Friday, December 17, 2004

Happy Holidays

Ebisu Christmas Tree Posted by Hello

Japan Live is taking a Christmas break. Have a nice holiday season, and see you in early January.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Misako Odani

Misako Odani is a Japanese songstress of mystery. I first found out about her reading punk rock band Moga the Five Yen’s Internet message board, on which Moga’s bassist and a fan were gushing about her songs. Soon afterwards I discovered that Odani has also worked with the popular Japanese punk band Eastern Youth. Yet despite this, Odani’s music isn’t punk at all. She is a pianist and singer, and plays pop music.

Her trio was performing at club called Mandala in Minami-Aoyama, right across the street from the Aoyama cemetery, the eternal resting place of Tokyo’s rich and famous, and between party town Roppongi and the Meiji Shinto shrine. Most of the audience at the Mandala were well-dressed young professional types in their late 20's and 30's, and the club was a chic sit-down place, nothing like the grungy live houses I usually frequent.

A little past eight, Odani appeared on stage saying "konbanwa (good evening)", a petite, shy-looking woman. She paused for a second at her piano, then launched into her first song of the night. That voice! A voice that fills the hall with its melodic wail. I loved her voice from the first time I heard a CD of hers, but it’s hard to describe the voice satisfactorily. It is both child-like and old, and tragic, like the way a basset hound pup looks.

I was intoxicated by her singing and piano playing, but then, at some point in the evening I started to grow bored. One problem was the crowd. The fans were dreadfully formal. This was music to swing to, like good jazz, but they hardly moved in their seats, and didn’t even reach out for their drinks. Sitting toward the back, I felt like I was in the midst of human-shaped props. They seemed like classical music fans who don’t want to disturb the music-making of a Maestro. Overawe in the face of a great artist, and mass shyness prevented the crowd from showing much emotion, except applause after songs.

Odani, for her part, didn’t do much to reach out to the crowd. There was her scintillating music that her talent wrought, but that was all she left on the table; you didn’t get a feel for the person behind the music. Between songs, she talked little and then haltingly, and at one point she explained she is shy with strangers. I got a feeling that here is an artist who never went through the process of gradually attracting fans at tiny clubs, going from zero. With her voice and her piano, maybe she was elevated from the beginning to big halls and major label album recording. She may never have had to learn to work a crowd. Not for her was saying lame jokes to make the audience laugh, or jumping around on stage to attract attention. (I don’t know any of this for a fact, but this was the impression I got.)

But in the end, her songs were deep and beautiful to listen to, and maybe the evening was a good change of pace. Not every night can be wild and ecstasy-creating, like evenings with a Plectrum or an Orange Plankton or a Farmstay.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

"Cheek Time", "Session", Runt Star

Runt Star's keyboardist. Posted by Hello

How a rock band reacts when something goes wrong at a show says a lot about how good the band is.

With all those wires and electrical equipment on stage, with the jitters about playing in front of strangers, there’s bound to be some mess-up or another; but the best bands ignore the failure or even make it an added ingredient to spice up the performance. I wrote before about Tokyo rock band Plectrum's show in Seoul where that happened. Singer Taisuke Takata transformed a temporary moment of having a soundless sound system into a chance to lead the audience in a mass, unplugged sing-along. It's one of my personal great rock ‘n’ roll moments.

Last night, Plectrum was playing with bands named Runt Star and Gentouki at the Shibuya O-Nest. There was trouble during the last set of the night, Runt Star’s show – right at the introduction of one of the songs the guitar amp stopped working. The audience, mostly girls, was there to have fun and giggled as the guitarist fumbled with the wires and dials to try to restore the sound. To pass the time, the keyboard, bass and drums continued to play. They improvised a lounge jazz-like number. It was a nice, swinging tune (talent!).

"OK, it’s cheek time! Cheek dance with whoever is standing next to you," the guitarist said. More giggles. A technician ran on stage and replaced the amp. "What’s the matter, I don’t see you cheek dancing," the guitarist said to the tittering audience. The guitar’s sound returned, and played pop tunes to a crowd that just had a few minutes of unexpected fun.


Among Japanese people’s sins are a compulsion to want to abbreviate phrases and a predilection to using English words in ways that seem strange to a native speaker. "Cheek time" is an example of those two sins combined. It’s short for "cheek dance time", the slow song intervals at discos when couples are supposed to cheek dance. Another is "session", which is short for "jam session". Only in the case of Japanese bands, "jam session" at a live show appears to mean ‘one song that all the bands get up on stage together and play for an encore’. There was a "session" tonight – Runt Star, Gentouki and Plectrum played "Twist and Shout".

I'll leave it for another time to talk about WHY Japanese people are into shortening phrases and using English (and other foreign languages) in strange ways.

Twist & Shout Session Posted by Hello

Plectrum played the second show of the night. I hope they never quit. I need at least a monthly fix of Plectrum, one of Tokyo’s best live bands.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Primrose at Shibuya O-Nest

The Primrose at the O-Nest. Posted by Hello

Space joy ride music. The type of music I’d like to listen to as I drive my Toyota space-station-wagon around the Solar System. That’s what I had visions of as I listened to the Primrose, a Tokyo rock band, at the Shibuya O-Nest. (Note, I’d had a few beers by the time Primrose hit the stage.)

I’d seen the Primrose open for Luna’s Tokyo tour a few weeks back, and was much more impressed by them than the headline band. Tonight they were great again. Guitarist Keiji Matsui started out playing solo, strumming passages on his guitar that were then placed through various echo-making gadgets to create a repetitive, trance-inducing sound. Like a kid with a box of toys, Matsui fiddled with the dials on his effect pedals and echo device to come up with the sound he wanted.

From the second song, three very serious looking musicians came on stage and played the drums, synthesizer and another guitar (they didn't smile at all during the set). Their music was experimental and novel, but it rocked as well, and the crowd swayed to it. Applause seemed an inadequate way to show appreciation for this new-sounding music. (You can listen to samples of their music on their home page.)


The Primrose has been around for a long time, but the only official member now is Matsui, after the departure of the drummer and bassist. I’ve heard that Matsui is in his 40's, but he doesn’t look it at all. Wish I could be half as cool as he is in a decade’s time.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star (In Japan)?

So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star? Posted by Hello

Since I started this blog half a year ago, the most frequently asked question from e-mailers, in fact the ONLY frequently asked question, is from musicians outside of Japan wondering how to go about arranging a show in Tokyo or the other big cities.

Now I’m not a band member myself so I’m not the right person to answer this question, but I do feel sympathy for these e-mailers. I too, if were a musician, would be interested in playing in Tokyo, which is more and more becoming one of the world’s Pop Culture Capitals.

Unfortunately, the short answer to ‘How can my band book a show in Japan?’ is, ‘not easily’.

I sought the opinion of Edgar Franz, who leads a band called Miniskirt in Tokyo and has done numerous shows, including at Shimokitazawa’s Club Que, a highly regarded venue.

"I guess that it's nearly impossible to handle show bookings from outside Japan," he said.

It also doesn't make much sense. You need Japanese support acts and someone on location to do the promotion anyway. The managers of the live venues usually want to talk personally to the organizers. Demo tapes and resumes of the bands have to be transmitted. As there are hundreds of bands playing every night, it's very hard to attract visitors. Just 80 visitors is already a success for an event with 4 indie-bands playing.

Edgar Franz of Miniskirt. Posted by Hello

What Edgar is talking about in regard to the club managers is that, like Japanese businessmen in general, the managers are somewhere between being perfectionists and obsessive-compulsives. Just as Japanese salary men are notorious for holding endless meetings that don’t do much to boost productivity, club managers here have a reputation for wanting to know everything about a show before it happens (resumes, personal interviews, required rehearsals the day of the show), which might not necessarily be that helpful in sparking a spontaneous rock ‘n’ roll explosion.

So, the perfectionist club owner won’t be too inclined to book a band from thousands of miles away based only on a demo tape and a few e-mails (especially if those e-mails aren’t in Japanese!). Edgar adds that even a fairly well-known foreign band wouldn’t be able to book a show in Japan without a local coordinator.

Nothing is for certain, though, and if a band were to come to Japan for a couple of weeks and made the rounds of clubs, bars and cafes in one of the big music centers like Shimokitazawa, they might very well get a lucky break. But the band members should keep a sense of perspective, and enjoy the visit (and they should watch as many shows as they have time for and can afford, because Japanese bands are world-class).

One last thing, and I realize this isn’t feasible for most band guys, but if you really want to perform in Japan, nothing would beat actually living here, at least temporarily. Teach English, work in a bar, or do whatever work you can find, and in your free time try to break into the scene. If you start getting action, and you have time to blog about the in-depth experience in the Japan music scene, I will certainly read YOUR Japan Live!

Monday, December 06, 2004

In the Mail - CD From The U.S.'s Tangerine

Tangerine's Songs For The Now And Others Forever Posted by Hello

A couple of weeks ago I received in the mail a CD from an American band called Tangerine, from Pittsburgh. The singer of the band, Tony Matz, had e-mailed me to say his band wanted to play in Japan and asked if I could review his band’s album in Japan Live. I said sure.

Now, while it’s a delight to get free CDs, a confession here: I’m not a real music critic. I write only about bands I like, and ignore groups I think are boring or bad. That’s not music criticism. Also, I do this site for my own fun, and have zero influence in Japan’s music world. I do hope, though, that a few people will want to listen to the wonderful Japanese bands I love after reading these pages.

With that disclaimer out of the way, on to the point of this post, which is that I enjoyed Tangerine’s album, Songs For The Now And Others Forever. It’s mellow American alternative rock with moody echoing guitars. What sets apart this band is the deep, rough baritone voice of Matz. It reminds me of the singer from Urge Overkill who croons "Girl, you’ll be a woman soon" on a record as Uma Thurman and John Travolta hang out in Pulp Fiction. Or, it’s a little like the singer in the opening credits of the Sopranos as Tony lights a cigar in his car on the way to New Jersey. Despite this band’s name, Tangerine, citrus isn’t what I visualized listening to Matz’s voice. More like cigar and brandy. I particularly liked the second song in the album, called Elastic World. I’ve stored the album in my iPod.

If I ever travel to Pittsburgh, I’d like to see this band. If they arrange a show in Japan, I’d like to catch that too, though, as I’ll write about in more detail one of these days, it’s not easy at all for a foreign band to play in Japanese clubs without connections.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Rocking in Yokohama & Takadanobaba (In 1 Day)

Yokohama Posted by Hello

Yokohama, Japan’s second most populated city, is less than hour away by train from central Tokyo but has a much different feel. It’s a port city, so there’s the Pacific Ocean to look at. There also seems to be more open space there than in cramped Tokyo. And there are many old European-looking buildings, a reminder of the city’s history as a treaty port.

At one such old building was held an indie pop mini-festival, featuring nine Japanese bands playing in an event that stretched from 3 in the afternoon to 9 at night. The building, called BankArt 1929, was once a Fuji Bank branch, and now is used as a performance space.

Two Young Clean Distortion Fans. Posted by Hello

I arrived at the old bank building around 3:30, in time to catch Miniskirt’s set. The stage was one corner of the big hall that appeared to be the bank’s lobby, with marble walls and pillars. The rock music echoed in the spacious hall, traveling up to the high ceiling and bouncing down, maybe annoying some Ghosts of Bankers Past on its way.

The event was a mellow affair. Kids ran around and people sat and chatted between sets, about half or more of those people being musicians in one band or another who all knew each other. During the three hours I was there I especially enjoyed the sets by Miniskirt, led by the German Japan-resident Edgar Franz, a band named Clean Distortion, and Orang, who I saw at the Fukumura memorial show last week.

Miniskirt at BankArt 1929. Posted by Hello

I didn’t get to catch two bands I like, Lost in Found and Vasallo Crab 75, at the very end of the event because I had to head back to Tokyo in the evening to see a show by a band named Auroranote, whose bass player is my friend Hironobu Hirata (he’s also Swinging Popsicle’s bass guy). It was at a club called Phase in Takadanobaba (meaning ‘Takada’s horse riding grounds’ – I’m too lazy at the moment to look up how the area got that name; in any case, there were certainly no signs of horses today).

It was my first time to see Auroranote live. They had a nice, rowdy, blues rock sound. If the bright, breezy guitar pop sound of the bands in Yokohama was like Spanish tapas, dainty morsels of music, Auroranote was barbecued pork from the American South, juicy, filling and flavorful. Auroranote was also fun to watch because they had a following of around forty young female fans who stood in front of the stage and threw their arms up at key song moments.

Clean Distortion at BankArt 1929. Posted by Hello

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Myongdong Bacchanalia

Myongdong Bacchanalia. Posted by Hello

My friend Wonyul told me about an all-night show Saturday he’s organized in Seoul that made me want to hop on the plane from Tokyo to see. The local PTA definitely won’t approve of it.

It starts at 10PM at the club Kuchu Camp in Seoul’s Myongdong district, and all guests will be checked at the door with a breathalyzer, the gadget that police make you exhale into to see if you’ve had drinks of the alcoholic variety. Only, at this event, the staff won’t let you in if your breathalyzer test shows 0% alcohol in your body. On the other hand, the drunker you are, the bigger a discount you get at the door. (That should be a cheap show for me.)

But Wonyul, I asked, what about people who can’t drink? "And those who are too young to drink or can’t drink, they can come see us next time. Haha," he writes. Ha ha... Wonyul’s band Julia Hart will be playing. I hope he won’t drop his bass.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

A Year Without Takayuki Fukumura

Takayuki Fukumura, guitarist. Posted by Hello

My personal best Tokyo rock show of 2004 didn’t turn out quite the way I expected.

Marking one year since guitarist Takayuki Fukumura passed away, the event on November 26 featured some of my favorite Japanese bands such as advantage Lucy and Vasallo Crab 75. A year ago, when advantage Lucy performed soon after the death of Fukumura, who had founded the band, their playing was impassioned, a musical farewell to a friend. It was a show I won’t forget. On the subway over to Friday night’s event, I thought about the show last year and all that had happened since then (like my becoming friends with members of advantage Lucy). At this latest show, I expected some of those same emotions as last year to emerge. But, in fact, the show was completely different in mood. This time, it was plain fun. The musicians remembered and celebrated Takayuki Fukumura’s life.

Advantage Lucy at the Que. Posted by Hello

The show started at the Shimokitazawa Club Que at 6:30 in the evening, moved to the Loft in Shinjuku at midnight, and continued until about 5:30 in the morning. Eight bands and solo musicians played: Three Berry Icecream, Lost in Found, Orang, advantage Lucy, Vasallo Crab 75, patrasche, Apila and Sweet Onion. Fukumura was a guitarist for advantage Lucy and Vasallo Crab 75, and played a role in the music-making of every one of the other bands as well.

Although all of the bands were good, the best show was advantage Lucy’s second of the night, the final act. Lucy singer Aiko looked sleepy. "Advantage Lucy hardly ever does all-night events, because at night, we sleep," she said. At one point, Aiko even forgot the name of the next song the band was going to play, in her drowsiness.

Advantage Lucy at the Loft. Posted by Hello

Advantage Lucy is very laid-back in that sort of way. They are like the kids next door that formed a band, a familiar quality that is one reason why their fans love them (and the several dozen people who were still there at 5 in the morning to see them were no doubt some of their most die-hard fans – me, among them). But the reality is that very few garage bands, the bands-next-door, ever will write so many melodies as simple and gorgeous as advantage Lucy’s. Nor will the poet next door write lyrics that stay in the mind like those that Aiko creates. Advantage Lucy is a band that inspires kids to take up music, but at the same, is in truth beyond their reach. As Aiko wrote, in an uncharacteristic moment of immodesty, when she first rehearsed with the band (then called Lucy van Pelt, in the mid-90's), "I thought it was better than any band I’d listened to." At an hour when the sun was about to rise outside, advantage Lucy played a truly soulful set, watched by their most devoted fans.

According to Aiko and Yoshiharu Ishizaka, Lucy’s guitarist, though Ishizaka composed the music Fukumura was the one who, in a way, made the Lucy sound, lending others in the band bundles of pop CDs that he liked, disks by artists like eggstone, HappyDeadMen, Ivy and Cloudberry Jam.

In introducing one of their songs, Aiko said the song they are about to do is one they had initially decided wasn’t good enough to be recorded, but Fukumura really liked it so they recorded it after all. That song was ‘Citrus’. Which blows my mind. ‘Citrus’ is one of Lucy’s defining, classic songs, and to think that it might not have been, if not for Fukumura’s intervention... Advantage Lucy fans can thank him for that alone.

Vasallo Crab 75, with Fukumura's mom. Posted by Hello

At the end of Vasallo Crab 75's show at the Que, Fukumura’s mom went up to the stage to give flowers to the band and to thank the musicians and fans. Fukumura was a lover of ramen noodles and curry rice, and she showed a picture of him looking happiest (according to her), eating something at a table.

All through the show, shoes that Fukumura had worn sat on top of one of the amps. His mom said she felt the warmth of his friends at the show tonight, and said her son had lived a happy life. She brought the shoes down from the amp and put them on the ground, saying that now everyone can move on from sadness. It was the one tearful moment of the night.

Three Berry Icecream, supported by Vasallo Crab 75. Posted by Hello

Lost in Found at the Que. Posted by Hello

Orang's singer, at the Que. Posted by Hello

Apila at the Loft. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Orange Plankton's Last (?) 2004 Tokyo Show

Orange Plankton at the Shinjuku Live Freak. Posted by Hello

Tonight was piano pop quartet Orange Plankton’s last scheduled show of the year in Tokyo, though they said they might also play at a Okinawan food bistro here next month. And during Christmas, they will be in the island of Okinawa itself, playing for a thousands of kids at an amusement park called Kodomo no Kuni (translated to ‘Kid Land’, I guess). I don’t know what the Orange Plankton-Okinawa connection is, what with the restaurant and amusement park gig. I wish I could go to the Okinawa Kid Land show, but unfortunately money doesn’t grow on trees in the garden so I can buy plane tickets anytime I want to see a concert in a faraway place, and anyway I’ll be in LA with my family during Christmas.

The show, at a club called Live Freak right next to the gay district in Shinjuku, was the usual brilliant Orange Plankton. Unless there’s a surprise between now and December 31, their album Wakusei Note will be my favorite album of 2004.

Orange Plankton at the Shinjuku Live Freak. Posted by Hello

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Metro-ongen & Throw Curve at the Que

Metro-ongen at the Que. Posted by Hello

Rock quartet Metro-ongen, who I saw for the first time at Club Que in Shimokitazawa tonight, reminded me a bit of the Beatles, at least appearance-wise.

Like the Fab Four, the singer played a Rickenbacker guitar. The bass was left-handed like Paul, though he played a Fender rather than a Hofner violin bass. In place of Ringo was a charming girl drummer, who was all smiles but pounded out wicked beats. As for the lead guitarist, I wasn’t sure if he was into eastern religions like George Harrison, probably not, but neither was George until about 1967 or so. Between songs the guitarists and bass joked around and made fun of each other, and the audience, mainly girls, loved it, though admittedly there wasn’t any sign of Metro-ongen-mania, that is to say, fans screaming uncontrollably and fainting.

Music-wise, there wasn’t much that connected them to the Liverpudlian lads, except that they too play rock. Metro-ongen uses a lot of distortion (the lead guitar had a mysterious box on top of his amp with lots of dials that let him make industrial-sounding noise), and like other bands in the Shimokitazawa scene they seem to be influenced by an eclectic mix of punk, psychedelia and shoe-gazer music. The girl drummer and left-handed bass build a solid foundation of beats, from which the two guitarists were able to soar musically. Metro-ongen, a good-looking band with members sporting Rubber Soul-era Beatles haircuts, was actually quite fab. I loved their 2nd album (see post below), and was glad I went to see them.

Throw Curve at the Que. Posted by Hello

Playing before Metro-ongen was Throw Curve, who I’d seen at the 251 recently. Throw Curve went to the same college as Metroongen, and were in the same rock music club (a common place for rock bands to be formed in Japan), though the guys in Metro-ongen were in an older class than Throw Curve. The way things are done in Japan, that means Metro-ongen is Throw Curve’s sempai (translating to something like 'older fellows'), and they are supposed to look out for the younger guys and lead by good example in place of being shown respect. And, indeed, the singer of Metro-ongen was wearing a Throw Curve T-shirt.

Members of the two bands also worked at the same part-time job at one time, Throw Curve’s singer said. 99.9% of Japanese indies musicians do one sort of marginal part-time job or another to support their musical activities. It must be a cause of despair for some of the parents of these band members, to think that after spending bundles of money to pay for private school education, cram school fees, then tuition for private universities, their kid is working at a convenience store by day so he can play rock music at night. No matter, they're a source of joy for fans like me.

Friday, November 19, 2004

5 Dreamy, Distortion-Heavy Japan Rock CDs

I discovered British rock band My Bloody Valentine in an unlikely place and time: Beijing in 1991, when China was still very much a communist society, gray and unsmiling, with memories of the Tiananmen massacre two years earlier an unspoken but constant presence. I was an exchange student. My roommate had been a DJ at a college radio station in the U.S. and brought with him a stack of tapes of the latest, hippest alternative bands. My Bloody Valentine was one of those.

Because I listened to My Bloody Valentine so much that winter (in the process annoying my roommate because I borrowed not only his tapes but his walkman too), playing their music now I see scenes of the Beijing life: snow around a big, dilapidated building storing coal; students ice-skating on the frozen pond in Beijing University; egg pancakes fried in stalls outside the university gates.

I never thought that more than a decade later, My Bloody Valentine would remain so popular and influential. They are huge among Japanese rock musicians! As far as I know they only recorded two good albums and several EP’s, but new generations of listeners seem to be constantly getting turned on to them.

For those that aren’t familiar with the band, My Bloody Valentine created their music by heavily distorting guitar parts, but despite that the tunes are catchy and melodic. It makes you want to sing along, even though oftentimes you have little idea what the dreamy-sounding singers are saying.

Below are five CDs by Japanese bands that consciously or not owe a lot to My Bloody Valentine, inheritors of their distortion-heavy, dreamy sound. If you like other similar bands like Slow Dive and Ride, these CDs might be worth a listen too.

Condor 44's db. Posted by Hello

Hartfield's True Color, True Lie. Posted by Hello

winnie's first class speed of light. Posted by Hello

These three bands share in common the fact that, like My Bloody Valentine, each has a girl and a guy vocalist that share the singing duties. It’s a good arrangement. Male and female voices are like wine and cheese – they go well together.

Condor 44 plays drawn-out, Explore Outer Space-type songs. At live shows, the drummer sits on one side of the stage rather than in the back, meaning your ears will be hurting by the end if you stand on his side of the stage.

Hartfield is more rocking and more straightforwardly melodic than Condor, though the guys still pile on the distortion. They sing with voices of bliss. Their girl guitarist Yukari is SO cool, appearing on stage wearing a white dress and playing a cream-colored Gibson Flying V guitar.

Winnie came out of nowhere last year with this brilliant album, and played a few good shows. Then they disappeared, and haven’t been heard from for about half a year. Looking at their website, which hasn’t been updated since May, it looks like they were recording an album, but then the bass player left the band. I hope they start playing again. They’re a sweet-sounding, laid-back group, though one problem might be that they’re a little too laid back. At one of their shows, I saw the girl singer and guitarist Iori (who had a solo career before Winnie was formed) chewing gum while singing on stage.

Cruyff in the Bedroom's hikarihimawari. Posted by Hello

Cruyff in the Bedroom is fairly well known outside of Japan too. A good band.

Metro-ongen's silentorange. Posted by Hello

Metro-ongen is a band I found out about at Tower Records Shibuya recently. Another band with a girl/guy combo singing line-up, they do exciting stuff. I’m supposed to see them with Throw Curve on Sunday. Looking forward to that.