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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.