Thursday, September 30, 2004

Orange Plankton at Shibuya Take Off 7

Orange Plankton at the Take Off 7. Posted by Hello

Of the hundreds of Japanese bands I’ve seen live, Orange Plankton is without doubt one of the most absorbing, happiness-inducing, and simply, best.

I’ve loved the piano pop quartet ever since I saw them first about a year ago. Since then, they’ve twice toured Japan on a shoestring (traveling in a van packed with instruments, equipment and merchandise; staying at homes of family and friends or at all-night sauna centers) and, as happens when bands need to excite crowds in strange lands every night, Orange Plankton has grown tremendously as a live band.

Orange Plankton Posted by Hello

Tonight Orange Plankton started quietly, playing a slow, jazzy song called ‘Shizuka-na–itsuka [hard to translate, but something like ‘A Quiet Someday’]’ from their 2nd album. But they quickly built up in intensity as they went through songs from the latest album, their fourth, Wakusei Note.

Orange Plankton, on fire on stage, is a sight to behold. In particular, singer Yumi is a magnetic presence, one who never stops moving (it’s hard to capture her on film because of that) and who sings as though she’s squeezing out her soul with her voice.

Their best moment tonight was when they played ‘Mizu-umi [‘Lake’]’ from their latest album, a tune that builds up to a climactic solo exchange between Yuki’s keyboard and Tsuujii‘s bass. You don’t often hear songs as good as ‘Mizu-umi’ on the radio. Nor do you often get to see a song of this caliber played live in a small club.


Take my word for it, Orange Plankton isn’t well-known yet but is one of the best, and if you are in Tokyo, you should see them while you still can in tiny clubs. In the next few weeks they’re playing at: Oct. 9, Shibuya Club Asia; Oct. 19, Shibuya Plug; Nov. 3, Shimokitazawa Garage; Nov. 4, Shibuya DeSeo.

And their latest album, Wakusei Note, as I wrote before, is my favorite Japanese album so far this year. It’s hard to find, so let me know if you are interested in it. I like it so much I may even give it away for free!

Wednesday, September 29, 2004


Many times I’ve opened advantage Lucy’s home page, gone to the discography section and scrolled all the way down, and gazed longingly at the picture of their first cassette, ‘Red Bicycle’.

I own everything else by this outstanding Tokyo pop band (including the CD single ‘Memai’, which is now apparently sold out). But not the cassette version of ‘Red Bicycle’, the first thing they ever recorded and sold, which is out of print.

Red Bicycle cassette. Posted by Hello

With bands I really like I try to buy everything they’ve recorded because I think unless you listen to everything, you can’t get a full picture of a group’s music – their artistic growth, peak, and decline.

I therefore want to own the ‘Red Bicycle’ tape, if only to know what I’ve missed. But there’s also a collector mentality at work. The more nicknacks you collect, the bigger your desire becomes to acquire the final, rare, mint-condition Nicknack that makes your collection complete.

Cecil's Rikka. Posted by Hello

I’m also a big fan of a Japanese pop band named Cecil. They are a mysterious group – they almost never perform live, and one member of the ‘band’ is an illustrator who appears not to be involved at all in a musical capacity.

Cecil also has a CD that would make a collector's heart flutter if he/she ever saw it on sale.

That's a four-song CD called ‘Rikka’, which has long been sold out. I have almost all of their CDs, but not this one. As a Cecil fan it’s especially frustrating not to own ‘Rikka’ because the four songs on it aren’t in any other of their CDs.

I want this disc.

Lest you think I’m a nut, let me inform you that at least I’m not a lone nut. There are others out there who are looking for this CD. Consider -- I first found out about ‘Rikka’ reading an Internet bulletin board, where fans were complaining about the fact that the record label wasn’t re-issuing the CD despite evidence there would be decent demand for it.

They also noted that on Yahoo Japan’s Internet auction site, ‘Rikka’ is selling at many times the original retail price. I myself saw a bid for ‘Rikka’ at over 6,000 yen (about $60) compared with its retail price of 1,000 yen.

To make a long story short, ‘Rikka’ is available again. The dark days are over for we Rikka-seekers. The record label hasn’t re-issued the CD, but they’ve put the whole thing on MP3 files on their website, allowing us to listen to it in its entirety. You go to the section that says Real Audio, and click on the album image.


So now I can go back to plotting ways to get my hands on a copy of advantage Lucy’s ‘Red Bicycle’ cassette.

But the collector's job is never finished. Their singer, Aiko, mentions on her web diary that there’s a tape that the band recorded BEFORE ‘Red Bicycle’ that they gave for free at their first live show.

Wow. I envy anyone who owns THAT.

On the 'Red Bicycle' tape, she writes that she and guitarist Fukumura dubbed the ‘Red Bicycle’ tapes at home, so the speed is slightly different for different copies of the cassette. Brings back memories of the good old pre-digital days...

Monday, September 27, 2004

Noodles Become Three

Found out looking at the Noodles’ home page that their guitarist, Junko, had left the band.

The brief announcement didn’t give a reason for the departure. Aggrieved fans had filled the Noodles’ web message board with laments about how they will miss Junko, the lead guitarist of this formerly all-girl quartet, now a trio.

I guess I can count myself lucky. I saw the Noodles twice as a quartet with Junko as lead guitarist. It was only recently I found out about this strangely-named group, but when I did, I went out and bought everything of theirs I could find and started going to their shows.

Their music is pop played with heavy guitars and drums, with Yoko at the center, a singer with a somewhat sleepy-sounding voice that, in an instant, changes so that it soars and surprises the listener with direct emotions.

Junko, the departing guitarist, stood at shows playing her lead guitar parts with a look of slight boredom, an expression that couldn’t really have reflected her true inner feelings, considering how good the notes she played sounded.

This Sunday, the Noodles, minus Junko, are playing with a few other bands at the Chelsea Hotel in Shibuya.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Plectrum at the Shibuya O-Nest

Taisuke Takata of Plectrum. Posted by Hello

Due partly to work, it’s been 11 days since I went to my last live rock show. I could sense the withdrawal symptoms setting in, feelings of pessimism and lack of inspiration. Even looking through the shelves of Tower Records Shibuya’s J-pop floor didn’t make me completely happy (though I still ended up buying four CDs...). Clearly, I was in need of an antidote.

I was in luck -- Plectrum was playing tonight at Shibuya’s O-Nest, apparently a last-minute booking with four other bands. I’ve seen this rock quartet many times, in two countries, and they’ve always lifted my spirits.

Takata and Kicchon Kishihara of Plectrum. Posted by Hello

Tonight was no exception.

They mostly played songs from their most recent album, Prom Night, but also did a new hard-rocking number called ‘Myongdong Calling’, inspired by their trips to Seoul (the song title is a joking reference to ‘London Calling’ by the Clash; Myongdong is a big shopping district in Seoul). Plectrum finished the set with ‘Sweet Home’, a blues- rock-sounding song with dazzling guitar solos by Akky, the lead guitarist.

Akky Fujita and Takata of Plectrum. Posted by Hello

Slow-Boat at the Shibuya O-Nest

Slow-Boat's bassist. Posted by Hello

Other than Plectrum, the only band out of the four others playing tonight at the Shibuya O-Nest that I really liked was Slow-Boat, a spirited, suit-wearing quartet. Two rows of true-believing fans in the front hopped and swung their arms to their somewhat ska- and rockabilly-sounding songs.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Plectrum's Takata Speaks About Seoul

Plectrum in Seoul. Posted by Hello

I wrote recently about an electrifying moment at Tokyo rock band Plectrum's Seoul show this month: the sound system went out at the club, but instead of stopping the gig, singer Taisuke Takata walked into the audience and sang with them, until, the very moment the speakers came back to life, he jumped back to the mike to finish the song.

Now I've found that Takata himself has written about the experience in his on-line diary. He writes (my translation):

When the mike stopped working during Plectrum's live, I became depressed, thinking we might not be able to continue the show. But to answer everyone's cheers, I tried to sing mike-less 'Till I Die Again' [one of the songs in their latest album Prom Night], which we weren't scheduled to do.

Then, everyone in the hall sang along, both those who knew the lyrics and those who didn't. That really lifted my spirits. Nothing could make a musician happier. Eventually the mike recovered. Now it was my turn to express my gratitude and emotion by playing the best show I could.

The photo he uses in that entry is the one I took and posted in my own entry. Pre-tty cool.

A Kampai! To Wine Tasting, Vineyards in France

This isn't very related to Japanese indies rock, but I'd like to say a big kampai! (cheers!) to the excellent blog Wine Tasting, Vineyards in France. It's written by a Frenchman named Bertrand Celce, and deals with (you guessed it) wine. The blog is filled with crisp, beautiful photos of French vineyards, wine bars and cafes, and happy wine drinkers who are oozing with Frenchness. Little wonder the photos look so good -- Bertrand's bio says he's a photographer.

Drinking is a key component of my Tokyo indies rock experience, but my nectar is mostly beer and bad cocktails. It's hard to picture sipping a nice Bordeaux in one of the grungy Tokyo live houses.

Anyway -- kampai, Bertrand!

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Polite Japanese Rock Musicians

Drummer from Osaka. Posted by Hello

For players of the rebel’s music that is rock ‘n’ roll, Japanese musicians are usually surprisingly polite people. They don’t put you off with their Attitude. Rather, they speak in polite Japanese and bow a lot.

Part of the reason for that, I think, is that Japanese rockers by and large look at their bands as businesses and themselves as entrepreneurs (though they get into and continue with the music for loftier reasons than money).

Being polite keeps the customer happy, happy customers lead to good business, and therefore it’s a good idea to be polite with fans.

But another reason is that, when you tell rock musicians you like their music, they are honestly happy that out of the thousands of bands out there you found their music enjoyable. (Unless the band is already very popular and its musicians stuck up.)

Musicians outside of Japan might act similarly, but it’s very pronounced in Japan.

A singer. Posted by Hello

A rock musician of one band is also polite with other bands’ members because networks are crucial in Japan’s music scene.

One evening’s show at a Japanese rock club usually features several bands, with one band organizing the event and inviting the other bands. The organizing band would be more prone to inviting a band that they found pleasant in the past, instead of one they felt was a major pain.

Being Japanese, Japan’s rockers also have a weakness for doing things in a formal way.

For example, when one band organizes a show (and plays last), almost always the other bands that were invited to the event acknowledge the organizing band and thank that band during their sets.

These other bands sometimes sound as polite and formal as a mini-speech you’d listen to at a wedding. Which is funny and ironic considering that many of these guys probably got into rock because they wanted to escape Japanese society’s conventions, and yet by making little speeches like they do, they are acting the way good Japanese are supposed to act.

Organizing a show is a somewhat big deal for a band. An even bigger deal is to hold what’s called a ‘reko hatsu live’, or a show to celebrate the release of a new album. The other bands pile on the felicitations at reko hatsu shows.

The biggest deal for an indies band is to have a ‘one-man live’, that is, a show featuring just their own band. Successfully completing such a show for the first time is a rite of passage for a band, like getting a driver’s license or graduating from school.

Fans understand the importance of the one-man show, and come out in droves to see it.

That’s why when, for example, Aiko of advantage Lucy said at a performance that her band is planning a one-band show for the first time in years, audience members cheered in approval.

And when Burger Nuds did their first (and last) one-band show at the Shinjuku Liquid Room, at the end of the performance the singer broke out in tears because he was moved they’d pulled it off. (Sadly, that ended up being the one of their few one-man shows, because they split up soon afterwards.)

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Following Orange Plankton To Nagasaki

Summer clouds over Nagasaki. Posted by Hello

Tokyo piano pop band Orange Plankton has been on a national tour of small Japanese clubs after releasing their wonderful new album Wakusei Note. I decided to fly to Nagasaki in southern Japan to see them in the middle of the tour, and also to meet a friend who runs a bistro there.

It was my second time in Nagasaki, a beautiful harbor city.

Walking around town before the show I stumbled upon a festival at the Buddhist temple Sofuku-ji. It was a very un-Japanese festival. The bright colors of the festival paper lanterns – pink, yellow and red – aren’t what you’d see at ordinary, more subdued Japanese festivals. The food offerings to Buddhist divinities were also not Japanese, and looked like Chinese food – whole cooked chicken, fatty pork and so on.

I read later in the book Gateway to Japan (a great guidebook) that the temple was built in the 17th century by Fuijian Chinese in Nagasaki, which explains the Chinese touches of the festival and also the temple architecture. Despite the Chinese origins of the temple, it seemed certain that most of the festival-goers were Japanese, rather than overseas Chinese who lived in the area. Nagasaki is an interesting multi-cultural city.

Chinese food offerings at Sofuku-ji temple. Posted by Hello

Orange Plankton at Nagasaki Studio Do!

Orange Plankton in Nagasaki. Posted by Hello

Orange Plankton’s show was at a performance space called Studio Do! Not really a club, because it doesn’t serve booze. I couldn’t remember the last time I didn’t have a couple of beers or gin & tonics in my system by the end a Tokyo rock show.

Probably, never. But tonight it was teetotaler night with the teenagers and twenty-somethings in the audience.

And the 30 or so people in the audience were YOUNG. Maybe in conservative Nagasaki, people stop going to rock shows after finishing college? Who knows.

Yuki and Yumi of Orange Plankton. Posted by Hello

It must not be easy being a band on the road and playing to audiences who don’t have a clue who you are. There were looks of apathy and incomprehension on the faces of the Nagasaki audience listening to Orange Plankton.

But Japanese music fans’ facial expressions are sometimes hard to read. They could be having the best time ever, and still wear an expression of a person waiting for a dental appointment. And indeed, after the show several people bought Orange Plankton’s CDs, including two girls with bleached hair who looked totally bored during the performance.

Orange Plankton’s show was powerful as always.

I admire their commitment to their music. They try harder than any band I know to get people interested in their music and go to their shows.

Before shows, they pass out flyers outside while other bands sit and smoke in the lounge. They play on the street, packing up fast if cops tell them to stop. They send e-mails to past show-goers, hand-make questionnaires, posters, tour pamphlets, stickers, T-shirts, etc.

All of it is a reflection of how much they believe in the quality of their music. I think their belief is justified, and hope they succeed.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Miniskirt at the Que

Edgar of Miniskirt. Posted by Hello

Miniskirt is a Tokyo guitar pop band headed by Edgar Franz, a German musician/academic living in Japan. Edgar is an interesting guy -- I don't know any foreigner who knows more about Japanese indies bands, and he has a strong opinion on each one of the bands he knows. (His list of 25 favorite Japanese musicians is worth a look.)

Sachiko of Miniskirt (Kenmi on drums). Posted by Hello

He's also a Player in the Tokyo indies music scene. As far as I know Edgar is the only foreigner who can arrange shows at the prestigious Shimokitazawa Que, a dinky basement rock club that is known for its quality acts, and the management's pickiness in booking those artisits.

He planned tonight's show at the Que featuring Scottish singer Momus. Edgar was also behind the Melody Go Round show, which brought together in Seoul in March four great Japanese bands: advantage Lucy, Plectrum, Lost in Found, and his own group, Miniskirt (Linus' Blanket of Seoul also played). The show was a smashing success.

Those five bands will play again together on January 22, this time at the Que in Tokyo. Edgar planned that one too. If you are in Tokyo on that day and are even slightly interested in guitar pop, I highly recommend the show. Finally, Edgar is taking his band to Manila on September 18 to play with, I think he said, SIX Philippine guitar bands. It sounds like it will be an absolutely wild event. Wish I could go.

Edgar with Tsugumi of Kofta. Posted by Hello

Miniskirt's show tonight was about the fifth time I saw the six-person band, and it was the best performance I've seen of them. Edgar is good at capturing the hearts of the audience members with his little jokes in heavily German-accented Japanese. (He put on those 70's-ish sunglasses in the photos because, he said, he's 'shy' -- yeah right.) Edgar plays well the role of a henna gaijin, a weird foreigner.

The music is short, simple and sweet, the aural equivalent of pastries. My favorite Miniskirt song of the night was 'Tongue Information', which has lines such as:

in the year 2055 the world is gonna be
completly different from what we
can imagine today
self service machines wherever you look
electronic newspapers electronic
skyscrapers touching the cloud's tip of the tongue
elevator music
performed by Thelonious Monk
it's so strange
it's so strange
it's just
love, it`s just love that keeps us together

Mai of Miniskirt. Posted by Hello

Lost in Found at the Que

Lost in Found (part of them) Posted by Hello

Lost in Found is a fairly new six-piece band, who count among their big fans members of advantage Lucy, the brilliant Tokyo rock group. Not many beginning bands can make that claim. That despite the fact that Lost in Found has so far only put together one demo album (a very good one).

What's notable about Lost in Found's music is how laid back it sounds, without seeming lazy -- their tunes sound like something you'd sing over an outdoor breakfast.

Yukiko Hamada of Lost in Found. Posted by Hello

Making their songs attractive are the pretty, transparent voices of the two singers: Mike Matuszak, a Canadian of Polish descent, and Mineko Yokoyama, a Japanese woman. Three of their songs can be sampled here.

Lost in Found opened tonight at the Momus show. They seem to still be learning the ropes of live playing, but are nevertheless a fun band to watch on stage.

Mike Matuszak of Lost in Found. Posted by Hello

Momus Comes To Tokyo, Plays The Que

I didn't know about the balding, eye-patched Scottish musician Momus until I saw him at the Tokyo club Que tonight. But he's been around for a while and is apparently pretty popular internationally, as evidenced by the high number of foreigners in the audience.

Momus played alone with just a PC with sampled music on stage. It was a one-hour plus solo performance, which has the potential for pain for the audience, but Momus pulled it off well. With his great, raspy, tenor voice, he sang a stream of humorous and literary-sounding lines.

He lived in Japan for while and collaborated with Japanese songstress Kahimi Karie. Maybe as a result, some of his songs have references to Japan: "Tokyo is far away/The English wear a poker face", went one. Another song about a cat was inspired by a novel by Soseki Natsume, the great writer and face on 1,000 yen bills.

Momus also said Tokyo's his favorite city, which might be a line he uses in every city he goes to, but regardless, it was a statement with which I agreed wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Japan Live...In Seoul

Palace guards in Seoul. Posted by Hello

Japan Live has crossed the sea to Korea.

Six months ago I went to Seoul with a group of Japanese rock musicians, and had such a great time that when I heard Tokyo rock bands Plectrum and Swinging Popsicle were visiting Seoul, I didn't hesitate to stick along. Jang Yaeri, a Korean woman who speaks fluent Japanese and is a true J-pop lover, organized the event.

It was a blast once more. At every show the Korean fans were on fire, reacting to the two bands' amazing performances. Plectrum and Swinging Popsicle, for their part, got their energy from the fact that after every song of every set they played, the audience whopped and roared like they were the Beatles.

Plectrum at the Kuchu Camp (Seoul). Posted by Hello

Mongoose at the Soundholic (Seoul)

Soundholic in Seoul. Posted by Hello

Soundholic. An outstanding name for a rock club. It's in Seoul's Hongik University district, a bustling entertainment center for the young and the hip. It's here that Tokyo's Plectrum and Swinging Popsicle did their first night's gig.

Mongoose at the Soundholic. Posted by Hello

A Korean band named Mongoose opened for the two bands. A couple of things stand out in my mind about Mongoose.

First, the bassist.

He was sending very mixed-up fashion signals. He wore a black AC/DC T-shirt. But he sported one of those not-quite-mohawks like David Beckham had at one point, with the hair cut short on the sides rather than shaved off. He also had a moustache. Despite the bizarre fashion, he's a very nice guy, one of the Japanese musicians said.

Second, Mongoose played a cover of Plectrum's 'Cherry Boy 1994'. Giggle at the song title if you like, but it's a nice tune, and I was impressed Mongoose knew the song, not to mention learned to play it enough to perform at a show.

Until this year, Koreans couldn't buy Japanese pop music CDs. I doubt Plectrum's 'Sorry' is available even now in Korean stores. So how did Mongoose discover 'Cherry Boy 1994'? I guess somehow on-line, but it's still a thing of wonder.

Plectrum replied to Mongoose by playing the 'Cherry Boy 1994' themselves during their show that night.


Speaking of Korea's J-pop ban, I heard something interesting from Plectrum's guys. The night the quartet arrived in Seoul they were interviewed by a radio station. However, they weren't allowed to play on the radio a CD of theirs they brought because the songs contained Japanese lyrics. And when they did a live performance on the radio, they had to improvise and sing 'naa, naa, naa' where the Japanese lyrics would have been.

Is it really true that Koreans can buy J-pop CDs now, but they can't listen to Japanese language pop songs on the radio?