Our hearts have been torn since the day we were born

The first thing on the agenda for Sendai was an intimate little indie music bar called Bar Fam, where Kamata from Waikiki Champions was hosting an event called Somewhere in My Heart.

Kamata’s main event, which he does monthly, is Aoba Nu Noise, focusing on louder, more punk/underground-aligned artists, and I could sense a certain wariness he feels about having split his activities into two in this way, as if he felt that he had somehow been forced to compromise in a ways he wasn’t entirely happy with. Indiepop is a difficult thing to integrate with punk and underground, however, intersecting with fashion and overseas culture in ways that go beyond just music, and if you want to play its game, you have to abide by its rules.

Indiepop is a strangely rootless thing in Japan, continuing to exist (despite numerous local variations and embroiderings) as something recognisably foreign in its broad spectrum of influences, the preserve of young people who wish they were somewhere else. If a city needs to have a population of about 150,000 to support a meaningful hardcore scene, indiepop seems to only emerge in populations of over a million and within reasonable access to urban megacentres like Tokyo and the Kansai area. A city needs to be big enough that its popular culture is able to fragment without completely dissolving, and it needs to fall roughly within the gravitational sphere of the big cosmopolitan entry points of overseas fashion and music.

Nice bike, kid. I'll show you the real thing sometime.
Nice bike, kid. I’ll show you the real thing sometime.

The first person I see walking through the door is Sumire, an old friend from Tokyo now displaced to Kyoto. Sumire is the most indiepop person in Japan and someone who indiepops at the top level worldwide. She runs a boutique called Violet & Claire and leads the DJ and event collective Twee Grrrls Club, and she’s in Sendai managing the tour of New York-based singer-songwriter Juan Wauters.

A couple of the guys from Tokyo indie band Siamese Cats were on first, battling with a ferociously popping PA before giving up and playing fully acoustic. As a band whose popularity straddles both indiepop (in the sense of foreign-influenced indie guitar music) and the more generalised Japanese indie/alternative scene, they’re logical touring partners for an overseas act who doesn’t want to be too tightly pigeonholed in a musical ghetto, and it’s clear that Sumire has concerns about that tendency, especially in the Tokyo indie scene.

Talking about her move to Kyoto, she seemed invigorated by having escaped the capital and its hothouse in-crowd, even as one of the most “in” of the in-crowd. Basically, if you have any ambition in the music world, you have to find a way out of the fragmented and introverted little scenes that Tokyo people out of necessity construct. The scene itself becomes almost Oedipal: a simulacrum of the small-town world that, having constructed, you then need to break free from. Cities like Sendai and Kyoto are ideal in many ways, being just large enough to be able to accommodate difference, but small enough that the fragmentation can never be complete.Sumire

I made fun of Sumire a little, comparing her enthusiastic embrace of Kyoto to the postbellum Northern carpetbaggers, although that was precisely what I’ve been doing with Koenji and to an extent with Japan more generally over this past decade or so. The truth is that getting away and opening yourself up to everything that a new place has to offer gives you an incredible sense of limitlessness. The mistake many people make is ascribing that sense of freedom to the place they’re in rather than to the shift of perspective the new environment (with its own limitations) has forced on them.

Another old Tokyo friend, Yuki, was also there. He’d been out of the country for a while earlier in the year, staying in LA and New York, where he’d been hanging out and playing music with Juan. Yuki always struck me as one of those people who viewed the Japanese music scene with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, seeing the UK or US as inherently more authentic, but talking to him about his time in America, I could see it wasn’t just that: he’d gained a sense of freedom from it. He was playing music, writing songs, he was engaged in the culture he loved. He came onstage with Juan to perform a couple of songs, and you could see an almost paternal, apprenticelike relationship between them – albeit one perhaps in part deliberately fostered by Juan’s own kooky sense of theatre.

The event closed with a gang of local musicians, including some members of Waikiki Champions, performing among other things a series of enthusiastic, drunken deconstructions of famous pop songs and eventually ending up as a Jools Holland-style singalong with all the acts from the night. Music is often described as tremendous force for unification, but at the same time music is also described as an escape. This is counterintuitive, because in order to escape, we must have something we want to escape from – there is an exclusivity built into the idea of excape that should run counter to the sense of unification music promises. Music reconciles those two forces by inviting us to escape together, but something is always left behind.

Musicians from Sendai, Tokyo and New York were able to join together onstage partly by marking their territory within an indie ethos that exists at least in some ways separate from both mainstream culture and their own physical roots. The Sendai musicians’ tortured pop covers assert their own identity over cultural artefacts whose purpose (if not by the original artists, then certainly by the music industry that promotes them) is to impose homogeneity, both admitting their power, but also turning appropriation into an unconscious act of resistance.

Talking to Juan after the show, he mentioned about his experience as a Uruguayan immigrant to the United States and how this has left hem disconnected from his roots. Returning to Montevideo, he feels more like a foreigner there than in New York, unable to share the same frame of reference and bank of cultural experiences that link other people his age. Where he becomes most animatedly Uruguayan is when the subject of football arises. Suddenly he brings out a photograph of himself posing with Luis Suarez and pours forth passionately on the ethos and philosophy of The Beautiful Game. Europeans don’t play football the way South Americans do. Kids don’t learn it the same way, and the level of skill isn’t so broadly distributed.

Home is always a constructed thing. The local festivals that bring together different parts of the community are part of how local identity is constructed, while the media and the music industry are part of how nations attempt to construct a shared identity among people who have never and will never meet or share the same physical space. Sports like football combine elements of local ritual and mass broadcast and that is a big part of their power. What indiepop and hardcore both have in common is in being a constructed home for those unable to function exclusively in the shared cultural spaces mainstream and civic culture create. The difference is that while hardcore tends to have strong local roots, albeit ones that often run beneath or even counter to the prevailing local culture, indiepop in Japan is by its nature a home for the rootless: those whose gaze is permanently directed elsewhere.

For Kamata, Somewhere in My Heart represents something that at least has a certain power to cross over and unify. While indie kids might not go out to underground events that often, the underground crowd are often more catholic in their tastes, and when Kamata DJs at the end of the night, he’s able to slip in more and more mutant disco and postpunk. In the end, it comes down the event’s title: “You listen to Somewhere in My Heart by Aztec Camera, and whoever you are, whatever kind of music you’re into, that song makes you feel good.”

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