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.

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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.