Sacoyan is a singer-songwriter from Fukuoka, debuting in a band form here under the name Sacoyans with a hometown supergroup backing lineup featuring Miwako (Miu Mau) on drums, Seiji Harajiri (Hyacca) on bass and Takeshi Yamamoto (Sea Level, Macmanaman, various solo works and what sometimes seems like every other band in Fukuoka) on guitar. Sacoyan’s songs tend towards emotionally wrought balladry in an early Shiina Ringo vein, with the band lineup filling them out and pumping them up with some scuzzy 1990s alt-rock energy. It’s interesting being far enough away from the 1990s that its sounds have claimed a musical territory of their own distinct enough that an album like Yomosue can be confidently called retro. The guitar sounds lean a little bit Oasis in places, a bit Swervedriver in others, and the hard stop the final track JK pulls at the end of its closing feedback freakout is straight out of Supercar’s Three Out Change playbook. It stands on its own beyond the MTV2 nostalgia of its guitar fuzz thanks to the sort of solidly crafted pop-rock songwriting that would have been a crossover J-Pop hit had it only landed in an era when the planets were more favourably aligned for this sort of music.
Tag Archives: Hyacca
I’ve written extensively about Hyacca before, including posts here, here, here and here, so I’ll keep this relatively short except to say that they’re one of the best bands in Japan, an incredible live act, and always a treat to have on the bill at one of my shows. They embody all of the qualities I look for in an artist, mixing something accessible with an anarchic sense of unpredictability and a refreshing disregard for doing things the “right” way, be that adhering to pop conventions or adopting the posture of vacuous, Rockin’ On Japan-style, festival-ready designer indie.Hyacca: Uneko
Vocalist Hiromi Kajiwara will also be taking part in the September 27th anniversary event as part of Miu Mau, and the contrast between her role as Miu Mau’s refined avant-pop guitarist and Hyacca’s agent whirlwind of unmoored chaos is part of what appeals to me about having both bands on the same bill.Hyacca: Hanazono
Hyacca will be headlining my anniversary event on September the 27th, and there are very few bands I’d risk putting on after them.
Another band with roots in Kyushu who are playing at my ten year anniversary event on September 27th are Miu Mau. I know Miu Mau through guitarist Hiromi Kajiwara, who I’m familiar with through through another band she’s in, although both drummer Miwako and keyboard /vocalist Masami both have venerable backgrounds in the Fukuoka music scene too, with Masadayomasa and Coet Cocoeh respectively. With Masami now living in Takamatsu, the group is split between different islands, but they continue to write, record and play together.
In fact, Miu Mau are a band who I’ve never quite been able to believe my luck that I’m able to book, because they really should be huge. They have great tunes, a sophisticated sense of style, and they’re female (which in this idol-obsessed pop cultural environment is marketing catnip). But perhaps due to their geographical remoteness or the relative connectedness of their scene, they’re an oasis of fabulous pop, somehow out their on their own.
Which like I say is lucky for me, because in a lineup that leans so much towards noisy, energetic things, having something so purely but idiosyncratically pop gives the whole experience an extra edge of excitement and interest.
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.
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: Uneko There 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 Ways The 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: Ane Still 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-ji One 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.
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.
Since the start of Call And Response I’d been cultivating connections in Kyushu, and been lucky enough to almost immediately hit on the magnificent and life-changing Hyacca from Fukuoka. The wonderful Accidents In Too Large Field, also from Fukuoka, had contributed to my Wire covers compilation Post Flag, and I’d done stuff live with others. Fukuoka was and remains a musical hotspot in Japan, I think partly because its dominant position as the only really big city in Kyushu (and really the only properly big city west of Hiroshima) means it’s a centre for culture for a much larger area than its actual size.
I first heard about Zibanchinka from Hyacca. Hiromi Kajiwara also plays in a new wave/avant-pop trio called Miu Mau and she came back from a Miu Mau tour in Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu raving to her Hyacca bandmates about this utterly mad band they’d played with down there. Hyacca then booked Zibanchinka for a show they were putting on in Fukuoka with Call And Response’s other main band Mir, who subsequently returned to Tokyo with a mad glint in their eyes. There was this really special, very young band from Kagoshima with a weird name and a lunatic live reputation (yes, this was becoming a theme for Call And Response bands) and we were the first people to discover them.Zibanchinka: Hari to Uruoi
I rarely book bands I haven’t seen for events, but enough people I trusted had been blown away by Zibanchinka that it seemed a safe bet, and yeah. Yeah it was. They were really good.
They were also very prolific, releasing four home made CD/R mini-albums in the space of not much more than a year, which amounts to more songs than Hyacca have recorded in their entire career. We started talking about releasing an album, and so we agreed to wait a while and try to get people interested before going all out with a CD. We put together a live DVD/R which was a bit of a mess if truth be told, and the process of which put me off DVDs forever, and they came to Tokyo a few more times. They recorded a wonderful cover of the song Abunai Doyoubi by 1970s idol group the Candies for the second of my private Valentine’s compilations in 2010, which went down well, then they found a good producer in Kagoshima, selected some favourite songs from their back catalogue plus some new ones they were currently working on and started recording.
The album was recorded, the artwork done, the band had settled on the title Hatsubai Chushi (literally “Stop Sale”) and it all went to press in February the following year. The recording went really well and the sound had really retained their energy and rawness but also captured the depth and richness of sound that the earlier recordings hadn’t got. It sounded professional, but it was still punk. It was a great recording. The songs were crazily short, with the whole album clocking in at shorter than the Hyacca record despite having twice as many songs, and tracks ranging from stuff like Still I’m Sad which was basically hardcore to the nonsensical avant-garde, psychedelia of Chugoku no Niwatori. Then the March 11th earthquake hit and the distribution company refused to put it out.
The problem was the band name. Zibanchinka means “ground subsidence” and while it’s a pretty dry geological term, it was one that was appearing a lot in the news at that time and was linked to a lot of people’s lost homes. No, the distributors couldn’t be seen to be promoting something like that at that time. When might they? No idea. Not for a long time. Tower Records wouldn’t stand for it.
Except that Tower Records in Kagoshima were desperately clamouring for it. The earthquake hadn’t affected Kyushu and while there had been plenty of benefit concerts and things, day to day life in Kyushu hadn’t been disrupted the way it had in Tokyo and certainly not the way it had in the real disaster zone. The weekend after the earthquake I was in Kyushu on tour with N’toko (who himself had been hit by the quake the moment he stepped out of Koenji Station on his way back from Nagoya) and the difference between the atmosphere in Tokyo and Fukuoka was present in everything. After that tense, stressful, anxiety-filled week, Fukuoka was like another country. Kagoshima lives in the shadow of a massive, continually erupting volcano so they’re no strangers to danger from nature, but subsidence was not a controversial issue for them. On the other hand, Zibanchinka had gone from weird, possibly clinically insane garage-punk weirdos to local celebrities in a snap once word had got out that a Tokyo record label was releasing them.
So the CD was here and ready to go, but the distributors were holding it back. In the end, an agreement was reached to let Hatsubai Chushi (the title taking on more and more irony with every passing day) out a couple of months late but only via Tower Kagoshima and online sales. Indie CD stores stocked it and it went down well. In Nagoya in particular they seem to have become extremely hip without them ever having played there. UK-based Japanese psychedelic riffsters Bo Ningen took a shine to them, perhaps bonding over hair styling tips, and toured together with them in Kyushu. In fact I suspect that the exploding popularity of Bo Ningen in Japan did a lot for not just Zibanchinka but any loud bands with that sort of long haired, straight-fringed “hime cut” hairstyle and hippyish clothes. Every time I see how popular the Osaka band Gezan have become, I always get a little bite of regret: that should be Zibanchinka up there!
In January 2012 Hatsubai Chushi was officially allowed in shops, by which time despite its troubles it was a qualified success. Then in the summer the band went on indefinite hiatus with bassist Nana already living in Yokohama and guitarist Maitake moving to Tokyo, the band just couldn’t make it work anymore.Zibanchinka: Nagisa no Hors d’Oeuvres
The last thing we did before the band shut up shop was make this silly and very simple video for the song Nagisa no Hors d’Oeuvres, shot in the space of about half an hour in the toilet the venue Heaven’s Door in the cool Tokyo suburb of Sangenjaya. It’s really the worst possible song to do as a video because it’s a very poppy “Showa pop” (60s/60s style Japanese pop) pastiche and totally unrepresentative of the album as a whole, but it was intended as the first in a series of equally simple videos that would cover the full range of material.
I’ve always loved videos where the director just sticks the camera in front of an intrinsically interesting bunch of performers and films them goofing about. The process of making N’toko’s Superhuman video showed me that things like that can work, and one of the things that I find most irritating about bands in Japan is the tendency among many of them to faff about endlessly trying to do something properly (and then often announcing after several weeks that no, they’re not satisfied with the results so sorry) rather than just getting out and doing something. I hooked up with matt Schley who’d done the N’toko video and explained the concept to him. He could dig it, the band were up for it, and it went so smoothly it was a joy to do.Zibanchinka: Syrup / Still I’m Sad / Toso
While Hatsubai Chushi was predominantly garage-punk with these off-the-wall postpunk arrangements and sudden bursts of Black Sabbath riffing, they’d been hinting at heavier, more psychedelic material by the time they came to a halt, which vocalist Iguz Souseki (her real name is far less dramatic) has been pushing further with her new band Futtachi. She’s starting again from scratch though, and all the momentum that Zibanchinka were building up has been usurped by other bands now. There are lots of other things I have to work on and I’m never short of bands I want to release, but every once in a while the thought stabs me like a knife, “I wish Zibanchinka would get back together…”
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.
While Hyacca are I think without doubt one of the most magnificent bands in Japan, I don’t think they could ever easily be accused of being particularly hard working. The two year gap between their first and second mini-albums is more or less standard for bands in the Japanese indie/underground scene, but it was actually three years since they first completed the record.
In any case, the truth is that a live culture that’s based around 30-minute live sets with usually four other bands on the bill doesn’t really encourage bands to develop their material beyond that level. Songs grow slowly out of messing around in the studio rather than bands really getting down and writing new material out of necessity. It does mean, however, that when the new material does arrive, it’s often very well developed and has been road tested live pretty extensively.
Hyacca’s second album, Hanazono, was in all areas a honing and tightening up of what they were doing on Sashitai. The rhythm section was much tighter and incorporated much more complex patterns, but never at the expense of the music’s energy. 34 Dance opens with the scratchy, metallic reverb of Hiromi Kajiwara’s guitar, a sound that she increasingly incorporated into her playing not just with Hyacca but also in a very different way into her work with new wave art-pop trio Miu Mau. It’s a fierce, forceful opening with rhythms that don’t like to stay in one place but still propel the song forward relentlessly. Olympic brings Goshima’s vocals to the fore and again it rattles forward full of kinetic energy, this time the guitars dissolving into shoegaze-like feedback. The more complex rhythms come to the fore in Aflac and Hair Nude (a different version of which had trailed ahead of the album on the compilation album 14 New Rips. Charlie, a nonsensical tribute to the band’s weird friend from the band Bonkura Togen, sees Kajiwara’s vocals channeling the quirky new wave pop jitteriness of the Plastics, albeit against a more sonically abrasive background. Goshima’s Ya su ku ni, which appears to have as much to do with the controversial war shrine as Aflac does to the duck-loving insurance company, is the album’s one real stab at a proper soaring epic rock song and it goes for it with all effects pedals blazing. It’s the frenetic closing duo of Hanazono and Stress that really drag you back to Hyacca’s core essence, the former forming the madcap, crowdsurfing finale of many of their live performances and the latter split into a first half that’s built around a simple, cyclical melody interspersed with Harajiri’s death-screams and funk bass, and a second half that’s just pure, two-chord postpunk dugga-dugga-dugga disco with a distinctively Wire-esque cold stop at the end.Hyacca: Hanazono
Whereas Sashitai veered wildly between pop and discord, Hanazono integrates the two strands more into the fabric of each song, relying on the group’s growing musicianship to effect changes in tone, pace and texture. It’s tempting for me to suggest that the experience working on Call And Response’s Wire covers album helped focus them on ways of making punk interesting without losing its accessibility, although really Hyacca were doing that from the start, a long time before any of them had heard of Wire. Still, I think Hanazono has a bit more of Wire’s strident, brash affection for the brutal joy of a hard edge.Hyacca: Charlie
Hanazono also seems to mark a shift in the band’s behaviour, with some of the shows building up to and around its release quite the most violent and chaotic of their career. One gig at Meguro Rokumeikan, a converted cinema more used to visual-kei bands, was probably the most insane performance of their career, with Kajiwara smashing the headstock off her guitar within the first two songs, then spending the rest of the gig hurling herself off the stage at the terrified, sitting audience, bodyboarding across it and dancing on its smoking remains. The picture of a broken Flying V that this blog uses as its profile image was taken just after that show. Gradually after that, however, Hyacca started tightening up their performances and focussing their energy into their music more. Perhaps the more technical nature of the music forced them to concentrate a bit more, perhaps the novelty of playing in Tokyo wore off (being from Fukuoka, they tended to treat Tokyo trips in much the same way American college students treat Spring Break) or they may just have grown up a bit. In any case, they didn’t become any less totally wired, but they would more often finish gigs with all their instruments still in working order.
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.
In the last post I said that Hyacca were very important in defining Call And Response Records’ identity, but they weren’t the only band who did that. Just a few weeks after Sashitai came out, I released This Tiny World by Mir, which was equally important in a rather different way.
I discovered Mir at around the same time as Hyacca, in the summer of 2006, or rather they discovered me. They contacted me through Myspace and I listened to some of the rough no-fi demos on their page and fell in a sort of confused love. It was the first time I’d really discovered a great band through social networking, and I made a point of going to their next show.
One feature of the Tokyo music scene that anyone who’s spent time in it will have encountered is noruma, the pay-to-play system where bands are set a quota of tickets they must sell and pay back any shortfall in cash to the venue afterwards. Of course everyone hates it, but ways around it are limited. One way though is to play shows in studios, which are generally cheaper to rent and provide a cosier atmosphere for bands with small audiences. It was at one of these such shows that I first saw Mir live in all their ramshackle glory.Mir: Jidai to Kojin
Musically, they played the most heartbreaking melodies with this all-encompassing atmosphere of loneliness. Named after the Soviet space station, I initially described their music as sounding like being “alone in space in the ’80s”, and there was something sparse about it, often based on casiotone synth drones that the group made by taping down notes on the keyboard, and rhythm alternating between cheap drum machine presets and new wave and Krautrock-influenced live drums. Like Hyacca, one of the things that appealed to me was the way many of their songs incorporated call-and-response elements between the male and female vocals, with Kyohei Hiroki’s emotionally taut delivery often descending into nihilistic yowls of existential pain providing contrasting sonic texture to Yoko “Yoko3” Yamazaki’s clean, sweet, yet icy vocals — a contrast reflected in the music’s tense balance between melody and violent, chaotic noise.
I wasn’t the only person to see similarities between them and Hyacca either. Mr. Taguchi, the owner of Koenji underground record shop Enban, also saw it and did his best to push the two bands together. Once I discovered that this was what he was trying to do, I added my weight to his attempts and once the two bands found each other it was like they’d discovered long-lost siblings. Hyacca had that effect on almost everyone such was the assurance of their musicianship (despite their self-destructive performances, they were obviously damn good musicians) and their easygoing off-stage personae, but Mir were more of an oddity. They were much less certain onstage, far less technically proficient, and the emotional rawness of what they did so often spilled out into what felt alarmingly like real life that most people simply didn’t know what to make of them and approached them warily. On some people, however, they had this intense, magnetic pull and one of the ways Mir have been important for me is as a sort of weathervane when dealing with other people in the music scene: If you get Mir, then you get the core of what Call And Response is about. If Hyacca are the label’s heart, then Mir are its tortured id.
Mir contributed a track to my limited edition 2007 Valentine’s CD/R and then started work on This Tiny World, which as I say, came out a few weeks after the remastered Sashitai. The title was simply a line cribbed from the lyrics of one of their songs, but rarely has one been more apt. Watching Kyohei and Yoko onstage, there always seemed to be a level of communication beneath what we could see, and even when they were down in the audience pushing everyone into a conga line during the song Dance, there was a sense that we were being used as materials by the band as part of some abstract point they were making rather than really being invited inside. It was a world of two, with even drummer Yama-chan somehow separate. Sometimes it was marvellous, and for those who bought into Mir’s tense, beautiful, precarious philosophy, those moments were touched you emotionally in places you didn’t know you needed to be touched. At other times, it was terrifying and disturbing, like seeing Yoko break down in tears onstage at the UFO Club and remain crouched down in a foetal ball for the rest of the show (afterwards, Kyohei comes out with a big grin over his face and announces, “Best gig ever!”) On another occasion their onstage antics ended with them being thrown out by the (admittedly mad) venue owner and punching a member of the audience in a restaurant. Those extremes were rare, and as with Hyacca’s more violent outbursts, largely a feature of the band’s early years.
The opening track, Jidai to Kyojin, remains one of their most powerful, and is a textbook example of the power they managed to get out of the contrast between the twin vocals, ricocheting back and forth between discord and harmony. Pistol and Damashiteirunosa are both what you might call ballads if the term hadn’t been so poisoned by syrupy major label pop over the years and both display Mir at their most emotionally raw, without a punk or Krautrock beat to cling to for momentum, they have to carry it with their voices alone for much of the time (Kyohei’s tense, edgy, will-he-pull-it-off-or-won’t-he guitar solo on Pistol serves a similar function). Hyakunengo and Yononaka Minna Hihyoka are where the group’s love of Krautrock (and they really are obsessive fans of all things Kraut) really comes to the fore, the former starting out with the chords from Pachelbel’s Canon in D over a rhythm preset before the drums kick in, and the latter taking cues from the way David Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging had the members switch instruments, and cribbing the archetypal Klaus Dinger motorik drum pattern in the process.
There’s something of the perennial outsider to Mir, and I’ve never found the right way to sell their stuff so that it reaches the quite specific set of people who seem to get what they do, because with Mir despite the obvious love they have for 70s and 80s music, everything is personal. They’re never less than completely emotionally honest onstage, giving you their best or their worst in accordance to where they’re at in the precise moment, and their appeal is purely emotional as well, tapping into something distinct and hard to single out in the listener. Which is of course what makes them so precious in the first place.