One of the unfortunate but unavoidable side-effects of the way my trip is scheduled and the economics of local live environments is that I’ll often end up in smallish cities on Tuesday nights when there are no gigs on. Mostly there’s nothing that can be done about that, and I’m usually happy just to be able to meet and hang out with someone who knows a bit about the scene.
Since I already have a lot of contacts in Kyushu, however, I was able to bypass this issue to a certain extent by organising an event of my own and bringing bands from all over Kyushu – essentially making the bands come to me for one day.
Positioned more or less in the centre of Kyushu and with a venue like Navaro being just about big enough and flexible enough to accommodate the two stages and seventeen bands, Kumamoto was the idea place to hold an event like this. Working with the venue, one thing Navaro was insistent about was that getting a handful of bands from outside Kyushu would make it much easier to attract interest from local musicians. As I found travelling around Tohoku and the east last year, you can’t think about local scenes without considering their relationship with the rest of Japan – and in particular Tokyo.
With that in mind, we were able to line up Uhnellys, a duo who create the most propulsive psychedelic jazz hip hop out of drums, bass, trumpet and loop pedals; indie/new wave quartet the Falsettos, who are probably still my favourite band in Tokyo; brutal garage-punk duo Tadzio; and Kyoto-based bubblegum-hardcore band O’Summer Vacation. I named the event SPLASH! After The Breeders’ album Last Splash and as a response to the earlier event called TENSION! that I’d been involved in in Tokyo in January – if tension is a tightly wound buildup of energy, a splash is an explosive release of that energy – and pissed off the TENSION! flyer designer by using a similar design format without asking her permission (Hey, kiddo, I’ve been designing monochrome punk flyers with diagonal text for more than ten years. Live with it!)
Putting it together, sorting out additional gigs for some of the touring bands, establishing the budget and balancing matters of inherent fairness against the conventions of local scene politics in how it is allocated – all of that was a huge headache, and with only two staff inside the venue to deal with the bar, the PA and the gear setting, the day of the event drew superhuman feats of endurance out of Navaro’s staff. Fortunately for me, by this time my job was done and I was able to just enjoy the music and devote my energies to taking grainy, blurred photos of the underlit performances with my expensive camera and inadequate kit lens combo.
With shows like this where I already know most of the bands, the greatest pleasure for me comes in either the small, sparsely dispersed surprises or in feeding off the reactions of new audiences to acts I’ve been pushing for a long time. In the former category, local Kumamoto act Bola were a great moment in the event. One of only a couple of bands I’d never seen, they have a connection via one member with Ishiatamazizo, and are definitely coming from a similar ‘70s art-punk place, but launch a heavier, more relentless sonic offense.
Less of a surprise but nonetheless pleasing was Tadzio. They’re a band I’ve long been uncertain of how I feel about, probably in large part due to the way they seemed to become very fashionable, very quickly after they first appeared, and the warning flags that set off in my head. At the time, with Afrirampo a huge thing, an all-girl duo featuring guitar and drums making wild, art-punkish garage rock and screaming a lot felt a little too perfectly conceived. That’s not to say I disliked them (I certainly had no problem with booking them for this show), but it made me demand higher standards of them before I would count myself truly impressed. Over the years, they’ve kept going though, and despite the minimal setup they use, they’ve grown musically, filling out their sound and gaining a huge amout of power. At this show, seeing them alongside a lot of my favourite bands in Japan, they held their own even by the fussy and exacting standards I had arbitrarily imposed on them.
In the latter category, the response to the Falsettos was electric. There’s just no one in Japan who sounds like them and combines the character, imagination, intelligence and fun they bring together onstage. In front of the art-punk grandees of Kyushu, they hypnotized the crowd and the buzz about them after the show could be felt all through the building.
For O’Summer Vacation as well, coming on after Uhnellys and using a less sophisticated version of some of the same loop pedal dynamics, I was worried that what they do might invite unfair comparisons, but despite some shambolic moments, they burned through any doubts I might have had. The contrast between the deadpan bassist and the squeaking whirlwind blur of a vocalist is hypnotic, and once you thrown Animal from The Muppets on drums, the whole thing is elevated to something quite special.
Seeing how bands from my own Call And Response label stand up was also important. Call And Response is a tiny label with practically no promotional muscle, but we’ve over the years been able to punch above our weight in terms of the quality of what we release, if not the quantity of what we sell. The main way we’ve been able to do that is by finding music that no one else knew was there, but as the music world becomes more connected, that becomes an increasingly difficult task. The window in which to watch a band develop before a bigger, better-connected label comes along has narrowed massively over the past ten years, and while the depeer I dig in search of talent, the more the label’s reputation for putting out impossibly obscure bands who no one’s ever heard about grows among retailers, who respond by refusing to stock our releases.
On the lineup, four bands – all local acts from around Kyushu – represented Call And Response. Hakuchi (from Saga) are the label’s current star band with their rollercoaster death-ride through barreling avant-surf art-punk, grunge, Japanese ‘70s pop and children’s songs, while Mechaniphone (from Nagasaki) are going to grace a forthcoming release with their three-way intersection of Afrirampo, Fugazi and Deerhoof. Probably my highlight of the evening was the back-to-back run of Futtachi (Iguz’ band from Kagoshima) and Hyacca (from Fukuoka). Hyacca have been around for years, and although they haven’t released anything since 2009, they have continued to grow in stature and popularity. Futtachi have had trouble getting their mantric, minimal industrial psychedelia to connect with regular rock audiences in Kyushu, but here a beautiful sort of synthesis seemed to form between their stately but raw wall of sound and Hyacca’s frenetic math-punk disco to create a fresh whole that was transformative and transporting.
It was also an opportunity to see some of the best bands in Kumamoto, with Kobayashi Dorori’s deadpan new wave opening the event and Doit Science’s jittery rhythmical spasms enlivening the middle portion of the night. Nyoro, another band I hadn’t seen before, came in towards the end with a mixture of melodic punk and alternative discord. With Nagasaki’s Neue Sanssouci there’s something in the fussily intense seriousness of their onstage manner that always makes it hard to tell what’s a mistake and what’s part of the performance (a lot of it is both, I suspect). There’s a certain (intentional or otherwise) comic genius to the way the members jostle through their frequent switches of equipment and position with such expressions of concentration on their faces even when things seem to be going tits-up, but then that moment of audience discomfort gets blown away in a second by a laser-sharp blast of bleepy technopop and ferocious junk-hardcore. Neue Sanssouci are singular.
Fukuoka contributed the most bands to the lineup though, with (in addition to Hyacca) shambolic, blues-influenced lo-fi band Folk Enough, post-rockers tepPohseen and Macmanaman, and heavy pyschedelic noise-rock legends Semi. Macmanaman’s live performances are like someone took a two-hour long Mogwai set and tried to play the whole thing in thirty minutes, and they were one of the few things helping to keep people awake at 5:00 in the morning. If I’d been in charge of the timetable, I’d probably have put them on way earlier, since as a band who don’t drink before gigs but hammer it after they finish, an opening performance from them can translate into an extra ¥10,000 at the bar. Semi, meanwhile, closed the night with epic squalls of feedback crashing against a tottering audience at 6am.
As I said earlier, my motivation for putting on this show was partly a selfish one relating to this trip, but it was also a show where I hoped to contribute even slightly to re-forging and strengthening the connections between musicians in different parts of Kyushu and beyond. In Fukuoka, an art-punk/alternative scene along these lines can survive, and Kumamoto’s position on the touring circuit of bands from Tokyo and elsewhere means it can just about support a miniature version of the same basic thing. However, in towns like Kagoshima, Nagasaki and Saga (not to mention Oita and Miyazaki, where at the time of booking I knew no one), it can be easy for bands like this to feel isolated. Being able to physically link them in to a wider thing I hope might help keep them motivated, and by briefly condensing the signal in this way, might make the signal easier to recognise in its more regular dispersed form.