Category Archives: Strange Boutique

Strange Boutique (October 2014) – Reviews: The Mornings, “Idea Pattern”; Halbach, “Halbach”; Otori, “I Wanna Be Your Noise”

For my October column in The Japan Times, I wrote about skronk in Japan. There was a sort of twin focus, with the article functioning on two layers. The first was a sort of meta-discussion about the language we as writers use when talking about music. It was all very clever and interesting, so go over to The Japan Times web site and have a read now.

The second layer, as you should have noticed by now, was that there was a sort of freak confluence of albums by some of Japan’s skronkiest artists released over the period of about a week at the end of last month, which is kind of the hook I used to justify writing the column in the first place and the springboard for the whole discussion of skronk and language. Now if at this point you’re scratching your head and asking, “Yeah, but what’s skronk?” then you haven’t read the original article. Go do that now.

Those releases were Idea Pattern by The Mornings, the self-titled, self-released debut album by Halbach, and I Wanna Be Your Noise by Otori. Since the publication of my column, I’ve had time to listen properly to all of those albums, so as an addendum to the original piece, here’s a series of short reviews of each album.

Idea Pattern

CD, Hariental, 2014

The Mornings’ 2011 debut album Save The Mornings was a rocket powered rollercoaster of an album, but you can only make your debut album once and it’s clear that they’ve moved on in the three years it’s taken them to come up with Idea Pattern. It opens with Fuji, which is very much in the pattern of the first album, but as the album progresses, a growing preoccupation with sonic texture and the interplay between the three vocalists becomes clear. The tempos have been brought down and there is a greater emphasis on melodies, although the melodies are themselves employed more as a textural element to be dropped in and out at will than part of a coherent, classically structured song.

In fact the overwhelming impression of Idea Pattern is of music that has been written along the lines of electronic music rather than rock. To return to the theme of skronk that kicked this whole thing off, this is really an extension of something that is part of skronk’s nature. Because of the atonal nature of the guitar sound that characterises skronk, that causes a deliberate disruption to any attempts to make a classically melodic pop song in the mode of, say The Monkees or Sex Pistols. Most skronk isn’t completely freeform though, and so what the no wave and postpunk bands did to ensure their music was internally consistent was focus on the rhythm, incorporating influences from dance music.

What The Mornings and many other bands do is take this a step further and start fucking up and disrupting the rhythms as well, and combined with the way Idea Pattern brings the bass closer to the top of the mix, it’s easy to imagine that the group were influenced in some way by the beats and drops of dubstep, albeit filtered through a decidedly art-punk lens. It’s music that revels in its inconsistency, delighting in twisting the listener this way and that, but while Save The Mornings seemed set on doing this on sheer force of will alone, Idea Pattern seems to be attempting to tap into a more generalised kind of energy, letting itself be carried along on grooves, floating on airwaves. It still does this within a structure of mathematical precision, but it’s a fascinating attempt – a parallel in music of what Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie did in the visual arts – to reconcile the band’s distinctly non-organic style with a kind of natural rhythm they find around them.

Halbach

CD, Abel, 2014

Halbach’s eponymous debut album is a mess. This is fine, because Halbach themselves are a mess and anything else just wouldn’t be them. Collected together from a mixture of studio and live recordings spanning a couple of years and a number of member changes, this album may leave you a little confused about what sort of band they are, but at the same time it gives you a pretty accurate picture of what kind of band they are. I’m saying they’re a confusing band.

Like The Mornings, there’s an obvious influence of electronic music on their approach, filtered through some similar postpunk, avant-garde and hardcore influences, but while The Mornings are fastidiously mathematical, Halbach are more expressionist in their approach – if The Mornings are Mondrian, Halbach are Kandinsky. They lay out their intentions with the sprawling, distortion-laden psychedelic noise groove of Flux Capacitor, before launching into the growling, Stooges-with-turntable-scratching hardcore of Norway.

That sets the tone for most of the rest of the album, with flurries of junk noise that combine the devilish revelling in sonic vomit of early Boredoms with the bubblegum hardcore aesthetic of Melt Banana, shot threw with a meandering love of dance music and dirty garage rock riffs. The curveball comes at the end, with the live tracks Bass and Thara cap off the album with a series of spiralling NDW/EBM-style sequencer patterns that they then proceed to mutilate – but never completely destroy – with feedback. If this is where the band are now, it’s an intriguing place to be and could become a platform for something really special in the future.

I Wanna Be Your Noise

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2014

Otori’s I Wanna Be Your Noise is another debut album, and like Halbach it collects material spanning several years – anyone with even a passing familiarity to their live performances, demos and compilation appearances over the past few years will be very much at home with the songs on this album. Where it really is the absolute opposite of Halbach is in how tightly honed and consistent in tone and overall sound it it all is. This is partly due to the way Otori recorded all the songs anew specifically for this release, but more than that it’s in how, just as Halbach’s chaotic mess of a record is a reflection of their own anarchic quality, I Wanna Be Your Noise is a product of Otori’s own laser-guided focus.

Unlike both The Mornings and Halbach, Otori are much more firmly rooted in the sonic vocabulary of the 1970s New York no wave and there is no obvious influence of dance music (at least of the electronic variety), but sonically it is every bit as skronky and atonal, and as a result, it still relies a lot on guitar texture and rhythm to give the songs their core dynamic. In fact through its own propulsive, singleminded rhythmical brutality, I Wanna Be Your Noise is probably the most purely dance-orientated album of the three albums under discussion here. In its guitar sound, it’s every bit as explosive and exploratory as The Mornings and Halbach, but where the former’s approach is layered and the latter’s is unhinged and anarchic, Otori’s guitar parts are a work of crisp, clear, almost surgical violence, deployed with a mixture of pinpoint precision and unashamed virtuosity.

All three albums are well worth checking out and showcase the depth of the talent pool that still exists in the underground and alternative scene of Tokyo. Taken together with a slew of other terrific new releases this year from Convex Level, Panicsmile, Buddy Girl and Mechanic, Hangaku and more, 2014 is shaping up to be a rather fine vintage for underground music in a postpunk/new wave vein.

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Strange Boutique (September 2014)

My September column for The Japan Times was about live venues in Japan, and Tokyo in particular, so read it here.

This is a topic I’ve visited before, and I stand by my earlier position that there are some benefits that the pay-to-play (“noruma“) system has brought to the scene, primarily in allowing bands to experiment free of commercial considerations. It’s also something no one really likes to say, but the truth is that for a lot of venues, the shitty no-mark bands paying noruma are subsidising the actually good bands who while they don’t bring big crowds, the venues still want to support. A good band, even if they aren’t that popular, can usually play without noruma easily enough.

However, the point in this latest column isn’t about noruma so much as simply ways venues can encourage audiences and help make shows a better experience for them. It poses the question in terms of what venues should do “if they want to attract customers” and of course that presupposes that they actually do want to attract customers, which for a lot of venues really does seem to be an afterthought. But assuming a lot of them do, there are a few thoughts I have on the issue.

Personally I don’t like the idea of a smoking ban — smoke can be annoying, but it’s not as annoying as all my smoking friends buggering off outside every 20 minutes for a fag — and the food aspect is going to depend massively on whether the venue is big enough to accommodate a seated section in addition to the dance floor. Financially, a lot of these ideas seem to be a little idealistic given the extra staff and extra space needed. In addition, the idea of halving ticket prices to increase audience is one that while I like it, I have my doubts about its effectiveness. As a general rule, cutting door prices from ¥2000 to ¥1000 will increase your audience by about 50% when it needs to increase it 100% to maintain balance, especially if you go ahead with eliminating compulsory drink charges. The idea that eliminating the compulsory one drink order and cutting drink costs will encourage people to spend more at the bar is also questionable. Young people in particular don’t drink very much — one venue manager friend of mine had a show with a hundred people in attendence, and when they counted up the money at the end of the night, they had only sold two drinks in addition to the compulsory orders. Without the compulsory orders, they would have hardly sold any. Several venues have experimented with cheaper drinks, and most of them have been forced to jack the prices back up — ¥500 seems to be the market level unfortunately. Combined with some other ideas, it might work as part of a more comprehensive re-focusing of the venue though, and it’s certainly an ideal state of affairs.

One suggestion someone made that I liked was the idea of giving over one slow night to a band to perform a residency, where they would play every Monday or Tuesday for a month, booking their own support acts. This would help the venue build an identity, build its relationship with bands, and by doing some of the booking manager’s work for them they might be able to pay the band a bit. It needn’t even be a band doing the residency: it could be a label, a DJ, an event organiser or even a shop, fashion brand or restaurant. It would certainly be a difficult idea to pull off in smaller cities with fewer bands, but certainly in Tokyo it could work. I’m tempted to discuss this idea with some venues to see if they think it would be plausible.

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Strange Boutique (August 2014)

Seiko Oomori is a good contender for the breakout star of the year, and she’s someone who is worth paying attention to for a lot of reasons. She seems like the sort of person who would crankily dismiss any attempt to draw any meaning out of what she is and does, but that needn’t stop us.

For a start, nothing happens in a vacuum, and when you’re a musician from one sort of background (weirdo Koenji avant-folk shrieking stuff) and you appropriate imagery and sonic affectations from another (idol music), you’re playing a game with meanings no matter how hard you protest that “I just like the clothes and enjoy the music!” For a start, one question is “Why?” Indie and idol music never used to cross paths, so why has it suddenly become so easy?

Well, one reason is money, or more specifically marketing. There’s a widespread disaffection with J-Pop, and idol culture, by marketing based on character rather than music, offers an easy way to market alternatives to the bland mainstream. Oomori’s music has been a vehicle for a lot of different indie musicians, with Lailailai Team having backed her in the past, and her current band The Pink Tokarev generously stacked with musicians from the Tokyo indie scene’s current “funny bands” mini-boom. Much as she may protest her position as a discrete entity just following her muse, Seiko Oomori is also the poster girl for the fixation a significant part of the Japanese indie scene has with idol culture.

Still though, she’s not really an idol. It’s not her background, and her music is still singer-songwriter music dressed in the production tropes of idol music. She presents an unhinged image in her videos, she rants and raves at her fans via her blog, and at a recent festival she crowdsurfed up to one of the audience members and snogged him in front of the whole crowd, purportedly as revenge for the infidelities of her significant other. So is this subversion of idol music then?

The word “subversive” gets tossed around too easily with too little thought for what it actually means, so that’s what I discussed in my August (I like to think in both senses of the word) column for The Japan Times. Have a read of it here, because I’m not going to summarise the whole argument again.

Done that? Good, because the rest of this post assumes you’re familiar with what it discusses.

OK, so just a few days after my article was published, Oomori was in the news again after an interview she did published on music web site Natalie led to her making a few troubling remarks about feminism. The interviewer suggested that in contrast to the male-manipulated world of most idol music, by taking control of her own work she could be a role model for women and girls in the music scene. Her reaction was to flatly reject this and defensively disassociate herself from feminism in any way, even to the point of denying that discrimination exists.

Now this is patently bullshit as should be obvious to anyone with a basic familiarity with Japanese society, but in the context of my column it made more sense. Oomori isn’t interested in society and wants no part of it. She’s been able to do what she wants, and even thinking about the context of that (Why does she want to do those things? Would it have been as easy for her if she had wanted to do something less easily marketable?) is an imposition. Her attitude is basically, “I’m not going to play.”

And that’s an attitude that you see in a lot of the more popular indie acts now: a focus on the details at the expense of the narrative. You see it in the willfully blank, repetitive, comedic nonsense-poetry of Triple Fire, in the goofy, good-humoured, bedsit manchild schtick of Guessband (possibly not coincidentally one of the recruiting sources of Pink Tokarev members), and in the brash, anarchic, cosplay techno performance nudity of Nature Danger Gang. These acts might all be coming from different places, cosmically speaking, but their appeal has coalesced around a very similar kind of audience (primarily in the Shinjuku area and let’s face it, probably a reader of Trash Up! magazine). Where the previous underground generation bands who are now elder statesmen of the scene — groups like Panicsmile, Bossston Cruizing Mania, Groundcover. — tend to evoke a sense of individual details as invariably bound up with some wider world (Panicsmile’s excellent recent album Informed Consent encapsulates a lot of this even in just its title), a large part of what appeals to audiences now is in picking up on and identifying with details that resonate with the minutiae of fans’ lives without alluding to any wider context — or just simply absorbing yourself in funny nonsense.

This is the point where people usually chime in with “But what’s wrong with that? Why should everything have to mean something all the time? Why can’t stuff just be fun?” (Admit it, you actually had that thought somewhere a couple of paragraphs back, didn’t you?) Well, firstly I’m not sure that right and wrong has anything to do with this; it’s first and foremost an observation of how a noticeable section of the music scene seems to behave, although I shan’t pretend it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. But to respond to this string of hypothetical questions on their own terms, I could perhaps say that of course stuff doesn’t need to mean something all the time, but I’d point out that in the greater music ecosystem, stuff that’s not about anything and just wants to have fun has never in my lifetime been an endangered species to begin with. It’s the stuff that does grapple with the world for meaning that is in short supply and the indie and underground scenes have traditionally been the place you’d go to find that stuff. To get that answer, you’d need to look at the wider context though, and as we’ve seen, a lot of people just don’t want to do that.

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Strange Boutique (July 2014)

My July column was on Yoko Ono, who took a lot of flak for just basically doing at Glastonbury what she’s been doing for decades and people still seem to enjoy being surprised and shocked at. She played at Fuji Rock the weekend after the column came out with a band packed with local avant-garde royalty, while her band at Glastonbury was Yo La Tengo.Yoko Ono: Don’t Worry Kyoko (live at Glastonbury 2014)

Originally I wanted to have the headline as “Don’t Worry Yoko” and the opening line as, “Just what is wrong with Yoko Ono”, but that got condensed down and had the ambiguity taken out resulting in the headline “Just what is so wrong about Yoko Ono”. I preferred my earlier phrasing because it sounds like I’m going to take a shot at her, but then the more benign meaning takes hold once you realise I’m actually defending her.

Anyway, I don’t love Yoko’s music but certainly don’t hate it. Other artists now do what she does better than her (Laurie Anderson is a hero of mine) but she did a lot of it first and still sounds fresher than a lot of hyped young contemporary musicians and singers. Good on her is all I can really say.Yoko Ono: Don’t Worry Kyoko (live at Toronto Rock & Roll Revival 1969)

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Strange Boutique (June 2014)

I’ve been very slow in updating links to my column lately, but I’ve continued writing it monthly, My June column deals with the way Japanese popular music has no widely understood corpus of generally agreed-upon “classic” works that could act as a starting point for new listeners looking for a way in or journalists looking to put some new buzz band into context. Of course people would disagree on such a list, but that disagreement would itself help work towards keeping the “canon” as I term it a living thing able to incorporate new discoveries and new interpretations. Film has this, literature has this, but, in the English language at least, music doesn’t. Some people are obviously going to hate the idea — “Don’t tell me what to listen to! Music should be discovered freely, not decided by elites!” — but as it stands now, it’s mostly the commercial elites of the music industry that decide what we can even find information on. A lot of criticism of “elitist” journalists is really just pop fans scared of their pet faves being put into a context that makes them look bad. Anyway, read the full thing here.

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Strange Boutique (May 2014)

My last column for The Japan Times came in response to the news that Aska from 80s/90s pop duo Chage & Aska had been arrested for drugs. Here’s the article, so have a read.

There are basically two poles when talking about drugs, and which you have the greater sympathy with often depends on who the most annoying people you have around you are. One is the Japanese position which is that all drugs are bad, and they’re illegal, and that you’ll die if you take them. On the other side is the Bill Hicks-worshipping side that says drugs are great and the font of all creativity. Obviously most people are somewhere between these poles, but with the angle I was working, I wanted to approach it slightly askance from that whole sliding scale in the first place.

With the drugs=bad question, it’s pretty clear that a great amount of great music has been made with massive amounts of drugs influencing at least the form it takes (the quality I’m inclined to put mostly down to the talent of the musicians) — there are ideas and sounds that we simply would not have without drugs, and they add colour to the musical landscape. The question I have with the drugs=good position is that if that’s the case, why are the Japanese musicians who get busted usually so dreary and bland? Indeed, just a week or two after the Aska scandal, an international brouhaha blew up over members of One Direction smoking a joint.

What it comes down to then is that it’s not so much the drugs themselves that matter as the visible influence of the drugs: the colour and life that their influence can blow into the music scene. And you don’t actually need drugs to do that. Once you’ve listened to a bit of psychedelic music, it’s not that hard to simulate the musical results, as anyone who’s heard Status Quo’s Pictures of Matchstick Men could tell you. On a less superficial level, once drugs have shown the way and musicians have mapped the path, other artists use different vehicles to follow that path. Acid Mothers Temple have done lots of drugs, but having done it, they have found other ways of reaching that state. Again, it’s not the drugs that are important so much as the place they can take you. The drugs took Aska nowhere, and very rarely take any J-Pop musicians anywhere, because J-Pop itself isn’t structured in a way that would allow that to happen. American pop is heading in the same direction, although the influence of hip hop and dance music suggests at least that the influence of drugs and their associated cultures operates at slightly fewer layers of remove from the mainstream — whether the quality follows suit is debatable and something would prefer not to get involved in. Anyway, here’s Rolly:Rolly: Love Machine

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Strange Boutique (April 2014)

A bit late updating this, but my April column for The Japan Times was on the local organisers who keep grassroots music culture going in Japanese towns outside the cultural gravity well of Tokyo. I hate using the word “curator” to talk about this amalgam of live venue staff, organisers, musicians, record store workers and journalists, but that’s what they are and it’s hard to come up with another, equally useful term for what they do.

As I mention in the article, it was being on tour that really drove this home. I often hear people remarking with an air of worldly wisdom that music should be left to sink or swim based on its own merits and it’s always hard to justify the existence of a shitty band, but anyone who seriously thinks popularity is this magical division bell that separates out the wheat from the chaff is operating under a delusion. There are numerous factors that influence popularity, very few of which have anything to do with how good something is. People can’t even agree on what a definition of “good” is, so what hope for an impartial measure?

In the mainstream music industry, popularity is influenced to a vast degree by who has access to the media and the infrastructure (basically only the majors) and in this sense, even popular taste itself becomes “curated” through constant reinforcement of certain images, and lyrical or musical tropes. As I mention in the article, once you step away from the big cultural centres, geography, age distribution, economics and transport connections become important factors. “Let the market decide” ends up denying areas the infrastructure to even allow anything to happen for reasons totally unconnected to the actual quality of the music.

So going to places like Kagoshima, Saga and Takamatsu, and seeing people working hard, against the prevailling market conditions, to make uncommercial but artistically vibrant music happen is exciting. It also suggests that as more conventional, mainstream music becomes increasingly remote, dedicated local curators could end up having an influence in curating taste as well. Because taste is to a large degree social, based on your peer group and your exposure. I’m a big cheerleader for local music as anyone who read my recent tour diary will I think know, and I’m particularly interested in anything that subverts the influence of the mainstream music industry (this is why I was so alternately intrigued by and suspicious of groups like BiS, because I was never entirely convinced that they offered any real kind of subversion, operating within a very conventional marketing structure and business model and merely substituting gross or violent images into it).

Anyway, the event is really just a bit of rare praise for all the great local organisers, including those who helped out with my tour and many more all over the country. I’ll just leave you with some more of my favourite “local band” in Japan, Saga’s Nakigao Twintail.Nakigao Twintail: full live set at Saga Rag-G

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Strange Boutique (March 2014)

My March column for The Japan Times was something I’d been planning to write for a long time anyway and was really a development of things I’d written about before and which had come together in part through the process of writing my book. The sudden viral explosion of all things Babymetal-related was a serendipitous bit of timing that gave me a single focus to hook the idea into, and I daresay being able to hop onto the back of an international hot topic made the JT web site people happy as well.

One thing that changed with the new focus on Babymetal was that the international angle made the story sort of about the international reporting of the group and by extension about Japan generally. The opening gambit, where I write a hypothetical “false intro” imagining British pop culture being written about from a similar “aren’t they wacky!” perspective was one I had some doubts about and these doubts were later confirmed when the Slovenian musician N’toko, who was staying with me during his Japan tour at that time, pointed out that’s pretty much exactly how most of Europe does tend to see the British. I suppose given that the JT is an English language paper though, that’s less of an issue. In any case, I think it still makes its point.

I’m not a particular fan of Babymetal, although I think they’re nice enough, I dig the metal angle, and the silliness of some of their stage performances makes me smile. I mean, when you think about how stupid, theatrical and childish a lot of metal really is, isn’t it the sort of music that’s more appropriate for little kids to be doing than middle-aged guys?Babymetal: Death

What surprised me a bit about the response to the article was how quickly the comments coalesced around the idea of it as something sexist or exploitative. I guess it shouldn’t have, since you can’t take a couple of 14 year-old girls (and that’s just how old they are now — they were younger when the group started), stick them on a stage and tell them to dance in front of a massive crowd of adult men without there being something creepy and exploitative about it. It’s the nature of the beast, and no idol music will ever really escape from that, whatever excuses the scene’s apologists offer. That said, taken in context, they’re pretty benign in comparison to Yasushi Akimoto’s Evil Empire.

Another point I didn’t really go into in the article was the relationship with visual-kei, which seems a bit odd from a Japanese perspective, since it’s been a dead genre for a long time now, but once you see it in the context of trying to capture overseas fans, it makes more sense. Despite having been dead in Japan for over a decade, visual-kei has enjoyed a long spell of, posthumous zombie popularity abroad, and I get the impression that the lack of new material from the scene has left an under-served overseas market primed for stuff like visual-kei. The dreadful One OK Rock seem to have tapped into that need, and I wonder if Babymetal were at least partly deliberately attempting to do likewise, at least in part.Babymetal: Headbanger

Anyway, I don’t really think Babymetal are a positive thing so much as someone making the best of a bad situation. The whole “take subcultural thing, add small girls, serve” approach to music just seems like a terribly reductive approach to music, and there must be other ways of selling it. Seeing indie bands and promoters adopt a similar approach is really starting to get a bit pathetic. I remember the way Agata from Melt Banana (a fan of Babymetal) expressed a bit of anxiety about how their use of blast beats could end up with a situation where people hear blast beats in a Melt Banana song and just think, “Oh, they’re being like Babymetal,” but I think that’s just how underground music’s responsibility to keep finding new ways to move things forward is enforced and I can’t really see any advantage in ring-fencing certain tools of musical expression for the exclusive use of the underground. Where it becomes a problem is where the underground pioneers who develop these ideas don’t get the credit they deserve for them, and that is certainly the situation you have now. Unless Melt Banana start producing idol music, no one outside their little core fanbase is ever going to give two shits about them in Japan, and that’s sad and a failure of the industry as a whole. Still, critical though I’ve been of idol culture over the years, I’m not completely against it, and we have to recognise what it offers that other aspects of the music scene in Japan don’t.

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Strange Boutique (February 2014)

My Japan Times column for February touched on a couple of topics I’ve written about before, in the issue of how pay-to-play works in relation to bands, and tangentially in the senpai-kohai dynamic that somehow still persists in the music world. The linking premise of young musicians graduating from university was something my wife suggested and once the idea had nested in my mind, it started to gather to itself various things I’d been thinking about in relation to my book.

It takes a pretty cynical tone, and people who’ve been following my column will perhaps remember that I’ve discussed the upsides of some of these problems as well. Looking at it from the perspective of a young band making its first baby steps in the larger music world, however, it really must be a pretty grim experience, and it’s clear from speaking to musicians over the years that they feel exploited and dispirited by how eager the gatekeepers to the infrastructure of exposure are to suck money out of them and how little the bands seem to get in return.

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Strange Boutique (January 2014): R.I.P. Masahide Sakuma

The topic of my first Japan Times column of 2014 was dictated by the death of Masahide Sakuma. I interviewed him in 2010 when he was working on a fundraising single for Mick Karn’s cancer appeal, and I was able to see him at work in the studio. He was relaxed, friendly, but utterly professional and his own death from the same disease just a few years later was cruel.Plastics: Top Secret Man

Obviously given my obsession with 70s/80s new wave, it was his work with the Plastics and his production work with P-Model that remains closest to me, but in a way that’s merely a footnote to a career that saw him working with some of the biggest names in pop and leaving his mark on nearly every big movement in Japanese music between 1980 and 2000. Less of an obvious superstar producer than the likes of Tetsuya Komuro TM Network, Globe, Tomomi Kahala, TRF, early Namie Amuro) and Takeshi Kobayashi (My Little Lover, Mr. Children), as producer of Glay and Judy And Mary, he was right up there with them as one of the top producers of the J-Pop era.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that his star clearly waned after the 90s came to a close, and he pretty much said as much himself when in 2012 he retired from music. The blog post I mention in the original column is well worth reading, even if you just run it through Google Translate, because it echoes what many people in the music industry are saying and he expresses it very well. Put simply, record companies just aren’t willing to pay what it costs for producers to do their job. Sakuma makes clear that he understands that people might just say that the 90s was a bubble and that that level of spending was unsustainable, but in any case, to achieve the level of quality he felt necessary, it took money and that money wasn’t being spent on producers anymore (marketing departments appear to have been less seriously affected).Judy And Mary: Motto

Now I’m not sure I completely agree with him on that point because the Plastics records were made for a pittance and they’re some of the best music that’s ever been made in Japanese music history, but then I’m a DIY music nerd who can quite happily flip out over a song made on an MP3 recorder in a rehearsal studio, and that’s not really what Sakuma was talking about. He was talking about his work, his craft, and the frustration he felt at not being able to fully use those skills to do justice to the music he was working with. This decline in the role of the producer has been one of the defining features of the past decade and a bit. Sakuma’s big 90s contemporaries have also declined in influence, with Komuro having suffered the most spectacular fall from grace, but Kobayashi increasingly sharing production duties with the band on Mr. Children records, and My Little Lover having split up and re-emerge as a bland Akko solo project. One of the few superstar producers of recent years Yasutaka Nakata once remarked to me that people in Japan just aren’t interested in producers. That’s certainly the professional environment Nakata has grown up with, but they used to be.

One thing I was unable to find a good way to work into the article was that Sakuma’s final “public” appearance relates to another big movement in Japanese music, with him appearing on the coupled DVD with idol group Nogizaka46’s 2013 single Barrette, performing a song with group member Erika Ikuta, to whom he is related through a cousin. Opinions of the state of idol music in Japan today aside, we can remark at least that as with so many other things, he was there. I should also add that despite his official retirement, he didn’t stop working on stuff that interested him, and 2014 is set to see one or two posthumous releases.

I was DJing at a show last night where new wave and technopop fans proliferated, and a few of the musicians, some of whom had known and played alongside him, joined together at the end to perform Aurora Tour, a song Sakuma made with Yuki (Judy And Mary) and Kate Pierson (The B-52’s) for the supergroup NiNa which also featured Mick Karn. It was a better tribute than anything I could write, and a fitting reminder of his influence across a range of genres and several musical generations.NiNa: Aurora Tour

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