Of all the places I’ve visited in this trip so far, Nara is the one that seems to exist most purely and exclusively for the benefit of tourists. One of Japan’s ancient capitals, its temples, shrines and narrow streets of old wooden buildings project an image of tradition, but it leaves the distinct feeling of walking around in a large, open-air museum.
Over the past few days, my friend Masumi from Takamatsu has been in Nara recording, and she’d left me some pointers about where to go to find those elements of the city’s music culture that cling on to some precarious form of existence. The key live venue is the relatively large (300 capacity or thereabouts) Neverland, but on a Wednesday afternoon the place to go is Throat Records.
The owner of Throat Records is Takahisa Gomi of Nara post-hardcore/alt-rock band Lostage. I’d caught Lostage live in Osaka a few days previously and when she’d heard that I was going to visit Throat Records, Mission Control had instantly emailed me almost every album they’d ever released, insisting that if I was to meet such an important person, I’d need to do my research. With roots in that era of raw, punk-influenced alt-rock that was carried in the mainstream by Number Girl and closer to the underground by Hokkaido bands like Eastern Youth and Bloodthirsty Butchers, Lostage keep a foot each in the alternative and pop worlds. Given the drawn-out gaps I’ve become accustomed to between new releases from bands I hang out with and work with, the more or less annual stream of material Lostage have put out over the years clearly comes from a different, more dedicated attitude towards being in a band. Coupled with that is the fact that they play in Tokyo so often that it had honestly never occurred to me before that Lostage weren’t a Tokyo band.
Throat Records started as a record label for Lostage to release their albums, and then three years ago evolved into a record store to distribute a wider variety of music.
“What’s your impression of Nara?” Gomi asks.
“Honestly, it seems so much geared towards tourists that I can’t get any sense of it as a real place.”
“That’s why I started this store,” he agrees, “In Nara the public image is coloured by this traditional, tourist image. There’s no hunger for art. I wanted to encourage another side of Nara culture.”
Oorutaichi & Ytamo
Through the Throat Records label, he has most recently been promoting the intricate, psych-tinged avant-pop of Ayniw Tepo. Meanwhile, experimental pop artists Ytamo and her husband Oorutaichi also fly the flag for the area on both a national and international stage, sometimes performing together as a duo and sometimes in their own projects, while he also recommends guitar-drums garage-grunge (garunge?) duo Red Sneakers.
The problem of creating a living culture in a place that’s primary branding is its relationship with tradition is difficult. I tend to talk about my own roots as being in Bristol, but the nearby city of Bath was also an important presence in my life. Bath is a completely fake city, so in love with its Georgian crescents, yellow stone and Jane Austen that it can’t abide the existence of anything that fails to conform to its ideal of the desperately twee and crushingly prim. Even Austen herself felt Bath was a faintly ludicrous place, and – acid-tongued satirist that she was – I suspect she’d have loathed it now.
That’s the sort of culture the unimaginative old men in culture ministries think the world should see of their countries, and in places like that, artists need to find cracks in the facade into which they can burrow and make their nests like cockroaches (or moles).
Nara has a sort of officially approved culture as well, with some of the many old buildings scattered around the city hosting concerts of various kinds. The old guy who runs my hotel has some involvement in these cultural festivals, although from the drum kit, ancient PA system, and faded old photos of him with Milt Jackson that line the walls, it’s obvious that jazz is his true love.
I make him play me a couple of his old 78rpm records through the old PA and I have to wonder whether my fetishisation of this old gear is in any qualitative way different from the institutional fetishisation that makes me so uncomfortable about cities like Nara and Bath. There is a strong argument that preserving history helps give you a perspective on the present, so isn’t the important thing really how you use history rather than the fact of its historicity? History is itself a postmodern thing, constantly undergoing renewal both physical and psychic. An old street lined with shops selling tat to tourists might be seen as reducing history to a thin plastic mask; the constant process of replacing the wood in temple structures leaves ancient buildings where no single beam is older than a couple of generations; a 78rpm record can be enjoyable more for the pops and crackles that dance around the music than for the actual recording itself. These are all active processes in which history is mutating and spreading information in ways that we can choose to engage and respond, or dismiss and ignore. The danger of history is in seeing it as something dead, and both critics and cheerleaders can be guilty of this.