Fire on the Mountain

Kagoshima is the first place on this stage of the trip where I actually know people. I’ve visited the city several times, both looking after bands on tour and just visiting for fun, so I’ve already seen a great deal of the city’s music scene. Among the more traditional live venues, Speed King is a pretty straightforward rock’n’roll venue, while SR Hall and the larger Carparvo Hall cater to bigger routing bands from out of town. Meanwhile the back room studio of punk bar Word Up, as well as rehearsal space IFF Studio both host live shows sometimes. Kagoshima is a big city though, and it’s constantly changing and revealing new sides of itself, so there’s often something new to discover.

That would be getting ahead of myself though, because first I had to get there.

The route between Miyazaki and Kagoshima isn’t exactly mountainous, but it’s certainly hilly, which brought its fair share of hardship after so many months away from the grind of serious cycling. It’s always interesting to me how radically changed circumstances can have an equally radical effect on your awareness and way of thinking. Seeing signs for a town named Yamanokuchi (basically “entrance to the mountains”) can either be a huge relief or a fearsome portent depending on whether you’re already in said mountains or not.

Clichés of the English language take on far greater power too, when you’re at the sharp end of their meanings. To be “whipped by the wind” might sound like a generic metaphor, but when you’re dealing with the full force of its relentless fury, it feels quite literal. The difference between being whipped and being lashed becomes a meaningful distinction too.

I stayed the night in Miyakonojo before heading on to Kagoshima City the next day, the smell of cow shit that dominated the Miyazaki countryside giving way to the smell of burning rock as gravity bore me, against the best efforts of the wind, down out of the hills and into Kagoshima Prefecture.

Sakurajima is the volcano that dominates the Kagoshima skyline, constantly hicupping forth ash and fire, although mostly towards the southeast and away from the city. Navigating the long, winding coastal road towards Kagoshima City, the mountain was a constant companion, little drifts of grey ash providing a slippery reminder that the most imposing symbols of nature’s power to kill and maim also have in their arsenals more subtle ways to fuck you up.

Even so, there’s something about cycling along that road that cheered me a little. Maybe it was the way it reminded me of a similar coastal road in the film Kiki’s Delivery Service, although instead of a small witch on the back with the power to turn anything she sits on into a flying machine, all I had was three big, heavy bags with the power to turn anything they sit on into a brick of plummeting death.

The main reason my spirits were on the rise as I approached Kagoshima, however, was that Kagoshima is where the singular Iguz Soseki (not her real name) lives. Iguz (pronounced “igzett”) is the vocalist from garage-punk band Zibanchinka and psychedelic sound system Futtachi – both of which I have released through Call And Response Records – as well as being an artist who produces these eerily grotesque, vaguely erotic pencil illustrations of young girls mutilating themselves with knives or with insects crawling out through cracks in their skin.

Obviously someone like her would have been the ideal person to speak to on any occasion, and the fact that she’s an old friend and one of my favourite people in the world is just one of the many ways Kyushu is kind to me on this journey.

We hang out at Bar Mojo on the first night, the discovery of which, Iguz explains, is to a large degree responsible for cheering her up about the direction the city’s music scene is going. When Zibanchinka’s album came out five years ago, I came to Kagoshima for the release party at SR Hall and I thought it was fantastic that there was such a huge buzz of excitement around this weird, confrontational, and just damn cool band. Returning last year I found Iguz complaining about how everyone was trying to be so damn happy all the time. This mirrored my own observations about the music scene in Tokyo, and writing this now on the 5th anniversary of the March 2011 earthquake, it’s hard not to see this cultural shift away from divisive notions of coolness and towards the easy, welcoming and free charms of the happy.

Zibanchinka got screwed by the earthquake in their own way, despite Kagoshima being about as far as you can possibly get from the affected areas. Their band name means “subsidence” (the geological term for where the land collapses under the surface) and the earthquake caused a lot of subsidence and made a lot of people homeless in the process. The album was spiked by the distributor, and it was only very cautiously allowed to trickel out into stores. In the end it did OK by the standards of these things, but it was a touchstone moment for us in the context of the earthquake’s impact.

The longer term impact was harder to guage though. The idea of connection became important, with the Japanese word “kizuna” or “bonds between people” taking on iconic significance. A subtle pressure for musicians to sing in Japanese seemed to gather pace, and the music that caught the public imagination was party music. The cool, arty music that had formed the core of the Tokyo alternative scene in 2010 gave way to goofier, happier thrills, and what happens in Tokyo always filters through like a series of whispered instructions to musicians around Japan within a couple of years.

Mojo’s owner Kotaro is a cool guy and a huge blues nerd. We get into a discussion about the local folk music of the Amami Islands. Iguz was born on the main island, and while they are nominally part of Kagoshima Prefecture, they are culturally closer to Okinawa. Listening to some of the music, Kotaro points out the similarity to blues, noting that the Amami islanders were basically sugar plantation workers, and the music seems to share some similar themes as well as melodic tropes with blues, not to mention bluegrass and Appalachain folk music (not to mention Chinese music, which surely had a less coincidental influence on the music of Japan’s southern islands). One guy who comes up a lot as far as Amami music goes is Takao Morishima.

We’re joined by Eddie from rockabilly garage rockers Jack Hill Rimjeans, who produced the Zibanchinka album as well as some of Futtachi’s stuff, and the con versation moves onto local bands. Garage rockers The Murder Case and local matsuri-punk legends Bloody are still going strong, as are eccentric alt-rock/new wave band Zokudams. Meanwhile the shoegazey Glare Sounds Projection, the new wave-ish The Neonlight, the Britpop-esque My Arcade, and indie rockers The Acoustics all come up more or less under the category of “recommended”.

When conversation turns to Jinsei Hoketsu, the conversation turns down a rabbit hole that we still haven’t emerged from the following night when Futtachi guitarist Omi joins us. The core of the issue seemed to be how you define the term “seishun punk”. Everyone agreed that it’s the accurate name for the particular kind of punk rock Jinsei Hoketsu make, probably under the longstanding influence of The Blue Hearts, but there’s an inflection to the term that doesn’t quite match with any comparable English language terms like pop-punk or emo-punk (the Japanese term “melo-core” seems to cover that more or less). Seishun punk literally means “youth-punk”, and that triggers a dormant thought I’d had for a long time, namely that punk in Japan is often treated in the media as a sort of harmless nostalgia for the free and easy days of youth, and that part of how punk has been neutralised as a revolutionary force is by placing it in this nostalgic context: “look at the silly, fun things we used to do before we became respectable members of society – those were good memories!” Punk then becomes part of the broader Japanese process of “making memories” rather than creating things that have a tangible impact on the here and now. I suggest an English translation “sentimental punk” and everyone seems to agree that gets to the nub of what it’s all about.

In any case, Jinsei Hoketsu seem like one of those bands who even if you can’t abide the kind of music they do, are just impossible to dislike. Every town needs a band like that.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed more stylish, artisanal cafés and similar places opening up here and there around Kagoshima, and at this early stage in their infiltration, it’s interesting to see how happy they’re making Iguz. As someone who’s surrounded by these kinds of places in Tokyo and who couldn’t give two fucks about coffee, I often find these sorts of places overbearingly precious and fiddly, but when you’ve been the only arty weirdnik in town for most of your life, it must feel liberating to finally find places opening up that recognise your aesthetic vocabulary.

New Alternative, a gallery and event space recently opened by owners driven out of Tokyo by the constant drip drip drip of alarming news out of Fukushima, and Retroft Chitose are places I’d never heard of before in Kagoshima, and while the former is closed on the day we try to visit, the latter is an extraordinary bookshop/café/gallery/live space, with an amazing looking old Hammond organ in the strange little event pit at the centre.

We also drop by Walk Inn Studio, where a lot of local bands rehearse. The owner is connected to punk label Pizza of Death Records, and Walk Inn puts on its own music festival every year. Having no real record shops of its own apart from a tiny Tower Records hidden inside a department store, Kagoshima bands are served to a certain degree by a small CD store corner on the first floor of Walk Inn. The use of local music hubs as makeshift CD stores for local musicians is something I’m seeing again and again, and there are signs that it’s becoming enough of a phenomenon that JASRAC, the Japanese recording rights organisation, is starting to put the squeeze on these little makeshift outlets now. Looking at the little store in Walk Inn, I can’t help thinking, “Musicians selling CDs at a place where only other musicians will ever buy them – this feels like as good a microcosm as I’ll ever find of everything indie music is about.”

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