After a day exploring the windy boulevards of Sendai around Jozenji-dori, I met up with a bunch of people including Kamata from Waikiki Champions, Kadowaki from drone/noise improv band Hichinochi, and Carl from the Bikini Lounge label at a bar called Rosie, near Sendai Station.
Unlike cities like Aomori, Akita or Morioka, Sendai isn’t the kind of place where you can meet one or two reasonably well-informed people and get the full lowdown on the whole city’s music scene, but with this crowd I was in the best hands I could possibly be, and what I came away with was nonetheless extensive.
Waikiki Champions: What / Jimbo
According to the gang, key venues are Birdland, a predominantly punk and hardcore venue, alternative and rock venues like Park Square, Flying Son and Macana, and the Aoba Nu Noise event’s home of Club Shaft. In addition to these, there are event and party spaces with a particular atmosphere of their own like Pangaea and Nigatake-beya. Like in Morioka, the local artists tend to congregate around cheaper, DIY venues like Pangaea, while the more professional, dedicated live venues tend to pursue touring acts with greater vigour.
Yumbo: Gakkari Shichau
In the assembled collective opinion, notable local bands included Spike Shoes, which seems to be more or less Birdland’s house band, hip hop unit Gagle, and punk band Passing Truth Drive, while they all agreed on the recommendation of the Tenniscoats-esque Yumbo and post-rock/electronic/prog/jazz/psych act Combopiano. Kokyu seem to carry a similar vibe, with an almost tropical edge of mutant disco party music to their jazzy no wave and jam band psychedelia, while the excellent Obs are more on the industrial end of postpunk. The lovely art-pop band Umiuma are sadly no longer playing, but their album Kaiba is superb.
Combopiano: Halloween Blues
There were also a couple of curious connections with Kyushu that cropped up. Bikini Lounge has been working with a rather nice little indiepop band from Miyazaki called Rain Paints a lot lately, and the Fukuoka-based indiepop label Dead Funny Records seems to be connected to Sendai-based parent label Moorworks. This probably says more about the deracinated nature of Japanese indiepop than it does about any particular relationship between the two areas, but as someone who has my own connections with the Kyushu area, and as someone planning to begin the next major stage of this journey in Miyazaki next year, it was the kind of link that would always set my antenna tingling.
Talking more, one of the things that struck me was how much our direction in the music scene was inspired by the same bands who otherwise completely failed to make an impact. In particular early-mid-2000s Tokyo no wave band Elevation were a group who left an indelible mark on both of us and who both Kamata and I miss more and more as the years go by, even as bands doing similar things seem harder and harder to find. For event organisers, labels and other sort of curatorial types, there are two paths that are constantly struggling for dominance: recognising trends and responding to what is currently popular on the one hand, and doggedly insisting on your own vision of how things should be on the other. I tend to see the former path as something to be aware of primarily in order to inform a more effective implementation of the latter, and the sales and attendence figures of my label and events tell you all you need to know about my success in that.
Obs: Cess Pool
Kamata’s assessment of Sendai is that while it’s very much part of Tohoku, its considerably larger size than any other city in the area means that it’s perhaps the only part of the region where people can really understand Tokyo’s approach to music. The group would huddle together for a discussion over each venue recommendation to try to determine which Tokyo venue it was an equivalent to, which while surely an attempt to be helpful, also suggested a kind of eagerness to assert their cosmopolitan credentials.
It’s a view backed up by my impressions of the town though. I’ve noticed a similar thing in my past travels in Kyushu, looking at the reaction of people to my DJ sets. Fukuoka is the only place where I can play something similar to what I would play in Tokyo and get any reaction other than utter, blank indifference, and it goes beyond the dispersal of musical knowledge, into the unconscious signifiers certain sounds have and how they register in different environments. A certain kind of sound, delivered in a certain kind of way, in a small town feels fake. That’s why British hip hop sounded so lame until people started to work out ways of appropriating and repurposing it to reflect its new environment. Sendai manages to be in touch with both worlds, which makes it quite a comfortable place to be for someone like me who has both the small town and the big city in their psychic DNA.