Welcome to Banana House

The particular sort of rock’n’roll/garage rock that came out of Fukuoka in the 1970s was dubbed mentai rock by the music press, named after the spicy fish egg recipe that is often associated with Fukuoka. What separated the mentai gang from rockers elsewhere in the country like Gedou and Carol is harder to pin down. The term implies a sort of spiciness, but you could apply that equally to almost anything in the genre, and while the Fukuoka bands were certainly a self-contained scene, more interested in imports direct from the UK and US than anything that was going on in Tokyo, it’s hard to specify anything in the sound.

What makes mentai rock is more an atmosphere and an attitude. It’s something in the Fukuoka sense of humour, that while more easygoing and freewheeling than uptight Tokyo, also feels like it has a more acid edge to it than wacky Osaka.

In contemporary Fukuoka rock’n’roll, it’s this atmosphere that lives on more than the specific mentai rock scene, which was really tied to a certain generation of bands that weren’t really driving anything new by the time the early ‘90s came around. The contemporary Fukuoka rock’n’roll scene has more structurally in common with punk and indie bands like Number Girl in terms of how they behave and interact with artists around them, so even as the mentai rock musical tradition continues, the ‘90s indie rock social infrastructure is the one all bands regardless of genre inhabit.

The Vota Mountain Olympic is an epic rock’n’roll event held at the Voodoo Lounge live venue and featuring 32 bands, mostly from the Fukuoka area but with a number of artists from elsewhere – in particular Osaka. It’s hosted by The Vottones, who are perhaps Fukuoka’s premier purveyors of leather jacketed rock’n’roll party music, and its lineup leans heavily towards the same four basic chords and sweaty guitar antics. Beyond that, however, it’s about music that has that raw-edged but essentially fun-loving attitude that is such a big part of what defines Fukuoka music.


Samehada Shiriko to Dynamite

As someone whose interest in straightforward, high-octane rock’n’roll functions under a very short attention span, there was no way I was going to survive twelve hours of this stuff without getting very quickly bored. Fortunately, the event was scattered with acts that mixed up the style without fatally undermining the atmosphere the organisers were trying to cultivate. Opening act Samehada Shiriko to Dynamite are rock’n’roll as cabaret (it’s easy to see why so many garage rock fans are also idol fans, as both styles tend to treat music in a similarly theatrical way), while over on the other stage Bellbottom From 80’s (I hate the incorrectly placed apostrophe too, but that’s how they seem to write it) infuse their rock’n’roll with a swirling vortex of contorted Hendrixisms.

While The Suicides were setting up, I wrote the following one-sentence review as an exercise to see how easy it was to predict a band’s performance purely based on their appearance:

“The Suicides are terrible, but you can count the number of fucks they give on no hands, which means they’re actually brilliant.”


The Suicides

In they end, they were actually pretty good, and I’m not sure whether that makes them better or worse than my pre-emptive review assumed.

The presence on the bill of Hakuchi, Hyacca and Folk Enough ensured there was some crossover with my own Splash! event from a couple of weeks previously, and indicated the way the atmosphere of an event and the structure of its lineup can change the meaning of individual bands within it. Hakuchi were a raucous party band interlude in an arty Splash! lineup, but here they were a spastic, angular postpunk break from the more conventional rock’n’roll thrills around them.

I’d seen Hyacca at the Voodoo Lounge once before, many years ago, when vocalist Hiromi Kajiwara had bundled onstage in a pair of wooden sandals, quickly discovered she kept sliding around too much on them and responded by hurling one at the audience and dancing around, beating guitarist Goshima over the head with the other one. This time round, the drama came from drummer Sasaki, who stumbled onstage late and then swiftly vanished, apparently playing the gig during his work’s lunchbreak. Kajiwara, meanwhile, merely hurled herself into her guitar amp, tumbling arse-over-tit into a pile of cables and unused drum parts, and then ran around the front of the stage throwing the most expansive rock star poses possible for someone under five-foot tall.

Folk Enough refused to go onstage until Hyacca were finished, watching the performance from the wings before dashing next door to start their own set. Folk Enough vocalist Shuichi Inoue was one of the first musicians from Fukuoka I evet met, and he is responsible more than anyone else for introducing me to the local scene almost ten years ago. At that time, we were almost completely unable to communicate, and when a friendship is struck up under those circumstances, it’s strange how it develops as linguistic ability improves. I’m by no means a fluent Japanese speaker now (as one girl at the event remarked, “Why can’t you learn better Japanese, like your friend Evgeny?”) but the better I get, one troubling side-effect is that it injects a level of ambiguity into conversation that doesn’t exist in those simplistic “heart-to-heart” friendships that form over some rock music and a bottle. People don’t know whether a conversation is genuinely flying over my head or whether I’m silently absorbing and judging them on everything they say.


Folk Enough

As I get older, drinking less and understanding more, a little melancholy creeps into those kinds of friendships too. “You used to be more fun when you’d get drunk and slag off bands you don’t like!” “Well, guess what: I can slag off those same bands without getting drunk, but when I do that, you all just think I’m being an asshole.”

It’s often noted that in Japanese society, alcohol gives you a certain free pass to various kinds of social indiscretion. I sometimes see this at work with friends of mine, although it varies a little with status, position and age. Harajiri fgrom Hyacca is the manager of a live venue, so he needs to be nice to everyone and keep his opinions among friends – something he’s pretty good at doing. On the other hand, at a show at Gigi the previous weekend Harajiri’s bandmate Goshima had been able to loudly announce during a quiet spell in the performance, “Y’know, I just don’t get acoustic music!” to much amusement from the crowd. Evgeny once announced to the face of a certain popular Tokyo indie band’s singer something along the lines of, “Hey, I don’t like your band. You guys suck.” Undoubtedly the people on the receiveing ends of these remarks get hurt or annoyed, but more broadly the offence is modulated by the involvement of alcohol. “Sorry, I was dead drunk!” is a far more effective excuse in Japan than it is in the UK, and a far more effective one in Fukuoka than it is in a lot of other parts of Japan.

My position is a complex one, since as a critic, expressing my opinions about bands is a large part of my job (and indeed whatever value I have to the music scene), but as an organiser and label, I also need to remain on good terms with people. I can’t really use alcohol as an excuse in the latter context without undermining my authority in the former. It’s an issue that in the long run I think has made me a better music writer, forcing me to articulate more clearly and surgically what bothers me about music I don’t like, and to contextualise that in terms of what the artists’ original intentions are. Sober critiques might make less entertaining theatre, but they carry more weight. That doesn’t stop some people from bristling with terror and hurriedly making “Shush!” gestures whenever you express any negative opinion about a band socially, but then fuck those stuck-up assholes anyway, right?

In any case, Inoue kidnaps me for an hour or so to eat some kushukatsu, so I miss a run of bands towards the end of the night. I catch some of The Tuesday though, a burlesque rockabilly band from Ube in Yamaguchi Prefecture. I’m starting to get worried about whether I’ll be able to find anything much in Yamaguchi, and beginning to suspect that the best way to see a lot of Yamaguchi music would be to just keep hanging around in Fukuoka.

A lot of key figures in the music scene are taking part in the show, and in addition to Hyacca and Folk Enough, there’s a solo set by Bogey from psych-pop-prog band Nontroppo. Another very theatrical and comically-tinged performer, Bogey organises regular “Lounge Sounds” and “Haikore” events in Fukuoka, mostly at the Voodoo Lounge, while his young son Mondo is a celebrity artist of a sort, celebrated for his naïve portraits’ that nonetheless possess a striking ability to capture the personality or some recognisable essence of the subject.


Marukin

Hajime Yoshida from Panicsmile is also performing, this time with the punk band Marukin. A curious band, Marukin’s singer is a hyperactive ball of elastic energy, barrelling around the stage and into the faces of the audience, while Yoshida cuts the straight-ahead punk rock of their music into unconventional shapes with his fractured guitar parts.


The Vottones

The Vottones bring everything back to its rock’n’roll roots at the frenetically crowdsurfing climax, and even though I’ve spent most of the day cruising round the arty fringes of the event, The Vottones certainly masters of what they do, combining theatricality with an undeniable energy and devotion to the curious cause of rock’n’roll.

There’s an after-party that seems set to go on till dawn. I’m crashing at Sassy from z/nz’s place though, which she calls “Banana House”, so Sassy, Kajiwara, Goshima, Evgeny, and I peel off and indulge in another great Fukuoka tradition, the exhausted post-gig visit to generic discount restaurant West before turning in. This is the way Fukuoka ends: not with a bang, but with a banana.

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