Tag Archives: Number Girl

Suichu Zukan: Nami

What’s the timespan it takes for nostalgia to start making a tangible influence on the music scene? Apparently about 15 years judging from this short, fuzzy stab of alt-rock. Now I’m going to take a huge leap here and suggest that Suichu Zukan have listened to one or two songs by the the band Quruli, particularly from their early 2000s period. The band name is a portmanteau of the song Suichuu Motor (from 2002’s The World is Mine) and the album Zukan (released in the year 2000) and the most obvious tribute you could pay to the band’s best and most creative period. Dive deeper and their web site and video are littered with the sort of sketchy illustrations and paintings that characterised Shutoku Mukai’s Number Girl artwork, while the sounds on Nami also recall some of the shoegaze-inflected indie rock on Supercar’s 1998 debut Three Out Change. Most bands hate being explicitly linked to the influence of other bands, but when they make it this obvious, they can have no complaints.

Instead, what this tells us is something of the nature of the music scene’s cycle of influence. The decade after Supercar, Quruli et al was characterised by their direct influence: artists from among their immediate contemporaries and those who grew up under the shadow of their immediate pop cultural influence. What seems to be happening now is that the music of that early 2000s generation is becoming seen as explicitly “old music” and something distanced enough to safely pay explicit tribute to. Their influence remains strong, but its nature seems to be changing, and Suichu Zukan seem to be an exemplar of that.Suichu Zukan: Nami

Of course musically those turn-of-the-millennium bands were themselves heavily influenced by US and UK alternative and indie rock, and that shows through in Nami too. This is a good thing, because 90s alt-rock was ace and hasn’t stopped being ace at any point in the interim. The song has a neat little break in the middle where the vocals and guitar dip into a decidedly Quruli-esque faux-Asiatic melodic lick before all the effects pedals kick back in again and it’s all Hüsker Dü tussling with Ride again all the way to the climax. Suichu Zukan are a band that are very hard to hear in any context other than that of their very obvious influences, but while there is absolutely nothing original about this song at any level of its creation — in the video they even do that thing of filming the band pretending to play their song on a beach, which has featured in every Japanese indie video of the past decade — the zone in which it places itself is one where they would be hard pressed to put a foot wrong, and they carry it off very successfully. The phrase “does exactly what it says on the tin” has rarely been more appropriate.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Ringo Sheena, “Netsuai Hakkaku-chu”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a welcome reminder of an enduring talent and a fuck-you to the media’s puritanical side.

Netsuai Hakkaku-chu

Ringo Sheena is one of the most important Japanese music artists of the past fifteen years or so, so any new material of hers is worth paying attention to. From her early years as a teenage punk in Fukuoka hanging out at gigs by local alternative and avant-garde legends like Number Girl, Panicsmile and Mo’some Tonebender, through her precocious early songwriting career, creating songs for singers like Ryoko Hirosue (at that time, prior to her successful acting career, still more or less an idol singer), her early 2000s position as a generation-defining role model to thousands of wannabe rockstar schoolgirls, and her well-regarded career with the band Tokyo Jihen, she has been an ever-present figure helping to define the musical landscape of post-millennial Japan.

While Ringo Sheena’s best work, the album Kalk, Semen, Kuri no Hana, was a rich, multilayered, cinematic exploration of prewar decadence and Sgt. Pepper-esque psychedelic pop studio gymnastics and very much a work confident in its distinctive character, Netsuai Hakkaku-chu is a work much more in touch with the Japanese music world both of today and of Sheena’s formative years.

The melody recalls the Shibuya-kei style popularised by artists like Pizzicato Five and Karie Kahimi in the 1990s with its sweetly rendered vocals and restrained, sophisticated pop hooks that hark back to 1960s French pop, but the production, courtesy of omnipresent contemporary überproducer Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule, Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) gives the song a harder electro edge.

The combination isn’t so unusual, given Nakata’s own origins at the tail end of Shibuya-kei and his own career can itself be seen as charting the evolution of the style from its indiepop record-collector music nerd origins into the modern electro-dance age, but he is nevertheless sensitive to the original song, allowing the electro and pop elements to play off each other without one ever taking full precedence.

Also, no discussion of this track would be complete without a mention of the video. Pop artists making videos complaining about the press are always a little obnoxious, but in Ringo Sheena’s case, it’s revealing of something a bit wider. The video depicting the singer beating seven shades of crap out of a kung-fu army of paparazzi comes in the context of some particularly unpleasant press intrusion into her life after she refused to identify the father of her second child. The imagery depicting her dead body in glitter-encrusted retro-60s garb while a sexy black leather version of her takes revenge also reflects the contrast between the sweet, 60s pop-influenced Shibuya-kei aspect of the song and its darker electro edge.

While Netsuai Hakkaku-chu isn’t Sheena scaling the dizzying creative heights that her best work has revealed her as capable of, it’s a welcome reminder of an unflagging talent and lays down a confident, self-assured marker of an independent-minded star  with no time for the puritans and moral guardians who increasingly seek to define the role of women in Japanese media and pop culture.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Pop-Office, “Good Morning”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a beautifully crafted slice of old-school indie rock from Nagoya.

Discussion of Japanese music tends to automatically gravitate towards the twin fringes of avant-garde experimentalism and day-glo, candy-coloured pop excess and it’s natural that when looking for music from a country, the artists that stand out are the ones that seem to exhibit something distinct and unique about that place. Pop-Office, on the other hand, are a solid indie rock band like what they used to make in the 90s, and Good Morning, taken from the group’s new album Portraits in Sea, is an instantly familiar example of the form, the fuzzy guitars growling at you from the get-go like Yo La Tengo’s Sugarcube and vocalist Ryuhei Shimada’s melancholy baritone vocals revealing echoes of Pop-Office’s roots in Joy Division-influenced postpunk.

For all the undoubted similarities with 1990s US alt-rock, this is also a song with roots in Japan’s own indie culture. Pop-Office hail from a generation of kids who grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s when the ultra-sophisticated but also clinical and style-obsessed Shibuya-kei movement was coming to a close and guitar bands like Number Girl and Supercar were taking imagination of Japanese youth by the scruff of the neck, and Supercar’s epic shoegaze debut album, 1998’s Three Out Change, is clearly a bible for Pop-Office, with the rough guitar textures, desultory vocals and wistful melody in particular recalling early single Cream Soda.

There are hints, especially in the shifting drum patterns, of a band equally comfortable exploring more progressive musical territory, but at heart Good Morning is the sort of straightforward indie rock that supports itself not on pushing back boundaries but on a core of solid musicianship and melodic songwriting. Pop-Office demonstrate a skill in tweaking those notes of familiarity at the back of your mind, which is something it’s rare to find done well in a music scene where the best and most interesting material is more often the music that pushes the hyperactive extremes than that which satisfies the simpler, more nostalgic rock needs.

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The history of Japanese alternative music

Here’s a piece I did for MTV 81 on Japanese alternative music. Personally, I think this should have been about five different, shorter articles, but my brief was basically to cover the entire history of alternative music in Japan in the space of one piece, so the end result is both too long and too short really. Still, I’m glad I was able to do it, and while it’s a bit dense, I think I covered a lot of important stuff and it’s a good summary of what’s what in Japanese alternative music.

Also, anyone who’s familiar with my style of writing will know that the closing “Now you know your J-rock, so ROCK ON” sign-off is not the sort of thing I say. It’s an MTV-ish editorial insert that was stuck in there because my original draft fizzled out in a pretty lame way. Obviously I’d have rather worked around it in another way, but to be honest, given the stuff I got away with in the article (Hadaka no Rallizes’ terrorist hijackings, Jun Togawa’s wartime imagery), I can’t really complain.

The bit about the 70s rock generation is stuff anyone who’s read Julian Cope’s lovely Japrocksampler will be familiar with, and it’s not really my area. I had to be a bit careful there, because Cope is notoriously freewheeling with the truth when an interesting lie will do the job, so I focused on the music and the more widely-reported factoids. Hadaka no Rallizes/Les Rallizes Denudes came up in my last Japan Times piece as well, because Kentaro Nakao (ex. Number Girl) suggested that they prefigured shoegaze in a way, and it’s interesting the way that, partly perhaps due to Cope’s book and the renewed Western attention it focused on them, they have been gradually gaining status as an influence in the underground scene once more.

Punk and especially new wave are my main areas of interest in Japanese music, and I think I gave them a fair shout in the article without me needing to add much here. One bit I thought was interesting was the way new wave infiltrated the mainstream. Miharu Koshi was a full-on 70s “new music” type in the vein of Yumi Arai/Matsutoya, but the shift to technopop she made in the 80s clearly owes just as much to the Plastics as it does to more established and respectable pop statesmen like YMO.

It’s also worth briefly re-emphasising here the importance of Halmens, not only in being ace, but also for kickstarting the careers of Jun Togawa and Maki Nomiya, the latter of which leads on neatly to Shibuya-kei.

Now Shibuya-kei is an area I feel particularly uncomfortable writing about. It’s so vaguely defined musically and seems to have much more to do with these little networks of friends and various assorted hipsters who just used to hang out at galleries, fashion events, record stores and exclusive bars together in the early 90s. Someone like me attempting to write authoritatively about it is inviting ridicule upon myself, so all I could really give was an outsider’s view based on what it looks like with the distorting eye of history.

There are two key things about Shibuya-kei, I think. Firstly, there’s the way big record stores give a lot of leeway to individual store buyers. This was important in creating the buzz around Shibuya at that time, and it continues to this day. When I was in Nagoya the other week, I heard that the buyer from Tower Records in Sakae had put up a massive display for the new album by hardcore mentalists Gauze, right next to a similar sized display for Ayumi Hamasaki. When my own Dancing After 1AM compilation came out last year, Tsutaya in Kumamoto had a large, prominent display for the album, despite it being a limited run of only 500 copies with virtually no promotion.

The second thing about Shibuya-kei is that at the time, it encompassed all sorts of music, from minimalist, lo-fi garage-punk to heavy, psychedelic spacerock. This eclecticism, as well as the whole incestuous galleries-and-hipsters network is what still exists behind a lot of the Tokyo indie (rather than alternative rock, which I think is a slightly different thing) scene.

I’ve written before about the importance of the early 2000s triumvirate of Supercar/Quruli/Number Girl and the shadow they cast over alt-rock of the past decade. Just looking at old Number Girl clips  and comparing them to the kind of thing that passes for alternative music in the charts nowadays really drives home what an achievement it was that something as intense and raw as that could be so successful. It’s really a feature of the time — lots of money in the music industry, and with Shibuya-kei having largely dissolved, labels throwing the cash at all kinds of things in search of the next hit — and everything since then has been sanding off the edges without really moving that far forward.

Groups like Negoto are I think pretty decent bands, and it’s unfair to criticise them for not being Number Girl, but they’re obviously children of that generation, and the result is also clearly rather sanitised and poppified. In this sense, they too are a feature of their time — not much money in the music industry, and a greater fear on the part of even the major labels’ alternative imprints like Ki/oon of anything that might be inaccessible.

I wonder too if there’s also a difference in the record-buying public. The early 2000s kids were the ones who had grown up in the bubble and then come of age in the “lost decade” (or rather the first lost decade). They were facing insecurity and the collapse of what must have seemed a prosperous, secure future, and there was a genuine angst and anxiety. The generation coming through now have never known anything but this low-level, largely comfortable sense of decline, and the anguished yowls of insecurity have been replaced by whimsical reflection on their state.

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Strange Boutique (April 2012)

My April column goes back a bit to the early 2000s and takes another look at some of the classic alternative music that came out in Japan at that time. I remember not being particularly impressed by Supercar’s Highvision at the time, and falling between the mighty Futurama and the emotionally burned-out hymn to alienation that was Answer, it’s in a bit of an awkward position, but actually listening back, it stands up with the best of their oeuvre.

Supercar: Strobolights

The World is Mine, on the other hand, was always a striking piece of work, and Quruli’s subsequent career has only emphasised further how groundbreaking a piece of work it is. Similarly, Num Heavymetallic is an album whose significance was pretty clear even at the time.

Quruli: World’s End Supernova (live) (see the original here)

The most amazing thing listening to these albums ten years later is the sheer breadth of what these three bands thought they could get away with, and the extent to which their labels indulged them. Of course there are bands making similar things now, but that’s the point: they’re just following a trail already blazed by Supercar, Quruli and Number Girl. There’s a problem here too, which I didn’t have space to go into in the article, which is that the long shadow these bands cast could be catching Japanese alternative rock in a state of arrested development, crowding out new ideas from the mainstream.

Number Girl: Num Ami Dabutz

Another thought I didn’t have space to go into concerns the influence of Supercar. While there are plenty of bands in the alternative scene who sound like they’re following Number Girl and Quruli (although few who are following the mad, eclectic spazz-out of The World is Mine), Supercar don’t seem to have so many direct followers. Partly, this might be because this kind of indie/electronic crossover material is more difficult to copy, which would also explain why Quruli imitators tend to take after their folk-rock and emo influenced stuff than their electronic  material. Another thought I had was that Supercar’s popularity and influence seems to be more apparent in the “mature” noitaminA-type anime world and related music scene, where emotionally washed-out music that harks back to childhood continues to teeter on the brink of dreams that Supercar themselves may have woken up from long ago. Certainly the anime world was the first place Miki Furukawa and Koji Nakamura’s new band Lama stopped off at when they formed last year.

Lama: Spell (No.6 anime opening): 

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