Pyongyang Station: Seoul Music

Leaving my bicycle behind at my temporary Sendai base, I took the train across the mountains to Yamagata. The main city of Yamagata Prefecture, my friends in Sendai had described it as a sort of Tohoku version of Kyoto, which makes a certain sort of sense in that it is a serene sort of place, surrounded by mountains that are rich in history and natural beauty.

The city itself is a bit harder to get a hold on though. The East Exit of the station is basically just hotels interspersed with generic chain izakayas, while the West Exit looks like Pyongyang. To find the cool stuff, you have to dig, and I didn’t have much time.

My stay there was limited to one night as the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival was taking place at the same time and every hotel in town was already fully booked. The festival represents something important about Yamagata’s creative culture though, in the way that the city has in recent years devoted its energies to repurposing its disused buildings to make Yamagata a hub for the arts, both in the international events it hosts like the Documentary Film Festival and Biennale, and also in attracting creative work from the local area throughout the year.


In terms of the music scene, I knew Yamagata from way back thanks to the postpunk band Shift, and the Sendai crowd had pointed to Morikoji from the musical unit Qurage and the Zombie Forever label as someone to pay attention to, as well as the postpunk/garage rock of Giri Giri Boyz. Unfortunately I had no time to travel to Sakata on the other side of the prefecture, which appears to have a viable scene of its own. I had little else to go on though.

Giri Giri Boyz

Like any city of a population around 300,000 it seems to support about three dedicated live venues of indie band size. Of those, Sandinista is easily the best-loved by people in the know, with recommendations coming from all quarters. Typically, however, the venue was closed on the night I was there. While I may struggle with the idea of a venue that would stay closed on a Friday night, it’s something I’m growing accustomed to, and the fact itself tells you something about the challenges faced by anyone doing music in places of a comparable size.

Instead, I hooked up with Dave McMahon, a.k.a. Hitodama, a Tokyo friend down for the festival, and we drifted through the city’s nightlife, two towering, disorientated, ghostly presences, threading our way through the seedy backstreets in search of a place to rest our weary travellers’ bottoms. We stopped to observe a salaryman who had been tipped over onto his back and now lay, arms and feet flapping like an upturned tortoise as his coworkers looked on in amusement at his performance. I think it was a performance.


We avoided the one music bar we saw, since it looked like the kind of place that plays Eric Clapton on an endless loop, and via an English-style pub that won us over with the name The Romp we ended up at a festival pre-party, held in one of those ancient buildings that no one seems to know what to do with anymore. Rather like how Morioka’s Batarenchaya live space seems, it was obvious why Yamagata was concerned about putting these places to some use – the building was far too nice to be put to waste. Art is always a more acceptable use than music though, since it doesn’t irritate the neighbours.

The following day, in the shadow of the Yamagata west side’s megalithic hotel towers, I dropped by Raf-Rec Records for a chat with the owner, Shinya. Raf-Rec has been around for just coming up to three years, and operates as a café and live space as well as a record shop. Like Yamagata’s other main record store, the more commercial Music Showa, the Japanese indie music it has on offer tends towards post rock and electronic. Shinya releases some artists and makes his own music through the store’s in-house label (some of which is absolutely gorgeous), and he’s able to easily rattle off a list of local bands he recommends.


Perhaps inevitable, given the bias of his store, post rock instrumental band Dinner are the first that jump to his mind, while the OQ’s include some of the remnants of Shift, taking the latter’s rhythmical postpunk further into funk. What Ever Film seem to do a sort of progressive hardcore that draws a lot from the same playbook as At The Drive-in, while About Me take a similarly emotionally wrought toolkit to indie rock.

What Ever Film

Raf-Rec was hosting a noise and experimental event that the MultipleTap collective were helping to put on in connection with the Film MultipleTap: Yama. Unable to catch the show, I made a point of dropping by the screening instead. The film was a 30-minute silent film, composed of live footage of experimental and noise artists. I was half-joking the other day about standing in the middle of the hills of northern Miyagi and experiencing silence as a John Cage-like musical experience in itself, but here were people who had just made a film of the most extreme auditory experiences in the world and were presenting it (here at least) without the sound. I’d be fascinated to know what their intention was in doing so, but here I’ll just incorporate it into one of my own narrative threads and say that context is important. Music performed in a certain space, with certain people, sharing a certain atmosphere loses something important once you wrench it away from that environment. Seeing a recording of unerground music with the context stripped away is like watching it with no sound: a key part of the experience is missing.

About Me

The film was being shown as part of a double feature with Party 51, a feature-length Korean documentary about the Hongdae district of Seoul and a group of musicians fighting against the area’s gentrification. In particular, the focus is on a noodle shop called Dooriban’s fight for a fair deal from the construction company tearing down the area on which it stood. The relationship between the shop and the musicians that gather there is fascinating, putting on concerts on the roof to raise money during the year-long sit-in and in return finding it an invaluable lab for them to develop their own music, free from the overbearing financial costs imposed on them elsewhere.

Party 51 trailer

Naturally, given my own situation in Tokyo, I saw parallels with the Koenji area and places like Bamii, where our group of musicians and other related weirdos hangs out (I wasn’t that surprised to see one of the bands being interviewed outside a café in Koenji later in the film), and in terms of exploring the notion of what “home” means in an artistic and musical context it raises some important ideas. An important part of the concept of “home” is the sense of a place that pre-dates us and that will be there after we are gone. However, an important part of “home” is also a feedback loop between the place and the people in it that creates an environment that is fluid and ephemeral. That tension between solid and ephemeral comes from the same place as the push and pull that the true hometown exerts, the same place as the tension between bringing in new musical DNA and providing a base for local musicians. It’s not something that should ever be resolved – the process of navigating these competing tensions is itself the important thing.


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