There was of course a lot of Japanese music in 2019 that I didn’t listen to or that otherwise got left out of my top 25 rundown. There were a couple of releases in particular that I liked a lot and on another day might have been included, so first up, here’s a look at a couple of my additional favourites.
CD, Holiday Records, 2019
Bulbs of Passion – Low Life Tokyo indie rock band Bulbs of Passion have been plugging away in the background of the local scene for the best part of the past decade, with a solid catalogue of songs, although as far as I know the only available recording of them before this new EP was 2016’s The Very Best of Bulbs of Passion. For a band named after a Dinosaur Jr. song, Bulbs of Passion’s music has an unexpectedly light touch, the title track soaring out of the traps, kept aloft by billowing reverb, while Slap bounces along poppily on its off-beat. The closing Hurt, meanwhile nods to The Jesus & Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey before once again being launched skyward, powered by the band’s seemingly endless reserves of giddy enthusiasm.
Cassette, Instant Tunes, 2019
Yokoscum – Last Month’s Music An incessant hiss of distortion that may have originated in a guitar, an eerie throbbing electronic pulse, some devotional wailing, metallic hints of a pop melody, occasional gasps of confused desperation. DJ, event organiser and experimental musician Yokoscum’s Last Month’s Music cassette EP is an intriguing little creation, combining lo-fi noise and industrial with vaguely religious sounding mantras and letting the repetitive, insistent nature of both feed each other. The five untitled tracks on this EP are more explorations of an idea than songs exactly, but the results are still interesting and not without a sense of playfulness and fun.
For my own Call And Response label, 2019 was a relatively low-key year, with three new releases (and a fourth that didn’t officially come out until January 2020). As usual, I don’t include releases I helped put out in my own best-of-the-year rundowns because it’s difficult to judge and rank something I was involved in pressing and promoting against other people’s music. Naturally, though, I think all these releases are great, so here’s a quick look at 2019 from Call And Response’s perspective.
Then in October, Looprider came out with their fourth album and first full-length release, Ouroboros. From the start, Looprider have been combining shoegaze and noise-rock-influenced effects-pedal textures with metal and doom riffs, employing a wide variety of approaches from one release to the next. This album is perhaps the purest expression of this essence though, barging back and forth between lush, layered towers of textured rock and grinding garage-metal riffery.
2020 has already started off with some good new releases, and some very interesting stuff on the horizon from Panicsmile, Half Sports, Kasuppa, Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots among others. From Call And Response, we’ve just put out another split 7-inch featuring Tokyo post-hardcore band illMilliliter and Hokkaido’s TG.Atlas, with further releases planned. Whether it’s another year before I update this site again or if I somehow manage to keep on top of new releases a bit better remains to be seen. Hopefully, I’ll manage to be better.
Given that here we are in a fresh new year, it feels appropriately perverse to spend the majority of January wallowing in the backwash of 2014, in a painstakingly detailed series of posts counting down this site’s (by which I mean my) top twenty albums of the year. As with last year’s, I could have made this list much longer, and there’s a lot of superb stuff left out, but since the most important part of compiling a list like this is the filtering and pruning that goes on before the list is completed I resisted that temptation. Before getting stuck in with the actual list itself, however, there are a few things that I want to get out of the way, and a few that I just think are interesting and worth discussing a bit.
Firstly, the usual caveats about what isn’t on the list. I took a pretty liberal interpretation of what constitutes an “album” (which is why I phrase it as “releases” in the title) that includes any EPs with three or more songs, or in theory less if the music is sufficiently expansive and developed (progressive or psychedelic bands will sometimes release a single extraordinarily long track and call it an album, and I generously grant them my permission to do this).
I don’t include my own Call And Response label’s releases in my list, although for reasons I’ll come to later (and will probably develop in more writing I do over the year) there are actually some broader problems related to this due to the changing nature and environment of music journalism. This means Jebiotto’s Love Song Duet and Futtachi’s Tane to Zenra are instantly disqualified even though they are both brilliant, and Lo-shi’s Baku is also disqualified since it is due for a limited vinyl release through Call And Response Records very soon. I also didn’t include the magnificent and utterly ridiculous Black Sabbath covers album that Call And Response gave away for free on Valentine’s Day. Great stuff, but I wouldn’t know how to rate them relative to the other great stuff that came out this year, and including them would get in the way of the authoritativeness and impartiality for which I know I am famed.
One of the other things that happened this year was that Call And Response started distributing CDs by bands unconnected to the label in a limited fashion. Those CDs are eligible for inclusion in the list. I realise it’s a bit of a fine line, but if I love something enough to recommend it through my store, it stands to reason that I love it enough to recommend it on these pages and vice versa. My role still remains an essentially passive one in this instance, so I trust readers of this site not to whine about conflict of interest. As the roles of blogs and labels (not to mention organisers and suchlike) as curators of particular streams of musical taste increasingly converge, this line is an increasingly difficult one to maintain, and I’m feeling my way through it based primarily on what feels comfortable for me. It’s an unscientific process, but I’ll get there in the end.
Of course there were a lot of terrific releases that didn’t make the list because I either didn’t hear them or the wind of my whim at the time of compiling the final twenty was blowing in another direction, so Teen Runnings, Mukokyu Kakokyu Shinkokyu, Compact Club, Chiina and many others can still hold their heads high despite the shame of not making the golden twenty this time.Chiina: Syllabus
I’m going to draw this out to tedious length with (hopefully) daily posts tackling each of the twenty releases I’ve selected one by one, with the first post in the countdown tomorrow, so keep your eyes on this space and wonders await.
Record companies still suspicious of online music and streaming
Advertising and tie-ups increasingly more important than actual sales
Korean music doing better than Japanese music abroad
AKB48 not as popular as they were but still pretty much the biggest thing out there
The way I chose to look at it this time round was from the perspective of what some of the key events or trends of the year tell us about who music is really being made for.
With a group like AKB48, there are a lot of intersecting factors at play as they balance the need to please a number of different masters. As one of my always charming commenters was helpful enough to point out, Google Trends isn’t the only, or the best, measure of something’s overall popularity, and of course their sales are still sky-high. Oricon’s recently-published year-end charts give the group all of the top five singles and the number one album in terms of CD sales, although this figure is fishy as well given the marketing gimmicks that surround CD sales in Japan. The top 40 CD singles was dominated by three organisations: Yasushi Akimoto’s AKB family, the Johnny & Associates boyband farm, and perma-tanned, goateed, twats-in-hats boy band Exile. All these acts boost their CD sales with marketing gimmicks aimed at their fanatical core fanbases, and it’s interesting to note that the only act from outside this axis of evil to make the top 40, comedy “air band” Golden Bomber, released their own song in a plain white case with no extras as a protest against this sort of gimmickry (or/and as a gimmick in itself).
What I was looking at in Google Trends was the general, casual interest in AKB48, in particulat the spikes that occur in June every year around “election” time. This is the time people who otherwise wouldn’t care much about the band but have a mild, general interest in them and are generally favourably inclined towards them are more likely to have a look to see what’s going on with them. Throughout the year, point by point, the figures are about one third of their 2011 peak. This doesn’t affect sales because these people never bought AKB CDs anyway, but it does affect advertising. Anyone living in Tokyo these past few years would have noticed the diminishing visibility of the group on billboards, and as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, advertisers have even resorted to labelling the group in adverts so that people know who they are – something usually reserved for new acts the ad agency has hooked up with the tie-ups as part of its deal with their talent agency. But then the turnover of band members ensures that AKB48 are perpetually a new group, and this is the core of their problem for advertisers in 2014: everyone knew Atsuko Maeda, Yuko Oshima, Tomomi Ito, Mariko Shinoda and maybe a couple of others, but people nowadays would struggle to name any of the current lineup.
In terms of my question about who music is for, where AKB48 fans have been successful is that by their enormous expenditure on the group, they have retained a degree of ownership over them. This idea of ownership is perhaps key to the success of the whole idol format: the fans, by their exercise of obsessive degrees of purchasing power, are able to keep the groups “for them” rather than letting them slip entirely into the treacherous hands of advertising. It’s extreme and a bit mad in its degree, and far more focused on “character” consumption than on music listening, but taken in isolation, the principle is admirable.
Looking over at the iTunes charts, we see a very different picture, with a more diverse selection of acts and far less in the way of idol music (as I say, idol otaku aren’t music fans, they’re machines for consuming character goods) but it does serve as a timely warning of what awaits us if the idol boom were to suddenly die. In three words: One OK Rock. In another three words: Sekai no Owari. I have nothing to say to that other than yuck. We can blame the music industry for feeding people shit, but sooner or later, music audiences have to just take responsibility for their own awful taste.
One thing I didn’t have space to mention in the context of the growing prominence of the “national interest” in the use of pop music was Ringo Shiina’s NHK World Cup theme, which was accused in some quarters of being unnecessarily nationalistic. Now I’m not sure what that means in this context – football is pretty much the one arena in which you get a free pass to be as jingoistic, flag-waving and borderline fascist as you want without damaging your liberal softie cred – but given the Abe government’s ongoing efforts to stack NHK’s board with historical revisionists and ignorant propaganda stooges it bears keeping an eye on. As for Shiina herself, who knows? Her whole aesthetic is based around the fact that she loves Japan a lot, and that’s part of her appeal. A bigger problem with the song is that it was a really rubbish song.
In any case, the fact that the government are now openly and explicitly mobilising pop culture to promote their agenda, from the relatively benign Olympics-related let’s-make-ourselves-look-good-for-the-guests stuff to the full-on militarist AKB48 join-the-army-spread-dreams-to-the-world ad campaign bears scrutiny. What are the criteria behind who gets Cool Japan money? If you’re taking that money, have you read the small print? Do you fully understand what other agenda you might be unwittingly hitching yourself to? This may seem a bit paranoid now, but no pop culture exists in a vacuum, and if pop music is being recruited to serve the state, it matters a lot what the extent of the state’s agenda is. I’d feel much more comfortable with Cool Japan is it was completely out of the hands of the government and in the hands of an independent arts council.
One of the booms in the indie scene this year has been what I tend to dismissively call “funny bands”, with comical and/or performance-orientated acts like Dotsuitarunen, Nature Danger Gang, Guessband and others being ubiquitous. Partly I think this is the flipside of idol music in that if we see indie as a degraded mirror of mainstream entertainment, where girls are pretty idols while men are comedians. As a result, the indie scene subconsciously mimics that format so on the one hand we get Seiko Oomori and on the other we get Triple Fire.
This rise of owarai-type acts like these is something I’m ambivalent about in that on one level it cheapens the indie scene by making it qualitatively not significantly different from the mainstream, but on the other hand, just as I’d listen to AKB48 any day over terrible, “serious” J-pop bands like Kobukuro and Ikimono Gakari, these theatrical, comical indie bands and performers are infinitely preferable to the tediously earnest, sterile technical virtuosity of professional on-stage wankers like Toe.
In my own musical projects, I can pronounce myself largely satisfied with what 2014 gave me. I celebrated the ten year anniversary of my first event with a thrilling Koenji Pop Festival at Higashi Koenji 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu which was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. The venue is notoriously loud to begin with, and when the PA engineer gets excited, he tends to gradually push everything up and up as the night goes on. By the time headliners Hyacca stepped up, the walls and floor were shaking and the whole experience was just one of sheer, earsplitting rhythmical noise. For me at least in a good way.
Earlier in the year my Call And Response label put out the album Mind Business by Slovenian rapper N’toko, which remains one of the releases I’m proudest of and perhaps the most coherent recorded artistic statement the label has ever put out. I released it on iTunes, probably for the first and last time of anything on my label. I have nothing in particular against Apple, but given what a non-profitmaking venture Call And Response is, iTunes is just not a marketplace where I feel comfortable doing business or able to justify the time and energy. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the online rainbow, just an increasingly grubby race to the bottom in terms of prices and returns. While I enjoy the convenience of online music as a consumer, as a label owner I prefer to deal with customers and vendors in person, even if that means a vanishingly small number of them. The N’toko tour in March confirmed a lot of those feelings for me, and while it had its ups and downs in terms of crowds, there were far more ups, and experiencing it all in person was its own justification and reward for the effort putting it all together took.
Other releases I put out or helped put out over the course of the year were February’s free compilation 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ！？！？」 featuring 21 different bands covering the song Paranoid by Black Sabbath. I will hopefully top that for completely stupid and pointless free covers projects by the end of next year or at most the year after. The summer also saw the albums Tane to Zenra by Kagoshima psychedelic band Futtachi andLove Song Duet by Tokyo synth-punk trio Jebiotto. Both of these are albums that would on their own musical merits certainly make it into my personal top albums of the year list if I admitted Call And Response releases for contention in those things, but I don’t so they won’t.
There’s already plenty to look forward to next year, with Extruders and Sayuu/Sa Yuu planning new albums for early in the new year. Going a little more mainstream, Capsule have a new album due out soon, albeit alarmingly EDMish judging from the sounds currently emerging from chez Nakata. With Call And Response Records entering its tenth anniversary year, I personally intend to be a busy bee putting out a string of truly horrible releases lab-grown to be the opposite of everything popular in Japanese music right now.
A short afterword on my ten year anniversary event this Saturday gone, and a big thank you to everyone who took part.
My band Voided By Geysers (west Tokyo’s finest Guided By Voices tribute band) took the stage at 3:15 with Carl playing Tobin Sprout for a version of Ticket to Hide, with Ryotaro donning Mitch Mitchell’s cloak in gradually building up a squall of feedback and noise as the song locked into its closing mantra of “It might get louder”. By the time we’d kicked into A Salty Salute, there were already people with their fingers in their ears, and the sound just got bigger as the night went on. Miu Mau’s refined, sophisticated pop boomed out of the PA, while Usagi Spiral A’s brutal kraut-noise panzer assault was one of the most heart-stoppingly joyous things I’ve heard in a long time. By the time Hyacca closed the show, the sound had reached a level of earsplitting intensity. 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu has a reputation as pretty much the loudest venue in Tokyo, but I’ve never seen it like this before – it means the engineers were excited.
Tropical Death Metal were fantastic on their stoner-prog-punk-metal debut, while Mir’s krautrock-sampling icy noise pop was expertly chilled. Macmanaman played a frenzied whirlwind of a set, Futtachi played out half an hour of eerily compelling psychedelic improvisation, Nakigao Twintail said their farewells in characteristically off-kilter and unhinged fashion, and Jebiotto proved themselves matchless in their capacity to make rooms bounce. The attendance was terrific and 20000V’s staff were brilliant as always. Next year, I’ll be trying to move on and get the next ten years rolling in a way that looks to the future.
Some blurry, lo-res camera phone pictures from the night (you want hi-res, you should have been there on the night!)
In my posts over the past ten days I’ve gone through all ten of the bands performing tomorrow (September 27th) at my party to celebrate ten years of doing events in Japan. However, booking the bands isn’t the whole picture. In between bands, there are a few DJs spinning tunes, which can sometimes be a thankless job in events like this where the sound of bands setting up and eking out what they can of a soundcheck can overwhelm most of what the DJs are playing, but it’s nevertheless an important job, helping to keep the mood of the event going and where possible linking one act to the next. DJing this time is James Hadfield, with whom I’ve been running the monthly party Fashion Crisis for more than five years now. Also commanding the decks will be eclectic DJ team 3TE1, a.k.a. Haru and Kaname (the name is a pun on K-pop group 2NE1 and is pronounced “thirty-one”), who will be joined by Kyushu-based friend Emix, who has herself DJed at a couple of my events in Fukuoka.
The other big consideration is the timetable. This is by far my least favourite part of any event, but here’s a bit of insight into how the process works. First up there’s the noise limitations of the venue, which means live music needs to be done by 10pm, and related to that, there’s the fact that no event ever stays on schedule, so there needs to be at least 30 minutes of slack built into it. Very few bands are ever really happy playing first, and the earlier the event starts, the more people there are who you’re going to disappoint. One of the big reasons I’ve had in forming my own band is to have someone to put on first, thus sparing the sad eyes and pointed expressions of, “Oh, that’s a bit early…” from bands. Thus, Voided By Geysers are opening the event, playing a short set right at the start. Since Tropical Death Metal are just starting out and finding their feet, and nearly all their members are also in VBG, they’re on next to minimise changeover of equipment. After that, I’ve tried to balance the louder and more low-key bands so the sound doesn’t become too repetitive, and I’ve tried to space out the Kyushu acts as much as possible. Considering the audience is another thing, and having a rough idea of how big a crowd each band will bring I’ve tried to space out the bands with the biggest followings too, to give the other bands the best chance of catching new listeners. Then there are individual issues. Jebiotto and Futtachi have new CDs out, and this event is at least in part a release party for them both, so I shifted them more towards the end of the bill; Hyacca are notoriously difficult to follow, being both devastatingly intense live and these days really quite popular, and singer Hiromi Kajiwara needs time to switch characters from her more refined role in Miu Mau, so they still play last; and then Nakigao Twintail will be completely new to most people, plus they’re playing their final show, so I tried to give them the best chance of playing to a packed room.
The big challenge for me as an organiser is to mitigate any disappointment the earlier bands might feel by making sure I personally get as many people along right from the start. It’s a good bill, and there’s been fantastic support from some of the participants, so I’m uncharacteristically optimistic in this instance. Anyway, here’s the timetable:
3:20-3:35 Voided By Geysers
3:45-4:05 Tropical Death Metal
4:20-4:45 Miu Mau
5:00-5:25 Usagi Spiral A
7:40-8:05 Nakigao Twintail
Along with Futtachi, the other album I helped release this past summer was Jebiotto’s synth-punk party monster Love Song Duet. This album was in some ways the mirror image of the Futtachi album. Rather than something avant-garde that gradually reels you in with its hidden accessibility, Jebiotto’s music comes on accessible and then sets to work sabotaging itself. It’s pop music played by people who don’t know how to make pop music.
Jebiotto are one of the most fun bands on the Tokyo live circuit and a group I’ve been friends with for a long time before this release. I first encountered vocalist Madoka (Madca) back in the early days of my event and label through this marvellous punk band she was in called Inkakugoten (“Clitoris Palace”, which remains one of my favourite band names ever) and then I discovered Jebiotto a few years later through the live venue 20000V, which in its old location near Koenji Station became my favourite venue, and which in its new Higashi Koenji location is playing host to the anniversary event that Jebiotto and the other bands I’m writing about in this series are all performing at. Matt Schley’s short documentary about the band is a 100% accurate depiction of the group’s personalities and the band’s ethos.
“I love music like Futtachi’s, that takes something avant-garde and draws you in; or Jebiotto’s, that takes something really pop and sabotages it.”
What I describe as the “tension between discord and harmony” is what I keep coming back to. People are so used to thinking of themselves as consumers who should be served by musicians, and that can make them lazy listeners. The (true, actually) idea that pop music is just as deserving of critical attention and praise as “serious” music can seep through into a state where we unconsciously start judging pop and underground by the same standards, allowing ourselves to write nonsense about the supposed subversive nature of pretty mundane pop (yes, guilty, although I do usually try to express that strictly in the context of pop), or slipping into the Internet-assisted habit of skimming through a few seconds of a new indie or underground track on Soundcloud and picking up or dismissing it based on its immediate appeal.
Futtachi in one of their incarnations are a thrilling heavy psychedelic rock band, and songs like Kaiko no Oto (from Call And Response’s Dancing After 1AM compilation), Siam, and their version of Sabbath’s Paranoid are top class freakouts. However, their first CD, Tane to Zenra, takes a different, more minimal approach. It is an album composed on a single thirty-minute track, Kako wo Omou Monoga Mita Yume, and it’s not something designed for easy access. It’s something you have to meet halfway, but which is accessible enough to then reel you in. Performed live as a stripped-down guitar and keyboard duo, this material was mesmerising, and on disc it’s hypnotic. The short, edited sample here is just a teaser:
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 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
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.
One of the bands who works with my Call And Response label, Jebiotto, have a short film now available to view online in advance of their new album (more on that later). It was made by Matt Schley with assistance from main man Ryotaro Aoki, and acts as a sort of rambling, vaguely coherent introduction to the band (if you know the band, you’ll know that “rambling and vaguely coherent” is the only accurate way to introduce them). It features snippets of live footage from Higashi Koenji 20000V (Ni-man Den-atsu), which remains both mine and the band’s favourite live venue in Japan.
Jebiotto are currently on tour in the U.S. and still have three more dates to go, so if you’re around New York, Newark or Baltimore over the next few days, check them out:
August 5th (Tue) Astoria, NY @ Shillelagh Tavern
August 6th (Wed) Newark, DE @ Blue Door (house show)
August 7th (Thu) Baltimore, MD @ Club K
20000V goes by the name Ni-man Den-atsu now in its new location for contractual reasons, but true believers know what it’s really called.
The final date of the tour was a show I had organised myself with the help of Tsuchi from synth-punk lunatics Jebiotto. As the final show, and as the official Tokyo release party, this was one I needed both to go off with a bang and bring in a properly big crowd. The shows leading up to it had all been good one way or another, most of them had been fantastic, and some of them — in particular the secret show at Koenji Ten, the Friday night in Fukuoka and the wonderful little show in Takamatsu — had been truly, truly sublime experiences. I was nervous.
Doing the opening night on a Wednesday in Tokyo and doing the only other Tokyo show as a secret gig had been in part an attempt to ensure that the greater part of N’toko’s audience was funnelled into this one show, and the decision to space out the two openly promoted shows at opposite ends of the tour was an attempt to avoid Slovenian rap fatigue in audiences and make sure as many people from the first date came back for the final one.
In terms of the bands, I had hoped to get a reasonably well-known name on the bill, but that’s a dangerous area. Once you start trying to book “name” acts, you’re paying the bands in addition to the venue — yes, I’m one of those shitty promoters who doesn’t always pay bands — which often means given the limited size of the venues and the limited reach of underground music anyway, you’re forced to increase the price for the people who do come rather than radically increase the audience. At best it’s a balancing act, where you have to book the right bands together with the “name” act because “name” acts rarely do anything to promote shows themselves, which means the way they bring benefit is more through acting as a booster to the other bands playing. Put simply, any audience Melt banana will bring themselves will likely be cancelled out by the cost of paying Melt Banana to play, but more Jebiotto fans will come if Melt Banana are on the bill. This can work, but it also means that you’re paying one band simply for being themselves, while you’re not able to pay other bands who are actually the ones whose fans are making the event such a success. I’ve been willing to do this in the past, but only for the right band, and this time round, I just couldn’t find the right band, so instead I went with people I liked and trusted, crossed my fingers and hoped.
The balance of artists was just about perfect for what I was trying to do though. Jebiotto were down from the start, and their brand of manic, synth-based punk/new wave was ideal, feeding into N’toko’s industrial side while at the same time anchoring the event in venue 20000V’s underground punk ethos. Tsuchi from Jebiotto brought in Dubideb, a techno-industrial noise duo featuring Ataraw Mochizuki from Groundcover. (also the manager of 20000V) and drummer Yana from Numbs, who also plays support drums with Jebiotto on occasion. It was the first time I’d seen them, but they blew the room apart from the get-go and were probably N’toko’s favourite band of the entire tour.Mukokyuu Kakokyuu Shinkokyuu digest (intro by YMO)
Takashi Nakayama, punk rock god.
Next was Mukokyuu Kakokyuu Shinkokyuu, a postpunk/new wave orchestra in a definitively Japanese mould, taking cues from the Plastics and P-Model. The band’s leader Takashi Nakayama had worked with me before through his previous bands Skyfisher and Labsick Man-machine Remix, but Mukokyuu Kakokyuu Shinkokyuu was him at his best, all hyperactive pop melodies delivered with fierce, postpunk intensity, with added balloon animals.
Tommi Tokyo from group A.
group A were one of the first bands I booked for the show, and they were nervous before going on. They have a tendency to strip half naked and paint themselves white onstage but both members had needed to rush to the venue from other engagements and in the process had forgotten some of their stage gear. They went on in pants and t-shirts like primary school kids who’d forgotten their gym kit, and put in the most furious, raw performance I’ve ever seen them do, vocalist Tommi Tokyo channelling Genesis P Orridge at his most intense. When a band relies on a constructed stage image, that image can often become armour behind which the band hides, and I think that’s what happens a bit with group A. Here, clothed, they felt more stripped bare than they ever had naked.Jebiotto: AxNxC
Tsuchi from Jebiotto: Pop Zeus
Jebiotto might have had a hard time following such a powerful set, but they always have something in reserve and threw themselves into their set with reckless abandon, getting things whipped into a frenzy that peaked during N’toko’s headlining set. Where he could easily have done an encore in Takamatsu but shied away from indulging himself, here he let it all out and sent the room wild in a way that compared with the tiny, cramped experience of Koenji Ten on the 16th but which he carried off this time with a much bigger crowd. Throughout the tour, he and I had been binging on standup videos by the British comedian Stewart Lee, and through his work, deconstructing the art of performance to the point that by the end of the tour, N’toko was eager to start incorporating Lee’s lessons into his own shows. You could see that a little in this show, where he started his set by pre-narrating what he was going to do with his set, trivialising and diminishing the tricks he was going to play before hitting you with them every bit as effectively as if they had been delivered to you blind. At the end of the set, he started a song using an unfamiliar beat before sighing and saying, “Oh, you all know what song this is going to be,” flicking a switch and letting it turn into his theme song of sorts N’toko ne Obstaja. There are a lot of themes in common between Lee’s comedy and N’toko’s most recent Mind Business album, in that both artists play this slightly confused-seeming satire of themselves, seeking to reject and place themselves above commercialism and mocking themselves for having this attitude, and in both their work, there’s a sort of carefully constructed desperation of someone frantically pursuing relevance but not quite being able to make it work.N’toko: Minor Celebrity
So it was a bigger success than I could ever have hoped for and despite all the amazing shows that had preceded it, it was the highlight of the tour and one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. There’s an enormous pleasure in setting up an event and then sort of hitting “play” and seeing it roll along on its own wheels, like seeing a child walk for the first time or watching a meticulously constructed arrangement of dominoes tumble in sequence. It left me exhausted though, not wanting to do another event for the forseeable future. It was so good, I just wanted to stop there.
It also meant time had come for counting out the costs and income of the tour. After taking into account all transport and hotel costs, deducting some of my wife’s and my costs in Kyushu that came under “family holiday” expenses, we had come out of the tour with a small profit. This is obviously absolutely nothing in commercial terms: my 50% share of that profit is what I might drink in one evening while on the road, and N’toko’s share accounted for perhaps 10% of his plane ticket, but there was something psychologically satisfying about having gone through eleven gigs in the Japanese live house system and taken out more than you put in, even if that figure can only be gleaned from calculations that operate within severely constrained parameters.
Modest, qualified success.
Still, that was for a three week tour with one solo musician and a tour manager. I occasionally get mails from bands wanting to tour or sell their music in Japan, and I used to politely explain to them that I wasn’t a big enough operation to help them. Now I just ignore them, and this is why. Take that modest, qualified success, make it a band of three people and that figure immediately becomes an enormous loss — all that we achieved on tour in March evaporates upon contact with anything resembling an actual band.
That doesn’t detract from the wonderful feeling of achievement that came from pulling it off though, and in particular from the incredible people who made it happen. Tomo from Style Band Tokyo, DJ Rally, Kouhei from Come To My Party/Servals, Joe from VVDBLK, Eric and Julien from Lo-shi/Tententen, Ryota from Kumamoto Navaro, Harajiri from Fukuoka Utero, Iguz from Futtachi, Yoshida from Rag-G, Masumi from Miu Mau/Coet Cocoeh, Tsuchi from Jebiotto and Mochizuki and Ishida from 20000V. To that list, we could add Ayako and many others who I don’t even know, who designed flyers and helped promote the shows, plus more than a hundred musicians, some of whom had their own staff and drivers, nearly all of whom worked unpaid or for minimal fees to do something simply because it was artistically valuable. I salute them all.