Destruction, re-creation, process

It’s the eve of my departure from Nagoya and I drop by Bar Ripple. It’s a dingy art-punk dive bar and the place that gave Knew Noise Recordings’ Ripplecompilation its name. Situated under the railway tracks in a desolate part of town, near the venues K.D. Japon and Daytrip, punk and garage bands often play there on weekends as a cheaper, more atpmospheric, more intimate alternative to the sometimes pricey and sterile dedicated live venues.

The only people there  are me and the owner, Nobu. I’ve been there once before, several years ago, as a DJ and I’m surprised and pleased that he remembers me. In the background, Nobu is playing movies, starting with the German punk-era film Berlin Super 80, followed by a Simon Fisher Turner collage documentary. There’s something in the cut-up styles of these films – especially the documentary – that increasingly chimes with the way I’ve been experiencing this journey, the relationship of sound to location becoming more and more fractured and fragmented as the places themselves become more interconnected, the borders between one place and the next feeling less and less significant. Partly this may be the more fragmented nature of my journey, with train rides across the mountains and boat trips across the seas diluting my sense of space and then giving way to central and western Japan, where the cities are closer together than in less populated areas like Hokkaido, Tohoku and Hokuriku, their borders interpenetrating, sharing transportation networks and music scenes.

Ohne Liebe Gibt es Keinen Tod / Without Love, There is No Death (from Berlin Super 80)

But maybe it’s also that the longer I’m on the road, the more places become the same. Or rather because of the kind of person I am, the more I instinctively find the same kinds of places, the same kinds of music. Maybe it’s less about borders than it is about the process that takes me from place to place.

As this trip has gone on, I’ve been plotting tentatively a new compilation album for Call And Response, focusing on postpunk and noise-rock – in part influenced by the way Kyoto had reminded me of the Post Flag compilation of Wire covers I’d released eight years previously. In preparation I’ve been trying to write something explaining my feelings about postpunk that has ended up being a sort of manifesto against genre as a strictly defined set of sonic boundaries. At the same time, though, don’t genre boundaries function in some ways like music’s ego? Without them, what is it? What you’re left with then isn’t a sound but a creative process – greater freedom, but a far slipperier sense of identity.

Nobu thinks the best new act to appear in Nagoya recently is Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 and he puts on their recently released album. Hearing them in recorded form for the first time, I realise it’s an album that really encapsulates a lot of the way I’d been thinking about music, and particularly about postpunk. It also helps me to reaffirm exactly why it is that I retain such a strong affection for postpunk so many decades after it ceased to be relevant in most people’s eyes.

Postpunk was a kind of music that was born out of the destructive, back-to-basics punk movement that set itself the task of shattering what it saw as the over-indulgent popular music of its day – prog rock, disco etc. To the extent that it succeeded with a certain number of people, what it left them was not a blank slate but a ruined landscape strewn with fragments. Postpunk was the process of picking up those broken fragments of rock history and, together with influences drawn from then-contemporary music like dub, krautrock, electronic music etc., reassembling them into something new, typically with limited musical ability and a punkish sense of minimalism. To make postpunk now, you would have to recognise an additional 40 years of musical history, and there is no reason to expect that result to sound superficially similar to the sound of Joy Division, Gang of Four or Wire. Instead, it’s that process of reconstructing broken fragments of other music within a minimalist approach, intimately bound up in this tense relationship between destruction and new creation.

Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 (first album digest)

Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 combine trip-hop, noise and industrial music in precisely this tensely balanced, minimalist way, so whatever genre you want to apply to them (all three of the styles I mention above have roots in postpunk in some way, but all of them have grown into their own niche over the years), at least in terms of their process, they’re almost perfectly primed to attract my interest.

The other band Nobu brings up is a lo-fi punk band called Marcela, who he compares to Gang of Four and The Buzzcocks. They’re a band who draw much more directly from the punk era, which tends to be a more superficial attraction for me. As the owner of a live bar, though, it’s in the white heat of live events that Nobu experiences most new local music, and regardless of how original or not something is – regardless of the processthat I make such a big deal out of – in a live environment, it’s the band’s own commitment to the moment that sells it.

We have a listen to a few new bands from Tokyo, and Nobu remarks on the propensity so many bands in the capital have for complex, clinically delivered rhythms. While Nagoya has its own share of these bands (the Stiff Slack scene is more where they congregate), this is something I’ve heard before from friends in Kagoshima, and it really does seem to be a Tokyo thing. Perhaps in a local scene like Tokyo’s with so many underground and alternative bands, it’s an unconscious fear of not doing enough and appearing unsophisticated in the eyes of your peers. In almost any other local scene in the country, the unconscious pressure will be the opposite: the danger of over-egging the music and losing the raw energy that enables you to co-exist smoothly with bands of different genres and their fans.

Like Tokyo, though, Nagoya is a city where it’s easy to be into one particular kind of music and not really know about everything else happening in the town, and as I prepare to leave, I know I’ve left a great deal unexplored – the whole Imaike area where popular venues like Huck Finn and Tokuzo are located, for a start, not to mention ano more of a dozen other venues. Nagoya is also the last city I’ll visit that’s big enough – and which has a music scene isolated and independent enough – for these sorts of comparisons with Tokyo to really work, so despite the long distance remaining, leaving really feels like crossing the last major milestone before my return.

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Bloody Tourists

One of the most striking features for me about Nagoya is how it had continued to support a handful of influential independent record stores even as they’ve dried up in other large cities outside the Kanto/Kansai urban sprawls such as Sapporo and Fukuoka.

Record shops have always been one of the most discomforting experiences for me on this trip though. Rarely entering as a customer, thanks to my bicycle’s overflowing side-bags, I always feel as if I’m being placed under scrutiny for my worth. I’m there looking for information, which is a currency in itself within most indie music scenes, but as the owner of a worthy but unpopular record label, I also feel that I’m the source of many of these stores’ woes, or at least petty nuisances – just one more business card for them to chuck in the bin, one more source of pestering emails for them to mark as read and file away.

Life is tough for an indie record store though. They’re businesses with real-world bottom lines like rent, operating in the same physical spaces as coffee shops and pharmacies, while many of their suppliers are self-obsessed dilettantes. The line between selling enough to keep their heads above water and maintaining their independent ethos must be a difficult one to walk.

In the heart of the busy Sakae area of town, Stiff Slack Records is a shop and record label with a reputation for post-hardcore, emo, math rock and other related music. It also operates a bar and at the time of my visit had recently unveiled a new section: a wall of guitar effects pedals, perhaps reflecting the extent to which music’s customers are also its creators.

Slavedriver

The owner, Takuya Shinkawa, is someone I’ve met on a number of occasions prior to this trip, which makes things a little bit easier. His own band, the Albini-esque Slavedriver, have recently put out the album Destruction : Construction, and he recommends the quiet-noisy dynamics of guitar/drum duo Sakura Shock and math rock trio Turalica as strong local bands.

Sakura Shock

Like nearly all record shop owners I’ve spoken to during the course of this trip, Shinkawa has a faintly pained expression when I bring up all the cassettes he has on sale.

“People who like cassettes reallylike them,” is his cautious response. He estimates that 70% of the music he sells is vinyl.

Turalica

A few minutes away, beneath the roaring expressway, lies the Osu area of Nagoya – more of a neighbourhood in the way someone from Tokyo might understand it. It’s here, up several flights of stairs, that File-Under Records is based (it moved in 2018 to a new location, also in the Osu neighbourhood).

Like Stiff Slack, File-Under also has its own associated label, Knew Noise Recordings, although both shop and label have more of an indie bent. It’s also one of a tiny number of record shops around Japan where my own Call And Response releases have managed to gain any sort of sporadic traction. Dealing with the constant begging emails from people like me may have taken its toll though, and at the time of my visit, owner Takehiko Yamada is still recovering from a (probably stress-related) health scare.

Yamada is one of those old-school record store owners who talks to the people who come into his shop, knows their tastes, and is able to tailor his recommendations to each of them. I’ve never been disappointed after following up on one of his tips, and I’ve seen him working the same magic on others in his shop.

Vodovo

When I ask him about what good new bands there are in Nagoya, the first band he mentions is Vodovo, albeit with the qualification that they’re not exactly new. They have their roots in the earlier band Zymotics, who Yamada had released on the excellent Ripplecompilation that Knew Noise put out in 2012. Continuing with a similar gothic-tinged postpunk sound, Vodovo differ from Zymotics by ditching guitar entirely and using two bassists (one of whom they share with the also fantastic noise-punk outfit Nicfit).

The other band he singles out is Ghilom, who have also been around for a while. They share a vocalist with the wonderful new duo Noiseconcrete x 3chi5, albeit with a fuller sound, combining tribal postpunk and Amon Düül II-esque psychedelia.

Ghilom

Both Shinkawa and Yamada are people I’ve met on multiple occasions, and in Yamada’s case done some sort of half-assed business with. The third record store of the trip is one I’ve never been to before: punk record shop Answer Records.

I wander in there and The Cure is playing in the background, which seems like a good omen. It’s a more spacious store than Stiff Slack or File-Under, occupying a basement s few blocks from the latter. The owner is working in the back when I come in, so I wander around a bit, scoping out the sections and seeing how it’s organised before I pluck up the courage to talk to him.

He asks what I’m looking for and I get partway into a clumsy explanation that I can’t buy anything because I’m travelling Japan by bicycle and my bags are already overloaded but the sentence collapses into fragments before I reach the end under a very powerful sense that this is something he really didn’t want to hear. I instantly regret that line of introduction and decide to move on to explaining that I’m a journalist writing about local music scenes.

I move onto my standard question about what local bands he recommends. He hums and haws for a while and then says nothing.

“For example, what’s your favourite local band?”

“Hmm… I can’t answer that.”

“OK, not your favourite. I get it, picking one is difficult. Top five?

“…”

“I want to hear about any good bands from Nagoya.”

“Hmm… No, I can’t.”

“OK, I understand, sorry. I’m writing about each place I visit, so is it OK if I take a couple of photos of this store?”

“Hmm… no.”

While this is the sort of interaction that wouldn’t signify much in most circumstances, it hit me hard. It would be arrogant in the extreme to expect to be welcomed like a hero in every place I enter, but even when people had been grudging or stand-offish, they’d always at least made some sort of effort to be helpful, if only for their own pride’s sake. This was unusual.

My first thought on leaving the shop was a kind of elation. Finally, someone’s been so openly rude to me that I don’t have to feel bad shitting all over them when I write up the trip.

Almost immediately, though, doubts start to creep in. A reasonably old, established record shop like Answer doesn’t survive that long by being a dick to people. Inevitably the guy who runs it is going to be on friendly terms with people, including a fair number of people I know, and their instinctive reaction to anything I write is going to be to wonder what I did wrong.

Having played out that entire scenario in my head, I skip to the self-diagnosis. OK, so I went into his shop like a bloody tourist, with no intention of buying anything, and apparently no knowledge of the music world he operates in, essentially asking him for a shortcut into a certain sector of the underground scene. If you want to buy something, buy something, but if you’re just a dumb tourist on a jolly, let me get back to my work.

More broadly, punk and underground scenes are entitled to a certain degree of snobbery, because that’s a big part of how they protect themselves from homogenisation by aspects of mainstream culture. He wasn’t confrontational or aggressive to me, but those aspects of punk – like the fashion and tattoos – are part of how the culture sets up barriers to entry and maintains its own integrity. When I think about my neighbourhood of Koenji in Tokyo, I have to wonder to what extent I’ve contributed to its watering-down, gushing about it in articles for tourists looking to suck up a bit of authenticity, occupying its punk and underground spaces for my bourgeois indie parties.

Or maybe he was just having a bad day. Or maybe he just didn’t like the look of me. Or maybe I just didn’t get his unique and charming manner. Either way, the encounter brought starkly to the surface the simmering unease that underscores all my interactions with the music scene: I’m a fraud and everyone knows it, but they’re all too polite to let me know.

No, fuck that asshole.

No, it’s definitely my fault.

Round and round it goes.

Nicfit

Zero Cred

On the morning of May 8th, I dash back from Yokkaichi to Nagoya to catch a late breakfast with my friend Joe from the bands Velvet Ants and Tropical Liquid. When I mention where I’ve been, he rolls his eyes.

“People in Nagoya are always saying they want to move out to Yokkaichi. And I hate the way people describe Yokkaichi as ‘the Japanese Detroit’ – there’s never been anything like the sort of danger or excitement of Detroit in Yokkaichi!”

Velvet Ants

We’re at a small burger joint a few subway stops out of the centre called Kakuozan Larder. The stylish, suburban neighbourhood is very different from the wide, busy streets, concrete and overpasses along which much of Nagoya’s music scene seems to cluster. Joe explains that Larder occasionally hosts live performances, although it’s difficult to see exactly how.

“The musicians play here, in this corner next to where we’re sitting,” he explains, unconvincingly, although a later scroll through YouTube proves him right, throwing up performances by US-based singer-songwriter Juan Wauters and Cassie Ramone of lo-fi indiepop band Vivian Girls.

When I get round to my regular questions about what’s going on musically in the town, Joe mentions semiacoustic melodic pop unit Heart Cocktail, the more discordant indie-folk-punk of Joseph Alf Polka. Post-rock/math-rock trio Doesn’t also comes up, which is a style of music Joe identifies as a trend in Nagoya, most likely influenced by the popularity of key local record store and label Stiff Slack.

Doesn’t

There’s a show I want to see in the evening, so in the afternoon I kill time around the central Sakae area. This is the area that gives SKE48 – Nagoya’s iteration of the XXX48 mass idol franchise – its name, and it’s where most of the city’s nightlife, both salubrious and seedy, goes on.

During the daytime, there’s an outdoor music festival taking place in the long park that cuts down the middle of Sakae, leading up to the Nagoya TV Tower. What I’ve noticed as I’ve travelled around Japan to cities both big and small, areas both urban and rural, is that the further away from a major urban centre I am, the more my musical taste is forced open, forced to pay attention to music that back in my Tokyo indie bubble my filter would instinctively tune out as generic, mainstream garbage. Conversely, the bigger the town, the bigger the music scene, the more I instinctively home in on the music I like.

Nagoya is one of the biggest cities in Japan, with a vibrant underground music scene, and as a result, I’ve been luxuriating in the opportunity to indulge my musical prejudices. Now, though, I’m suddenly hit in the face by a bunch of young, attractive people emoting to the sound of generic J-Pop chord progressions on acoustic guitars, bouncy bluegrass and country music delivered by clean-cut, immaculately dressed enthusiasts, happy, arms-in-the-air reggae, mid-level local idol collectives. It’s a stark reminder that the music I enjoy, and have devoted much of my life to, is something that barely even be considered music by most people.

I catch up briefly with another friend, Matthew from shoegaze website Muso Japan, who is at this time balancing a family with a tentative expansion of his musical activities into event organising. The shoegaze scene in Japan is pretty territorial, but he seems to get on well with the at this time relatively recent Kyoto Shoegaze event team (whose activities eventually expand to Nagoya, partly with Matthew’s help). He singles out The Skateboard Kids as a local band to watch, who, if not strictly shoegaze, have broadly compatible indie rock and dreampop influences informing their sound.

The Skateboard Kids

The show I’m attending that night is at Spazio Rita, a stylishly sparse concrete basement down the quiet end of the Sakae area. Situated underneath an office building, it can only host rock events on Sundays for fear of upsetting the building’s more respectable tenants, and today they’re going all-out. The happy, forgettable sounds of the festival are forgotten and I’m back in something at least close to my element.

Opening the show are Noiseconcrete x 3chi5, who combine stark industrial beats and bursts of machine noise with meandering, alienated-sounding, blues-edged vocals. There’s a distinct ring of trip hop – Portishead in particular – to the end result, but on stage the tension between the two core elements brings a distinctive dynamic of its own.

Dancebeach

Miyatake Bones from Kyoto are on next, exploding in a ferocious whirlwind of hardcore, postpunk, funk and rap, and they’re followed immediately by local postpunk/post-hardcore trio Dancebeach. Bands like these, who combine something arty with a sensibility firmly rooted in hardcore credibility exist in a continuum, strung out loosely from Asahikawa in Hokkaido to Nagasaki in Kyushu, and often associated with either the Less Than TV label in Tokyo or the Impulse and Dan-Doh labels in Shikoku. Possessing zero punk cred of my own, I’m in the slightly disconcerting position of watching something that in nearly all sonic ways is my music, but at the same time knowing I can never be more than an outsider to their scene because I come from such a different subcultural space.

In tune with this general scene tilt of the event, the final act of the night is a collaboration between “cheer-punk” band Ni-Hao! (with Less Than TV bossman Taniguchi standing in on bass) and laser-noise veteran Doravideo. It’s really impressive, channeling the strengths of each artist into an audiovisial sensual overload that elevates both.

Ni-Hao! x Doravideo

I might be looking a little pensive, propped against the bar in the murkiest corner of the room, because, upon recognising me, Yukari from N-Hao! runs across the room and gives me a hug. Even when you’re not part of the tribe, people can still be nice.

Heading back to my hotel, I hear the sound of a Santana-esque jam band coming from the narrow park that divides the main road and I think for a moment that the festival is still going on. It turns out that no, instead a band have lugged their own amps out, literally to the middle of the road, to remind me once again of how tiny the little corner of the music world I can’t barely even claim as my own is.

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

No circuit: pure sound

Throughout my travels around Japan, I’ve found myself looking at the notion of “home” through a number of different prisms. Home is a physical location where you live. Home is also a social environment formed by the people around you – an environment that to varying degrees we construct and curate around ourselves over time. The idea that home is also a function of time is one that I hadn’t really considered deeply until Kansai, but it undoubtedly is.

Time has been at work in the process of separating me from my old home in the UK, peeling away the fingers with which I cling to it one by one. It has also been at work anchoring me to my pathetic tinpot empire in Koenji, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in between the eastern and western stages of this trip with the release of my label’s monumentally narcissistic (and brilliant) Small Lights compilation album.

When travelling, spending usually no more than two or three nights in any location, time doesn’t get a chance to work its alchemy in the same way. You arrive, you get a superficial glance at the lay of the land, you meet someone clued-into the local scene if you’re lucky, and then you’re on your way once more. Small towns and cities are good for that, where one knowledgeable local can often tell you everything you need to know. Cities like Osaka or Kyoto are big enough that someone clued into one aspect of the town’s scene might be completely ignorant of something else happening in exactly the same neighbourhood, like parallel universes that never interact. To navigate this and get any kind of grip on it takes time.

Hide, who I stayed with for some of my time in Kyoto, started out making music out of the garage of his family home as a teenager, abandoned Japan for New York for 16 years, and returned to a Japan he didn’t really feel part of. Now making music and putting on parties with the friends and allies he has gathered around him in his home once more, he has completed a full circuit of the many manifestations – over physical, temporal and psychic space – of what home means, only to end up back where he started.

I spent longer in Osaka and Kyoto than in any other place I visited on this journey, with the exception of Fukuoka (a place that I was already very familiar with), and that time was barely enough to feel like I was starting to get a handle on the area. It left me with a roadmap for future visits, but I left the area just as I was beginning to find my feet. As I left Hide’s house on a hot Monday morning at the beginning of May, I realised I’d stayed in Kyoto and Osaka long enough to start to miss it.

With the already somewhat familiar Nagoya and Yokohama the only other really large cities between me and Tokyo, Kansai had also been the last big unexplored country for me. As I crawled through the slowly swelling crowds of tourists visiting the temples and historical sites that ring the forested slopes on the city’s edge, the expanse between there and Tokyo started to feel like a hardship to be overcome rather than a new land to explore.

My departure from Kansai would be a drawn-out farewell though, taking me through the unusual prefecture of Shiga. What makes Shiga so strange is Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. Where a vast body of water like that would typically be a natural border between prefectures, it is the heart of Shiga, the prefecture encompassing the whole enormous lake. The largest city, Otsu, is close enough to Kyoto that it forms part of broadly the same metropolitan area, but my destination was the old castle town of Hikone, some 70km along the coast to the northeast.

Rather than taking the most direct route, I instead hugged the shoreline of Lake Biwa, partly for the view and partly because with summer gaining rapidly on me as it advanced from the south, the breeze from across the water made travel just that little bit more pleasant. Little groups of people were having barbecues alongside the whole southern portion of the lake, before it gave way to more esoteric forms of leisure like the microlight training school I encountered midway. The further along I got, the more deserted the roads became though, and as I rounded the last mountainous knot of coastline and the land flattened out towards my destination, I saw a particularly dramatic example of the occasional rural conflagrations that I was choosing to find symbolic.

A small, fieldside shack roared with fierce, angry flame and a woman hesitantly approached it with a spade full of dirt before backing away. In the distance sirens wailed.DSC_0261

If home is something built by time, time is also fuel to the fire in which hometowns burn. Back in the home where I was born, England was burning with a strange fire of its own, a mad glint in its eye as it doused its bridge to Europe in petrol. It was a thought that nagged at me more than I had expected now I was out on my own on the road once more – an ex-lover I thought I was over, but who still has the power to induce pangs of regret when I see them destroy themselves. With my old home losing itself in a conflagration of its own making, it lent a fresh urgency to my current journey. Would that heartless bitch Tokyo even remember me when I returned?

I can understand the urge people in big cities have to retire to the countryside. You can make a far less complicated home for yourself there – one that isn’t constantly changing around you, demanding you adapt yourself to its whims, one not so swift to brush you aside for the next new thing. Cities are high maintenance partners in life. Places like Shiga, on the other hand, move (and change) at a different pace. It’s easy to romanticise that, and travelling during temperate seasons has mostly shielded me from the crueller elements that batter rural areas – the comforts and amusements the city provides are hard to put a value on until you are released from their coddling embrace – but the countryside nonetheless has a powerful call.

Hikone is a city in name only. It is very much part of the countryside. At its centre is one of those immaculately manicured Japanese castle gardens that reconfigure what was once a military stronghold as a quietly refined place of rarefied beauty. I deflected looks of amused disgust from tourists, a sweaty invader in my gauche looking bright yellow jacket as I cycled round in search of my hotel, a trucker’s place of the sort where heavily augmented prostitutes can be delivered to guests’ doors past the blind eyes of the see-no-evil desk staff.

With a population of around 100,000, in a widely distributed, broadly rural configuration, the Hikone area supports music mostly through occasional acoustic performances (and sometimes something more experimental and interesting) in artisanal cafés. One of these places, Moku, situated in the shadow of the castle, was closed on the day I chose to visit. However, the following morning I backtracked several kilometres to a 150-year-old farmhouse that has recently been converted into a multipurpose speaker workshop, experimental live space and retailer of assorted experimental musical goods called Hora Audio.

Hora Audio is operated by Ryo Aoyanagi and his wife. These rural enclaves of experimental music seem to attract the Japanese incarnations of that Chicago-centred Drag City/Thrill Jockey style of sonic voyager, and Hora Audio seems to be very much in that vein. At the time I drop by, they are gearing up for a show by Aki Tsuyuko from nearby Gifu, building on earlier solo work she had done at the legendarily eccentric Enban record store in Koenji, Tokyo. The parallels and contrasts between Enban and Hora Audio are also revealing in terms of the thoughts this trip has set spinning around in my head.

Aki Tsuyuko

As self-imposed big city exiles, the Aoyanagis’ philosophy feels at least in part like a reaction against the alienating dislocation the combination of hyper-urban physical reality and post-urban digital reality the modern world has fostered. The speakers that are the core of Hora Audio’s work are made to order, with a back-loaded horn, tube amp style – as Aoyanagi describes it, “No circuit: pure sound.”

As someone who is entirely comfortable with the music I listen to being digitally mediated in any number of ways, it would be easy to dismiss this as performative hipsterism, but in a certain way, it’s coming from the same place as a lot of my own activities in the music scene. The emphasis on the relationship between live performance and recorded music, the value placed on the physical transaction of media, my wilfull Luddism when it comes to iTunes and streaming services. What Hora Audio does with the transmission of sound from recorded data into audible waves in the air, I try to do with the social transmission of music.

A key difference between the microcosm of the circuitless speaker and the macrocosm of any attempt to transmit music socially with as minimal interference from the “circuit” (which I guess I’m conceiving here as a sort of urban-digital cultural hegemony) as possible, is that to do the latter you need the big city. People need to be close together, able to gather and share information and vibes – there needs to physically be a critical social mass of people so that they can function like the vibrating particles of air in the speaker’s horn and amplify the signal.

What Hora Audio does seems like it could work because what they have created there is as far as possible self-contained – microcosmic – and perhaps there is a sense where the urban and rural music lifestyles are two sides of the same coin. To create a home around music, you either need complete isolation – to cut yourself off from the “circuit” and live out of its range – or you need to embrace the hyper-urban and use the condensed mass of humanity to organically create a signal of your own that drowns out that of the “circuit”. So an artist like Aki Tsuyuko can be at home equally in an urban location like Enban, which has condensed its own signal to the extent that it can locally drown out the cultural noise of Tokyo, as she is at the rural Hora Audio has simply removed itself from that cultural noise.

The homes we are born into are temporary shacks designed to accommodate us and give us the illusion of belonging until we can grow up and build our own. With England burning, the fragility of the task of building a place, a psychic space of my own, was only underlined with added urgency.

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.

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.