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Glow And The Forest: Pheromone Chemicals

Pheromone Chemicals

CD/Download, self-released, 2013

Foreign musicians based in Tokyo exist in a peculiar sort of half-world. Not having done their time in the university band circles, dead Tuesday nights at pay-to-play live venues, and local music scene event ladder, they often appear disorientatingly context-free and difficult to pin down musically to musicians who have grown up in the local scene, which makes them hard to book. There’s also often a lingering suspicion that they might just up and leave at a moment’s notice, which can make organisers reluctant to invest the time in the gradual process of introducing them to and helping integrate them into the scene.

Perhaps partly as a result of this, a little micro-scene of bands based around a core of foreign musicians has built up, often playing at foreign-owned bars, to a more generally party-friendly crowd than the often gloomy but more dedicatedly music-orientated fans that populate the alternative scene. It’s a strange little bit of segregation and it’s hard to know whether it’s just a setup that’s grown up to everyone’s benefit (or at least to no one’s loss) out of different people wanting different things, just as how mod, punk, technopop etc. have all gravitated into their own exclusive scenes, or if it contains embedded in it a problem.

All this is really just to point out what a rarity a musician Matt Guay is in the Tokyo music scene in that through his band The Oversleep Excuse and now Glow And The Forest he’s managed to work himself over the years into a position in the Tokyo alternative scene where he’s seen just as a musician rather than as an American musician.

Pheromone Chemicals is Glow And The Forest’s second release and continues in a similar vein to their self-titled 2010 debut, both albums featuring nine tracks worth of falsetto-voiced jangly guitar rock delivered by a stripped-down power trio setup and with the emphasis on melodies and whimsical lyrics.

The opening one-two of the driving Suspension Bridge, with its heart-surge chorus, followed by the short, simple and lyrically fragile Banker is a powerful intro to the album, with the latter’s final line leaving the listener hanging poignantly in midair. Sometimes, however, Guay’s lyrics bring him to awkward places, and the line “Your smile makes me take my clothes off,” delivered with with a heart full of passion and earnestness might leave some wondering quite how seriously he means to be taken.

The third song, Monster, more or less establishes the range that Pheromone Chemicals is going to cover, with a more middling pace and a dynamic built around lulls and spine tingling climaxes, and it also sets the album’s outlier in terms of length, coming in at a bit over four minutes. For the most part, Glow And The Forest’s songs are admirably restrained, preferring to hover around two and a half minutes, which as any 1960s pop songwriter would have told you is how long songs should be.

Closing track Aliens performs the neat trick of bringing the whole album together in one song, combining poignance with propulsive, percussive guitar and a powerful sense of ebb and flow. With a low-key opening, it picks up pace and flowers into something poppier and more uptempo, whilst retaining a sense of when to switch a chord change one beat out of the rhythm or simply change and start playing what sounds like a completely different song altogether. It’s the album’s most complex song, but in many ways the most rewarding and a fitting closing track.

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Why music industry rapprochement with the Internet might not work to fans’ benefit

The music industry in Japan is afraid, that much is clear. Even behemoths like Sony Music Entertainment are being forced to admit that the Internet exists, industry figures are looking with greedy eyes at the attention their Korean neighbours have been gaining abroad, and artists deemed to have the potential for overseas appeal like kooky fashion icon Kyary Pamyupamyu and electro idol trio Perfume are being tentatively shipped out on carefully stage managed tours, playing tiny venues guaranteed to sell out. No one knows how things are going to play out, and they are worried. They are afraid.

And for music fans, it’s good that industry is afraid, because their fear comes from a lack of control, and the control the music business exerts over its product is bad for music. Troubled times create cracks in the system, through which unexpected things may pass. Idol music might not be everyone’s cup of heart-shaped latté, but the explosion of new acts incorporating a variety of increasingly bizarre musical and visual styles is at least something different, and is the direct result of an industry unsure of where to go. The aforementioned Ms. Pamyupamyu and Perfume are also artists who emerged from the cracks, propelled by subcultural appeal into unexpected success.Kyary Pamyupamyu: Invader Invader

And there are signs that the music industry might be starting to come to terms with its fears, finding a way to work with the still new (to them) technology of the web, and reconfiguring their marketing to deal with the way fan behaviour has changed over the past ten years. Needless to say, music fans will likely not be the first to benefit.

One way we can see these changes occurring is in music videos. Having traditionally enjoyed a healthy income from video cassette and DVD sales, the music industry’s initial reaction to video streaming sites like YouTube was one of abject horror, and they blamed them for everything from Hurricane Katrina to the Kennedy assassinations. The viral success of Kyary Pamyupamyu’s “Ponponpon” in 2011, however, did a lot to encourage them that maybe video streaming sites could be made to work for them. Nowadays, all major labels have a YouTube channel, and are raking in a smidgeon of cash from the advertising.

In terms of fans, there has been a clear decline in the amount of money what we can loosely call “mainstream” music fans are willing to spend, which leaves the industry with the option of either looking outwards like the Koreans, or consolidating inwards like, let’s say, the British Empire.

As someone who has spent the past nine years involved in indie promotion in Japan, insofar as I have any kind of strategy at all (something many who have had the misfortune to work with me may choose to strenuously doubt), it tends towards fostering a core group of fans who are genuinely into the music, and who are dedicated enough to come to the shows and buy the CDs. Everyone’s welcome, but some kinds of people are obviously going to be more receptive than others and it makes sense to give them more attention.

On the face of it, a popular, major label group is faced with a slightly different set of circumstances. If they’ve got this far, they most likely already have a core group of fans, and these fans are going to buy the records regardless, so their goal would seem to be to reach outside this core group and try to capture the stray dollars of people with a more casual interest in the band.

One thing that seems logical for both indies and majors here is the value of having a nice video, ready for people to share on YouTube. An indie video can be shared via specialist blogs or networks of genre aficionados on Twitter and Facebook, helping to introduce them to prospective fans; a major label video that goes viral shouldn’t impact on sales to core fans, and might bring in a few extra sales from elsewhere.

Not so for the Japanese music industry though, where companies seem to be even more aggressively than ever pursuing a core fan strategy. And this is where the issue of videos comes up again, because look once more at YouTube and while major labels are happy to take Google’s advertising crumbs and seed the ground with videos from smaller acts in the event of an unanticipated viral harvest, they are focusing ever harder on maintaining tight control over the image rights of their key properties.

“Gentleman”, Psy’s attempt to follow up the success of viral sensation “Gangnam Style”, racked up millions of YouTube views and posted U.S. sales of around 70,000 in its first week. For a song inevitably doomed to be seen by History as the first step in Psy’s inexorable slide back into relative international obscurity (I’ve still got money on him finally getting big in Japan about three years after everyone else has forgotten about him), those numbers aren’t too shabby. So why is the Japanese record industry running shy of these possibilities?Psy: Gentleman

Part of this is probably because they’ve decided that on balance, it isn’t worth it. My back of a fag packet calculation gives a viral video about one sale for every thousand YouTube views. I would imagine there’s a lot of variation from video to video depending on how viewers are engaging with it, and there’s probably some sort of curve involved depending on the level of saturation, but in any case, we need millions and millions of views to make any meaningful impact on a major label act’s sales figures.

So what countervailing advantages does pursuing a core fan strategy have for the Japanese music industry? Well, at one extreme, just look at mass idol collective AKB48 and their legions of obsessive fans, some willing to spend millions of yen on thousands of copies of a single in order to gain multiple voting rights in the group’s annual “senbatsu election” of the most popular members. Not only the CDs, but an ever growing pile of goods that the fans are encouraged to buy and buy again in order to show their devotion to the goddess of their particular sect within the AKB cult. AKB48 are an extreme example, but they’re the big success story in the domestic industry, and their success in monetising fans within a shrinking market has been noted with interest by their competitors.

One problem with the AKB method is that it is so reliant on CD sales, which in a marketplace increasingly having to come to terms with iTunes and similar legal download sites, and where streaming services like Sony Music Unlimited and soon Spotify are gradually carving out a place for themselves (several years too late, but well done anyway), this model is already an anachronism. AKB48’s enormous sales are the Tyrannosaurus Rex stalking the late Cretaceous of the CD format’s lifespan. One download buys you the song, and if you want to download it again, well it’s already yours. If a fan who spent ¥2,000,000 on over a thousand copies of the CD single wants to give them that ¥2,000,000 via Music Unlimited, he’s going to be busy.

So it’s not music, but goods that are the key to exploiting (and I do mean exploiting) the core fanbase, and the key to goods is image rights. Videos can also be monetised, not as promotional materials, but as commodities in their own rights, and by ruthlessly shutting out YouTube users from access to the videos, they can then sell exclusive broadcast rights to the videos to certain TV channels, to which the core fans must obediently turn, or flog them as video downloads to fans’ smartphones. This shift can be seen in the way the music industry in Japan now refuses to use the term PV (“promotional video”, i.e. for promotion) and has en masse adopted the term MV (“music video”, i.e. a discrete product whose value is intrinsic).

So a group like Perfume, having taken the big step by Japanese industry standards of making their music available to buy online internationally (still few of their J-pop peers have been willing to take the risk, whatever they imagine it might be), have been preparing to embark on an international tour with a new single and a clever, imaginative and quite charming video that their management company, Amuse, has until recently been vigorously battling to make sure none of their fans were able to see.

Yet Perfume are among the radicals, the trailblazers of modernity, and as a rule, they seem to be releasing the videos from captivity eventually, allowing them to roam their natural online environment after they have completed their terms of indenture to whatever broadcast organisation into whose service they were sold (Magic of Love finally appeared on Perfume’s official channel last week). The broader picture though, of an industry suspicious of the outside, not just of other countries but now of potential domestic fans from outside core fanbase groups, turning with ever greater cynicism towards the cultivation and exploitation of those fans devotion, is a profoundly depressing one.Perfume: Magic of Love

It’s inevitable in a way that once it begins to become accustomed to a new technology, an industry will first seek ways to retain control over it, and of course it’s natural that businesses will want to protect their profits before all else. It would be naive to attempt to deny this. At the moment, the Japanese music industry is still afraid, but what’s really dispiriting in all this is the way that in the midst of seismic changes in the marketplace, they are still channeling their resources into attempts to chart a path that turns the clock not forwards but backwards.


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Live preview: Shinda Shinda Shinda (June 15th 2013)

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.

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Strange Boutique (August 2011)

August’s Japan Times column was a bit of a self-indulgent gripe at some of the things that annoy me at gigs in Japan. Some of these points I’m sure are ones that could be applied to bands anywhere, but anyway, I’m here and all I can write about is what I see around me.

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