Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Advantage Lucy at the Festival of Light

advantage Lucy

On December 23, which is the Emperor’s Birthday holiday in Japan, advantage Lucy played two sets at the ‘Festival of Light’ in Adachi Ward (a ward is like a city district). This was the third year that the Tokyo pop group appeared at this free event, and though I missed last year’s show I did make it to the one two years ago, and had fond memories of it.

Going again to this event I remembered what I liked about it—the atmosphere is familial and relaxed, taking place in a public park whose trees have been lit up for the holidays. People of all ages sit outside in the chilly evening to watch the shows, while kids run around the stage and hide behind the illuminated trees. Encircling the stage are food stalls, whose shopkeepers call out, between breaks, what they are selling.

There’s also the wonderful feeling of anomaly of seeing advantage Lucy, one of Japan’s great bands, playing on the same stage as children’s electric piano groups, senior citizen choruses, and so on. On Friday night, they played first at a park near Ayase station, and the performers that went before them were called the Beautifuls, who described themselves as “Japan’s #1 Hustle Salaryman band” (unfortunately, I missed them). And after advantage Lucy's second set, which was at a park in Takenotsuka, a troupe of high school hip-hop dancers took the stage (for the finale these hipsters danced in Santa outfits).

One other nice thing about this event is that advantage Lucy’s music matches perfectly the feel of the wintry Tokyo evening. Maybe it’s singer Aiko’s voice, which is pure and crystalline, like the icy nighttime air. It also helps that they play their most festive, holiday-like songs such as “Hello Mate” and “Weekend Wonder”. During their second set they did a very slow, gorgeous rendition of their ballad “Today”.

At one point there was a little girl in front of me wearing a sky-blue down jacket standing transfixed by advantage Lucy’s show. Her expression, as she looked at the musicians and the happy audience, was somewhere between curiosity and puzzlement. I wondered whether one day, just maybe, she too might be playing music on that stage.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Vasallo Crab 75; Cerebral Vs. Physical Shows

Vasallo Crab 75

Thursday night’s show at the Shibuya Eggman looked promising on paper, and I was looking forward to it: it featured Vasallo Crab 75, an indie pop/funk band I’ve written about many times before, as well as Shugo Tokumaru, the internationally respected alternative music guitarist, and the Tenniscoats, a guy-girl duo that came highly recommended by Tokyo Gig Guide.

It turned out to be an interesting event, but also one that made me think about the True Essence of a good live show. Vasallo Crab 75 played last, and there was a big divide between their energetic, physical set, and the much more cerebral performances of the two acts that preceded them, the Tenniscoats and Shugo Tokumaru. Those latter two’s attitude toward a live show seemed to be, ‘we will now create beautiful, innovative sounds for you, and we won’t move around that much on stage or do much else besides play our instruments, but we hope you will enjoy the music for its own sake’. Tokumaru, in fact, asked for the stage lights to be darkened so that he could barely be seen, and didn’t say much other than some nearly inaudible mumbled words at the start.

And indeed, the Tenniscoats and Tokumaru both played compositions that were admirable for their adventurousness and beauty (in particular, I found it remarkable the way that Tokumaru would seamlessly switch from jazz styles to classical to Latin to trash culture pop to create his own sound). These guys seemed like musicians’ musicians. The problem is, I’m not a musician, and as a regular live-house-going music fan, I found that the earnestly played, innovative music made me sleepy after a while. Maybe the venue was part of the problem. I felt this type of music might work better where you could relax and listen, like a café, or maybe played somewhere that is beautiful such as a cathedral or an outdoor natural site, rather than a basement live house.

In the end, though, live music is entertainment, and I need an ingredient in addition to the music itself to be entertained. I want to see that the musicians are into their songs, like it when they hop around and dance on stage, and I appreciate it when they make an effort to draw the audience into their music. If not for those things, is it even worth paying money and sacrificing an evening to see a band play live? Every band I go to see often is full of life on stage, though each in its different way. Vasallo Crab 75 certainly is, and was at the Eggman show, six guys that are totally into their music, but at the same time want the audience to get into the songs and dance along to them.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Automatics & Ron Ron Clou At Red Cloth

I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner at the Shinjuku Red Cloth on Saturday night, and I think I was the oldest guy in the club as well. I stood out in a big crowd of late teen to early twenty-something Japanese music fans, many of whom seemed to be too young to have realized that chain-smoking has its consequences down the line—the hall was like a smoke pit. I wasn’t feeling too well, maybe I had come down with something due to the sudden winter chill in Tokyo, and about five minutes into the show I had grim visions of becoming a weird foreigner who fainted in a packed rock club.

In other words, conditions weren't perfect at the Red Cloth, but I’d seen worse, and in any case I had a mission that made me stick it out: to see the band Automatics for the first time.

Ron Ron Clou

The Automatics are one of the oldest and best bands on the great indie label K.O.G.A. Records. Another K.O.G.A. band, Ron Ron Clou, is a trio that plays retro sounding rock. Add the female vocalist Momoko Yoshino to Ron Ron Clou, have Yoshino write all the songs, and you get the Automatics.

At the Red Cloth show, Ron Ron Clou played a long set first, and when they were done Yoshino joined them to do a 15-minute show as the Automatics. Although neither Ron Ron Clou nor the Automatics is that well known even in Japan, the two have a small but devoted following, as you could see when they played. About a half-a-dozen girls hopped happily to the songs during Ron Ron Clou’s set, and when the Automatics started the rank of hoppers spread sideways so that most of the audience members in the front were bouncing up and down while the Automatics did their five songs.

Ron Ron Clou does gigs every once in a while in Tokyo, but the Automatics hardly ever play—as far as I know this was there first show in more than a year—and that boosted the club's excitement level. I liked both bands. Ron Ron Clou is a good combination of people: a thin sex symbol singer/guitarist (one girl in front of me videotaped him during the whole show, probably in an unofficial capacity), a bespectacled, big curly haired comedian on bass, and a super-calm but skilled drummer (he also helps out Swinging Popsicle).

The Automatics

Momoko Yoshino of the Automatics, meanwhile, is a remarkable singer because her voice is the most nasal, whiney-sounding I’ve ever heard, yet it sounds great. In person, she was a charming woman with short hair and a constant, big dimpled smile, and that unusual voice of hers was big, both when she sang and when she talked. The songs she writes have a 60’s rock feel, with a pinch of rockabilly tossed in (indeed, the guitarist and bassist of Ron Ron Clou both played Rickenbackers and Yoshino played some sort of Gibson ES guitar).

The Automatics played all my upbeat pop favorites—“Automatic Eraser”, “Goodnight My Sweetheart”, “Sweets Can Save Us” and “Yesterday’s Children” (most of these songs are in the Automatics’ classic album Quietude)—and every time Yoshino announced the next song, the crowd ooh-ed in appreciation. The show was much too short, but as it often happens by the end all my feeling of malaise had melted away and I headed out to the wintry streets of Shinjuku feeling rejuvenated.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Band To Watch--Contrary Parade

If the independent (indie) music scene can be defined as something that is completely contrary in spirit to the 3,000-yen-a-CD-charging, copy-control-CD-inventing Major Record Labels, then maybe its truest expression can be found in demo-CDs. Outside of Tokyo music clubs you sometimes see musicians passing out these disks, which they burned themselves at home and whose covers they also designed and printed themselves, in hopes that giving them to show-goers would leave a bigger impression than merely handing out flyers. Or, often bands that are just starting out bring their demo-CDs with them to shows and sell them for about the price of the blank disk. It’s a way for bands to get their songs listened to by strangers in the big wide world, one disk at a time.

Unfortunately, to be honest, many of these demo-CDs aren’t that good. You don’t generally get great music for free. But at times, miracles happen. Which brings me to a band with the unusual name of Contrary Parade.

I’d heard a song by Contrary Parade called “Happy End” in the great Bluebadge Label compilation CD guitar pop crazy!, enjoyed it, and wondered who these guys were. Several months later, in a conversation with a fellow music fan this band’s name came up, and this fan said he had bought a demo-CD of theirs. I told him I liked “Happy End” and would be interested in buying their CD too. He said the band is based in Osaka but he would e-mail them to see if they would send me a copy of the CD.

A little later he e-mailed me to say that when he told Contrary Parade that I wanted a copy of the demo-CD, they replied, “It makes us very, very happy to hear that he wants it, so, of course, we will send it to him”. In a couple of weeks I found in my mailbox the envelope containing the CD, with a note from the band saying: “We pray that this CD-R arrives at your place alright, and gets put into your audio player alright, and the speakers produce its sound alright, and that you like it alright.” And—I did!

The sound that came out of the speakers hooked me immediately—bright and ascending guitar chords, a piano, and a female voice that was passionate in a warbling way. The first song on the disk lasted six minutes and a half, audaciously long for a demo-CD, but I liked them even more for that. There’s a joyful and relaxed quality to this band’s pop music, similar to that of other great Japanese bands like the Waffles and Ku-ki Ko-dan.

I’m not sure what good it does for me to tell you about this band, whose CD I found almost by chance even living in Tokyo. It probably wouldn't be easy to track down their songs outside of Japan. But, one justification for my writing this is that, if Contrary Parade ever makes it big, I can say later that you heard about them here first. So, remember that name. Maybe one of these days they might put up a song sample or two on their website so you can judge for yourself. In the meantime, I urge you to get a copy of guitar pop crazy!, a compilation of many neat bands by a neat label that truly embodies the indie spirit.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Swinging Popsicle & "Hirata Family Festival"

Swinging Popsicle

The first snow of the winter fell in Tokyo on Sunday night, tiny and lonely specks through an icy sky, but inside the Club 251 in Shimokitazawa the temperature and atmosphere were warm. It was the night of the "Hirata Family Festival", named for Hironobu Hirata, bassist for Swinging Popsicle and Auroranote. Featured were those two groups, plus the band of the comedy duo Up Down, for whom Hirata is a producer. Hirata, skinny and handsome, polite, a guy who speaks impeccably proper Japanese, played bass for all three bands, and seemed to love every minute of the event.

Swinging Popsicle, the first up, was sensational as always in their strangely understated way. The pop band isn’t flashy, but their shows stay in the mind. One secret is the singing by Mineko Fujishima, a vocalist I think of as a Soul Diva in the body of a petite Japanese woman. Her mature, low voice seems to stretch out and fill up the live house. Fittingly, colorful little stars adorn the guitar strap of this star songstress. On stage, she stands, tiny, between Hirata and the guitarist Osamu Shimada, both of whom play with the controlled fire of real professionals. At the end of their set, Fujishima and Shimada said ‘gambatte’, meaning something like ‘give it your all’, to Hirata, who had two more sets to perform.


The volume went up a few notches as the second band, Auroranote, started with their lively blues rock. These guys are attracting a small following of girls who, during certain songs, dance and shoot up their arms altogether at key song moments. I’ve seen this before with other bands too, and have always wondered how the girls manage to coordinate their moves, and whether someone came up with the choreography or it just evolved on its own.

I was standing toward the back of the hall and there was one girl in front of me who was like a lone chick separated from the brood, dancing alone away from the rest of her group, who were closer to the stage. But she still thrust her arm up at all the right times along with the rest of the team.


The final act, Up Down, was the part-time musical unit of a comedy duo, with members of Swinging Popsicle and Auroranote helping out. Their banter and jokes between songs were as entertaining as the songs themselves, if not more so, they being comedians after all.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Upcoming Tokyo Shows - December 2005

December promises to be a great month for rock shows in Tokyo, as bands squeeze into their schedules their final gigs before 2005 comes to a close. In the past a couple of people have asked me to tell them about good shows that are coming up, so here's a list of events I will either definitely go to or will try my hardest to see:

DECEMBER 11 - Swinging Popsicle, Auroranote, Up-Down at Shimokitazawa Club 251

This event is called "Hirata Family Festival", a reference to Hironobu Hirata, who plays bass for both pop band Swinging Popsicle and rockers Auroranote, and is a producer for Yoshimoto Kogyo comedy duo/musical unit Up-Down. In other words, he's the star of this event, which should have something for everyone.

DECEMBER 13 - Advantage Lucy with Milco and No Stars Innovation at Shimokitazawa Club Que

Lucy's last show of the year as a full five-piece band.

DECEMBER 15 - Mono, Kinski, midoriyama at Shibuya Club Quattro

I've never had a chance to see "melodic instrumental noise unit" Mono, but have wanted to for a while.

DECEMBER 16 - Ricarope at Udagawa Cafe Sweets

I've written about a past show by this soulful pop singer/pianist here.

DECEMBER 17 - Automatics and Ron Ron Clou at Shinjuku Red Cloth

Two great K.O.G.A. Records pop-rock bands. The Automatics is the members of Ron Ron Clou plus female singer Momoko Yoshino.

DECEMBER 18 - SGT, Afterpilot and others at Shibuya O-Nest

Two nice alternative rock bands.

DECEMBER 19 - Travelling Panda, others at Shimokitazawa Mona Records

Afrirampo and Watusi Zombie are also playing at the Daikanyama Unit this night, but I think I will go to see jazzy, funky pop band Travelling Panda, because they play live only rarely but are great when they do.

DECEMBER 22 - Vasallo Crab 75, Shugo Tokumaru, Tenniscoats at Shibuya Eggman

More on Prince-influenced guitar pop band Vasallo Crab 75 here. More on guitar noise wizard Tokumaru here. More on delicate piano pop duo Tennicoats here. This should be a musically satisfying show.

DECEMBER 23 - Advantage Lucy at Motofuchie Park "Festival Of Light"

Every winter, the trees in Motofuchie Park in Takenotsuka are strung up with festive holiday lights, and a small musical event is held to celebrate the light-up. Maybe because Lucy guitarist Yoshiharu Ishizaka is from Adachi Ward, where the park is, advantage Lucy has been invited to play at this event every year since 2003.

I missed last year's festival but went to the one in 2003, and it reminded me of amusement park show scene in Spinal Tap. Just as in the movie Spinal Tap shared the stage with puppets, playing right before Lucy at the festival was a group of child keyboard students. Being a park, the ground was muddy; behind the stage was a big poster for the event in bright red, like a Chinese Communist assembly. And being an outdoor event in winter, it was freezing.

Still, the band playing was advantage Lucy, meaning the music was lovely, and making the trip all the way up to Takenotsuka completely worthwhile. As it will be this year! Lucy will be playing as a three-person acoustic group, and the show is free.

DECEMBER 27 - Orange Plankton at Roppongi Morph

The last show of the year for piano pop quartet Orange Plankton, one of my favorite Tokyo groups.

Also playing this night is a group called Klik, with advantage Lucy's Aiko featured as a guest vocalist, at the O-Nest. That one sounds interesting too.

DECEMBER 28 - Plectrum and Toshiaki Yamada (of Gomes The Hitman) at Shimokitazawa Mona Records

Power pop quartet Plectrum is one of my favorite live bands in Tokyo, and they are great both when they rock hard at a live house and when they go acoustic at a place like Mona Records.

Beautiful voiced Yamada (I once described his voice as being like smooth calvados) plays emotional pop music for grown-ups.

DECEMBER 29 - K.O.G.A. Cover Night 2005 at Shimokitazawa Club Que

An interesting looking event featuring several cover bands consisting of professional musicians. I'm going to see Tennoji Fanclub, a Teenage Fanclub cover band consisting of "Norman" Takata (of Plectrum), "Raymond" Ishizaka (of advantage Lucy), "Raymond" Fujita (of Plectrum), "Gerard" Chigasaki and "Brendan" Kadota (of Ron Ron Clou).

DECEMBER 30 - The Kitchen Gorilla, Tokyo Pinsalocks, others at Shibuya O-Nest/O-Crest

Two excellent girl vocalist groups I've discovered recently, playing at the same event. Exciting!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Kitchen Gorilla's My Voice

I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to The Kitchen Gorilla’s new mini-album since buying it a week ago at the Tokyo rock trio’s show. But the number is very high. A clear indication of my rapturous love for this new CD, my voice, can be found in my iPod, which shows that I listened to one song in the album SEVENTEEN times in a single day. These part few days I might have looked like I was toiling down here on earth, but in reality I’ve been way up high in Kitchen Gorilla heaven, and I haven’t come down yet.

My voice opens with a chord that feels as dramatic as the ones that begin “Purple Rain” or “A Hard Day’s Night”. Drums pound like a quick heartbeat. The guitar rock is simple—the band once said their songs use only the most basic chords, and they make up for the simplicity with abundant spirit—but stays in the mind. And then there’s singer Kayo’s high voice, which I described in an earlier post as seeming to have a life of its own, a flirtatious Voice Being that might walk away from its owner.

In fact, my voice and another mini-album released earlier this year, One, are actually a two-part work that talks about Kayo’s voice, and how she nearly lost it when she developed a polyp in her throat that she underwent surgery last autumn to remove. The lyrics aren’t obvious; if you weren’t told so, you wouldn’t know that’s what inspired them. But sometimes, the words hit you, astonishing in their painful directness. She sings, for example, in “My Little World”: “If I could blame this suffering, that tangles and flows, on someone else/ would this red pain that flows down fade at least a little?” In the title track, Kayo sings: “I’ll sing as many times as I can/ so don’t disappear/ this, my voice”. Words like those reveal the human being behind the high-pitched voice.

For all that, my voice isn’t at all a dark-sounding album. The third song, “Sensation”, for instance, is a great spirited rocker in which Kayo sometimes nearly barks the lyrics. “TKG”, the fifth tune, is the song I listened to seventeen times in a day, and is a minute and a half of super-concentrated rock ‘n’ roll energy. It is about the band (the title is an abbreviation of the band’s name) and how they want to “sing songs that are overflowing with love”.

Listening to songs like “TKG”, “my voice” and “Sensation”, I recall shows of their I’ve been to, like last Friday’s, where as she sang Kayo’s eyes turned watery and glimmered (she said later that singing that night made her so happy she wanted to cry); the female drummer, U-co, pounded the drums with an expression of utter concentration, as if in a trance; Coufull, the guitarist, spun around playing his riffs, like he was in his own world, though of course he was intensely connected with the rest of the band.

It’s only by coincidence that I learned about The Kitchen Gorilla: they had a song in a compilation album I bought, and I liked that song enough that I decided to check them out live. Now I’m hooked, and honestly, it makes me UNHAPPY that it is hard to find this group’s music even in Japan and nearly impossible to buy their stuff abroad. I intend to work to fix this, so that those interested can at least hear samples of this fabulous band’s music.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Shugo Tokumaru Interviewed

Shugo Tokumaru, Japan's super-shy musical Renaissance man, has been interviewed by David Hickey for Japan Times. It's a great story, take a look. David also writes for badbee.net, a site I admire. Shugo is playing at the Shibuya Eggman with Vasallo Crab 75 and Tennicoats on December 22--that's one of the not-to-be-missed shows this month!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Kitchen Gorilla Nearly Loses Voice

My first show back in Tokyo was The Kitchen Gorilla at the Shibuya Lush on Friday night to celebrate the release of their new mini-album. Such shows are called reco-hatsu, short for record hatsubai kinen, and they are festive events that fans flock to see. And I’m definitely a fan of this rock trio with a funny name—I’m becoming a bigger fan by the day.

Their new mini-album is called my voice. The voice it refers to is Kitchen Gorilla singer Kayo’s—info I read about the album says that she underwent surgery last year to remove a polyp in her throat that threatened to take away her voice. Heavy stuff for anyone, but especially for the vocalist of an up-and-coming rock band. The songs in this new CD touch on this experience.

The surgery was a success, thankfully, and I’m very glad for that, because I love Kayo’s singing. She’s one of the Japanese female singers whose voices I adore. Others are…advantage Lucy’s Aiko’s, for sure. Spangle call Lilli line’s Kana Otsubo’s, and Orange Plankton’s Yumi’s too. (In one of those mind-blowing developments that sometimes unfolds in life, advantage Lucy’s Aiko told me recently that she read about Orange Plankton here in Japan Live and looked up the band’s sample MP3s on their website. She liked it—the singer has a pretty voice, Aiko said. One of my grand dreams now is to organize an event featuring both of these two great bands.) Asako Toki, formerly of the Cymbals, has a beautiful voice, and so does a solo artist I like called Ricarope.

In short, there are many girls whose singing I dig, but Kayo’s is high up there. Hers is high-pitched, coquettish, and animated, like the voice will separate from her body and run away on its own.

How wonderfully she used that voice again in the Lush show! The band played mostly songs from the new album, ones I’d heard for the first time, but despite my unfamiliarity with the tunes I loved every minute of the show. As I’ve written before, there’s something different and outstanding about The Kitchen Gorilla. Listening to a good song of theirs for the first time after putting up with the bland fare of other bands’ music at shows is like finding a piece of pearl on a Tokyo street.

After the encore, Kayo said ‘love you’ in English to the audience. She also said the band’s going on a national tour with about a dozen stops, and jokingly asked everyone in the audience to go to at least five of those shows. That, unfortunately, probably won’t be possible for me, however much I like the band, but I’ll certainly try to make it to their gig next Friday at the Shinjuku Red Cloth.


By the way, the Lush, the new club where the band played, is THE hardest live house to find that I've ever been to in Tokyo, tucked away in the basement of a nondescript building in an obscure alley in Shibuya.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Missing Shows

I’m going back to LA for Thanksgiving, and that’s going to cause me to miss a few great shows while I’m away from Tokyo.

The event that’s going to make me most sorrowful about not attending is the second memorial show for the late Takayuki Fukumura on November 26, featuring advantage Lucy, Vasallo Crab 75, and Three Berry Icecream. All three are wonderful bands. I’ve written many times about guitar pop bands Lucy and Vasallo; Three Berry is the unit of female accordionist and singer Mayumi Ikemizu, formerly of Bridge. About ten bands that had worked with Fukumura played at last year’s show, which went all night. This year’s show at the Club Que in Shimokitazawa will feature only the above three bands, but word has it that one band will morph into another, the musicians from one joining another and then leaving.

Oh how I wish I could be there… Really, if you are in Tokyo, have the time, can afford it, and like this sort of music, you owe it to yourself to catch this show!

Another show that will pass me by is that of SGT, Hullabaloos and a couple of other groups at the Que on November 28. SGT is a friend’s band (he told me what the name stands for, but it escapes me now…), and is spirited, hard rock. Hullabaloos is the solo unit of the beautiful-voiced male singer of Sakanobolt, a band I saw a while ago and have been wanting to see again but is now 'taking a break'.

And then there is Caraway and more guitar pop goodness at the Ikebukuro Live Inn Rosa the next day, on November 29. Caraway is led by Osamu Shimada, the guitarist for Swinging Popsicle, one of my favorite Japanese pop bands.

There are probably other knock-out events scheduled while I’m away, but I’m going to avoid looking at Tokyo Gig Guide and Pia magazine show listings for that period so I don’t get depressed. But if you are in town, the three shows above should all be fun.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Orange Plankton At Roots; Changes

Orange Plankton’s show at Koenji Club Roots on Friday night, their first Tokyo performance in several months, made me think about how everything changes, how nothing stays the same. For the last few months the pop quartet was, musically, recharging their batteries: writing songs, practicing, trying out new things, without having to worry about gigs. At the Friday show, I could see that the rest period benefited them. They played a few new good songs (though I missed one because I arrived late), and bassist Tsuji was experimenting with playing a fretless bass and an acoustic guitar, giving more variety to the band’s sound.

What was more striking to me, and what caused me to think about how things change, is what I heard from the band members over drinks after the show. They said that each member now spends most of his or her time working on music alone, and they only meet to rehearse about once a week. Each is also doing more music away from the band: pianist Yuki playing as a guest performer for another band, for example, and singer Yumi writing and recording a song on her own for a TV program. Which isn’t anything unusual for an average band, but with Orange Plankton, it’s a change. I remembered when I first became friendly with the band members about two years ago, about the time I interviewed them, I was impressed to learn that they left free the hours between five in the evening to midnight every night for band related activities like practice and meetings. They were always together at night. Now they were more independent.

Another change, or more exactly, a possibility of change, is that it sounds like the band is on the verge of achieving bigger success. They have already done some songs for TV commercials, which help expose their music to a larger audience. Now there appears to be a possibility that they would release something on a major label. And what struck me most of all is that Yumi said there’s a chance the band might open a show at the Budokan! To put that in perspective, while the Budokan isn’t the biggest concert hall in Tokyo, it’s certainly the most prestigious. All big name musicians play there. I mean, the Beatles played the Budokan! For an indie band to tell you they will be performing at the Budokan is like having a friend who drives a Honda Civic tell you he’s buying a Bentley next.

It’s not clear if that show or the major label recording will come to pass, but I’m sure the band will give it their all to make those things happen, and I don’t know what they will do if they are unsuccessful. Theoretically, musicians can stay in an indie band forever, doing marginal jobs and playing at small venues, but I’m not sure if Orange Plankton would be happy with that. And, though usually I hate going to shows at huge halls like the Budokan, if it were Orange Plankton I’d be willing to line up at Pia in the morning like everyone to buy tickets, because they are great and deserve the success and it would be wonderful to see them at a place like that. Sure, unlike now, I probably wouldn’t be able to hang out with them after gigs, but at the least I’d be able to brag that I knew them when they were recording great indie albums in a small apartment.


Orange Plankton, which plays gorgeous, somewhat jazzy piano pop, seems to often end up playing at extremely eclectic shows, with bands that are nothing like them. Once I saw them on the same bill as a sort of death rock/noise group. Another time they performed with an idol wannabe girl band that was an otaku magnet.

Tonight, after their show a break beat hiphop duo called Osaka Guerrilla Beatniks hit the stage. These guys have the most super-fantastic band name I’ve heard of in a long time, and they also did a memorable thing right before their last song. The rapper said before they finish, he’d like to read a poem. He then whipped out a copy of Kenji Miyazawa’s collected poems, and recited some Miyazawa verse. I was surprised because the poem was sort of Marxist in content: we will all become one and rise together, that sort of thing. Miyazawa is famous for his dream-like children’s tales, but considering the era in which he wrote (in the early 20th century), when Marxism was a major intellectual movement in Japan, and considering his poverty, I thought maybe it wasn’t surprising he wrote communist-sounding poems.

The rapper read this poem as his sidekick strummed beatnik like-notes on an electric bass. It made me wish I had on a beret and a black turtleneck, clicking my fingers to the verse.


Foreigners, and especially Americans, often complain about Japanese pizza. Mayonnaise, chocolate and other foodstuff just do not belong on the top of a pizza pie, they say. I don’t care either way (and think some of the mayo pizzas aren’t bad), but I thought the pizza that was served at the after-show party would have horrified these pizza purists.

It was an “Okinawa”-style pizza. The toppings: corn; goya, or bitter melon, the bumpy green fruit that, as the name suggests, is very bitter; and that Okinawan favorite, spam! Was pretty good, actually.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ex-Clicks To Be In New Bands

The guitarist and drummer of the Clicks, the great Japanese girl rock trio that split up earlier this month, have decided to form a new group called--newbie! They haven't made any songs though. Meanwhile, the bassist, Chiharu, says she will also be in a new band, but she will make a formal announcement on it next year. All of this info is from the Clicks' BBS.

I don't know what kind of intra-band drama led to two girls starting one band and the third girl getting into another, and I'm not sure I want to know, but it's good to hear they will all stay active in the music scene. (By the way, you can now sample all of the Clicks' energetic, straightforward rock songs on JapanFiles.com, here, and you can buy the song downloads too. Also check out Mix Market, another good K.O.G.A. Records band, while you are there.)

Friday, November 11, 2005

Tokyo Pinsalocks At In The City

Thursday night, I went to a free show at the Shibuya Take Off 7 and there saw an amazing band called Tokyo Pinsalocks that made me both ecstatic and filled with mild despair.

Ecstatic, because I’d seen a lot of Japanese bands and was starting to feel that not much could surprise me, but then this all-girl quartet appeared and completely blew me away, making me realize there was a lot of great, unexplored music still out there.

Mild despair, because discovering them also made me think I’d never be able to see all the wonderful bands in Japan, that I’d always miss some group or another. The Tokyo music scene is like a huge, ever-changing organism, and no matter how many nights I go out or how many CDs I buy, I will only see bits and pieces of the whole.

I’d already known about Tokyo Pinsalocks because I saw film footage of one of their shows in a DVD called Indies Rock Vol. 4 Dramatic Girl. I wrote about this DVD before, and can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone who likes Japanese indie rock. Not only does it include bands I'm already big fans of such as advantage Lucy, Condor 44 and School Girl ’69, but it’s also turned me on to groups I didn't know about, like Limited Express (has gone?), and, now, the Pinsalocks.

The Pinsalocks' live show was one of those happy shocks I experience every once in a while in Tokyo, like the first time I saw Orange Plankton or Pop Chocolat or Limited Express. The band creates a distinct musical world on stage. Singer Naoko, with long braided hair, reminded me somehow of a Balinese dancer: maybe it was her bright, flowing hippie dress, or the intense focus of her eyes, or her jerky dance moves. But her singing was pure cute Japanese girl pop.

The band says they were influenced by a wide variety of artists including Bjork, Kraftwerk, and a Japanese band called Super Junky Monky (who I’ve never heard of), and their music was eclectic too. At times Naoko played organ sounds on her synthesizer, and the band as a whole created psychedelic music like the Doors, though played by four attractive Japanese girls rather than American men. At other times she made beep-y, piko piko sounds with her synthesizer, and the rest of the band accompanied her with hard rocking parts. It was a cool combination of musical styles, and inspired me to rush over to their merchandise table immediately after the show to buy their first full-length album, rhythm channel (pictured above). At the table, Naoko autographed the CDs and shook hands with fans. I’ve listened to the album a few times, and it’s outstanding.

Smashing Mag has a lot of nice live photos of Tokyo Pinsalocks here.


The show was free because it was part of a multi-night event called In The City, which has been going on for a few years, and is meant to showcase up-and-coming Japanese bands. The shows, taking place at several clubs in Shibuya, are produced by influential people in the indie scene, like the owners of K.O.G.A. Records and Club Que in Shimokitazawa. One of my recent Japanese band favorites, The Kitchen Gorilla, played one night, but, sadly, I missed that event. All you have to do to get in is to pick up the tickets at Tower Records, and contrary to my expectations, you don’t even have to pay for one drink as you usually have to do when you enter a club (though I ended up buying something to drink anyway, two drinks, to be exact).

However, reading over the In The City pamphlet, I found out that these shows weren’t, strictly speaking, free. Whenever you buy recording media like disks in Japan, part of the amount of money you pay is supposed to go to musicians whose music you record, but since it’s impossible to keep track of whose music is being recorded, some of that money is put into a fund. That money is then used for things that supposedly benefit the music community as a whole, such as music events that introduce new artists like In The City, the pamphlet said.

So, in fact, I paid at least some money already for this event by buying things like mini-disks and CDs.

There’s no such thing as a free show, I guess.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Chipple.net On Nomiya Maki Show

A nice review of ex-Pizzicato Five singer Nomiya Maki's record release party show is up on chipple.net. Many of Patrick's references to post-Shibuya-kei (?) artists went over my head, but I found I enjoyed just imagining what these guys with wacky names are like. For example:

Then p&art sasanoooha came on stage, dancing around wearing their superb "panda blousons" and playing with three large panda heads, for their song odoru "oshare techō". After a quick costume change, Oui Oui appeared, and sang their great cover of tATu's Not Gonna Get Us, which fit perfectly with the Oui Oui concept. Next, Akagi Tadaharu (ex-Films) joined Maki to sing the Yamo (Kraftwerk)-produced Yamate Line. Then appeared a few surprising dancers in white KKK-ish outfits, later to reveal themselves as girls of Romantica (and their undies as well), while Maki sang Kiss' I Was Made For Lovin' You.

Monday, November 07, 2005

advantage Lucy In Osaka

I’ve been wanting to visit Osaka for a while, so when Tokyo pop band advantage Lucy said they will go there on a one-band tour I decided to tag along.

Osaka, in my mind, is Japan’s number-two city. Yokohama is Japan’s second biggest city population-wise, but it’s right next to Tokyo and is basically just an extension of the giant metropolis. Osaka, on the other hand, has its own character and a long history as a merchant’s town.

Of course, Osaka locals might counter that it is their city and not Tokyo that is Japan’s top city, Tokyo being nothing but a heartless, upstart urban desert. And in truth, there are people out there that truly love Osaka and would never think of moving to Tokyo. I myself only had a few hours to spend in the city in between advantage Lucy’s show, and got just the smallest feel for what the appeal of this place is. I had time to make only the most feeble observations, such as: people stand on the right on escalators rather than on the left as Tokyoites do; many shops have huge, brightly-colored displays of sea creatures like octopus, squid, crab and poisonous blow fish on their facades; people walk fast and talk loudly; a female fashion fad is to wear boots with tiny, almost illegal-looking mini-skirts (this could be fashionable in Tokyo too, but I’m pretty sure I would have noticed if it is); and so on.

One other thing I noticed was that Osaka has great music audiences. The Lucy show was at a club called Live Square 2nd Line, which is located literally right below a railroad bridge, and I had about as much fun there as I’ve ever had at a Lucy show.

The thing that got me was the totally positive vibe of the audience, starting with the huge cheer that erupted when the show began, the non-stop dancing, and the general fun that everyone seemed to have. Tokyo crowds enjoy themselves too at Lucy shows, but they are more subdued in the way that they express their joy, possibly because they have more chances to see Lucy shows, and maybe also because Tokyoites are more self-conscious and shy because many of them are originally from regional prefectures. Whereas, people in Osaka grew up there and feel more sure of themselves, and feel fine with cheering if that’s what they feel like doing.

Whatever the reason was for the crowd’s abundant show of enthusiasm, it was a pleasure to be part of it. As in the Tokyo show I wrote about earlier, advantage Lucy played for more than two hours, doing both songs from their new album Echo Park and their older songs. One guy at the very front hopped in place energetically during all the faster songs. He’s apparently a legend among Osaka Lucy fans because he’s always at their shows, is always at the very front, and always does his hopping. (It reminded me of a video of an early advantage Lucy show I saw where about a dozen people in the front center sort of pogo-ed to the songs, like people used to do at the very beginning of punk rock. It was like some happy, peace-loving version of a mosh pit.) After the show, he came up to each Lucy member and shook hands, and didn’t let go of their hands for an extended period, like a person in some country where the handshake is something that takes a long time.

advantage Lucy

Every few minutes a train would pass right above and a rattling sound would fill the club, sometimes during the quieter songs. I didn’t mind it, but the band thought it was noisy and even lost their rhythm at one point because of it.

Harvey of OtsumamiMusic was also at the show, his first time seeing Lucy live, and has written a very nice report on it. Check it out!

Both the Tokyo and Osaka shows had lively, happy crowds, but several sources, including my friend Dr. I, have told me that the most impassioned advantage Lucy fans during this three-city tour were at the show in Nagoya. The crowd asked for and got three encores from the band, and at the end the band and audience kept on saying ‘thank you’ to each other over and over again. I wish I could have seen it.

After the Osaka show I went out with the band to a place that served delicious raw chicken (you can only eat it raw if it’s as fresh as can be), and there the musicians said again that they wished the tour wasn’t over and that they could do more shows. Earlier, singer Aiko had repeatedly said that on stage too. As a fan I shared their wish.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

INTERVIEW: Spangle call Lilli line

From left, Ken Fujieda, Kana Otsubo and Kiyoaki Sasahara of Spangle call Lilli line

I recently had a chance to interview Spangle call Lilli line, the brilliant Japanese rock trio that this year released two new albums, Trace and For Installation. There was much to talk about with these three musicians. For one thing, the band made a major change in its musical style with Trace, going from long and luxuriant post-rock-like songs to almost danceable pop numbers in the new album, and I was curious to know what was behind this move.

Spangle is also an interesting band because its three members all have separate full time creative careers: singer Kana Otsubo is an illustrator, guitarist Ken Fujieda is a graphic designer, and the other guitarist, Kiyoaki Sasahara, is a photographer. Why do they continue with this artistic double-life? I wanted to ask them about that.

The band members, in person, were friendly and talkative. In fact, many questions I asked caused them to launch into rap sessions in which they joked, poked fun at each other, came up with involved metaphors, moved far in their talk from the original question and generally had a lively conversation with lots of laughter. These are musicians who really get along with each other. At times I’d almost wonder whether they might have forgotten about my presence because they became so immersed in their talk. But, at the same time, I was happy to be able to hang out with them for more than an hour. I’m not Rockin’ On magazine, after all, and this is a popular band. That didn’t stop Spangle from telling me fascinating stuff about themselves.

JAPAN LIVE: Can you talk about the beginnings of Spangle call Lilli line? What led to the band being formed?

OTSUBO: The two of us (Otsubo and Fujieda) met each other by chance at a live house, and we said we should start a band.

FUJIEDA: Yes, we ran into each other at a live house [a rock club]. We hadn’t met in a while, and we had a lot of time on our hands [laughs], and since we met at a live house we decided we should start a band. And we thought two people wouldn’t be enough for a band, and he (Sasahara) had just quit the band that we went to see, and had time, so, in 1999, the three of us started playing in a band together.

JAPAN LIVE: Which live house was it?

FUJIEDA: It was the Shibuya O-Nest.

JAPAN LIVE: When the band got its start in 1999, what sort of music did you want to play, and who were your influences?

FUJIEDA: To tell you the truth, there was nothing at all! Truly, no concept.

SASAHARA: No plan.

FUJIEDA: No, no plan. We just wanted to go into a rehearsal studio and have guitar sounds come out of the amp, or sing songs using a mike, that was the level we were at, and we didn’t think at all about what sort of band we should be or what our sound should be like. Usually, people get together because they have some sort of music they like in common, but in our case we knew each other from college and were the same age, and because we all went to the same art school we felt we would share the same sort of sensibility.

OTSUBO: We didn’t ask each other about preferences.

FUJIEDA: Yeah, we didn’t ask about the sort of bands or music each likes—

OTSUBO: Because we were friends—

FUJIEDA: We were friends, so we thought everyone would have decent taste, and for the first year or so nothing happened. We didn’t plan to release a CD, or do a show, we just wanted to get together over weekends and it was a way to vent stress.

JAPAN LIVE: How then did you become a band that makes albums and plays shows?

OTSUBO: A year went by, and I had been playing drums the same time that I sang, but that was getting tiring, so we decided to find a drummer. We got Kabasawa (Nobuyuki), who was a friend of all three of us, to join the band, and when we jammed, suddenly our whole sound changed.

FUJIEDA: It showed how bad the drumming was until then [laughs]. All of the sudden, we saw a shape (of how the band should be).

OTSUBO: Yes. It was moving.

JAPAN LIVE: But it’s very surprising you didn’t have an idea about what you wanted the band to be like when you started.

FUJIEDA: If it had been like, let’s do jazz, or let’s do punk, it wouldn’t have been so hard for us. We’re always asked now what we want to do, what sort of music in what genre we want to do, but we still don’t really know, so we make some sounds, bit by bit—

SASAHARA: And move forward—

OTSUBO: And stumble back [laughs]—

SASAHARA: We see whether we can walk across a place or not, and if we sink we go back, and we try climbing mountains, or go to the sea…

JAPAN LIVE: So you see (making music) as a nature thing?

ALL THREE: Yes, a nature thing!

SASAHARA: Like a child of nature—

OTSUBO: We might pick up a mushroom—

SASAHARA&OTSUBO: And get sick eating it—

FUJIEDA: Or get high [laughs]. But there’s really a lot of wasted work involved.

JAPAN LIVE: Your new albums Trace and For Installation are two very different works, and both are also very different from the previous albums like Or.

FUJIEDA: Basically we don’t want to do the same things, but our true essence doesn’t change, and the rest is a matter of what sort of format (the album) will be, or what style, or what texture, or sound quality.

JAPAN LIVE: What is the “true essence” of Spangle call Lilli line?

FUJIEDA: Probably, the pure thing that doesn’t change is Otsubo’s melody and singing, or, rather, voice, and whether we play acoustic music or minimalistic electronic music or more band sound type music, we are always trying to make Otsubo’s singing come alive.

SASAHARA: Since it’s the same people (making the music), what comes out, like the smell of sweat, doesn’t change, whether or not you put perfume on it. You still like hamburgers, whether you prepare it Japanese style, or put demi-grasse sauce on it.

FUJIEDA: You really like hamburgers.

JAPAN LIVE: I like your metaphors.

FUJIEDA: He explains everything by metaphors.

OTSUBO: They are easy to understand.

SASAHARA: But I’ve been trying to talk without using metaphors, recently.

FUJIEDA: Because everyone makes fun of you for that [laughs].


JAPAN LIVE: The song lyrics that Otsubo writes are unique, and are almost surreal. How do you get the inspiration for your lyrics?

OTSUBO: When I start out with a song, I sing words that are somewhere between English and Japanese, and ultimately I change those words into Japanese. At that point, I look through the dictionary, or when I listen to what I sang I think ‘this is what it sounds like’ and write that down, or I make up new words. There isn’t really that much meaning (to the lyrics), but sometimes I think somewhere in my memory, for example if I have some memory about this cup [pointing to a black and white cup on the table], I would include the colors black and white in the lyrics, or, if I have memories about a shoe, I think I actually include fragments of that memory, or experience, in my lyrics.

JAPAN LIVE: So in writing your lyrics, you think about both the sound of the words and mental images?

OTSUBO: Yes, I mix both of those. I also want to highlight Japanese words that aren’t used often. It’s a sort of kindness [laughs]. It’s as if, by using in my lyrics Japanese words that don’t usually see the light of day, I’m telling people, look, there are Japanese words like these.


JAPAN LIVE: What is the meaning of the band name “Spangle call Lilli line”? Did you come up with it based on how it sounds?

FUJIEDA: Yes, it was chosen 100% based on how it sounds.

SASAHARA: Grammatically, should it actually be “calls”?

FUJIEDA: What do you mean, “grammatically”?

SASAHARA: Spangle calls—

JAPAN LIVE: The ‘call’ in Spangle call is the verb ‘call’?

SASAHARA: Yes. Spangle is calling Lilli line [said in Japanese].

FUJIEDA: It doesn’t come out that way in English.

SASAHARA: Is ‘Spangle’ a singular noun?

JAPAN LIVE: Yes, I guess so.

SASAHARA: So I guess it should be ‘calls’.

JAPAN LIVE: I thought the name was all nouns.

FUJIEDA: Yeah, I think that’s probably what people would think. But the name is all words that Otsubo likes the sounds of, lined together.

JAPAN LIVE: What’s ‘Lilli line”?

OTSUBO: I wanted (the characters) ‘Li’ to be repeated a few times.

FUJIEDA: That’s what it’s about?

OTSUBO: I like girl’s names like Lily. And I like the word lily, as in tiger lily, so I wanted to include ‘Lily’ in the band name.


JAPAN LIVE: You all have full-time creative jobs separate from the band. Why did you decide to do both?

FUJIEDA: That’s a difficult issue.

SASAHARA: It wasn’t an intentional thing.

FUJIEDA: We wanted this to be an After Five thing—

SASAHARA: Like a drinking party. We started this as if we were just going to get lunch or something—

FUJIEDA: The music started out as break from work, but then little by little the importance of the music part became bigger, so that now they [the music and full-time jobs] are starting to look about equal in importance. But, after all—

OTSUBO: To us, things haven’t changed.

FUJIEDA: It’s like a hobby.

SASAHARA: It’s not different from going traveling, or going skiing.

FUJIEDA: Although I hate traveling and skiing [laughs]. Even in my hobbies outside of work, I need to be making something. I need to be productive.

OTSUBO: In that sense, I guess being in a band works, because we’re making things.

FUJIEDA: Right. It’s at the same time a great way to vent stress, but also a creative thing—

SASAHARA: We create something that remains.

FUJIEDA: Yes, we create something that remains. Nothing remains after you go traveling.

OTSUBO: Well, how about photos?

SASAHARA: Or experiences?

FUJIEDA: See, that’s what everyone says, but nothing remains.

SASAHARA: He’s never gone abroad.

FUJIEDA: No, I haven’t. In fact, I don’t want to leave Tokyo at all. I’ve only been on a plane once in my whole life.

OTSUBO: And that was for a performance—

FUJIEDA: When I look at an airplane, all I can think is that it’s something that will crash. It just doesn’t make sense that something big like that—

SASAHARA: It shakes a lot.

FUJIEDA: There’s something wrong with it.

OTSUBO: But it’s fun.

FUJIEDA&SASAHARA: It’s not fun at all!

OTSUBO: Some day, I want to fly first class.

FUJIEDA: But that would still be flying. Traveling just feels like a vain thing.

OTSUBO: You don’t even want to, say, go to the beach?

FUJIEDA: I guess it would be fun once I go.

SASAHARA: You should go to Hawaii or some place once. If you go to, say, India, it will probably get you thinking. I don’t really like traveling either, but when I was a student I thought I went just for the experience.

OTSUBO: Where did you go?

SASAHARA: When I was a student, I went to Thailand. And I also went to London and Paris. And to China for work.

FUJIEDA: But you like Tokyo the most, right?

SASAHARA: We’re the same that way.

FUJIEDA: There needs to be a Doutor [a coffee shop chain] and bookstores [laughs]. If there are no Doutor and bookstores, I feel anxious.

JAPAN LIVE: So, no overseas tours are in the works?

FUJIEDA: I don’t think so.

OTSUBO: I want to go!

SASAHARA: If (a tour) is decided, we will force ourselves to go.

FUJIEDA: But I probably wouldn’t want to ride a car for over an hour.

OTSUBO: What?? How about a train then?

FUJIEDA: I wouldn’t want to be on a train for over an hour either. It just feels like it would be time wasted.

SASAHARA: You can read a book.

FUJIEDA: But if I were in a car, I’d get sick. Maybe I just dislike moving from one place to the next.


JAPAN LIVE: It’s surprising that you can make great music like you do on a part-time basis, as a break from work.

FUJIEDA: Yes. But it’s because we’re really having fun. And because we’re serious about making the music. So it’s a little different from, say, traveling being your hobby.

OTSUBO: It’s like your hobby is making plastic models, but you made plastic models that are incredible.

FUJIEDA: It’s as if the plastic models you made as a hobby became so elaborate that people were willing to pay money for them. And then, without your knowing it, people started calling them art…


JAPAN LIVE: Do you think the next album you make will be as different to Trace as Trace was to Or?

FUJIEDA: I guess it would depend on what sort of mode we are in at that time. But if you ask will it be the same sort of album as Trace, the answer is ‘no’, it will be very different from Trace. That’s all we know.

OTSUBO: But what kind of album it becomes will depend on how we three are feeling at that time.



JAPAN LIVE: Who writes the melodies of your songs?

FUJIEDA: Basically, Otsubo writes the melodies.

OTSUBO: For the song as a whole, I also make suggestion like, how about this for the guitar part? All three of us make parts of the songs.

FUJIEDA: The melodies sometimes are created right away, and at other times they gradually come into being. Sometimes when the musical arrangements change the melody also changes. Rather than making the songs in a clear order, we tend to gradually create new versions, so at least one or two songs on each album end up being completely different from the way it started. We’re not solo musicians making our own songs, so the songs often end up different from what each person intended. They don’t end up the way I would want them to be if I had 100% control over the song-writing. You know what I mean, right [to the others]?

SASAHARA: Yeah, that’s how all of us feel.

OTSUBO: It’s as if we planted sunflower seeds, but what ends up coming out of the ground are morning glory flowers.

FUJIEDA: That’s a hard to understand metaphor!

SASAHARA: We end up with something that is neither sunflower nor morning glory.

FUJIEDA: There’s a lot that is accidental.

JAPAN LIVE: My impression of Spangle call Lilli line’s music was that in your songs you gradually developed musical themes, but in Trace the themes seem to come right away.

FUJIEDA: That’s right. The peak comes right from the beginning. But that was our aim, structurally we made it in a pop music way. Put it another way, we wanted to do the opposite of the gradual approach. There were people who liked it, and those who didn’t. But Spangle-like elements are still there.

SASAHARA: People who started listening to us from Trace didn’t think there was anything unusual (about the album) and liked it, but those who knew us from before—

FUJIEDA: Thought it wasn’t quite what they expected.

SASAHARA: Lots of people say For Installation is more their thing.

FUJIEDA: But we have to be challenging. We have to challenge.

JAPAN LIVE: Will the next album be more like Trace, or For Installation, or neither?

FUJIEDA: If we could make something that is neither, that would be best.

SASAHARA: Maybe something that has a southern hemisphere feel.

FUJIEDA: Yeah! We could go to Bali.

SASAHARA: Yeah, it will be relaxing.

JAPAN LIVE: I’ll be looking forward to the new album. Do you have any messages to fans abroad?

SASAHARA: It’s a strange feeling…

FUJIEDA: Yeah, isn’t it a strange feeling?

SASAHARA: It’s a wonder enough that we can release CDs in Japan and that there are people willing to listen to them—

FUJIEDA: Yeah, it’s a wonder.

SASAHARA: So to imagine that happening abroad too—

FUJIEDA: But when it comes to this band, people abroad and Japanese people don’t listen to our music that differently. Because even Japanese people say they don’t understand the meaning of our lyrics [laughs]! No one can really imagine a message or story in the songs. They come up with an image for the songs based on fragmentary interpretations of the songs. So foreigners can be reassured that they are listening to the music in the same way as Japanese fans.

SASAHARA: But aren’t foreigners thinking as they listen to our songs that Japanese people must understand what the lyrics mean?

FUJIEDA: But the truth is that Japanese people don’t understand either.

SASAHARA: Foreigners are probably enjoying the songs purely based on the music rather than the way Japanese people do, which is by also listening to the words.


SASAHARA: I’d like to know what kind of music foreigners who like our music enjoy other than Spangle.

FUJIEDA: It must be no different from the way we listen to (foreign bands like) Sonic Youth or Tortoise.

SASAHARA: What I mean is, are there people who like Madonna but also Spangle, or are there people who like Tortoise and also Spangle—

FUJIEDA: I guess it depends on the person.


OTSUBO: Anyway, the message…

SASAHARA: All we can say is thanks. Thanks for finding us.


SASAHARA: We appreciate your reaching us.

Monday, October 31, 2005

advantage Lucy "One-Man" Live At Que

Woops... Club Que didn't quite get the name of the band right on the signboard.

But other than that, it was a nearly flawless show for advantage Lucy at the Que Sunday night.

The show was what Japanese music fans call a 'one-man live', just one band for the night rather than several. Since it was the Tokyo pop group's first 'one-man' in four years, and most fans prefer to see their favorite band alone rather than with other bands, the club was packed. The show was sold out, in fact--about 300 people were crowded together in the basement club.

I felt breathless standing there for about an hour before the show, with little space to move, not wanting to accidentally elbow the people around me, thirsty, unsure if I'd be able to make it through two-plus hours of the performance. (This may sound crazy if you've never been to one of these events, but you can start feeling territorial about where you are standing--once you stake out your ideal spot with a good view of the stage, you want to stay put, and not go to the bar or the bathroom or go talk to a friend, any of which will almost certainly cause you to lose your place. Then you might get stuck behind a pillar with no view of the stage, next to the bathroom, behind a really tall guy or a person with big hair, etc. So I stayed at my spot, as did everyone else.)

It was also an overcast, chilly day in Tokyo, and all day I had been in a gray mood.

But once the show started, my discomfort and gloominess vanished. I'm not so much of an advantage Lucy kook that I think their shows have therapeutic value, but nevertheless the fact is that I suddenly felt great. The packed crowd around me at times disappeared from my mind and then reemerged as groups of happy people with good vibes. Clearly the audience was happy to be at the Lucy show, and the happiness was infectious and I felt about as good as I've ever felt.

The band played more than twenty songs, over two hours of music with no break, both songs from the new album Echo Park and many of their classic tunes like "Citrus" and "Armond" and "Memai" (sometimes I'd notice a couple or friends in the audience look at each other with contentment when the intro to a song they both loved began).

What a great autumn this has been this year because of the arrival of Echo Park!

Lucy singer Aiko suggested there was more to look forward to next year--she said the band will try to finish another album in 2006. Well, it was quite a wait for Echo Park so I'm not holding my breath, but it would of course be a wonderful thing if we're treated to more advantage Lucy so soon.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

advantage Lucy's Echo Park

Like the sunlight that shines down on singer Aiko on its cover, advantage Lucy’s new album, Echo Park, is a dazzling work. This is my favorite Japanese album of 2005.

The Tokyo pop band kept their fans waiting long for this album: their last major releases were the two EPs, Anzu no Kisetsu and Oolt Cloud, in 2001.

But probably, considering all that advantage Lucy has gone through in those four years, this was about as fast as Echo Park could have been completed. If anything, I think that long period made the album richer and deeper.


Echo Park opens with the distorted guitars of “Glider”, and from there the band runs through eleven extraordinary songs, none of them anything but top-rate. Included are effervescent and driving pop songs like “Anderson”, slow but passion-filled ballads like “Akai Natsu” (meaning a red, or vermillion, summer), arty guitar rock numbers like “Shiosai” ('the sound of waves'), the straightfoward acoustic goodness of “Time After Time”, and much more.

In an age of MP3s and iTunes, when the single is King, advantage Lucy reminds you how powerful the album form can be. This is a CD made to be listened to straight through from the beginning to the final track.

It has many highlights. I love the way that overdriven guitars, horns and Aiko’s sweet voice magically mix together in “Anderson”—a 10 out of 10 rating pop song in my book.

“Shiosai”, the sixth track, is a desert nightscape of a song, where the objects—guitars, voice, Kimitoshi Sotomura’s jazzy drums—emerge from the darkness in glittering detail, as if shone by moonlight. I’ve never heard a song quite like this, and the more times I listen to it the deeper I feel myself under its spell. (After its intensity, the pure happiness of the next song, “Is This Love”, comes as a pleasant surprise.)

The second-to-last tune, “Everything”, lasts more than eight minutes, and reminds me of epic late-period Beatles songs like “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be”.

“Everything” could very well have been the last song of the album—it is a grand number, a wholly fitting finale. But instead, advantage Lucy took two acoustic guitars, a harmonica and recording equipment to a nearby park, and recorded out in the open a song called “Time After Time”, and made that the final track.

The wind was blowing so they had to record eight takes. You can also hear crows cawing in the background. But this simple song, with gorgeous chord progressions, is advantage Lucy at its most basic, and gives the essence of the band's appeal. It sometimes sneaks up to me unexpectedly, over headphones on the subway or at home, and hits me with emotion.


Guitarist Yoshiharu Ishizaka’s musical compositions in Echo Park are unforgettable, but Aiko’s singing also makes this album special.

A singer with a voice that is attractive but not naturally powerful, when she increases the intensity of her singing it sometimes feels as though the voice is at the edge of a limb, close to falling. But that makes the singing all the more compelling.

This is singing by someone you feel like you know, who loves music and pushes herself completely to express it. That may explain why many fans on Lucy’s BBS and other forums have said the eighth track, “Splash”, is their favorite song on the album: over a bright chord theme that is repeated throughout the song, Aiko’s voice soars, sometimes seems about to crash down, but never does.


A lot of the lyrics in this album, including those in “Splash” have to do with the passage of time, loss and remembering. “Time After Time”, for example, opens with a few lines about memories of the past, and then the lyrics address a person who is gone: “The more I chase you/ the farther away you run/ I look up in the sky/ where clouds are gathering / somewhere in this sky / do you travel still?” [translation mine].

Who is this ‘you’? I think that it is Takayuki Fukumura, who placed an ad one day in a music magazine to find the people that became advantage Lucy, played guitar for the band for a few years, quit the band but remained friends with them and stayed active in the music scene, and then, in November of 2003, passed away, too young, of heart disease.

Throughout the album are lyrics that seem to be written about him, and for him.

The past four years also saw Kaname Bamba, the band’s drummer from the beginning, develop a condition that made him unable to use one leg for drumming, and in the end he dropped of out of the band.

These things, plus a refusal to compromise and rush out mediocre music, and maybe a loss of direction and momentum at times, help explain the length of time it took this album to be completed.

But the finished product contains within it the gravity of those four years’ time. This is the same advantage Lucy of Fanfare and Station, essential albums of late 90’s Japanese pop music, but it is now also a group that is more mature and reflective. This is a band that has grown up.


At the end of the album, the last word Aiko sings is itsumo, Japanese for ‘always’.

Always is right. Always, this band creates beautiful songs that can’t be forgotten. Always, advantage Lucy is a band worth waiting for their new work, four years or five years or even a decade—though I hope the next wait is less. Listen to this album.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Kitchen Gorilla At Zher The Zoo

I was so excited by The Kitchen Gorilla’s show tonight that I got on the wrong train home. But I was in such a good mood it didn’t matter. I walked through Harajuku, and passed about half a dozen white model girls, thin and small-faced like cheetahs.

It was my second time seeing the Japanese pop/rock trio, and unlike the first time, I was familiar with all their songs from their mini-albums One and Skirt, and had become a major fan. They were playing again at the Yoyogi Zher The Zoo.

I love the way this band looks on stage. The guitarist is always expressionless, and vaguely resembles Lee Ranaldo in a young Japanese way. He wears a padlock necklace like Sid Vicious (Sid’s “My Way” played as the band walked on stage). The female drummer, on the other hand, is all smiles as she pounds and batters the drums. And then there’s the singer, Kayo, who is a fashion explosion. Tonight she was wearing big diamond-shaped earrings, white cowboy boots, a sequined and skull-shaped pouch, and was playing a black Flying V bass.

On stage, Kayo is a magnet for eyes. She sways like a snake charmer’s cobra. She sings as if she doesn’t ever want to let go of the mike—it’s like a tether that keeps her from being blown away by the force of the music. The girl has 100% confidence.

Yet, at the end of a show that left me feeling woozy, she rushed over to the merchandise table to collect questionnaires, like any old indie band member in Tokyo. I don’t understand why The Kitchen Gorilla aren’t already big stars.


The band, by the way, has announced it will release a new album called my voice in December.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Beaming At A BMX Bandit

Thursday was my second straight night at the Koenji Club Liner, a new Tokyo live house that is hosting a lot of great events. I was there to see Plectrum for the first time in a while.

On the walk over to the club from the subway station I ran into Plectrum’s Taisuke Takata and Akira Fujiya chatting with a tall white guy. Ignorance is limitless—it wasn’t until Takata introduced me to the guy that I found out he was Douglas Stewart of Glasgow’s BMX Bandits, a band that enjoys hero status with many Japanese pop bands. Douglas would be jamming with us later, Takata said.

There’s one segment of Japan’s music scene that is deep into Scottish bands like the BMX Bandits and Teenage Fanclub (see my interview of Plectrum’s Takata, for example), and I’ve wondered how that came to be. Scotland is far away from Japan. But probably that distance is part of the appeal. These Scottish bands are so different from a Japanese kid’s everyday life. They are exotic, having a look and a sound that aren’t at all like those of Japan but feel right.

Whatever it is that accounts for the Japanese guys’ love of bands like the BMX Bandits, I got to see the love up close at the end of Plectrum’s set, when Douglas came on stage to do a couple of songs with the band, and even more later in the evening, at the after-show party. The bands moved to a music café in Koenji, a retro place painted bright red and orange, and Takata found an acoustic guitar and asked Douglas to sing a BMX Bandits song or two. At the end of each song, Takata would smile in his irresistible way and ask for another song (“Serious Drugs?” “Kylie’s Got A Crush On Us?”), and Douglas would shrug his shoulders and say, sure, and Takata would be off playing the chords for another BMX Bandits song. Takata was amazing—he knew the chords of all the songs (the top picture shows the two jamming).

As Douglas sat in his booth and sang in a voice that filled up the cafe, gesturing along with the lyrics, a half a dozen Japanese musicians sat around him, enraptured by the thought of a real BMX Bandit making music only a few feet away. As people do when they are ecstatic, the musicians said the simplest things to each other, like, “He’s playing right in front of us”. Many of these guys had been listening to the band for a decade. The feeling in the café was as warm and happy as could be, and I was glad I stayed late and was able to witness this, an audience with a music hero.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Jimmy Pops At Koenji Club Liner

Leaning on the wall inside the Koenji Club Liner waiting for the Jimmy Pops show to begin, I felt a shaking.

An earthquake? Or was this my body’s way of telling me I should cut back on my alcohol intake? For a few moments I wasn’t sure, but then I saw the Club Liner signboard on the stage swaying, and heard the girls behind me in the audience say, ‘this is a long quake’, and figured out it was the earth and not me that was doing the trembling.

But then I got to thinking about a nightmare scenario—what if the Big One hit Tokyo while I was at a club watching a rock show? The dingy buildings that house rock clubs in this city hardly look quake-proof. Since I go to shows at least once a week in evenings, if my luck is bad I could very well be buried alive in a live house with the bands and their fans. Would people then say that my end came doing a job—trying to spread the word about great Japanese indie pop and rock bands?

Those few seconds of delusional pondering soon passed, and I became excited again about seeing the band I’d come to see, Jimmy Pops. I’d heard this band’s songs in the great K.O.G.A. Records compilation album Good Girls Don’t, and had wanted for a while to catch them live. Like a lot of groups affiliated with K.O.G.A., Jimmy Pops is what might be called a gyaru rock band (gyaru being the Japanese rendition of ‘gal’), playing catchy pop tunes mixed with some alternative rock and just a sprinkle of punk. And as with other such bands, the main vocalist is female and sings in a girlish, high-pitched voice. They play a lovely, ultra-catchy tune called “Michelle” in Good Girls Don’t (which is a compilation anyone who has a taste for this sort of music should try to get their hands on), and their new album Jimmy Pops' Minyalbum, is growing on me.

Jimmy Pops only plays live once in a blue moon, and for one reason or another I missed their last couple of shows, but tonight I was determined to see them. They looked about the way imagined them. On the right and left of the stage were the lead guitar and bass, two huge guys—judo heavyweight big—and between them were two petite girls, the singer and the rhythm guitarist, and in the back was the guy drummer. They all wore blue and yellow Jimmy Pops T-shirts.

Their show was bubbly, unserious, and amateurish, but in a lovable way (one of the songs featured two false starts—neither of them scripted). It was as if they were playing for friends in someone’s living room, and, in fact, between songs, the singer sang "Happy Birthday" to a pal in the audience. But the light-hearted performance was never annoying, because the band was having a great time and their happiness was infectious, and besides, the music and their playing were both good.

For their finale they played a cover of the Pixies’ “Debaser”, and while the huge bass guy tried to be as over the top as Black Francis, the girl singer also attempted being an intense Pixie but she got the giggles listening to the bass and didn’t quite pull it off. I would have never imagined, though, when I bought the Pixies album when it came out, that one day I’d be listening to a cover of it at a tiny club across the Pacific in Tokyo in 2005, and I loved watching Jimmy Pops going at it.


A duo playing acoustic guitars was also good tonight. They were members of a band called Tsurezure Shokudo. The singer had a fine tenor voice, and the lead guitar was amazing, casually running through difficult sounding jazz parts. They’re worth checking out.


The Club Liner’s schedule said that private parts-exposing singer-led punk band Ging Nang Boyz will be playing there this Sunday, but the show is sold out. Well, of course! The live house is tiny. Maybe 150 people can be packed in there at most, but it will be uncomfortable. In fact, it will probably be hellish. I almost wish I could go to the show just to say I was there, like the Spaniards must say, yes, I was one of the guys who was chased by the bulls at the carnival.