Tag Archives: Hikashu

Interview: The Bathhouse Show

For those of you in Tokyo tomorrow (Saturday, February 13th), I recently did an interview with Ella Krivanek and Dorothy Siemens, who have put on this fascinating looking free art and music event at an abandoned bathhouse. The event features Melt-Banana and Hikashu, who are two of the best bands in Japan, as well as relative newcomers The Fin and The Boys Age, so get on down there early and check it out.

Here’s the interview in The Japan Times, so please check that out.

Because of the limited space, there was a lot of fascinating stuff that I just couldn’t include. Obviously as a music writer, the musical aspect of the event was the angle that I approach this from, although the event is clearly designed so that the art and music interact conceptually in various ways. As the person in charge of the music, I was particularly interested in some of what Siemens explained about how the music functions as art and how the borders artforms can be crossed, subverted or blurred.

“I was interested in getting bands that bridged a certain gap between art and music,” Siemens explained, “Koichi Makigami from Hikashu also works as a sound artist, and Melt-Banana have broken a lot of barriers – there’s a juxtaposition there in the whole descriptor of ‘noise music.’ Meanwhile Boys Age make music out of their bedroom – it’s very DIY and it’s very immediate.”

In the context of my travels around Japan and my interest in the relationship between music and the place in which it happens, this event touched on a lot of themes that I find interesting as well. I remarked on the way smaller towns and more remote areas push different kinds of stuff together that would never usually interact in Tokyo, and how this often leads to more interesting, unexpected or imaginative work as a virtue of necessity.

“The most exciting projects have taken place outside Tokyo,” agreed Krivanek, “There’s a side of it that says because there aren’t as many spaces, people have to make do with sharing space, but the other side is that they have the opportunity to do that because space isn’t nearly at such a premium, so you can rent physically bigger buildings. And people who are slightly weird in the countryside are drawn to one another regardless of whether they’re all fine artists or all musicians or whatever.”

There is also a sense that through this approach, it might be possible to point a way towards a new way of thinking about and doing music and art in Tokyo as well. In the music scene especially, I get the impression that some of the structures, like the live house system, are fraying at the edges, with people increasingly looking to alternative spaces to perform.

“There’s a need to look at new ways of doing things and beak out of these rigid structures of ‘this is how you become an artist or a musician’,” explained Siemens, “There are people who get sponsorship from galleries or sign to a major label, but that’s not the majority of people. It’s an opportunity to start a discussion in Tokyo about how we can do this in a new way, how we can create a new community of artists and musicians that support each other here in Tokyo.”

As Krivanek adds, “In terms of an intersection between fine art and music, I don’t think either that’s a new thing or something to be afraid of.”

This also brought to mind one of my pet concerns about music, which is the way that as it loses its value as a commercial product, it increasingly seems to be becoming subservient to lifestyle accessories and fashion, when really it deserves respect and consideration as an art in its own right. Perhaps aware of the near-Satanic position that one particular kind of goods holds in Call And Response Records demonology, this point kicked off a little exchange that made me chuckle:

SIEMENS: “There are so many of these lifestyle-branded bands that come with the pins, the t-shirts, the mechandise…”

KRIVANEK: “The tote bags!”

SIEMENS: “We have this opportunity to pull music back into this conversation of exploring it as a fine art”

All of which I absolutely agree with (even if they were taking the piss out of my irrational disdain for poor, innocent tote bags a bit).

Another related point we discussed was the way they decided to keep enough of a separation between between the musicians and fine artists, so that each has the space to be considered in their own right rather than as simply a soundtrack to the art or a visual accompaniment to the music. However, Krivanek and Siemens are intrigued by the possibilities this juxtaposition might open up in terms of what visitors take with them from the music into the art and vice versa when travelling between areas. In any case, like I say, if you get a chance, check out the show.

The event page on Facebook is here, or on Tokyo Gig Guide here.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.1 – Hikashu – Ikitekoi Chinmoku

Ikitekoi Chinmoku

CD, Makigami Records, 2015

Any Hikashu album would be a contender for album of the year, and it’s only the fact that they come so thick and fast that I haven’t always heard the avant-garde ‘pataphysic rock band’s latest offering in time for compiling these rundowns.

This time round I have, and here it is. I wrote about this album back when it was initially released, and the way its overarching sense of playfulness and fun links together the music that ricochets back and forth between melody and experimentalism continues to elevate it above almost anything else out there. To Hikashu, the tools of pop and the avant-garde are just different elements in the same bag, available for them to reach for at any moment, to achieve a particular effect. At times they seem to have abandoned the idea of composition entirely in favour of this grab-bag of different elements, but they are by now such assured performers that they carry it off with aplomb.

Hikashu: Naruhodo

Frontman Koichi Makigami’s voice remains the group’s most striking and versatile instrument, bouncing back and forth between extraordinary range of sounds, from rich baritone to helium-voiced babble and sandpaper growl. Where his own mouth proves an insufficient tool to achieve the sounds he wants, he is able to draw on a range of other instruments, with theremin and trumpet among the most conventional. He throws it all into the nearly seven-minute Altai Meiso, a virtuoso display of doing everything except pop music and apparently having immense fun doing so.

I keep coming back to the idea of pop music when writing about Hikashu, because no matter how weird they get, the relationship between what they do and pop music is nevertheless ever-present. The moments where more traditional songwriting collides with Hikashu’s more freeform approach are often the most thrilling, with Iroha Moyo recalling a Berlin period Bowie in its mix of jazz-influenced soundscape and tormented, claustrophobic guitar, albeit with a lighter touch and less pervasive sense of portent. Even so, they provide moments of beauty on tracks like Konna Hito, where the band just seem to allow themselves to be pulled where the music takes them, and the more straightforward tracks (this is always a relative term where Hikashu are concerned) like Shizuka na Shaboten provide occasional reminders of what a normal pop song might sound like.

Hikashu are a band whose range continues to grow with every new release, and if anything the pace of their creativity seem to grow faster as they get older. On the basis of Ikitekoi Chinmoku, we should hope they never stop.

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Strange Boutique (May 2015) – The 80s band boom and Tokyo’s live music infrastructure

The topic of my May Japan Times column deals with the relationship between the 1980s “band boom” and the current state of the live music scene in Tokyo and some other parts of Japan.

It came out of a conversation I had with Koichi Makigami of Hikashu when I was interviewing him for my book (which is nearly finished now, so keep your eyes on this space), when he noted that the explosion in the number of bands in Japan in the early-to-mid-80s went hand-in-hand with both a rapid growth in the number of venues and a rapid reversal in the financial relationship between venues and bands. If anyone wants to know where Tokyo’s annoying pay-to-play live system comes from, this is it.

As I’ve said before, I dislike the “noruma system” but at the same time I’m ambivalent about it in some ways. Basically, noruma means that a large majority of shitty, no-mark bands subsidise a huge, well-equipped infrastructure for those who can make it work for them. This may not seem fair, but a system where venues depend not on bands’ pockets but on their fans for revenue would be unfair as well – it’s just that a different sort of music would benefit (a sort of music that already does pretty well out of the current system actually).

However, I do wonder if that system is finally crumbling after all these years. Young bands (those that even bother playing live rather than just making wispy indietronica on their laptops like wusses) increasingly seem drawn to the many alternatives to paying noruma at regular live venues, and that may be starving the more traditional venues of the next generation of bands. When Shibuya Echo was open, it became a sort of hub for young indie musicians and DJs, and that role seems to have moved mostly to Ebisu Batica now. Neither Echo nor Batica are/were good venues by typical Tokyo standards, but they are/were cheap to use, and in the end the compromises in terms of sound quality, space and (at Batica) high drink prices appear to be worth it to many.

Similarly, the small studio complex Koenji Dom, which has always hosted occasional gigs, now seems more like a venue than a studio, with events on every weekend. It’s leading to a slightly frustrating trend towards over-stuffed gigs at venues that are too small to handle it, simply because the venues are cool and easy to make money from, but then who is to blame for there not being a viable alternative?

The counterpoint to this argument, however, is that these venues are simply petri dishes where bands and scenes can grow before stepping up to the “real” venues. Shibuya Home seemed to occupy that role for a while, and perhaps thanks to friendly booking staff Shimokitazawa Three seems to have taken its place now. In this sense, maybe a sort of new synthesis between DiY and “real” venues is forming.

Still, making that step up is difficult. At a small 30-50 capacity venue, you can set a ¥1000 ticket price and not lose money – maybe even make a small profit – but as soon as you step up to a 50-100 capacity venue, suddenly the rental bar necessitates a new standard of ¥1500-¥2000 tickets, instantly wiping out a large part of the attraction of your smaller events. You either have a choice between overcrowded and shitty sounding but financially viable events or spacious and nice sounding but money-losing events. The infrastructure as it currently stands really doesn’t provide much in between.

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Hikashu: Ikitekoi Chinmoku

Ikitekoi ChinmokuOccupying a respectfully regarded but also somewhat at-a-distance position on the fringes of the Japanese music scene, Hikashu are in the midst of one of the most productive periods of a career that is rapidly approaching forty years, releasing material at a faster rate than the music scene can really process, imbued with a level of inventiveness, imagination and creative energy that few younger bands can match.

Hikashu are a band who were born out of Koichi Makigami’s need for music to soundtrack his theatre group in the late ‘70s, and there’s a theatricality running through Ikitekoi Chinmoku, both in the dramatic vocal delivery of songs like Iroha Moyo and Magma no Tonari, and in the song structures which rarely conform to the traditional pop format, instead painting winding musical narratives of their own. The album itself projects a semi-theatrical structure with the opening title track and closing Okitekoi Densetsu bookending the album with shared, and rather eerie, musical motifs.

Given that they are a band who coined the term ‘pataphysic rock to describe themselves, it should come as no surprise that it’s a particularly absurdist, Dadaist kind of theatricality too. Makigami’s vocal arsenal of squeaks, rattles, baritone drones, throat singing and other nonsensical interjections is engaged in a near constant dialogue with the brass, keyboards and Mita’s erratic guitar phrases. Tengri Kaeru and Melon wo Narase! Beluga in particular are alive with a broad cast of musical voices engaged in a furious if largely incomprehensible conversation.Hikashu: Naruhodo

The synthesiser that ricochets between the speakers in Konna Hito and the rhythm machine that underscores Naruhodo refer back to the band’s technopop roots, but Hikashu are a far looser, more jazz-influenced band – they always had more in common with Henry Cow than Kraftwerk. Despite the album’s New York recording, there are also echoes of the band’s recent Siberian tour experiences, as in the babbling scat of Altai Meiso, where Makigami’s vocal workouts express themselves to their (il)logical extreme – although who would bet against him finding a new border to push in time for the band’s next album.

What remains remarkable about Hikashu, however, is that through all their freeform rambling, they never completely lose the sense of themselves as a pop band. Shizuka na Shaboten is a fine sub-three-minute pop song, albeit with more theremin than the average Oricon chart topper, and even at its most avant-garde, Ikitekoi Chinmoku overflows with a joyful sense of childish fun.

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Strange Boutique (March 2013)

In my most recent Japan Times column I wrote about the sempai-kohai dynamic (i.e. the seniority-based hierarchy) in Japanese indie music. It’s a tricky area because it’s something that runs all through Japanese society to varying degrees, but it varies in strength and manifestation from one arena to another, and even from one part of the music scene to another.

It also leaves it open for smart alecs to butt in and make wise-sounding remarks to the effect that hierarchies are present in all societies, not just Japanese, and hey, don’t Western bands do just the same? Well in answer to that, they don’t, or at least not in this way. Bands in Europe or America suck up to people they think are famous or might be useful to them, but that’s not the same as the pure seniority-based hierarchy you see in Japan. Whether it’s a bad thing or not is harder to say.

The first thing to say is that it runs deepest and strongest in university band circles. Last year, some friends of mine from France and I organised a small party called Kill Your Sempai with some bands, DJs and silly, situationist art. One of the audience there couldn’t understand the event title: “‘Kill Your Sempai”? Why would I want to kill my sempai? I like my sempai!” Now no one’s stupid enough to think that we really did want people to go on a murder spree, so it’s clear that it was the general sentiment against the idea of the sempai that he couldn’t get his head around. And that is the question in a way: why be against this idea?

The guys from DYGL I spoke to agreed that people tend to respect older musicians regardless of talent, but they seemed to have a good relationship with their own sempais. Kyu-shoku are DYGL’s seniors and they’re a cool band, decent people, who don’t lord it over others and DYGL have never felt external pressure to the extent of having to become more like a hardcore band themselves (although certainly some other bands have). It’s weird though. At the band circle event that I was partly reporting from, Kyu-shoku played a terrific set to a packed crowd of adoring juniors, and yet I’ve seen Kyu-shoku numerous times — I even booked them to play my birthday party at the same studio venue last year — and they’re a perennial opening act in the “real” live scene, who bring a handful of friends but by no means pack out venues, so where were all these adoring fans on all those occasions? Are these people really fans, or are they just club members having fun in front of the band in a way that they’d have fun in front of any band?

Given how few of these music circle members seem to transfer out into the local live scene proper, I’m going to stick my neck out here and say most of the people supporting these college bands aren’t really into them or indeed music at all really. They maybe have a few albums and like the idea of alternative music, but they have no real intention of carrying their interest or support past the strictly-defined play area of the university arena — certainly not taking it past graduation.

The good thing about that is that it gives college bands a warm, supportive environment and the illusion of making progress at an early stage of their development where the cold, indifferent reality of the live scene proper would probably kill most of them at birth. The negative side is that too many bands seem to take the values of the band circle environment with them when they go out into the scene. They look for new sempai, latch onto certain bands, imitate them, suck up to them at after-parties, listen meekly to the advice of their elders even when these elders are bringing in similar or even smaller audiences than them. And some older bands aren’t as laid back as Kyu-shoku seem to be with their kohai and lord it over younger bands.

Some labels are a bit like this too. I mentioned in the article that sometimes labels seem to neglect young bands at the expense of older, more established acts. I didn’t name names there, but I think you can kind of see it with someone like Second Royal, or maybe Tokyo’s Niw! Records, where there does seem to be a distinct pecking order among the artists and both of which feel similar to university band circles in a way, with their eclectic lineups and socially rather than business-oriented networks. Now they’re both good labels, and anyway, any label with a large enough roster is going to have to prioritise sometimes when there’s only one or two guys running the thing, and in indie labels where resources are sometimes limited, that might be even more the case, but labels should be doing this intelligently by reading the right time to capitalise on popularity across a number of arenas (online and international as well as more traditional methods) and labels should be wary that they’re not allowing “the way things are done” to let chances slip away from artists under their care.

I spoke to Koichi Makigami from Hikashu to get a longer-term perspective and he seemed fairly dismissive of the whole idea in the sense that he recognised its existence but seemed to see it as an unnecessary annoyance and a distraction from the music. He noted that there were in the past always some people who expected to be spoken to in the correct, respectful way, but seemed to think that he’d never really lost out as a result of that scenario. Other people I chatted to from that same 70s and 80s generation said that you couldn’t really have a strict sempai-kohai thing going on because the scene was too small then to accommodate it. There just weren’t enough bands, so if you were good, you were in demand regardless of your age.

Of course this is quite a narrow focus on an area of arty, largely middle-class music. In more working class genres and other places where the influence of the yakuza is strong, for example visual-kei, hardcore punk and weird cults like Johnny & Associates, the sempai-kohai dynamic is also strong, but I think for different reasons. I also think that AKB48’s emphasis on fan voting to determine the group’s hierarchy (the girls are all signed to different talent agencies, so there’s less of an internal hierarchy in the traditional sense) does something interesting to the structure, but that’s another article. Back in the more rarefied world of alternative rock, I wonder if the way that rock music has become acceptable in mainstream society, the way it can now be a thoroughly respectable part of any student’s extracurricular activity, might also have codified some of the more traditional social dynamics into what had been by its very nature an act of rebellion.

As you can see, I’m kind of ambivalent about it. There are lots of good things about the university band circle environment, and I wouldn’t want to lose that if the sempai-kohai structure was torn down. But then again, I would hope that common decency would be able to step in in its place.

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Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Ninja Re Bang Bang

Over the past year or so, it seems that of Yasutaka Nakata’s two big mainstream producer/songwriter gigs, Perfume appear to have got the better deal on the singles, while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has tended to do better for herself on album tracks. Part of that might be down to him having spent more time with Perfume so he knows what kind of thing works with them, partly it might be something to do with them just being the bigger of the two artists from a commercial point of view, at least for now. Mostly though, I think it’s got something to do with the way that in contrast to Perfume’s modern and sophisticated image, Kyary’s appeal is based on her offbeat kookiness, and so her music works best when it’s a bit off the wall, whereas singles, especially ones designed for big ad campaigns, are naturally a bit wary of anything too odd.

Either her commercial backers are starting to feel more comfortable with the viability of Kyary’s weird side or Nakata’s getting better at working that aspect of her into a more mainstream context though, because since last Autumn’s Fashion Monster, things have been getting a bit more interesting on the singles front and Ninja Re Bang Bang might be her best single since her debut, Ponponpon.

Unlike some of the more intense moments of Plus-tech Squeeze Box-influenced sugar-rush mayhem on last year’s Pamyu Pamyu Revolution album, Ninja Re Bang Bang is a fairly straightforward piece of bubblegum pop with a formula diverging little from the one that Nakata seems to have established for the standard Kyary single — the bouncy rhythm with a bit of an off-beat and the cheap, early-2000s Mini-Moni synths — but while there’s superficially and structurally not that much different between this and some of her more mediocre singles like Candy Candy, Ninja Re Bang Bang has a bit more of a kick.Perfume: Voice

There’s a formula that Nakata seems to have hit upon with Perfume a while back, which involves taking the slick, modern electropop elements of their sound, feeding 70s/80s kayoukyoku and new wave melodies through it, and embellishing with toy technopop bleeps and bloops, with the end result of something both aggressively modern, recognisably classic, and retro-futurist all at the same time. It’s a sound early capsule flirted with too, but it’s most obvious in songs like Laser Beam, with its YMO-influenced Asiatica, or in the way the chorus of Voice is only a couple of notes shy of avant-pop weirdos Hikashu’s Pike.Hikashu: Pike

This combination of classic, modern and retro-futurist not only enriches the sound, but also hits buttons in audiences that are plugged directly into positive sensors in their brains, feeding the sensations of innocence, optimism and a burgeoning confidence in Japan’s own sophistication and global emergence that the late 70s and early 80s evoke. It’s a feeling that goes way beyond mere national nostalgia too: it’s a sound that hooks in neatly to a lot of the positive notions of Japanese pop culture that exist abroad, sidestepping the uncomfortable and infantile cryptosexual fantasies of otaku culture and painting an image of Japan as the colourful, ultra-modern Oriental utopia it still in many ways is (and which Korea is rapidly in the business of usurping).

So to come back to Ninja Re Bang Bang, it kicks off with a little 8-bit synth flourish and then dives straight into one of those YMO-ish choruses from the starting gun, it pulls on all the retro Asian pop clichés it can in the instrumental breaks and ties it all down to the established Kyary rhythmical formula. There’s something like a verse in there somewhere that does fuck all melodically, but the song dispenses with it as quickly as it can in order to get back to the crucial business of just repeating that insanely catchy chorus over and over again, and the result is an utterly straightforward and quite lovely piece of bubblegum pop.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.8 – Hikashu – Uragoe

This is another one where I’ve already said everything I really want to say about it in previous posts so please check those out if you haven’t seen them already. My Japan Times review of this album is online here and my brief additional comments are here.

Hikashu are pretty much my favourite band in Japan — certainly my favourite that I haven’t actually released myself via my label. On Uragoe, they spend about a third of the time on messed-up avant-pop and the rest is just completely fucked up avant-garde jazz weirdness. Koichi Makigami’s voice is such a versatile instrument, and he uses it to make some unbelievably odd sounds, but the sense of fun that pervades the album means that it never descends into navel gazing self absorption. I find them very difficult to describe or discuss because there just don’t seem to be the words to do justice to what a unique thing Hikashu are. Sadly, I couldn’t find any audio of video clips of the stuff on this album, so here’s a live clip of them from a couple of years back, deconstructing the hell out of their own song, Pike:

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