Between Wakayama and Osaka lay seventy kilometres of largely identical urban highway with an airport in the middle. The airport was important because that weekend, one of my best friends was getting married in Tokyo and I was in the wedding band.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve got so used to travel from one place to another having a certain pace that the combination of speed and disjointedness that air travel brings made my arrival back in Tokyo feel unreal. “I’m not really here,” I wrote on Facebook, hoping to make myself sound mysterious, but it really didn’t feel like I was there. How could I, when I’d been on an artificial island in Osaka Prefecture an hour previously?
My band were doing a set of Guided By Voices covers, and while we’re honest about being a tribute band, since no one in Japan knows who GBV are, people keep mistaking us for the most amazing songwriters anyway. This for me is always deeply embarrassing (seriously, guys, Robert Pollard makes about eight bazillion albums a year, so start anywhere – there’s no excuse for not knowing), which makes it all the more difficult for me to understand how some bands can be so thievingly unoriginal and happily lap up the credit. That’s the difference between a cover and a rip-off: not so much in the music as in the wrapping.
The wedding was between my Call And Response Records collaborator Shingo, who used to play bass in The Mornings – one of Tokyo’s best bands of the 21st Century so far – and his girlfriend Manami, so the party was full of musicians. “OK, guys, there’s a lot of very important people here, so look sharp: this is an audition!” is what no one said. “On the one hand, it’s the most important day of Shingo and Manami’s lives, but on the other hand we’re playing GBV songs, so how much do you think I should drink before going onstage?” was a better characterisation of the dilemma.
When you’re playing GBV songs, at one gig in every ten, you’ll accidentally encounter someone in the audience who’s a massive fan (the only kinds of people who exist in the world are massive GBV fans and people who’ve never heard of the band) and if you can chance upon one of those guys (it’s always guys), you’ve got the night sewn up. In our case there was one right in the front row, who’d had no idea what kind of band we were beforehand but whose eyes practically exploded out of their sockets when the opening notes of A Salty Salute started to roll out of Ryotaro’s bass. If you can play to just one person, their enthusiasm sometimes just ripples out into the rest of the crowd. Real places are the best. Fuck the Internet.
One of my friends who travels a lot asked me if after a while everywhere doesn’t just start to feel the same. He’s noticed that with far more international and exotic places, so within just one country you’d expect the feeling of homogeneity to be even stronger. It’s a difficult question to answer, because a lot of it depends on expectations, but it throws a new layer on something I’d been thinking about for a long time.
When I was in Kanazawa, Asuna had suggested that the way the Internet has closed the information gap between scenes was helping to smooth over the differences between music in local areas, and I’ve been conscious of that as I move from place to place. However, as my friend at the wedding suggested, there’s also a sense that my own position as an observer might be a factor too. As I see more places, I’ll naturally look for themes and make connections, so the more I see, the more I’m unconsciously slotting everything into familiar narratives that I develop as I travel.
Osaka is in an interesting place in regard to those intersecting issues. On the one hand, it’s an enormous city with a strong regional identity, but on the other hand, it’s at a crossroads of all sorts of cultural cross-pollination. When I arrive back in Osaka after the wedding, my flight is delayed and I have to cycle the remaining forty kilometres to my hotel mostly in darkness, then after a swift shower rush directly to Bears – owned by Seiichi Yamamoto of Rovo and formerly of the Boredoms, it’s perhaps Osaka’s most famous live venue – where I am able to catch a set by Convex Level, a band from the city I’d just left behind earlier the same day.
Convex Level have been around for years (since the ‘80s) and their loose-fitting postpunk/new wave differs from the current generation of what probably count as their genre peers in the way they don’t drill every last guitar spasm down to the finest detail, a playfulness in the way they let songs drift, the aura of sloppiness that is nonetheless underscored by a strong core of musicianship. I feel something similar from Convex Level to what I get from Guided By Voices, even if they’re drawing from a slightly (but only slightly) different core of influences, with a slightly different tilt in the balance between postpunk and ‘60s/‘70s rock.
I also catch half of the set by Lostage, a band from nearby Nara but who I had always assumed were a Tokyo band from how often they seem to play there. Lostage occupy a sparsely populated zone somewhere between the basement-level amateur indie scene and mainstream respectability. They’ve managed to keep hold of something harsh and crunching, but they combine that with sprawling rock balladry that pushes the weight further over onto melody and away from pure dynamics. They’re one of the few successors to Number Girl who never compromised the scratchy edges for Rockin’ On-style pastel-coloured prog-pop, and they’re a treasure.
Trespass are there as well, although my flight delay means that I missed them. In lieu of there really being anyone I know in Osaka who can help me make sense of the vast, dizzying amount of music going on at all times around me, Maki and Makoto from Trespass are proving one of the few consistent features of my intimidating introduction into the Osaka music world. Makoto recommends Dirty is God, Back to Basics and the fantastically named Ultra Fuckers, as well as postpunk trio Douglas, as a good starting point for raw, nasty sounding underground rock and punk. In addition to Bears, meanwhile, the venues Hokage, Hard Rain, Fandango, King Cobra and Pangaea are prominent among the city’s countless live spaces and clubs – with most of them clustered around either the Umeda area towards the north of the city, and the Shinsaibashi/Namba areas towards the south.
The following night, however, I’m off to Para-Dice, a tiny, narrow little room in the middle of a shopping arcade just outside Umeda. It’s one of those venues where you feel like you’re in on some discreet little secret just from walking in. The two artists on the bill are pianist Kataashi Zubon and guitarist Seiya Isono. Both of them are singer-songwriters, which is a format of music that I’m instantly suspicious of thanks to its insistence on fake-buddy inter-song patter juxtaposed with overwrought, emotional in-song yowling. Both artists conform to this problematic stereotype more or less, and the audience howl with laughter at everything they say. Osaka is famous as a nursery for comedians, and if Osaka audiences are so easily pleased, it’s easy to see why so many might feel encouraged to take that path.
That said, they’re also both devastating musicians on a technical level, with Isono effortlessly producing complex guitar and rhythm loops that build into intricate progressive folk songs, delivering the vocals in a style that veers from conversational to a pitch-perfect falsetto. The product itself is immaculate.
As the winner of the pre-gig paper-scissors-stone contest, Kataashi Zubon gets to headline (kind of, since they’ve already decided that they’re going to play together for an encore). As a rule, piano-based singer-songwriters who aren’t called Eiko Ishibashi are just by the nature of their chosen instrument more vulnerable to descents into smugness. Kataaashi Zubon is an incredible pianist on a technical level, who mixes pop and classical influences, often to comical effect and sometimes just as what appear to be dizzying displays of finger-gymnastics. I tend to feel that with piano, less is more, but he clearly disagrees, with every song a frenetic blizzard of notes, that he bangs down as hard as he possible can. Two songs leave me exhausted, but I stick it out to the end, only skipping the encore, which after my frantic weekend of travel and events promised to be too much of an exercise in back-slapping buddytude for my drained emotional resources to handle. It’s always painful when I find myself disliking something that’s obviously very good on a number of levels, and I can often pull myself onto the right sort of level to enjoy it in the way it’s intended, but tonight I leave the venue a failure.
Trudging back through the streets of Umeda, Osaka looks like one massive, anonymous red light district, and after being surrounded by almost my whole circle of friends for one long night in Tokyo, there’s something tremendously lonely. Part of me wishes I hadn’t gone back – that I hadn’t broken up the trip in that way, fracturing the narrative and disrupting the experience. But then looking at the fragmented way this stage of my travels have gone, with constant diversions by rail as I creep my way east by bicycle, is it really that different? The fact that I’m in a place where it only takes an hour or two to reach Tokyo tells me something about this place, and the sense of fragmentation I feel is part of the experience of being in a city like this in the first place.