25. kasuppa – the half you left and right Kasuppa have been around for a while in the local indie scene in their hometown of Kobe and nearby Osaka, but not yet made much of an impact more broadly. This ambitious two-parter would have been a great opportunity for them to spread their wings had fate not intervened, and it remains a strong indie rock stsatement, its sparse, rough-edged appeal given a warm intimacy, with some thanks for that perhaps due to engineer Ryohei Tomomatsu and mixing/mastering engineer Ryo Watanabe (of alt-rock/post-punk veterans Convex Level). The way it was released on two CDs despite fitting easily on one gives it the feel of an old vinyl double-album and emphasises the independent (if related) identities of the “left” and “right” discs. Quite what each disc signifies is open to interpretation, with the “left” side seeming to focus on the blankness left behind by a failed relationship, while the “right” side seems to circle around the feeling of being trapped, not entirely unwillingly, in a relationship that won’t end. A garden of forking paths look at two possible results of a troubled affair? Two sides of the same breakup? In any case, these divergent takes on alienation and disaffection provide subtly different emotional climates for each. While the second disc deploys more fuzz and distortion, it would perhaps have been interesting had the band pushed this duality further by pushing more distinctive sonic approaches to the two discs as well, but their brand of cosy indie rock with art-punk edges is nonetheless an appealing partner on the whole journey.
24. My Society Pissed – Locked Room There’s a looseness to My Society Pissed that sets them apart from a lot of their Japanese punk contemporaries, pulling them away from hardcore into something more primal and less dogmatic. This 12-inch opens with a distinctive and drawn out, distorted groove before it gives the listener any easy punk thrills, while on tracks like Arms of Solid, there’s a garage-rock bounce to the heartbeat that helps give Locked Room the freshness and freedom from the genre’s own locked rooms that reminds me of those 1970s punk records from before even the punks themselves really knew what punk was.
23. Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots – Anökumene Tokyo-based trio Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots trade in rhythmically quirky but melodically accessible music, both experimental and playful, shot through with humour and a philosophical whimsy that occasionally shades into melancholy. Also notable as cheerleaders for other like-minded artists around Japan (via their own Mitoho Sessions events and last year from the related Mitohos compilation), they make something that could be difficult approachable and welcoming.
22. Ryo Okada – outerzone As the guitarist from psychedelic post-punk trio Extruders, Ryo Okada is responsible for a lot of the sparse, meandering misdirections of the band’s sound, so it’s perhaps natural to expect that, stripped of the formal structures and rhythms of songs, his solo work revels in the space. What he does with that space is craft eerie moonscapes just beyond the reach of daily existence — the disorientating ambient outerzones to the Burroughsian interzones he carves out with the Extruders’ oblique take on rock. Compared with its companion, the (also excellent) Snow Mountain EP that Okada released earlier in the year, Outerzone is sonically deeper and more abstract, less a transmission from behind the veil than a transformative energy that wraps you in its alien psychosphere.
21. Sloppy Joe – Waiting For The Night Begins It’s impossible to talk about Sloppy Joe without mentioning all the bands they sound like, but they’d never get away with it if the songwriting fundamentals that underscore the jangle and Mozzy hoots weren’t exquisite. They will always be something of a guilty pleasure for me, but the arrival of this unexpected comeback album in the summer of 2020 meant that pleasure landed with extra unrestrained force. Every chime is an immaculate delight.
Collecting together and reworking a series of songs originally released in bits and pieces and various formats over the course of two months during the summer of 2014, 8 Queens was an album I’d been anticipating for a while. As the follow-up to Colors, which had been a contender for album of the year in 2013, it’s an album with a lot to live up to as well.
For Extruders, 8 Queens is a case of something old, something new, plenty borrowed and everything tangled up in blue. Second track Zombie recalls the band’s early days as purveyors of short, sharp postpunk nuggets, like a sort of laid-back Wire, while I Wonder heads off in the new direction of highly compressed, minimal synthpop.
They still recall bands like Television and The Velvet Underground, although unlike the Heroin-style exercises in psychedelic tension in which they occasionally indulged on Colors, on 8 Queens they seem to have settled in somewhere closer to the Velvets of Pale Blue Eyes. These influences are also filtered through a sound more and more easily recognisable as Extruders’ own as time goes by, using the studio as an instrument in its own right and treating even the smallest hisses, squawks of feedback and other sonic quirks as essential elements of the overall arrangement, as in the intricately employed stabs and caresses of noise in the intro to Kinjirareta Asobi.
The air of delicately refined melancholy that has always hung over Extruders’ work is still here, except now they seem to have cut down even closer to its raw essence, with Chinese Fairy Tale perhaps the masterpiece in this regard, wilfully eschewing any obvious melodies until just the moment where it slips into the simplest and most gorgeous four-note guitar solo.
8 Queens is an album that revels in its own subtlety, revealing new layers with every repeat listen, displaying its beauty in discreet little flourishes rather than broad strokes. It’s none the worse for that though, and the result is that it’s an album that, once you let it start to work its magic, you can easily lose yourself in.
Record companies still suspicious of online music and streaming
Advertising and tie-ups increasingly more important than actual sales
Korean music doing better than Japanese music abroad
AKB48 not as popular as they were but still pretty much the biggest thing out there
The way I chose to look at it this time round was from the perspective of what some of the key events or trends of the year tell us about who music is really being made for.
With a group like AKB48, there are a lot of intersecting factors at play as they balance the need to please a number of different masters. As one of my always charming commenters was helpful enough to point out, Google Trends isn’t the only, or the best, measure of something’s overall popularity, and of course their sales are still sky-high. Oricon’s recently-published year-end charts give the group all of the top five singles and the number one album in terms of CD sales, although this figure is fishy as well given the marketing gimmicks that surround CD sales in Japan. The top 40 CD singles was dominated by three organisations: Yasushi Akimoto’s AKB family, the Johnny & Associates boyband farm, and perma-tanned, goateed, twats-in-hats boy band Exile. All these acts boost their CD sales with marketing gimmicks aimed at their fanatical core fanbases, and it’s interesting to note that the only act from outside this axis of evil to make the top 40, comedy “air band” Golden Bomber, released their own song in a plain white case with no extras as a protest against this sort of gimmickry (or/and as a gimmick in itself).
What I was looking at in Google Trends was the general, casual interest in AKB48, in particulat the spikes that occur in June every year around “election” time. This is the time people who otherwise wouldn’t care much about the band but have a mild, general interest in them and are generally favourably inclined towards them are more likely to have a look to see what’s going on with them. Throughout the year, point by point, the figures are about one third of their 2011 peak. This doesn’t affect sales because these people never bought AKB CDs anyway, but it does affect advertising. Anyone living in Tokyo these past few years would have noticed the diminishing visibility of the group on billboards, and as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, advertisers have even resorted to labelling the group in adverts so that people know who they are – something usually reserved for new acts the ad agency has hooked up with the tie-ups as part of its deal with their talent agency. But then the turnover of band members ensures that AKB48 are perpetually a new group, and this is the core of their problem for advertisers in 2014: everyone knew Atsuko Maeda, Yuko Oshima, Tomomi Ito, Mariko Shinoda and maybe a couple of others, but people nowadays would struggle to name any of the current lineup.
In terms of my question about who music is for, where AKB48 fans have been successful is that by their enormous expenditure on the group, they have retained a degree of ownership over them. This idea of ownership is perhaps key to the success of the whole idol format: the fans, by their exercise of obsessive degrees of purchasing power, are able to keep the groups “for them” rather than letting them slip entirely into the treacherous hands of advertising. It’s extreme and a bit mad in its degree, and far more focused on “character” consumption than on music listening, but taken in isolation, the principle is admirable.
Looking over at the iTunes charts, we see a very different picture, with a more diverse selection of acts and far less in the way of idol music (as I say, idol otaku aren’t music fans, they’re machines for consuming character goods) but it does serve as a timely warning of what awaits us if the idol boom were to suddenly die. In three words: One OK Rock. In another three words: Sekai no Owari. I have nothing to say to that other than yuck. We can blame the music industry for feeding people shit, but sooner or later, music audiences have to just take responsibility for their own awful taste.
One thing I didn’t have space to mention in the context of the growing prominence of the “national interest” in the use of pop music was Ringo Shiina’s NHK World Cup theme, which was accused in some quarters of being unnecessarily nationalistic. Now I’m not sure what that means in this context – football is pretty much the one arena in which you get a free pass to be as jingoistic, flag-waving and borderline fascist as you want without damaging your liberal softie cred – but given the Abe government’s ongoing efforts to stack NHK’s board with historical revisionists and ignorant propaganda stooges it bears keeping an eye on. As for Shiina herself, who knows? Her whole aesthetic is based around the fact that she loves Japan a lot, and that’s part of her appeal. A bigger problem with the song is that it was a really rubbish song.
In any case, the fact that the government are now openly and explicitly mobilising pop culture to promote their agenda, from the relatively benign Olympics-related let’s-make-ourselves-look-good-for-the-guests stuff to the full-on militarist AKB48 join-the-army-spread-dreams-to-the-world ad campaign bears scrutiny. What are the criteria behind who gets Cool Japan money? If you’re taking that money, have you read the small print? Do you fully understand what other agenda you might be unwittingly hitching yourself to? This may seem a bit paranoid now, but no pop culture exists in a vacuum, and if pop music is being recruited to serve the state, it matters a lot what the extent of the state’s agenda is. I’d feel much more comfortable with Cool Japan is it was completely out of the hands of the government and in the hands of an independent arts council.
One of the booms in the indie scene this year has been what I tend to dismissively call “funny bands”, with comical and/or performance-orientated acts like Dotsuitarunen, Nature Danger Gang, Guessband and others being ubiquitous. Partly I think this is the flipside of idol music in that if we see indie as a degraded mirror of mainstream entertainment, where girls are pretty idols while men are comedians. As a result, the indie scene subconsciously mimics that format so on the one hand we get Seiko Oomori and on the other we get Triple Fire.
This rise of owarai-type acts like these is something I’m ambivalent about in that on one level it cheapens the indie scene by making it qualitatively not significantly different from the mainstream, but on the other hand, just as I’d listen to AKB48 any day over terrible, “serious” J-pop bands like Kobukuro and Ikimono Gakari, these theatrical, comical indie bands and performers are infinitely preferable to the tediously earnest, sterile technical virtuosity of professional on-stage wankers like Toe.
In my own musical projects, I can pronounce myself largely satisfied with what 2014 gave me. I celebrated the ten year anniversary of my first event with a thrilling Koenji Pop Festival at Higashi Koenji 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu which was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. The venue is notoriously loud to begin with, and when the PA engineer gets excited, he tends to gradually push everything up and up as the night goes on. By the time headliners Hyacca stepped up, the walls and floor were shaking and the whole experience was just one of sheer, earsplitting rhythmical noise. For me at least in a good way.
Earlier in the year my Call And Response label put out the album Mind Business by Slovenian rapper N’toko, which remains one of the releases I’m proudest of and perhaps the most coherent recorded artistic statement the label has ever put out. I released it on iTunes, probably for the first and last time of anything on my label. I have nothing in particular against Apple, but given what a non-profitmaking venture Call And Response is, iTunes is just not a marketplace where I feel comfortable doing business or able to justify the time and energy. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the online rainbow, just an increasingly grubby race to the bottom in terms of prices and returns. While I enjoy the convenience of online music as a consumer, as a label owner I prefer to deal with customers and vendors in person, even if that means a vanishingly small number of them. The N’toko tour in March confirmed a lot of those feelings for me, and while it had its ups and downs in terms of crowds, there were far more ups, and experiencing it all in person was its own justification and reward for the effort putting it all together took.
Other releases I put out or helped put out over the course of the year were February’s free compilation 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ！？！？」 featuring 21 different bands covering the song Paranoid by Black Sabbath. I will hopefully top that for completely stupid and pointless free covers projects by the end of next year or at most the year after. The summer also saw the albums Tane to Zenra by Kagoshima psychedelic band Futtachi andLove Song Duet by Tokyo synth-punk trio Jebiotto. Both of these are albums that would on their own musical merits certainly make it into my personal top albums of the year list if I admitted Call And Response releases for contention in those things, but I don’t so they won’t.
There’s already plenty to look forward to next year, with Extruders and Sayuu/Sa Yuu planning new albums for early in the new year. Going a little more mainstream, Capsule have a new album due out soon, albeit alarmingly EDMish judging from the sounds currently emerging from chez Nakata. With Call And Response Records entering its tenth anniversary year, I personally intend to be a busy bee putting out a string of truly horrible releases lab-grown to be the opposite of everything popular in Japanese music right now.
I’ve been vocal in my support for Kanagawa psychedelic/postpunk trio Extruders for a long time now, rating their album Colors one of the best of last year and their self-released live album Pray one of the best of the previous year. This summer, they’re embarking on a new project to release fresh material every Sunday for eight weeks.
Starting on July 13th, the first fruits of this project are already available for picking. Of the two, Fushigina Shishin is in the more low-key, minimal style of their more recent work, albeit with a more fragmented structure than anyone used to the blissed-out drones of songs like Luna and Kimi no Hane would prepare you for, while Zombie is a re-recording of an old track from their debut mini-album Neuter, which does a fine job of exposing their roots as Wire-influenced purveyors of short-sharp bursts of minimal art-fury. With several weeks to go, Extruders’ Bandcamp page should be in everyone’s bookmarks.
Despite having been around for what seems like forever, Japanese postpunk trio Convex Level only really came onto this blog’s radar due to their touring relationship with Clear And Refreshing favourites Extruders. And from these two tracks which the band are giving away for free, taken from the band’s current donotcl album, it’s easy to see to appeal Convex Level would hold for a band as deeply immersed in minimalist postpunk dynamics and sweet, but understated melody as Extruders.
State of Things is a more pretty conventional new wave/80s rock tune with that chugging mid-paced beat and “Ah-ahh” backing harmonies that a lot of songs of that era seemed to have but you can’t really put your finger on a single one that memorably did so. It’s still very well put together though, with the harmonies and key changes dropping in at the moments of maximum effectiveness to either disconcert or give a heartstopping endorphin surge — not to mention a proper guitar solo slap bang in the middle of the song. Played a bit faster it could have been as good as Martha & The Muffins’ Paint By Number Heart, but as it is, it’s still solid. Of the two tracks, Ashy Sleep is the killer though, alternating between a taut new wave-reggae bass/drum interaction that underlies the verses a the driving, powerpop chorus. There’s something terribly reminiscent of Roxanne by The Police to it, and although it’s hard to know how flattering the band would consider that comparison, be assured, I definitely mean it in the most favourable sense.
It’s also worth noting about both these songs just how nicely produced they are. Between the flat, soft-edged tedium of mainstream pop production and the equally flat, scuzzy amateurishness of most indie recording, Convex Level (who absolutely not coincidentally share an engineer with Extruders) seem to have found a niche that captures the mixture of glacial and intimate that characterised so much of the best music of the late 70s and early 80s.
As 2012 rolled around, I started thinking it was time to do a new compilation. It had been four years since my last one, the Post Flag Wire covers album, and obviously I’d discovered a load more bands since then and picked up new audiences along with them, so it was time to lay down another marker about where Call And Response was.I settled on the title Dancing After 1AM in response to Japan’s absurd anti-dancing laws that saw a bunch of club owners arrested in 2011 and 2012, and completely devastated the club scene in Osaka. In Tokyo we weren’t affected, but on tour in Kyushu you could see the poisonous effect it had had on the club scene there. I added the subtitle “Japanese electric music in the year 2012” as a way of instantly dating it, and then wrote some text in Japanese for the sidecap/obi strip reading “Compilation albums are a waste of time because they’re already out of date as soon as they’re released”. I did a little illustration of a dancing policewoman with a hippy flower in her hair and N’toko contributed by designing the sleeve around my drawing.I kept it to Japanese bands, which meant the design was his only contribution, but I tried to get all the other bands from the label involved. Praha Depart were very much doing their own thing by this point though, and when I mentioned it to them, they gave the impression that it would be difficult to get any new recordings done. Zibanchinka agreed to do something and then promptly imploded, but vocalist Iguz was keen to keep things moving with her new band Futtachi, who contributed a thundering psychedelic monster of a track in Kaiko no Oto.(One other band I really wanted to get on the album was the brilliant blues/Krautrock band Buddy Girl and Mechanic, but they were absorbed in the recording of their own album, which they released finally in early 2013 and was one of the best albums of the year, so they obviously used the time well.)Neither Mir nor Hyacca had released anything for a long time, so getting them involved was essential for more than just their role as the heart and soul of the label. They both needed a kick up the arse to get on and do something.Mir had lost their drummer somewhere between their recording of Wire’s Mannequin for 2008’s Post Flag and 2010 when some electronic recordings they’d done as a duo emerged. It was from these sessions that the version of their perennial closing number Dance (which naturally closed out the album too) came from. I chose that over their excellent 2010 version of the song TV partly because of its appropriateness to the compilation’s title, and partly because Mir’s TV is a song I’ve over the years become very superstitious about. it’s a beautiful song and the 2010 version of it is brilliant, but there’s a sadness at its heart that starts sucking you into itself the more you think about it, and the closing refrain of “Sayonara, sayonara” feels way too much like tempting fate.In Hyacca’s case, the bassist, Seiji Harajiri, was by this time managing the coolest and best venue in Fukuoka, Yakuin Utero, and so he and his band used Utero and its PA engineer to record a new song, Uneko. Uneko was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for from them, both catchy and musically intelligent — the exact right balance of smart and dumb that only they can really pull off in this particular way. The video we later made for it where I filmed them with a cheap pocket camera just goofing around and getting drunk in a karaoke box was actually one of the spare ideas for Zibanchinka that their indefinite hiatus had left us with, and Hyacca attacked it with gusto. Looking to the label’s future, Hysteric Picnic went on to record an EP/mini album for Call And Response, while hopefully Jebiotto and Slow-Marico will follow in one form or another.Hyacca: UnekoThere were a lot of other bands on DA1AM who were in similar positions, having been out of the recording game for a while and happy for the opportunity (and the deadline) that the compilation gave them. Extruders had just recorded a wonderful live album at a Buddhist temple, and were looking to go into the studio to record an album proper soon (the result, Colors, was another of 2013’s best) and so they came up with Collapsing New Buildings (translate it into German and see what you get) with its constant electric buzz running through the whole song in the background, causing me and the friend who was helping make the master copy to spend a while debating whether it was intentional or not (it was). The Mornings’ debut had been my album of the year back in 2011, and they were just starting to put together material for the follow-up (Christ alone knows what’s going on with that — I heard a full album’s worth of rough mixes last summer but no final version has yet emerged) so Fu-ji was what got them back into gear. Puffyshoes contributed the short and sweet girl-group garage rocket Oh My God, went on to have a busy 2013 and released a great cassette album before exploding in a shower of unfulfilled potential, while Otori recorded the brilliant Hanten (which is their best song and I’m incredibly smug that I got it), Anisakis did the XTC-esque Popcorn Bata ni Kuroi Kage, She Talks Silence gave the album the eerie Long Ways, and New House did the sampledelic Natural Blessings (the last song to arrive, just a couple of days before the album went off to press, and which much to my shame I misprinted as “Nature Blessings” on the jacket — and which also ensured I’d be an insufferable grammar nazi come time to print the Hysteric Picnic CD jacket the following year).She Talks Silence: Long WaysThe main problem was in knowing exactly what was going to be on the album, and as with the New House track, right up until the final day or so it wasn’t completely fixed. It wasn’t just a problem for printing the track listing, but also for the CD itself. Bands like Futtachi and macmanaman delivered songs that ran to over seven minutes, and at one point there was real danger of it becoming a double album (I went as far as making an alternative track list where I worked out how the tracks would divide over two discs just in case). There were also moments where tensions ran a bit high. New House didn’t make a fuss over the mistake on the jacket, but one of the other bands (no, I’m not naming names: they did a very good song and it didn’t turn into any kind of feud) was very particular about every aspect of how they wished to be presented with tempers flaring on both sides. The problem of projects like this where everyone (myself included) is working pro bono is that you never have the cushion of money to fall back on, so everything comes down to self satisfaction, and often in a related sense to pride. In a small society like the indie/underground scene, however, the axiom of “don’t piss people off” is a solid general rule. It’s a contradiction of rock’n’roll and punk: both bands and labels are in it in the first place because they’re in some way dissatisfied or disaffected, but within the circle you find yourself, you often have to keep under control the same impulses that led you there in the first place.In addition to Hyacca, fellow Fukuoka crazies macmanaman (the best band named after a twinkle-toed former Liverpool winger in the whole world) recorded a live version of their song Michael, which I retitled Michael in Utero partly because it was recorded at a venue called Utero and partly because the combination of a Michael Jackson reference and a Nirvana reference amused me. Along with Tokyo postpunk trio Tacobonds’ superb Ane with its deft boy-girl vocal call and response (by now you must know how I dig that sort of thing) and slowly building dynamic tension, that made three superb recordings at Utero by the same engineer. You want to do good recordings cheap? Get yourself your own live venue and get the staff to do it.Tacobonds: AneStill in Kyushu, Kobayashi Dorori and cynicalsmileisyourfavorite from Kumamoto are also on there. The former contributed an oddball nursery rhyme about whales called Shepherd, while the latter contributed the baffling Carnival. I’m still not sure what I think of Carnival now. It has so much going on, with the insistent dance beat, the post-hardcore shrieking, and you’ve got to admire the balls of the way the one guy just throws everything he’s got into his bit of the vocal melody with zero regard for whether he even gets close to the right notes. But at the same time, cynicalsmileisyourfavorite are one of those bands that are all about what happens in the moment. Carnival is usually a chaotic babble of freshly improvised nonsense, but for the recording they tried to work something out and make a proper song of it, and so while the results are, well, they’re something, they’ don’t quite sound like the band when they’re just left to be themselves. Jebiotto are a very similar kind of band in that regard, but their track, Deacon Punk, with its mad cat meows, dirty synths and semi-inebriated sounding vocals, treads that path more assuredly. But like I said, with cynicalsmile you can’t not admire the sheer weight of passion they hurl at it and for some reason I always come out of hearing Carnival with a smile on my face. I’m just not sure why.The Mornings: Fu-jiOne of the biggest motivating factors for me while putting DA1AM together was the existence of Nagoya label Knew Noise’s wonderful Ripple compilation of local Nagoya bands. Throughout the production process I was listening to Ripple and my gradually forming compilation and comparing them. I would just not be beaten by this collection from one mere city (and not even Tokyo!) Pop-Office contributed to both Ripple and DA1AM, and it’s interesting that both they and Extruders off this CD went on to make albums for Knew Noise. In any case, both albums to me seem to come from a similar kind of taste, and I’ve been keen to make more connections in Nagoya ever since.On the current rate, Call And Response’s next proper compilation is due towards the end of 2015, which will be just in time for the label’s ten year anniversary. In the meantime, there were new Mir and Hysteric Picnic releases to think of.
Another band about whose music I’ve run out of hyperbole to describe, just as Extruders’ self-released live album Pray was one of the best releases of 2012, their full-length studio album Colors is up there with the best of 2013. The first half basically covers the same material as Pray, with delicate, intricately structured melodies delivered with barely more than a murmur by bassist/vocalist Yohei Toriyama and embroidered by the spectral melodies and expertly deployed bursts of feedback and noise that Ryo Okada teases and caresses out of his guitar. The second half of the album sees the band exploring new territory, with the Velvetsy thirteen and a half-minute Luna and in a more tightly focussed form on Elder? Minor? in particular pushing the envelope both in terms of minimalism and expansiveness before cutting to a ruthless and sudden stop. Every sound on Colors seems to have been lovingly fashioned and placed with the utmost precision and care, and behind these 53 minutes clearly lie many hours of work as the group honed these songs down to the glittering, sculpted finished result we see here.Extruders: Elder? Minor?
A couple of weeks ago I interviewed minimalist psychedelic postpunk trio the Extruders, whose new album, Colors, is looking like a shoo-in for album of the year in Japan this year. It was a really interesting interview, and was way too long for the short space allotted to the feature in The Japan Times, so I thought I’d post the full interview transcript here.
One of the points that intrigued me was the claim that a lot of people in Japan think the Extruders don’t seem like a Japanese band. Partly that’s down to their sound, and they do seem to like a certain sort of bluesy chord progression that is rare in Japanese music but quite common in UK/US rock, but I think it’s also concealing something else. Maybe the people who say they’re “not Japanese type” don’t really understand what they mean either, but I think part of the message is really saying they’re not “scene”. In that sense, it’s a compliment on their originality, but perhaps also containing a bit of unease or fear. It’s like when someone comes up to you at work and says, “That’s an interesting tie” — it’s almost a warning that you’re standing out too much. Like I said, I don’t think these people realise that’s what they’re saying: it’s just an unconscious reaction to the fact that the Extruders really are something unique in the Japanese music scene.
Anyway, I’ll leave the rest to the band themselves to explain and just add once more that Colors is a brilliant, brilliant album, and you should get it right away. The members are Ryo Okada (guitar), Yohei Toriyama (bass/vocals), and Toru Iwashina (drums).
Can you start off by taking us through how the band started and developed?
RYO: We originally formed in 2003 with five members, then in 2005 two of the members quit and that’s when the three of us started with this more minimal style.
YOHEI: Then in 2006 we played in the USA, Atlanta, in 2007 we released our first mini-album, Neuter, and then in 2008 our first full album, Hustle & Bustle.
RYO: After that, we needed new blood, so to speak, and so we stopped the band, changed the name, and became Toroid.
YOHEI: It was more freeform, more like noise music, our shows were sort of like a “happening”. Then in 2011, after the earthquake, we played a charity show as the Extruders for the first time in a few years.
RYO: At that time, we thought the structure of the Extruders was suitable for expressing ourselves.
YOHEI: You could say that we “rediscovered rock”.
RYO: We quit playing “ex-Extruders” — “ex-Extruders”, it sounds strange to say it like that! — we mostly threw away our back catalogue.
So was Toroid the same three members?
YOHEI: Yeah, basically the same setup.
RYO: Sometimes we invited noise musicians to play together with us because we wanted something new.
There’s a big difference between the short, postpunk-ish songs on Neuter and the much more expansive, almost psychedelic tracks on Colors…
YOHEI: Before, we played very short songs. We removed anything unnecessary, anything superfluous, and this was my way of expressing myself. We’d cut out refrains or anything we didn’t need. Now, we’re more relaxed, we can express ourselves more freely, so we’re no longer restraining ourselves.
RYO: We found the core of what we’re doing, which I think is part of the reason for the change.
YOHEI: Yeah, we found a core to our music that we’re comfortable with, so we don’t have to restrain ourselves.
RYO: It became more instinctive. Before,we had rules about “what the Extruders is”. With Toroid, we took apart those rules, and when we came back as the Extruders again, we found ourselves more instinctive.
Extruders is a strangely specific band name. How did you end up called that?
RYO: You say the word “strange” and we hear that a lot, but we don’t think we’re strange. People sometimes write about us and say we’re not really a Japanese type band.
YOHEI: I’m not a music geek and I don’t listen to a lot of foreign music. There’s no band where we can say all of us are influenced by. It’s very important to me that I sing the lyrics in Japanese.
RYO: In today’s globalised world, being Japanese is the most global thing we can do.
YOHEI: Rock is basically an imported thing, so a rock band is ultimately an imitation of something external. Rather than being an imitation, we want to take various influences from overseas and interpret them in our own way. This is what feels natural.
RYO: Rock’n’roll has been with us since the ’50s, half a century, and Japanese rock should have its own history.
YOHEI: We’re not working in terms of something like America and Japan. For me, New York and, for example, Kyushu, are the same.
In a way, it sounds like there are two things going on there. On the one hand, you’re saying it’s important to be Japanese, but on the other, you’re saying you don’t want to make distinctions.
YOHEI: I like to think of our art and our place as different concepts. We don’t really have a “home” in the sense of being from a specific place. Japanese or global is not something tied down to geographical location so much as a framework through which we can work. We’ve been thinking about this a lot because people around us often say we’re not like a Japanese band.
That’s interesting, although I’ve just noticed that it doesn’t answer my question of why the name Extruders!
YOHEI: (Laughs) I forgot! Actually, it doesn’t mean anything. I used to have a part-time job fixing machines and I was working on a machine called an extruder, so we took it from that.
So going back to the change in style since the first album, I think the drums are one area where it’s really changed, going from something very tight and minimal, to something much more slippery, almost jazz style.
TORU: With the drums, it’s similar to what they said about the structure of the songs. In the older Extruders, I was trying to be as tight as possible, but with Toroid, we re-evaluated the drums. I took apart my style to the point where really I couldn’t drum anymore and had to figure it all out again. At this time, I rediscovered my love of soul music and the sexiness and eroticism that goes with it — that was the sound I was hearing in my head. I started to see drumming as a big, white canvas and I’d splatter paint over it.
Sort of like “bukkake drumming”!
TORU: (Laughs) That’s a good name! So since re-forming the Extruders, I haven’t seen myself as a timekeeper or rhythm person. To go back the the paint metaphor, now I only paint where it’s needed and only in the amount that’s needed.
YOHEI: I just want to say that the most important aspect of the sound is that we’ve now made our own studio. We took an old, stone warehouse and turned it into a studio, which has helped us find time to shape our sound.
RYO: Before, we had to rent space for maybe three hours at a time, but now, we can work on a song, talk about it, have dinner, or even spend the night at the studio.
You seem to have quite well developed opinions about your music compared to a lot of bands I meet. Do you talk like this a lot together?
YOHEI: Yeah, a lot. We spend so much time discussing our songs — to the point where it’s a bit creepy really. Not just music: lovers, things like that.
RYO: We only get out what we put in, so if we don’t spend time together, it won’t be as good. Being friends is the most important thing.
It sounds a bit different from the rather formal-sounding “band meetings” that lots of groups in Tokyo seem to have.
TORU: We get along, spend lots of time together, so if we set up a formal band meeting, it wouldn’t work, because we always hang out together anyway. It’s more natural to talk normally.
So your last release before Colors was a live album recorded at a Buddhist Temple. None of you are religious in any way, so how did that come about?
RYO: I knew someone at the temple and we were talking about society, the world, life in general, truth, that sort of thing. We shared the same opinions about a lot of things and he mentioned that they were having a ceremony at the temple for Saraswati or Benzaiten, as she’s known in Japan, the goddess of arts. My friend said that if we have those kinds of views, we should perform at the ceremony.
With the video projection you use onstage and the way you bring all your own gear to every show, it often seems like you’re bringing your own little world with you and recreating it on each stage. At the temple show, you didn’t use that, but there seemed to be something in the environment that suited your “world” anyway.
YOHEI: The video thing isn’t something we do for “art” so much as a logistical thing. The temple was our first show in a while so not everything was ready. After that we were playing live venues, and the video wasn’t “art” exactly, just that we were bringing our own gear anyway, so we might as well bring our own lighting arrangement too.
RYO: We didn’t think about it so much. It just wouldn’t have been appropriate to use a projector in that environment.
YOHEI: Before the gig, we were quite intimidated: a lowly rock band performing in front of a god. After, we found we could do it and that was the turning point for us, where we felt comfortable with ourselves as a band.
In Buddhist architecture and gardens, the spaces between objects often seems just as important as the objects themselves, and in your music, as Toru said with his drumming, it often seems like the spaces between sounds are just as important as the sounds themselves. I think that’s why the temple seemed to fit so well.
YOHEI: We don’t do it on purpose, it’s not something we’re conscious of It’s open to interpretation though. One person might feel one way, which is fine, and another might feel differently, which is OK. With the video projection, for us it’s better than lights; it just feels better. The interpretation is up to the audience.
I’m starting to think though, that the idea of space — the physical space to record in, the space in time the studio allows you, the cultural space you exist in, and the space that exists inside the music — that this idea is the key to the story here.
YOHEI: The thing about space, I notice that now, after you’ve said it to me. I’m not aware of it while we’re doing it, but yeah, maybe that’s it.
RYO: It’s as simple as how you feel more comfortable in your own room than in someone else’s room. It’s our own space that we’ve created ourselves, so we feel more comfortable.
YOHEI: It’s important to have a daily space, so we made a studio that looks cool to us, it feels comfortable, and that translates into our live performances. It creates a natural flow between practice and playing shows, not segregated.
RYO: This is very different from our usual interviews! People usually ask us questions about “What music do you like?” or “What are your influences?”
I usually ask those questions when I’m interviewing other bands, but it never seemed to come up this time!
YOHEI: I do want to say that very important influences for us were Ryo Watanabe, who did the mixing, and Yui Kimijima, the recording engineer. Without them, we couldn’t have made Colors. But we’re influenced by everything around us.
(At this point, One Direction come on in the background for the dozenth time in the evening.)
RYO: If I was interviewing One Direction, I’d want to ask, “You’re called One Direction, but which direction? Up, down, left, right?”
Maybe the direction is “Straight into the hearts of our fans!”
YOHEI: In that case, we’re the same! Honestly though, the thing we need most is sales! That will allow us to concentrate properly on our music. Oh, and I want to mention about the artwork by Motoko Otsuki. That’s very important.
RYO: We spoke with her and she understood us, so she allowed us to use her art.
YOHEI: Usually, music is invisible. Album art is usually thought and planned out. In this case, we were introduced to the artist by our engineer, who let us use a painting she’d already done, but afterwards, people will decide about it.
RYO: She sent us lots of paintings and we chose one.
YOHEI: But the important thing is that the person came first, and understood what we were about. It comes from a series called “Party”.
RYO: I want people to interpret the painting’s meaning for themselves.
With 2012 fading in the rear mirror, it’s worth looking ahead to some of the things worth getting excited about over the next year. Some of my favourites from last year are already working on follow-ups, and doubtless more will have come out with new material by the time the year’s out. In addition, my own label, Call And Response, is looking to release in one form or another some of the bands I’m excited about at the moment. So here’s a few suggestions, largely drawn from Call And Response’s immediate circle of bands, of things to look out for over the course of 2013.
Miu Mau:No.1 in my best releases of 2012, Miu Mau have already finished recording two new songs, which they’re currently thinking of releasing as a vinyl single. They recorded it all on analogue equipment and vocalist Masami Takashima claims on her blog that it has more of a 60s sound than last year’s new wave-influenced News EP. Either way, I guarantee it will be super.
Hysteric Picnic: They’ve already put up a couple of new songs on Soundcloud that indicate a growing confidence in their songwriting if their enthusiasm for noise-inflected doom-laden postpunk remains undimmed, and they’re working on more. Hopefully there should be a new EP out by the summer. If no one else releases this, I will.
Jebiotto: This synth-punk trio claim to be hard at work writing new songs for a mini album or EP to be released some time this year. Their last release, Beat End, came out in 2010 so they’re long overdue a follow-up. They did an excellent song, Deacon Punk, for a compilation I released last year, so the new year looks promising. Again, if no one else releases this, I will.
Hyacca: Another band long overdue a new album, this Fukuoka postpunk band are one of the most intense and just plain brilliant bands out there, but their last mini album Hanazono came out in 2009 and apart from a couple of appearances on compilations, they’ve not released much since then. They debuted some new material when I saw them in Fukuoka last month and again, a new album by the end of the year is on the cards.
Extruders: Another of last year’s favourites, minimalist Kanagawa postpunk/psychedelic band Extruders have a new album entitled Colors coming out on Knew Noise Records on April 3rd. It’s likely that the core of the album will be studio recordings of material off last year’s Pray live album, but the release via the ultra-hip Knew Noise label should see them reaching a much wider audience.
Dorolys: Basically the project of one girl, Hazuki Togo, Kagoshima-based Dorolys is a brand new unit with a really nice line in Velvets-influenced lo-fi indie. I saw them for the first time at only their second ever gig, in Kagoshima recently, and they were ace. I’m currently nagging Hazuki to start recording so we can get a cassette or something out soon.
Mir: I’ve been sitting on two or three excellent unreleased recordings by Mir, some of them dating back nearly five years, but which were impossible to release in any form because the band kept splitting up and re-forming and never got the momentum together to put together a proper release. It might have to be a limited release, but the band and I are determined to get these tracks out in some form, hopefully by this summer. EDIT: And Kyohei Hiroki from Mir just informed me on Twitter that they’re busy recording new stuff as well, so there could be a mini-album in it. Fingers crossed.
A live recording on a CD/R presented in an unassuming brown paper bag might not be the kind of thing that would usually compete for album of the year accolades, but Kanagawa’s Extruders are an unusual band in a lot of ways.
They have their most obvious roots in postpunk, a sound more obviously apparent on their short, sharp, but nonetheless understated 2007 debut, Neuter — this is a band who once played a set composed entirely of cover versions from Wire’s second album, Chairs Missing (also, try translating the song title “Collapsing New Buildings” into German). Without obviously changing what they do, however, Extruders have grown in both depth and richness of sound, as well as subtlety, often touching on the lest bombastic fringes of psychedelia. The vocals never rise above a whisper, but the songs are textured with both more melody and more noise. Song lengths have grown, but so has the band’s skill in exploring musical space, and while Kimi no Hane Oto clocks up seven and a half minutes, not a moment of that is wasted.
Fiercely independent, Extruders frequently drop out of the live circuit completely, retreating into the studio for months at a time to work on material or new recordings; when they do play shows, they insist on bringing all their own gear to gigs regardless of what equipment the venues already have; and they rarely play without their own video projection backdrop. Every performance they make is more a self-contained art performance than a gig as such, and the atmosphere they create onstage is so absolute that even the rowdiest punk audiences are reduced to awed silence within seconds.
They are also a band with a keen sense of not only musical space, but also the physical space the music inhabits, which is why the decision to do a performance dedicated to Benzaiten/Sarasvati, the Buddhist deity of art, at Saimyoji temple in Niigata is far more than just a gimmick. Pray contains the entirety of the band’s short live set, with the addition of two studio versions, and without getting into the spiritual relationship between the music and religion (and the dangerous descent into hippy twattery down which such lines of thought are often the first step), we can say perhaps that the minimalism and detail of Extruders’ music are a good match for the sparse aesthetics of a Buddhist temple and its grounds.
And this level of attention to detail naturally extends from their performance to their music. Every sound, from the most delicate, melodic guitar phrase to the most earsplitting explosion of feedback is delivered with laser precision, and while their stage manner is for the most part static, this imbues even the smallest movements with greater impact. In particular, the guitarist is constantly exploiting the theatrical potential of even the most mundane aspects of the act of playing music, from his position relative to the audience and the movement of a guitar stroke, to the act of unplugging his guitar in order to play a noise solo with his fingers on the loose cable. Even on an audio recording like this, these subtle flourishes are timed intricately enough that they occasionally carry across, as on the closing track (of both the concert and in its recorded incarnation the CD) track, Mono.
Pray may have been released humbly and without fanfare, but it’s a beautiful record from one of the best bands in Japan. Extruders are currently barricaded in the studio, working on a new album for release spring 2013, and you’d be fools to miss it.
Full disclosure: A studio recording of the song Collapsing New Buildings was also included on my label, Call And Response Records’ Dancing After 1AM compilation.