In order to get back to the opposite coast again, I needed to pack up my bicycle and take the train from Tottori to Okayama. I have fond memories of Okayama, having spent a night here on my honeymoon, passing through western Japan. In fact, this whole zigzagging trip is partly inspired by that spontaneous, unplanned westward-striking honeymoon journey, and this western stage is in part taking me on a reverse journey back through every town we stayed.
Okayama is another very pretty town (decent castle, cute little riverside park running through the centre of town, not to mention the famous Korakuen gardens over the main river), but not the sort of town where you can guarantee a lively music event on a Monday night. I was able to meet up with my American friend David though, who took me first to the bar and occasional music venue Saudade and then on to the delightfully ramshackle bar Command.
Command’s owner, Nao, plays in a blues band of his own called Back Pages, and Command’s tumbledown stacks of records include some ancient and deep old blues cuts. It’s not just a bar for old blues men to sip whiskey and console themselves with the classics (although you can do that very effectively). Its anarchic interior is also a place where the music is very much alive and bristling with opportunity for discovery. Hiroto from punk legends The Blue Hearts has a nearly empty bottle of Four Roses that the bar keeps for him, while the labyrinthine piles of records contain harsher and more excitingly discomfiting sounds as well.
The Blue Hearts
Through his various intersections with the music scene in Japan, David has written English lyrics – often uncredited and usually underpaid – for a number of Japanese artists of varying degrees of popularity, and he was rather surprised to hear that I’d never received similar requests. For my own part, I was surprised at the mere idea of being asked to write lyrics for a band I wasn’t myself a member of, and it got me thinking about why.
The first and most obvious reason that struck me was that no one really thinks of me as a lyricist and that anyone who has actually read any of my lyrics would be instantly put off by how clumsily, calculatedly obscure they are. Lyric writing and prose are very different disciplines, requiring very different skillsets, and that sort of writing is by no means my strong point.
The second, and I think bigger point, is that the kinds of bands I know just wouldn’t think of asking another person to interfere with their creative process in such an intimate way, and this touches on a wider issue that we got to discussing: that of creative control and creative authenticity.
Young bands nowadays are often criticised for being unoriginal and regurgitating ideas from older bands, but historically speaking, bands are in a rather odd position now, and The Beatles are mostly to blame. The Beatles were one of the world’s first bands-as-auteurs, not in the sense that they were uniquely talented compared to the great songwriters and musicians who preceded them, but rather in how they were perceived and marketed. Working together with George Martin, The Beatles solidified the idea of a band’s musical output as a 360-degree, all-encompassing creative statement.
However, The Beatles’ career was built off the back of cover versions. Their time in Hamburg was spent pounding out amphetamine-fuelled rock’n’roll covers, while three of their first four albums were populated by just as many covers as originals. It was normal in the ‘60s for bands to not only cut their teeth on covers, but also for multiple artists to cover the same contemporary songs. The idea of the “original” wasn’t fully formed.
Nowadays, however, a young indie band is expected to have an album full of original material ready right from the get-go, which means bands lose that formative period older artists used to have with covers, with their own “original” material instead embodying their influences unconsciously in the form of pastiche and simulacrum. In this context, it would be unthinkable for one of these bands to ask another person to write lyrics.
In the pop field, there seems to be less of a dogmatic attitude towards this sort of creative authenticity and control, and perhaps partly as a function of marketing, artists have fewer qualms about putting their name to collaborative work. Bjork can bring in producers and beatmakers to produce electronic elements of her music without feeling like she has fatally compromised her creative vision to the point where it is no longer “a song by Bjork”.
At one point, Nao puts on Sympathy For the Devil by The Rolling Stones. “Listen here,” he says, “Who do you think is playing this guitar solo?” “I’m pretty sure it’s just Keith,” I reply, “It’s different from his usual style, but he always played his solos differently.”
Nao looks unconvinced, “Keith’s solos always came in late, but this one jumps in early. Jimmy Page was doing a lot of uncredited session stuff at this time, and it sounds more like his style to me.”
Would Sympathy For the Devil be any less of a song if Jimmy Page had stepped in for Keith on that solo? Is it any different from Eric Clapton stepping in for George Harrison on While My Guitar Gently Weeps? How about from Jim O’Rourke standing in for John Fahey on Juana? Is it just the music that matters, or does it matter that the people we identify with the music are really the people behind it at all times?
The following night, I meet up with Ju Muraoka of indie/post-rock band Test Pattern and the Rev-Node label, as well as numerous other projects (he claims he’s in about ten bands at the moment). I’ve talked before about how in a lot of towns, finding your way round the music scene really comes down to whether you can track down the one guy who knows everyone. In Okayama, Muraoka seems to be that guy.
Postpunk/noise rock band The Noup are already gaining a bit of a reputation in Tokyo and elsewhere, while Muraoka also cites Bomb Ketch, the strange pop of Jugz, singer-songwriter Yoko Honmatsu and hardcore scene top dogs Crikey Crew. With some additional prompting, he admits that his wife Yuko Muraoka is also a musician, performing as a bass-led solo act in addition to her role as bassist in indie-punk legends Eastern Youth.
The most famous live venue in Okayama by far is Pepperland, which is also by most counts the oldest live house in Japan, having been around for over 40 years. Officially holding 180 people, Muraoka estimates its comfortable limit at about 50 (“When it’s full, you can’t even spark a cigarette lighter because there’s literally not enough oxygen in the room).
Okayama is roughly the point where we start moving loosely into the gravitational field of the greater Kansai area too, with Test Pattern regularly playing Osaka, while Yoko Honmatsu has connections with the Himeji-based Pong Kong label, run by the eclectic and prolific members of Eddie Marcon.
Around this point, we run into Okamoto from “flying CD shop” Moderado Music. I ask him what a flying CD shop is and he opens the shopping bag he has with him to reveal a stack of CDs, mostly of Latin music from South America.
“You mean the flying CD shop is just you, hanging out at bars with a bag of CDs?”
“That’s about it, yeah.”
He gives me a badge and I feel honoured.