The industrial octopus

My second day in Morioka took me first to a bike shop to get some maintenence done on the brakes and chain, and to get the increasingly battered looking rear tyre replaced. Meanwhile, I set off to explore the town.

When travelling through Aomori and Akita, I’d always kept half an eye on the political campaigning posters you see around the place, and much to my discomfort, I’d noticed that Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister and a right-wing shitheel, was omnipresent, his blandly aspirational, airbrushed fascist rictus staring vacantly past me into the war-ravaged future of his dreams. Whether due to post-earthquake anti-establishment sentiment (the shadow of 3/11 still hangs heavy over the area) or the town’s greater cohort of cosmopolitan arty leftists, there were signs of polite protest here and there, and a visibly higher profile for the Communist Party.

My main purpose, however, was record stores. There seem to be basically three record stores that carry local indie music, which is roughly three more than most cities in Japan. Disk Note was closed, but Neat Records and Action Time Vision were both open.

Neat Records seemed very nice, opening out onto the main shopping street as it passed the castle ruins. While I’m firmly of the opinion that you should have to walk either up or down some stairs to get into a record store, and the fusty aura of classic rock and boutique vinyl hung over the place a little, it at least had a Japanese punk and alternative section that seemed to cover a range local bands.

No stairs
No stairs

Action Time Vision was much more my scene. There was a really shitty Japanese cover of some ‘60s Nuggets garbage – it might have been Psycho by The Sonics – playing in the background, which is still the best kind of rock’n’roll music and the foundation of everything brilliant and a lot of what’s truly terrible. They were named after a song by Alternative TV, there was a well-stocked new wave section, you had to go up to the 4th floor to get there, and a lot of the music was still packed away in boxes where only Yoshida the owner knew where to find it.

I really wish I'd remembered to get a photo inside. It was lovely.
I really wish I’d remembered to get a photo inside. It was lovely.

The only indie band from Iwate that I really knew before coming was the J-pop/shoegaze band Plastic Girl in Closet (although famous children of the prefecture also include Eiichi Ohtaki of Happy End and Keiko Fujii, mother of Hikaru Utada and a famous singer in her own right). Nevertheless, I came away from Action Time Vision with a scrappy demo CD/R by an alt-rock/shoegaze-influenced band called Blows a Siren, who don’t seem to have existed for years, an indie-punk band called Underling, and a trashy punk band called Mortal Family. I liked that when describing Mortal Family to me, Yoshida just assumed I’d know Jagatara as a reference point – it wasn’t any kind of fashion-conscious obscurer-than-thou reference-battling (Jagatara are pretty well-known as this kind of thing goes): the guy just lives in a world where Jagatara are a completely normal thing to mention.

My final stop was the prog rock café Barock, just up the street from Neat Records, where I got talking with an old dude about the ‘70s. He explained that the ‘70s had been a golden era for foreign music in Japan and lamented that the charts are so thoroughly domestic nowadays. This is another side of the same issue about the relationship between opening up to external influences and fostering a local scene that I’ve been encountering repeatedly on this trip.

Prog rock is here
Prog rock is here

While on a local level, venues can sometimes neglect their local music scenes, on a national level, there is a gradual shutting out of influences from overseas. I suspect that it’s the same financial forces driving both these trends, and it all runs back to the music industry, mostly based in Tokyo. If you think of music in the same way you think of any other industry, despite the talk you sometimes hear of outsourcing, businesses like to have the network of interconnected infrastructure close together. Most of that infrastructure is in Tokyo, and so the music industry tends to use its Tokyo-centric media outlets to push a Tokyo-centric vision of how music should be. Travelling Japan by bicycle gives me a real sense of just how remote some places are, and local music scenes are both inconvenient for the music industry to access and difficult for them to exert influence over. Foreign music even more so on both counts, and so as the industrial octopus grows and spreads its homogenising influence from in its Tokyo nest, everything else finds itself clinging more and more to the fringes.

I left Barock with a couple of uncompromisingly avant-garde old Onnyk-produced CDs.

“People usually just go, ‘Eugh, what’s this?’ when I play them,” says Suzuki, Barock’s owner as he puts one of the CDs on, “They’re too weird for most people.”

“Does it sound like this all the way through?” the old guy chimes in, “That’s… uh, wonderful!”

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