During my long and much delayed journey to Sapporo, I’d been keeping in constant touch with a handful of people I knew in town, coordinating and trying to arrange time to meet. As a result, pretty much as soon as I arrived, I was whisked off to an izakaya by people from the band Hasymonew and the “theoretical record store” Kiteretsu Records. Over the course of the night, they filled up a couple of pages of my notebook with recommendations, and suggested a good show at the venue Sound Crue the following night.
Making my way there, I pass through Sapporo’s autumn festival in Odori Park. When travelling in Japan, it’s considered shocking, bordering on an insult if you don’t eat the special food thing that the place you’re in is famous for, and the festival is full of every food in Sapporo. But I’m late, so fuck you, food: I’ll get a sandwich from the convenience store later.
I’m not the sort of person who feels comfortable going into places and talking to strangers, but even more unnerving to me is the feeling of going into a strange place and being instantly recognised. This is unnerving partly just out of plain, old-fashioned embarrassment as I take a moment to try to work out where I know the person from, but also partly out of the discomfiting knowledge that there’s a little bit of me that quite likes the feeling of being famous.
So entering Sound Crue was like going into a venue in Tokyo. “Hey, Ian!” says the first guy to see me (another of Hasymonew’s members, who I had met last year on a brief visit). “Hey, Ian from Koenji! How’s Usagi Spiral A doing?” says the manager, who turns out to be Simon, a singer-songwriter in his own right as well as former drummer with the bands Won? and Sir John Soane Art Club, who I had been fans of ten fucking years ago, when I was first starting to put on events in Tokyo.
I’m a little late to catch opening act Linke Auge, but the second band, Nessie, are the ones I was there to see (a Kiteretsu recommendation) and they really are quite lovely. They’re one of those bands who do vaguely new wave-influenced pop music with a female singer who just stands there with her arms at her side and doesn’t move – there have been loads of them ever since Soutaisei Riron made that format fashionable all those years ago, and some are really rather good (Kobayashi Dorori from Kumamoto and Sankaiten Hitohineri from Nagasaki are two fine examples of the straight-arms new wave art-pop genre from the other end of the country).
Nessie’s approach took these cooly enunciated Stereolab-like melodies, and wrapped them up in some extraordinary, off-kilter, bordering-on-discordant postpunk guitar phrases, occasionally adding in these hypnotic moments of repetition. My first find of the trip.
The intricate and low-key Lakeboats were up next, with their fascinating guitar-moog combo and overlapping harmonies. After that, some guests from Tokyo took the stage, causing me another headache as I tried to figure out whether I knew them or not. The band were called Oishii Hanashi, which I had certainly heard before, but I couldn’t place where.
If this trip is about anything on a philosophical level, it’s about the relationship between art and the sense of place. Tokyo isn’t a city so much as a whole bunch of psychic cities all occupying the same physical location. I associate certain bands and certain sounds with specific venues or collections of other bands, and divorcing them from that context can throw me completely. Oishii Hanashi made me think of Shinjuku Motion or Shimokitazawa Era – venues that I’ve always associated with a sort of progressive, post-rock-influenced Tokyo alternative sound. Oishii Hanashi were certainly at the more melodic end of that spectrum, and by dropping in these bluesy, folky notes here and there they gave their music a distinctive edge, but I still couldn’t place them. I looked at their homepage and while they’d certainly played shows with bands I knew, none of the shows looked like they’d fall within my usual haunts. I fired off a couple of speculative emails to friends of mine who might know, but to no avial. Displaced from our local habitat in Tokyo, my power to pigeonhole the band was nullified by Sapporo’s strange gravity. I figured it out in the end, thanks to another of those disorientating “Hey, Ian!” moments. The drummer from Oishii Hanashi approached me and started talking about Mir, a band I’ve released and promoted through my own Call And Response label to precious little avail, and for whom I am currently working on putting together a tribute album as a sort of bloody-minded gesture of defiance against a music scene that refuses to recognise genius unless it’s packaged in the form of either some soft-edged MOR jazz-pop or an idol group (“kill yr idols”, someone once said, and they didn’t go nearly far enough). Yes, of course, Oishii Hanashi are the band Sou from Hysteric Picnic (another band who’ve passed through my label) used to play with. He and the drummer also play together in Meeks/Oh Please, and they just recorded a song for my Mir covers album. The power of Sapporo’s force field over my muso-cognitive abilities is so great that I don’t even recognise people my own label is releasing.
Closing the night were Os Banda, who do a sort of funky avant-garde party folk thing. I get the impression from my limited travels that there’s a band like them in every major city in Japan, combining a mess of different genres with technical skill, a quirky sense of humour, an unbridled sense of fun, and no visible ambition beyond the city limits of their hometown. Whether that really is the case with Os Banda, I don’t know. Perhaps they burn with passion, dreaming of Tokyo’s bright lights. Perhaps I’m projecting terribly. Part of me wants to find out that Tokyo is unnecessary. Part of me wants to find bands, musicians, scenes that exist in happy isolation from the capital. Who needs Tokyo anyway? Burn your goddamn hometown.