Hills are supposed to be idyllic. They’re supposed to form a gently undulating landscape, like an ocean of fields and forests, carrying us along with them – that’s why we talk about “rolling hills”.
The hills of Kyushu don’t roll: they boil forth like blisters or hungry fungus. The hills are alive, but not with the sound of music so much as with the frothing impatience of a landscape energetically bubbling skywards.
All roads from Nagasaki lead through hills, and the road to Sasebo led through squalls of rain as well. A military town hosting both Japanese and American naval bases, Sasebo is famous primarily for its hamburgers, but is also home to the quite marvellous didgeridoo-based drone-psych band Clicker. On this trip, however, it’s primarily just a stop on the road to Fukuoka.
Fukuoka is the cultural capital of Kyushu, and its influence extends over the whole island and into Yamaguchi Prefecture at the western tip of Honshu. Kumamoto just about manages to hold on to its own musical identity, while Nagasaki and Kagoshima are just about large enough and remote enough to claim some sort of independence; however, a 150-km urban sprawl exists from Saga City, through Tosu, the hybrid non-city of Kitakyushu, and into Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi, and Fukuoka is at the centre of it all.
Passing through the picturesque town of Arita, its reputation built on pottery from Korean artisans kidnapped in medieval times, I arrived in Saga City to rest another night. Here I was hopeful of at least meeting someone, but with all members of the city’s two best bands, Hakuchi and Nakigao Twintail, having scattered to various parts of Fukuoka, Kanagawa and Tokyo, my connections had dried up. The city supports the standard three live venues that a town of this size usually has, in the rock club Geils, and the sister venues Rag-G and Rockride, and for a while there was, if not exactly a scene, at least a sense of something interesting and lively going on. In addition to Hakuchi and Nakigao Twintail, local bands Yaoyoloz and Be Here Now were active around the greater Fukuoka co-prosperity sphere, and Rag-G would occasionally host big all-day events with a dozen or so weird and wonderful bands. Something seems to have withered now though – in a city Saga’s size, a few people can have a big influence, but the flipside of that is that everything can fall apart just as easily. There’s still stuff going on, but there wasn’t on the night I was there.
The next night I was in Fukuoka and one of the first bands I see is Curry Rice Man, with Saga refugee Haraguchi from Hakuchi on guitar. He lives in Fukuoka now, while drummer An lives in Omuta (Fukuoka prefecture, but actually nearer Kumamoto) and bassist Maru lives in Kanagawa, between Tokyo and Yokohama. “Does Hakuchi even count as a Saga band anymore?” I ask him. “Sure we are!” he replies, before thinking a little and adding, “Actually I don’t know. I don’t know what we are anymore.”
The manager of live venue Utero, where Curry Rice Man are playing, is Seiji Harajiri from local postpunk band Hyacca. He and guitarist Goshima are from Oita originally. Another friend of mine, Takeshi Yamamoto from post-rock band Macmanaman, is from Sasebo. Fukuoka gathers up and collects musicians from all over Kyushu. After Fukuoka, Tokyo is the only place you can really step up to in terms of the sheer volume of stuff available to you.
Usually dressed in a sloppy-looking pink hoodie when playing with Hakuchi, Haraguchi is dressed in a slick looking suit and shades for his turn with Curry Rice Man. Apparently he can look cool if he wants to. Also on the bill are the mostly instrumental noise-rock duo BlackBugfilm and the unclassifiable Snoppy, who set off warning bells with the appearance of an acoustic guitar, but then drown them out in an energetic, rowdy, but effortlessly creative explosion of psychedelic avant-pop.
The next thing I realised about Fukuoka was that for the first time anywhere on this trip, I was having to think about which gig of the many in town I actually wanted to go to on a given night. Even in big cities like Sapporo and Sendai I hadn’t encountered this sort of luxurious quandary before, but on my second night, I was forced to juggle shows at Utero (again) and the nearby Café & Bar Gigi.
I met up with Evgeny, a Russian friend of mine who officially lives in Kitakyushu, but more actually lives a nomadic existence between the bars, clubs and kitchen floors of the Fukuoka music scene. At Utero, it’s really Neburi that we want to see. They’re loosely speaking a J-Pop band, although that’s J-Pop in the indie-ish tradition of early-2000s bands like Supercar, mixing pop melodies with DFA-style musical flourishes straight from British postpunk and New Order-esque indie-disco. They’re from Kitakyushu, but as with Saga, if you want to see the best Kitakyushu musicians, you generally need to be in Fukuoka. Needless to say they seem to have no music available to hear anywhere on the Web — oh well, your loss.
Over at Gigi, we catch the last bit of Frozen Egg, an intriguingly shambolic solo artist who makes eccentric naive pop out of a mishmash of instruments. Following her is Uiko Yamamoto, visiting from Hofu in Yamaguchi Prefecture, who uses an acoustic guitar more as a springboard for a series of theatrical gestures with her legs and hair than as any particular driving force for her music. Finally, there’s Kei Kumagawa, whose guitar punkishly proclaims “this machine kills hippies” anthough he’s not fooling anyone – get a haircut, flower child!
Behind the PA of Gigi is Shuichi Inoue from lo-fi indie-blues troupe Folk Enough, and in harmony with the theme of so many places I’ve encountered in Kyushu, his E.G. Records label and CD shop uses Gigi as its base. In the absence of much else in the way of indie music distribution in Kyushu, E.G. Records/Gigi is one of the best places to find music by local bands.
Evgeny and I crash at Harajiri’s boypartment for the night. The entire female half of the Fukuoka indie scene seems to have gone to Korea for the weekend, so we’re able to relax in degenerate squalour for a couple of days.
The girls return with a bang on Monday for the “Alice” DJ party. I’m also on the bill, and since practically no one else is there, everyone just amuses themselves in their song selections. ’90s J-Pop nostalgia, Britpop, K-Pop and Johnny’s boyband idol music fills the progressively more and more intoxicated air, and in that I somehow manage to walk the line between keeping people’s attention on what I’m playing and playing stuff I actually like. I’ve always felt a DJ set should take you on a journey, and if that journey takes you from Prolapse to 2NE1 via The E-Types, all the better.
Gigi has another interesting show the same night, and so I pop over to see the contorted psych-rock of Danti Funk Duma and catch some of the Jonathan Richman-esque indie balladeering of Yayoi, and by the time I return to Utero, the girls have taken over completely. Sassy from avant-garde rock band z/nz (pronounced “zutto nazo”) is fellating a glowing banana, while DJs Ai and Emix have cleared a dancefloor for just the two of them. The boys are clinging to the bar in bemused admiration. The girls are back in town.
Utero and Gigi seem to have a sort of symbiotic relationship, with some of the audience from Gigi piling into Utero towards the end of the night just as the Utero crowd had piled into Gigi a couple of nights previously. The two venues are close enough that they sometimes put on joint events, and together they form a sort of Watanabe-dori/Yakuin area indie-alternative subscene a little bit removed from the Oyafuko-dori-based heart of Fukuoka’s main live music scene.
After the gruelling daytimes and sedate nights cycling through western Kyushu’s bubbling hills, a weekend in Fukuoka has no problem inverting that process with a series of lazy afternoons and ferocious nights. I decide to stick around in Fukuoka for a week, and I’ll need a rest if I’m going to make it out alive.