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.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

How To Go To A Tokyo Rock Show

Shibuya clubs Chelsea Hotel and Take Off 7. Posted by Hello

You’re coming to Tokyo on vacation. During the day you will go to the Imperial Palace, see a piece of traditional Japan in Asakusa, take a trip to Kamakura to visit ancient temples. But at night you want to unwind and have fun. How about catching a rock show?

Posters for events in Shibuya. Posted by Hello

On any night, there are dozens of clubs where Japanese rock bands are playing. The best clubs, or ‘live houses’ as they are called here, are concentrated in the western side of the Yamanote train line, which circles central Tokyo. Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa and Ikebukuro are where the finest live houses are. Each of those areas has its own character, its strong and weak points.


Advantage: Home of the Loft, one of Japan’s most famous and oldest rock clubs, Shinjuku live houses feature some of Tokyo’s best bands. There are lots of punk shows.

Disadvantage: Most Shinjuku live houses are in Kabukichou, Tokyo’s premier red-light district. Expect to dodge touts for various adult entertainment to get to shows. It’s like walking through a brothel for some rock ‘n’ roll. (This might not be a weak point for some readers, to be sure.)


Advantage: There are great shopping and record stores in the area (including the Grand Temple of Japanese music, the seven-floor Tower Records Shibuya).

Disadvantage: The live houses don’t have much character.


Advantage: A short train ride away from Shibuya or Shinjuku, Shimokitazawa has its own scene, and many in the audience are themselves likely to be musicians and appreciate good music. The quality of bands playing at clubs like the Que and Shelter are usually high.

Disadvantage: Sometimes the audience is nothing but musicians, making for a boring (and incestuous) crowd.

I hardly ever go to Ikebukuro, further north from these three music centers above, so I don’t have anything to say about it.

Street between O-East and O-West in Shibuya's love hotel district. Posted by Hello

One thing about most Tokyo rock clubs is they’re hard to find. They’re in the basements or upper floors of characterless buildings. But don’t let that discourage you, because there’s an excellent on-line resource called Tokyo Gig Guide, put together by a Tokyo resident named Craig E.

Tokyo Gig Guide gives detailed instructions on how to get to the major live houses, with some photos.

Another extremely useful thing Craig does is put together a calendar of good shows. The gigs he lists are all worth watching.

Or, you can simply head to one of the clubs and take a chance on the bands playing that night.

My experience is that shows at the Que and Shelter in Shimokitazawa, and the Loft and Red Cloth in Shinjuku, usually showcase decent-to-great bands.


Most Tokyo rock shows start at 6:30 or 7 at night. I think this is so that the shows can end by around 10PM, allowing fans living far away to catch the train home. (Trains stop running between midnight and 1AM.)

Except for very popular acts, you usually don’t have to buy tickets in advance. Typically, tickets cost about 2,500 yen at the door, or around US$25, and you need to pay another 500 yen or so for the first drink.

If there’s more than one band playing, the ticket seller will ask you which band you’ve come to see. Even if you hadn't come for any specific band, it’s a nice thing to do to tell the ticket seller the name of any of the bands written on the program. That’s because the clubs divide up part of the revenue from the show based on which bands the ticket buyers say they have come to see. (That is, if 20% say they’re Band X fans, then Band X gets 20% of the payout.) So, if one band has a particularly crazy name that you like, or is low on the roster and probably consists of starving musicians, you’d be doing them a favor by telling the ticket guy that’s your band, even if you have no idea who they are.

Of course, if there’s only one band playing that night, you don’t need to tell the ticket seller you’ve come to see that band. If you do, the ticket seller will nod politely, wearing a serene expression, but will be thinking: "yeah, no duh."

I talk to the ticket sellers in Japanese, but they should be able to understand English, considering they must have graduated from high school and therefore studied English for six years. Ask first if the person speaks English and then talk S-L-O-W-L-Y (as rust may have set in to their English comprehension skills in the years since they last studied the language).

Shows end about 10PM. Band members often come to talk to fans on the floor when the shows are finished. If you liked a band, by all means talk to them, say you loved their music, buy their CDs and so on. Most musicians live for those kinds of encounters.


Christmas is just around the corner... Posted by Hello

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Photos From Tibet

Tibet mountain scene - from Posted by Hello

I'm taking a break from the usual talk on the Tokyo rock music scene to bring your attention to the excellent Chinese photo-blog Its most recent series details a trip to Tibet by the blog's creator, Zhao. Zhao took stunning photos of the remote land.

I love looking through 22catcher because Zhao captures China in all its grittiness. Zhao's subject is people --children, the newly affluent, beggars, laborers, young hipsters, and everyone else who populates China's streets. In some of Zhao's pictures the people in them appear annoyed or angry at getting photographed; these are guys who in real life you could only glance at, not look at in any length. With such photos, 22catcher lives up to its slogan, a quote by war photographer Robert Capa: If you're photographs aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.

Take a look.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Farmstay, Throw Curve, Hoover's Ooover at 251

Throw Curve at Shimokitazawa 251. Posted by Hello

Tonight I went to see some Japanese rock bands I used to listen to a lot but have neglected recently, for one reason or another. They were: Farmstay, Throw Curve and Hoover Ooover, playing at the Shimokitazawa Club 251 in western Tokyo (another band called Onsoku Line, who I only heard the name of, also performed).

Farmstay is a quartet, led by singer and guitarist Masatoshi Asauchi, who is handsome in a reptilian way. Every once in a while he hops on the stage monitor, staring into the darkness of the club like a predator.

The one girl in the band, bassist Yosiko, looks like a young Japanese version of the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde. With an unchanging look of relaxed concentration, she plays fiery bass licks.

Farmstay (meaning of name unknown) borrows heavily from the musical vocabulary of punk and hardcore -- aggressive and heavy guitar and bass chords, and fast rhythms. But they aren’t a punk band (there weren’t any spiked motorcycle jackets and mohawks in the audience), and you also hear influences like funk and new wave in their music, while Asauchi sometimes raps hip hop-like.

They’re an energetic and exhilarating band to watch. I remember being ecstatic after several of their shows last year. But then at some point I realized that some of what looked like exciting and spontaneous action on stage, such as Asauchi’s jumping on the monitor, was actually done at every gig, and I became bored. Now after about a year’s absence, the band seems fresh. For the near future, rather than home stay, think I will Farmstay (sorry).


I saw Throw Curve once or twice before, and have a CD of theirs, but I never got into their music enough that I wanted to make a major effort to go to their shows. Tonight I did, and it was worth it.

Throw Curve has a Shimokitazawa sound: not too heavy, musically adventurous, but without taking themselves too seriously or getting carried away. Their songs remind me of the way that in some traditional Indian music, the sitar and other instruments go in separate directions in long passages but come together at key moments. That’s the way Throw Curve’s guitars and bass parts sound. In other words rock music-wise they don’t go for the straight pitches, and that makes them an interesting band to listen to.


I have one of Hoover Ooover’s CDs, but had never seen them live, and the show tonight didn’t impress me that much. The music was pleasant pop, but the female singer and the rest of the band didn’t try that hard to connect to the audience, and their songs weren’t good enough they could stand on their own without any help from the band’s personality, which I didn’t get any feel for tonight (except that they are a shy band, maybe).


NUDS, NUDS, NUDS: I wrote a couple of times about the great, but now defunct, Japanese rock band Burger Nuds, and now about half of the people that come to my blog using search engines are looking for home pages about "Asian nuds", "big nuds", "female nuds", etc. Nuds, nuds, nuds, nuds.

Speaking of which, I saw on a flier that two of the Burger Nuds’ three band members have formed a new band that will perform at the Shinjuku Loft. I must check them out. (Oh, I get a lot of hits from people looking for info about the Shinjuku red light district too ((since that’s where several of the Shinjuku rock clubs are located, the red light district)).)

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Orange Plankton at Harajuku Rekio

Orange Plankton at Harajuku Rekio. Posted by Hello

Tokyo piano pop band Orange Plankton played three shows this week, a busy schedule, and last night was the last of the three performances. They will play one more show in Tokyo on November 24 and then will take December off.

"We’re going to recharge," drummer Tamarou told me.

A good idea. In addition to doing shows about every other week this year, Orange Plankton has gone on a national tour, released a single and a new album, on top of holding jobs to support their musical activities. Taking time off sounds like a wise plan.

But all those shows they did this year have paid off. At last night’s gig at a club called Harajuku Rekio, the band’s performance was tight, and they were a joy to watch.

They have a new, rocking tune having to do with bacteria that produced oxygen on earth at the dawn of time. (Singer Yumi gets ideas for some of her songs from science programs on TV. She’s the only musician I know who can make wonderful songs out of our planet’s beginnings...) It’s a call and answer song – Yumi sings "yeah-ah" and then audience is supposed to answer, "yeah-ah". Unusually for Tokyo's reserved rock audience, when she called out, the small crowd around me replied to her, though quietly and shyly. Maybe because it was such a swinging, nice tune. And getting a response boosted Yumi’s energy level even more, it seemed.


The Rekio is a tiny club in the middle of nowhere in Harajuku, a mutiple-personality town in western Tokyo that combines: haute fashion boutiques like Gucci; teenybopper stores selling British punk and goth outfits and teen idol photos; trendy restaurants and bars; and one of Japan’s most important Shinto shrines, the Meiji shrine.

Rekio’s bar specializes in awamori, the potent liquor from the island of Okinawa. Behind the stage there was a movie screen, which had animation movies by Hayao Miyazaki playing between shows, and during performances showed the bands playing live in various angles. It was a bit meaningless (I mean, you can see the band right in front of you one meter away), but fun in a way too.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Goods - Lucy's Red Bicycle Tape

Lucy van Pelt's Red Bicycle tape. Posted by Hello

At last, at last, I got to listen to Lucy Van Pelt’s Red Bicycle tape.

This is the historic first recorded work of the brilliant Tokyo rock band now called advantage Lucy (they used to be Lucy van Pelt but changed their name to avoid copyright problems, Lucy being the cartoon character that always pulls the football away from Charlie Brown at the last second).

The band members made the tapes themselves at home and sold them at shows in the mid-90's, so the only existing copies are those owned by fans. If you asked me which would excite me more, getting my hands on the butchers and dolls cover version of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today album, or the Red Bicycle tape, I’d have to say, the latter.

Lending the tape to me was another diehard Lucy fan, Dr. I. He’s vague about how he acquired the treasure.

We and his girlfriend had dinner after an Orange Plankton show, and after we clinked our glasses, he brought out from his bag the tape, carefully wrapped in plastic, and handed it to me.

There is was, as I’d imagined it. The green tape cover had a woodblock picture of a baby sleeping in a cradle. The tape gives singer Aiko’s full name (she goes only by her first name now) and the contact address listed was that of guitarist Takayuki Fukumura’s home in Saitama prefecture, next to Tokyo. I went home and copied the tape on a mini-disk.

In Red Bicycle, Aiko sounds very young (it was about eight years ago, after all) and sings with less skill than she does now, but the bright guitar pop sound is unmistakably Lucy. The tape contains a live recording of the classic early Lucy song, Red Bicycle. At shows like those recorded here, Lucy attracted a following that eventually led to their being signed by major label Toshiba EMI.

(Though they ended up leaving Toshiba EMI and returning to being an indies band. I know there are some partisan fans who stopped listening to them when they went major label. What a waste! These fans are missing two outstanding Toshiba EMI-era albums, Fanfare and Station, and two great mini-albums for Lucy’s own label, Solaris Records. And, judging by their recent shows, Lucy’s newest songs are some of the best they’ve created.)