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.

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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.

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.