Tag Archives: Bo Ningen

Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.11 – Foodman – Ez Minzoku

Foodman - Ez Minzoku

Vinyl/download, Orange Milk, 2016

One recurring theme of this rundown of 2016’s best albums is the rhetorical question “why the fuck not?” — the idea that no idea is to absurd to milk to its last lunatic essence. Enter the Foodman, with this pinging, clanging, buzzing pinball machine of an album. It’s all over the place, hyperactively ricocheting off glitches, between samples and bubblegum synth licks, never giving you time to pin it down to anything consistent beyond that it’s an album that revels in its inconsistency.

Ez Minzoku is for the most part a collection of, admittedly eclectic, instrumental electronic tracks, but it does feature guest vocals on a couple of tracks. The opening Beybey features the breathy “idol rap” of Taigen Kawabe from psychedelic rockers Bo Ningen. Mid Summer Night features vocals from Diskomargaux alongside washes of retro synths that plant the track loosely at the nexus between chillwave and City Pop (an increasingly densely populated pop junction in Japan these days). Elsewhere, tracks like Jazz and Rock label the sources of their musical acquisitions clearly, the former ending up sounding more like a collision between hip hop and the Canterbury scene psychedelia of Gong, and the latter throwing in a high-sugar dose of 8-bit video game chiptune for good measure. All these tracks, however, disrupt their diversions into genre with the same propensity for fractured beats and dispersed pops and bleeps that characterise the rest of the album.

If these descriptions seem to muddy rather than illuminate what’s going on with Ez Minzoku, that’s down to the playfully disruptive nature of the music itself, pulling pop sounds into a decidedly avant-garde process and spitting out something nonetheless accessible and fun at the end of it. Unclassifiable and magnificent for that.

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V/A: International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1

CD, 14 Years Records, 2013

CD, 14 Years Records, 2013

Rather than being focused on a particular scene, this forthcoming (September release) compilation, featuring artists from London to Japan via Italy, is more a statement of intent by Japanese noise-pop duo Umez: an announcement that primarily consists of, “So this is what we like, yeah?”

And on the basis of this collection of tracks, what Umez like seems to be a kind of ultra-lo-fi indie-noise sketchbook, often characterised by a kind of childlike nature that ranges from the stripped-down, whisper-voiced nostalgic jazz-pop whimsy of Teta Mona via the stupid-clever Fall/Half Man Half Biscuit/Art Brut nonsense-punk of Dog Chocolate to the angry, throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-pram, machine noise tantrum of Nananova.

Umez’ own track, the opening Rainbow, balances the noise and pop elements most finely and really forms the pivot on which the compilation is balanced, its looping garage-pop riff and distant, 4AD-esque vocals interrupted first by a perky synth solo and then by an unexpected interlude that sounds like a kind of electronic didgeridoo. Joey Fourr’s Play With Yrself pulls off a similar balance, marrying scratchy lo-fi garage pop production to a sweet melody, seemingly heavily indebted to the Pixies’ Velouria, albeit delivered with more of an air of bedroom-punk insouciance.

International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1 seems to delight in tossing the listener back and forth between extremes, with the aforementioned Nananova giving way to Taigen Kawabe, here eschewing the heavy psychedelia of his usual band Bo Ningen in favour of a kind of synth-based nursery rhyme pop that is perhaps a new expression of his well-known fixation on Japanese idol music, before lurching right back into the fierce scum noise of Brutes’ uncompromising Tear Jerk.

The closest thing to an ordinary pop-rock song on the album is Kobe band Stereo Future’s Eight-Beat Daydream and it comes as a relief after the chaotic pinball game of the first part of the album. It’s immediately followed by the more subtly disorientating Bastard Sword’s Open Up Your Heart, whose autotuned vocals give the otherwise mid-paced grind of the song the disconcerting air of a laid-back electro track, rather like those occasions (United, Hot on the Heels of Love) when Throbbing Gristle tried to pretend they were ordinary dance producers.

This unwillingness to ever let the listener settle down continues right to the end with Bakakuri gradually destroying a series of ambient chimes with walls of noise and feedback, followed by the looping, music box melody of Grimm Grimm’s Kazega Fuitara Sayonara with its vocals sounding distant amid the fuzzy guitar and lo-fi production, the simple, almost naive clockwork percussion mixed just a little too high, giving it a curiously mechanical forward momentum. Sgt’s untitled closing track then throws the whole album off in another direction with its technically accomplished instrumental postrock/prog delivered with dazzling intensity. The violin that wails through the music brings to mind instant comparisons with Rovo, but Sgt exhibit less of Rovo’s expansive spacerock tendencies, keeping the listener earthbound with off-kilter, jazz-influenced rhythms that disrupt your takeoff every time the music seems about to finally launch you skyward — in this aspect at least, embodying something of International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1’s own peculiar Janus-like tendencies.

So the album is a wild ride, with the European and Japanese acts sitting side by side with nary a crack between them even as they strive to rip each other, the album, and the unwitting listener’s brain apart. In the end, what all bands share is a playful creative imagination that helps link together the jumble of eclectic musical ideas into this thrilling whole.

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Interview: Bo Ningen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bo Ningen and Dempa Gumi inc: The love affair between experimental and idol music

Continuing with the theme wrote about in my last post and Japan Times column about the intersection between experimental and idol music, and what it is that attracts freaky hippy longhairs, dirty punks and art-school pretenseniks to idol music, here is the full text of Taigen Kawabe of psychedelic rock band Bo Ningen’s comments, in which he discusses Momoiro Clover Z and his work (as Dempa Ningen) with the idol group Dempa Gumi inc.

Studying and making music has changed the way way I think about music compared to as a child. Music always makes me think, but when I heard Ikuze! Kaitou Shoujou by Momoiro Clover for the first time, I found myself listening over and over again without thinking at all. It was like the way I used to listen to music as a child. It wasn’t a particularly experimental song, but then after that I began to listen to other songs that were more challenging.

Key to the appeal of idol music for noise or punk musicians might be that both types share a kind of anarchic energy. it doesn’t have to be in the music itself, you might have to hear it live — even for Bo Ningen it’s a different experience hearing us on CD and seeing us live.

Dempa Gumi inc. are older than Momoclo but they have a similar approach. It’s all about capturing the energetic momentum of youth. In their case it’s quite striking because they all used to be social shut-ins and couldn’t use their youth, so they’re sharing with their otaku fans this reinactment, trying to reclaim their youth. In their case, idol music is like a time machine.

I don’t like AKB48 because what they do is so regressive. Even stuff like Perfume or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu are kind of challenging. This is music that is tryiing something new and has a sense of moving forward. In a way, idol music nowadays is on the cutting edge of what Japanese people like. The producers might have backgrounds in other genres or take influences from other sources. In fact idol music’s background gives you access to quite a wide range of music. What attracts me is that you might find noise music hiding in idol music or idol music hiding in noise. Merzbow did a track called “Yumin, Non-stop Disco” which was a noise track comprised entirely of Yumi Matsutoya’s idol-ish early music.

Especially with recent idol music, I think it has the potential to cross over. Punk, rock, metal — especially in metal you have the “metal manner”, a very strict form, but with idol music it doesn’t matter what you do.

I also got in touch with Dempa Gumi inc. for a couple of brief comments, although my deadline for the original article ran out before their comments arrived. For anyone interested in hearing their music, here they are:

It’s hard to know how much one can draw from these comments (while their backstory is interesting, I don’t think you can really say their music itself is “totally different from regular idols”), but since all members of the group took the trouble to send some pretty thoughtful replies, I thought it would be useful to add their comments here too (English translation generously contributed by Dave McMahon).

1. How was the experience of working with Bo Ningen?

FURUKAWA MIRIN: I didn’t know much about them but there was some common otaku ground and they liked to talk about the same things, so although we may look different, I felt we were all essentially the same type of people.

YUMEMI NEMU: I had spoken to Taigen on the phone before we did the session, so I wasn’t worried. But at the same time I had no idea how it would all turn out… Performing live with Dempa Gumi inc there are lots of fantastic moments as an Idol, but there were moments in the session with Bo Ningen which moved all five senses.  I’ll never forget that shock.  I have no doubt that, in those moments, it was the coolest live in the whole world.

MOGAMI MOGA: In one word, it was CHAOS!!!

AIZAWA RISA: I felt that the collaboration was a chance to transmit Dempa Gumi Inc.’s ‘heat’ and ‘unique seishun’ to the audience.

NARUSE EIMI: It was very very stimulating!  But I didn’t really feel a big difference between us all as artists. And maybe, to anyone watching it would have seemed that way too.

FUJISAKI AYANE: We’re totally different from (regular) Idols and so is our music. Just as Dempa Gumi can seem to be smashing boulders to pieces with our sounds and voices, Bo Ningen also seem to be striking and smashing boulders to pieces, so I felt like we were breathing the same air (we had a lot in common) and it was fun. I personally like Bo Ningen’s music, so I was pleased to get the chance to work together.

2. How do you feel about music of the sort Bo Ningen make given that it seems at first glance an unusual combination?

FURUKAWA MIRIN: I think that we share common roots. I guess the same could be said of any music but the prospect of making something amongst yourselves was the same.

YUMEMI NEMU: Listening, I thought it was music which vibrates the feelings and the senses. But the way I think about idol pop, it doesn’t follow a set pattern — It can often suddenly switch to metal or enka, etc… So even when you mix Bo Ningen’s music with Dempa Gumi inc., they’re still idol songs. Really really cool idol songs.

MOGAMI MOGA: For me personally, I like music like Bo Ningen ’cause I’ve always been into metal and rock. My mum has told me before that she doesn’t understand the difference between ‘otagei’ (otaku’s synchronised audience gestures at idol concerts) and headbanging, so it was probably a bit like that. To people who want to feel music and enjoy it, I don’t think the genre really matters. The fans reacted well to Denpa Ningen too, so that just served to drill that idea home even further.

AIZAWA RISA: I love it!  Dempa Gumi aren’t a band as such, but the way our fans cheer and dance at our shows is similar to at a live band’s show. I mean, Dempa Gumi’s very existence is a big tangle of maniacs, so I could really identify with what Bo Ningen are very focused about trying to get across through their music.

NARUSE EIMI: The truth is, I like music like Bo Ningen, so I felt like I wanted to know more about it. Even though I’m an idol (Guffaw).  In fact, we all feel like we don’t just want to do idol pop, but that from here on in we’d like to keep on including more of the different types of music that we like. As long as we don’t lose sight of our roots, anything is possible for Dempa Gumi!

FUJISAKI AYANE: You can feel the weight their music has from playing their guitars, bass and drums with all their might, so we were overpowered by that totally different power. It was very moving!

As I say, it’s hard to know exactly what to take away from this since idol music comes with a set of assumptions that aren’t necessarily going to be the same as those in alternative music so phrases like “anything is possible” might operate within very different sets of limitations depending on one’s starting position. Nevertheless, the idea that hopping from style to style and not following a “set pattern” is not only permissible but also an integral part of the musical experience comes through in both Taigen’s and Dempa Gumi’s comments.

Also a point I think is interesting is Mogami Moga’s comment about her mum not seeing the difference between audience behaviour at idol and metal shows. I think this point can be extended to a wider observation on how “ordinary” people view subcultural products and behaviour. While idol music and otaku culture have been normalised to a large extent in Japanese mainstream culture, AKB48’s music still makes a point of not veering even remotely from the dead middle of the road down which J-pop has been puttering since at least the mid-90s, and most idol music still sounds freakish and subcultural to “ordinary” people in much the same way (although depending on the music and the particular type of “ordinary person”, the extent might vary) that music at the opposite avant-garde extreme might.

The last thing is the idea that genre doesn’t matter. I’m not sure about this, and the reaction of some Momoiro Clover Z fans to Ian Parton from The Go! Team being brought in for one song suggests that genre does matter to idol fans, but that the choice of genres is subject to more complex strictures. One obvious point is that any sign that an idol group is becoming more mainstream will be taken as a sign by otaku that the group is being taken away from them, which they will clearly not be happy about. On the other hand, Parton’s song, Roudou Sanka, was an unusual song by both mainstream J-pop and otaku standards, and I suspect the source of fan discomfort was more its “foreignness” — not specifically the use of a foreign writer (they accept Marty Friedman on its follow-up) so much as that despite the video piling in every nostalgia-ready Japanese cultural cliche it can manage, the music itself is built on a whole structure of sounds, musical references and motifs rooted in a different culture of what’s cool. While Parton’s music would have been cool as fuck to the 90s Tokyo indie generation that formed main Momoclo producer Hyadain’s background (Hyadain has a background in Shibuya-kei and The Go! Team are on Japanese label Vroom Sound, home of post-Shibuya-kei electronic pranksters Plus-tech Squeeze Box and Eel), otaku reject the role of trendsetting elites, preferring to build culture from the bottom up (recognising this and tricking fans into the illusion that they have this power has been key to the marketing genius of Yasushi Akimoto and AKB48). As a result, when fans complain about Roudou Sanka being too mainstream, perhaps part of what they mean is that its mishmash of funk, Motown, Britpop and mutant disco sounds dangerously fashionable.

Combine this with Taigen’s point about idol music’s role in recreating youth, and I think the freedom of idol music has limits set not by record industry convention but by the audience’s own cultural horizons and sense of nostalgia. Idol music is certainly more musically outgoing than its mainstream competitors, but it won’t have its direction imposed on it by “elites” from outside its own cultural milieu (and certainly not by the sort of people who use words like “milieu” in their blogs).

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Strange Boutique (February 2012)

A bit late in posting this because I actually have a lot more material related to this topic that I wanted to gather and post on successive days, but here’s last month’s Japan Times column.

This topic came out of a couple of long, rambling conversations I had with Taigen Kawabe from UK-based prog/psych band Bo Ningen during the Kyushu leg of the band’s most recent Japan tour, in particular the post-gig drinking session after the final gig of the tour in Fukuoka, which ended up as a fiercely fought discussion among a group of people who shared two main things in common: a background in underground and experimental music and a love of idol groups. Following on from that, I got back in touch with Taigen again the following week and carried out a short interview with him on what he thinks the reasons behind this love affair between the music’s noisiest and poppiest fringes might be. Thanks also go out to Ryotaro Aoki of the band Kulu Kulu Garden, who I didn’t quote directly, but who took some time out to talk to me and was very helpful as well.

This is nothing new of course, although what is new is that in Momoiro Clover Z, there seems to be an idol group that could have been made for freaky music people. I managed to say most of what I wanted in the article, but here are a few links that illustrate some of what I’m saying.

When I talk about Bo Ningen shifting rhythms, this video gives some idea of what I mean, although it’s really their longer, more psychedelic songs that see it in full force:

Next, here’s the latest Momoiro Clover Z single, which is a pretty typical example of their penchant for chopping between different melodic segments:

And here’s Taigen’s Bo Ningen/Momoclo mashup:

One thing I didn’t go into, and which Patrick Macias has written about more extensively than I, is the way Momoiro Clover play up to a certain fascination with pro wrestling, an influence which Taigen also admits to in this Time Out Tokyo interview, and which relates to the point he makes in my column, where he talks about the way idol music can recreate some of the feeling he used to get from listening to music as a child (wrestlers’ intro music affected him in the same way as a child).

Anyway, I’ll put the second stage of this up tomorrow, including the full text of Taigen’s interview, and we’ll see whether this love affair is requited or not with some comments by the idol group Dempa Gumi inc. who have collaborated with Bo Ningen.

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