Travelling through the area of western Japan around the Seto Inland Sea, I met a lot of interesting musicians and caught recommendations of a lot of cool bands that I was unable to actually see. Fortunately, nearly all the most exciting bands I’d failed to catch live between Fukuoka and Tokushima were all playing together at Okayama Pepperland, about three hours by train from where I was staying in Kyoto. I had a brief argument with myself about whether this constituted cheating and decided that my duty to take any opportunity document the music of the area outweighed the notion that I should be constantly pushing forward and only documenting what I find at the time. I’d already seen a hell of a lot in Osaka and Kyoto, and there was more to come at the weekend, but this show at Pepperland was a rare chance.
As I left Kyoto, it was clear that the weather was noticeably beginning to warm up. Kyoto is notorious for its heat, shielded by mountains on three sides, which turn it into a windless basin of sheer humid horror in the summer. During the two weeks I was spending in Kansai without much in the way of cycling, the temperature was rapidly shooting upwards, getting ready to give me a nasty shock when I saddled up and started moving east again the following week.
The train ride to Okayama was split evenly between urban Osaka/Kobe sprawl and picturesque Hyogo/Okayama rural idyll, but insulated as I was behind glass the whole time, I arrived back in Okayama for my third visit to the city not feeling like I’d really travelled at all.
Opening the event were local Okayama post-hardcore, alt rock band Bomb Ketch, followed by jittery, strangely unbalanced Fukuoka postpunk trio Narcolepsin. The drummer plays a minimal kit and the keyboard player just stands motionlessly and emotionlessly behind her Alesis Micron, while the vocalist frantically tries to juggle everything else, with two guitars and a saxophone slung around him at one point. The dynamic between the hyperactive vocalist and impassive keyboard player is reminiscent of Sparks, while the music is tautly wired and electrifying. Needless to say they’re amazing.
I met the bassist from Yuureka in Tokushima, and seeing them live for the first time now, it was easy to understand what some of the people back in their hometown were saying about them. They’re a band who clearly don’t aim for mass pop acceptance, but who are nevertheless on the brink of being something special. The heavy yet tightly clipped funk rhythms have an obvious influence of Japanese indie bands like 54-71 and Kuukan Gendai, as well as echoes of Rage Against The Machine, but over the course of a set, it feels like they maybe gove you a little bit too much, too early, making it hard to differentiate the set’s climax from the fierce rush of energy it kicks off with. Either way, they’re impressive, but with definite room to refine their sound.
Hiroshima’s Jailbird Y are up next, bringing some of the heaviest and most ferocious noise-rock in west Japan, even when down to a mere one drummer as they are at this show. Vocalist Ando has been one of the most helpful and enthusiastic supporters of what I’m doing on this trip, introducing me to people all over the Seto area and Shikoku, so seeing his band live during the course of my journey feels not only lucky but also necessary.
They’re followed by Bombori from Tokyo. Bombori are a hardcore band, but take their music way further into rock territory than the narrow confines of short, sharp punk – they’re as much Led Zeppelin as they are Black Flag. Their music is a series of roaring, defiant sonic climaxes interspersed with frenetic bursts of grinding noise. where Yuureka still have some room to grow in terms of the dynamics of a live set, Bombori have it honed to theatrical perfection. That’s not to say that their performances are inflexible though – I remember seeing them on the new bands stage at Fuji Rock last year and the drummer kept the waves of attack coming long after the frustrated festival staff had cut their power and moved onstage to start packing away the equipment. They eventually started disassembling his kit around him and he still seemed in no hurry to stop. Bombori are also the opposite of Narcolepsin in the sense that what they do is quite immaculately balanced, with every member of the band pulling his own weight in the service of their rock wreckage. Watching them, there’s something almost too perfect about it – a self-assurance that bludgeons me into impressed submission but leaves me no easy route into its inner workings. The tension is all directed confrontationally outwards, with no sense of competing internal forces pulling the music in different directions. There’s no reason there should be anything like that, but I still like it when there is. I like beautiful broken things.
The Noup are the organisers of the show, and they’ve given themselves an unenviable task going on after the double-climax of Jailbird Y and Bombori. Their music is a less brutal, more finely targetted kind of sonic violence, but nonetheless effective once it finds its way into one of its frequent kraut-ish grooves.
The end of the show provides another one of those anxious, uncomfortable moments where I suddenly find myself adrift in a social environment I’m not sure how I fit into, as the venue sets up tables and orders in pizza for the bands and any friends of theirs who want to stick around. The party’s nothing to do with me and I don’t know any of the organisers, so I’m not going to stay, but as I wait for a good chance to say goodbye to Jailbird Y and Yuureka, I gradually realise I’ve stayed way too long to easily leave.
Between smalltown Japan, where any curious visitor is a welcome guest in the local music scene, and the tiny corner of the Tokyo scene where people know and care about who I am, it’s easy to get a sense of your own importance out of all proportion to how much you actually matter. Osaka and Kyoto with their sprawling, impenetrable-seeming music scenes have been a perhaps necessary corrective for that train of thought. My awkward interactions with record stores have compounded that sense of my own essential smallness and insignificance still further, but what The Noup’s event demonstrates is something a little more subtle.
The Noup are one of those bands you occasionally find in smaller Japanese cities who have ambitions beyond their municipal or prefectural borders, and guided by their own impeccable taste and their nose for an emerging buzz, they actively and eagerly court the attention of the coolest bands from out of town. By putting on their own events, producing their own zines, and bringing hot bands from around Japan, they are engaged in the difficult job of building an audience not just for themselves but for the kind of thing they do, training an audience to see not just them but to see them in context. It’s certainly a form of self-promotion, but it’s a very involved form that recognises that doing something different with music requires a kind of base or hinterland. They don’t just want to be cool: they want to be part of something cool.
The radar of bands like The Noup is a finely honed thing, so seeing what they think is cool is often a good indicator of what has a reputation for being cool elsewhere too. For someone like me who by this point is already going through a sort of existential crisis about where my own activities stand in relation to prevailling trends (and whose own activities have been left in an anxious state of stasis while travelling), I’ve watched the event go past with a mixture of fascination and terror that this train is whizzing by and I don’t have a ticket.
I eventually find Ando and make my farewells, cursing myself first for not exiting at a more stylish time and secondly for being so frail and needy that it matters to me in the first place. The steady erosion of my confidence as I spend more and more time away from home, sleeping in different, equally alien hotel rooms every night, is starting to worry me. There’s still a month to go, and I need to pull myself together.