Stepping on the face of Christ

For much of my stay in Kyoto, my friend Hide from the first-generation Japanese punk band Ultra Bide was kind enough to let me stay at his house and we spend most of the day and night on my return from Tsuruga talking ourselves raw about all the things that are wrong with the music scene in Japan.

The institutional problems facing people trying to make, release, promote or even just see and hear good music in Japan are something I’ve spent much of my time in this country trying to understand, document and where possible alleviate – the question of pay-to-play, the media’s institutional tilt towards certain kinds of artists, the distribution of costs in a general sense, the way the social cliques and hierarchies work. Even so, talking to Hide about these issues can make for heavy going because he takes such an uncompromisingly hard line on everything.

Ultra Bide

Where he and I differ lies not so much in the underlying understanding of music culture in Japan as in quibbles over what words we’d use to describe certain things or what emphasis we place on certain issues. Those differences matter mainly because of how they point towards two slightly differing approaches. To me, the question of “What can we actually do?” is the most important one, and Hide’s approach begins from such an uncompromising set of premises that the only viable paths are to destroy the whole edifice (impossible) or drop out completely. Unable to do the former, Hide has at least been able to take the latter path, retreating into a hermit-like existence in his home studio, putting on late afternoon/early evening parties in his house using an electronic drum kit. To him, my approach probably seems like a series of futile, self-undermining compromises in the face of a rotten institution that will never bend back to accommodate me, like putting a sticking plaster on a cancer.

Anyone who takes a critical stance against the music scene as a whole places themselves at risk of being dismissed as an eccentric, and this is a shame. Even if you disagree with the hardline conclusions Hide’s line of argument inevitably leads to, there’s a lot of truth to what he says too – the number of great musicians (Japanese and foreign) Japan loses to places like Berlin, London and New York because of the stifling, success-crushing institutional conservatism of the music scene is depressing. Secondly, Hide’s very singlemindedness is a big part of what makes his music good, giving it a directness, free from equivicating or cloaking sentiments and sonics, that a lot of music in Japanese indie lacks. Listening to the raw, heavy rock and propulsive garage punk he has recently been recording in his home studio with projects like Cancer Cures and Bitchfinger is refreshing after the fussiness that Japan, and especially Tokyo, gets you accustomed to.

The sense of the impossibility of fitting in is something a lot of foreigners in Japan have to come to terms with, and yet the desire to have a place where you feel accepted and at home is a natural, instinctive one that you cannot easily escape. A recurring theme of this trip has been my exploration of the way underground and indie music functions as a psychic home in a confusing world full of too much information and too many competing instructions on the correct way to live your life. As a result, some of the most crushing and dispiriting moments in my life immersed in the music scene have come from instances of rejection emerging from the music scene – a place that, in my mind at least, is supposed to be a refuge for outsiders.

In my case, it’s understandable – I’m a foreigner, I have no meaningful punk cred, and my musical activities are insignificant in the grander scheme of things. On the other hand, Hide is not only Japanese but also respected abroad, with a relationship with Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, as well as being a sort of “ur-sempai” in the sense that he can stake a legitimate claim to having founded punk rock in the Kansai area. After the “Tokyo Rockers” kicked off punk in Tokyo, it was people like Hide, Phew and Jojo Hiroshige who were the first people creating Kansai’s answer (even if Jojo was doing so mostly by lying on his back, trying to look up girls’ skirts). Put simply, Hide’s age, reputation and body of work give him superpowers by the standards of the Japanese underground scene, and yet he too ran into a brick wall of cold indifference when he tried to change anything. We often find our way into subcultures seeking a place where we can feel at home and safe from the world, so if we experience rejection even in that tiny world, it can hurt doubly bad.

Ultra Bide (1979 lineup)

The place where that line between acceptance and rejection is at its narrowest is in record stores. Step in there as a journalist and I usually find myself welcomed with smiles. Step in there as a record label looking for someone to stock my CDs and I get frosty aloofness. Record stores are the scariest places because they are the places where the limit of my influence, the raw essential nature of my value in the music scene, is exposed most starkly.

Like a number of cities seem to have nowadays, there is a special tourist map for record shoppers in Kyoto, but before I start doing my rounds, I stop off at Violet & Claire SOU, a café run by Sumire of the Twee Grrrls Club DJ team. An old friend from Tokyo, I met her by chance in Sendai during the Tohoku leg of my travels; however, when I actually visit the city where she lives, she’s away in Tokyo celebrating her other shop’s seventh anniversary. Her husband Satoru Ono is manning the shop in her absence though, and as a Kyoto native with ties to the music scene going way back to his teenage years, he’s one of the people I was most keen to catch up with.

Satoru Ono

As a university town with dozens of colleges and universities of various kinds, the influence of students on the Kyoto music scene is visible in both the way audiences can skew younger, and how amateur bands can spring up and fade away with dizzying speed. With SOU’s background in indiepop and twee pop culture, Ono picks up on Swimmees and Noble Trugs as two of the young generation of guitar pop bands who are currently making their gentle presence felt.

Guitar pop and the more fashionable end of poppy indie music is well represented in Kyoto by Second Royal, which has released Satoru Ono’s own work, as well as releasing the currently high flying Homecomings and promoting the much-buzzed-about Full Teenz. Second Royal has a shop in the cluster of fashionable looking shopping streets to the south of the old imperial palace. Second Royal shares a building with record store Art Rock No.1, which looks like a disorientating mixture of refined Scandinavian boutique and chaotic piles of record boxes. The owner recommends the suitably sophisticated chamber pop of Quaeru as his local pick-up.

Homecomings

A short distance from there is Jet Set, which is probably Kyoto’s most famous record store, with a smaller branch in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa district. Split down the middle between indie rock and club music, I first have a chat with Lilla, whose main area of interest lies on the club side and who recommends the distinctly laid back grooves of beatmaker Toyomu. When I’m able to pin down their indie guy, Kosaka, he seems wary or shy of making specific recommendations when put on the spot, but wandering around the shop I see that Dylanesque singer-songwriter Hirohiko Nishi occupies top spot in the store’s local recommendations.

Moving further into the Teramachi shopping arcade, I’m faced with the nightmarish difficulty of finding anywhere to park a bicycle, even for ten minutes, that won’t cause a massive nuisance to someone in Kyoto’s narrow, overcrowded streets. Eventually I find a place that seems safe to risk and head into avant-garde specialist Parallax Records, which occupies a niche inside a building otherwise devoted to fashionable boutiques. The floor of the shop is strewn with old records, which guests are expected walk around on as they navigate the small shop. This causes two problems for me, because firstly, despite my suspicion of vinyl as being a largely hipster-driven phenomenon, I regard stepping on records in much the way that Christians in Japan may have regarded Shogunate demands that they step on an image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Secondly, since the records aren’t actually stuck to the floor in any way, it’s dangerously slippery if you’re not stepping with care. Maybe that’s the message: we demand that you commit blasphemy, but you must accept the peril that accompanies such sin.

While Parallax Records are wary of allowing any photographs that too closely depict the stock, the clerk recommends Osaka-based electronic sound-sculptor Kazuya Ishigami as a key local act, and one the shop seems to have a close relationship with.

Travelling around these intimidatingly stylish record shops, I’ve felt my ego getting gradually crushed under the weight of… of what? My own commercial insignificance? That’s the unsuccessful label owner in me talking. A sense that I’ll never be cool enough to be able to just walk into one of these places and feel like anything other than an interloper? I’m not getting any full-on High Fidelity asshattery from any of these guys, but there’s something about record stores that makes me paranoid: something infused into the fabric of the places that makes me feel gauche.

This dissipates a little with the book- and record-shop 100000t, which despite (or perhaps because of) clearly not being the sort of place that would have any use for anything I have to sell, feels a bit less intimidating. It has a cosy vibe to it and the owner is a cheerful fellow, happy to hunt down and give a bit of background to recommendations. One name he mentions, which I’ve heard before over the course of this trip, is the Kyoto-based music writer Shino Okamura, who is often regarded as a go-to person on the Kyoto music scene and something of a local music antenna. One band Okamura has championed, as well as being a 100000t recommendation, is psych-tinged alt-folk band HonjitsuKyuen. Another 100000t recommendation, Yoshida Shonen, has a different kind of Kyoto scene affiliation, meanwhile, via 2000s alt-rock legends Quruli (he was a member between 2011 and 2013), while the whimsical acousticry of Kaze no Mata Sunny is apparently worthy of mention purely on his own merits.

Yoshida Shonen

If I felt worryingly out of my depth going round the record stores, one place I can usually be fairly sure of feeling comfortable is in an izakaya. A dimly lit shop specialising in the sale of cheap beer and burned chicken skewers is as close to my natural environment as exists in Japan, so it was with great relief that this is the kind of place I ended up when I met up with Tani, the drummer from O’Summer Vacation. Joining up with Hori and Abe, two guys with connections in the live scene over on the western side of Kyoto, there was a very different atmosphere.

According to Tani, the area west of Nijo Castle and around the Saiin area of town is a popular area for musicians, and despite being less popular a commercial area, it’s home to a number of live venues. The live venues Nega-Posi and Gattaca are around this area, as well as music café Ooh-La-La and all manner of other live spots and music bars. Hori is involved in the Saiin Music Festival, beinging musicians and bands together in a series of shows spread over dozens of venues from tiny, makeshift acoustic stages to a main stage at the Kasuga Jinja Buddhist temple. Meanwhile Abe used to play drums for O’Summer Vacation and now plays with Futsu no Shiawase.

Moozmz

There are numerous bands they recommend through the course of the night, although the tight, understated and quietly funky hip hop-influenced indie of Moozmz, the lo-fi indie rock of Meshia to Ninjin, the anthemic pop-rock of The Fax, the fast, fiddly post-rock of Nuito, guitar/drum duo Anoranpe, and indie rock band Kailios told a story more in tune with the Japanese ‘90s/2000s indie tradition that Quruli had such a large part in creating than the more internationally-influenced, fashionably naïve guitar pop that places like SOU and to an extent Second Royal represent.

Talking to Tani, Abe and Hori in the more casual environment of an izakaya is also a real reminder of the aspect of the music lifestyle that I’ve missed being away from Tokyo for so long. Music is everywhere, but the connections and relationships you build with the people involved in it are what makes it feel like home. A lot of my paranoia and anxiety in big cities like Kyoto and Osaka comes from the feeling of having those connections ripped away, and being left unsure of how everything fits together. The flipside of that is that seeing the connections start to fall into place is part of what makes music so much fun to be involved in.

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