After Kochi, Mission Control and I made a brief stop back at Takamatsu for udon. Eating udon is one of those things people will insist you do in Takamatsu, not because it tastes particularly great (it’s udon and udon all tastes the same) but because it’s the Local Thing, and when you are in a Local Place, you have to do the Local Thing. In Japan, the Local Thing is usually a food or a hot spring, and contrarian that I am, I usually resist these things with a mixture of resentment and indifference. We did the udon thing though, and it was fine. I hold no grudge against the udon.
Just as swiftly, however, we whizzed off back to Okayama, partly to check out local punk record store Dig Dig, and partly because The Stingrays were playing at Pepperland.
Pepperland is one of the most famous live clubs in Japan, and almost certainly the oldest, dating back to 1974. The owner is a local legend with a reputation as an encyclopaedia of music and an endless recource of stories. He’s also a visual artist and seems to be away in Oita where an exhibition of his work is heing held, meaning I’m unable to meet him on this occasion. We do meet up with our friend Rob from Baltimore though, who’s ricocheting around Japan, chasing bands and foxes.
Muraoka from Test Pattern had explained that the official capacity of the venue was 180 people, but it’s clear stepping into the room that this figure is only really meaningful in the same way that it would be for a New Orleans oven vault. There are about forty people at the show tonight and that feels about right.
Opening the show are PennyBlack, swiftly followed by The Lost Numbers from Fukuyama, just across the border in Hiroshima Prefecture. Both these bands share an obvious love for the aesthetics of garage-punk, but in terms of the songwriting, they are perhaps unconsciously drawing from a slightly different, more Japanese pop-rock tradition in their melodies. It’s music infused with that same “prior nostalgia” that characterises what people sometimes call “seishun punk” (“youth punk”) – music that seems to hearken back misty-eyed at its own existence, even as it’s happening there in the moment; music that conceives of itself as a memory not yet created. Here at the tail end of the cherry blossom season it’s a sentiment that feels apt, but it’s still one that I find myself resisting on an instinctive level: “This moment is now, and in the future there will be other moments, so I shan’t weep over the passing of this one!”
Aggs seem to exist far more in the immediate moment, with their pummelling, bass-driven setup. It’s uncomplicated party music, but performed with dedication and energy. Gyakuso Running, meanwhile, are more in the emo-tinged Number Girl/Bloodthirsty Butchers tradition of Japanese alt-rock. When I first started going to gigs in Tokyo in the early 2000s, everyone sounded like this, with brutal, scuzzy Pixies riffs and vocalists experiencing the full joy of their newly felt liberation from the responsibility to actually sing in tune.
Local hardcore band Dance My Dunce then set things up for The Stingrays, billed as “from USA” on Pepperland’s web site and flyers but actually from my hometown of Bristol in the UK. I know we speak with an uncharacteristic rhotic “r”, but that makes us sound more like pirates than Americans – there’s really no excuse for this sort of nonsense!
Stingrays bassist Paul Matthews had been whisked off back home on the even of the tour due to family circumstances, so he’s replaced onstage by a can of beer (which is to say his side of the stage contains roughly one tenth of the amount of beer it usually would). In any case, the can of beer does a fine job filling in for Paul, with guitarist and drummer Russ and Rich fitting in neatly around it.
Russ from The Stingrays is another foreign musician who has made his home in Japan, currently living in Kyoto with his wife. I helped the band out with some of their early gigs in Japan, and it’s interesting to see how Russ’ stage manner has adapted to dealing with Japanese audiences. While early shows here were basically the band playing their songs on one side and the audience politely listening on the other, he now reaches out to the audience more actively. Stingrays songs are full of simple call-and-response moments, and Russ now milks these moments for every last bit of engagement. There’s a theatricality to it, but it’s balanced by a looseness – a sloppiness even, although never in a bad way – that means it never starts to feel contrived.
Watching them play, it’s funny to see the front row entirely populated by hip young mod chicks and when I compare that to the thirty-something indie dudes in faded Fugazi t-shirts that make up most of my events’ audiences, it makes me wonder if I’m missing a trick somewhere. They are joined by the bassist from Aggs for a final run through classic almost-hit Countdown, hastily teaching him another song for the encore (which he gamely throws himself into). There’s a lot to complain about in the Japanese music scene, but The Stingrays’ “shut up and do it” attitude cuts through all that in a way that’s refreshing and appealing, even when it all seems to be going horribly wrong.