Being deep in the urban hubs of the Kansai area feels in many ways like a high-speed replay of my early days in the Tokyo underground music scene. Osaka in particular is an enormous city, its landscape an insistent jumble of shiny glass towers and seedy red light districts, with simultaneously far too much and grossly insufficient information to help me navigate my way around. Knowing so few people, I had little in the way of reliable guides to help me make sense of it.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, however, one consistent feature of my time in Osaka proved to be Maki and Makoto from Trespass, and on returning from my diversions into Kobe and Nara, they were present at every show I attended over the next few nights.
Thursday night was a show at punk psuedo-squat King Cobra. While the third floor hosts larget events for touring bands, the “squat” (that’s literally what they call it) is a smaller sweatbox of a venue with the bands and audience sharing the floor, separated only by a couple of monitors. I’m too late to catch Dirty is God, but I do manage to catch KK Manga, who a few people in Tokyo have started talking about recently. Part of the reason for that is undoubtedly the ferocious energy of their performances, which appeals to Tokyo musicians’ stereotypes of how an Osaka band should be, as well as just thrilling on a purely visceral level. Part of it also surely has to do with the energy they put into organising shows and inviting bands from elsewhere to play – I spotted the vocalist at every show by a visiting Tokyo band that I saw while in the Kansai area.
Kobe-based Douglas were the opposite, their stage manner minimal to the point of inertia as they moodily ground their way through a series of deliberately paced postpunk-influenced panzer assaults of noise rock that fell somewhere between Wire and Television. They’re brutal, very cool, and easily one of the most impressive finds of this trip so far.
There’s a solid hardcore band called Ooze on next, before a French band called Robotnicka take the stage. Some of the promotional material for the event has compared them to Devo, which is a fair comparison, although I increasingly feel that when music is compared to Devo, that’s mainly because the person doing the comparing has never heard The Cardiacs. With members dressed variously as Batman, a squid and some leopard print horror, they started out with some distinctly Cardiacs-esque keyboard-led prog-punk, with a palette that also included more minimal synthpunk and post-hardcore.
The next day I take a trip to Flake Records and have a chat with Wada, the owner. Specialising in a sort of pop-edged indie rock, Flake Records has been selling cassettes by regular Call And Response Records collaborator Sean McGee’s solo project Sharkk, and I’m there ostensibly to drop off an invoice. We get talking about formats and some of Wada’s comments echo my own concerns.
There is a sense going around that CDs in Japan are now dead, but the alternatives are just not picking up the slack to any meaningful degree. Vinyl is still way too expensive for any bands who aren’t already popular and with substantial followings, while cassettes are still basically a gimmick outside the limited (albeit growing) range of scenes where they have made their home. He also points out a gap in the vinyl market between the way sales for overseas bands and Japanese bands break down. While Flake’s vinyl breaks down pretty much 50/50 between foreign and domestic acts, the overseas artists’ sales are spread around more liberally among several bands, while domestic sales are concentrated in a tiny minority of professionally promoted acts – presumably those whose labels have access to the media.
Flake, like nearly all record stores, has its own label, with most releases licensed Japan releases of foreign bands, although Flake also handles the vinyl editions of Lostage’s albums.
In the evening, I’m back at Bears. Makoto and Maki are there again, and I’m also able to catch up with an old friend Kevin from the band Boys of Hong Kong. The bill at Bears follows a different thread of Osaka music, locking into the experimental underground scene that is the core of the city’s (and Japan as a whole’s) international musical reputation. YPY usually plays using cassette loops, but today he’s making some minimal ambient drone, while Doddodo is taking a break from her off-kilter avant-pop and engaging in some glitchy instrumental knob-twiddling. Yasushi Yoshida adds some growling vocal textures onto the mix, but there’s a distinct sense of musicians being deadly serious for the night.
So when U.S. headliners Hans Grusel’s Krankenkabinet come on dressed as psychedelic birdhouses, you have to wonder if the local contingent might have been a little too eager to show off their serious credentials to the foreign guests. Needless to say the appearance of the vocalist from Ultra Fuckers to scream along to the Krankenkabinet’s encore of Motörhead’s Ace of Spades rebalanced the scales slightly.
The next day I’m at Hard Rain, mercifully near my hotel. The venue is managed by the singer from And Young… (the ellipsis is part of the name), who was playng in Fukuoka a month ago, and Fukuoka’s own Folk Enough are now making something of a return match.
Seeing friends from Kyushu has an extra spark of relief to it after the recent earthquake. While Fukuoka was largely unaffected and Inoue from Folk Enough has already publicly pronounced himself annoyed with the sort of sappy, shallow sympathy that social media tends to evoke in these situations, it feels good to have a physical reminder of continuity. In my column for The Japan Times, I wrote about this need for continuity amid disorder, and this is as true for the more direct business of getting the Kumamoto music scene back on its feet as it is for the more trivial matter of me just being able to feel that the stuff I care about back in Kyushu is still there. It’s been a good place to me over the years, and I hate to see it hurt.
Kicking off the event is indie rock band Odd Blossom, followed by garage-rock trio Calme Adiction – another highlight of Osaka, with their singing drummer, wild-haired guitarist and quietly impassive miniature second guitarist giving their raw, occasionally strangely Smashing Pumpkins-influenced (in a good way) post-grunge an unusual and interesting dynamic.
Folk Enough are a royal mess, with drummer Satopon spectacularly drunk before the doors even open, and the others happy to let the gig descend into scratchy, raw, unstructured no wave. It’s one of the best Folk Enough shows I’ve seen in a long time.
Red Dolphins do a far more polished, more obviously together sort of keyboard-led garage rock, before Osaka beings my stay in the city full circle with an immense closing set by Trespass, who I’ve now run into five times in one and a half weeks. I don’t know if this means that the Osaka music scene is smaller than it looks, or whether it just means that I’m selecting a very narrow range of music to pursue. I suspect a combination of both those factors is at play here.
Basically, the size of Osaka/Kansai makes the small-town method of discovering music (finding one of the small group of people who know what’s going on, whatever their genre, and pinning them down for one evening) unworkable, and I have to switch over to the big city style of finding a niche and then burrowing slowly outward from there. Basically, I’m in the same position I was when I started getting into the Tokyo music scene: seeking out repetition and relationships until it all starts to feel connected, and through this process establishing a sense of order that gives you a version of the city that makes some sort of consistent and coherent sense, even if by its very nature it can never be comprehensive.
We head out to an izakaya afterwards and catch up with Zony, the drummer from garage rock legends King Brothers. “Ian won’t know you: he’s only interested in girls bands,” remarks someone in a good-natured way that I nonetheless find deeply irritating. 1. Yes, I know who the fucking King Brothers are, 2. The percentage of female musicians at my events is roughly consistent with the scene as a whole, and 3. I pick them because they’re good bands, not because I’m a sleazeball who creeps around after female musicians. The flipside of that is that I’m in a situation here where people feel comfortable enough with me that they don’t mind insulting me openly – if obsessive pursuit of hopelessly obscure music is really all about trying to find a home in an impossibly complex world, being insulted in this way is in its own way a sort of acceptance. So thanks for that, dipshit.