With the end of this latest countdown of the past year’s top Japanese music, it’s worth drawing attention to what other writers did for their own rundowns. The other main English language sites that go deep enough to put these kinds of extensive lists together are Make Believe Melodies and Beehype. Neither list had anything in common with mine, and precious little in common with each other, which just goes to show how diverse the indie scene in Japan is. In any case, both lists are worth checking out in order to get a different perspective on what Japanese indie (and a bit of pop – Patrick at MBM remains inexplicably attached to E-Girls) music has to offer.
Looking forward into the rest of 2016, I’ll be dealing with a similar situation next time round, with a lot of new Call And Response releases already in the pipeline. Looprider’s debut only came out six months ago, but they already have a second album recorded and ready to go this spring, and a third album written. Lo-shi have already recorded their third album and first CD release, with the album currently being mixed with a view to a summer release. Mechaniphone, whose first EP came in at No.4 in my best of 2015 countdown, have a new EP ready to go, which I’ll be helping them put out in a limited release very soon. Other bands in the wider Call And Response family have new material at varying stages of completion, including Han Han Art, Sharkk, Trinitron and Tropical Death.
More broadly, I’m (maybe hopefully) picking up vibes that indiepop may have peaked and that the cool kids are ready for something a bit more discordant. If there is even the faintest possibility of a postpunk/no wave revival, I’ll be doing everything I can to jolly it along and then report on it as if it’s some spontaneous thing I just discovered.
Basically, my theory is that the indie hipster cred Hysteric Picnic/Burgh have been building up over the past couple of years has now reached such a level that young, cool kids want to hang out with them and be in bands like them. There has always been a seam of arty, angular Japanese underground music scraping away metalically beneath the surface of the music scene, and the emergence of younger bands like Deviation and Ms. Machine, as well as the welcome return of the still ludicrously young and inspired Nakigao Twintail, suggests that at least in some limited sense Japanese skronk might be getting a shot of young blood.
Any look at stuff to look forward to should probably begin with Afrirampo’s spring reunion tour, followed by an appearance at the Taico Club festival in June. Whether any new recordings will emerge is still uncertain, and I’m not sure if that would even be a good idea at this stage. Pika already has a new album titled Sun Ra New, in collaboration with Yuji Katsui and Yoshihide Otomo, and quite what role Afrirampo could play in her ever-evolving musical explorations I don’t clearly see.
New releases I’ll be looking out for include Kyoto bubblegum hardcore/postpunk band O’Summer Vacation’s new 7 Minutes Order, which I’ve already heard and is awesome, and hopefully a full album by my favourite band in Tokyo right now, the wonderful Falsettos.
I’ll also be embarking soon on the second stage of my travels to every prefecture of Japan to research its indie music scene. Following my return to Tokyo, my long-promised book on the Japanese indie music scene is now back from the editor and pencilled in for a summer release, so keep your eyes open for more on that.
The day after Nagoya, we were back in Tokyo for a secret gig. The event was Tententen, a show I organise together with my friends Eric and Julian, a.k.a. Gotal and Ralouf from the band Lo-shi on the third Sunday of every month at a tiny little music bar in my home neighbourhood of Koenji called Art Bar Ten. I do two monthly parties in Koenji, the other being the DJ party Fashion Crisis at the nearby Koenji One. Since Ten has a proper drum kit, we focus more on live acts, but we also incorporate video, art and DJs into the show, while at One it’s more about chilling out and listening to the DJs, although we do sometimes have live electronic or semi-acoustic performances. One and Ten are not connected in any way other than being down the street from each other; the naming is just coincidence.
Anyway, there are a couple of advantages to having these regular events going on. One is that it anchors my activities in the Koenji neighbourhood, which helps establish an identity for what I do. The Internet does great propaganda about breaking down boundaries, and to an extent it does do something along those lines, but region and locality are still very important, even within Tokyo itself. Just look at the way anime over the past 10-15 years has increasingly focussed on real locations, almost fetishising the sheer locality of the place. Koenji itself has played stage to a few anime series, the tedious looking (I haven’t watched it) Accel World and notably parts of the bizarre Penguindrum. Hello Kitty has a special mascot for practically everywhere in Japan (Koenji again has its own version, dressed in Awa Dance costume) and everywhere has its own “special” ramen and manju or biscuit souvenir. Locality still carries weight, and local music scenes have a lot of appeal, perhaps more so the more the Internet appears to make them irrelevant.
The other advantage of these monthly events is that they gradually build their own audience. Fashion Crisis has been going for five years now, and while Tententen only started last September, it carries over a lot of the same audience. It helps foster a core audience for Call And Response events and provides a slightly looser environment for me to try new or different things that wouldn’t fit easily into any of my bigger and more strictly genre-focussed events.
With the N’toko tour I didn’t want to skip Tententen, but at the same time I didn’t want to be promoting another N’toko gig in Koenji just a couple of weeks before his big Tokyo release party at the nearby 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu on the final day of the tour. Ten costs me nothing to do, but do something at a proper live venue and you have to guarantee about ¥100,000 in takings, so I didn’t want people looking at the tour schedule and thinking, “Let’s see, the release party is on the 29th, but oh, I can see N’toko for a quarter of the price two weeks earlier. I’ll just go to that instead!”
So N’toko was a secret guest at Tententen, although a lot of our regular crowd (the people who tend to show up to my events anyway) already knew he’d be there either because I’d told them or just through the simple art of deduction. We needed an event that would work on its own regardless though, so Eric suggested Communication Breakdown, a sample-based instrumental hip hop unit formed by two of the guys from avant-garde rock band Bathbeer and indie-dance band Nacano. I was wary of booking another hip hop act with N’toko, but their sound was reassuringly old-skool and since they were from an indie background, it helped smooth the transition to the next act, Gloomy. Gloomy is basically Aya Yanase, an indiepop singer with a synthesiser in the mould of someone like Grimes. She is sometimes joined on drum pads by Kohei Kamoto of indie bands DYGL and Ykiki Beat, leading to some charming stage interactions that remind me of nothing so much as a couple in a car arguing over a map but trying to keep their voices down unless they disturb the kids. Aya has also worked with N’toko before, albeit remotely, providing guest vocals to mine and his band Trinitron’s Valentine’s Day cover of Paranoid by Black Sabbath.
Anyway, the room was packed more tightly than any Tententen so far, which is to say there were about 35-40 people over the course of the night in a room that can really hold comfortably about 25 max. If there’d been a fire, people would have died, but the only fire was in the hearts of the musicians and audience. We were all burned, but it was a nice burning, like eating a spicy curry, or drinking strong liquor. Gloomy would have finished the show perfectly in their own right, but N’toko put in one of his best shows of the tour, and the Tententen crowd proved themselves one of the best audiences he could have asked for.
It was an interesting comparison with Bar Ripple in Nagoya the previous night, with both shows in similar small bars with no stage, both shows bringing in a mix of Japanese and foreigners in the audience, and both shows having a decidedly non-“scene” vibe without compromising the essentially nerdy musical atmosphere. You could have transplanted ONOBLK and Rock Hakaba from Nagoya to Koenji and done the same show and it would have felt very similar even with totally different audiences.
By this point in the tour, it was starting to feel like the motors were beginning to run. Most of the shows had been in unusual places and were far from typical gigs in proper live venues with the exception of the first night at Shibuya Home, which had been on a weekday night, but there was plenty of that to come. The next few dates would all be very far from home so we had many hours of planes and trains to look forward to. The next block of gigs, which would form the core of the tour would be in Kyushu, where Call And Response at least has fairly credible past form, so there was a lot to look forward to. I’d never done so many dates there all at once though, so we were trying a few new things too. In Hollywood terms, this was the end of Act 1.
Every couple of years or so, my label Call And Response Records likes to put together a compilation project for Valentine’s Day, usually themed around cover versions of one band or another. The idea is always to do something lo-fi and throw together all sorts of things, regardless of genre or recording quality and to release it only in a limited fashion, either as a CD/R or download. Bands are encouraged to spend as little time on it as possible and just to mess around and have fun, although this is usually a pretty futile thing to ask given the neurotic perfectionism of most musicians we know. In any case, the result is always going to be more or less lo-fi.
I’m not sure where the idea of asking every band to cover Black Sabbath’s Paranoid came from, but I’m pretty sure it was partly inspired by the compilation A Houseguest’s Wish, in which 19 bands took turns covering Wire’s Outdoor Miner (and indeed Wire’s own album The Drill, where the band did numerous covers of their own song). The decision to pick Paranoid as a song came out of an ongoing obsession with Black Sabbath that the Quit Your Band! zine’s editorial team developed (and which culminated in our decision to rate albums using a system called the “Sabbath Scale”). It’s a good choice of song I think because it’s so utterly, utterly stupid and simple that it leaves huge amounts of room for interpretation by expanding, elaborating, or honing it in various ways. A similarly well known song like War Pigs or Iron Man would have imposed itself a bit too much on the artist and been less flexible in its scope for interpretation.
I also think the idea of a whole load of different bands covering the same song is artistically incredibly interesting in its own right, with the similarity of the underlying song forcing you to be conscious of what the musicians are doing to it in terms of structure, arrangement and performance. Over the course of an album, the repetitiveness of the same theme, each time in a different iteration, has a curiously trancelike quality to it as well. Rather like the documentary film The Aristocrats (also perhaps an influence), where dozens of comedians tell the same filthy joke in all manner of different ways, each adding their own twist on the familiar theme, I think seeing the same song played by a lot of bands gives an interesting insight into the creative process.
In any case, the response to this project overwhelmed me. I recruited bands pretty indiscriminately over a period of several months, assuming that for such a low-key project, it wouldn’t be particularly high priority for most of them. As time went by, I realised that interest in the project was way greater than I’d anticipated, and I started happily telling people that there could be as many as 15 different artists taking part. The 21st track arrived in my inbox at 8:30 this morning and the finished album runs to almost one and a half hours.
The tracks cover as wide a range of genres as my taste allows. It features mostly Japanese or Japan-based artists, although a couple of tracks hail from overseas. The core of the album was recruited from among the underground music oddballs who hang out at Call And Response’s monthly Fashion Crisis event at Koenji One, and it’s the inclusive, eclectic, but passionately knowledgeable atmosphere of Fashion Crisis that I think defines the overall feeling of the album. Some bands took their tracks very seriously, and the album contains moments of quite staggering beauty, while others followed my initial advice and took it as an opportunity to have fun, creating some moments of laugh-out-loud silliness in the process. Every track approaches the song in an interesting way, and there’s also I think a joyousness that runs though it that’s partly from the inherent qualities of Sabbath’s original song and partly from the sheer scale and expression of human creativity that’s on display.
The album title is 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ！？！？」which basically means, “Thanks for the chocolate… What’s your agenda!?!?” (I’m just going to refer to it as “Choco Kureru…” from now on) and here’s a rundown of the track list:
1. Fidel Villeneuve Originally from Wolverhampton, Fidel is near enough a hometown brother of Sabbath themselves, although with a rather different musical background on Atari Teenage Riot’s Digital Hardcore label and in London powerpop band Applicants. Nonetheless, the same hot Bovril runs through both Fidel and Ozzy’s veins, and his sample-based approach gives early warning of the excesses to come.
2. ロア/Loa I had to get these guys on the album. There’s so much Sabbath in what they do anyway that it would have been criminal not to have them involved, and their high-octane approach to the track plays it more or less straight, but with the emphasis on speed and shot through with a prog rocky virtuosity.
3. 経立/Futtachi This psychedelic band from Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu are the latest band from Iguz Soseki of post-hardcore garage-punk band Zibanchinka and their approach sounds like early Captain Beefheart, or maybe Faust covering I Want Candy. Apparently their aim was to do “Sabbath in the jungle”.
4. Human Wife Usually feedback-heavy riff merchants, Human Wife’s take on the track slows it down and draws out the emotional core of the song, turning it into this really quite affecting junkie’s confessional.
5. Client/Server:Q With music where drone and sonic texture are more important than melody and songcraft, the cover naturally takes on a more abstract flavour. you see this a few times on Choco Kureru…, but this is the first, building up a wall of noise and feedback that ebbs and flows throughout the track.
6. Abikyokan Abikyokan are a genre unto themselves, although “avant-pop” serves them well enough most of the time. Here, Paranoid acts as a distraction to them from their current obsession with the influence of early Christianity on the Roman Empire, and they swing at it with all their synthpop electro-funk bats at once. They’re also one of a few bands on here to break down the original song’s structure and reconstruct it around just the bits that they like.
7. うるせぇよ/Uruseeyo This Tokyo post-punk band exemplify something that’s actually true of a lot of the bands on Choco Kureru… in that they’re a band who usually play in a genre of which guitar solos aren’t really an integral part, but at the same time, the solo in Paranoid plays such an integral role in the minimal structure of the song, that something has to go there. They dive eagerly into the challenge and pull off a spiky, dance-punk solo with aplomb.
8. Han Han Art, featuring Fukusuke (Owarythm/Nature Danger Gang) Former Mornings bassist Shingo “Rally” Nakagawa has been on a Z Records tip for a long time now and with his new band Han Han Art brings his love of no wave/disco in spades. The decision to recruit guest sax player Fukusuke came from listening to too much Pigbag, and this was probably unintentional, but I keep hearing the intro to Duran Duran’s Girls on Film in the guitar intro. Also on guitar, this track has another excellent example of a postpunk solo.
9. Under This mysterious artist does another abstract, instrumental, drone-based take on the song, but uses more ambient tones rather than noise. A good example of the extent to which sonic texture alone can influence the mood of a track, and the result is beautiful.
10. Artless Note Clearly recorded on an MP3 recorder or something while messing around in the studio, this track sounds like it’s an edit culled from a much longer improvisation session with the band playing around with a couple of key themes from the song. There are moments where it sounds impossibly messy, and then they do something suddenly out of thin air that reminds you that this is a talented, musically intelligent band. This is actually one of the most interesting tracks on the album, because the studio improvisation setting has seen them jettison the entire structure of the song, all the lyrics, and just focus on the famous, catchy elements, which they return to every time the intervening bits of musical deconstruction seem to lose their way. In that way, it’s similar to The Muppets’ famous rendition of Mahna Mahna and really quite funny in a music nerdy kind of way.
11. Umez When this arrived in my inbox the night before the album was supposed to be released, I was busy working on sequencing the track list and working out how to balance all the different genres and styles, working out what gaps there were that needed to be filled. When I listened to it, a bell rang in my head and I thought, “Drum’n’bass! That’s what I was missing!” So thanks, Umez.
12. スロウマリコ/Slow-Marico Lo-fi indie duo Slow-Marico are heavily influenced by The Jesus & Mary Chain and that shows through in this rough-edged and noisy cover, although the way they play it over a cheap drum machine gives it something of The Vaselines’ indie charm rather than the rock swagger of the JAMC.
13. Trinitron (featuring Gloomy and Ryotaro Aoki) This is one of the ones I worked on, so fair warning about that. I have this idea that as music is more and more easily globally accessible, it also emphasises our mutual incomprehensibility, and Trinitron sometimes play games with this. Trinitron’s members are a mix of British, Japanese and Slovenians, and we speak at least four languages between us, often switching between them mid-song or overdubbing them so as to bury the meaning. In this case we decided to do the whole song in a language that none of us understand either, so we had a friend translate the lyrics into Italian and had the girls read them out without preparation, just as they imagined they might be pronounced. So apologies to any Italian readers (which basically means Mark and Zio as far as I know) but it’s not a calculated insult to your language: it’s art! With the music, we were aiming for a sort of Flying Saucer Attack-style Kraut/shoegaze vibe, with Tokyo synthpop chanteuse Gloomy providing the cute “ba-ba-ba”s in tribute to Stereolab and Ryotaro Aoki on cataclysmic thunderstorm guitars in tribute to the gods of Valhalla.
14. Carl Freire Carl’s background is in the 80s and 90s US alternative and punk scene, and his downbeat, minimal cover has echoes of that, particularly in the Velvetsy repetition and combination of punk and psychedelic elements.
15. Kaki Kaki is the alter ego of Zana from Trinitron, so this downtempo electronic track is her second track on Choco Kureru…, providing a more sophisticated and musically and conceptually pure take on the original than the mishmash of approaches that Trinitron usually ends up being.
16. Loser & Ribbons Indiepop/new wave duo Loser & Ribbons’ track has echoes of Shibuya-kei, particularly early Capsule, in its arrangement, with the introductory synth pattern reminding me of the music that plays when you get the invincibility star in Mario and giving it a technopop, video game music vibe. One of the interesting things about their approach is that they place much more emphasis on the “Can you help me / Occupy my brain?” line that only appears once in the original, rewriting the melody slightly and repeating it over and over until it becomes a proper chorus rather than the interlude it is in Sabbath’s version.
17. Oa (featuring Hatsune Miku) Ryotaro Aoki makes his second appearance on the album with this piece of bubblegum hardcore, clearly influenced a lot by Melt Banana and featuring the vocals of Vocaloid voice synthesiser character Hatsune Miku. As with the Trinitron track, this one plays games with language. The latest version of Hatsune Miku, which this is, can sing in English, but this track uses the Japanese version anyway, phonetically approximating the sounds of the English words, but unable to do so completely because of the different, stricter rhythm of Japanese, meaning that some parts of the song descend into incomprehensible babble.
18. Jahiliyyah The longest track by far on Choco Kureru…, and one of the most brutal and hard-hitting. Jahiliyyah are basically a noise group, but the drum machine and synth pulse that they incorporate into this track give it a lot of industrial and EBM too, taking a page right out of the Throbbing Gristle playbook. The results are fearsome and brilliant.
19. 人魂/Hitodama Dave from Jahiliyyah making his second appearance with another noise track, although where Jahiliyyah are more about melding numerous layers into a single, rich wall of sound, Hitodama allows the layers to breathe, to exist as discrete elements in a salad bowl of sound, dropping in and out as necessary and leading to a track that is more ambient overall.
20. Voided By Geysers Confession: this is another of my bands. VBG are a tribute band to US lo-fi rockers Guided By Voices (hence the name) and it amused us that our only recorded output would be a cover of a different band entirely. The take included here was the second time we’d ever played the song and so there are a lot of rough edges to the performance, but we felt it was the take that had the most heart. The idea here was to have just one straight garage rock take on Paranoid right near the end of the album as a reminder of the original after the excesses that have gone before, although when the Loa track came in doing a similar thing with greater technical virtuosity, that complicated the plan. I’m still proud of this track and it gets across something simple and stupid in the original in a way other tracks on this album don’t, but if I was making this as an album for professional release, I’d have used the Loa track here instead of VBG. However, I was working on a strict principle of “include everything that’s in my inbox come the morning of the 14th”, so Loa and VBG act as kinda-sorta bookends to the album instead. Ryotaro Aoki appears yet again on this track as the bassist, while Carl Freire makes his second appearance, on guitar. Tokyo indie bandspotters might be interested to know that drums are by Sean from Henrytennis.
21. Tiny Tide Basically the solo project of prolific Italian indiepop singer-songwriter Mark Zonda, Tiny Tide’s simple, slowed down version of the song is classy where most tracks on Choco Kureru… fought for the extremes, as well as genuinely touching and quite beautiful. It was the first track I received in Autumn 2013, just after I’d first conceived of the idea, and even before I knew what else was going to be included it was always going to be the closing track. Mark also wrote the Italian lyrics that Trinitron so wilfully butchered earlier, so sorry to him for that.
My Japan Times column last month was about the enduring influence of Can in particular and Krautrock in general. One of the points I made, and admittedly it’s a pretty sticky point because with music as diverse as Krautrock was to begin with and as wide-ranging in its influence, there are going to be bajillions of exceptions, was how generally, Japanese underground bands seem to prefer the complex rhythms that characterise a lot of Can’s output rather than the motorik beat most associated with Neu! and Kraftwerk (which to a lot of people in the UK is pretty much the definition of Krautrock). Naturally, given that Britain has traditionally been the biggest audience for German 70s rock and experimental music, this is a gross oversimplification, but I think it holds true as a general trend.
In this blog, however, it’s the exceptions I want to look at, and of course there is motorik Japanese indie. On Knew Noise Records’ forthcoming Ripple compilation (which I should have a review of being published soon) Sekaitekina Band swap their usual jittery disco-punk sound for a motorik beat, and as I mention in the column, Nisennenmondai favour driving beats rather than complex, overlapping rhythms, be it disco, tribal pounding or motorik.
Nisennenmondai: Destination Tokyo
Through my own Call And Response label, I’ve released a couple of tracks that follow the motorik pattern as well. Our first release, the 1-2-3-Go! compilation, featured a track called Neu! by a band called Usagi Spiral A (see if you can guess what that sounded like) and Klaus Dinger fanatics Mir did an excellent track called Yononaka, Minna Hihyoka on their mini-album This Tiny World that paid obvious tribute to Neu! and La Dusseldorf.
My own band, Trinitron, often play around with patterns nicked from Krautrock, albeit sometimes mixed in with some other things as on this cover of 1970s idol group the Candies’ Heart no Ace ga Detekonai.
Moving on from Bo Ningen, Momoiro Clover and Dempa Gumi inc., it’s also worth looking into the mechanics of how compatible experimental/alternative music and idol pop really is. One way that some friends of mine and I examined this recently was by a number of us going away and trying to tackle songs by Perfume in each artist’s own style. The result, entitled Chocolate Discord (named after a band formed by some of my Fukuoka friends) was made just for fun and given out as a free gift to audience members at a friend of mine’s Valentine’s Day live event last month.
Chocolate Discord (Perfume covers project)
Firstly, a quick note on the artists who took part. None of them are famous, and nearly all of them produced their covers quite quickly (time frames ranged from a couple of weeks to a single afternoon). The majority of the songs are by non-Japanese artists based in or at least who spend a lot of time in Japan. There was no particular decision on my part to make it like this — it just ended up this way. Perhaps the short timeframe and the white man’s legendary lack of fastidiousness combined to exclude their more conscientious Japanese peers. The musicians cover a range of styles, but generally lean towards the avant-garde/noise end of the musical spectrum. However, there are electronic, indie and rock musicians also involved. I’ve added Soundcloud links where the artists have made their songs available online.
Now I think it’s kind of debatable now to what extent Perfume are an idol group anymore. In fact, apart from their naff “Akihabalove” diversion and maybe that pair of shockingly bad early songs they made in Hiroshima, they’ve always had a bit too much of Yasutaka Nakata’s post-Shibuya-kei fashion-consciousness to them, too much of a distinctive, easily recognisable style for them to be absorbed entirely into idoldom. However, it’s certainly fluffy, bubblegum pop that hits a lot of the buttons of idol music, so bearing in mind these caveats, I think there were some interesting points that came out of it.
One thing that was true almost right across the board was that nearly all the cover versions, and certainly those by artists at the more avant-garde end of the scale, tried to bring some degree of minimalism to Yasutaka Nakata’s original arrangements. Part of this, I suspect, was a combination of the short timeframe and musicians’ own laziness. It’s also a logical response for someone looking for a new approach to Nakata’s style, given that more than almost any producer in Japan, he prefers to over- rather than under-produce his music.
A lot of the groups extracted just one or two aspects of Perfume’s originals and built their own material around those. The no wave/postpunk band Uruseeyo’s take on Baby Cruising Love just takes the title, which the singer bellows over and over while the rest of the band build a doom-laden, crashing industrial cacophony around it. Human Wife’s brutal take on Game is also a case in point (you may want to turn your volume down to safe levels about now):
Rhythm guitarist James Hadfield (who doesn’t hate Perfume as much as drummer Clay Jarvis) explains the process thus:
“Human Wife instinctively recoil from any song with more than three chords in it (we’ve discovered that one chord is often more than enough), so it didn’t take long to rule out just about every track in the Perfume canon. In the end, it was a toss-up between “Game” and “Edge”, and since Trinitron were already planning to do the latter (and would probably do it far better than we could), we went for the former. I’d originally thought of taking the opening chord sequence and playing it in a monolithic sludge/doom metal style, but Clay, our drummer and Christian Vander-esque MD, felt that it sounded too much like grunge. He voted that we do it in a Brainbombs-esque midtempo scuzz rock version, which seemed to work better, and after a few run-throughs we’d pared the song down to a couple of basic chord progressions and a whole lot of distortion. We recorded three takes, overdubbed vocals on the best one, then Clay took the recordings home and spent about five minutes mastering them. Nakata would be proud.”
Electronic project Floppy Knobs’ version of Linear Motor Girl just takes the lyrics, translates them into English, passes them through a voice synthesiser and chops them up, combining the result with fragments the producer already had lying around.
“Well, it started out as something else. Lately, I’ve been making instrumental music using only an iPhone and had thought to try and remix an unused track I had previously been working on. Anyways, it ended up sparking my synapses in all kinds of un-usable ways and on the morning I had arranged to hand in the piece, it went out the window and thereupon it was decided to opt for a Jac Berrocal / Flying Lizards / pop-on-a-rope approach.”
Curiously though, despite the musical backdrop not being taken from the original song, the repetitive, chiming loop in the background is startlingly reminiscent of another Perfume song, Chocolate Disco, which appears in two versions by other artists on the collection.
Kanterbury, a.k.a. Kantaro Sato of indie rock band Randy & The Pyramids, did an irony-laced, exaggeratedly cheerful take on it. He says:
“The most important point in the song is the phrase “Chocolate Disco” itself. It’s a funny phrase. I liked it. The original has a story to tell, but my version is the anguished cry of a lonely guy who’s desperate to get chocolate on Valentine’s Day, although basically I just wanted to do a song like Prince. The other thing is the line “The classroom turned into a dancefloor.” I repeat that line twice because it’s the most ridiculous line in the song. It’s a good phrase.”
Kaki, a.k.a. Zana Fabjan Blazic also draws attention to this phrase in her epic, dark electro version of the song, intoning the line blankly during a lull in the arrangement:
Neither Kanterbury nor Kaki take explicitly minimal aproaches, although Zana’s vocals on her “Shockoladige Disko” are at least emotionally minimalist, and the beat grinds the original’s bounce down into a relentless, Teutonic panzer assault, stripping the original of its joie de vivre, leaving a hollow rhetorical shell. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of the approach to cover versions of Zana’s Slovenian countrymen Laibach, and like many of the artists on Chocolate Discord, it interprets pop music primarily by stripping layers away, even if it then builds it back up quite slickly in its own image.
I worked with Zana and co-vocalist Kaname K, as well as producer N’toko on Trinitron’s version of Edge. Again, we stripped away a lot from the song, basing it on the more minimal Love the World b-side version than the eleborate remix that appeared on Triangle and replacing the disco beat with a motorik Krautrock drum pattern. We also stripped away the heart-stopping harmonies in the “loving you” segment, instead having Zana and Kaname intone the lyrics, one in English and one in Japanese, overlapping their words to create a disorientating babble of voices:
Part of the reason for cutting this stuff is simply because it’s difficult, but also some of the sweeter parts of pop music just don’t work in alternative rock. If you’re The Jesus and Mary Chain or The Velvet Underground, you can take honey-sweet 60s pop and make it dark and forboding, but that’s because both types of music share a common set of blues-based chord progressions. J-pop on the other hand, does not have a common base with most alternative/indie rock. Krautrock tried to abandon blues, but in the case of the Neu! style minimalism that Trinitron sometimes plays with, they also abandoned pretty much everything else too. Playing motorik with more than two chords is gilding the lily.
Sato picked up on some of the same points with his and rakugo performer/former Lolipop Guitar Lesson backing singer Koyomi’s version of Vitamin Drop. Rather than gutting the original as Trinitron and many other groups did, they kept mostly to the original structure, but performed it as a guitar-led piece of 60s pop/indie rock. Says Sato:
“We chose Vitamin Drop because it was one of the most pop songs Perfume have, and we just tried to make an indie version of it. The chord progressions are actually very strange though, and quite complicated chords. Before I tried to cover it, I didn’t think of it as a J-pop style song. It sounded more sophisticated, simpler, but actually it was very J-pop. It uses a lot of jazz chord progressions, and the chord changes twice in the space of one bar, which is typical for Japanese pop.
On the other hand, the synth in the original version of Vitamin Drop keeps going on in one speaker, which productionwise is quite radical. There are lots of things that make it seem simpler than it really is.”
Jazz chords are a staple of Shibuya-kei, and should probably be attributed primarily to Nakata’s background, although Japanese pop generally has since the 50s and 60s been strongly jazz- rather than R&B-influenced. Deceptive simplicity is also a feature of Nakata’s work, but it’s also a feature of a lot of the best idol music. Something bright and brash to catch your attention, but something complex happening once you get in. Momoiro Clover take simple melodies and arrange them in an unusual and often complex way, not wearing the process on their sleeves so much as hitting you round the face with it, but with Perfume the complexity insinuates its way into you more subtly.
Tokyo-based noisenik Dave McMahon was possibly the most enthusiastic participant in the whole enterprise, producing three separate tracks with different groups or projects. I’ll leave him to outline each track in his own words:
“This was an obvious choice for Shigai to cover because of the way the jaunty form and insipidly optimistic lyrics seemed to present a nice potential contrast with our sexually repressed hooligan posturing. We’ve used samples of Yuukorin and Bakunyuu Yankie in the past, so I guess there’s a sort of intersection with the dank underboob of idol culture there. Our regular co-conspirators from Napalm Death is Dead / Frozen Panty and His Dirty Hearts are also confirmed Momoclo fans, so it seems to be a recurring thread – maybe even moreso in the psychosexually scatalogical noise/grind scene than with other areas of the J-underground because of the Maruo Suehiro esque Undo-Gi sporting paedopop qualities of acts like Aka Inu Shimai and the Akiba vibes of Kuzuha, Gejirekuto Orugan, Abisheika, etc… Chris and Kenny weren’t familiar with the track, so I boshed together the pitch-shifted tatters of the original track’s intro in my computer, before heading out to the studio, reaming that through all my effects and felching the results back into the PC for further abuse. I managed to get hold of Chris one night after work to record do a vocal take down a Nishi Shinjuku alleyway, around the corner from Los Apsom, just before last train time.”
“My initial idea for this was to do a ‘straighter’, chugging drone reading, following the actual song structure fairly closely and with a full, multitracked vocal. To this end, I supplied the others with a recording of me jamming along on synth and FX whilst listening to the original on headphones (in the same studio session as with the initial Ne~e detonations) and sent it to Ezra, James and Cal, hoping to get at least one sticky, four-way, collective session after they’d each had their own individually wicked way with my discharge. Schedule constraints ruled this out, but luckily the dark master Cal was on hand to sort it all out ‘in the mix’. The final cut is probably not recognisable as 575 even to those who know what they’re looking for, but it definitely sounds like Jahiliyyah and rest assured that to keep the lawyers fed and clothed, there are still some samples of the actual song drooping feebly forth at strategic points.”
“I got unreasonably excited about the prospect of recording this as an ‘actual song’ with ‘clearly defined’ multitracked parts well before I actually had any idea of how I was going to tackle it, having never ever done such a thing in all my years as a ‘musician’. I knew that I wanted to use my reed organ and guitar, and was thinking along the lines of Galaxie 500 and Space Needle, as well as Dolly Collins’ organ arrangements. With the deadline looming, I found YouTube vids of folk doing guitar and iPad covers, worked out the chords, improvised around them for a few days to try and strike something like a stylistic fit and then set about recording on the last night before the deadline. Unfortunately, in a schoolboy error, I neglected to lay down any type of rhythm track or metronome and started with two layers of reed organ taped in my kitchen, before decamping to the studio from 1am, to get the two guitar parts and doubled up vocals. Seeing as they were all simple parts, I’d expected to be done in about an hour, but the eccentric timekeeping of the organ tracks kept throwing me off and had me in the studio until after the first train had already gone. The timing is still clearly out, but hey ho… I’m not sure where the idea to use birdsong came from, but in the end the dawn chorus, replete with cock-a-doodle doing seems to fittingly frame a fitful night battling with the creeping fear and sadness of the subconscious… or… ‘dream fighting’… if you will…”
These are really the kinds of techniques that these musicians would employ in covers of pretty much anything — stripping away the parts of the song that don’t work with what they’re trying to do and either cutting out the beating heart to replace it in a new body, or just selecting a few prime cuts, dicing them and making a casserole. In terms of idol music, what does it reveal?
Obviously from a musical perspective, it reveals what we knew from the start: that these are two opposite poles of the music scene, with little overt similarity in sound or style. However, what’s come through in previous posts this week is also the idea of the “anarchic energy” and “anything goes” nature of idol music, as well as the power to bring you back to a childlike way of thinking about music. Bearing that in mind, I think what comes though in these covers is something similar. There is a cavalier air towards the source material rather than a sombre and respectful approach, a sense that the musician can pick and choose which bits they like, taking a bite here and there, chucking away, discarding bits that taste bad, mashing them up together into a paste like Jahiliyyah or only eating the red bits like Human Wife. There’s also an attitude like children kicking over towers made of building blocks in the gleeful way some of these songs are mutilated, or more subtly of rearranging letter blocks to say rude words as in the way the likes of Kaki and Kanterbury elegantly but mischievously altered the meaning of Chocolate Disco.
The full compilation is available to download from this link for a while, although obviously it is ABSOLUTELY NOT for commercial use: