On the way to nowhere

In order to reach Hora Audio’s little farmhouse/studio in Shiga, I’d had to backtrack about 10km, which meant I’d added 20km to my overall trip through the windy hills that serve as the gateway to Gifu and the broader Nagoya area.

The clouds threatened rain the whole journey, adding an element of urgency, of a race against the weather. Sitting nestled into the most distant enclave of a greater urban and semi-urban plain that includes Nagoya, Yokkaichi, Toyoda and stretches as far as Hamamatsu, Gifu is an average sized Japanese city infused with all the worn-down desolation that can only come from a position of vaguely accessible remoteness from a larger regional urban centre.

The only band I really know from Gifu is the guitar pop band Half Sports, whose members are now spread out between Gifu and Tokyo, and whose live performances seem to cluster predominantly in Nagoya. Clearly Nagoya’s gravity exerts a strong pull over its smaller neighbour.

I arrive there during the Golden Week holiday period in early May, which means that even on weekdays there is a chance of some musical activity. I check into my hotel exhausted just as the heavens choose to open though, so it’s the following day that I make my way out.

Jubilee

Like any town of its size, Gifu supports three or four live venues, but the one that registers most significantly on the radar of someone like me is always King Biscuit. Located tucked away on a corner along a wide, leafy avenue, the venue’s boss, Kim, is someone I’ve met before via the screechy, feedback-driven Jubilee. I interviewed Jubilee for a zine I made a few years ago, and they played at the release party in Tokyo. Jubilee are no longer active though, with Kim now playing in the more directly punk-influenced SuicideTV.

Like a lot of small venues in towns without much in the way of their own self-supporting music scene infrastructure, King Biscuit has a dusty little CD store corner at the back of the bar, stocked with local CDs that probably no one will ever buy.dsc_0285

One of the first things I recognise upon entering the venue is the hunched, gangly presence of the room’s lone other foreigner, who turns out to be Charlie from Nagoya punk band Nicfit. He’s playing tonight with the bizarre and quite lovely LeakLeek, whose mixture of acoustic bass, violin and musical saw started the night off on a reassuringly off-kilter footing.

LeakLeek

SuicideTV followed, with an unashamedly ‘70s-influenced barrage of punk rock. Tellingly, they were the only local Gifu band on the bill, although given the proximity to Nagoya, it’s easy to see how the two scenes overlap, escpecially in seemingly well-connected venues like King Biscuit.

Next up were a solid hardcore band called C.W. from Kobe, followed by Nagoya’s utterly magnificent Shigebeer & A Thousand New Wife – a deranged, amp-bothering, Beefheartian duo, whose performance was a scattershot blizzard of delights.

Shigebeer & A Thousand New Wife

The final act of the night, Omit Vomit, I was vaguely familiar with from the Tokyo punk scene. I always felt their band name seemed like uncharacteristically sanitary advice for a punk band – I mean, yeah, I really would prefer that you omit activities such as vomiting from your behavioural repertoire, but at the same time, now that you’ve brought it up in the first place, I can’t help feeling you’ve compromised unacceptably by ruling it out. Sellouts! Their performance is ramshackle and borderline chaotic in a way that might be either accident or design.

Another feature of these small venues in somewhat remote cities is that far more than big cities, they will often put on excellent food after the shows for those who fancy sticking around and drinking a bit more, and King Biscuit’s post-show spread turns out to be one of the best I’ve encountered on the trip so far. There’s an obvious advantage in attracting bands from out of town and creating word-of-mouth in remote scenes, as well as a financial reward in keeping people out longer in venues that do most of their business on only two or three nights of the week. In any case, it’s nice.

Man In The Mirror

Talking to a sozzled Kim, he only seems to vaguely remember the show he played at my event with Jubilee, despite having the zine he featured in on display in the corner of the bar. He’s kind enough to give me a sample of his label’s latest release though, an EP by local noise-punk band Man In The Mirror (a Michael Jackson reference? It’s not clear). The EP is a pounding, frenetic four-song set that’s over in six and a half minutes, but where it will sell and to whom seems far less clear. In a lot of ways, Gifu is a city on the way to nowhere, but King Biscuit is doing a creditable job making it relevant more widely than its location really demands it should be.

suicideTV

Business for music, are you OK?

As the calendar flips over into May, I’m back in Kyoto, reunited with my bicycle and back again at Hide from Ultra Bide’s place. He’s busy in his studio upstairs, recording, so there’s no time for another in-depth discussion of the failures and shortcomings of the Japanese music scene. Nevertheless, what he’s doing with his recordings and home parties (they’re not really “house parties” in the commonly understood sense) is totally outside the system of how the music scene usually works, and represents a way of thinking about music that easily gets lost the ore you focus on trying to work within the system’s restrictions. Back in the early days of punk in Japan, the teenage Hide did something similar, putting on shows in his parents’ garage and recording absolutely everyone who passed through.

It’s an uphill struggle to get any new way of thinking across when the status quo is so firmly established, but there are other people doing somewhat similar things. Today’s recording session is with one of the people from Figya in Osaka, a house devoted to music and arts, run on a communal basis outside the traditional live house system. Other similar places have begun to appear around the fringes of the Kansai music scene as well. Attempts to do similar things in Tokyo have tended to suffer from the attentions of police, who in the capital are hyper-sensitive to noise, but in Kansai things seem to be a little more relaxed (although all these home events still need to take tremendous precautions to keep on the good side of their neigbours).

A venue like Kyoto Metro is very much part of the live scene as an active part of the music economy, and the evening finds booking manager “Jack” Tanaka with mixed feelings about the role he plays. It’s May Day and he’s wearing an anti-fascist T-shirt, but he’s also clearly weary of the conflict between artistic and business interests in running a live venue. He’s quitting soon, partly so he can separate his music and business activities, and it feels like every night is a kind of farewell party.

YYBY

The event tonight is part of Austrian dance trio Elektro Guzzi’s Japan tour and the lineup is focused on a mixture of electronic music and bands with dance music influences. As a result, the acts onstage and Jack’s own DJ spots inbetween blend into each other, keeping a consistent, uneasy groove that I circulate in and out of throughout the evening, as a result losing touch with who’s who on the bill for much of the time.

Yolz in the Sky

Among the actual bands playing, YYBY’s understated but insistent electro-dub was worth special attention, while Yolz in the Sky have completed their evolution from a vaguely dance-orientated hardcore quartet into a strictly minimal guitar, loops and vocals duo – the closest thing Japan nowadays has to its own DAF. Yolz in the Sky are now elder statesmen of the Kansai underground scene, and the crowd greet them with a mixture of familiarity and a heightening of energy levels that carries through into Elektro Guzzi’s set.

After their set, while Jack continues to spin dark electro tunes on the turntables, I run into one of the members of synth-based new wave band Neons – a band originally from Kyoto but now mostly relocated to Tokyo, and who I’ve booked at my own shows. Despite being into the final month of my trip, Tokyo still feels very far away, but here’s someone who commutes to the capital for gigs and rehearsals. Admittedly though, probably not by bicycle. We get talking about synth music and I share with her the URL of some music that I’ve worked on.

Neons

“Look, he’s picking her up!” remarks one of the guys from YYBY, upon noticing us staring at each other’s phones. I snap back at him with some irritation at this – it touches the same nerve as jibes about me only liking “girls bands”. It triggers a self-righteous line of thought about how this sort of reaction makes it difficult to treat male and female musicians equally and sets questions ringing around my skull along the lines of, “Would he be making those same remarks if I were Japanese?”

The fact that comments like that can set my nerves jangling so much probably says a lot about the growing sense of dislocation I’ve been feeling as the trip has gone on. This last night in Kyoto is actually quite a warm farewell to the city though, with several already existing acquaintances around as a group of us head out to a Chinese restaurant for some post-gig food and drink. It’s an inevitable feature of travelling that you’re always leaving a place just as you start to find your feet there, but no one ever embarked on a voyage of exploration in order to feel comfortable.

It’s junk, but it’s not scum

The first stage of this trip, from Sapporo through eastern Japan and back to Tokyo, took a little over six weeks. By the end, I felt a mixture of eagerness to return to Tokyo and this conflicting desire to just keep on going, never staying in one place long enough to feel alienated by it. As I made the journey from Okayama back to Osaka, I’ve been on this western leg of the trip for just over two months, and it’s starting to feel too long. I genuinely want to be home.

The reason I’m stopping in Osaka rather than heading straight back to reunite with my bicycle in Kyoto is twofold: firstly to catch up on some record stores I missed first time round, and secondly because of a show that evening. Summer is starting to show its teeth as well, with daytime temperatures around the Kansai area creeping upwards and the quiet, vaguely run-down streets I walk through shimmering faintly with a post-apocalyptic stillness.

My first stop is Forever Records in Shinsaibashi, where owner Satoru Higashiseto instantly demands that I read the book Dokkiri: Japan Indies Music 1976-1989 by longtime Japanese music aficianado/zinester Kato David Hopkins before I even begin to try to understand the Osaka underground music scene. My bags are already overloaded with far more new acquisitions than I can safely carry on my bicycle, but I make a note of it for future purchase.

Forever Records has been around in various locations since 1979, with Satoru joining the store in 1987 after working a few years at a different record shop. What I’m starting to recognise as a typically Kansai-esque jumble of cardboard boxes greets me when I enter, along with a handful of prominently displayed krautrock t-shirts. Forever Records boasts an extensive supply of different vinyl editions of Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine, which were adopted as promotional props for anarchic avant-punk trio Oshiripenpenz.

Looking through its shelves and stacks, it’s interesting that the way Japanese record shops usually segregate foreign and domestic artists doesn’t apply here to experimental and avant-garde music. Satoru says language is a key factor, with the division in language that exists in pop and rock obliterated by the distortion, noise and just plain nonsense of much avant-garde music.

Coa

Partly this lack of division seems also to be down to the fluid, international nature of a lot of collaborations, for example in the way German musicians like the late Klaus Dinger worked with Japanese musicians on his final band Japandorf. Artists like Forever Records favourites acoustic effects maestro Akio Suzuki and avant-garde composer Miki Yui exist in a pan-national limbo, at home in their art and among other artists, but no longer identifiably tied to a specific place.

Masonna

Nevertheless, Satoru also brings up artists such as Coa (a heavier precursor band to Himeji’s Eddie Marcon) and Kun Youri (who previously played with ‘70s underground legends Zuno Keisatsu and Les Rallizes Dénudés), as well as noise artists Solmania (whose Masahiko Ohno designed all of legendary noise label Alchemy Records’ record sleeves) and Masonna, all of whom have closer ties to the Kansai area. In particular, he recommends Oshiro Hino, a key figure in the bands Goat and Bonanzas as well as a solo artist under the name YPY, as a leading light in the current Osaka underground scene.

Momus

Functioning both in the international arts sphere and yet also very much a creature of Osaka is the city’s adopted son Momus, the Scottish indie legend who at the time of my visit is gallavanting around the fashionable capitals of Europe, but whose music since moving to Japan in the 1990s has nonetheless eagerly absorbed aspects of his new surroundings. The album Glyptothek draws from and heavily samples old Japanese folk records, as well as the sounds, music and atmosphere of the particular time and place he was making the music. There’s a difference, though, between music that consciously mines its environment and musc that grows unconsciously from it. As an alien, you are inevitably drawn towards the former approach, made more conscious of what makes it unique. This is perhaps why so many of the most enthusiastic promoters and documenters of Japan’s local music scenes are immigrants or prodigal sons.

A few minutes walk away in the Americamura area, the diverse, ramshackle King Kong Records sits around the corner from punk specialist Time Bomb Records. One of the staff at the latter, Hiroyoshi, takes time out to give me a brief tour and drops a few recommendations. He picks up on Framtid as a local band with an international profile, the long-running Nightmare, Himeji’s Sekien, as well as EX-C, Five No Risk, Corrupted and his own personal top recommendation, the heavy doom of Fucho.

Fucho

Like Forever Records, Time Bomb also has its own label, which has put out Kyoto hardcore band Blow One’s Cool, the ‘70s-style punk of First Alert, Kyoto art-punks Liquid Screen, and Osaka’s SYAS.

Helpful as both Hiroyoshi and Satoru are, the feeling of terror still grips me when I apologetically mention that I also have a record label. Yes, I have listened to you talk with passion about your city’s music, but here is my ulterior motive. I hand over cards from my dwindling supply and shrink away in shame. You’d probably hate everything I put out, please forget I exist. Please, someone, help bring me back into my comfort zone.

The live venue Hokage is much more like my comfort zone, not only because half of the bands playing there are people I know from the Tokyo scene. I’ve now been in and around Osaka for long enough that local gig nuts like Hamaji from KK Manga recognise me, while Kev from Boys of Hong Kong shows up once more and I’m able to meet in person another British immigrant, Matthew from Capuchin, with whom I’ve been in online contact for some time.

Hokage is also a venue that just instantly feels like home. The dark, dirty stairwells, tiny, grotto-like rooms and bar areas, the stage spread out on a carpet on the floor, the twisted pipes and wires – it’s everything an underground live venue should be.

I only catch the end of the suitably energetic and somehow definitively Osaka-esque Mofo, but catch the full set of the first Tokyo band on the bill, self-described “gothic punk/dark hardcore” band Klonns. I get the gothic-hardcore thing, although for me all that just seems like another way of saying “postpunk”, which they are certainly as well – the main defining point seems to be the vocals, which have more of the gutteral melodrama you associate with goth than the reserved sarcasm or bleak alienation I tend to associate with postpunk pure and proper. They’re pretty good anyway.

The official organiser of the event is Mogikojin, a solo drummer with a headset mic and some insane heavy metal guitar noodling on a backing track. What he does is more of a rock’n’roll theatrical performance than what you’d call “creating music”, which is an approach I always associated with Osaka. He’s part of the Tokyo contingent though, and there’s a kind of polish to what he does that distinguishes it as a product of the capital rather than its Kansai rival. Matthew takes up this point later, explaining that, “Osaka loves an underdog,” and that this can manifest itself in a sort of sloppiness and a general withering away of interest if a band gets too slick. It’s no coincidence that the naive, chaotic psuedo-genre known as “scum” is closely associated with the Osaka area. Tokyo bands, on the other hand, often seem to be polished to the point that the life gets sucked out of the music, their polyrhythms and stop-starts refined to such mathy, hair-trigger precision that the sponteneity and energy dies. Iguz in Kagoshima had remarked on something similar when she had asked, “What’s that music all the bands in Tokyo do? The stuff that goes, ‘Duduh-duh… duduh-duh-duh-duduh… duh’?” I get so used to hearing mathy post-hardcore in Tokyo that it’s easy to forget it’s not normal at all.

Bogulta

That said, Osaka certainly does have musicians who would count as technical virtuosos under anyone’s definition. They just make sure they play with a looseness and abandon that ensures it never becomes oppressive. Bogulta are anarchic and explosive, but it’s underscored with a level of musical ability that clearly operates on a far higher level than the merely slapdash. It’s junk, but it’s not scum.

Bogulta’s drummer Nani was one of the leading lights of the “Zero Generation” that made Osaka such hot stuff in the early 2000s, thanks to his role in the marvellous Zuinosin. After that, he did his time in Acid Mothers Temple like all drummers in Japan have to by law as a sort of National Service, while Bogulta remains as an outlet for his own music.

Following them are Saitama’s In The Sun, who despite containing elements of post-rock, blast it at you in the form of an unrelenting spacerock beam of white light/white heat. If there’s a unifying theme of this event, it’s that of taking artists who represent Osaka at its most core self (perhaps even to the point of being a Tokyo outsider’s stereotype of the city) and pitting them alongside artists who represent a response from the capital and its surrounding areas. The Tokyo/Saitama contingent at this event is characterised by a tension between the clinical refinement that characterises much of the area’s music scene and an energy that draws parallels with the Kansai scene, while the Osaka contingent is a somewhat idealised vision of town coloured by memories of the anarchic virtuosity of 10-15 years ago.

Oshiripenpenz are definitely a creature of that early 2000s Osaka weird avant-garde rock boom, their spindly guitar parts and complex rhythms offset by the vocalist’s often confrontational, frequently dangerous performance antics. Kev points out that the pipes and wall fittings that line the live area of Hokage are an invitation to any band to get climbing. Oshiripenpenz rarely need an invitation to start scaling the walls and rafters of a venue, and it doesn’t take long before vocalist Motako is hanging upside down. He appropriates one of the tables as props too, first as a a plinth, then as a weightlifting aid, and then finally as a majorette’s baton, cracking one girl across the jaw painfully with its spinning base – his subsequent breakdown into profuse apologies the only time in ten years of watching the band that I’ve ever seen his manic stage persona crack.

Oshiripenpenz

Ricocheting back to Tokyo again, junk-noise band Halbach are what Matthew describes as, “The kind of thing Osaka bands nowadays should be doing.” They have the wildness, the explosive bursts of noise, the relentless energy, the playful sense of fun, but they also have a sort of togetherness, a sense of what they do having been thought out and developed a little more. The collision of Stooges-style raw power, almost psychedelic, feedback-drenched dance music and grinding, Teutonic EBM with shrieking bubblegum-noise vocals is intoxicating.

Final act Bashauma, meanwhile, rush by in a blur of psychedelic garage-punk distortion and roar. They put the event together on the Osaka end of things, and while the music itself often feels like a tool of fleeting necessity that they deploy for the primary purpose of wrecking the venue, they can’t be faulted for their intensity and sticktoitiveness. They tear the entire place apart and then come back for an encore using equipment that surely should no longer be functioning.

Bashauma

It’s a heartening farewell to Osaka, leaving me with a feeling that I might finally be coming to grips with the fringes of what’s happening there. It’s tempered though by my increasing anxiety about Tokyo and what, if anything, is waiting for me when I return. Seeing bands like Halbach and In The Sun here in Osaka leaves a mixture of comfort and disorientation – familiar elements uprooted from their “natural” environment and delivered in a new context. The idea of home that has been a recurring fixture of these travels is a multilayered one, encompassing one’s place of birth, place of residence, and several overlapping layers of social and creative sphere. Tokyo is a notoriously difficult place to call home, and its ever-shifting yet somehow never-changing music scene is a shallow topsoil above inconsistently moving plates. It actively resists the setting down of roots. I’m tired, exhausted, eager to return, but scared what I find when I get back will be equally alien.

Pull yourself together

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.

Narcolepsin

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.

Bombori

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 Noup

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.

No golfing?

Kyoto and Osaka are close enough that they can legitimately be considered part of the same basic urban area, but Kyoto nevertheless has a cultural reputation and legacy quite distinct from Osaka in a way that a similar sized city like Kobe doesn’t – or at least not as strongly.

The route I took between the cities emphasised this distinction by avoiding main roads and instead following the Yodo River through a trail of tagged and numbered elderly hikers, past hundreds of families and students having barbecues, through individual daytrippers living out an idyll so surreal that there was actually a girl in a wide-brimmed straw hat and billowy dress chasing butterflies with a net. Adding to the air of aromatic unreality were the frequent signs urging people, “No golfing!” in places where only an insane lunatic would try to play golf. Golf, like any other leisure activity, is only permitted in clearly fenced off and strictly monetised locations.

The main visible difference between Kyoto and a normal Japanese city is that Kyoto retains the rigid grid layout of its pre-modern period, with a complex network of one-way systems funnelling traffic through its narrow streets. It’s not a friendly system for cyclists, but that doesn’t stop the city from enthusiastically promoting rent-a-cycles as a super-convenient way of getting around the city for tourists. Obviously there are a lot of temples and shrines given the town’s historic nature, although the most famous ones tend to cling to the lower reaches of the mountains that ring the city. More significant from the point of view of the music scene is the way that the narrow streets and plethora of old buildings that comprise the loosely defined centre of the city are more congenial to small boutiques and cafés than loud rock venues, forcing many of the actual live houses and clubs out towards the fringes and ensuring that the music scene has no real core in the way Osaka has Shinsaibashi.

For all that Kyoto has a distinct atmosphere from Osaka, the cities are nonetheless very close and there is a tremendous amount of overlap between the music scenes. My first stop is over near Saiin, an area many musicians seem to settle, and where a cluster of venues exists. I’m there to meet Suhara from Osaka’s Gyuune Cassette label – one of my favourite record labels in Japan, which has over the years released a lot of artists that I admire, including early albums by “Kansai Zero-Generation” trailblazers Afrirampo and the slightly later Midori, as well as more recent releases by postpunk bands BlondNewHalf and Otori.


Oboreta Ebi no Kenshi Hokoku-sho

Gyuune Cassette is far more eclectic than that though, and since it was founded in the mid-‘90s has released folk singer-songwriters like Kamin Shirahata, electro-funk seafood collective Oboreta Ebi no Kenshi Hokoku-sho (“Autopsy Report of Drowned Shrimp”), “progressive fast junk” like Himitsu King and lots and lots of psychedelia. Suhara himself was part of the original lineup of Acid Mothers Temple and still performs in various projects (he’s in Kyoto today for a show at the venue Ooh-La-La), and so the social circles he has strongest connections to make it perhaps natural that a lot of the label’s output includes bands like Leningrad Blues Machine which are deeply embedded in the Kansai area’s rich tradition of psychedelia and art junk – a tradition that, in addition to Acid Mothers Temple, also runs through the likes of Zuinosin, through the Boredoms and all the way back to Hadaka no Rallizes (Les Rallizes Dénudés).


Leningrad Blues Machine

Suhara has seen a lot of music come and go in Osaka over the years, but believes the core identity of the music scene there is fairly consistent, telling me, “The bands are different but the road they’re travelling is the same.” One thing that’s changed a lot is how easy it is to physically manufacture music. “Pressing a CD in the early ‘90s might cost you a million, but now you can do it for a tenth of that price.” As the label’s name suggests, when he started out, Suhara was making short runs of tapes, dubbing 200 copies himself. He seems a little cynical about the tentative revival of the cassette medium nowadays, and when I suggest to him that a number of label and record shop people I’ve spoken to on my travels are wary of the cassette format’s potential, he agrees that while some bands might think they’re cool, “The guys who have to actually make them think they’re a waste of time.”


Okachimenko

In the Kansai music scene of the moment, artists Suhara suggests are worth paying attention to include guitar-and-clarinet acoustic storytelling duo Okachimenko, shambolic punk band Byseishi, the “soft psychedelia” of Ikansen Hana Okoshi, and Suppattukalimar, the solo project of a girl who plays drums and keyboards while singing oddball technopop songs, often in Russian.

The show I’m hitting up is across town at Metro, a venue named after its location halfway down a staircase at the entrance to Jingu Marutamachi underground station. The gig tonight is part of the release tour of Tokyo hardcore band Tiala, although pigeonholing Tiala as simply hardcore perhaps does them a bit of a disservice with their music occupying the weirder and more experimental end of the genre while ramping the intensity up to its absolute maximum. They are also an important band in understanding how Tokyo interacts with the rest of Japan thanks to vocalist Kakinuma’s role running the venue Bushbash in Koiwa and the band’s connection with the Less Than TV label. In Eastern Japan in particular, Bushbash and Less Than TV are a key link connecting Tohoku and Hokkaido to Tokyo, and are well known and regarded to the west of the country as well.


Fluid

Opening the show, however, is Fluid, a long-running Kyoto postpunk/no wave band led by Metro’s manager (at least at the time of writing) Ryohei “Jack” Tanaka (I’ve always suspected the nickname comes from what he likes to drink for breakfast). Coming off the back of some dark, heavy club beats that the DJ has been spinning beforehand, Fluid are an unforgiving industrial jackhammer of a band, rhythmically relentless, cutting and slashing their way through the set with brutal efficiency and intensity, Jack’s vocals warped by effects beyond all recognition as a human sound.


Odd Eyes

Fluid and Tiala both contributed to a compilation album I released many years ago of Japanese underground bands covering songs by UK postpunk legends Wire, and while that album is largely forgotten in Tokyo, people at Metro still seem to remember it, thanks largely to the continuing influence Fluid hold over this part of the Kyoto music scene. Speaking to the guitarist of marvellous young art-punk band Odd Eyes, he remarks that remembers buying the album when he was a high school student, giving me a rush of that heady combination of pride and realisation of the unstoppable advance of death. Still, something I helped make actually inspired someone: you can’t put a price on that.

Yasushu Yoshida from Osaka is on the bill again, after seeing him at Osaka Bears last week, while heavy doom band She Luv It, shaking the foundations of the building above through Metro’s already immense PA rig. Tiala, meanwhile, are a force of nature, Kakinuma a taut, straining mass of veins and tendons, tearing through the songs at breakneck pace and earsplitting volume.


Lego Chameleon

Beyond the bands on the bill tonight, Metro’s own staff includes a number of musicians, with Lego Chameleon and Outatbero having close connections to the venue. Meanwhile staff members recommend the goth-edged dub of YYBY, offbeat garage-punk quartet Otoboke Beaver, and point out eclectic young electronic superstar producer Madegg as an important recent act to emerge from the Kyoto music scene.


Otoboke Beaver

Seeing Tiala also acts as a reminder of how I’m gradually moving back within touching distance of Tokyo, with Osaka and Kyoto naturally among the most common destinations for touring Tokyo musicians thanks to their relative accessibility by car (seven hours or so drive), their large, active music scenes, and the reciprocal nature of many of the relationships that see Kansai bands frequently making the return trip to Tokyo as well. In that sense, music scenes in places like Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto aren’t just integrated with each other but noticeably integrated with Tokyo and the Kanto area as well, with touring acts not an exciting novelty so much as a pretty regular occurence and a natural part of the weekly ebb and flow of music.


Madegg

For me, arriving in the area from the more distant west, there’s a mixture of alienation and familiarity in the situation. I’m a normal enough feature of the Tokyo live circuit that seeing me in Kyoto is barely worth more than a raised eyebrow to a visiting band from Tokyo, but after two months away in places like Tottori and Ehime, seeing familiar faces from home is a strangely emotional experience for me. Being in unfamiliar environments that are nonetheless within touching distance of home is the new normal as I move into the final stages of this trip though, so I might as well start getting used to it.

Too much information

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.


KK Manga

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.


DODDODO

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.


Calme Adiction

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.

Sexy Music

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

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.


Seiya Isono

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.

DSC_9170
Seiya Isono

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.


Kataashi Zubon

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.