One of the first bands I ever worked with in Japan was Usagi Spiral A. They are a band I don’t think I would have had the context to really get if I’d seen them even a year or so before, but my budding love of Krautrock and my increasingly noise-tolerant explorations into postpunk and no wave gave me the tools I needed to appreciate them, and through Usagi Spiral A (the “A” is pronounced the Italian way, as in “Serie A”) and by extension a whole world of other noisy alternative artists like Panicsmile, Tacobonds, and especially bands like Kuruucrew, who Usagi still resemble in many ways. These days, Usagi’s live performances are fewer and further between, and they never really released anything other than one solitary live CD/R and a track for Call And Response Records’ debut release, the 1-2-3-Go! compilation, a track which epitomises the band’s fusion of no wave noise and motorik rhythms. One welcome addition to the band now, however, is new guitarist Matsuoka, whose scratchy, freestyle Contortions doodles and stabs add an extra layer alongside Usagi leader Ryo Kokura’s wall of pummelling ferocity. Matsuoka himself is an important figure for me personally, being formerly of the wonderful no wave band Elevation, who remain to this day one of the best bands I’ve ever come across and were a massive inspiration to me when first getting into the business of organising my own shows.His As with everything in this series, Usagi Spiral A are playing at my ten year anniversary party on September 27th at Higashi Koenji 20000V/二万電圧.
Category Archives: Live previews
I started writing about music in Japan in 2003, at that time focusing on overseas bands and only gradually increasing my coverage of Japanese music to the point where it became exclusively local (seriously, I don’t write about overseas music on here so stop sending me your fucking emails). After one year of gradually feeling my way into some loose understanding of how the Japanese indie scene works, I decided to start promoting my own events, and in September 2004 I put on my first show, at Higashi Koenji’s legendary UFO Club. On that night, the bands were The Students, a brilliant, wonky, technically inept but wonderfully imaginative off-kilter new wave/punk-pop trio; Do the Boogie, a garage-punk band who later found some degree of fame as The Fadeaways; Buchibuchi2, a quirky alternative band with elements of Pavement and Fugazi and a disorientating sense of humour; and Mosquito, a frankly marvellous psychedelic alt-pop band. This September on the 27th, I’m holding an anniversary event at 20000V (二万電圧), also in Higashi Koenji and just down the street from the UFO Club, with ten bands, drawn from some of my favourite musicians here in Tokyo and from Kyushu, the region of Japan that has given me some of my happiest musical experiences. Details are on the Call And Response Records blog here.
So, in an act of further arrogance and self-promotion, for the next ten days I’m going to be making daily posts about the bands playing at this event. Many of them are connected with Call And Response Records so you may find me going over familiar ground here. I’ll keep things short and sweet as much as possible. The first band I’m going to talk about then is Mir, because when I think about why I’m still doing this stuff after so long, Mir represent so much of what draws me back again and again: Their complete disregard for professionalism in the pursuit of art in its purest, most direct expression; their unashamed love of music and willingness to not only wear their influences on their sleeves but shout them from the rooftops, while at the same time remaining utterly distinctive in their own right; their fusion of the sweetest pop with utter cacophony and chaos. I released two of their mini albums and as I’ve said this before, Mir are a barometer of taste for me — if another band likes Mir, that’s usually a safe guarantee that I can work with them.
My latest Japan Times column talks about the Tokyo Boredom event, which did a two-day extravaganza in Taipei alongside a bunch of Taiwanese bands this September, and which is gearing up for its next Tokyo installment on Saturday night in Shimo-Kitazawa.
It was all done from a very Japanese perspective, and I think it would have been interesting to get input from bands on the Taiwan side of things to see what influence or inspiration they feel they’ve got from Japan. Still, it’s good to hear of Japanese music actually having a tangible effect on musicians in other countries. It’s pretty obvious from listening that Hang in the Air had some influence from bands like Six O’Minus and Arakajime Kimerareta Koibitotachi E, for example. Mochizuki from Groundcover.’s comment that the scene there seems to have grown up a lot was interesting, although obviously when you’re talking about underground scenes in huge cities, it’s not always easy to put influences like that into perspective — Tokyo Boredom (and probably its counterpart in Taiwan) represents a very small fraction of what the music scene here is about. That said, comparable scenes influencing each other should be the norm in Asia, and this sort of international cooperation and willingness to exchange influences feels to me like a very positive thing.Groundcover.: io
Like any event run by a bunch of friends and scene insiders, Tokyo Boredom can seem a bit cliquey to outsiders (I’ve been involved in the scene for about ten years and have dealt with nearly all the Boredom bands in various capacities, but a lot of these guys go way further back with each other), but despite this, or perhaps because of this, there’s always a great sense of community within the show.
Also, some people have criticised the event for being to narrow and delivering too limited a range of music. I get the impression that the organisers recognise this and make an effort to broaden their horizons, but perhaps as a side-effect of the way the scene’s structured I think their capacity to offer a wider range of music is limited. I regularly try to book bands from different facets of the Tokyo underground scene together and it never really works: people simply won’t go to gigs unless everyone sounds the same. Add to that the fact that all the Boredom bands play in more or less the same circles, and their contact with different stuff (and more importantly their audience’s contact with different stuff) is limited. The truth is that they do a pretty good job of mixing things up within the restrictions of how the Tokyo (things are different in other cities) underground scene is structured.Subterraneans (including intro by Kaita Tanaka from Worst Taste)
Going back to my point about international cooperation, I’d just like to add as an addendum that these sorts of ground-level networks are exactly the sort of thing the government should be assisting. Touring overseas is a pretty much guaranteed money losing enterprise for underground bands. Big labels and name acts can afford it already, but ground level is where the real creative connections are made, and it’s a place where a small amount of money to assist bands with travel expenses could reap enormous cultural benefits in the long run.Milk
A bit of self-promotion this, as after a long break and some touring, I’m back to organising reasonably regular live events in Tokyo now. I tried a small show at the lovely Art Bar Ten last month, which went off so spiffingly that I’m planning to make it a regular monthly thing from August, so now I’m ready for something bigger and louder, at my favourite venue in Japan, Higashi-Koenji 20000V (Ni-man Den-Atsu).
There’s a bit of a story behind the venue. 20000V or 20000 Volt was a famous punk venue in the lower basement of a building on Koenji’s Pal shopping arcade. It catered to hardcore, alternative and noise bands, while the slightly smaller Gear on the upper basement floor was more orientated towards pop-punk and garage bands. The booking manager of 20000V was Hayakawa from punk legends Kirihito, and when he left, Ishida from Firebirdgass and Mochizuki from Groundcover. took over, maintaining the uncompromising spirit of the place. On the second floor of the same building there was an izakaya called Ishikari-tei which had the most awesome staff and stayed open until 10:00am every day, so that’s where you went after the gigs finished down in the basement.
The trouble came in October 2009, when a fire at Ishikari-tei gutted the building and killed four people, including two staff. It made national news and was a terrible blow to the local scene. I was friendly with one of the waitresses, but she was in Paris at the time with a dance performance group and I don’t know to this day who the people killed were. I don’t want to know.
Fortunately, apart from a small amount of water damage, 20000V wasn’t harmed, but the owners, SOS Group, decided to close it and Gear down anyway. One suspects they’d been looking for an excuse to shut it down for a long time, and this gave them the chance they’d been looking for. The team who ran the venue were a close-knit crowd, who worked together brilliantly. They were widely respected in the local scene and had a lot of loyal bands and events, but the decision was final, 20000V was shut down and they were out of their jobs.
So obviously, they did what any right thinking punks would do and they opened up a new venue just across town near Higashi-Koenji Station. They got a new sound system that was even louder than the one they’d had before, and this time they would run it themselves. SOS Group refused to let them use the name, so they called it Ni-man Den-Atsu (the four kanji literally mean “20000 Volt”) and lots of people who know the venue’s history still call it by its old name anyway, as they should. Anyway, it’s a venue I’m very close to and where whenever I can, I try to do shows there (the Penguin House on the north side of Koenji, where my wife and I had our wedding party, is the place it shares space in my heart with).
So this Saturday, June 15th, 20000V is where I’m organising my show, which I’ve put together in collaboration with the band Jebiotto, also veterans of the original venue. It’s named “Shinda Shinda Shinda” as a pun on the high school girl rock band movie Linda Linda Linda and the Japanese for “Dead Dead Dead”. I put the full details up on my label’s blog here, but here are some clips previewing the bands who are playing.
First up, there’s the brilliantly named I Know The Mouse, a young band who if they have any web presence at all, I’ve been unable to find it. They’re an instrumental guitar and synth-based band, whose demo shows elements of new wave and krautrock, but to find out more, you’ll just have to go and see them.
Then there’s Jebiotto, another synth-based band. Time Out Tokyo describe them as a “scrappy indie-disco trio“, but they’re heavily postpunk influenced too, with a sense of rhythm focused on dancing, but with an approach to playing that emphasises energy and enthusiasm over technical perfection. The vocalist Madoka has an alarming habit of screaming “Rape me!” at the audience at inopportune moments during the set (she’s a Nirvana fan) and making everyone in the room feel deeply uncomfortable, but she’s also a charismatic, brilliantly frazzled frontwoman.Jebiotto: Beat End
Probably the best-known band on the lineup is Kuruucrew. Mostly instrumental, although they have been known to yell stuff over the top of their music from time to time, their music falls into a couple of patterns, both characterised by extreme noise and a high level of technical skill. Firstly, there’s rhythmically diverse, stop-start avant-garde rock, and secondly, there’s repetitive, groove-orientated psychedelia, heavily influenced by krautrock and I suspect also by genre-defying 70s oddities like This Heat.Kuruucrew live
Mir were one of the reasons I started Call And Response Records in the first place. Their music is fragile and beautiful, but shot through with a kind of anger, intensity and desperation that carries over into their live performances, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. I’ve seen them play sublime sets, but I’ve also seen their gigs collapse into drunken incoherence, tears, violence or all of the above. Watching Mir live is like watching a man put his head into the mouth of a lion. If he survives, the joy is tempered by a huge sense of relief, and if he doesn’t, it’s horrible, but hey, you did just see a guy getting his head bitten off by a lion. It’s always an experience.Mir: Machiawase Basho wo Kimete Yokou
Mir used to be a more rock-orientated three-piece but they’re currently down to a synth-based core of the twin male and female vocalists, whose onstage relationship is often quite a fraught thing. The tension that often exists between them is reflected in the music, which often plays out in the form of duets that set Yoko’s sweet, glacial female voice against Kyohei’s emotional, often tortured, yowls of alienation.Mir: Ya Ne Mogu Bez Tebya
Finally, there’s Hyacca, who I’ve written a bit about recently, and who are another of the reasons I started Call And Response. They’re another band who make use of multiple vocalists, although they have a more obvious frontperson in Hiromi Kajiwara. One of their great talents is in taking something musically quite complex and making it into something that feels very natural and accessible, never losing sight of the fact that what they’re making is fundamentally dance music.Hyacca: Stress / Sick Girl
Sorry for using this space to big up my own projects at the moment, but in the end, this blog, my label and my events all come from the same place: the need for a forum to shout about bands I think are worth listening to (and since most of my readers are based in the United States, it’s probably only on this blog that most of you will be able to hear these bands anyway). There’s more of the same coming next month as well, with another five bands playing on July 13th, this time at the Penguin House, so forewarned is forearmed, as they say.
Two of the best bands in the Tokyo underground music scene are hitting the U.S. east coast this month in what I promise will contend for the title of most intense, visceral and plain thrilling live shows you will see this year.Tacobonds / Groundcover. tour promo
Groundcover. (the dot is part of their name, presumably to annoy subeditors at English language publications) are a six-piece whose music ranges from heavy, spaced-out dub to screaming, hardcore junk. Like the conductor of a noise orchestra, Ataraw Mochizuki directs the chaos from behind a portable mixing desk, leaping skyward and punctuating the music with echo-effected shrieks and yells, leading it through sonic peaks and troughs but maintaining a brutal, relentless momentum that grabs you in the pit of your stomach from the word go and wrenches tighter with every shift in gear, every new level of noise they reach for, until your ears have long since ceased to be the primary means by which you’re able to experience the music and that panzer rumble in your gut is the only way left to sense the shifts in tone and rhythm. Drawn from a tradition that includes such luminaries as the Boredoms, Groundcover.’s music is a deep sucker punch, at once primal, physical and transformative, it’s also a monolithic sonic experience.Groundcover.: io
Tacobonds are like Groundcover.’s hyperactive kid brother, a flurry of jittery guitar and frantic beats that shift restlessly from groove to groove, marking changes in intensity through these changes in rhythm rather than attempting to reach for the same heights of raw noise that Groundcover. soar. Tacobonds are at their core a postpunk/skronk band in the mould of the Contortions, Gang of Four or The Pop Group, and they tap into the same jagged electricity, combining it with a more fluid approach to rhythm, where songs drift between time signatures rather than sharply jackknife from one to another, often making the boundaries between tracks indistinct in a way that has more in common with dance music than punk.Tacobonds, live at Higashi-Koenji UFO Club, 2012
Where Tacobonds and Groundcover. are firmly united, however, is in the uncompromising intensity of their performance, the virtuosity of their musicianship, and the intelligence, imagination and instinctive physical power of their music. I know this reads like a piece of PR fluff, but these bands are absolutely not to be missed if you have any kind of opportunity to see them on this tour.
Groundcover. & Tacobonds, East Coast Tour, Summer 2013:
- June 15th, Baltimore MD, Golden West Cafe, with Echo Hey Hello, 11:00pm, $7
- June 16th, Philadelphia PA, Phila Moca, with Echo Hey Hello, Heavy Medical, 7:00pm, $10
- June 17th, Brooklyn NYC, The Knitting Factory, with Echo Hey Hello, Uzuhi, Tom Blacklung and The Smokestacks, 7:00pm, $10
- June 18th, Wilmington DE, Spaceboy Clothing, with Kind of Creatures, Echo Hey Hello, 7:00pm, $5
- June 19th, Silverspring MD, Joe’s Record Paradise, with Weekends, Sleep Disorder, Chaos Destroy, 5:00pm, $5
- June 19th, Washington DC, The Sunshine District, with Weekends, The Flying Tuna, Radiator Greys, 8:30pm, $8
- June 20th, Frederick MD, The Rats Nest, with Weekends, Cosmic Halitosis, Heavy Breath
- June 21st, Baltimore MD, Club K, with Natural Velvet, Echo Hey Hello, Adam Lempel, Jeff Carey, Sexgender, 7:30pm (all night), $6
For any of you based in Tokyo, I did a short preview for The Japan Times of tomorrow’s Shimokitazawa Sound Cruising event. It’s an indie festival using venues all over the Shimokitazawa area, with more than a hundred artists performing. For what it’s worth, here are the ones I recommend.
Chi-na: Really quite charming violin and piano-led alt-pop band. Their last album, Granville, was really good and they put on an energetic live show.Chiina: Granville Island Market
Deepslauter: At the other end of the scale, I’m not familiar enough with all the various subgenres of hardcore, metal and thrash to say with confidence exactly what kind of band Deepslauter are, but they’re ace.Deepslauter live in Kobe
Lagitagida: Lightning speed instrumental prog rock. The guitarist is a fucking maniac but the whole band is just a circus of these lunatic musicians just showing off, and it’s a pretty intense experience.Lagitagida: Terrible Boy
Tadzio: Presumably named after the character from Thomas Mann’s A Death in Venice, Tadzio are a thrilling and brutal, somewhat avant-garde garage-punk duo and one of my personal favourites from the whole event.Tadzio: Worst Friends
The Keys: On the gentler side of things, The Keys are a solid, melodic guitar pop band and will make a nice break from some of the more intense stuff on the bill.The Keys: (Everybody Was Leaving) Chinatown — Acoustic version
Mitsume: New wave-edged indiepop band who don’t always make a big impact at first impression, but reward attention with a lot going on under the bonnet. Probably another of my personal favourites from this lineup.Mitsume: Entotsu
Sono na wa Spade/The Lady Spade: Not really a music act so much as an eroticism-tinged cabaret parody of otaku culture, they’re worth watching at least once in your life. It’s hard to know to what extent what they’re doing is satire and how much is just genuine, sincere geekery, but it’s, um, interesting.Sono na wa Space: Sweetholic
Wrench: Probably the best of all the properly loud bands at this event, Wrench take in elements of industrial, EBM and hardcore. They’ve been at it for years and have a semi-legendary status in the scene now, so they’re well worth watching.Wrench, live at Shibuya O-East
There are lots of other bands worth watching, like Nacano, Ana, Lite, Shonen Knife, Kettles, and even some of the idol stuff that’s still busy colonising the indie mindset, like Dempagumi inc. and BiS is likely to be fun to watch. it’s also worth just checking out something you’ve no idea about, just for the hell of it. Anyway, if you go, good luck, and bring your walking shoes, because there’s a lot to see and a lot of ground to cover.
My Japan Times column this month is on the Fuji Rock Rookie A Go-Go stage, where indie bands (not necessarily “rookies” since many of them have been around for ages) get a chance to play and since last year to compete for a place on one of next year’s main stages. A bit of weird phrasing aside (I was super-late filing it and I’m still not entirely sure what “up-and-coming dadrockers” means), I say pretty much everything I wanted to in the article so not much to add here except to drop a few links to bands I recommended in the article.
First up there’s Gezan, from Osaka, whose violent onstage antics really lose something on record, so for heaven’s sake check them out live if you get a chance:
Also on Friday there’s The Keys, who are a fine example of the sort of jangly guitar pop that Japanese indie retronauts have been keeping on life support since the late 80s. I slag off old British guitar bands in the article (because they’re shit and they deserve it) but I have no particular problem with melodic guitar music when it’s done with charm and intimacy like this:
Another good Friday night band is Kanazawa’s Ningen OK, who seem to be rocketing up through the hipster-credometer with their fiddly brand of avant-garde postpunk/prog:
I mention Kettles, although I’m not quite sure about them yet. They just seem a bit too down-the-line J-indie, although they can definitely write a song when they put their mind to it, and they’re probably my pick from the more mainstream Saturday night lineup:
Sunday is mostly rock’n’roll stuff, but the best band by far is Fukuoka psychedelic postrock instrumental band MacManaman, who have rocked a few of my own events now, both in Tokyo and Kyushu, and who really stand out on Rookie A Go-Go’s third night:
This Saturday, new Japanese indie music web site Kiwa Kiwa is organising a music festival at Club Asia and I previewed it for The Japan Times. Over on this blog I focus mostly on the leftfield extremes and the poppier idol music extremes and generally avoid the kinds of indie bands that are actually popular. The main reason for this isn’t that most of them are shit so much as that most of them are just OK. If I ever think of something interesting to say about Buffalo 3, I’ll say it, but that’s not going to happen until they stop sounding like a kind of dead-end Hoxton indie band circa 2004.
What’s interesting about this event is that I think it does do a good job of laying out a map of what the Tokyo indie scene sounds like in the year 2012 that’s free of the art-punk snobbery of people like me or the chillwave/beach pop fetishism of other aspects of the indie scene. That stuff maybe important creatively, but none of it is really that important to audiences at this time. There are good bands like Uhnellys, Africaemo, Vola & The Oriental Machine, Give Me Wallets and Nile Long at Kiwa Kiwa Festival, but more than that, it’s a good summation of what’s happening in the real world of Tokyo indie.