Tag Archives: Panicsmile

Connect And Receive – Summer 2021 Japan underground picks

I’ve put this blog on hold while I’m trying to finish writing the terrible book I’ve been putting off working on for the past five years, but as a compromise, I made this mix of tracks from Japanese underground and weirdo punk releases that have come out during the first half or thereabouts of this year. You can listen to it here:

TRACK LIST:

OOPS – Riso no Morning / 理想のモーニング
An up-and-coming punk band from Osaka, taken from their Out of Pictures 7-inch single.

LLRR – Anonymous
Released on streaming sites last year, this Kyoto art-punk band’s debut < = > EP got a limited cassette release this spring (full disclosure: from my Call And Response label).

THE QUESTONS – I am I
This garage-punk trio from Okinawa have put out a couple of releases this year, with this track coming from their Koi no Yokan EP in February.

M.A.Z.E. – Spread the Germicide
Punk with oblique no wavey flourishes, from this reliably in-your-face band’s short, sharp, sub-15-minute 9-song collection II.

Ignition Block M – Houses of Fire
There’s a lot of buzz around this Tokyo punk band, with this song the title track of their recent Houses of Fire EP.

KLONNS – Gehenna
One of the core bands of the Discipline event, usually held at the great Koiwa Bushbash live venue, which combines punk, metal, psychedelic noise and intense techno, Klonns hold up the ferocious, gothic grindcore end of the spectrum on this single. The label Black Hole has also carved out a noteworthy space as a key hub for young, stylish, noisy artists in Tokyo. Aisha from Ignition Block M appears as a guest vocalist on this track.

Ms. Machine – 2020
Another young band with connections to the Discipline and Black Hole crews, Ms. Machine’s debut album was one of the few underground releases to really attract a buzz in Tokyo this year, combining simple hooks in swirling, gothic no wave squalls of noise.

Barbican Estate – White Jazz
Another hotly tipped Tokyo indie band, this 4AD-esque psychedelic swirl came out as part of the Rhyming Slang label’s Japan/China compilation cassette early this year.

yokujitsu – Just Vibes
This Tokyo psychedelic band released a live EP earlier in the year, followed up with this cassette single in the spring.

concrete twin – Nigella
Lo-fi shoegaze that builds up towering walls of distorted sound around its fragile melody in this track from their “Re​:​encounter” sound source #04 EP. The band claim a trip-hop influence, which is hinted at in the shuffling drums, although I get more of a Madchester vibe from it.

BD1982 – THEW3ST
One half of the team behind Tokyo’s fantastic Diskotopia label, this track hails off BD1982’s excellent Ryuichi Sakamoto-meets-Throbbing Gristle solo album Distance Vision.

Jesus Weekend – Forever Breeze
A welcome return from what was once a curiously meandering Osaka lo-fi band and is now a more ambient-focused Tokyo solo act, with this Eno-esque piece taken from the lovely Rudra no Namida cassette EP.

rima kato – today was so bad
This is an old track, from the Four Songs EP, originally released by the aotoao label in 2010 and just re-released this year. Rima Kato’s simple, melancholy melodies and gentle, warm delivery are always worth checking out.

Mitsuru Tabata – Nichijo Part 1 / 日常パート1
Another old song, re-released this year as part of eclectic underground legend Mitsuru Tabata’s (ex-Boredoms, Zeni Geva, Acid Mothers Temple and a billion other bands) large archive of tracks released for compilation albums over the years, Compilation Breakdown.

Closh – I don’t care bcz I’m just ????
A curious and always interesting presence in the Tokyo indie scene, Closh released a couple of mini-albums with the band Doodless before joining alt-rock band Wetnap. As far as I know, this is her first solo release but her exasperated vocal howls and catchy, lo-fi indie-punk guitars are instantly recognisable.

Merry Ghosts – Scotch Egg Struggle
Previously known as Trespass, Merry Ghosts are a post-punk-edged Osaka-based (I think originally from Kobe) alt-rock duo, with this track a deceptively catchy, scuzzy highlight of their very good new album Pink Bloom. It’s not available on Bandcamp, but there’s a CD out there if you can track it down.

Worst Taste – New creation
A mainstay of the Tokyo alt rock scene over the past 15 years or so, this piece of sparse yet intense art-punk comes from their recent Ultra Power EP, which seems to be available only as a cassette directly from the band at the moment.

PANICSMILE – Have You Seen The Bridge
Another album not available on Bandcamp, but the self-titled CD album it comes from is available pretty widely from label Like a Fool Records (and you can find it on the evil Spotify if you don’t want the band to get any money). Put together last year through a sort of pass-the-parcel remote recording process between Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka, this album revels in its fragmentation and unexpected turns, but comes together with an urgency that it’s amazing a band with such a long career can still summon.

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Panicsmile – Real Life

Since forming in Fukuoka in the early 1990s, one thing Panicsmile have never seemed is comfortable. Contorting punk via twisted no wave, jazz or Beefheartian experimental deviance, taking frequent sharp turns — sometimes driven by member changes, others by founder Hajime Yoshida exploiting the tensions between existing members’ different creative approaches — Panicsmile’s sound has lurched through the past quarter of a century consistently and creatively in an atmosphere of crisis and thrilling urgency.

Their last album, 2014’s Informed Consent, sounded like the result of the band finding its feet with a new lineup after the end of its longest-lasting iteration (featuring guitarist Jason Shalton and drummer Eiko Ishibashi), stripping back to (post-)punk basics and stating to build and contort anew. Since then, the membership has shifted again, with Tomokazu Ninomiya (formerly of Eastern Youth) and Nobumitsu Nakanishi (of indie rockers Iriko) joining Yoshida and drummer Geru Matsuishi in a newly dispersed lineup, with members spread between Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Coming into Real Life, it’s tempting to take that dispersed, dislocated nature of the band’s existence as a lens to look at it through, with the band’s disposition towards jittery guitars, off-kilter rhythms and sudden reversals of direction lending themselves to expressions of fragmentation of disunity. Meanwhile, the title combined with the cover’s negative image of a plummeting rollercoaster hints at a reality that’s at least ambiguous and ungrounded, while the decision to close the album with a song called Wonderland suggests that whatever real life the album may be inhabiting is at least one shot through with some ironies.

At the same time, though, Real Life feels strangely comfortable by the band’s own frenzied standards. The disorientating contortions the music goes through are all shapes we’ve seen Panicsmile go through before in one iteration or another, while for all their physical distance, the current lineup are so assured in their craft that it can’t help but come across in the music. All of which leaves the interesting possibility that, despite never really compromising on their dedication to disconnection and disorder, after nearly thirty years being buffeted by forces both social and psychic, Panicsmile might at least be finally getting used to their own demons.

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Best of 2017 – More great sounds (2) – Call And Response Records year in review

Among the top releases of 2017, I always avoid writing about anything on my own Call And Response label for obvious reasons. For equally obvious reasons, the music Call And Response puts out is also always among my favourite new music of the year (otherwise why would I go to the trouble of putting it out?) so I’m giving the label a page of its own to run through what was a very busy year in new releases:

Lo-shi – Ninjin

Lo-shi are an instrumental post-rock/electronic duo and Ninjin was the first of two albums they released in 2017 (the second was an equally excellent self-released CD/download called Moro-Q). Lo-shi’s music is characterised by eerie soundscapes and beats that range from skittering electronica to insistent, almost krautrock rhythms, while the melodies and tones combine washes of synth with theremin, Jew’s harp and Durutti Column-esque guitar.
(Buy the CD here)

Looprider – Umi

The second post-rock album Call And Response released in 2017 was this single 25-minute-long rock monster of a track by Looprider. Following on from the hardcore and noise-influenced Ascension and their pop/metal/shoegaze debut My Electric Fantasy, an instrumental prog rock epic may have seemed like another hard swerve in another direction, but it’s really a refinement of the same combination of sweet and heavy that the band have been exploring from the start.
(Buy the CD here)

P-iPLE – Do Do Do A Silly Travel By Bicycle Bicycle

This clumsily titled mini-album is a short-sharp-shock of scuzzy hardcore and no wave delivered with a playful and nonsensical sense of humour. The guitar sounds are tortured and glorious, the rhythms are breakneck, and vocalist Madca Kitabeppu (also of synth-punk trio Jebiotto) is a natural born rock star.
(Buy the CD here)

V/A – Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show

I don’t include Call And Response releases in my year-end rundowns, partly because no one would trust the lists if I did, and partly because I find it hard to assess music I’m this personally invested in against music I simply enjoy as a fan. This compilation, however, would definitely have been No.1 if I’d been including everything. It’s everything I love — skronky art-punk and noise-rock that channels the ragged creativity of the postpunk era while rarely resorting to direct pastiche. It also includes fantastic songs by most of my favourite bands in Japan, like Panicsmile, Melt-Banana, Hyacca, otori and more, so I’m not going to be ashamed in any way of saying that this is a fucking awesome album.
(Buy the CD here)

Sharkk – Be That Way

Sharkk is another way of saying Sean McGee, drummer from Looprider and Tropical Death. It’s also a convenient shorthand round these parts for a kind of sweetly sentimental, emo-tinged indie rock with gnarly, 90s alt-rock guitars. One of the few unashamedly melodic bands on the label at the moment, McGee deploys his tunesmithery in the service of a faintly self-effacing, rather ambivalent nostalgia for teen angst.
(Buy the cassette here)

Tropical Death – Modern Maze

Like Sharkk, there’s a sense of harking back to ‘90s indie rock in Tropical Death, although they take a more angular approach to their arrangements and a far more cynical approach to their lyrics. From the melodic title track to the post-hardcore rhythm workout Tribal, Tropical Death load their songs with hooks and little moments of invention that ensure every track takes you somewhere unexpected.
(Buy the cassette here)

Looprider – Ascension (cassette re-release)

Originally released as a limited edition CD in 2016, Ascension is Looprider’s take on hardcore and noise, a twenty-minute nuclear explosion of a record that starts and ends in squalls of pure noise but on the way takes you on a whirlwind tour of scratchy hardcore and the scuzzier fringes of Looprider’s more familiar metal-adjacent territory.
(Buy the cassette here)

illMilliliter – New Standard

The debut album by a Tokyo post-hardcore band featuring ex-members of Tacobonds and Imamon, dealing in frenetic, twisted guitars and tight, focussed, aggressive rhythms. illMilliliter are clearly influenced by bands like Shellac (Bob Weston worked on the album as mastering engineer), Slint and Fugazi, as well as Japanese acts like Panicsmile and possibly Number Girl/Zazen Boys, but there’s also an appreciation for sparseness and the spaces between sounds, which lifts New Standard above most Japanese punk and post-hardcore and makes them something worth playing special attention to.
(Buy the CD here)

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.8 – Burgh – All About Techno Narcisse

burgh - all about techno narcisse

CD, P-Vine, 2015

If the towering wall of angry, scratchy, trebly sound Burgh assault you with on All About Techno Narcisse (or “Techno Narcisse no Subete” as it is alternatively referred sometimes) sounds familiar, then it might be because you’re one of the select group of people who knew the band under their old name of Hysteric Picnic.

Now first let me declare an interest here and point out that the second of the three EPs Hysteric Picnic released prior to this debut album came out via my Call And Response label in late 2013 (it’s called Cult Pops, it’s brilliant and you can buy it here), although the band have evolved in some significant ways since that point.

Firstly, where the band began as a duo playing along with backing tracks stored on a series of heavily overdubbed cassettes, they are now a full band and all their songs are about twice as fast. Shigeki Yamashita’s ringing, reverb-heavy guitar and Sou Oouchi’s barking Mark E Smith-meets-Jello Biafra non-singing are a constant though, and contribute towards a sound that, while retaining clear points of similarity with a number of ’80s postpunk bands (notably The Birthday Party), is now instantly recognisable as theirs — at least in the context of the Japanese indie scene.

Assisting them in this are producer Hajime Yoshida of avant-garde anti-rock band Panicsmile and engineer Ryo Hisatsune of disco-kraut band Transkam, who worked with Burgh over a hectic schedule to record the whole album in two days, and the sound of the album reflects this frantic atmosphere. There are also similarities with Yoshida’s work on z/nz (No.19 in this countdown) in the lo-fi approach, although the presence of a bassist in Burgh’s lineup adds more of a contrasting dynamic with the scuzzy ambience at the high end. This shows up most strongly on Womb, with its throbbing bass and chiming guitar battling for your attention in the musical foreground while the vocals deliver a weary lament from somewhere in the distance.

Despite the rough-edged, noisy approach to performing their music, Burgh are still recognisably a rock’n’roll band in the old fashioned sense, with melodic rather than rhythmical dynamics driving the songs, with big, bold, catchy riffs at the heart of songs like Cult Pop, Meitei and Tonight. An important part of Burgh’s appeal, however, is the mischief and contrarianism that lurks behind their immaculate indie fringes.

Aside from the decision to change their name to something incomprehensible just a few months after a potentially breakthrough performance at Japan’s biggest rock festival and then name their album after a musical genre that has nothing to do with the actual music they play, they also gift All About Techno Narcisse with the occasional sonic curveball. The avant-garde exercise in discord that is 950 welcomes you into the album’s more challenging second side, while Case Study does an excellent job of recreating DAF-style Teutonic EBM with the bass guitar doing a terrific impersonation of an early-‘80s sequencer. As with the way the synth-based Obecca Dance closed off the Cult Pops EP, this brief nod to electronic music may only be a subtle deviation from their core sound, but still gently taunts fans to make sure they’re paying attention in the right way.

All About Techno Narcisse is very much a debut album in that it’s all about nailing down the band’s sound rather than taking it anywhere in particular, but that’s also its strength, underlining Burgh’s position as a band who, even if they can’t keep their own name straight, have a musical identity that’s strong and distinctive.

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Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.2 – Panicsmile – Informed Consent

Informed Consent

CD, Headache Sounds, 2014

Panicsmile reached a point towards the end of their previous lineup where their sound had become so finely honed, so technically refined that their anything-but-rock sensibility was in danger of getting stuck at the end of a route they had by now fully explored. Some time away, a new lineup and a re-connection with rock’n’roll seems to have cleared Hajime Yoshida’s head, because Panicsmile’s kinda-sorta comeback album sees the retooled band joyfully ripping rock music apart once more like the postpunk Beefheart they really are.

Throughout most of the album, the band shun anything resembling a simple rhythm, preferring to chop and change from one moment to the next, keeping the listener on the back foot even when the song taunts you with something like a melody. It makes Nuclear Power Days sound like Television unspooling through a broken tape recorder, but it also makes the final minute of closing track Cider Girl all the more of an ironic pleasure when the fractured elements of the music finally come together in a sort of krautrock Beach Boys outro.Nuclear Power Days, live at Akihabara Club Goodman

The album cover tells us that, “we live in the basis of informed consent”, a point of broad ongoing relevance as the government and nuclear industry in Japan continue to collude in ensuring the public are as uninformed and unable to give meaningful consent as possible. References to nuclear paranoia dot the album, but Yoshida’s point is wider: you should never have to say, “If only I’d known that!” – you should make sure you know.

In a musical generation that seems to find it harder and harder to really say anything through their music beyond a sort of meta-commentary on the music or performance itself, it’s telling that it takes comparative veterans like Panicsmile to personalise the big picture like this. That they do it with such sustained invention, such musical intelligence and such renewed energy consolidates that satisfaction and makes it an outright joy.

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Strange Boutique (October 2014) – Reviews: The Mornings, “Idea Pattern”; Halbach, “Halbach”; Otori, “I Wanna Be Your Noise”

For my October column in The Japan Times, I wrote about skronk in Japan. There was a sort of twin focus, with the article functioning on two layers. The first was a sort of meta-discussion about the language we as writers use when talking about music. It was all very clever and interesting, so go over to The Japan Times web site and have a read now.

The second layer, as you should have noticed by now, was that there was a sort of freak confluence of albums by some of Japan’s skronkiest artists released over the period of about a week at the end of last month, which is kind of the hook I used to justify writing the column in the first place and the springboard for the whole discussion of skronk and language. Now if at this point you’re scratching your head and asking, “Yeah, but what’s skronk?” then you haven’t read the original article. Go do that now.

Those releases were Idea Pattern by The Mornings, the self-titled, self-released debut album by Halbach, and I Wanna Be Your Noise by Otori. Since the publication of my column, I’ve had time to listen properly to all of those albums, so as an addendum to the original piece, here’s a series of short reviews of each album.

Idea Pattern

CD, Hariental, 2014

The Mornings’ 2011 debut album Save The Mornings was a rocket powered rollercoaster of an album, but you can only make your debut album once and it’s clear that they’ve moved on in the three years it’s taken them to come up with Idea Pattern. It opens with Fuji, which is very much in the pattern of the first album, but as the album progresses, a growing preoccupation with sonic texture and the interplay between the three vocalists becomes clear. The tempos have been brought down and there is a greater emphasis on melodies, although the melodies are themselves employed more as a textural element to be dropped in and out at will than part of a coherent, classically structured song.

In fact the overwhelming impression of Idea Pattern is of music that has been written along the lines of electronic music rather than rock. To return to the theme of skronk that kicked this whole thing off, this is really an extension of something that is part of skronk’s nature. Because of the atonal nature of the guitar sound that characterises skronk, that causes a deliberate disruption to any attempts to make a classically melodic pop song in the mode of, say The Monkees or Sex Pistols. Most skronk isn’t completely freeform though, and so what the no wave and postpunk bands did to ensure their music was internally consistent was focus on the rhythm, incorporating influences from dance music.

What The Mornings and many other bands do is take this a step further and start fucking up and disrupting the rhythms as well, and combined with the way Idea Pattern brings the bass closer to the top of the mix, it’s easy to imagine that the group were influenced in some way by the beats and drops of dubstep, albeit filtered through a decidedly art-punk lens. It’s music that revels in its inconsistency, delighting in twisting the listener this way and that, but while Save The Mornings seemed set on doing this on sheer force of will alone, Idea Pattern seems to be attempting to tap into a more generalised kind of energy, letting itself be carried along on grooves, floating on airwaves. It still does this within a structure of mathematical precision, but it’s a fascinating attempt – a parallel in music of what Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie did in the visual arts – to reconcile the band’s distinctly non-organic style with a kind of natural rhythm they find around them.

Halbach

CD, Abel, 2014

Halbach’s eponymous debut album is a mess. This is fine, because Halbach themselves are a mess and anything else just wouldn’t be them. Collected together from a mixture of studio and live recordings spanning a couple of years and a number of member changes, this album may leave you a little confused about what sort of band they are, but at the same time it gives you a pretty accurate picture of what kind of band they are. I’m saying they’re a confusing band.

Like The Mornings, there’s an obvious influence of electronic music on their approach, filtered through some similar postpunk, avant-garde and hardcore influences, but while The Mornings are fastidiously mathematical, Halbach are more expressionist in their approach – if The Mornings are Mondrian, Halbach are Kandinsky. They lay out their intentions with the sprawling, distortion-laden psychedelic noise groove of Flux Capacitor, before launching into the growling, Stooges-with-turntable-scratching hardcore of Norway.

That sets the tone for most of the rest of the album, with flurries of junk noise that combine the devilish revelling in sonic vomit of early Boredoms with the bubblegum hardcore aesthetic of Melt Banana, shot threw with a meandering love of dance music and dirty garage rock riffs. The curveball comes at the end, with the live tracks Bass and Thara cap off the album with a series of spiralling NDW/EBM-style sequencer patterns that they then proceed to mutilate – but never completely destroy – with feedback. If this is where the band are now, it’s an intriguing place to be and could become a platform for something really special in the future.

I Wanna Be Your Noise

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2014

Otori’s I Wanna Be Your Noise is another debut album, and like Halbach it collects material spanning several years – anyone with even a passing familiarity to their live performances, demos and compilation appearances over the past few years will be very much at home with the songs on this album. Where it really is the absolute opposite of Halbach is in how tightly honed and consistent in tone and overall sound it it all is. This is partly due to the way Otori recorded all the songs anew specifically for this release, but more than that it’s in how, just as Halbach’s chaotic mess of a record is a reflection of their own anarchic quality, I Wanna Be Your Noise is a product of Otori’s own laser-guided focus.

Unlike both The Mornings and Halbach, Otori are much more firmly rooted in the sonic vocabulary of the 1970s New York no wave and there is no obvious influence of dance music (at least of the electronic variety), but sonically it is every bit as skronky and atonal, and as a result, it still relies a lot on guitar texture and rhythm to give the songs their core dynamic. In fact through its own propulsive, singleminded rhythmical brutality, I Wanna Be Your Noise is probably the most purely dance-orientated album of the three albums under discussion here. In its guitar sound, it’s every bit as explosive and exploratory as The Mornings and Halbach, but where the former’s approach is layered and the latter’s is unhinged and anarchic, Otori’s guitar parts are a work of crisp, clear, almost surgical violence, deployed with a mixture of pinpoint precision and unashamed virtuosity.

All three albums are well worth checking out and showcase the depth of the talent pool that still exists in the underground and alternative scene of Tokyo. Taken together with a slew of other terrific new releases this year from Convex Level, Panicsmile, Buddy Girl and Mechanic, Hangaku and more, 2014 is shaping up to be a rather fine vintage for underground music in a postpunk/new wave vein.

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Strange Boutique (August 2014)

Seiko Oomori is a good contender for the breakout star of the year, and she’s someone who is worth paying attention to for a lot of reasons. She seems like the sort of person who would crankily dismiss any attempt to draw any meaning out of what she is and does, but that needn’t stop us.

For a start, nothing happens in a vacuum, and when you’re a musician from one sort of background (weirdo Koenji avant-folk shrieking stuff) and you appropriate imagery and sonic affectations from another (idol music), you’re playing a game with meanings no matter how hard you protest that “I just like the clothes and enjoy the music!” For a start, one question is “Why?” Indie and idol music never used to cross paths, so why has it suddenly become so easy?

Well, one reason is money, or more specifically marketing. There’s a widespread disaffection with J-Pop, and idol culture, by marketing based on character rather than music, offers an easy way to market alternatives to the bland mainstream. Oomori’s music has been a vehicle for a lot of different indie musicians, with Lailailai Team having backed her in the past, and her current band The Pink Tokarev generously stacked with musicians from the Tokyo indie scene’s current “funny bands” mini-boom. Much as she may protest her position as a discrete entity just following her muse, Seiko Oomori is also the poster girl for the fixation a significant part of the Japanese indie scene has with idol culture.

Still though, she’s not really an idol. It’s not her background, and her music is still singer-songwriter music dressed in the production tropes of idol music. She presents an unhinged image in her videos, she rants and raves at her fans via her blog, and at a recent festival she crowdsurfed up to one of the audience members and snogged him in front of the whole crowd, purportedly as revenge for the infidelities of her significant other. So is this subversion of idol music then?

The word “subversive” gets tossed around too easily with too little thought for what it actually means, so that’s what I discussed in my August (I like to think in both senses of the word) column for The Japan Times. Have a read of it here, because I’m not going to summarise the whole argument again.

Done that? Good, because the rest of this post assumes you’re familiar with what it discusses.

OK, so just a few days after my article was published, Oomori was in the news again after an interview she did published on music web site Natalie led to her making a few troubling remarks about feminism. The interviewer suggested that in contrast to the male-manipulated world of most idol music, by taking control of her own work she could be a role model for women and girls in the music scene. Her reaction was to flatly reject this and defensively disassociate herself from feminism in any way, even to the point of denying that discrimination exists.

Now this is patently bullshit as should be obvious to anyone with a basic familiarity with Japanese society, but in the context of my column it made more sense. Oomori isn’t interested in society and wants no part of it. She’s been able to do what she wants, and even thinking about the context of that (Why does she want to do those things? Would it have been as easy for her if she had wanted to do something less easily marketable?) is an imposition. Her attitude is basically, “I’m not going to play.”

And that’s an attitude that you see in a lot of the more popular indie acts now: a focus on the details at the expense of the narrative. You see it in the willfully blank, repetitive, comedic nonsense-poetry of Triple Fire, in the goofy, good-humoured, bedsit manchild schtick of Guessband (possibly not coincidentally one of the recruiting sources of Pink Tokarev members), and in the brash, anarchic, cosplay techno performance nudity of Nature Danger Gang. These acts might all be coming from different places, cosmically speaking, but their appeal has coalesced around a very similar kind of audience (primarily in the Shinjuku area and let’s face it, probably a reader of Trash Up! magazine). Where the previous underground generation bands who are now elder statesmen of the scene — groups like Panicsmile, Bossston Cruizing Mania, Groundcover. — tend to evoke a sense of individual details as invariably bound up with some wider world (Panicsmile’s excellent recent album Informed Consent encapsulates a lot of this even in just its title), a large part of what appeals to audiences now is in picking up on and identifying with details that resonate with the minutiae of fans’ lives without alluding to any wider context — or just simply absorbing yourself in funny nonsense.

This is the point where people usually chime in with “But what’s wrong with that? Why should everything have to mean something all the time? Why can’t stuff just be fun?” (Admit it, you actually had that thought somewhere a couple of paragraphs back, didn’t you?) Well, firstly I’m not sure that right and wrong has anything to do with this; it’s first and foremost an observation of how a noticeable section of the music scene seems to behave, although I shan’t pretend it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. But to respond to this string of hypothetical questions on their own terms, I could perhaps say that of course stuff doesn’t need to mean something all the time, but I’d point out that in the greater music ecosystem, stuff that’s not about anything and just wants to have fun has never in my lifetime been an endangered species to begin with. It’s the stuff that does grapple with the world for meaning that is in short supply and the indie and underground scenes have traditionally been the place you’d go to find that stuff. To get that answer, you’d need to look at the wider context though, and as we’ve seen, a lot of people just don’t want to do that.

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Interview: Panicsmile

There’s a lot of Japan Times stuff I’ve had published over the past couple of months that I’ve been too distracted to post here, so I’m going to start getting round to that now. First up, I have to talk about Panicsmile here, who are one of my favourite bands in Japan, have undergone a massive upheaval in their lineup, and come out with Japan’s best album of the year so far.

Obviously the kind of thing they do is an acquired taste, which is why they’re an underground band and not riding the Rockin’ On Japan gravy train all the way to a mid-afternoon summer festival slot, but as I say in the article, there’s a vibrancy to it that just hasn’t been there for a long time — not really since the sweet spot the band hit live midway between the releases of Miniatures and Best Education. Anyway, Hajime Yoshida from Panicsmile is always an intelligent, interesting person to talk to and you can read the interview feature I did on the band on The Japan Times web site here.

Below, I’ll post a full transcript of the interview, although be wary of the imprecise and maybe a bit dodgy translation.Panicsmile: Nuclear Power Days

PANICSMILE, HAJIME YOSHIDA INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:

There have been some big member changes since A Girl Supernova. Can you tell us the story behind how the band came to be in its current position?

Eiko Ishibashi (drums), Jason Shalton (guitar) and Kenichi Yasuda (bass) left Panicsmile at that time. However, I had been thinking about the new members before they left, so new members and I started sessions from April. Then, Yasuda got in contact and said he said he wanted to come back and play with us again, so he rejoined in our band as a guitarist. There was a period after that where we made twenty songs in two years, but none of those twenty songs made it onto in our new album. The concept of our sessions with new members was originally “back-to-basics” and we made loads of very orthodox rock’n roll tracks. However we felt a bit weird about them so we didn’t use them. Eventually all ten songs on the new album are fresh material.

Where are the members all based now? Does that make it difficult to run the band?

DJ Mistake (bass) and Yasuda (guitar) are still in Tokyo, while Geru Matsuishi (drums) lives in Toyota city, Aichi prefecture, and I’m in Fukuoka. At the point we started the new sessions in April 2010, our drummer was already living in Aichi, and no real problems happened even after I moved to Fukuoka. We don’t often hang out together outside of our band activity, I’m so used to going all the way somewhere to play. When we do band practice, we gather and stay over at Matsuishi’s house in Aichi prefecture. His house has converted into a recording studio, so I’ve never felt any difficulties about the situation.

What influence did the new members have on the sound?

DJ Mistake is pretty much a beginner, but she’s really active in sessions, while Matsuishi’s background is in jazz and R&B, so he brought some funk to the sound. Yasuda played guitar back in ’93 so that was a return to basics. Any session with me and Yasuda is going to come out weird, but the rhythm section helped put everything together. I’m always surprised at the way they approach things.

In some ways, it sounds a bit like a return to old style Panicsmile, with a simple, energetic, post-punk sound. How do you feel Informed Consent fits into Panicsmile’s catalogue?

When Eiko left the band, she said, “Why don’t you try to make new tracks with yourself in charge and a group of new members you want to play with?” I could take her suggestion in a positive sense, like “Aha! I see!” In a word, it was back-to-basics. Though we had already made seven albums over a twenty year period, I think we could say that we’ve done something new.

What does the title mean to you? “Informed Consent” is a medical phrase, but it feels to me like a phrase that describes a lot of politics now.

Right, it’s a medical term, but you can see this both in the political world and in your daily life. It’s like, “I’ve explained that to you!” It comes down to you, whether you get ripped off shopping, you fail at work or even if a nuclear power station has an accident. The important thing is I’m not warning or preaching though, because I’m always so careless in this regard myself.

Was the nuclear disaster important to you in this album? References to radioactivity appear in a couple of songs.

Hmm. Rather than thinking about the disaster itself, I got a terrible sense of regret, like, “I should have done things differently,” “I was just having an ordinary life, not thinking particularly deeply,” or “I guess I kind of knew, but I still didn’t do anything.” I’m still pursued by the balance of profit and loss, time and money, so this album is a kind of record of my regrets from 2010 to 2013.

You moved back to Fukuoka between the last album and this one. Did moving back home influence how the album developed?

Almost all of tracks were made when I was in Tokyo, but tracks 1 (Western Development2), 2 (Out of Focus, Everybody Else) and 4 (Antenna Team) were written when I was in Fukuoka. So yeah, I think I’d agree that the tracks suddenly become more aggressive. I’m working here as basically a salaryman so there are several kinds of pressure from my Fukuoka life that might be reflected in these tracks.

You also produced Headache Sounds Sample Vol.5 last year. Vol.4 was back in 2005, so why revive the series now?

The time gap between the previous instalment and the latest one wasn’t really the issue. It was really that bands between 2010 to 2012 were very interesting and fun. Bands I come to like tend to be bands that do something I can’t do. That’s my criteria when I choose.

What bands do you especially like from the compilation?

I love all of them! Like I said before, it’s because they are all tracks I couldn’t have thought up myself. This time there are some bands that have instrumental tracks, and I think tracks that don’t need vocals are great.

As I mentioned earlier, there seems to be a simpler sort of energy on Informed Consent. Where does your energy come from, or what gives you energy to keep making aggressive new music?

Maybe it’s something like desire and despair: These things come from an attachment to life. There’s negativity and darkness in the lyrics, but there’s a bit of irony in there. Anger is what you feel when you have a strong desire to live, and that’s something that’s everywhere in our daily lives. It’s possible that these emotions came up after the earthquake. I think people’s minds changed a bit after seeing so many people die.

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Diary of a Japan tour part 6: March 20th DJ Party at Fukuoka Utero

Fukuoka is by far my favourite place in Japan outside of my adopted home in the Tokyo suburb of Koenji. It’s not so much for the town itself, although it’s a lively city, a little more spacious and les hurried than Tokyo, with an buzzing central shopping district in Tenjin, a nice fashion district in Daimyo, a scary nightlife district in the Oyafuko-dori area, a beautiful park in the castle ruins and nearby Ohori Koen, a neat little shopping street district in Nishijin, and a fascinating and weird reclaimed seafront development in Momochi. Other towns have similar things, but Fukuoka does all these things a little bit nicer than most. The main reason I love Fukuoka is just that I know a lot of people in the music scene there, there are lots of great bands, and the people in them are generally really friendly and easygoing. Whenever I go there, it’s always a source of great regret that I can’t stay longer, and it’s always the highlight of any Kyushu tour for me.

Last year when I was talking with Seiji Harajiri from the live venue Utero about plans for my next tour, he suggested I come down a day early and we do a free DJ party on the Thursday night before the main gig. I have no doubt this was largely because of the difficulty in getting audiences out on weekday nights, but since N’toko usually stays in Japan for longer and spreads out his live shows, interspersing them with DJ gigs, often at my Fashion Crisis event in Koenji, it felt like a nice interlude in the tour for me as well.

I mentioned in the last post about how while Kumamoto has always been good to me, I’ve also always felt a bit of distance. One way I experience that most strongly is when I’ve played there as a DJ. The reactions to songs just doesn’t quite match the reactions those same songs usually get in Tokyo, so it’s difficult to judge the right thing to be playing. At most of the events in Tokyo I take part in, if people don’t know a song I’m playing, they come up to me and ask. In fact, that’s how you know you’ve got the balance right: if no one’s asking you what you’re playing, it means your set was too obvious. It sounds snobbish, and it can be sometimes, but as a rule, it just means people are curious, eager to find out about new stuff, and confident enough in their own knowledge and taste that they don’t feel self-conscious admitting when they don’t know. In Kumamoto, no one ever asks. Maybe it’s a cultural thing and they’re shy to interrupt, maybe it’s a self-conscious thing about seeming ignorant in front of a visiting DJ, or maybe they’re just not interested, I don’t know, but I’ve never felt quite right. The only time I’ve ever got a noticeable reaction from a crowd there was when I played the (excellent) song Fire by K-Pop quartet 2NE1 after Bo Ningen’s set.

Party time

Party time

Fukuoka on the other hand has always been a pleasure to DJ at, especially Utero. The crowd there reminds me so much of the little scene we have around us in Koenji in their behaviour, listening and drinking habits. They’re not just curious when they don’t know something, but they’re enthusiastic when they do know something, which makes it a really fun atmosphere to play in. Usually I’m just playing between bands, so having a proper set together with N’toko and local Fukuoka friends was just a great opportunity to draw out our stay in this great city.

As with many of the most fun events of the tour, I talked it through with the local organiser first, and based on my experience with Fashion Crisis gave him some suggestions about what kind of schedule would work best. Since the room would probably only fill up gradually, giving each DJ an hour split into two 30-minute sets seemed like the best option. Sometimes if you have a DJ playing dance music, it’s better to give them a single, longer set, but certainly when most of the DJs are playing indie and punk music to audiences who are primarily live music audiences, it’s best to treat the sets the same way as live sets and aim for a similar attention span. I also gave him a list of the Fukuoka DJs I personally liked and he talked over his own recommendations.

I didn’t know some of the people he put on, but the variety was about right to keep the night interesting and to prevent it falling into a rut of too many people mining similar record bags. I was particularly stoked that he was able to get Hajime Yoshida from Panicsmile to DJ. I saw him DJ a few times when he lived in Tokyo and he was always an interesting selector who I’d tried to get at Fashion Crisis before, so now that he was back living in Fukuoka, I was eager to get him involved. to-ya is the drummer from the excellent z/nz who I’ve had play at my events in Tokyo before, while Harajiri himself played under his nom de disque 100hip.

To be honest, my first set didn’t go brilliantly. I was still getting to grips with the soundcard and DJ software on my laptop (no way I was lugging a pile of CDs and/or records around Kyushu with me for five days) and I was having problems with popping that disrupted things at one stage. Yoshida was playing a mix of vinyl and CDs and had problems with the balance at first as well, although the way he divided his two nostalgic sets between old underground music, including (quite movingly actually) a great track by his friends Bloodthirsty Butchers (whose leader Hideki Yoshimura died unexpectedly last year) and a retro J-Pop set. It was handy for me too that he divided things along those lines, because it left me free to play the stuff by Wire, The Feelies and Stereolab that I might otherwise have worried he was planning on playing.

Sleep time

Sleep time

One thing Utero did that no bar in Koenji would ever be stupid enough to try was set up an all-you-can-drink offer, giving people six hours worth of unlimited booze for ¥2000. Even on a Thursday night, the result was lively, with people alternately riding around on each other’s shoulders and collapsing elegantly on the bar. Given the way DJ events in Tokyo are often so closely demarcated by genre or scene, it was great to play at something that fit so closely with the combination of nerdy musical depth and anything-goes genrecide that I’ve tried so hard to cultivate in my own parties. After the solid organisational competency of Kumamoto the previous night, it was also a welcome blitz of unstructured mayhem before the big event at the same venue on Friday.

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CAR-94 – V/A: Post Flag

Post Flag

CD, Call And Response, 2008

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.

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.

Post Flag is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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