Aomori City feels like a place designed for six times as many people as it actually has inhabiting it.
My limited exploration of the town on my exhausted way to find my hotel the previous day had suggested a town curiously empty apart from marauding school sports teams visiting from nearby cities and prefectures. The following day, as I scoped out local bicycle shops, still not trusting my own judgment as to the roadworthiness of my bicycle, I saw a dispiriting number of shuttered shopfronts, even on a Saturday afternoon.
The first bike shop owner shouted at me incomprehensibly for a while, looked angrily at my bicycle, and insisted the pump nozzles were wrong. I told him my pump nozzles weren’t wrong: his pump was old, and handed over ¥300 for an adaptor. Too scared to ask him his opinion about the condition of my chain, I went to the next place on my list, where another old gentleman shrugged and said it all looked fine to him.
Shuttered shopfronts and bad tempered old bicycle salesmen aren’t the only things Aomori has to offer, although it’s tempting to see them as somehow symbolic.
Meeting up with members of shoegaze/garage band The Earth Earth and local writer Izumi Akaishi, they pointed out that Aomori is one of the most economically depressed areas in Japan. One indirect effect this seems to have on bands is in making it harder to keep them physically together as members leave due to marriage or for jobs elsewhere. The Earth Earth themselves have one member several hours away in Sapporo, while Izumi explained that local indie rock band Ca-P were now spread between Hokkaido, Aomori and Tokyo.
Aomori can hold its head high as far as its musical heritage goes though. While it may not be on the level of Hokkaido’s Rising Sun festival, the Aomori Rock Festival is a big local event that brings acts from all over the country. Home to Akiko Yano, Supercar and Ningen Isu, it has some important and influential acts it can point to and say, “Hey, we made that!” More recently Aomori can point to Amazarashi, if it really wants to take responsibility for that. Meanwhile, in the indie world, Izumi pointed out that hip Kyoto label Second Royal was actually founded by a displaced Aomoriite, as was the small but similarly fashionable Ano(t)raks label.
The town basically has three main live venues: Quarter, which tends to host larger touring bands, and then the smaller indie venues Sunshine and Sublime. Apparently the place we’re eating at was also once a live venue, and some of its past seems to remain in the wall of posters and flyers that lines the staircase up to the entrance. Now called Pent House, the tables are laid out on carpets circling a ping pong table, with a DJ booth at the far end and the bar opposite. In the corner there are some boxes of records for sale, while a selection of cool books lines some shelves behind the ping pong table. It’s all frightfully stylish.
One key local act everyone seems to agree are worth checking out was post-hardcore band Kallaqri. I’d heard about them earlier from another friend who used to live in Aomori, and he’d tried to put me in touch with them to no avail, but a search-listen suggests that they are indeed worth checking out. Another key Aomori band who my friends in Sapporo had eagerly recommended was Source Age – another broadly post-hardcore band, albeit one whose music seemed to pull in a more expansive, progressive direction.
The Earth Earth themselves have built their reputation on a sort of scuzzy, lo-fi shoegaze that takes some of the tortured guitar wails from My Bloody Valentine and wraps them round Fierce Panda-esque garage-punk Britpop melodies. Vocalist Kosuke Oshima also plays as a solo project that coincidentally includes all the members of his other band not currently living in Sapporo. He claims he gets regularly accused by strangers of looking like John Lennon, which might say more about the limited palette of musical reference points many people in Aomori have for long-haired dudes with glasses than it does about his resemblance to Yoko Ono’s husband.
However, it also says something about me – and by extension about Tokyo more generally – that I instinctively recoiled from such an obvious point of comparison. John Lennon: who says John Lennon? You don’t get any points for making a John Lennon reference! You can just leave that at me being a snob (or having grown up in Britain in the ‘90s being overexposed to Beatle-worship), which would be true, but there’s something about the way Tokyo’s size allows groups of people to assemble in an environment where people compete for status through the acquisition and application of obscure knowledge.
This isn’t necessarily a weakness of Tokyo, and it is an environment that fosters digging deep, exploring ideas to extremes, and brings to light bands and sounds that would otherwise be unfairly neglected. However, it also sometimes forces you to take long detours around artists who are too obvious to be acceptable reference points in order to reach the same sound – as if, for example, in order to reach The Beach Boys, you had to go via something like Saggitarius (themselves also in danger of being too obvious since they were on Nuggets).
The musical environment you grow up in shapes you. I go around Tokyo getting mistaken for Jim O’Rourke, and that reflects a social environment that sees references like that as normal and expects them to be easily understood. That gives me access to a broad musical vocabulary that I can use and expect in return to be understood. It also forces me to justify my mainstream tastes (or in a more cowardly way approach the same sound from a more underground entry point). Again, this isn’t something I disagree with (received wisdom on what constitutes good or classic music should be questioned and justified, constantly), but it is tiresome at times.
Kosuke gets compared to John Lennon, and that reflects a social environment that gives him a different kind of freedom, in which he can say something along the lines of, “Our next album won’t be so shoegaze. It’ll have more of something like Oasis to it,” and not be putting himself in contradiction with his indie sensibilities.