Tag Archives: Groundcover.

Strange Boutique (August 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Call And Response releases from Futtachi and Jebiotto

After months of too-ing and fro-ing, gathering materials, putting together and checking documents, sending out futile emails, and making stuffloads of mistakes anyway, my Call And Response label has two new albums out on the same day. In both cases, rather than being put together and put out by me solely, the releases were carried out in collaboration with the bands themselves. In theory, this offered a compromise between self-releasing and doing an actual label release in which everyone benefits, although in practice, it’s hard to tell to what extent that’s the case. The feeling you get at opening a box of CDs fresh from the manufacturer and seeing the physical product finally there and existing at you in all its glory is still the greatest feeling you can get as a label guy though.

Futtachi: Tane to Zenra

Futtachi: Tane to Zenra

Futtachi are a band I’ve been working with since they began and before even that through vocalist Iguz Souseki’s previous band Zibanchinka. They’re a psychedelic band whose music varies depending on which collection of members happen to be working together, from fierce, heavy rock at one extreme to this first album Tane to Zenra at the other. Based around Iguz and guitarist O-mi’s iteration of the group but featuring all members on the recording, it features a single thirty-minute track built around a throbbing, almost industrial beat and layered with spectral, kosmische sounds and effects. Watching Iguz and O-mi perform live as a duo on N’toko’s last Japan tour back in the spring, the material that now features on this album was spellbinding. As a half-hour track, it’s hard to provide any audio material to hear the album from, but there will be some sort of digest or edit up at some point to give you an idea. The physical CD is available via the Call And Response store here, and I’ve blogged a few other places where it’s available (including iTunes) here.

Jebiotto: Love Song Duet

Jebiotto: Love Song Duet

The second release of the day is Jebiotto’s Love Song Duet. With Jebiotto, the challenge of recording the album was in how to get a popular live band, whose appeal is to a great degree based around their unpredictability and general scuzziness, across on record. Added to that is the fact that most of the songs themselves are built around synth parts and melodies that are clearly coming from a much poppier place. So what do you do? Do you emphasise the scuzziness and make a lo-fi album that fans will at least understand as the same band they enjoy so much live, or do you try to make something that works as a pop album and accept that some of the raw energy of the band will be lost in the sheen. You can see these contrasting pressures in the way the recording credits are shared between Takaaki Okajima, who is a proper pop producer, and Yuichiro Kusaba, who is an engineer at legendary Tokyo punk venue Ni-man Den-atsu (20000V).

I think the balance worked out superbly, and makes Jebiotto a really fun band to write about. Some of the little journalistic turns of phrase I’ve used over the past couple of months to describe them include: “three punks who set out to be an 80s stadium band but got lost somewhere between Dan Deacon and Sonic Youth,” “like Bon Jovi wrapped in tin foil, falling down some stairs,” and “like TM Network in a washing machine with some rocks.” These sorts of phrases are the stock-in trade of music writers everywhere and once you break them down, they’re quite formulaic, but when you’ve got a nice image and a band that really suits it, they can be really fun descriptive tools. Again, the physical CD is available from the Call And Response shop here, and I’ve blogged a few more places here (no download release yet, but a Bandcamp is in the works). You can also listen to a couple of the poppier tracks from the album here:

We did something a bit fancy with the Jebiotto album by making an EP of remixes, featuring tracks by Nature Danger Gang, DJ Memai and Ataraw from Groundcover. as a free gift for people buying it from Disk Union, which was new territory for me. With Futtachi, I’m still hopeful to get some sort of live disc as a promotional extra for one of the indie record stores who’s been nice to us. As usual with any new releases, the time leading up to and around the release is fraught with stress, pressure, and usually edged with disappointment as ambitions and dreams give way to harsh realities of a local market that seems to be both shrinking and coalescing around a model for selling indie music that I both dislike on an aesthetic level and disapprove of on an ideological level, but in any case, we’ve done it now and no one can take that away from us.

Both Futtachi and Jebiotto are playing next month on September 27th at an all-day live extravaganza at 20000V along with many other friends of the label to celebrate ten years since the first Clear And Refreshing live showcase, so as one font of anxiety starts to dry up, another emerges. The cycle continues.

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CAR-94 – V/A: Post Flag

Post Flag

CD, Call And Response, 2008

This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.

By 2008, I was looking to do another compilation. Bands come and go, and I’m always discovering new music, so every three or four years, I always find myself looking to do another compilation, not just of Call And Response artists (there are few enough of those) but also of artists around me, that I like, that I book for my live events, and that represent something of where my head is musically at that time. At about that time, I’d been getting into the alternative scene that seemed to have coalesced around Akihabara Club Goodman at that time. In 2005 it had all been about the Kansai area, but that scene had started to die out by 2007, while there were a lot of good Tokyo bands reaching maturity, if not quite the same levels of buzz. At the same time, a lot of what was interesting about the music these bands were making was in how it seemed to be reconstructing rock outside the constraints of Anglo-American 60s forms. It was like being in a parallel world where instead of The Beatles and The Sex Pistols, the dominant creative forces behind rock and punk had been Can and Public Image Limited. So what I thought of doing was making an album of cover versions of 1970s Krautrock as a way of drawing a parallel between the way bands from 70s Germany and modern Japan were both remaking rock without paying tribute to the Old Gods as it were. As I discussed that project with various people, it seemed like it would be quite daunting, and I found the project running away from me. At about the same time, I heard the album Never Mind The Bollocks “Here’s the Softly!”, a compilation put together by neo-Shibuya-kei label Softly! Records that covered The Sex Pistols’ album track by track. Now I hate The Sex Pistols. They’re the utterly overrated, musically uninteresting and regressive, and they suck suck suck. But the covers album was really interesting, partly because the songs are so simple and stupid that they forced the bands to reconstruct them a bit in order to add their own character to them. This got me thinking about another, much better but still minimal and musically simple 1977 album: Pink Flag by Wire. Now to say Wire are my favourite band ever would be an understatement. Nothing comes close to them for me. They opened my eyes in a way no band had previously and I doubt any band will be able to again (maybe Guided By Voices had a similar impact on me… maybe), giving me that inspiring feeling that anyone can make music, but at the same time steadfastly refusing to be normal, laughing at convention, and delivering everything through a cloak of lyrical mystery. Chairs Missing remains my favourite album, but Pink Flag is simpler, probably still better known, more iconic, and most importantly had 21 songs on it, which meant I could get a really broad range of bands involved. So the project became a Wire covers album, taking apart Pink Flag and reconstructing it track by track. I wanted to do it properly, so I spent $1,500 buying the song rights through JASRAC (I still legally can’t sell the album in foreign shops or on iTunes), and set to work recruiting all my absolute favourite bands. Getting Totsuzen Danball involved was a coup, because they were one of the very first Japanese punk bands and are in many ways a kind of Japanese equivalent of Wire, and getting Panicsmile was perhaps even more important given their role at the time as a lynchpin of the Tokyo alternative scene. Of Call And Response’s own bands, Mir and Hyacca both joined, the two bands representing the two different angles bands involved in the project were coming from. I didn’t want the album to be a “tribute album” so much as a radical act of reinterpretation, so I didn’t restrict my recruitment to bands who were already Wire fans and the end result was a mix of musicians who knew and loved the band and those who were approaching their music for the first time. Mir were enormous fans (one of the reasons I fell in love with them was that Yoko used to have a Wire reference in her email address) whereas Hyacca despite their similarities and second- or third- hand influence had never heard of them. Some artists took it even further. Groundcover. leader Ataru Mochizuki knew the song they were doing, Lowdown, but didn’t let the other members hear it, instead letting them jam with him on it until something that sounded like Groundcover. came out. Hajime Yoshida from Panicsmile took it even further, recording Strange (based on the REM cover from Document rather than the original) alone in the studio on one night and then giving the result to his band members to improvise over the following day. Eiko Ishibashi (also then a member of Panicsmile, and the only musician who took part in both the Sex Pistols album and this one) just listened to Fragile a dozen times over and over again, and then played an improvised solo piano instrumental based on how the song made her feel. Electric Coma Trio turned 40-second instrumental track The Commercial into a twelve-minute NDW electro-dub epic. When I heard Yolz in the Sky’s version of Pink Flag, I was at first a bit disappointed because of the straight approach they had taken to the source material, which sounded a lot like Wire, but not much like Yolz in the Sky themselves. Once placed in context, however, it became clear how necessary their track was, as a rare anchor in the original amid a swirling sea of radical oddity. This was a lesson I had at the forefront of my mind when doing the Black Sabbath Paranoid covers Valentine’s gift earlier this month, and I made sure that somewhere in it there would be at least one straight take on the song. I was surprised that more bands didn’t do anything with the language, with Mir translating the lyrics of Mannequin poetically into Japanese, Groundcover. gutting Lowdown of most of its contents and just bellowing the title over and over again, and Agolay Culkin just free-associating brand new Japanese lyrics over the chords to Brazil, but as a rule, bands stuck to some approximation of the original English words. With ramshackle and gloriously cute punk-pop party band And About Hers, this was essential, and the sweary lyrics of Mr. Suit work brilliantly with their irrepressibly happy vocals, emphasising the absurdity and satire of the original song (surely Wire were taking the piss out of the dumb anti-authoritarian stance of so many of their contemporaries with likes like, “I’m tired of fucking phonies, that’s right I’m tired of you! No no no no no no Mr. Suit!”) The cover art was done by my friend Akiko Yoshida, who is one of the most important people in my whole involvement in Japanese music, with her band The Students being the first group I really discovered and who really were singlehandedly responsible for introducing me to the live scene back in 2002. Unable to hold down a steady lineup and never satisfied with their own recordings, Akiko was at least able to contribute to this project by doing her own “cover version” of Pink Flag‘s jacket art, reconceptualising the flag as half a dragonfly in a way that no doubt seemed logical to her. Again, her approach was just right though, preparing you for what you’re getting before you even break open the case. Given that Wire remain pretty much unknown in Japan and bearing in mind the idiosyncratic approach to recruiting bands, it was never going to be a big commercial success, but it did OK and seems to have achieved some sort of cult respectability in underground circles. I’ve always been rather wary about Wire themselves hearing it though. I informed them that I was doing it during the early stages of its production, but never tried to contact them after that. The whole don’t-meet-your-idols thing really, but I think the resulting album in its utter lack of respect for the sanctity of the original material is at least true to the spirit of what Wire continue to stand for, and more than that was a teriffic document of the Japanese underground scene.

Post Flag is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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Strange Boutique (November 2013)

My latest Japan Times column talks about the Tokyo Boredom event, which did a two-day extravaganza in Taipei alongside a bunch of Taiwanese bands this September, and which is gearing up for its next Tokyo installment on Saturday night in Shimo-Kitazawa.

It was all done from a very Japanese perspective, and I think it would have been interesting to get input from bands on the Taiwan side of things to see what influence or inspiration they feel they’ve got from Japan. Still, it’s good to hear of Japanese music actually having a tangible effect on musicians in other countries. It’s pretty obvious from listening that Hang in the Air had some influence from bands like Six O’Minus and Arakajime Kimerareta Koibitotachi E, for example. Mochizuki from Groundcover.’s comment that the scene there seems to have grown up a lot was interesting, although obviously when you’re talking about underground scenes in huge cities, it’s not always easy to put influences like that into perspective — Tokyo Boredom (and probably its counterpart in Taiwan) represents a very small fraction of what the music scene here is about. That said, comparable scenes influencing each other should be the norm in Asia, and this sort of international cooperation and willingness to exchange influences feels to me like a very positive thing.Groundcover.: io

Like any event run by a bunch of friends and scene insiders, Tokyo Boredom can seem a bit cliquey to outsiders (I’ve been involved in the scene for about ten years and have dealt with nearly all the Boredom bands in various capacities, but a lot of these guys go way further back with each other), but despite this, or perhaps because of this, there’s always a great sense of community within the show.

Also, some people have criticised the event for being to narrow and delivering too limited a range of music. I get the impression that the organisers recognise this and make an effort to broaden their horizons, but perhaps as a side-effect of the way the scene’s structured I think their capacity to offer a wider range of music is limited. I regularly try to book bands from different facets of the Tokyo underground scene together and it never really works: people simply won’t go to gigs unless everyone sounds the same. Add to that the fact that all the Boredom bands play in more or less the same circles, and their contact with different stuff (and more importantly their audience’s contact with different stuff) is limited. The truth is that they do a pretty good job of mixing things up within the restrictions of how the Tokyo (things are different in other cities) underground scene is structured.Subterraneans (including intro by Kaita Tanaka from Worst Taste)

Going back to my point about international cooperation, I’d just like to add as an addendum that these sorts of ground-level networks are exactly the sort of thing the government should be assisting. Touring overseas is a pretty much guaranteed money losing enterprise for underground bands. Big labels and name acts can afford it already, but ground level is where the real creative connections are made, and it’s a place where a small amount of money to assist bands with travel expenses could reap enormous cultural benefits in the long run.Milk

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Groundcover./Tacobonds: Summer 2013 U.S. East Coast Tour (June 15th-21st)

Two of the best bands in the Tokyo underground music scene are hitting the U.S. east coast this month in what I promise will contend for the title of most intense, visceral and plain thrilling live shows you will see this year.Tacobonds / Groundcover. tour promo

Groundcover. (the dot is part of their name, presumably to annoy subeditors at English language publications) are a six-piece whose music ranges from heavy, spaced-out dub to screaming, hardcore junk. Like the conductor of a noise orchestra, Ataraw Mochizuki directs the chaos from behind a portable mixing desk, leaping skyward and punctuating the music with echo-effected shrieks and yells, leading it through sonic peaks and troughs but maintaining a brutal, relentless momentum that grabs you in the pit of your stomach from the word go and wrenches tighter with every shift in gear, every new level of noise they reach for, until your ears have long since ceased to be the primary means by which you’re able to experience the music and that panzer rumble in your gut is the only way left to sense the shifts in tone and rhythm. Drawn from a tradition that includes such luminaries as the Boredoms, Groundcover.’s music is a deep sucker punch, at once primal, physical and transformative, it’s also a monolithic sonic experience.Groundcover.: io

Tacobonds are like Groundcover.’s hyperactive kid brother, a flurry of jittery guitar and frantic beats that shift restlessly from groove to groove, marking changes in intensity through these changes in rhythm rather than attempting to reach for the same heights of raw noise that Groundcover. soar. Tacobonds are at their core a postpunk/skronk band in the mould of the Contortions, Gang of Four or The Pop Group, and they tap into the same jagged electricity, combining it with a more fluid approach to rhythm, where songs drift between time signatures rather than sharply jackknife from one to another, often making the boundaries between tracks indistinct in a way that has more in common with dance music than punk.Tacobonds, live at Higashi-Koenji UFO Club, 2012

Where Tacobonds and Groundcover. are firmly united, however, is in the uncompromising intensity of their performance, the virtuosity of their musicianship, and the intelligence, imagination and instinctive physical power of their music. I know this reads like a piece of PR fluff, but these bands are absolutely not to be missed if you have any kind of opportunity to see them on this tour.

Groundcover. & Tacobonds, East Coast Tour, Summer 2013:

(Facebook event info here)

  • June 15th, Baltimore MD, Golden West Cafe, with Echo Hey Hello, 11:00pm, $7
  • June 16th, Philadelphia PA, Phila Moca, with Echo Hey Hello, Heavy Medical, 7:00pm, $10
  • June 17th, Brooklyn NYC, The Knitting Factory, with Echo Hey Hello, Uzuhi, Tom Blacklung and The Smokestacks, 7:00pm, $10
  • June 18th, Wilmington DE, Spaceboy Clothing, with Kind of Creatures, Echo Hey Hello, 7:00pm, $5
  • June 19th, Silverspring MD, Joe’s Record Paradise, with Weekends, Sleep Disorder, Chaos Destroy, 5:00pm, $5
  • June 19th, Washington DC, The Sunshine District, with Weekends, The Flying Tuna, Radiator Greys, 8:30pm, $8
  • June 20th, Frederick MD, The Rats Nest, with Weekends, Cosmic Halitosis, Heavy Breath
  • June 21st, Baltimore MD, Club K, with Natural Velvet, Echo Hey Hello, Adam Lempel, Jeff Carey, Sexgender, 7:30pm (all night), $6

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