Returning to Kumamoto to rest up one night, I got up early the next morning to cycle the 15km through eerie coastal fog to the port, where I could get a fast ferry to Nagasaki.
I say Nagasaki, but what that really means is the small coastal town of Shimabara, sitting at the foot of a volcano about 65km away from my destination in Nagasaki City. After a couple of hours spent clinging to Mount Unzen’s rippling skirts, I finally broke through into the outer reaches of Nagasaki City, whereupon my navigator, Google Maps, decided that a convenient shortcut would be to send me off the main road and up a near vertical slope, about half of which was stairs.
Lacking any cycle route planning function, reading Google Maps by toggling between the car and walking options, you have to develop a sort of witchdoctor’s skill at reading the esoteric intentions behind the routes it gives you and then avoiding the ones that look like trouble. I got pretty good at that in Tohoku, but here in Kyushu it behaves differently and I’m having to learn a whole new set of tea leaves.
After struggling through those last few kilometres, I finally cruised into Nagasaki, exhausted, and was instantly told by an old lady that bicycles are forbidden on this particular street. I say “told”, but it was more like she waited until I was past her, then tutted and muttered it to the air (yeah, I was judging you too, lady). Nagasaki is a beautiful city, but its roads are nightmarish and its pavements are strictly policed for inappropriate traffic. It’s not a friendly place for cyclists.
As far as the music scene goes, Tuesday nights are as quiet in Nagasaki as they are in any other town with a similar population (basically anywhere with less than a million people gets dead quiet on weekdays), which is why I’d made sure my two favourite local bands, Mechaniphone and Neue Sanssouci, had been at the event in Kumamoto at the weekend.
After checking out the bridges for a bit (Nagasaki’s old, stone bridges are a thing of quiet wonder and a rare bit of normal tourism I’ll allow myself), I met up with Paul from Mechaniphone and, after dropping by Sonny Boy Records for a quick browse of its impressively deep stacks, headed to Panic Paradise, a music bar and occasional live venue where a lot of the best music in town happens. Entering, we find a heavily graffitied poster, on which generations of sailors appeared to have carried out an in-depth debate about the authenticity of The Beach Boys. “Fuck off you Yankey wanker you don’t even surf,” contended one party.
Putting aside the debate about The Beach Boys’ surfing credentials for a moment, I’d been to Panic Paradise before, for a show orgaised by Neue Sanssouci last year and fallen in love with the place’s gloomy red glow, so it was the ideal place to meet up and talk with the musicians I’d seen playing the other. Paul believes that the surprising thing about Nagasaki is how many interesting artists there are, given the size of its useful central area is (like a lot of Japanese cities, its borders are drawn way wider than any meaningful definition of the city ought to include).
For a long time, Velocityut and Gnawnose have been the acts who fly the flag most prominently for Nagasaki among music fans in other cities. There’s a network of artists on the fringes of hardcore and art-punk that links bands like them with groups in Fukuoka like Accidents in Too Large Field, right through to Tokyo acts like Tiala and the Koiwa Bushbash live venue. Traditionally, the Less Than TV label has been the home for those kinds of bands. This has been the situation for as long as I’ve been in Japan, and while this network features some excellent bands, there is a sense I get of it being something closed off from change and evolution. In all the time I’ve been observing the music scene in Japan, I’m not sure I’ve seen any new, young artists emerge from this world – it is what it is though, and by and large that’s enough.
Flamingo Nerd Boycott
Mamushi, Yurika and Julia from neue Sanssouci join us, along with Miki from Mechaniphone. Julia also plays with avant-pop band Sankaiten to Hitohineri, and out of this discussion, the confusingly named alt-rock/art-punk band Flamingo Nerd Boycott comes up as one to watch, while post-rock bands qmnm (I think it’s pronounced “kyu-ma-no-mi”) and Smock have a strong local reputations.
Aside from Panic Paradise, Studio Do and nearby music bar Paranoia are both popular places for local bands, while Nagasaki’s entry in the “Drum XXX” chain is Drum Be-7. Other venues in Nagasaki Prefecture include Raja and Neutral in Isahaya, and Garment, Blue Mile and Dazzle Puzzle in Sasebo.
Sankaiten to Hitohineri
At this point, the conversation starts to divide into two parallel discussions, with Mechaniphone talking quite seriously about music and Neue Sanssouci talking animatedly about sci-fi and cartoons (as you might expect from a band who take their name from the anime series Legend of the Galactic Heroes). Mamushi is a huge fan of British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, which apparently aired on an obscure local Nagasaki TV channel in the ‘90s, and he has an occasional habit of saluting people with a “full Rimmer”. He has clear ideas on what the coolest mechanical designs in the Star Wars universe are, and has been known to wave a flashing toy light saber around onstage. Needless to say, there is a strong theme of hardcore anime and sci-fi geekery running through Neue Sanssouci’s music – a mashup of different elements thrown together with what looks like cheerful abandon, although at the same time, the band are very serious about their madness.
For Mechaniphone, while no less fun as a band or as people, they nonetheless approach music with less of a freewheeling sense of lunacy. The madcap influence of Afrirampo (them again – I told you they were important) runs through their music, but it’s balanced off against the more considered, focused style of Fugazi. Friends of mine who’ve listened to their music have mentioned Deerhoof as a point of comparison too. While they are still developing as a band, their set at Kumamoto Navaro had been a revelation for a lot of the other musicians there, and their sound carries with it a sort of conceptual weight that demands you stop what you’re doing and listen: they’re a band who are obviously trying to do something powerful, and that alone makes them worthy of your full attention.
The music and geek culture threads draw back together again when we start talking about idol music. Mamushi is a big idol fan, while I have big problems with the whole culture behind them. There’s a strong argument that the culture doesn’t matter if the product itself is fun, although I think if we in the indie scene accept that, then we undermine the existence of a lot of the music we ourselves are involved in making, especially as more and more idol acts begin to leech aesthetically off of indie subcultures.
Paul collects flyers from gigs he plays at, and he’s kicking himself for having, in the chaos and exhaustion, forgotten to relieve Navaro of a poster or flyer on Saturday. I hadn’t done so either, but I was able to print out a new one at Seven Eleven and pretend it was from the gig. Is an object the real thing as long as we believe it is, or is there some reality independent of our perceptions? The same question applies to music: is music what you hear and see performed, or do the intentions and process behind it matter? Paul now knows that I faked his poster, so is his poster less authentic for that?
Does it matter that Brian Wilson didn’t surf?