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
Category Archives: Interviews
There’s a lot of Japan Times stuff I’ve had published over the past couple of months that I’ve been too distracted to post here, so I’m going to start getting round to that now. First up, I have to talk about Panicsmile here, who are one of my favourite bands in Japan, have undergone a massive upheaval in their lineup, and come out with Japan’s best album of the year so far.
Obviously the kind of thing they do is an acquired taste, which is why they’re an underground band and not riding the Rockin’ On Japan gravy train all the way to a mid-afternoon summer festival slot, but as I say in the article, there’s a vibrancy to it that just hasn’t been there for a long time — not really since the sweet spot the band hit live midway between the releases of Miniatures and Best Education. Anyway, Hajime Yoshida from Panicsmile is always an intelligent, interesting person to talk to and you can read the interview feature I did on the band on The Japan Times web site here.
Below, I’ll post a full transcript of the interview, although be wary of the imprecise and maybe a bit dodgy translation.Panicsmile: Nuclear Power Days
PANICSMILE, HAJIME YOSHIDA INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:
There have been some big member changes since A Girl Supernova. Can you tell us the story behind how the band came to be in its current position?
Eiko Ishibashi (drums), Jason Shalton (guitar) and Kenichi Yasuda (bass) left Panicsmile at that time. However, I had been thinking about the new members before they left, so new members and I started sessions from April. Then, Yasuda got in contact and said he said he wanted to come back and play with us again, so he rejoined in our band as a guitarist. There was a period after that where we made twenty songs in two years, but none of those twenty songs made it onto in our new album. The concept of our sessions with new members was originally “back-to-basics” and we made loads of very orthodox rock’n roll tracks. However we felt a bit weird about them so we didn’t use them. Eventually all ten songs on the new album are fresh material.
Where are the members all based now? Does that make it difficult to run the band?
DJ Mistake (bass) and Yasuda (guitar) are still in Tokyo, while Geru Matsuishi (drums) lives in Toyota city, Aichi prefecture, and I’m in Fukuoka. At the point we started the new sessions in April 2010, our drummer was already living in Aichi, and no real problems happened even after I moved to Fukuoka. We don’t often hang out together outside of our band activity, I’m so used to going all the way somewhere to play. When we do band practice, we gather and stay over at Matsuishi’s house in Aichi prefecture. His house has converted into a recording studio, so I’ve never felt any difficulties about the situation.
What influence did the new members have on the sound?
DJ Mistake is pretty much a beginner, but she’s really active in sessions, while Matsuishi’s background is in jazz and R&B, so he brought some funk to the sound. Yasuda played guitar back in ’93 so that was a return to basics. Any session with me and Yasuda is going to come out weird, but the rhythm section helped put everything together. I’m always surprised at the way they approach things.
In some ways, it sounds a bit like a return to old style Panicsmile, with a simple, energetic, post-punk sound. How do you feel Informed Consent fits into Panicsmile’s catalogue?
When Eiko left the band, she said, “Why don’t you try to make new tracks with yourself in charge and a group of new members you want to play with?” I could take her suggestion in a positive sense, like “Aha! I see!” In a word, it was back-to-basics. Though we had already made seven albums over a twenty year period, I think we could say that we’ve done something new.
What does the title mean to you? “Informed Consent” is a medical phrase, but it feels to me like a phrase that describes a lot of politics now.
Right, it’s a medical term, but you can see this both in the political world and in your daily life. It’s like, “I’ve explained that to you!” It comes down to you, whether you get ripped off shopping, you fail at work or even if a nuclear power station has an accident. The important thing is I’m not warning or preaching though, because I’m always so careless in this regard myself.
Was the nuclear disaster important to you in this album? References to radioactivity appear in a couple of songs.
Hmm. Rather than thinking about the disaster itself, I got a terrible sense of regret, like, “I should have done things differently,” “I was just having an ordinary life, not thinking particularly deeply,” or “I guess I kind of knew, but I still didn’t do anything.” I’m still pursued by the balance of profit and loss, time and money, so this album is a kind of record of my regrets from 2010 to 2013.
You moved back to Fukuoka between the last album and this one. Did moving back home influence how the album developed?
Almost all of tracks were made when I was in Tokyo, but tracks 1 (Western Development2), 2 (Out of Focus, Everybody Else) and 4 (Antenna Team) were written when I was in Fukuoka. So yeah, I think I’d agree that the tracks suddenly become more aggressive. I’m working here as basically a salaryman so there are several kinds of pressure from my Fukuoka life that might be reflected in these tracks.
You also produced Headache Sounds Sample Vol.5 last year. Vol.4 was back in 2005, so why revive the series now?
The time gap between the previous instalment and the latest one wasn’t really the issue. It was really that bands between 2010 to 2012 were very interesting and fun. Bands I come to like tend to be bands that do something I can’t do. That’s my criteria when I choose.
What bands do you especially like from the compilation?
I love all of them! Like I said before, it’s because they are all tracks I couldn’t have thought up myself. This time there are some bands that have instrumental tracks, and I think tracks that don’t need vocals are great.
As I mentioned earlier, there seems to be a simpler sort of energy on Informed Consent. Where does your energy come from, or what gives you energy to keep making aggressive new music?
Maybe it’s something like desire and despair: These things come from an attachment to life. There’s negativity and darkness in the lyrics, but there’s a bit of irony in there. Anger is what you feel when you have a strong desire to live, and that’s something that’s everywhere in our daily lives. It’s possible that these emotions came up after the earthquake. I think people’s minds changed a bit after seeing so many people die.
An interesting interview I did for The Japan Times recently about making music for video games. The two composers I spoke to, Keiji Yamagishi and Saori Kobayashi, both had very different musical backgrounds (Yamagishi was a rocker and Kobayashi is classically trained) but both their careers began more or less in the 8-bit era (Kobayashi only at the tail end with the Sega Game Gear) and went on from there, so they sort of bookend what I tend to think of as gaming’s “golden age”, with Yamagishi’s work on Ninja Gaiden at one end and Kobayashi’s on Panzer Dragoon Saga at the other.
The way the article came out in the end was a sort of breakdown of some of the key challenges and restrictions that make game music what it is, although it’s interesting to note how that seems to be changing now, with the growing need to make music more responsive in real time to what the player is doing. An interesting little side discussion that didn’t make the cut of the final article was when Yamagishi and I found out that we are both great admirers of the Commodore Amiga, which really was revolutionary in terms of game sound at the time. The Atari ST got all the plaudits for its sequencing software, but in terms of game sound, the Amiga’s “Paula” chip with its four sample-based audio channels (which you could double to eight if you were willing to accept a bit of slowdown and lower quality) made it revolutionary, even compared to machines like the Mega Drive that used the same Motorola 68000 central processor. The Amiga also had its own community of music creators, consisting it seemed primarily of Scandinavians making mad techno music. This parallels in some ways the current 8-bit community, although where the Amiga scene was trying to push the current technology beyond its limits, the current 8-bit crowd are resurrecting or trying to digitally recreate old technology that has already been long surpassed, purely for aesthetic reasons.
Anyway, I enjoyed doing the interview, so have a read of it on The Japan Times web site here.
Yeah, they aren’t a Japanese band, but one of them is from Japan, they’re playing here tomorrow and more importantly it’s an article I wrote, so yah boo sucks to you. Anyway, I interviewed Amedeo from Blonde Redhead the other week and had a nice chat about their forthcoming album and touring Japan, which you can read all about in The Japan Times here.
Personally, I’m rather less of a fan of Penny Sparkle than I am of its predecessors, but I very much liked the alternate version of the title track that appeared on the We Are The Works In Progress compilation, so it was heartening to hear that they’re working with the same producer. It’s always very scary talking to musicians I’m genuinely a fan of, especially on the phone, a piece of technology of which a have a paralysing fear, so it was a relief to find Amedeo so accommodating as I gibbered incoherently through the static. Anyway, like I said, this article isn’t really fully within the remit of this blog so I shan’t bang on any further. Have a read if you think this is the sort of thing you might be interested in.
I interviewed former Megadeth guitarist and current J-Pop songwriter, musician and general media celebrity Marty Friedman for The Japan Times recently. The article is here, so by all means have a look at that. While you’re at it, check out Ryotaro Aoki’s review of the album Inferno as well.
There was so much more I could have said but this idea of the enthusiasm of rock seemed to be the thread that ran through our chat, and I needed to talk about the album, plus I wanted to get into some of the technical stuff about song composition, so in the end I had to jettison some of my ideas. Friedman gets stick from some Japanese pop fans, partly through old-fashioned jealousy that he’s this guy “living the dream” off the back of a privileged background with a big name band in the 90s, but also because I think the Japanese pop industry uses him in ways that aren’t necessarily congenial to his talents and knowledge. He clearly has very deep musical understanding of Japanese pop, but when he’s shunted off to industry expos and things to talk about the potential for Japanese pop success abroad, he’s perhaps not the best guy. As a fan of J-Pop, he naturally likes it as it is and doesn’t want it to change. He can only see its marketing potential in terms of its appeal to him, so the idea of twisting it and manipulating its style, sound or presentation to fit some overseas market niche just doesn’t appeal to him, and I think that comes across pretty clearly in this interview. The trouble is that if the role he’s been assigned is predicated on the idea that Japanese music should be marketing itself overseas, you catch yourself in a trap of only marketing it on its Japaneseness, and only marketing it to people already kindly predisposed to “things from Japan”. The end result of that is just Tofu Records and failure every time.
Where Friedman could be a more valuable figure would be in just using him to explain about and raise awareness of Japanese music in a way that plays on his strengths. He’s written a book on Japanese music which really ought to be available in English, but as is so often the case, the Japanese pop industry only really seems to be using him as a way to help them feel good about themselves and isn’t really interested in letting him do what he’s best at. He seems to be on some level aware of that and the decision to do the new album as a specifically “foreign” thing perhaps relates to that, although more obviously there are commercial and market-related reasons why it was a sensible decision as well.
Anyway, I enjoyed talking to him and he seemed to be a genuinely very nice guy. I’ve put an edited transcript of the whole thing below.Marty Friedman: Inferno
MARTY FRIEDMAN INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:
It’s strange in a way that after all this time in Japan, with you having a metal background but working in J-Pop, it feels that now is really the first time you make sense as an entity in the Japanese music industry. I think it was on that Momoiro Clover song you played on (Mōretsu Uchū Kōkyōkyoku. Dai Nana Gakushō “Mugen no Ai) where I first felt that those two strands had really come together.
I can understand that. I would stay the stars aligned on that. Hyadain is a producer I always wanted to work with, and it was the perfect vehicle for his kind of insanity and mine, and it came out really nice.
There certainly seem to be more people thinking in a similar place these days.
It’s all very incestuous. I mean the guitarist in Babymetal, he plays guitar in my band who I’m going to Europe with. It’s a very small group of people. Babymetal was conceived by people who put together Dempagumi inc. and they just played before my band Metal Clone X today at this Chokaigi thing.
You’ve talked before about how that mix of genres that wouldn’t necessarily go together in America is part of Japan’s appeal to you.
The possibility that anything can possibly happen is way greater in Japan because the fans aren’t so genre-specific. If you’re a metal fan or a rock fan in America, you’ve got to keep it on the downlow about listening to pop or dance or rap. In Japan, you like it you like it. When I played with Momoiro Clover Z, that crowd was louder than any heavy metal crowd. It was just, ‘raaaagh!’ Pantera or something, it was insane. I think people are less shy about having an open mind about music and that’s why musicians are more open to crossing over and stuff like that.
Coming from a metal background, what I’ve always noticed is that working in the music business, they’re all metalheads, but there’s no money in metal, but they try so hard to mix it with other things. Babymetal’s a good example. I’ve done so many things where it’s a pop project but, ‘Make this metal. Play your ass off on this!’ and I love doing it because I love to inject my own thing in everything. All the time I find that all the people who are in good positions, putting together projects and working at the record company, they’re really rock people who were inspired to be in the music business by rock. I don’t think people listen to this mellow pop and that inspires them like, ‘Wow, now I have to get into the music business!’ People enjoy it and they go on with your lives. When you’re a rock guy, there’s something that makes you want to be in the business, as a photographer, working at a label… I mean, you’re not going to be a fan of Cat Stevens and all of a sudden decide to be a roadie for Pantera or something. Rock gives you the inspiration to get involved.
And it’s often people you’d least expect are just totally jamming metallers. Yesterday I did the show Asian Music Network and one of the guests was this singer Crowd Lu. Totally ‘dome class,’ plays the domes wherever he plays and it’s like the lightest music you ever heard — it’s lighter than Pizzicato 5 or something — and he says, ‘I grew up listening to your guitar, I wanted to play like you so much!” To me! And he sounds nothing like me, it’s much cooler and hipper than anything I would do. I think in Asia people don’t say, ‘All right, I’m a rapper, I’ve got to be a rapper forever.’ People can have different tastes and blossom into really amazing things, but lots of people are born out of a really hard rock background.
But in a way isn’t it just that Japan has different rules and once you learn what they are, it’s every bit as formulaic?
Right. There’s a hard and fast rule in Japanese music, which I think is actually kind of cool, they put melody first, above everything else: above the singer’s ability, above the singer’s looks, even above the songwriting, especially above the production. So that’s good, because if you’ve got a strong melody, the interpretation can be anything. You can have this really drastic, crazy underground, hardcore interpretation, or this Skrillex-sounding noisy modern American type stuff, or it can be this old-school ballad, or it can sound like Chicago, which lots of Japanese ballads do. Once you’ve got the melody, you can interpret it however you want. I find in American music, what is more important than the melody, what’s important is the singer’s looks, the quality of the lyrics, the quality of the singer. Americans take it for granted, you’ve got to be a great singer. In Japan, you don’t have to be a great singer, but you do have to have a great melody and your voice has to have some magic in it. In America, you have to be Celine Dion or Leona Lewis to get any attention, and even then you sound like everybody else who’s trying to sing like that. For me, I’d rather have fifty different interpretations of a strong melody than some fantastic singer and the melody’s third or fourth place on the list.
People mistake talent for the wrong thing. Being talented doesn’t just mean you can sing in five octaves. Look at Mr. Children, you wouldn’t say that guy’s the best singer in the world, but they sell out the Dome every time with fantastic songs — people are crying in the audience. So which is more talented? Since when is talent the be-all and end-all anyway? Who in Nirvana really had talent — well Dave Grohl has insane talent so I shouldn’t really put it that way, but it’s not about the talent, it’s about the music that they made which appeals to people. This really bugs me about American Idol culture: it’s literally about who can hold the longest high tone and who can sing like Whitney Houston. Music is about so much more! In Japan you kind of want to root for someone who doesn’t have that kind of strong voice.
We know Celine Dion’s going to nail that song from ‘Titanic,’ but is she going to do anything a bit dangerous or cute or make a mistake? This is an emotion that’s not felt in America but it’s a brand over here.
Musicologically there are differences as well though, aren’t there? For example, Japanese pop doesn’t really have so many blue notes.
I can totally go into detail about that if you want! I mean, firstly they don’t have the gospel upbringing of American R&B. Of course there are great singers like Misia who can do a damn good job of it, but even then it’s not made from that, and I don’t think they should even go there. The songs aren’t made for someone to show off their melisma or ad-libbing prowess, which like an Aretha Franklin type person — you don’t need to even give her a melody and she can blow your mind. So no gospel, no blues, what have you got? You’ve got min’yo, enka, kayoukyoku, which are all based on chord voicings that aren’t necessarily heard in American pop, like minor chords with a minor 6th, like the chord that The Beatles end their old songs with, they stick that chord in all kinds of interesting places. And the chord progressions are a little bit closer to white jazz than they are to rock’n’roll. They have minor 7th chords and typical jazz day-one chord progressions in rock songs. This is a big difference: even an amateur band that’s doing sweaty hard rock will do these happy little jazz tweaks or chord changes that you’d never hear in a rock song.
And you consciously apply those conventions to your own J-Pop writing?
It’s at the point now where I write a song and it’s done and I listen back to it and I think, ‘I can’t believe an American did this!’ The first one that really struck me like that was a song by Kotoko called ‘Kirei na Senritsu’ and when it got done, there was no American blood in that song: I’m really good at what I wanted to do apparently because this sounds like it was written by a Japanese person!
But on your new album though, you’ve really taken it back to metal and gone off in a different more sort of progressive rock direction it seems.
When you do music this long, you’ve got to do something that inspires you to keep going, to challenge yourself. Otherwise you’re done, your career’s over at that point. I’m constantly trying to do something new — I rarely listen back at something I’ve done before, or only to find something I didn’t like about it. On this album there’s one song with a sax player named Jørgen Munkeby from Shining. Shining are going to be the new Nine Inch Nails I think: it’s super modern and super heavy, and the music is super catchy, and there’s a sax in there. To me as a metaller, sax is an alien instrument, I don’t like it. But I listen to his music and I know this guy will get it. I told him to go crazy, I’ll pick one of your sax phrases and then loop it. I took the sax first and moved it around and had my way with it! I really despised sax: it’s the easy listening instrument, but I knew when I heard him I had to do it and it turned out to be one of my favourite songs on the record.
Once I have a melody I like and a structure, then I can build something that’s gonna make you get goosebumps or make you excited, but without the melody it’s just mindless riffing.
There are a lot of collaborations on the album. How did that come about?
They’re people in the metal world and guitar world who’ve said nice things about me in interviews. Embarrassingly I don’t really follow what’s going on outside Japan, but the record company in America said, ‘Look, these guys are claiming you as this and that, and all this good stuff, so you should at least know it.’ So they put this list together and I was embarrassed reading it, it was so nice. So I took some names off the list and started listening to them, and these guys were great in their own thing, they don’t sound anything like me, so maybe I’d give them a call and see if we can do something together. Because even more so than the music they made, that enthusiasm is what I liked. I remember one time Michael Schenker came to my house in Arizona unannounced and said, ‘I wanna do this project together; let’s do this project.’ And I was a fan of his since I was little, so to have this guy ask me to do a project with him? I just remember being so excited and I wanted to bring my super A-game to what we did. We did some stuff and it never got released or anything, but I just remember that feeling when I was working on it, and if I could just give some of these guys that feeling and get the fruits of their labor and that enthusiasm, man, it could be something amazing.
You also didn’t really work with any Japanese collaborators on this album. Was that conscious?
I thought it would be interesting to do a simultaneous worldwide release and release something in Japan as a foreigner. It’s a strange situation. I came here just to play domestic Japanese music in whatever shape I could, but at the same time, my management is a television management so I end up doing a lot of media stuff that’s nothing to do with music. It’s kind of a love-hate thing, because in a way it’s great, because it opens tons of doors and allows me to do whatever I want musically, but the downside is that while a lot of people know me, they don’t know I play music. The majority of people come up to me and they’re like, ‘I saw you on Tamori Club,’ you know? That’s all good, but it doesn’t translate to record sales, it doesn’t translate to people coming to my shows. It can be a little frustrating for people trying to find a genre for my music, so the easiest one for the record company is just for me as the foreigner I am.
Some musicians I know who are foreigners living and making music in Japan have this problem of stores not knowing where to file them. They’re part of the japanese music scene and play with Japanese bands, but they don’t look Japanese. It’s frustrating in a way that foreign and domestic music here is segregated in such a way.
It comes down to the ‘gaijin complex’ which hopefully sometime in the future will fade away because it’s lame. Japanese people just think because you’re a foreigner you’re super, and they have this inferiority complex, or some people do. It’s very old fashioned and thankfully that trend is slowing down. I think people should be judged on their merit and whether you like it or not, not where they’re from, but oftentimes, especially in the music business, that’s why it’s separated: because a lot of people who like foreign music think it’s cooler to like foreign music. It’s a little bit elitist to be in that minority — only twenty percent of Japanese people listen to foreign music, so some of those people have this attitude that the Americans, the English, Australians, they’re more upper-crust than us local people. They’re a little bit ashamed of all this idol music, so those people are acting all snobbish listening to whatever, but that’s the wrong reason. There’s extremely intelligent music coming out of Japan, and just because you’re a little bit ashamed of your identity doesn’t mean you should ignore all of it. This complex is embarrassing.
It’s just a matter of time before there’s no foreign music at all here. If you look at record sales, Japan’s really an island unto itself. I mean, eighty percent of it’s made in Japan and the twenty percent is almost like a bonus that you could probably live without, and that includes Maroon 5, Lady Gaga — those people aren’t influencing japanese music all that much, definitely not as much as they are in Korea. You listen to music in Korea and it’s a carbon copy of America.
So what Japanese artists do you rate at the moment?
I’ve been a really big fan of this band called Noa Nowa, their debut single was a song called Loop Loop and they’ve released a lot of fantastic stuff. It’s pop, but it’s very intricately worked out. Sometimes their harmonies sound like Queen, but it’s J-Pop. You could listen to it on the surface and think it’s just light pop but if you tried to play it, there’s a billion chords in it, the modulations are unusual and there’s harmonies all over the place. So you could easily ignore it and think “Oh, it’s J-Pop” but then you listen to it and it’s really deep. Then there’s these guys Bull Zeichen 88, who are ready to take over the world. Japan’s just an amazing place for music. There are so many more people per capita making music in Japan than anywhere else. You can’t go down the street without someone carrying an instrument.
Regular readers, of whom I’m assured I have a few, may have noted a certain sparseness in reporting these past few weeks. The reason for that is that I have been almost permanently either in transit, at shows, or recouperating from the exertions caused by the above, all for the greater purpose of Slovenian rapper N’toko’s most recent Japan tour to support the album Mind Business, which you may remember I released in Japan on my Call And Response label in January (CD available here or on iTunes here, thanks for the custom!) Now I gather that a few of you found some value or at least interest in my series of posts on running an indie label in Japan, so at some point over the next week, I’m planning to do a sort of tour diary series running down the N’toko tour and giving what insight I can into the experience of managing a bargain bin, no-fi Japan tour, the different environments both in terms of venues, bands, organisers and general atmosphere of the various towns we passed through, and the logistical and financial challenges faced. However, before that, there is some important housekeeping I need to do on this blog, specifically a number of articles I’ve written for other outlets to which I would like to direct your attention.
First up, and really most ridiculously overdue, I did an interview for The Japan Times with Nagoya pop/new wave band Crunch.
I say most of what I want to say about them in the article itself (it’s quite an opinionated piece for an interview, but then I find myself becoming more opinionated in my writing as I get older) but it’s worth picking out a few points I think are interesting or important. Probably foremost among them is the comment about how some indie record stores wouldn’t stock their CD because it’s too pop, despite the band themselves being pretty definitively underground. This is both a problem and completely correct for the music scene in Japan.
Firstly the problem is obviously that it perpetuates the divide between pop and underground music that is initially caused by the narrow focus of mainstream media and major labels. For every Soutaisei Riron that crosses over into the mainstream, there are hundreds of bands that are left behind — the majors just don’t need them all. With an indie infrastructure to fall back on, some of those bands might be able to support their activities and build a base for themselves from which they could launch a more mainstream career the next time the opportunity arises, but if the indie scene shuts them out, they’re left just playing fairly bland, sub-mainstream events with none of the major scene’s promotion or professionalism, but none of the indie scene’s community or core fanbase.
However, it’s also quite right that the indie scene behaves like this, because if all it’s doing is offering a less successful version of what the majors are doing, what’s the point of them as an alternative? The indie scene is organised along different business lines — in some ways what you might call a communist or syndicalist model, with bands, labels and organisers all needing to support each other in order to keep their work flowing — and it doesn’t have access to the communication channels that can deliver pop music to the kinds of people who like pop music.
Crunch are an interesting case here in that they don’t seem to be all that interested in being a major band, or at least in making the sorts of compromises that major bands have to make or in being “managed” in the way major bands are, but at the same time, their music clearly has a lot of mainstream appeal. My first instinct was to dismiss them as something inherently out of my range of interest and it was only really when I noticed a few people whose opinions I greatly respect (particularly the good people at Japanese music web magazine Cookie Scene) taking a close interest in the ｂａｎd that I started listening in a different way and started to be able to pick out the layers to what they do that my initial superficial glance over their music had missed.
The big thing about them that struck me was how when doing the interview the vocalist Noriyo demonstrated an enthusiasm for and interest in music not only as a performer but as a listener that went way beyond what most bands are ever willing or able to admit. Most bands will clam up and divert questions about what music they like, wither for fear of being pigeonholed as a certain type of band, for fear of admitting influences that would reveal their plagiarism, or because they simply don’t have much interest in or knowledge of music in the first place (this latter reason is I fear depressingly common). Even if you’re making pop music, having a wide and deep musical background as a listener inevitably leads to a richer kind of pop music — this is why Haruomi Hosono, Yumi Matsutoya and their 70s songwriting generation had such a long-lived influence, and while Crunch aren’t as technically honed as the 70s “new music” crowd, their songwriting sense feels much closer to their tradition of creating mainstream pop informed by a diverse and not necessarily musically related background musical knowledge than it does to the zeitgeisty grasping at new trends of K-Pop or the pop-art paintsplatter of nostalgic influences that much idol music is composed of.
Crunch are probably helped by being from a city the size of Nagoya too. Somewhere smaller and they’d have trouble finding other musicians who they felt an affinity with, but at the same time, the indie scene is small enough that it can’t really afford to shut them out. Somewhere as big as Tokyo there’s the danger that unless they quickly found some fellow musicians, booking managers and organisers who got what they were trying to do, they’d be swallowed whole by an endless stream of live venues all playing bland wannabe pop and never seen or heard from again.
In The Japan Times a couple of weeks back I interviewed Osaka indie trio Jesus Weekend in advance of the release party for their mini-album/EP Agleam in Tokyo. The album actually came out towards the end of 2013, but the article in the end took longer to put together than I’d anticipated so we decided to use the release party as the event to hang the article off instead of the CD’s release.
That’s actually one of the things I always find a bit awkward about writing about music. The Japan Times is very good at taking music seriously, and it doesn’t take part in the Japanese music press practice of taking money from labels in return for coverage. It’s also a a big no-no to have me writing about bands I personally have on my label, although it’s got to the point now where I’ve released so many bands that it’s also deeply unfair to ban my acts from appearing in the paper at all, so sometimes other writers write about them (and I stay out of their way). In any case, ethics are important and foremost among those is maintaining the distinction between journalism and PR. The thing is, however, that because music journalism is journalism, it basically has to be writing about something new or in some way tied to events that are happening now, i.e. bands who have a new release or a big event or festival appearance to promote. This means that basically everything we do kind of is PR whether we like it or not, because we will only write about bands who are currently trying to sell something.
Of course with interviews, I don’t think there’s necessarily much of a conflict there, since your interest in making the article interesting for readers and the band’s interest in making themselves seem interesting to a potential audience are closely aligned. As a writer, you want to find the story in what they say, and to tease out something from their comments that sheds light on their music. I do wonder sometimes whether by focussing on releases, we miss something important sometimes, denying coverage to bands who’ve simply chosen not to release anything and focus on developing their sound live, while bands like Jesus Weekend who have taken the equally admirable approach of developing their sound out in public in the recorded medium are fair game.
Anyway, Jesus Weekend are an odd band. The bit about animal suicides and my subsequent discovery that contrary to the band’s claims, suicide is apparently a well-observed occurrence in the animal kingdom was a fascinating discovery for me and honestly, callous bastard that I am, made me laugh out loud in some instances. Personally I feel the song in question, Animal Suicides, is more eerie than sad, but then the article’s about them, not me.
I mention in the article about the album sounding like fragments of a picture, but it was recorded last summer and when I went to the release party in late February and saw them live, you could see that there was this coherence that was far better developed than on the album. Puberty Bell sticks out as a particular oddity in the album, but live it became apparent that they now have other songs that place it in more of a context. There’s also a confidence and assurance in how they play that gives you a sense up close that while the sounds may be diverse, they are all aspects of the same group of people.
It was a very short set, although a bit longer than when I saw them in Tokyo last year, and this underscores just how early Jesus Weekend have been picked up and hyped (not least by me). The gap between a cool new band appearing and everyone on the scene scrambling to get a piece of them is getting shorter and shorter, especially among the indie or crowd (as opposed to the slightly more traditional alternative crowd — I’m not going to go into the differences here) and while at the moment I don’t see too much of a problem given how small that scene is to begin with, there is the danger that when a band becomes cool too early, it can stymie their creativity, subtly influencing them towards just making more of what people already like and unconsciously holding back their own development. I don’t see that happening with Jesus Weekend, who seem very serious about what they’re doing and appear to be quite earnestly exploring how to express themselves. They’re in a musical adolescence, which is exciting and interesting in the possibilities it presents, but it would be a waste if they were to become trapped there.
I’ve been doing quite a lot of interviews lately, but this is the last one for a while. There’s a Q&A on MTV 81with Group A (officially stylised as “group A” but on these pages proper English grammar rules apply unless I otherwise say so).
Group A are relatively new and the interview backs up something I’ve suspected, which is that from fairly messy, arty and conceptual roots, they’ve rapidly grown musically, and they’ve done it largely through just forcing themselves into positions where they needed to get better quickly. There’s an admirable hunger to them, although the case with ambitious bands like that is that they find a point two or three years down the line where there is nowhere the scene is really structured to allow them to go, where they’re popular enough that they feel they’ve outgrown their scene peers, but there’s no place for them on the next rung up. Some try to break out by going overseas, but there’s no money in that unless you’re Melt Banana or Acid Mothers Temple, and some try to break the glass ceiling by making nice with those still in control of the levers of power, although if you’re making DAF/Neubauten/Throbbing Gristle-style industrial noise with violins, there are relatively few openings for bands like that in major label rosters. At the rate Group A are growing, however, they’re probably going to find themselves in a position like that sooner rather than later, so how they deal with it’ll be important.
Anyway, it was an interesting interview and they’re interesting people. All the stuff about stone circles and things it’s hard to tell how seriously they take it: sometimes they sounded genuinely cosmically inclined, whereas other times they seemed to have a more of a conceptual handle on it. Anyone whose heard the stuff Julian Cope did on the none-more-pagan Jehovahkill (or recorded naked inside ancient burial mounds) would have to admit that at least the cultural associations we’ve layered onto stones of various kinds can have a power of their own, even if the mystical aspects are clearly bollocks.
The stuff about the creative process and how they scraped the band together out of a sheer desire to do something and then worked it up into the genuinely quite impressive band they are now was the bit I found most interesting. The fact that they were really eager to talk about their music and go into detail about it really helped as well, which might have been down to them coming from an art & design background. In any case, far too many bands seem completely uninterested in examining their own art, and so uncurious about what they themselves are doing that it’s quite refreshing to speak to a new band who are so enthusiastic about their own art.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I interviewed Sheena and Makoto from Sheena & The Rokkets the other week and the feature appeared on this week’s Japan Times music page. Makoto did most of the talking, I think because he’s rather more confident speaking English, although Sheena chipped in. We talked for about one and a half hours so there’s no way I’m writing up the full transcript, but they were very nice and said some interesting stuff.
When I’m writing a feature like this for the JT, the trick to it is always to try to find the story from amongst the chaos of what can often be quite rambling, unstructured conversations, although in Sheena & The Rokkets’ case there were several possible stories to draw from it. In the end, I think the recurring theme was the compromises a rock’n’roll or punk band has to make in order to make a living from music. I get the impression that the “mentai rock” generation are viewed with a bit of suspicion by members of the current Fukuoka rock scene, perhaps due to a kind of subconscious resentment of the jokey and reductive nature of the term “mentai rock” itself, or perhaps due to the perception that so many of the bands seemed to have sold out. Basically, if you’re an alternative band who’s been based in Fukuoka for any length of time without moving to Tokyo, it’s because your roots there are stronger than your ambitions for commercial success. Bands who moved to Tokyo and had hits, well, they chose a different path.
Makoto’s old band Sonhouse were full-on proto-punk rockers though. I was in a bar in Koenji on Tuesday night with a couple of Fukuoka friends who were in Tokyo on tour and we got the owner to put on their first album from 1975 and it was raw, brutal rock’n’roll hedonism in its purest form. Both of my friends were nodding their heads in appreciation and eventually one of them pronounced, “Yeah, this is a really good record.”Sonhouse: Milk Nomi Ningyo
The very existence of Sheena & The Rokkets seems to have more to do with the need to move on commercially without losing sight of that rock’n’roll purity. Sonhouse seem to have split partly because they couldn’t take what they were doing any further in Fukuoka, and Makoto and Sheena had had their first daughter in 1976, so it must have been difficult to marry the responsibilities of having a family with the inherently irresponsible nature of rock’n’roll. The fact that Sheena & The Rokkets moved to Tokyo pretty much as soon as they started shows this change in attitude I think.
What’s interesting about the group is the way they negotiated these opposing principles. Makoto talks a bit in the interview about how kayoukyoku and rock’n’roll were sort of seen as fundamentally opposing forces, but lots of the people who had started out in punk and new wave bands quickly started trying to make what they did work in some sort of mainstream or semi-mainstream context and the early 80s is quite an interesting time in music precisely for how these then-underground musical ideas started to bleed across into pop (in a similar way that you can see this happening now with idol music). Sheena & The Rokkets were lucky to end up with a genius like Haruomi Hosono producing them and the results are a bunch of very good songs, although there’s still a bit a shock in how they went from this…Sheena & The Rokkets: Sugaree (Rusty York)
…to this:Sheena & The Rokkets: Ukabino Peach Girl
In any case, watching them live, it’s clear that rock’n’roll remained at the core of what they did. They seem to have commanded the respect of overseas contemporaries, with Lenny Kaye, Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Wilko Johnson and others all seeming to have had an interest in the band. The collaboration with Yuu Aku is also part of this same continuum of keeping an eye on the mainstream and trying to take what’s good from it.
Of course (through no fault of their own) there’s nothing really underground or alternative about the kind of rock’n’roll Sheena & The Rokkets do anymore because the goalposts for what qualifies as extreme have moved so far since the late 70s. It’s interesting that Sheena and Makoto’s two younger daughters’ own band Darkside Mirrors, while cut from similar garage rock cloth to their parents, was a dirtier, rougher and trashier sounding proposition.Darkside Mirrors: Elevator
What’s happened is that rock’n’roll has moved on from being rebellious into being something timeless, and that in turn has made the distinction between rock’n’roll and pop music that was so strong in the 70s increasingly meaningless. Still, when you compare Sheena & The Rokkets to another 70s rock’n’roll rebel like Eikichi Yazawa, it’s obvious that they’ve retained a way closer hold on their roots and importantly still seem to be having fun.
The other week I met up with Damo Suzuki and chatted about art, politics and… well, those two things really. You can read the full article on The Japan Times web site, so you should do that right now.
It was a really interesting interview for me, partly because he has such a different view of the world from most of the musicians I meet in Japan (he says it comes from having a European perspective, and his attitude does seem quite similar to the way a lot of my German friends think, but I suspect he was always a bit out of the ordinary by Japanese standards) and partly because he didn’t need much prompting to go into quite a lot of depth about his music and opinions, which made my job very easy.Damo Suzuki with Nanao Tavito
He expresses some opinions that look a bit harsh on the page, but you have to appreciate how good humoured his whole demeanour is, which is why towards the end of the interview, when my hastily-scrawled list of topics had run out, I felt comfortable challenging his statements. Usually if I don’t really agree with someone I’m interviewing, I just nod and let their words speak for themselves, but in Damo’s case, I thought there might be a bit more value in probing his statements a bit more to see how deeply though-out they really are.Damo Suzuki with Tenniscoats
I wish I could have got into religion more near the end there, because I’m curious how someone who has so little regard for rules and pre-defined forms can reconcile that with religious belief, where rules and pre-defined forms are integral to the structure of the organisation. I know about his history with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and I’ve read things he’s said about religion before and I guess his answer is along the lines that for him it’s more the spiritual and moral principle that he follows rather than any particular doctrine. Still, in the context of the interview, it feels like an omission that we didn’t go into it. My only excuse is that we were getting near the end of the interview and the direction that thread of the conversation was going didn’t naturally lead there. Also, I suspect that even though I brought up religion, I wasn’t really thinking specifically about religion in a formal sense when I mentioned it, and my pre-programmed reaction to his response, like many British people confronted by a directly stated belief about religion, was to just inwardly clench with sudden social anxiety and let the conversation move on to something else before, I don’t know, before what? Before I get stabbed or something? I’m pretty unflappable about most topics, but religion is a topic I still have to overcome anxieties about discussing in person and the moment just passed.Damo Suzuki with Maher Shalal Hash Baz
Finally, as a fan of The Fall I liked how he just came right out and said “I am Damo Suzuki“.
Anyway, here’s an edited transcript of the interview:
I think the last time I interviewed you was about five years ago I think. Has the way you approach your performances changed much in that time?
The concept isn’t changed so much, just playing with local sound carriers.
The musicians you play with seem to be getting younger though.
There is one reason why I’m playing together with the younger generation. Because if I play with the younger generation, then I get younger audience as well. That means I can play music for another forty years. (Laughs)
You’re playing with more than twenty musicians over seven hours at your next show. How are you going to work that?
If I say it now, it’s no good because you’ll know the concept. Actually there’s not so much of a concept, but I had to make some sort of a timetable, because SuperDeluxe isn’t such a big place, capacity is about 250 people, and also we have technicians, we should know about the technical things. So actually it could be better with 25 sound carriers onstage at the same time, but we weren’t able to make this so I must make some sort of timetable, a kind of storyboard.
Actually it’s OK, because always a new approach is not so bad. Last year at the Reykjavik Film Festival I performed a live soundtrack playing music for an old movie from 1927 (according to the RFF web site, the film was Metropolis by Fritz Lang – IM). This was also planned because the film is never going to change, so there was kind of a system, although actually I like to make much more free stuff.
How did that work? Did you watch the film beforehand?
If I see it before, it’s already kind of a system, so I didn’t see it. We had monitors and some of the musicians watched the monitors, but I didn’t because if you watch the monitor, you react a little bit later than the rhythm of the movies.
So for you, what makes a good show? What kinds of things have to fall into place for you?
Firstly if the sound technician likes the concert, because he’s controlling the sound communication between the musicians on the stage and the audience, so he’s quite important and if he likes the concert, it’s always a good concert. Secondly, after the concert if lots of people have smiles on their faces, it’s also a good concert. And also the sound carriers who joined in the concert, if they have good energy and chemistry, it’s also a good concert. But during the concert it’s quite difficult to explain, because you have to be on the stage. It’s emotion, and there’s some kind of energy between us.
It’s quite different from a recording.
Maybe recording’s not as good as live, because with regular recordings, you can’t catch the atmosphere of the place, but with the live show itself, everybody is living in this time together in the same space and creating, and also the audience is not just listening, but also we can get some sort of feedback from them, so we are creating a kind of quantum field and everybody is involved. With a recording, you listen alone at home and it’s already a material thing and it’s nothing to do with your real involvement.
If you’re watching a soccer game on TV, the TV is already controlled by a cameraman who has these same angles and you can only see these angles, but if you’re in the stadium, you can see all the atmosphere, you can see how they are moving on the field, so it’s totally different. You have much more intense feeling and you are together in this.
Do you have any places in particular where you enjoy playing?
Everything has an influence on how things happen. SuperDeluxe is a good space and a difference audience because it’s in the middle of the city, so it’s quite different from the UFO Club. The UFO Club is in Koenji, which is quite a special place and not really like Tokyo. It’s a kind of province, and I’m not saying that in a negative way, it’s a good thing because Koenji has its own atmosphere, but Roppongi is quite commercial and I think quite mainstream, although I don’t know what kind of people are going to come to my concert.
Also at a place like the UFO Club, they don’t need so much advertisement because the people are living near there and people know each other, and there’s much more communication because it’s a small cosmos.
Koenji’s a place where a lot of fringe activities take place. It was also the starting point for the antinuclear protests in 2011, which I know was something you felt strongly about.
It sucked. It’s not only musicians, but Japanese people generally don’t like to talk about politics. I know why this is, but I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories. Japanese society is like a pyramid. Each stone is exactly the same, and it’s built up into a pyramid. Each of them is able to function but all together, it’s not very flexible to react to something, so they must be part of this society but out of the society they cannot do anything. Because I live in Germany, seeing Japan is totally different if you are involved in the society, but if you’re outside, you can see much more clearly.
One example of this is the case of (Fumiaki) Hoshino. He’s innocent but he’s been in jail for 39 years. He’s something like the beginning of the ‘Occupy’ movement in Japan. He was the leader of a student demonstration. Two people died and one was a policeman. He was the leader of this movement, so that’s why the police got him because if you cut off the head, then it’s much easier to control. He’s been in prison for 39 years and many people don’t know about this story. And even if they know, young people they don’t have any interest. Fukushima is the same: there’s not so much interest for young people. I don’t like to say why, but people are manipulated, mind-controlled even, because of control over the information. For them it’s quite difficult to say ‘Help Hoshino’ because Hoshino’s movement is kind of Communist, which is a kind of dirty word in Japan. Information is controlled by the Japanese government and the Japanese government is controlled by the USA because we lost the War, and things go this.
Last year, a number of lost Can recordings, some of which feature you, were finally released. Did you listen to them or is that part of your past that you feel a bit shut off from?
It’s like talking about my schooldays now. I was eighteen when I came to Germany. Sometimes I work with the drummer of GuruGuru or some members of Faust — the Hamburg Faust, not the Hanover Faust. The ‘French Faust.'”
It seems that in the last few years some of the Japanese music from that period has been getting more attention, partly thanks to Julian Cope’s book, although some people have complained about his habit of making stuff up.
He’s an interesting person because he wrote this kind of book, but he’s also writing about stones. He’s OK. Everyone has freedom to make anything, even wrong stories, because sometimes wrong stories are more beautiful than the truth, so it’s OK. It’s only a problem if people believe all of this. Me? I like the truth, it’s much more interesting.
It’s interesting that it took a book by a British writer and all the attention in the West before Japanese people really started to rediscover bands like Les Rallizes Dénudés and all the others.
Talking of the mainstream media and thinking of the 70s, the Japanese music scene didn’t communicate so much with the rest of the world because record companies weren’t so tied to the musicians. British people are always more open to any kind of music, so now there’s some interest in Japanese music too because the British have a basis for this kind of (progressive) music but the Japanese don’t really have this basis. Most bands from the 60s were just cover bands of The Beatles or something and didn’t do something original. But if I compare Japanese music now and ten years ago, Japanese music is really getting interesting. Young people have developed their own styles, they’re not copying too much from British or American bands and that’s a good thing.
The same thing happened in Germany as well at the end of the 60s. I don’t like the name ‘Krautrock’ but they just avoided any kind of Western culture, especially Anglo-Saxon, and I think a similar thing’s happening with young Japanese people’s music. If you’re a creative person, it’s important to break rules. If you’re in the middle of the system, you can’t create much, but if you’re on the outside, you can just avoid it, start from zero and make your own stuff with no influence at all.
I feel that British musicians tend to see Krautrock and automatically gravitate towards the Klaus Dinger-style Neu! beat while Japanese bands are a bit more likely to ore complex, looser beats that Can used to do. You play with musicians from a lot of different countries so have you noticed differences in the approach of musicians from different cultural musical traditions?
I don’t see so much difference, because the musicians I perform with are already open-minded to create something together and create time and space in the moment. Japanese musicians have a lot of ‘kaizen,’ where you take something, add a little bit and create something new. Japanese music is quite like this at the moment, a lot of bands have a lot of originality, but the trouble is that major labels don’t support them. They like to have Japanese bands playing like American or English bands, or to have them looking good or stylish and things like this. But the good thing is that there are quite a lot of indie labels in Japan over the last ten years so maybe they’re going to make something.
It’s interesting that Bo Ningen recently got signed by Sony. They’re sort of between two cultures in a way but they’ve also become a bit of a bridge.
They’re quite outstanding. They’re a Japanese band living in London and they’ve managed to get an agent supporting them to get work permits to work in the UK so they’re quite different from Japanese bands living in Japan.
So moving back to your own performances, I know you never rehearse with your sound carriers beforehand, but do you ever worry that they might be preparing secretly by themselves?
I get in contact with them, ‘Don’t practice anything!’ Because I don’t like to make music, I like to make energy. Energy itself is more interesting than to make music. Music is just a way to get energy, so why not just make energy?
Would you notice if they did?
Maybe they do, but if they do, I feel like I’m singing karaoke. It’s not really my style.
And you still organise everything by yourself?
Even though there’s a lot of things to do, it’s the price of freedom. This is the only way you can find yourself.
I guess that also requires a lot of goodwill from others.
Sure, because music is communication.
So what are your plans after Japan?
I’m going to Switzerland for one concert and then one in Italy.
You’ve had problems playing in America before, is that right? Any plans to go there?
There’s no difficulties. I just don’t like to go there. It’s a political problem. If I go to any country and I cannot talk about my opinions freely, I don’t like to go. It’s a hard country and people aren’t really free.
I’ve never been.
That’s good. You don’t have to! (Laughs)
But my brother-in-law and my niece and nephew live in Hawaii!
(Laughs) No, I’m not against Americans, I just don’t like the political style. They’re playing world police and why should they have more than 700 military bases all over the world? It’s just controlling people.
It’s a shame that the American government gives the country such a bad name in the rest of the world, because there’s always been so much great American music.
I don’t think so. It’s important for any country and it’s important for them to have a domestic music scene, but the reason American music is popular is that it’s pushed by the mainstream. They won the war, and that’s why American culture is everywhere. Winner takes it all, you know!
Given the range of different musicians you play with, do you have to adapt your own performance sometimes?
No. I’m Damo Suzuki and I play Damo Suzuki. I’m happy to be Damo Suzuki. Sometimes I play together with free jazz musicians, and this year in Sheffield I performed with 40 musicians, 35 singers onstage at the same. Because I’m making energy, it doesn’t matter what kind of musicians are onstage with me. Sometimes the guitarist is playing lots of technical stuff, sometimes he’s not able to play so quick, it doesn’t matter when you’re making energy. I have to accept every kind of music.
There are some approaches like this, but it’s OK because I’m also living my life process. I don’t have any answers, so the answer’s not important so much as the process. You have to be able to break stuff. You build up, break, build up, break, always this kind of process. Look at any painter, they have different periods, they’re not always painting the same stuff.
It’s a bit like the Derek Bailey approach, where even mistakes just get incorporated into the performance.
There is no such thing as a mistake. I don’t know what a mistake is. A mistake makes you able to create the next step and if there is no mistake, you cannot create, it’s such an opportunity.
That’s an almost religious way of looking at art.
I’m quite religious too, yes. Why can’t people accept mistakes? Especially in Japanese society, everyone’s trying to be perfect, they always like to have answers. Perfect stuff always has some sort of structure, but if we are creative enough and free, then you don’t need any answer. If you have an answer, you are isolated from everyone, but if you don’t, we can still be going the same way. Not only music, but this is what we should do.
Isn’t that true in almost any capitalist, consumer society where the economic model is built around mass production though?
Yes, but I think Japan is more extreme. If you’re five years old, you should learn violin, you should get into a good kindergarten, you should go to a better high school than other people and a better university to get into a big company. But if you live in this kind of society, you’ll always be a slave and you can’t develop anything. Europeans are a little bit different. They like to have perfection, but not on such a large scale — their own perfection. I think that makes you more creative, or at least that’s how I see it with my own eyes.