Category Archives: Interviews

Interview: Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule)

I did another interview with Yasutaka Nakata recently and you can read the feature I wrote in The Japan Times. I was pleased with the way this one went, and it was made easier by just how musically rich and interesting Capsule’s new album, Caps Lock, is.

It’s the weirdest thing Capsule have done since before Flash Back and it’s also the most Shibuya-kei, largely because it captures the experimental, eclectic spirit of Shibuya-kei’s best stuff rather than just pastiching that sort of bland, loungey boutique-pop sound that I still hold mostly responsible for killing it as a living scene. The track Control seems to be intended as the lead track but Warner have only put up a shortened “crippleware” version of the video, so I’m not going to link to it on here (this sort of behaviour must not be encouraged). It’s an obvious choice for the “single” though, being (along with Shift) one of the closest things to a pop song on the album, and also being representative of the creative way Nakata messes with Toshiko’s vocals.

It’s interesting that just as he takes Capsule’s club influences and pushes them over into Perfume, he’s also mashing up Toshiko’s vocals to an unprecidented extent just as he’s letting Perfume sing in their natural voices. It always makes sense to look at any of Nakata’s projects in the context of what he’s doing in his other projects.

Personally, it’s the track 12345678 that I think is the creative core of the album, with its layers of samples and synth-loops casually shifting up and down in the mix. It pushes each just to the point of being irritating before showing you that no, actually this is very musical, see? If Perfume’s Level3 is Nakata showing us what we already know he can do very well, Caps Lock is him showing us how great he can be when he’s exploring new ground. If he can manage to find a way of integrating some of these ideas into Perfume without compromising their essential poppiness, it could be truly wonderful.

I have another, shorter, piece on Capsule appearing (already appeared?) in Time Out Tokyo, who are apparently putting out a paper edition for the first time. It’ll go over the same basic ground as the JT piece, but with more Time Out editorial pizzazz (something I’m thoroughly opposed to: I’m only happy when my work’s tediously dry and intellectual), but in the meantime, here’s an edited transcript of the interview I did. Special thanks as usual to Ryotaro Aoki, who took on the always difficult task of translating Nakata and myself:

CAR: So how did you go about making the new album?

NAKATA: The way I made the new album was very much how when I started making music.

CAR: What do you mean?

NAKATA: Recently with Capsule and my other work, I’ve been making music for soundtracks, commercials and all these things that are pre-arranged. With this new album, none of these songs are tied up with commercials or movies, so it’s making music for music’s sake, very much like when I started out.

With my more recent work over the last couple of albums, I was making the songs specifically for a DJ setting or a club setting, whereas with this album, I didn’t really think about the situation or how the songs would be played, so in that sense too, it’s similar to the way we started out.

CAR: You’ve moved to a new label and management, changed the design motif and changed the sound, so is there a sense in which this new album is a reboot of the band?

NAKATA: I’ve had some changes in my life and now seemed like a good time to change everything. I’d wanted to change the logo to all caps for a long time, and now was an opportunity to do that. I don’t feel like I’ve changed the fundamentals of what Capsule do. I wasn’t really thinking about anything. I just made music freely and this is what came out.

CAR: Your last few albums were very club-orientated but recently that club sound is more apparent in your work with Perfume and to a lesser extent Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Caps Lock feels a bit like a reaction to or a shadow of that shift in your other projects.

NAKATA: It seems that way when you think of the other projects as the centrepiece, but when you think of Capsule as the centrepiece, what I’m doing is just doing the things that I can only do with each project and taking them to their limit. With Capsule, we don’t have to play shows or anything, so I can decide what I want to do pretty much on my own.

CAR: You’ve pushed some things a lot further on this album, especially the degree to which you’ve processed and manipulated Toshiko’s vocals.

NAKATA: The processed vocals stems from the fact that we don’t have to play live. If we were performing on stage, I’d have to think about how we’d be able to do them live, but we don’t have that responsibility now. With Capsule, we don’t have any rules, so it frees me up to do what I want to do.

CAR: How does your working relationship with Toshiko compare to the other singers you work with?

NAKATA: It feels like we’re playing one instrument together in the studio. She’s not singing things that are pre-determined by me. It’s more like we’re playing an instrument that we wouldn’t be able to play unless I had her with me. With Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, it’s more like a collaboration where we talk about it and work together. With Capsule, one way of looking at it might be if Toshiko was a pen and I’m using her to draw something, but because it’s that pen, it influences what sort of thing I draw.

CAR: The way the album uses the motif of a computer keyboard gives it almost the feeling of a concept album. Where did that idea come from?

NAKATA: The keyboard motif came out of the change in the album title and I used the keys as symbols. I had the logo and the title first, and then after making the music I came up with the titles, but at the same time, I wanted there to be a kind of story to it, so the I chose the words from the titles so they’d read together as a sort of story.

CAR: You’ve also done a lot more with samples this time round.

NAKATA: A lot of music these days is being made on machines that are built to make music, which is very easy, so I thought it would be interesting to make music from sounds that weren’t designed to make music. I had a library of samples that I used, but some of the samples I could make myself in the studio I made myself.

CAR: Do you have any thoughts on new directions you’d like to go in the future?

NAKATA: I’d be interested in doing film scores for different kinds of films. I like science fiction, so it would be interesting to do soundtracks for films about unknown worlds. It wouldn’t have to be sci-fi, it could be fantasy or something like that.

CAR: How about internationally?

NAKATA: Like I said earlier, I’d be interested in doing more soundtrack work. Maybe someone reading this will think, “Oh right, let’s do something together!” I don’t really see myself as performing on stage and travelling the world, but movies transcend nationalities and countries, so that might be a good way to get my music out there on a global scale.

CAR: With Caps Lock it feels like the album is a bit more “composerly” as it were, with more emphasis on the layers of sound rather than the impact of the sound hitting you in the face.

NAKATA: This time with the album, when you listen to it all the way through, there are moments and sounds that appear that you can only experience if you sit down with the album, take your time and listen to the album as a whole in one sitting.

CAR: Are there any particular moments that you’re really pleased with how they came out?

NAKATA: It’s hard to pick out particular moments. I took time over each individual sound this time round. There isn’t a person there in the sense of someone on stage performing it, but it sounds like there’s a person there. It’s like arranging dominoes, and all you do is flick a switch to make the first one topple over, and then something cool happens. The music itself is automated, but there’s a person behind it fundamentally. A lot of people think of computer music as being automated, but you need a person there, hammering out the details. I wanted to show the gears in the music and how it works together.

CAR: It feels like very much the opposite of the trend in “EDM” which seems so popular in the USA now.

NAKATA: The recent trend in how people consume music is that they don’t really spend much time listening to a whole song, but because of that, I wanted to make an album that’s very layered, that you have to listen to carefully.

CAR: Like people with their iPods constantly set on shuffle?

NAKATA: Not just like shuffle, but on YouTube, you can just go to a particular moment that you think is cool in a song or an album, and they have these digest versions where you have three-to-five seconds of songs lined up together, and the trend these days is that you have to make something where you can get people’s attention within that three or five, or even one second. The album I wanted to make this time, I wanted to do something more layered, with more density in the sound, and you can only really experience that density if you listen to it in full, because there are moments before that where there’s no sound. You can only pick up those feelings and those details by listening start to finish.

CAR: So you’d like people to listen to Capsule’s new album in a different way?

NAKATA: Lately the feeling of plunging into the unknown, of not knowing what’s going to happen next in music has become weakened these last couple of years. Personally, I want to take the idea of listening to music slowly, all the way through, and I’d like more people to be able to listen like that. Take the example of SoundCloud, where you can see the waveform visually, so you can see when the song gets really loud or dynamic. When you hear that part, you already knew it was coming, and you can play only the most exciting parts.

CAR: Soundcloud actually parodied that form of listening with their April Fool’s gag, where they inserted these markers into the waveforms of songs saying “Here’s the drop!” It got everyone really angry until they realised the joke.

NAKATA: Ah, but of course I do that as well. With Perfume, it’s all about making songs when people hear for the first time, they know when it’s going to be the big chorus or the dynamic. It’ll be as if they already know the song. With Capsule’s new album, if you skip to a certain point in a song, you won’t know what’s going on, but with my other projects, you can skip anywhere and it’ll be a cool moment. I can do that with them, so with Capsule I wanted to do something different.

Even with Capsule, I’ve made music like that, but since I’m doing that with my other projects, it seems like a good time to do something new with Capsule. If Capsule was the only project I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have made an album like this.

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Interview: Melt-Banana

Last month I met up with Melt-Banana to talk with them about their new album Fetch, the challenges of reconfiguring themselves as a duo, and an assortment of pop culture curiosities. I was joined by my comrade and CAR contributor Ryotaro Aoki and you can read the Japan Times feature I wrote here, and a full transcript of the interview over on Ryotaro’s blog here.

On the album, it’s been getting a lot of good press, and deservedly so because it’s a terrific record. Short, fierce, playful, boatloads of fun, and packed with exciting, cool little moments. As you might be able to glean from the interview, it’s an album that hangs a little between the familiar, chirrup-and-skree Melt-Banana way of doing things and the possibilities opened up for them by being able to go anywhere they like with the beats.

There’s not much more I think I need to add here, so just have a listen to The Hive again and get your hands on one of the albums of the year right away.Melt-Banana: The Hive

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Interview: Umez

An interview I did with Sachiko from Umez is up on The Japan Times site. I reviewed the compilation that we discuss in this interview a few weeks ago and enjoyed it. The song they did for the compilation album, Rainbow, is a great piece of devastatingly simple scuzzy garage pop with weird bits and well worth checking out.

To be honest, I could do with a bit less of the J-pop covers from them, although I realise that’s a bit hypocritical considering how many pop covers my band have done over the years. I think no more than one cover per 30-minute live set should be kind of the limit though, especially now they’re back in Japan where everyone’s going to recognise all the songs they’re playing. They don’t want to get a reputation as, “Oh, they’re that covers band.”

That said, I think their cover of Aitakatta is interesting because it reveals AKB48 at their best and worst. One thing it demonstrates is that AKB48’s songwriting isn’t the seething mire of evil it sometimes seems. At heart, a lot of AKB48 songs are basically simplified versions of the sort of thing Judy And Mary used to do, just with the baroque edges filed off, and in the hands of a different band, it’s apparent that there is a fairly solid punk-pop songwriting core to it.

Which brings me to the next thing it reveals: that in the hands of AKB48, pretty mnuch anything sounds shite because AKB48’s whole setup is incapable of anything else. The nasty production and massed vocals just stomp any beauty or fun a song might have into oblivion. Umez’ version with its garage-punk guitar and Lush-esque vocals doesn’t exactly turn it into a masterpiece, but at least it helps the song breathe again and comes out really rather nice.

But noise-pop includes noise, and Umez can be fucking noisy when they choose to be, and the way they pinball between those extremes is part of what makes them so much fun.

Given that the band are split between Tokyo and Kobe, it’s heartening to see them getting invited to Tokyo pretty often, so hopefully things will start to take off for them. The London music scene is much more concentrated than Tokyo’s so it can take a long time to adapt to the various subcultures. Their next show at Koiwa Bushbash should be interesting because Bushbash is a decent venue run by proper music people, and the bands they’re playing with are the sort of people who could dig the sort of thing they do. Hopefully it’ll lead to more and bigger things.

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Interview: Extruders

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed minimalist psychedelic postpunk trio the Extruders, whose new album, Colors, is looking like a shoo-in for album of the year in Japan this year. It was a really interesting interview, and was way too long for the short space allotted to the feature in The Japan Times, so I thought I’d post the full interview transcript here.

One of the points that intrigued me was the claim that a lot of people in Japan think the Extruders don’t seem like a Japanese band. Partly that’s down to their sound, and they do seem to like a certain sort of bluesy chord progression that is rare in Japanese music but quite common in UK/US rock, but I think it’s also concealing something else. Maybe the people who say they’re “not Japanese type” don’t really understand what they mean either, but I think part of the message is really saying they’re not “scene”. In that sense, it’s a compliment on their originality, but perhaps also containing a bit of unease or fear. It’s like when someone comes up to you at work and says, “That’s an interesting tie” — it’s almost a warning that you’re standing out too much. Like I said, I don’t think these people realise that’s what they’re saying: it’s just an unconscious reaction to the fact that the Extruders really are something unique in the Japanese music scene.

Anyway, I’ll leave the rest to the band themselves to explain and just add once more that Colors is a brilliant, brilliant album, and you should get it right away. The members are Ryo Okada (guitar), Yohei Toriyama (bass/vocals), and Toru Iwashina (drums).

Can you start off by taking us through how the band started and developed?

RYO: We originally formed in 2003 with five members, then in 2005 two of the members quit and that’s when the three of us started with this more minimal style.

YOHEI: Then in 2006 we played in the USA, Atlanta, in 2007 we released our first mini-album, Neuter, and then in 2008 our first full album, Hustle & Bustle.

RYO: After that, we needed new blood, so to speak, and so we stopped the band, changed the name, and became Toroid.

YOHEI: It was more freeform, more like noise music, our shows were sort of like a “happening”. Then in 2011, after the earthquake, we played a charity show as the Extruders for the first time in a few years.

RYO: At that time, we thought the structure of the Extruders was suitable for expressing ourselves.

YOHEI: You could say that we “rediscovered rock”.

RYO: We quit playing “ex-Extruders” — “ex-Extruders”, it sounds strange to say it like that! — we mostly threw away our back catalogue.

So was Toroid the same three members?

YOHEI: Yeah, basically the same setup.

RYO: Sometimes we invited noise musicians to play together with us because we wanted something new.

There’s a big difference between the short, postpunk-ish songs on Neuter and the much more expansive, almost psychedelic tracks on Colors…

YOHEI: Before, we played very short songs. We removed anything unnecessary, anything superfluous, and this was my way of expressing myself. We’d cut out refrains or anything we didn’t need. Now, we’re more relaxed, we can express ourselves more freely, so we’re no longer restraining ourselves.

RYO: We found the core of what we’re doing, which I think is part of the reason for the change.

YOHEI: Yeah, we found a core to our music that we’re comfortable with, so we don’t have to restrain ourselves.

RYO: It became more instinctive. Before,we had rules about “what the Extruders is”. With Toroid, we took apart those rules, and when we came back as the Extruders again, we found ourselves more instinctive.

Extruders is a strangely specific band name. How did you end up called that?

RYO: You say the word “strange” and we hear that a lot, but we don’t think we’re strange. People sometimes write about us and say we’re not really a Japanese type band.

YOHEI: I’m not a music geek and I don’t listen to a lot of foreign music. There’s no band where we can say all of us are influenced by. It’s very important to me that I sing the lyrics in Japanese.

RYO: In today’s globalised world, being Japanese is the most global thing we can do.

YOHEI: Rock is basically an imported thing, so a rock band is ultimately an imitation of something external. Rather than being an imitation, we want to take various influences from overseas and interpret them in our own way. This is what feels natural.

RYO: Rock’n’roll has been with us since the ’50s, half a century, and Japanese rock should have its own history.

YOHEI: We’re not working in terms of something like America and Japan. For me, New York and, for example, Kyushu, are the same.

In a way, it sounds like there are two things going on there. On the one hand, you’re saying it’s important to be Japanese, but on the other, you’re saying you don’t want to make distinctions.

YOHEI: I like to think of our art and our place as different concepts. We don’t really have a “home” in the sense of being from a specific place. Japanese or global is not something tied down to geographical location so much as a framework through which we can work. We’ve been thinking about this a lot because people around us often say we’re not like a Japanese band.

That’s interesting, although I’ve just noticed that it doesn’t answer my question of why the name Extruders!

YOHEI: (Laughs) I forgot! Actually, it doesn’t mean anything. I used to have a part-time job fixing machines and I was working on a machine called an extruder, so we took it from that.

So going back to the change in style since the first album, I think the drums are one area where it’s really changed, going from something very tight and minimal, to something much more slippery, almost jazz style.

TORU: With the drums, it’s similar to what they said about the structure of the songs. In the older Extruders, I was trying to be as tight as possible, but with Toroid, we re-evaluated the drums. I took apart my style to the point where really I couldn’t drum anymore and had to figure it all out again. At this time, I rediscovered my love of soul music and the sexiness and eroticism that goes with it — that was the sound I was hearing in my head. I started to see drumming as a big, white canvas and I’d splatter paint over it.

Sort of like “bukkake drumming”!

TORU: (Laughs) That’s a good name! So since re-forming the Extruders, I haven’t seen myself as a timekeeper or rhythm person. To go back the the paint metaphor, now I only paint where it’s needed and only in the amount that’s needed.

YOHEI: I just want to say that the most important aspect of the sound is that we’ve now made our own studio. We took an old, stone warehouse and turned it into a studio, which has helped us find time to shape our sound.

RYO: Before, we had to rent space for maybe three hours at a time, but now, we can work on a song, talk about it, have dinner, or even spend the night at the studio.

You seem to have quite well developed opinions about your music compared to a lot of bands I meet. Do you talk like this a lot together?

YOHEI: Yeah, a lot. We spend so much time discussing our songs — to the point where it’s a bit creepy really. Not just music: lovers, things like that.

RYO: We only get out what we put in, so if we don’t spend time together, it won’t be as good. Being friends is the most important thing.

It sounds a bit different from the rather formal-sounding “band meetings” that lots of groups in Tokyo seem to have.

TORU: We get along, spend lots of time together, so if we set up a formal band meeting, it wouldn’t work, because we always hang out together anyway. It’s more natural to talk normally.

So your last release before Colors was a live album recorded at a Buddhist Temple. None of you are religious in any way, so how did that come about?

RYO: I knew someone at the temple and we were talking about society, the world, life in general, truth, that sort of thing. We shared the same opinions about a lot of things and he mentioned that they were having a ceremony at the temple for Saraswati or Benzaiten, as she’s known in Japan, the goddess of arts. My friend said that if we have those kinds of views, we should perform at the ceremony.

With the video projection you use onstage and the way you bring all your own gear to every show, it often seems like you’re bringing your own little world with you and recreating it on each stage. At the temple show, you didn’t use that, but there seemed to be something in the environment that suited your “world” anyway.

YOHEI: The video thing isn’t something we do for “art” so much as a logistical thing. The temple was our first show in a while so not everything was ready. After that we were playing live venues, and the video wasn’t “art” exactly, just that we were bringing our own gear anyway, so we might as well bring our own lighting arrangement too.

RYO: We didn’t think about it so much. It just wouldn’t have been appropriate to use a projector in that environment.

YOHEI: Before the gig, we were quite intimidated: a lowly rock band performing in front of a god. After, we found we could do it and that was the turning point for us, where we felt comfortable with ourselves as a band.

In Buddhist architecture and gardens, the spaces between objects often seems just as important as the objects themselves, and in your music, as Toru said with his drumming, it often seems like the spaces between sounds are just as important as the sounds themselves. I think that’s why the temple seemed to fit so well.

YOHEI: We don’t do it on purpose, it’s not something we’re conscious of It’s open to interpretation though. One person might feel one way, which is fine, and another might feel differently, which is OK. With the video projection, for us it’s better than lights; it just feels better. The interpretation is up to the audience.

I’m starting to think though, that the idea of space — the physical space to record in, the space in time the studio allows you, the cultural space you exist in, and the space that exists inside the music — that this idea is the key to the story here.

YOHEI: The thing about space, I notice that now, after you’ve said it to me. I’m not aware of it while we’re doing it, but yeah, maybe that’s it.

RYO: It’s as simple as how you feel more comfortable in your own room than in someone else’s room. It’s our own space that we’ve created ourselves, so we feel more comfortable.

YOHEI: It’s important to have a daily space, so we made a studio that looks cool to us, it feels comfortable, and that translates into our live performances. It creates a natural flow between practice and playing shows, not segregated.

RYO: This is very different from our usual interviews! People usually ask us questions about “What music do you like?” or “What are your influences?”

I usually ask those questions when I’m interviewing other bands, but it never seemed to come up this time!

YOHEI: I do want to say that very important influences for us were Ryo Watanabe, who did the mixing, and Yui Kimijima, the recording engineer. Without them, we couldn’t have made Colors. But we’re influenced by everything around us.

(At this point, One Direction come on in the background for the dozenth time in the evening.)

RYO: If I was interviewing One Direction, I’d want to ask, “You’re called One Direction, but which direction? Up, down, left, right?”

Maybe the direction is “Straight into the hearts of our fans!”

YOHEI: In that case, we’re the same! Honestly though, the thing we need most is sales! That will allow us to concentrate properly on our music. Oh, and I want to mention about the artwork by Motoko Otsuki. That’s very important.

RYO: We spoke with her and she understood us, so she allowed us to use her art.

YOHEI: Usually, music is invisible. Album art is usually thought and planned out. In this case, we were introduced to the artist by our engineer, who let us use a painting she’d already done, but afterwards, people will decide about it.

RYO: She sent us lots of paintings and we chose one.

YOHEI: But the important thing is that the person came first, and understood what we were about. It comes from a series called “Party”.

RYO: I want people to interpret the painting’s meaning for themselves.

YOHEI: It’s like our music in that way.

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Interview: SuiseiNoboAz

Another piece for MTV 81 that went up earlier this month was an interview I did with Tokyo indie rock trio SuiseiNoboAz (the headline of the article capitalises the wrong letter of the band name, but that should teach them for having weird capitalisation in the first place). There’s not much to say here other than that it was more interesting than I was expecting. Japanese indie bands don’t often have much to say for themselves, and can be infuriating in their insistence on answering every question in the vaguest possible way, but there were a couple of things that came out of this that surprised me with their frankness. The point about the album title and Ishihara’s explanation of the way he was feeling at the time was interesting, and if I’d been speaking to him directly rather than by email, or if there had been time for follow-up questions, I would have asked him whether it had anything to do with the 2011 earthquake — the album came out in June 2011, so it would have been coming together in the immediate aftermath of the quake, but at the same time, I think I agree with him that there was (and maybe still is) a lot of otaku-ish sentimentalism around the place (what I call “trauma porn”), and perhaps the immediate effect of a genuine disaster and tragedy it’s easy to see how real world events could show up the superficiality of that sort of thing. I don’t know if that’s where he was coming from, but at least, that’s how his comments chimed with me.

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Interview: Bo Ningen

I did an interview with Taigen from Bo Ningen for MTV 81 in advance of their Japan tour, which starts in Osaka on Valentine’s Day. It went up over the weekend and you can have a read of it here.

The comment about “opening your third eye” that ended up in the headline was actually a bit sneaky, since I kind of fed him the line. We were chatting by text on Skype, which takes longer than speaking aloud but which reduces the chances for misinterpreting or misunderstanding something. The problem is that sometimes certain inflections get lost, so when Taigen talked about the six senses, he dropped the idea in so casually that I wasn’t sure if he’d just made a genuine error or if he was talking in psychedelic Juliancopespeak, like “Of course there are six senses… at least!” I pulled him up on it later and said something like, “Six senses?!? Is that like for opening the third eye or something?” and then he came back with the line that was published. Some readers may be shocked to hear that interview transcripts are not always faithful, word-for-word accounts of the exact conversation that occurred, but in this case, it seemed best to give him the benefit of the doubt rather than painstakingly recount a rather clumsy to-and-fro between interviewer and interviewee.

There’s a bit more stuff about idols in there. Bo Ningen have worked with Dempa Gumi inc. in the past, and they’re touring together with them and N’Shukugawa Boys in March, but I didn’t want to make too much of a deal about it this time. I think idol music brought something important and valuable to the indie/underground scene in that alternative musicians can sometimes take themselves a bit too seriously, and idol music does a good job of giving people a release from such self-imposed pressures, reminding people of what simple, anarchic fun can be. I think now though that idol music in the underground scene is kind of played out, or maybe it’s better to say that it’s done its job and that now it’s time for the indie scene to start remembering again what its own special points are.

That said, Taigen is one of the most articulate and insightful people in the alternative scene when it comes to discussing idol music, and while we don’t go into it in so much depth in the MTV interview, he’s one of the few proponents of idol music whose opinion I think is really worth listening to.

I got the impression that Bo Ningen are a bit ambivalent about their status in the fashion scene. He didn’t say anything directly, but I think their work ethic perhaps means that they tend to eagerly accept offers of work from a variety of sources, but that they’re aware that being too closely associated with the fashion scene can become a bit of an albatross for UK-based bands and so there was a kind of wariness when we talked about that aspect of the band’s work, as if he felt he needed to put a bit of distance between the band’s core identity and the way their image is being used by others.

It’s interesting that Sony Music Entertainment Japan have taken a punt on Bo Ningen, and we kind of joked about it in the interview. It’ll be interesting though, because on the one hand, Bo Ningen seem like fairly aware, independent-minded people, who are probably better-equipped temperamentally to deal with a major label than many Japanese underground types, but on the other hand, the clearer separation that exists in Japan between major and indie means that once a band is signed to someone like Sony, it becomes much more difficult for them to continue to play shows with some of the weirder and more interesting bands. This is a world where once a band signs to a major label, their earlier, indie releases get airbrushed out of their band history and their first major release becomes their official “debut”. Bo Ningen are in a slightly different position, since Sony are just licensing the album from their UK label, and their tours are still being organised by a guy with roots in the indie scene, but there will clearly be conflicting pressures on the group now, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.

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Interview: Miila and The Geeks

Another piece of mine went up on MTV 81 recently, this time an interview with Tokyo no wave punk trio Miila and The Geeks. You can read it here.

I’ve interviewed them before, for The Japan Times, and I think this one covers a lot of the same ground since they were both pieces whose main purpose was to introduce the band to a new audience, so obvious questions about who the band are and how they started and stuff are always going to be in there. Not much else to say other than that they’re a fine band and well worth checking out. It’s also great that MTV 81 is willing to run pieces on bands like this rather than just going full-on for the J-Pop/anime/visual otaku crowd (who let’s face it, don’t need a site like MTV 8s in the first place).

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Interview: BiS

I’ve been doing a bit of work for MTV lately, helping out with some stuff for their new English language site, MTV 81 (81 is the international dialling code for Japan, geddit?), aimed at promoting Japanese music overseas. The first thing I did for them was this interview with BiS (Brand-new Idol Society) that was published the other week and which I duly forgot about. When they say the idol group they’d most like to kill is “○○○○8”, I’ll leave you to guess which mass idol group they’re talking about.

One other thing that came through strongly in parts of the interview (although not really in the bits that were cut together to make the MTV 81 feature) was that their manager seemed to be pitching them quite specifically towards audiences, like himself, who grew up listening to indie music in the 90s. There are references to British groups like Primal Scream (often just abbreviated to “Primal” in Japan) and Ash, Radiohead and others in their song titles, all groups most members would have been too young to know in real time (Radiohead are still very popular, but the BiS reference is from a line from a 90s song).

Of course what they’re saying with the whole anti-idol schtick is a facade like any idol group does, but by speaking directly about some of the fakery like the way idols all pretend to be friends when really it’s just business, even if it’s being used to build up a kind of fakery of their own, I think it reflects a need on the part of many fans of this most artificial of genres for an authentic voice. It’s not just because BiS are courting indie and rock fans, because Momoiro Cover Z’s popularity stems in part from their perceived genuineness, and Dempa Gumi inc.’s whole ex-“hikikomori” social shut-in status appeals to the need of otaku to feel the group is somehow genuine and one of their own. Part of this might be a reaction to AKB48’s overt manipulation of fans and the postmodern (and frankly cynical) way Yasushi Akimoto lays his whole marketing technique out in the open, although even there, part of what hooks AKB48 fans in is the idea that they can go to the theatre in Akihabara and watch the new members make mistakes, practice and mature. In this sense, K-pop might be seen as more firmly opposed in that it makes no pretense of sincerity and practically basks in its own artificiality. In any case, it’s curious that such an obviously artificial genre of music as idol pop seems to engender such a passionate desire for authenticity and sincerity in fans.

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Interview: Nisennenmondai

Instrumental no wave/krautrock trio Nisennenmondai were playing at the Neutralnation festival this year so I took the opportunity to get an interview with them for The Japan Times, which you can read here.

Nisennenmondai: Mirrorball

What’s going on in this piece is a weird inversion of the usual interview feature process, where the writer supplies information to the reader, while the band members illuminate those facts with opinions, ideas and stories. However, where a band are cagey, introverted or unfamiliar/uncomfortable with interview scenarios (or more likely in this case where the questions are simply bad), there aren’t those killer quotes to hang an interview off, so we’re left with the situation where the quotes are delivering rather dry, biographical or factual information, while the writer is wringing enthusiasm out of the gaps.

Actually, that’s part of the job of a writer in a way: To work a musician’s comments into a narrative that explains and reveals aspects of what they’re about. It’s just that here I think the contrast between the content of their comments and mine lays that aspect of the process bare. Of course since the hook that I hung this narrative off in the first place was the inherent contradictions of the band, this contrast is at least appropriate if nothing else.

Actually, there were a couple of interesting comments that came out of the interview that had to be cut out because they diverged a bit from the story I was telling. On the subject of women in rock, Sayaka Himeno, the bassist, admitted that she felt the fact that Nisennenmondai were an all-female group might have helped them to get attention, but also that she felt this kind of attention and interest was kind of unacceptable in terms of the way they prefer to be perceived. She also suggested that the issue of women in rock seemed to be something that was more of a concern in Europe or America than in Japan, or at least that it was rarely if ever brought up as an issue here.

Now this might just be down to politeness and people not wanting to suggest, “people only like you ’cause you’re girls,” but it’s an obvious fact that while men are still a majority, women are far better represented in rock music in Japan than they are in the West. I think that saying Japan is more advanced in terms of rock equality is a bit of a dangerous conclusion to draw, because I’ve heard from some music people that when you get into the power dynamics within bands, the men may tend to assert themselves more, but generally I’d have to agree that it seems like less of an issue. You certainly find more female sound engineers at venues in Japan, although again, the power dynamic between band and engineer is more like that between customer and waiter in Japan, rather than the employee/boss relationship that exists in much of Europe, so again, that doesn’t necessarily mean women are getting more authority.

Of course for an all-female band like Nisennenmondai, that’s irrelevant, and in the end, I decided it would be pretty cheap and a bit insulting to the band to use that as a hook for the interview. It’s interesting as a general point for further investigation though, since it’s something that lots of people I know have observed bu that few people have really studied in much depth.

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Interview: Teen Runnings

After a long time away from interviewing, I caught up with Shota Kaneko from scuzzy indie trio Teen Runnings over the summer and came up with this piece that I quite enjoyed writing. Not much to add here other than to emphasise that they really are a very nice band and well worth checking, especially if you get a chance to see them live. Here’s a newish video that Videotapemusic did for the song Make it Better to coincide with the expanded CD re-release of the album Let’s Get Together Again.

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