While most of the major cities in Shikoku sit along the Seto Inland Sea, each paired with a major city or urban area on the mainland (Matsuyama with Hiroshima, Takamatsu with Okayama, Tokushima with Kobe), Kochi sits alone and isolated, gazing out on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean and locked in by mountains on all other sides.
Arriving by an Anpanman-themed train on a wet afternoon, the hotel immediately annoyed me by refusing to let me check in until 4pm, so instead I went to check out the record store at K-Club/Chaotic Noise, Kochi’s legendary punk live venue. By this point in my journey, it seems pretty clear that the influence of now distant towns like Fukuoka and Hiroshima has been utterly overwhelmed by that of Osaka and the greater Kansai area. In amongst all the various international punk subgenres the store deals in, there was a sizeable section devoted to Kansai music and all its granular subdivisions.
Chaotic Noise is also record label, which has released bands like Acid Mothers Temple and Kan Mikami, and also runs the more directly punk Dan-Doh label. Among the recommendations I receive while in town, guitar duo Hakuriki Komugiko, garage-punk band Furyo Gaijin and synth-noise group Odidan. Meanwhile indie rock band Turncoat come pretty much universally recommended from everyone in Shikoku, even if no one can quite work out where they’re from (they seem to be at least partly a Kochi band, albeit one with strong links to Ehime).
There were also the remains of two wrecked guitars pinned to the wall like trophies and autographed, presumably by their murderers. The store’s clerk, Takao, knew who I was before I even arrived, with apparently the entire town’s punk and underground music scene having been alerted to my arrival by Ando from Jailbird Y back in Hiroshima.
The same went for Eri Minamiguchi, the owner of Yamaneko, a sort of nonspecific gallery/café/event/space/bookshop by the river, who – after apologising for the temporary lack of electricity – had a stack of CDs waiting for me when I showed up. Minamiguchi herself plays in the local hardcore band Tusks as well as doing her own more folk-influenced music, and has done time as a member of Acid Mothers Temple (in their “& the Cosmic Inferno” incarnation) and joined one of the Boredoms’ multi-drummer extravaganzas – needless to say both bands have strong links to Osaka. A quick scan over the CD jackets throws up some spectacularly aggressive nonsense poetry in the band names and song titles, with Speed!! Noise!! Hell!! (band) probably the most expressive and enticing, and Grateful Bedtime for Fresh Pussy Landscape (title) probably the most baroque.
I’m back at my hotel at 4pm on the dot with a big, friendly smile pasted across my face only to learn that the following day I’ll be turfed out of my room from 10am until 4pm for cleaning.
“That’s OK, I don’t need my room cleaned. What I need is my room available for me to work in during the day so I can write in peace and quiet.”
This causes consternation, and the clerk’s face immediately assumes that simpering, keening, tortured aspect peculiar to Japanese customer service staff preparing to give bad news. He informs me that I can pay ¥600 an hour for use of the room during the cleaning period.
“I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand. You want me to pay extra for you to not clean my room?”
The man’s face scrunches up further and his voice creeps up another couple of notches until it becomes barely audible as a human sound and more a series of textured groans and whines punctuated with sorry-not-sorry exhortations of, “sumimasen”.
OK, whatever, just give me the keys. His face relaxes. He’s won.
“Thank you. The curfew is midnight.”
By this point I just want to take a shower after trudging around the wet town all afternoon. I’m not surprised when the hot water emerges from the nozzle at the temperature of tea that’s been left standing for three hours. I appreciate that my itinerary might be confusing to some hotels, with my schedule of working in my room during the day and staying out late at night, meeting with music people or watching shows, being more or less the exact opposite of the way hotels are arranged and designed to operate, but the Hotel Gakuya Sakurakan is by far the most annoying place I’ve stayed in 32 prefectures and counting.
That evening, it’s back to Chaotic Noise for a show, and as I enter the venue, down the gloomy staircase lined with tatty posters and into the barely-lit hall, the sound is both chaotic and noisy, a thudding, rolling panzer attack of slowed down Sabbath doom overlaid with vicious squalls of feedback and effects. I write in my notebook, “Did they name the venue after the music or did they make the music to fit the venue?” and this question could in many ways be applied more broadly to entire music scenes throughout the country: the feedback loop between the location and the music, and how each informs how the other evolves, is perhaps the most interesting thing for me during these travels.
The band is Ithaqua and the bassist is Takao who I’d met earlier at the record store, so the band is at least in part a product of the venue in its most literal and direct way. Also in the band is Igawa, the owner of a similar live venue/record store combo in Takamatsu called Too Nice, boss of the Impulse Records label, and formerly of Matsuyama punk band Forget Me Not. That feedback loop between people, places and music could not be more clearly illustrated than what I was seeing in Ithaqua.
Speed!! Noise!! Hell!!
They’re followed by Kilala, dressed in Clockwork Orange-meets-Devo boiler suits, accessorised to varying degrees depending on how much each individual member wishes he was in a real punk band rather than this quirky new wave hybrid. This change to a lighter tone lasts only up until the arrival of the aforementioned Speed!! Noise!! Hell!!, another band composed of Chaotic Noise staffers, who sound like an endlessly crashing high speed train.
After the show, Speed!! Noise!! Hell! Come back onstage to hold an auction that appears to be mostly composed of groceries and children’s toys, most of which go for in the region of ¥100-¥300. One guys auctions off two bottles of sunflower oil, one guy auctions some homemade fruit brandy (“I don’t drink alcohol, so I have no idea what it tastes like”), another has some spinach and some bamboo shoots, while another tries to auction off his own shorts (there were no takers).
The following day I meet up with Ken Fleming, former guitarist of Canadian punk band SNFU, currently living in Kochi. Like Martin Taxt, the Norwegian experimental musician I met in Takamatsu earlier in the week, Fleming has found Japan a difficult place to have a career as a musician, thanks in large part to the way the live circuit is set up to provide paid services for bands rather than actual “work”. He notes that he’s heard of more people holding live events in palces they’ve just set up themselves in their homes or where they live, mentioning Osaka live space/gallery Figya as an example.
“When I was growing up, people would hold parties in their basement just to pay the bills and it feels like in Japan people are now getting round to that situation after coming round full circle.”
While house parties are an impossibility in most of Japan thanks to thin walls and trigger-happy noise complaints, the move away from conventional live spaces is visible throughout the country.
The other issue Fleming has had to face is the difficulty of getting past the awed deference of musicians when faced by an experienced artist from overseas. As a result, he has had to limit his performances in Kochi to a few solo shows that he would promote ruthlessly via his work in a local bar in order to break even on the cost of playing. In order to actually make money off music, he still needs to travel to the other side of the world, where he’s about to kick off a tour with The Freeze, alongside bands like TSOL, Adolescents and Flag.
A big part of our discussion centres around the DIY ethos of punk and how the love of one’s art intersects with business and money. When SNFU were on a major label and selling hundreds of thousands of albums, Fleming recalls being summoned to a meeting with their label boss, who sat across from the band, eating fried chicken, then reached into a drawer, pulled out an SNFU t-shirt to wipe his greasy fingers with, blew his nose into it and threw it in the bin. The message of this little power play presumably being, “You ain’t the Offspring, so just you remember your place.” Needless to say, despite massive sales, the band ended up massively in debt to the label (“On a major label, everything they give you is being paid for out of your money.”)
So an indie, DIY route is far preferable to working with big money, because that way, at least what you have is unambiguously yours – not just your music and recordings, but also every success and failure: whatever it is, you own it. In Japan, that doesn’t really work, though, unless you give up any hopes of making a living from music altogether, with the indie support networks fragmented, disorganised, underfunded and bereft of much in the way of useful information infrastructure. All this does mean that whatever music does emerge at least often has a certain purity to it. How much of that purity you’d be willing to trade in order to be treated as a professional is one of those situations for which I believe our American cousins coined the phrase “your mileage may vary”.
Surfers of Romantica
Later that night I catch up with Mission Control, who’s just flown in from Tokyo, and we hit up yakitori izakaya Nikomi-chan. The owner, Ma-bo, was part of 1980s scum/noise act Surfers of Romantica – Shikoku’s answer to the Boredoms – and a young American guy who’s in there by chance remarks that he’d seen me walking around town the previous day wearing a Misfits t-shirt (it’s actually a Misfits parody design using multiple images of electrical plugs, made for Higashi Koenji 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu’s 5th anniversary, but close enough). Kochi’s the kind of place where a guy walking around in a Misfits t-shirt pretty much instantly catches the attention of the dozen or so other people in town who know what the Misfits are. There’s something quite lonely in that fact, but also quite lovely.