Tag Archives: Sayuu

Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.20– Sayuu – Sukamu Left Sukamu Right

sayuu - sukamu left sukamu right

CD, Yellow Label, 2015

Happy music dominated the Japanese indie scene in 2015, from the mild-mannered garbage of city pop at one extreme to the performance-orientated comedy punk and indie-idol detritus that clogged up the other end of the scene. When viewed through this filter, Tokyo was a horrible place to be for a bitter old art-punker/pure-pop vigilante like me. However, the way the indie scene adopted the mainstream entertainment industry’s focus on character and charisma over music also allowed some genuinely music to slip through.

Sayuu are outliers among Tokyo’s “funny” bands in that they skirt clear of outright goofiness and produce music more considered than mere wackiness. Sukamu Left Sukamu Right succeeds by treading a knife-edge of caustic humour, brittle postpunk arrangements and hectoring vocals, all providing the most minimal embroidery to songs that through a mixture of occasional bursts of melody and persistent, finely honed rhythmical dynamics manages to be accessible borderline-pop and retain all its sharp edges.

Songs like Yellow Hate I’ve written about before, with the newer Yametekure running along similar lines. Meanwhile the kazoo-folk of Hako no Uta will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the band’s regular live set.

As with many smartly marketed Japanese underground acts, where they take it from here is a difficult question. It’s all so tightly honed and complete in itself that it suggests few avenues for further development that wouldn’t fatally undermine its finely balanced appeal. The whispered Heiwana no Ka against a backdrop of minimal percussion and xylophone points a possible direction for the duo to explore more sophisticated ideas without losing their sparse charm. Again, the scene’s focus on character over music can work in a band’s favour here, giving them freer rein to change fundamental aspects of their setup as long as the duo retain their dry, poker-faced wit.

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Strange Boutique (June 2015) – Is music in a slump? (No, it isn’t.)

My June column comes out of some of the thoughts that I had going through my head while I was in Kyushu in May, on tour with first Sayuu and later Umez.

The little dialogue I relate at the beginning is literally something I hear whenever I travel around Japan or meet an acquaintance I haven’t seen in a long time. I hear similar complaints all the time, from people of all ages – it’s not just me getting old: there genuinely is a sense that music is in a slump.

But is it? It’s so big that it’s hard to say, but I’d be wary of people who say that these things all just go in cycles. Technology has completely removed many of the barriers to creating and distributing music that used to exist, and all art is to a very large extent defined by the constraints within which it has to operate. I don’t know to what extent technology is behind this perceived slump, but if it is, then its changes may be more permanent than some people think.

However, as I say in the article, a lot of it really is down to perception. If we just click a few of the links that whiz by us or even better actually get out to a show, (Hint: there’s an excellent show I’ve organised coming up VERY SOON!) there are loads of really good bands still out there.

What there isn’t, from what I can gather, is quite so much in the way of a scene these days. This makes it more difficult to perceive any sort of unified energy coursing through indie and alternative music as a whole, but on the other hand, it makes what value there is that much more eclectic and exciting.Falsettos: Dig

In the article I mention a handful of bands, mostly deliberately limited to ones I’d discovered in the previous month or so, although I made a point of mentioning the Falsettos who I’d known for rather longer simply because they’re so fucking awesome. My editor Shaun went through and sought out links to most of the bands, so you should check those out within the article itself. I’ll also probably be writing about some of them in more specific detail on here soon (Mechaniphone and Platskartny both have new Eps out, so they’re going to feature here for sure, while both Platskartny and Falsettos are also playing at my next event).

One band that doesn’t have a link in the article is Narcolepsin. They have been around for a long time, but only since they settled into their current three-piece lineup with a keyboard player have they really started to jump out as something really cool. A few scrappy YouTube clips are all that’s available online of them in this form.Narcolepsin

Missing out on Sonotanotanpenz is a source of terrible shame to me when not only did I find their name scrawled on a napkin two years ago by a Fukuoka-based friend of mine but also discovered that one of the members is someone I’ve known for years and has played several times at my own events, albeit in different bands.

Finally The Noup I picked up old-school on the recommendation of Takehiko Yamada from File-Under Records in Nagoya. It’s got to be said that having reliable curators of taste who can filter the information for you is invaluable. Every time you fail to follow up on a recommendation from someone like Yamada, you’re killing music.The Noup

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Strange Boutique (December 2014) – the year in music

As 2014 comes to a close, it’s end-of-year review time, and as usual my Japan Times column took on the task of trying to find new ways of describing the same stuff that happens every year. For those of you who’d rather not read the full 1500-word piece, it goes something like this:

  • Music industry still broadly in decline
  • Record companies still suspicious of online music and streaming
  • Advertising and tie-ups increasingly more important than actual sales
  • Korean music doing better than Japanese music abroad
  • AKB48 not as popular as they were but still pretty much the biggest thing out there

The way I chose to look at it this time round was from the perspective of what some of the key events or trends of the year tell us about who music is really being made for.

With a group like AKB48, there are a lot of intersecting factors at play as they balance the need to please a number of different masters. As one of my always charming commenters was helpful enough to point out, Google Trends isn’t the only, or the best, measure of something’s overall popularity, and of course their sales are still sky-high. Oricon’s recently-published year-end charts give the group all of the top five singles and the number one album in terms of CD sales, although this figure is fishy as well given the marketing gimmicks that surround CD sales in Japan. The top 40 CD singles was dominated by three organisations: Yasushi Akimoto’s AKB family, the Johnny & Associates boyband farm, and perma-tanned, goateed, twats-in-hats boy band Exile. All these acts boost their CD sales with marketing gimmicks aimed at their fanatical core fanbases, and it’s interesting to note that the only act from outside this axis of evil to make the top 40, comedy “air band” Golden Bomber, released their own song in a plain white case with no extras as a protest against this sort of gimmickry (or/and as a gimmick in itself).

What I was looking at in Google Trends was the general, casual interest in AKB48, in particulat the spikes that occur in June every year around “election” time. This is the time people who otherwise wouldn’t care much about the band but have a mild, general interest in them and are generally favourably inclined towards them are more likely to have a look to see what’s going on with them. Throughout the year, point by point, the figures are about one third of their 2011 peak. This doesn’t affect sales because these people never bought AKB CDs anyway, but it does affect advertising. Anyone living in Tokyo these past few years would have noticed the diminishing visibility of the group on billboards, and as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, advertisers have even resorted to labelling the group in adverts so that people know who they are – something usually reserved for new acts the ad agency has hooked up with the tie-ups as part of its deal with their talent agency. But then the turnover of band members ensures that AKB48 are perpetually a new group, and this is the core of their problem for advertisers in 2014: everyone knew Atsuko Maeda, Yuko Oshima, Tomomi Ito, Mariko Shinoda and maybe a couple of others, but people nowadays would struggle to name any of the current lineup.

In terms of my question about who music is for, where AKB48 fans have been successful is that by their enormous expenditure on the group, they have retained a degree of ownership over them. This idea of ownership is perhaps key to the success of the whole idol format: the fans, by their exercise of obsessive degrees of purchasing power, are able to keep the groups “for them” rather than letting them slip entirely into the treacherous hands of advertising. It’s extreme and a bit mad in its degree, and far more focused on “character” consumption than on music listening, but taken in isolation, the principle is admirable.

Looking over at the iTunes charts, we see a very different picture, with a more diverse selection of acts and far less in the way of idol music (as I say, idol otaku aren’t music fans, they’re machines for consuming character goods) but it does serve as a timely warning of what awaits us if the idol boom were to suddenly die. In three words: One OK Rock. In another three words: Sekai no Owari. I have nothing to say to that other than yuck. We can blame the music industry for feeding people shit, but sooner or later, music audiences have to just take responsibility for their own awful taste.

One thing I didn’t have space to mention in the context of the growing prominence of the “national interest” in the use of pop music was Ringo Shiina’s NHK World Cup theme, which was accused in some quarters of being unnecessarily nationalistic. Now I’m not sure what that means in this context – football is pretty much the one arena in which you get a free pass to be as jingoistic, flag-waving and borderline fascist as you want without damaging your liberal softie cred – but given the Abe government’s ongoing efforts to stack NHK’s board with historical revisionists and ignorant propaganda stooges it bears keeping an eye on. As for Shiina herself, who knows? Her whole aesthetic is based around the fact that she loves Japan a lot, and that’s part of her appeal. A bigger problem with the song is that it was a really rubbish song.

In any case, the fact that the government are now openly and explicitly mobilising pop culture to promote their agenda, from the relatively benign Olympics-related let’s-make-ourselves-look-good-for-the-guests stuff to the full-on militarist AKB48 join-the-army-spread-dreams-to-the-world ad campaign bears scrutiny. What are the criteria behind who gets Cool Japan money? If you’re taking that money, have you read the small print? Do you fully understand what other agenda you might be unwittingly hitching yourself to? This may seem a bit paranoid now, but no pop culture exists in a vacuum, and if pop music is being recruited to serve the state, it matters a lot what the extent of the state’s agenda is. I’d feel much more comfortable with Cool Japan is it was completely out of the hands of the government and in the hands of an independent arts council.

Of course indie music is the main purpose of this blog, and 2014 was a particularly fine vintage for music that no one either within Japan or without is ever going to care about. I wrote a bit about this for The Japan Times earlier in December as part of its albums-of-the-year roundup, and I repeated myself using slightly different words as a small part of Néojaponisme’s own year-end roundup. I shan’t go into detail here because I’ll be going into it in painstaking album-by-album depth next month in my personal 2014 top twenty countdown, but particularly for indiepop and fucked-up junk/postpunk/skronk there was a bumper harvest to the point where whittling it down to a mere twenty discs has proven a painful and difficult exercise.

One of the booms in the indie scene this year has been what I tend to dismissively call “funny bands”, with comical and/or performance-orientated acts like Dotsuitarunen, Nature Danger Gang, Guessband and others being ubiquitous. Partly I think this is the flipside of idol music in that if we see indie as a degraded mirror of mainstream entertainment, where girls are pretty idols while men are comedians. As a result, the indie scene subconsciously mimics that format so on the one hand we get Seiko Oomori and on the other we get Triple Fire.

This rise of owarai-type acts like these is something I’m ambivalent about in that on one level it cheapens the indie scene by making it qualitatively not significantly different from the mainstream, but on the other hand, just as I’d listen to AKB48 any day over terrible, “serious” J-pop bands like Kobukuro and Ikimono Gakari, these theatrical, comical indie bands and performers are infinitely preferable to the tediously earnest, sterile technical virtuosity of professional on-stage wankers like Toe.

In my own musical projects, I can pronounce myself largely satisfied with what 2014 gave me. I celebrated the ten year anniversary of my first event with a thrilling Koenji Pop Festival at Higashi Koenji 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu which was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. The venue is notoriously loud to begin with, and when the PA engineer gets excited, he tends to gradually push everything up and up as the night goes on. By the time headliners Hyacca stepped up, the walls and floor were shaking and the whole experience was just one of sheer, earsplitting rhythmical noise. For me at least in a good way.

Earlier in the year my Call And Response label put out the album Mind Business by Slovenian rapper N’toko, which remains one of the releases I’m proudest of and perhaps the most coherent recorded artistic statement the label has ever put out. I released it on iTunes, probably for the first and last time of anything on my label. I have nothing in particular against Apple, but given what a non-profitmaking venture Call And Response is, iTunes is just not a marketplace where I feel comfortable doing business or able to justify the time and energy. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the online rainbow, just an increasingly grubby race to the bottom in terms of prices and returns. While I enjoy the convenience of online music as a consumer, as a label owner I prefer to deal with customers and vendors in person, even if that means a vanishingly small number of them. The N’toko tour in March confirmed a lot of those feelings for me, and while it had its ups and downs in terms of crowds, there were far more ups, and experiencing it all in person was its own justification and reward for the effort putting it all together took.

Other releases I put out or helped put out over the course of the year were February’s free compilation 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」 featuring 21 different bands covering the song Paranoid by Black Sabbath. I will hopefully top that for completely stupid and pointless free covers projects by the end of next year or at most the year after. The summer also saw the albums Tane to Zenra by Kagoshima psychedelic band Futtachi and Love Song Duet by Tokyo synth-punk trio Jebiotto. Both of these are albums that would on their own musical merits certainly make it into my personal top albums of the year list if I admitted Call And Response releases for contention in those things, but I don’t so they won’t.

There’s already plenty to look forward to next year, with Extruders and Sayuu/Sa Yuu planning new albums for early in the new year. Going a little more mainstream, Capsule have a new album due out soon, albeit alarmingly EDMish judging from the sounds currently emerging from chez Nakata. With Call And Response Records entering its tenth anniversary year, I personally intend to be a busy bee putting out a string of truly horrible releases lab-grown to be the opposite of everything popular in Japanese music right now.

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Diary of a Japan tour part 2: March 13th at Yokohama Shicho Shitsu2

The second night of the tour was in Yokohama. This was really a pet project of mine since there are a lot of bands I really like in the area and I thought a small show there would be a nice warmup before the more demanding travel requirements to come.

Shicho Shitsu during soundcheck

Shicho Shitsu during soundcheck

Yokohama is a weird place for gigs really, being just a little too close to Tokyo to really have the full sense of being a different place, but just a little too far to be worth travelling to of an evening. This was partly intentional on my part, since after the opening night in Shibuya, I was keen to channel as much of N’toko’s Tokyo audience as possible into the closing night at Higashi Koenji 20000V. I worked with a local Yokohama musician, Kouhei Itou from the bands Servals and Come To My Party to book the show, since I didn’t know the lay of the land as well as he, and we settled on the lovely Shicho Shitsu2, the Yokohama arm of a venue that also has a branch in Tokyo. Kouhei agreed to play with Come To My Party, and I booked one of my favorite new bands, Sayuu. Local experimental/improv weirdo Kitsch Hitori Gakudan completed the live bill, who I’d been keen to get since more than any of the other artists on the bill, he not only lived nearby but was at least a semi-regular feature on the Yokohama/Kanagawa scene.

CDs sold in garbage bags

CDs sold in garbage bags

Things started to go wrong a couple of days before the show, when a flu epidemic that had been sweeping the country claimed Kitsch Hitori Gakudan and ruled him out of the gig. It was helpful in a way because it shifted the start time of the event later, but it meant we were relying rather more on friends than we’d hoped. The next problem was a vicious storm that hit the Yokohama coast on the afternoon of the event, ruling out any but the most dedicated visitors. I’ll spare you the suspense here and just say outright that four people showed up, which in addition to the six musicians, two DJs and two venue staff gave us a grand total of 14 people in the room.

This is the sort of thing that’s a disaster in Tokyo and any venue where you’re paying the venue a rental fee. Fortunately we weren’t, which meant that the event turned over into something else: that special kind of atmosphere where everyone there knows they’re trapped in a situation that’s now only going to go as well as they make it, the peculiarly intense camaraderie that only really happens in the face of utter disaster. The battering rain, harsh winds and apocalyptic skies outside just emphasised the welcoming warmth that existed inside.

Scenes from a Chinese ballet

Scenes from a Chinese ballet

Shicho Shitsu in Yokohama is part live venue, part art studio, part used clothes shop, part record store, part bookshop, part cafe, part bar. Wandering around the venue, you find different corners devoted to different things, all of them in their own way fascinating. I was able to pick up a book of Chinese communist propaganda art for ¥500 and spend a few minutes browsing a comic book series about the adventures and scrapes of a porn actor.

Sayuu

Sayuu

The venue is better equipped for acoustic or at least relatively gentle sounds though, and Sayuu had to fight a valiant battle against a constantly sliding bass drum throughout their set. Given that their music was channelled almost exclusively through the onstage amps, however, they were able to control their sound and sounded great. They’re a duo who seem to thrive on awkwardness and discomfort, wither eschewing or else subverting through their delivery most of the standard inter-song pleasantries that most bands in Japan feel compelled to engage in. The only thing I can remember them saying was telling me to get out of the way of the camera they’d set up. What they did do that was of more value than a thousand tedious stories about ramen they ate or funny things that happened to their dog last week was stick around and pay close attention to all the other artists performing. A genuine interest in music and sense that they’re part of the event even when they’re not onstage is a precious thing in a band.Sayuu: Yellow Hate (Live at Shicho Shitsu2 — note the moving bass drum)

N'toko

N’toko

N’toko had no access to the amps and had to rely on the PA instead for his entirely electronic set. This meant it was considerably quieter than Sayuu’s performance as the PA staff, always wary of complaints from neighbors and visits from police kept volume to a minimum. In order to make the set work the best way it could, N’toko and the staff had arranged to set up his gear on the floor rather than the stage, so he was performing with audience on both sides of him, on the same level as them, fostering a sense of intimacy that would hopefully counterbalance the lack of the viscerally of noise. He’s a versatile performer and was able to re-jig his set to focus on the more experimental, less dance-orientated tracks, and it worked.

Come To My Party

Come To My Party

Come To My Party are a poppier concern than Kouhei’s other band, the behavior, more psychedelic Servals, and they were more comfortable playing a quieter set in the first place. Clearly heavily influenced by the indie rock and synth-based dreampop elements of Supercar, but with less of an urge to rock out like a stadium band, they brought the live music to a close in a way that was both pleasant and better than the word “pleasant” makes that sentence sound.

One curious point about Yokohama when compared to the far better-attended Shibuya gig the previous night was in CD sales. Shibuya resulted in a grand total of zero, while the closer interaction between artists, closer attention people seemed to be paying each other, and sense of everyone being in something together meant that there was more action on the merchandise table after the show. The venue staff too seemed to be genuinely interested in what people were doing there, and ended up stocking a few of Call And Response Records’ CDs for their small record store corner. It’s a pat truism that there are no such things as worthless gigs, and it’s of course nonsense — there are terrible gigs that benefit no one and should never have happened — but where the people involved are interesting, musically curious people who get what each other are doing, there’s always some value that you can get from it. In a wider sense, this is an argument for infrastructure and groundwork. The best venues are the ones where the staff have a musical vision, the best local scenes are the ones where there are organizers and cultural curators willing to do the work of sorting and filtering music according to something more than raw numbers — it’s what I’ve tried to do in my ten years of activity in the music scene, and when the rails I’ve helped lay down can allow an event to trundle along relatively painlessly when it’s gone horribly wrong from a commercial perspective, that gives me a little glow of satisfaction, not necessarily of a job well done, but at least of a job operating on the right principles.

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Top 20 releases of 2013: Intro

I’ve put off doing this for plenty long enough, so before January ends, I’d like to get started on counting down my top releases by Japanese or Japan-based artists of 2013. As with previous years, I’m basically sticking to releases with three or more tracks, I’m not imposing any particular genre restrictions although given this blog’s focus, it’s obviously going to be more or less entirely indie-biased. In addition, it’s obviously limited to albums that I’ve had a good listen to, and finally, this list and ranking is entirely subject to my own whims and on a different day might look totally different.

This means that singles like Merpeoples’ excellent Silent Sleep and Miu Mau’s (last year’s top placed band) magnificent Monochrome/Spring 7-inch aren’t included. It also means that Hikashu, who released two albums this year if we include the one they did with Charan Po Rantan, don’t feature simply because I haven’t had a chance to listen to any of their new material yet. Likewise I can’t assess Fukuoka indie quartet the Hearsays who I’ve been very excited about for a long time, Yokohama postpunk weirdniks Sayuu, and Tokyo indiepopsters Boyish (who featured last year) because I haven’t copies of their albums.Sugardrop: Breeze Flower

Because I decided to keep this list as a strict Top 20, there were a few albums by bands I very much like that I didn’t have space to include. On another day they might have been in there, and they remain highly recommended, so Pop-Office’s Portraits in Sea is one well worth checking out, as is Ykiki Beat’s Tired of Dreams. Hotel Mexico’s Her Decorated Post Love was another fine album that didn’t make the cut but on another day likely would have and if you haven’t heard it, you should go out and do that right now, as you should Sugardrop’s superb, shoegazetastic Yeah Right. As I said earlier, there’s a strong indie bias to this list, and while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Momoiro Clover Z both put out genuinely good and highly recommended albums, neither album really stuck with me enough to warrant a place among my top 20 of the year. Sakanaction also put out another very good album and remain consistently the best “mainstream” Japanese rock band, but somehow their stuff still doesn’t quite jive with me the way I feel it should. It’s a top notch album, brimming with creativity and thoroughly deserving of its massive sales and huge popularity, but I don’t know. It’s a model example of an album that does everything right and shows signs of maybe even being a classic, but doesn’t make my heart sing the way my real favourites did. It’s good so listen to it and a lot of you will feel it in a way I just can’t quite. It’s not you, Sakanaction, it’s me.Sakanaction: Yoru no Odoriko

Last of all, and again as with previous years, I’m obviously not including albums I released myself through my Call And Response label, which means the brilliant Я не могу без тебя (“Ya ne mogu bez tebya”, or “I can’t live without you”) by Mir and Hysteric Picnic’s fantastic Cult Pops are out of contention, although of course both would be right up near the top if I were honest about my feelings for them.

Anyway, now that you’re primed, I’ll be starting the countdown from tomorrow, so get ready.

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Strange Boutique (December 2013 Appendix): Five bands to watch in 2014

The other thing The Japan Times and I try to do every year is pick up five new or newish bands to watch over the forthcoming year, and this year there are five that I’m genuinely very excited about. Read my comments on the bands on The Japan Times’ web site here, and have a listen below:

1. DYGL — Really so hard to write about this band. They headlined my label’s anniversary party this autumn and they drove people crazy. I tend to go for edgy, arty, angular postpunk bands, but sometimes I just want something full of beauty and passion. I also like how the central riff of this song is the same as the theme from Twin Peaks.DYGL: Let’s Get Into Your Car

2. Sayuu — I’ve written about them on this site a couple of times this year. I first heard about them from Naoki from Tacobonds in January when he said there’s this very “Ian-type” new band that I should check out. He was right.Sayuu: Nakunaranai

3. Hearsays — I’ve never seen this band, but they’re one that my friends in Fukuoka couldn’t stop going on about this year. Similar genre to DYGL but very different atmosphere. I mention The Blind in the JT piece, and I think it might be my song of the year.

4. group A — Anything that sounds as much like Throbbing Gristle as this lot do is always going to be worth listening to, but it was after speaking to them and hearing about how they approach their music that it really started to come together for me.

5. Compact Club — I’m crazy about early 80s Japanese new wave and postpunk, and this group combine into one band almost everything I like from that period, plus their live shows are really fun. I’ve always liked Polysics fine but never really loved them because they were always too clean and polished, they look like craftsmen doing a job, but (and I know this is heresy for a lot of their fans) for all their spazzing about, there seems so little genuine energy to it. Compact Club aren’t as good musicians, but they’re plenty good enough, and they feel right to me in a way Polysics never have.Compact Club: Roommate

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Guardian Song of the Week: Sayuu, “Yellow Hate”

This week’s track for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a wonderfully eccentric nugget from Tokyo’s favourite new indie duo Sayuu.Sayuu: Yellow Hate

Confusing and delighting Tokyo indie audiences in pretty much equal measure this year, Sayuu are a decidedly offbeat duo with a distinctive line in deadpan postpunk eccentrica. With the stripped-down lineup necessitating a similarly minimalist approach to songwriting, the duo create spiky, catchy little songs that are both shamelessly childish and disarmingly intelligent, taunting you with the possibility that it might mean something, but never letting the mask slip enough to admit one way or the other.

Yellow Hate does pretty much what it says on the tin, working its way through a litany of hated yellow things, the grinding repetition punctuated by percussive stabs of guitar that break up the otherwise relentless, rhythmical loop that the song torments you with. Credit should also go to Sayuu here for reviving that most beloved of visual artforms, the music video that literally depicts what the song lyrics are describing.

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