve been working with since they began and before even that through vocalist Iguz Souseki’s previous band Zibanchinka. They’re a psychedelic band whose music varies depending on which collection of members happen to be working together, from fierce, heavy rock at one extreme to this first album Tane to Zenra at the other. Based around Iguz and guitarist O-mi’s iteration of the group but featuring all members on the recording, it features a single thirty-minute track built around a throbbing, almost industrial beat and layered with spectral, kosmische sounds and effects. Watching Iguz and O-mi perform live as a duo on N’toko’s last Japan tour back in the spring, the material that now features on this album was spellbinding. As a half-hour track, it’s hard to provide any audio material to hear the album from, but there will be some sort of digest or edit up at some point to give you an idea. The physical CD is available via the Call And Response store here, and I’ve blogged a few other places where it’s available (including iTunes) here.

Jebiotto: Love Song Duet

Jebiotto: Love Song Duet

The second release of the day is Jebiotto’s Love Song Duet. With Jebiotto, the challenge of recording the album was in how to get a popular live band, whose appeal is to a great degree based around their unpredictability and general scuzziness, across on record. Added to that is the fact that most of the songs themselves are built around synth parts and melodies that are clearly coming from a much poppier place. So what do you do? Do you emphasise the scuzziness and make a lo-fi album that fans will at least understand as the same band they enjoy so much live, or do you try to make something that works as a pop album and accept that some of the raw energy of the band will be lost in the sheen. You can see these contrasting pressures in the way the recording credits are shared between Takaaki Okajima, who is a proper pop producer, and Yuichiro Kusaba, who is an engineer at legendary Tokyo punk venue Ni-man Den-atsu (20000V).

I think the balance worked out superbly, and makes Jebiotto a really fun band to write about. Some of the little journalistic turns of phrase I’ve used over the past couple of months to describe them include: “three punks who set out to be an 80s stadium band but got lost somewhere between Dan Deacon and Sonic Youth,” “like Bon Jovi wrapped in tin foil, falling down some stairs,” and “like TM Network in a washing machine with some rocks.” These sorts of phrases are the stock-in trade of music writers everywhere and once you break them down, they’re quite formulaic, but when you’ve got a nice image and a band that really suits it, they can be really fun descriptive tools. Again, the physical CD is available from the Call And Response shop here, and I’ve blogged a few more places here (no download release yet, but a Bandcamp is in the works). You can also listen to a couple of the poppier tracks from the album here:

We did something a bit fancy with the Jebiotto album by making an EP of remixes, featuring tracks by Nature Danger Gang, DJ Memai and Ataraw from Groundcover. as a free gift for people buying it from Disk Union, which was new territory for me. With Futtachi, I’m still hopeful to get some sort of live disc as a promotional extra for one of the indie record stores who’s been nice to us. As usual with any new releases, the time leading up to and around the release is fraught with stress, pressure, and usually edged with disappointment as ambitions and dreams give way to harsh realities of a local market that seems to be both shrinking and coalescing around a model for selling indie music that I both dislike on an aesthetic level and disapprove of on an ideological level, but in any case, we’ve done it now and no one can take that away from us.

Both Futtachi and Jebiotto are playing next month on September 27th at an all-day live extravaganza at 20000V along with many other friends of the label to celebrate ten years since the first Clear And Refreshing live showcase, so as one font of anxiety starts to dry up, another emerges. The cycle continues.

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Jebiotto documentary and U.S. tour

One of the bands who works with my Call And Response label, Jebiotto, have a short film now available to view online in advance of their new album (more on that later). It was made by Matt Schley with assistance from main man Ryotaro Aoki, and acts as a sort of rambling, vaguely coherent introduction to the band (if you know the band, you’ll know that “rambling and vaguely coherent” is the only accurate way to introduce them). It features snippets of live footage from Higashi Koenji 20000V (Ni-man Den-atsu), which remains both mine and the band’s favourite live venue in Japan.

Jebiotto are currently on tour in the U.S. and still have three more dates to go, so if you’re around New York, Newark or Baltimore over the next few days, check them out:

August 5th (Tue) Astoria, NY @ Shillelagh Tavern
August 6th (Wed) Newark, DE @ Blue Door (house show)
August 7th (Thu) Baltimore, MD @ Club K

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March 11th 2011: thoughts from three years after

As I write these words, it’s been three years to the minute since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of March 11th 2011. At that time I was preparing, organising and co-ordinating a tour to promote an album that my label had just released in Japan by my Slovenian friend N’toko. Three years later and here he and I are again, with a new album, a new tour, an eerily similar situation.

On March 11th 2011 at 2:46pm I was at home in Koenji checking messages. I already had Twitter open and was able to immediately see the deluge of comments that came through. My immediate reaction was just along the lines of, “Wow, that was a big one,” and in Tokyo, if we’re really honest, it was far from being anything like as bad as it was further to the northeast. It was clearly a bad one, but I didn’t want to feel that it was as bad as all that. The immediate response on Twitter was alarmed, but reassuring at the same time. People were OK. The Internet was my lifeline that day, allowing me to instantly reassure my family in the UK that I was safe, and instantly check up on my wife and my friends.

On March 11th 2011 at 2:46pm N’toko was just stepping out of the ticket gate of Koenji Station after a gig in Nagoya. He stepped out of the exit, the ground leaped and the beacons dropped as one from the streetlights. Welcome back. We were able to get in contact pretty much as soon as he got home and decided to take a walk around town to see if the places and people we knew were OK. Koenji One was fine, Bamii was fine, the weird little bar we used to sometimes hang out was fine. The 24 hour Seiyu supermarket was closed. False advertising! I was outraged. It felt nice to affect outrage at such a mundane thing. It was a symbolic act of affirming our own daily reality over the enormity of the tragedy that had occurred.

My wife was sent home from work but had to walk home because the trains weren’t running. It took her four hours, but others took way longer. Live venues that had been preparing for events that were now never going to happen opened their doors and served coffee and refreshments to those on their long walks home. The main street outside was full of people in a way that you only ever usually see in Koenji at the Awa-odori dance festival every August. Other friends of ours came by and our flat became a sort of meeting place. I just wanted to drink and listen to music. I didn’t want to think about the horrors that were occurring out of my control further up the coast.

My wife turned on the TV and it just showed miles after miles of flames burning over a black sea. I didn’t want to see it. I was safe, my friends were safe, and this apocalyptic reminder that so many others weren’t emphasised the dissonance between the heightened normality of my immediate surroundings and the oblique or otherwise removed echoes of the horrifying reality elsewhere. Reports started to emerge that something was wrong at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I didn’t know there was a nuclear plant at Fukushima and I didn’t know where Fukushima was to begin with. It seemed ridiculously unfair for a nuclear disaster to have been piled on top of the earthquake and tsunami. I looked away from the news and I still refuse to watch videos of the tsunami itself for the same reason I’ve never watched videos of the flames and bodies pouring from the World Trade Center. There are people dying in those images, and they die again and again every time you watch it.

The next night I met up with a friend. He’d had a bad month and was still walking with a crutch after a motorcycle accident. The izakaya where we met was occupied by only one other group of people and they were being particularly raucous. It would have annoyed me under normal circumstances, bit it reassured me this time. My friend took off his shirt and downed a tall mug of beer. Fuck you, disaster, we made it through what you threw at us with our lives intact and now we’re going to rub your nose in it. Where are you?

The supermarkets and convenience stores were starting to look bare, although for some reason beer and chocolate were in plentiful supply. Hoarders had no sense of priorities! Hahaha, see how unfazed we are? Electricity was apparently being rationed, although it never seemed to affect us where I lived. Streets were just a little bit more empty than usual, and there was an atmosphere of uneasy tension that pervaded everything, every place, every event. Or more likely it was just in us and we were projecting it out around us. Radiating it even.

Radiation was everywhere. Not the kind that you can measure with Geiger counters — that was pretty much constant at a level somewhere higher than background radiation in New York and lower than Hong Kong — but in the media and on people’s lips: man, you couldn’t escape it. It turned out Hong Kong had been a popular destination for wealthy Japanese fleeing Tokyo, and my brother-in-law in Hawaii informed us that hotels there were booked solidly with ultra-rich Japanese. The posh private academies where the children of government ministers and corporate CEOs went were teaching to near-empty classrooms as the elites shipped their families out before turning to the cameras to bleat that everything was safe. I believed that Tokyo was safe, and the scientific consensus seemed to back that up, but just hearing these two-faced bastards telling me so made me question it. The Internet wasn’t helping now: it had run out of real information to disseminate and was swarming over every spurious report, blinding us with a blizzard of conflicting stories laced with bitterness and accusation. I wanted to get out.

On Thursday March the 17th I DJed at a small fundraising party at Koenji One with the band (M)otocompo. Their drummer was from Fukushima and their leader had family ties there. They performed a reggae cover of Radioactivity by Kraftwerk and we all relaxed. I wrote about it for the charity book 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake. The next day N’toko and I left for our next scheduled tour date in Fukuoka and within six hours we were in another country.

Kyushu has always been like another country in many ways, and Fukuoka is its capital and cultural centre. There was a charity concert taking place at the Canal City mall but it had less of the sense of immediacy that infused the hastily produced Tokyo fundraisers: we’d experienced the quake firsthand, albeit in a limited form, and it had literally and figuratively shaken us. Tokyoites’ relief efforts were also tinged with guilt and responsibility: it was our insatiable thirst for electricity that the Fukushima Daiichi plant had been built to provide for. Everything we did was shot through with those relationships. The relief concert at Canal City was every bit as well-intentioned, but it was done from a distance both geographical and emotional. It was like a charity fundraiser for a disaster in Indonesia or Bangladesh, for unfortunate people far away. With people in Fukuoka, where they asked about the quake at all, it was with the mild curiosity of someone who had no concept of what it was like. It was heaven to be among such normality.

In the end, we in Tokyo got good at enforcing a sense of normality on our lives. When the government told people not to have cherry blossom viewing parties in the public parks a couple of weeks later, everyone roundly ignored them and had a rousing weekend of drinking and partying anyway. The government position was understandable — putting on a conspicuous show of celebration with the attendant dramatic lighting effects while the northeast was suffering like that would have looked terrible. For those of us who lived here though, it was just as necessary that we mark this tradition and damn well enjoy ourselves doing it.

But we got too good at it, and we forgot. people in Tohoku are still living in portacabins to this day, and with the Olympics coming up in 2020, Tokyo has something else to occupy its attention. I come from Bristol in the UK, and you can still drive past fields of those portacabins housing people who were moved there after German bombs flattened their homes. The cabins became homes and they didn’t want to move; now they are a half-conscious reminder of the destruction that brought them into existence. In seventy years time, will people in Tohoku will still be living in those homes? Will anyone in Tokyo give two shits if they are? In March 2011, music was how we helped drive the immediacy of the tragedy from our minds, but three years later, I wonder if music has more of a responsibility to ensure we don’t forget.


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Japan Times albums of the year

I’ll be posting a definitive list of my personal choices in the new year, but as a taster, last week Clear And Refreshing contributor Ryotaro Aoki and I joined James Hadfield, Mike Sunda and Patrick St. Michel in The Japan Times to talk about our favourite Japanese albums of 2013.

First up, my choices will perhaps not be much of a surprise to any regular readers of this blog, with Melt Banana’s Fetch taking top place among my recommendations. I suspect that under other circumstances, Ryotaro might have made the same pick, but instead he went with heavy riffsters Church of Misery’s Thy Kingdom Scum, which given that Ryotaro and I review all albums in our Quit Your Band! zine on something called the “Sabbath Scale” is a choice I am more than happy to endorse.Church of Misery: Brother Bishop

Patrick’s beat is pop, so he went with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Nanda Collection. Kyary has always been my least favourite of Yasutaka Nakata’s musical projects, and I found Nanda Collection a difficult and pretty intense listen despite not actually disliking anything on it in particular. I don’t like to shy away from challenging music though, and it’s an album rich in musical ideas that pushes them further than Kyary’s earlier releases, so it may yet make my Top 20 of the year (although probably somewhere behind the top notch 2013 releases from Perfume and Capsule). Mike’s choice of Sappire Slows’ Allegoria ensured that the JT bests represented the woozy cut & paste bedroom electronic pop that seems to be everywhere these days. She’s certainly very good at it, although whether she’s one of the best is hard to tell since there really is so much of it. I might have gone with Jesse Ruins over this, but that may be more down to my 80s synth bias and not having spent enough time with the album I can’t really say. Definitely a worthy addition to the selection though. James Hadfield, who I do the monthly Fashion Crisis party with in Koenji, went with Yosi Hosikawa’s Vapor, which I must admit not having heard but James has impeccable taste and what I have heard from the album is marvellous.Yosi Horikawa: Stars

Note: If you’re running up against The Japan Times’ new paywall by clicking all these links, just register for free (they won’t spam you) and you get access to 20 articles a month, which will likely be more than you’ll ever need from this blog.

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Mini Book Update: 80s idols

I’m still battling my way through the story of punk and new wave, but I took the time to add two or three paragraphs to the end of the section on 70s kayoukyoku to extend the story into the 80s. I didn’t want to go into too much depth here. The key change between the 70s and 80s was the change from TV talent shows like Star Tanjou! as the vehicle for producing and delivering new stars to using TV commercials, hence the term “CM idol”. Going hand in hand with this is the disappearance of live bands or orchestras accompanying singers on TV performances, perhaps since lots of the newer idols had been chosen for their ability to be cute in 15-second advertising slots rather than actually sing.

Obviously Seiko Matsuda was the most famous and popular. She exemplified the 80s idol as a marketing vehicle, although I don’t think her songs were all that much to write home about.Seiko Matsuda: Hadashi no Kisetsu

Much better I think was Kyoko Koizumi, who recently appeared in the phenomenally popular NHK morning drama Ama-chan playing a woman whose childhood dreams of becoming an idol had been dashed when her manager fucked her over and used her voice to overdub another girl. Koizumi was one of the last big names to come out of Star Tanjo! so she sort of spans the changeover from the 70s production model to the 80s.Kyoko Koizumi: Makka no Onnanoko

Lastly, you can’t talk about 80s idols without mentioning Onyanko Club, the first mass idol collective, the first group produced by Yasushi Akimoto, and the source of all our current horrors. They were quite fun, although given how many of their (by which I mean Akimoto’s) lyrics were just direct invitations to sexual harassment with a very clear message of “no means yes”, it’s makes the group quite an uncomfortable listen sometimes. But then this saucy flirtatiousness was way more part of the 80s cultural discourse than it is in these more austere times. Kyoko Koizumi was notorious for flashing her underwear at every opportunity (not that I’m complaining there), and the flipside of it is that it ran parallel with some real advancement in the social position of women. When Seiko Matsuda had a baby and then went back to her singing career instead of retreating into docile motherhood, it was a scandal, but she trailed the way for numerous other singers to do the same. Anyway, here’s Onyanko Club being saucy:Onyanko Club: Sailor Fuku wo Nugasanaide

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Book update: 70s pop

The latest book update sees me still stuck in the 70s, but this time looking into the pop music of the era rather than rock. I’ve written about this in The Japan Times, and the stuff in my book basically goes over the same ground, but it’s a good period and deserves writing about. It’s not directly relevant to any discussion about the contemporary alternative music scene, but it’s relevant to discussion about idol music, which is relevant, as well as to new wave given the way they started to converge in the 80s and eventually completely subsumed each other to create J-pop.Yumi Arai: Rouge no Dengen

It was also relevant to talk about “new music”, which means a bunch of artists I have no particular interest in. I’m a great admirer of Yumi Arai/Matsutoya and Miyuki Nakajima has a place in my heart thanks to the use of her crazy, melodramatic power ballads as the theme songs to series 1 and 2 of the downright psychotic 90s TV drama Ienakiko. Amii Ozaki did some good stuff but Yosui Inoue always bored me and Southern Allstars are simply dire, so I have mixed feelings about the whole thing really. I put it down to its roots in Japanese “hikikatari” folk balladeering, which is a kind of music I’ve always found on the cusp between boring and annoying. As I said though, there’s good stuff in new music, but it ain’t really my scene.

I’m very biased towards female singers in this period, which is probably primarily down to me being a guy, although honestly, male Japanese pop singers do tend to be a bunch of smug, punchbag-faced twats who take themselves way too seriously considering how shallow and inconsequential their music is. Let’s face it though, Hiromi Go was a funky, funky dude in his day.Hiromi Go: Hana to Mitsubachi

But yeah, I’m standing by my position that the girls got all the best songs. I’m a massive fan of Saori Minami and she’s interesting because of her position as a prototype of the contemporary idol singer, although she never liked being presented as such. Her songwriters were on her side and they came up with some ace tunes.Saori Minami: Junketsu

Momoe Yamaguchi was probably the greatest pop star of her day, and while these days I think the longevity and sheer ambition and drive of Seiko Matsuda has guaranteed her the position of greatest ever, her music itself was mostly nothing much to write home about. Yamaguchi had way better tunes and like Saori Minami seems to have had her own opinions about music to have worked quite closely with her songwriters to make them happen. From her early days as a fourteen year-old being manipulated into singing songs begging men to take her virginity, by the late 70s she was rocking it for herself.Momoe Yamaguchi: Zettai Zetsumei

The Candies I’m long on record as being a massive fan of, and they and Pink Lady are pretty much the definitive girl groups of the day. This was a long time before the days of mass idol collectives, and two or three was a perfectly satisfactory number of members for a pop group back then. Sigh. I also mention a bit about some of the 60s singers who crossed over into the 70s era although their roots were strictly speaking in a rather earlier music industry environment. Linda Yamamoto was a wild girl but Chiyo Okumura had a sultry charm of her own and probably has a stronger catalogue.Chiyo Okumura: Koi Dorobou

I’m onto punk and new wave now, which is where the book comes back to my key points about how the music scene works and how it’s structured at grassroots level. Again, I’m not sure if I’m going to carry on doing this in order, and the music history segments aren’t really what the book’s about as a whole (I don’t want them to take up more than about 15-20% of the total page count), but it feels right having the background there since I’m going to be referring to a lot of this at various points. Anyway, more sooner or later, and enjoy the pop.


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Book update: 70s rock

There haven’t been any updates on the book in ages, although the work I’ve been doing for The Japan Times and other places is dovetailing with the book on a number of points. Still, I haven’t really been discovering anything new or at least anything that seemed worth sharing so I’ve been quiet. I finally decided to return to Japanese pop and rock history for a bit though, and so I thought a quick update could be worthwhile.Les Rallizes Dénudés: Night of the Assassins

Now 70s rock was the bit I really wasn’t looking forward to writing, partly because Julian Cope has already done such a bang-up job on it, and partly because I don’t really like any of it that much. Bands like Les Rallizes Dénudés/Hadaka no Rallizes, Murahachibu, Speed, Glue & Shinki, Flower Travellin’ Band et al are all artists you’re sort of expected to like: bands who you revere like religious artifacts and who you’ll look really uncultured if you admit that you find them boring, boring, boring. It’s not that they’re no good, it’s just that while Rallizes’ feedback fury can be incredibly exhilarating, 70s riff merchants of whatever stripe — Flower Travellin’ Band, Shinki, whoever — have never chimed with me. I’ve never really enjoyed Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix and I enjoy bands who sound like them even less. So my summary of “new rock” goes something like this: Rallizes are OK but the rest can go hang.J.A.Seazer: Ootori no Kuru Hi

I’m going to take a little moment out here and add that J.A.Seazer (sometimes J.A.Caesar) is amazing. His position as a theatrical composer perhaps puts him in a special position, but his work is transcendent (the fact that he did the extraordinary and delightfully weird choral rock compositions for Revolutionary Girl Utena, the greatest anime of all time, is an added bonus).Rouge: New York Baby

What I have a bit more time for is some of the really uncomplicated, dumb rock’n’roll that the 70s threw up. I interviewed Sheena and Makoto from Sheena & The Rokkets the other week and in the course of that, found myself thinking about Japanese 70s rock’n’roll for perhaps only the second or third time in my life. Again, most of it bores the shit out of me, but it has a bit more charm than the see-my-seriousness-and-tremble pomp of the heavy riffsters. New York Dolls copyists Rouge are a lot of fun, although I’ve always found Carol to be massively overrated. Out of the Fukuoka mentai rock crowd, I’ve always had time for Sonhouse. I find Sheena & The Rokkets’ leap headfirst into pop to be a bit confusing from a musical point of view — not so much that it isn’t good (it’s Hosono, so it’s always going to be interesting) and not because I don’t understand why it was necessary, more that I’m just not sure what it’s saying. Anyway, they were an interesting band to interview and there’ll be more on them when the interview’s published.Sonhouse: Lemon Tea

The best thing about 70s rock is that I’m halfway done with it, anyway. I still have to talk about “new music”, another deeply respected genre which is always guaranteed to fill me with inertia, but I also get to talk about 70s kayoukyoku, which is always much more fun. More on that later.

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