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Diary of a Japan tour part 2: March 13th at Yokohama Shicho Shitsu2

The second night of the tour was in Yokohama. This was really a pet project of mine since there are a lot of bands I really like in the area and I thought a small show there would be a nice warmup before the more demanding travel requirements to come.

Shicho Shitsu during soundcheck

Shicho Shitsu during soundcheck

Yokohama is a weird place for gigs really, being just a little too close to Tokyo to really have the full sense of being a different place, but just a little too far to be worth travelling to of an evening. This was partly intentional on my part, since after the opening night in Shibuya, I was keen to channel as much of N’toko’s Tokyo audience as possible into the closing night at Higashi Koenji 20000V. I worked with a local Yokohama musician, Kouhei Itou from the bands Servals and Come To My Party to book the show, since I didn’t know the lay of the land as well as he, and we settled on the lovely Shicho Shitsu2, the Yokohama arm of a venue that also has a branch in Tokyo. Kouhei agreed to play with Come To My Party, and I booked one of my favorite new bands, Sayuu. Local experimental/improv weirdo Kitsch Hitori Gakudan completed the live bill, who I’d been keen to get since more than any of the other artists on the bill, he not only lived nearby but was at least a semi-regular feature on the Yokohama/Kanagawa scene.

CDs sold in garbage bags

CDs sold in garbage bags

Things started to go wrong a couple of days before the show, when a flu epidemic that had been sweeping the country claimed Kitsch Hitori Gakudan and ruled him out of the gig. It was helpful in a way because it shifted the start time of the event later, but it meant we were relying rather more on friends than we’d hoped. The next problem was a vicious storm that hit the Yokohama coast on the afternoon of the event, ruling out any but the most dedicated visitors. I’ll spare you the suspense here and just say outright that four people showed up, which in addition to the six musicians, two DJs and two venue staff gave us a grand total of 14 people in the room.

This is the sort of thing that’s a disaster in Tokyo and any venue where you’re paying the venue a rental fee. Fortunately we weren’t, which meant that the event turned over into something else: that special kind of atmosphere where everyone there knows they’re trapped in a situation that’s now only going to go as well as they make it, the peculiarly intense camaraderie that only really happens in the face of utter disaster. The battering rain, harsh winds and apocalyptic skies outside just emphasised the welcoming warmth that existed inside.

Scenes from a Chinese ballet

Scenes from a Chinese ballet

Shicho Shitsu in Yokohama is part live venue, part art studio, part used clothes shop, part record store, part bookshop, part cafe, part bar. Wandering around the venue, you find different corners devoted to different things, all of them in their own way fascinating. I was able to pick up a book of Chinese communist propaganda art for ¥500 and spend a few minutes browsing a comic book series about the adventures and scrapes of a porn actor.

Sayuu

Sayuu

The venue is better equipped for acoustic or at least relatively gentle sounds though, and Sayuu had to fight a valiant battle against a constantly sliding bass drum throughout their set. Given that their music was channelled almost exclusively through the onstage amps, however, they were able to control their sound and sounded great. They’re a duo who seem to thrive on awkwardness and discomfort, wither eschewing or else subverting through their delivery most of the standard inter-song pleasantries that most bands in Japan feel compelled to engage in. The only thing I can remember them saying was telling me to get out of the way of the camera they’d set up. What they did do that was of more value than a thousand tedious stories about ramen they ate or funny things that happened to their dog last week was stick around and pay close attention to all the other artists performing. A genuine interest in music and sense that they’re part of the event even when they’re not onstage is a precious thing in a band.Sayuu: Yellow Hate (Live at Shicho Shitsu2 — note the moving bass drum)

N'toko

N’toko

N’toko had no access to the amps and had to rely on the PA instead for his entirely electronic set. This meant it was considerably quieter than Sayuu’s performance as the PA staff, always wary of complaints from neighbors and visits from police kept volume to a minimum. In order to make the set work the best way it could, N’toko and the staff had arranged to set up his gear on the floor rather than the stage, so he was performing with audience on both sides of him, on the same level as them, fostering a sense of intimacy that would hopefully counterbalance the lack of the viscerally of noise. He’s a versatile performer and was able to re-jig his set to focus on the more experimental, less dance-orientated tracks, and it worked.

Come To My Party

Come To My Party

Come To My Party are a poppier concern than Kouhei’s other band, the behavior, more psychedelic Servals, and they were more comfortable playing a quieter set in the first place. Clearly heavily influenced by the indie rock and synth-based dreampop elements of Supercar, but with less of an urge to rock out like a stadium band, they brought the live music to a close in a way that was both pleasant and better than the word “pleasant” makes that sentence sound.

One curious point about Yokohama when compared to the far better-attended Shibuya gig the previous night was in CD sales. Shibuya resulted in a grand total of zero, while the closer interaction between artists, closer attention people seemed to be paying each other, and sense of everyone being in something together meant that there was more action on the merchandise table after the show. The venue staff too seemed to be genuinely interested in what people were doing there, and ended up stocking a few of Call And Response Records’ CDs for their small record store corner. It’s a pat truism that there are no such things as worthless gigs, and it’s of course nonsense — there are terrible gigs that benefit no one and should never have happened — but where the people involved are interesting, musically curious people who get what each other are doing, there’s always some value that you can get from it. In a wider sense, this is an argument for infrastructure and groundwork. The best venues are the ones where the staff have a musical vision, the best local scenes are the ones where there are organizers and cultural curators willing to do the work of sorting and filtering music according to something more than raw numbers — it’s what I’ve tried to do in my ten years of activity in the music scene, and when the rails I’ve helped lay down can allow an event to trundle along relatively painlessly when it’s gone horribly wrong from a commercial perspective, that gives me a little glow of satisfaction, not necessarily of a job well done, but at least of a job operating on the right principles.

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Diary of a Japan tour part 1: March 12th at Shinjuku Home

Booking a Japanese tour for an overseas musician is a difficult job and a task that I would never let myself get sucked into unless it was something I was strongly invested in it myself. In the case of N’toko, the Slovenian rapper and all-round underground/alternative partymaker, I’ve been releasing his English language material and hooking him up with shows in Japan for a few years now. When it came to the release of his latest album Mind Business, I was adamant that there be a Japan tour to support it.

The main reason for this is that record shops in Japan never seem to know where to file him, and without money and scene recognition supporting him, no one’s ever going to buy his CDs simply on the off-chance that they might like it. His fanbase in Japan was always going to be something we needed to build from the ground up.

There are advantages to though. As a solo artist whose gear all fits inside one travel case, it’s easy to get him from place to place, and his travel and hotel expenses are minimal. Not only that, but as an artist who while he’s an extraordinarily talented performer with bags of amazing music, he’s also a bit of a blank slate as far as the japanese music scene is concerned: they just don’t know what to expect of him. In short, cheap and crude as it is to put it like this, he’s an easy person to experiment with, and while I’ve booked piecemeal tours for him before, this short, compact tour was the first chance we’d had to test the results of the foundation work we’d done over the past few years. It was a test not just for him but for me, since most of the shows had been booked largely off my word and my reputation, so I made a point of accompanying him on all dates, many of which I took part in as a DJ.

The first and most important thing about the tour was the people we’d be working with. Of course you can just contact a venue and ask them for a gig, but that’s usually a waste of time. Venues in major Japanese cities have gigs on most nights, and there’s no way they’re going to be able to give your night the attention you want unless you’ve got someone in that town who buys into what you’re trying to do with the tour, knows the local scene and is able to find some way of tying those strands together. With that in mind, I as the tour manager have to be clear about what we’re bringing to the table and what benefit they can expect from us. When you’re introducing a new artist that no one in that city knows, you can’t in all honesty claim you’re offering them any financial benefit, so finding artistic common ground is of the utmost importance.

The first show on the N’toko tour was in Tokyo, at a small venue in Shibuya called Home. It was part of a fortnightly live music showcase that my friend Tomo a.k.a. live promoter Style Band Tokyo does, and Tomo in turn hooked up with another friend, DJ Rally a.k.a. former Mornings bassist Shingo, to do the show. Again, I remained in close contact with them and helped out with promotion, while another friend, Ayako, designed the flyers. These networks of friends, all working for free, are the key to what allows almost anything to happen in the Tokyo underground music scene.

Booking bands with N’toko always throws up problems. Since he’s a rapper, people’s automatic reaction is to book him with other rappers, but the Japanese hip hop scene has very little musically to do with the kind of thing N’toko does and even at home in Slovenia he always seems much more comfortable playing with punk, alternative, electropop and industrial acts. What Tokyo does have, however, is a grey zone between hip hop and punk/alternative that is inhabited by a number of acts whose interests lie on both sides of the divide. Also, increasingly there has been a growing awareness of how to promote music that crosses genre boundaries, which can basically be summarised as “subcul“.

Defining subcul is difficult. In its most basic form, it’s just an abbreviation of “subculture”, i.e. anything that falls outside mainstream pop culture. However, subcul has all sorts of other associations in Japan. In some ways it has a faintly derogatory aroma to it, rather like “hipster” in English, yet subcul people aren’t fashion-conscious elitists in the same way. Subcul people are the mini-Tarantinos of contemporary Japan and the derogatory edge to the word I believe comes from the indiscriminate nature of their acquisitive trash culture magpie sensibility and the vague sense that this is somehow shallow. That by mixing so much culture together, they divest it of meaning. Subcul is cooler than “otaku” and far more welcoming of women. It is also far less right wing, simply by virtue of having no real values of its own to begin with, but otherwise the two share some of the same characteristics. Most importantly for us here, subcul is a marketing tool that enables the linking of aspects of music and pop culture that would otherwise be locked in their little boxes.Nature Danger Gang

Nature Danger Gang are a classic subcul band. Musically they’re a mixture of rap and cheesy 90s techno, wearing a paintsplatter of brightly coloured clothes that various members remove throughout the set to various degrees. The girl in the schoolgirl uniform whips it off to reveal bright red rope bondage beneath, the dude at the front drops everything and gets into a wrestling match with another member on the dancefloor completely naked, another girl seems to be a trained dancer although it’s hard to see what she’s doing behind the chaos of the other members. There’s something very appealing about the spectacle of a bunch of people bopping about onstage, none of them playing instruments, although as you might imagine, the spectacle completely overwhelms anything the music might have been doing. They’re great entertainment, they put on a spectacular show, the willingness of the guys to one-up the girls in the bare skin stakes helps blunt some accusations of sexual exploitation, and the whole thing doesn’t seem to really mean anything. If you want a definition of subcul, they are it.

The group leave as soon as their set is over, taking all their audience (including some of the staff of subcul bible Trash Up magazine, natch) with them as they head to Ebisu for another gig. This is an occupational hazard of booking anyone with a bit of a buzz about them: they’re always in demand.

Boys Get Hurt is on next. N’toko has past form here, with him having played at Boys Get Hurt events on past visits. Here the situation is the opposite. Boys Get Hurt is essentially part of a kind of indie-electro scene, and that crowd is usually a midnight crowd. With Nature Danger Gang having gone and most of the rest of the audience N’toko’s friends and fans, he was caught in an awkward position between two poles. It was a smart gamble, taking the subcul alternative/rap crossover of Nature Danger Gang, following it with the electro of Boys Get Hurt, and then leading into N’toko who combines elements of both, but the departure of half the audience early stopped the momentum from building. When you organise events, you make these calculations and it doesn’t always pay off.

It was the first night of N’toko’s tour though, so he was well represented. His audience were the bulk of what was left and they went crazy. It left the slightly surreal sight of a crowd of people in front of the stage going wild, crowdsurfing and generally hurling themselves about like lunatics, while the back of the room, where you’d usually expect to find the other artists’ fans drinking, talking and cautiously watching, was completely empty. At this point a couple of touring pop-classical musicians from Slovenia and Croatia wandered into the room and I have no idea what their impression was. Is N’toko popular in Japan or not? The room was giving contradictory messages. That’s the nature of Japan’s fragmented underground scene.

Signals for the tour so far then are mixed. N’toko has loyal followers and event organisers willing to think carefully and hard about how to promote him, but it hasn’t quite gelled. We’re still in Tokyo though, and N’toko is sleeping on the floor of my apartment, so (discounting the flight, which was always going to be a loss) the tour is in profit so far.

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Fuji Rock: Rookie A Go-Go stage live report

The first of my articles on this year’s Fuji Rock is up now on MTV 81. It’s a report on the Rookie A Go-Go stage, where the amateur or little-known bands play in The Palace of Wonder, almost a little separate free mini-festival of it’s own just outside the main gates.

To be honest, the first night was pretty horrible, although obviously in the report I tried to be more positive than that, firstly because, you know, MTV and all that — gotta be nice! — and also because as I’ve said before, I don’t think putting the boot into new and unknown artists is a particularly edifying exercise of journalistic principle. I will just use this blog to flag up the bands I really did enjoy though, and the first one to really grab my attention was the Homecomings.Homecomings: Sunday

M’colleague Patrick St. Michel has already written about them at The Japan Times and he’s bang on in singling out their harmonies as being what sets them apart from so many other Japanese indiepop bands (although there’s a lot of other good stuff out there which I wrote about in a different article recently too and I’ve just realised I really should have remembered to blog) and if you ignore their lapse into the tedious indiepop cliché of the found-footage music video, there’s something charming and fresh sounding about their music.Oboreta Ebi no Kenshi Houkokusho: Washa-washa!! Gugyagyagyagya!!!

Mitsume are a good band but the vague, milling, casual crowd wasn’t really tuned into their more subtle charms, and while I also quite liked Suichuu Zukan, it was Oboreta Ebi no Kenshi Houkokusho (“autopsy report of drowned shrimp”), henceforth known as “that bloody prawns band” that stole the show, which they did mainly by dressing up in fluorescent prawn costumes, but also, it has to be said, by making genuinely interesting music. The gimmick started to grate a bit after 20 minutes or so, and unless they can incorporate some costume changes, I can see them being quite an annoying prospect over the 40-minute or so set they’d be expected to perform if they graduate to one of the bigger stages, but anyway, it would be spiteful and childish not to admit that they were good.

On the final night, it was all about Oni no Migiude. There’s no easy way to do justice to how awesome they were, and they were one of my top five acts of the entire festival, not just their own little indie bands ghetto. A friend of mine said their melodies sounded “Asian”, although I could hear stuff that reminded me of what might have been Bulgarian traditional music or God knows what else.Oni no Migiude: Sono Kane wo Narasu Toki

They were a bit new wave, which obviously endeared them to me greatly, and a bit krautrock, which endeared them to me more, but they were very difficult to pin down. They seemed to have an understanding of harmony, counterpoint and musical structure that went beyond your average Tokyo underground band and which suggested that they might be music students with at least some classical or music theory training. In any case, what they did was simple and complex at the same time, as well as being hauntingly beautiful and strangely funky.Oni no Migiude: Peroron

I came out of the festival still with a few questions about the extent to which Rookie A Go-Go is useful. If Fuji Rock are trying to provide a forum to develop new music and give it a chance to break out of the underground ghetto, that’s laudable, and by giving one band a year a chance to go up to one of the main stages, they’re making a small step towards that. However, the booking policy and the casual festival crowd who are going to be most of the audience at Rookie, seems set up to just reinforce the kind of thing that they already book for the main festival, since fans who came to the festival to see certain kins of bands are just going to vote for “Rookie” bands who sound like what they already came to see. Developing new music and helping new, original music grow an audience probably still needs to be done in small clubs and through touring — big festivals, even ones as diverse and enormous as Fuji Rock, are I suspect really only of marginal value. That said, however, it’s still a venture I strongly approve of, and despite a few awful bands this year, I came out of it feeling glad for having been there.

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Nakigao Twintail: Em (live)

I raved about this band earlier in the year, using them as an example to demonstrate the attributes that underground music has that an idol group cannot. It was a long post that was misunderstood by J-pop fans who chose to read it as a simplistic “rock is better than pop” attack from an indie elitist (which I admit I am, but that’s not what I was doing there) rather than the nuanced call for underground music, which has lately been having a drawn-out love affair with idol pop, to take stock of itself, look at its own strengths again, and start having a conversation about what “authenticity” means once more. Nakigao Twintail were partly chosen because of who they were — at seventeen years of age, they were the same age as most of Momoiro Clover Z, and they share some of the same energy, but because of the different types of groups they were, the results in all areas of their music diverged massively. Nakigao Twintail did everything themselves, and the rough edges and naivety in their songwriting show that, whereas Momoiro Clover Z are far more polished, musically sophisticated and professional, but in the end, they are a product. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just a bald statement of what the difference between the two groups is.

The other reason I chose Nakigao Twintail to write about was completely irrelevant to the point I was making about idol music — simply that I had just seen them a few days before and they had blown my mind, and that’s what I want to talk about here. They were playing at Utero in Fukuoka, the venue run by the bass player from Hyacca, and the event had been the final date of the release tour for my label’s Dancing After 1AM compilation album. Harajiri from Hyacca/Utero had called me prior to the event in a frenzy of excitement, saying that he’d found an absolute gem of a band and asking for permission to book them. Not knowing what he was on about but trusting his judgement, I’d said sure, go ahead.

Arriving at the venue for the soundcheck, I’d found five teenage girls bobbing around the venue in the funkiest shoes. One of them refused to take off her sunglasses even in the gloomy, cramped subterranean live hall, while another was painting her eyes to look like either a ghost or a panda, I wasn’t sure, before dashing off to the shops and returning with hundreds of safety pins, with which she proceeded to mutilate the pyjamas that she was wearing (I forgot to say, she spent the whole gig in her pyjamas). Of the other people playing, me (the DJ), TKC (the other DJ), Kobayashi Dorori and Hyacca had been out until 7AM for the previous night of the tour in Kumamoto, and Mir had arrived in Fukuoka from Tokyo night before and immediately gone on the lash, so there was a stark contrast between the jaded vibe that us older sorts were giving out as we went through the motions of the rehearsal and the sort of club summer camp adventure atmosphere that followed the girls around.

The gig started and everyone started to perk up, then after a while Nakigao Twintail started playing and the reaction of everyone in the room was unanimous. In the clip here, you can’t hear much applause because everyone was still picking their jaws up from the floor. People weren’t really dancing or going crazy like they did with Hyacca later, because Nakigao Twintail’s set was more like some kind of event that just happened to you, not something you participated in. It was like being punched in the face.

You can’t separate how young they are from what they did, because it was integral to the experience. It’s the kind of thing you can only do when you’re a teenager, or at least you can only do in this way. As an older musician, you’re making conscious choices to behave in a certain way, to pitch your performance this way or that, construct the music in a certain fashion, and the message you send is tinged with cynicism or irony. “I don’t care about doing things the proper way,” is what you’re saying, when actually you care very much indeed — you care enough to break those rules onstage, in front of a crowd of people. With Nakigao Twintail there’s no statement because they genuinely don’t care. It was raw, unbelievably silly and a complete mess, but it was still one of the most inspiring things I’d seen in a long, long time.Nakigao Twintail: Em (live at Utero,”Dancing After 1AM” release tour final date, January 27th 2013)

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Live: Sutekiss

Idol music is now so deeply embedded in indie and alternative culture in Japan that it’s not really making any kind of statement by combining the two worlds. Whatever alternative music could have learned from idol music in terms of not taking itself too seriously has now either been learned or not learned, and the novelty is played out. Where Sutekiss are interesting is in how they’re the first band I’ve seen who take the whole concept and performance style of idol music but the progressive, alternative and funk musicians in the band approach it from an entirely serious musical perspective. The result is music that integrates alternative and idol styles in a way I haven’t seen anyone else manage, and it certainly shows up the faux-alternative pose of groups like BiS as the gimmick that it is.

There’s something jarring about the front line of three extremely young female singers and the six extremely technically adept alternative musicians backing them, and yet it’s also strangely appropriate, recalling the classic era of the 70s, where groups like the Candies would routinely appear on TV backed by ultra-professional session musicians, and honestly, the more idol music makes use of proper musicians, the better it will be for pop music. The question with Sutekiss is whether they really are an idol group or whether they’re an alternative band masquerading as one. As it stands now, they exist predominantly in the live house scene, playing with punk and alternative groups, where their pop sensibility makes them stand out from their peers.

It’s really in their behaviour that their idol-ish tendencies come across most strongly. Talking between songs at the show headlined by postpunk/dub merchants Bossston Cruizing Mania, drummer Harie (formerly of prog rock crazies Mahiruno) repeatedly refers to his “sempai” Esuhiro Kashima, ladling respect onto the older musician. There’s an edge of irony to it, as if he’s somehow playing the part of a member of an idol group, where exaggerated gestures of respect to all and sundry are par for the course, but again, there’s some truth to it and despite the element of performance, it reveals something about the way these social dynamics between younger and older musicians are still embedded in alternative music culture.

If there’s a problem with Sutekiss, I think it’s that they don’t go far enough. The melodies are solid 90s-style J-pop, but they tend to rely a little too much on the arms-in-the-air “live your dreams” schtick. Really good idol pop like Aya Matsuura, on-form Kyary Pamyupamyu, or Momoiro Clover Z is far more aggressively pop, although it’s hard to see how something that bubblegum would integrate into the mid-paced funk and latin-influenced back line. They’ve found a way to integrate the stylistic elements of idol music with a greater level of artistic proficiency in the music, and there are moments in the performance where it’s quite thrilling, but if they’re going to take the concept to the next level though, I’d say the pop aspects are the areas they now need to concentrate on.

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