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: Miu Mau
This site isn’t the only place on the internet that attempts to rank the best Japanese music of the year, and depending on where you look, you can get a very different picture of the music scene. This is of course very right and proper, because the Japanese music scene is broad and diverse, covering every genre you know and dozens you don’t. I’m not going to include any J-Pop-focused sites here, since I don’t really follow any of them, or even know if any of them made year-end rankings, but here are what a few other writers have come up with.
Beehype (top 20)
Beehype gathers new music releases from all over the globe, but it has a discrete Japanese ranking covering the top 20 Japanese music releases of the year. Beehype is probably the best place to go to get a general sense of the kinds of Japanese music the Japanese music consensus is gathering around, with artists like Satoko Shibata, Oomori Seiko and Tricot all making an appearance, although it deviates into a few interesting oddities of its own, like the recent album by Osaka jazz-skronk trio Oshiripenpenz.
Make Believe Melodies (top 50)
part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5
Make Believe Melodies, written by Japan Times writer Patrick St. Michel, tends towards soft-edged dance music and the gentler strains of indiepop and singer-songwriter music, but as the most extensive list among all the Japanese music countdowns here, there’s a fair variety on display around that theme. This list touches on indie-branded idols Maison Book Girl, rapper Zombie-Chang, the manic synth-pop funk of Chai and the pachinko machine noise of Pachinko Machine Music, along with MBM regulars like Taquwami and LLLL.
Muso Japan (best shoegaze and dreampop)
This does exactly what it says on the tin, focusing on shoegaze and dreampop, and while these genres in Japan can encompass slightly different material to what they do in the West, Muso Japan doesn’t stray far from its remit. Having such a narrow focus means that they can dig a little deeper than another site might, singling out material by lo-fi acts like FogPark, and Nurse alongside shoegaze scene veterans like Cruyff in the Bedroom, Shelling and Caucus.
Tokyo Dross (unranked list of 16)
Another list by a Japan Times contributor, this time James Hadfield, whose preferences lean towards more experimental rock and electronic music. There are more crossovers with my list creeping in here, partly because as the Listing Season drew in, we spent some time frantically sharing and picking over each other’s recommendations in private. His decision to include Phew’s Voice Hardcore despite it not being officially released until 2018 is legitimised perhaps by The Wire’s earlier decision to do the same.
Top 10 EPs & mini-albums
Top 20 albums (20-11)
Top 20 albums (10-1)
Zach’s lists also tend to have a lot of crossover with mine, as I think we both have very similar biases towards skronky art-punk and oddball avant-pop. One key difference is in the appearance of a lot of Call And Response stuff in Zach’s list (P-iPLE, Tropical Death, Looprider and the Throw Away Your CDs… compilation, all of which were disqualified from mine), and perhaps a little more washed-out indiepop/dreampop. Basically, though, if I missed something, it’s highly likely Zach caught it, and vice-versa.
For anyone looking for areas of consensus, the crossovers between these various lists throw up a few recurring names. Cornelius’ Mellow Waves appears several times, topping the Beehype list and getting honourable mentions in a few others, while Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Async, Phew’s Light Sleep, Endon’s Through The Mirror and For Tracy Hyde’s He(r)art were all rated very highly in more than one list. Miu Mau’s Drawing made appearances in most of the lists, while the Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show compilation that I produced made an appearance in every list except my own (disqualified because I made it) and the Muso Japan list (wrong genre), so I feel validated in saying that’s a great record. Elsewhere, She Talks Silence, Crunch, BLONDnewHALF, Hikashu, Tofubeats, Oshiripenpenz, Sapphire Slows, Suiyobi no Campanella, Mondo Grosso, Tricot, Oomori Seiko and Satellite Young all made multiple appearances.
A full-length collection from Kyushu indie supergroup Miu Mau to follow up 2008’s Design was always going to be a contender for album of the year, and Drawing really is excellent, exceeding its now long-distant predecessor in both the range and depth of its songwriting.
Followers of the band will quickly recognise most of the material on Drawing, with the core of the album made up of a trio of singles and EPs that the band have put out over the past few years. The only brand new material comes in the form of new songs Ryuukou-iro no Pallette and Mishiranai no Basho de, while Monochrome appears in a new, mostly Japanese language version as well as a new remix at the end of the album. All that is to say that if you have been following Miu Mau over the past few years, you’ll already know that basically everything on this album is beautiful, sparse, sophisticated, melancholy, synth-led new wave pop.
Of the new material, Ryuukou-iro no Pallette is the most immediately striking, with the stabs of noise that interrupt the song’s sparse, piano-led melody and harmonies, making explicit the note of dissonance that subtly underscores much of the material on Drawing. The source of that dissonance is most usually Hiromi Kajiwara’s guitar, which is delivered with a harsh, metallic reverb that contrasts with Masami Takashima’s lush washes of synth and pristeen vocals. On the new wave Asiatica of Future Classic / Mirai no Classic and the minimalistic dance-pop News, Kajiwara’s guitar cuts throught he songs, the strokes of her plectrum scratching percussively against the sweet melodies, while on songs like Iro wo Matou the guitar adding texture to the music like an additional voice wandering through the background of the song.
There’s a sparseness to Miu Mau’s music that it would have been tempting to try to fill out in pursuit of a more commercially pleasing sound. Similar bands like the now departed Merpeoples have tried something like that and lost something of their own identity in the process, so it’s to Miu Mau’s credit that over the years they have always kept the spindly, dissonant aspects of their music in play, all recognisably within what the three members can comfortably reproduce live together.
Of the Monochrome remix, it’s a decent take on the song, but unnecessary and largely out of step with the atmosphere of the album, but it also feels unnecessarily querulous to complain about being given too much. The remix is there if you want it, but if you don’t, you can be more than satisfied with the collection of nine immaculate avant-pop songs that remains. Album of the year without a doubt.
Fake Night is singer-songwriter Masami Takashima’s first album under her own name, although for a long time she has been perorming under the name Coet Cocoeh, first in Fukuoka (yes, another Fukuoka connection) and in her adopted home of Takamatsu in Shikoku. Fake Night isn’t really a debut, with the song Tsukiyo no Dance Party having already appeared on Coet Cocoeh’s 2015 album Glass Collage and an older version of the closing In a Fog dating back even earlier. The same blend of pop balladry and distant club vibes informs the songwriting too, but there is nonetheless a sense of a new start about it.
It’s a richer album from a production point of view for a start, with Takashima’s synth bass throbbing powerfully in contrast with the spacious piano that it shares the album with as its twin dominant defining sounds. At her heart a pop songwriter, Takashima nevertheless delights in juxtaposing these two elements, with the chanson-like piano ballad Romantics following right hot on the heels of the aforementioned synth-heavy Tsukiyo no Dance Party, while the beautiful Somewhere bounces back and forth between sparse piano chords and a sudden intrusion of thundering bass. Cosmic Sea, meanwhile, sets a simple, looping piano line over a lackadaisical club backdrop.
Piano aside, Takashima’s rich singing voice is the other most distinctive aspect of her work, and a common thread linking Fake Night to both Coet Cocoeh and her band Miu Mau. Here, shorn of the harmonies provided by her Miu Mau bandmates, she stretches her range to cover subdued rapping/spoken word on Cosmic Sea and the just-short-of-melodramatic tour de force performance that is Romantics. There’s a world-weary quality to Takashima’s voice that ensures that even uptempo songs like the bouncy On the Town Square/Machi no Hiroba de are imbued with a faintly melancholy, dreamlike quality.
This way of these disparate elements — piano balladry, house music, reggae, electro, hop hop — are integrated with such assurance and such a distinctive atmosphere is perhaps what makes Masami Takashima such an interesting musician. She’s one of those artists who creates a world of her own through her music — a beach, illuminated by the setting sun from the west and the lights from a party at a nearby beach house to the east: where you’re a bit lonely but never completely alone.
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.
The final date on the road in this tour was Takamatsu. To be honest, I didn’t even really know where Takamatsu was when I booked it other than that it was in “Shikoku somewhere”. At the beginning of March I had helped organise a Tokyo release party for the Fukuoka new wave indie supergroup Miu Mau, and during the post-gig drinking session I had suggested, probably rather aggressively, that it would be lovely if the group’s leader Masami (a.k.a. Coet Cocoeh), now a resident of Takamatsu, could organise a show for N’toko there towards the end of the month. I promptly forgot about it, only to receive an email from her a week or so later saying we could do a show at a very cool little bar called iL.
Now since N’toko had a rail pass, this was no big deal, since he could just hop on the Shinkansen to Okayama and take a relatively short train from there across the water to Takamatsu, but it meant more planes and other expenses for me. The first thing I did was plunge into attempts to get a show in Osaka again to see if we could make a couple of nights in the region out of it. I’d had a gig in Osaka tentatively planned, before the organiser suggested doing it in Kyoto instead and then announced that actually she couldn’t do it at all, so I’d taken that as a message from the heavens that it wasn’t to be. Still, if we were going to be in the area, I figured it might be worth looking around again, so I spoke to Club Noon, where some of my friends had done shows in the past. They seemed amenable to doing something, but it was pretty clear they expected me to shoulder the burden of promotion, and without someone well connected with the local scene there on the ground I decided against it. Better to do nothing than to do something poorly organised and promoted.
And the show Masami put on in Takamatsu once again reinforced the benefits of someone who understands your music and ethos, and knows both the local scene and what they themselves are doing. iL was a tiny place just off the side of Takamatsu’s vast, kilometres-long roofed shopping arcade, but it was immaculately organised and put together. The venue had brought in a powerful sound system to ensure N’toko’s music played out without a hitch, Masami very kindly ran home at one point to get her own keyboard stand when things looked like they might get a bit complicated, and the DJs she booked were massive fun. Masami’s own stuff tilted towards postpunk like the Slits and New Age Steppers, while Oka took a smoother, more sophisticated tack and Kotetsu careered between a manic selection of Japanese new wave, latin, pop and curios that I couldn’t place if I tried. For my own set, I played the same basic stuff I usually play at Fashion Crisis, but since I was playing in front of a completely unfamiliar crowd edged it more towards the poppier, more uptempo stuff in an attempt to keep people’s attention.
The interesting thing about playing here was the way that people really seemed to be listening. Usually when I play, there are a handful of people coming up to me saying, “Hey, what’s this?” and a lot of people just having conversations with each other and not really paying attention, so soundtracking those conversations and dropping in enough weird or interesting stuff to keep anyone else interested is more or less what I think my job is. In Takamatsu, nearly everyone seemed to be sat, listening intently — not dancing or asking me questions, just sat there with their ears tuned into everything I was doing — which made it a bit of a weird experience, although not by any means a bad one.
N’toko played his usual 30-minute touring set, and could really have played double that time given the reaction the crowd gave him. The sound was superb and in the tiny, narrow room with the crowd surrounding him on three sides, it gave the performance a dynamic feel that isn’t really there when you’re on a stage, facing the audience behind a barrier, either physical or metaphorical. N’toko is a performer who laps up attention and I think he finds it psychologically impossible to ignore part of the audience, so playing to a 180-degree spread of people like this, he was constantly aware that wherever he was playing to, there was someone behind him and this made him mobile at all times.
So the party ended up being one of the highlights of the tour in its own right, and since we were only there for one night, I’d booked a late flight back in order to do some sightseeing. Takamatsu was the only place on the tour where we really did any sightseeing, and it was fascinating. The shopping arcade is a thing of wonder, a vast roofed enclosure apparently 2.7km long that took us nearly to the famous Ritsurin-koen, a glorious garden that was so absurdly, fastidiously beautiful that we both kept bursting out laughing at it.
At the other end of the shopping arcade was the castle ruins and the seafront, where we chilled for a few hours, and even the station concourse was lovely. In fact even the airport was lovely, with the souvenir stall in the departure lounge serving locally brewed ale on tap. I realise that this is becoming more like a travelogue than a rock’n’roll tour diary, but seriously, Takamatsu is really, really nice city. Anyway, the gig at Takamatsu joined a growing list of other amazing shows that set the bar absurdly high for the final night of the tour, back in Koenji tomorrow, and as the day went on, the fear continued to rise that my own cherished event that I had tried so hard to make the highlight of the tour would fall short of the mark.
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…”