Thursday, August 31, 2006

Watusi Zombie, Ruins Alone, Panic Smile

What’s the difference between mainstream and avant-garde music?

That’s a question I’ve been thinking about recently, especially after I saw a show called “Chika-teki Ongaku (Underground Music)” at the Shinjuku Red Cloth.

‘Mainstream’ and ‘avant-garde’ are relative terms. Something that was out-there one day might become ordinary the next. For example, at a certain point in the 70’s, progressive rock, which was once avant-garde, became mainstream. But then, in reaction to the excessively technically demanding nature of prog, punk arose, and its simple, aggressive beat was the new avant-garde. Until it too became mainstream, and prog-like music once again seemed radical and new.

Whether a type of music is mainstream or avant-garde isn’t decided by how it sounds—technically complex music could be mainstream, while simple 50’s-type rock might become radical. In Japan, Spangle call Lilli line, which makes music that is beautiful and unlike anything you’ve ever heard on Top 40 radio, has just got one of its songs featured in a shampoo commercial.

There are some sorts of music, however, that will probably always be stuck in the avant-garde corner of the musical world. Cecil Taylor, for instance.

What was interesting about the Red Cloth event was it bought together four groups that could be labeled ‘avant-garde’ or ‘underground’—Panic Smile, Watusi Zombie, Ruins Alone, and Core of Bells—but some of them seemed permanently avant-garde while others appeared to at least have a shot at the mainstream (if they wished it in the first place).

An example of the latter was the trio Watusi Zombie. They are weirdoes in some ways—the singer covers the mike with a plastic Buddha mask, they have two guitars but no bass, and for the finale they always toss the drum set from the stage into the audience section, and finish the gig literally surrounded by fans. But they play straightforward, fast, hypnotically repetitive punk rock, to which the fans head-bang. Maybe their quirks will one day become the added ingredients that will make them palatable to a mainstream audience that has suddenly developed adventurous tastes. Who knows—they did play at the Fuji Rock Festival last year…

Ruins Alone, on the other hand, I can’t see becoming mainstream in a hundred years. It is the unit of Tatsuya Yoshida, drummer of the experimental duo Ruins, which has been around since 1985. I remember I owned one of their CDs in college and a friend went through all my disks and said, 'I like your CD collection, except that band called the Ruins—I hate them!' They are, indeed, a group people usually love or hate—chaotically-structured, fast-moving, bass and drum musical passages, and yelps and wails. I liked them but not enough to buy more than one of their albums.

When I found out recently though that Yoshida is still playing as Ruins Alone, I became interested in seeing him live. I’m glad I did.

Yoshida took a long while to set up for the solo act, placing the drums at the front-center of the stage and putting all the mikes in the house around him. He seemed one of those bearded, middle-aged Japanese men who keep their feelings to themselves. But he became a different person once he said, ‘Hi, I’m Ruins Alone,’ and pounded the drums to start the set. His drumming was violent, animalistic, hyperactive and relentless, like an endless videotape loop of a cheetah going after its prey.

Ruins Alone

Somewhere between Ruins Alone and Watusi Zombie in terms of the possibility of going mainstream was the quartet Panic Smile. Ian of Clear and Refreshing told me that Panic Smile is a seminal band in the Fukuoka underground scene, spawning a number of like-minded bands and imitators (I’m stitching this together based on hazy memories of a drunken evening, so the details of what Ian said may not be exactly accurate…), and I’d been wanting to see them. They were good. First off, there’s diversity in their band member composition: the drummer is a girl, the bassist is a really big guy and the guitarist is a foreigner. They’re all good musicians, especially the guitarist, who blow-torches through solos. But they’re a little too different so it’s hard to imagine a day when their post-punk sonic experimentations will be played on commercial radio. Though, one never knows.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Brilliant Dolly's Pillbox Of Taiwan

While I was in Taipei for the Formoz festival, I bought a bunch of CDs of local musicians. I mostly chose the disks by their covers, figuring that musicians with good taste in CD covers must also have good taste in music. Although I haven’t gone through all the CDs yet, that reasoning of mine turned out to be true for one of the disks I bought—how are you today? by a quartet called Dolly’s Pillbox.

Actually, Dolly’s Pillbox’s music betrayed my expectations: the cover is a bright, pastel-colored illustration of a big white rabbit shedding blue droplets of tears, making me think this is a group that plays cute, toyshop pop, maybe like Japan’s Hazel Nuts Chocolate. But in reality, the only possibly ‘cute’ part of this 5-song mini-album is vocalist Cathy’s girlish singing voice, and even that often has a subtly weary quality—the rest of their music is solid indie rock/shoegazer, with streams of super-catchy melodies, sudden waterfalls of surprise chord changes and gurgling rapids of guitar solos. They’re like Galaxie 500, the Taiwanese Girl Band edition. (Dolly’s Pillbox are three girls and one guy.) All five songs on the album are top-rate, and you can listen to most on their MySpace page.

By coincidence after buying their CD I met their singer Cathy, because she was part of the advantage Lucy entourage guiding the band around Taipei during the music festival. I hadn’t listened to the CD yet so I had no idea that this down-to-earth girl was a brilliant creator of music (she also writes all the lyrics and drew the rabbit illustrations for the album—she seems to be a rabbit fanatic). Now I wish I could have seen Cathy’s band at Formoz, and I also wish I could be at eight places at once so I could be at Dolly’s Pillbox’s next show in Taipei while carrying on with everything else in my life.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Supersnazz & VooDoo Hawaiians At NHK-FM

I have mixed feeling about NHK, Japan’s public television station.

On the one hand, it does great documentaries, history programs, and the like. Only on NHK can one find former sumo great Konishiki dressed up as a red ogre, singing and playing the ukulele for kids.

And its fang-baring monster mascot, Domo-kun, is the definition of cool.

But there are also reasons to dislike NHK. For example, it dispatches a gang of semi-thugs to collect your NHK bills, which you are required by Japanese law to pay, though there’s no penalty for not doing so, other than having to put up with the NHK collectors (if you lie and tell them you won’t pay because you don’t own a TV, they’ll ask to see your living room). NHK then uses your money to build lavish recreation facilities for its staffers.

Last night, though, my scale of feelings about NHK tipped to one side, the ‘NHK is cool’ side, because of one thing: their FM station was going to feature a live performance of great garage rockers Supersnazz and VooDoo Hawaiians, and invited fans to watch the gigs for free. Of course I headed to Shibuya to watch the radio recording—Supersnazz is one of my current favorite bands, and I’d also heard about and have wanted to see the VooDoo Hawaiians.

The NHK headquarters in Shibuya is a gray, government-ministry-like building complex, but the security was surprisingly lax—despite my being a sketchy gaijin, when I told the guard I was headed for ‘Studio 505’, he let me through with no questions asked and no IDs shown. The studio was a professional one with uneven, puzzle-like walls for acoustics, and was designed to hold many more than the several dozen people that showed up for Supersnazz and the VooDoo Hawaiians.

Before the first show, a staffer in a purple T-shirt got on the stage and said: “Can we practice applauding? There are a bit fewer audience members than usual tonight, so could each of you clap about two persons’ worth?” We proceeded to practice clapping for a minute or so.

When Supersnazz started, though, the clapping and cheering were entirely spontaneous. The band told jokes between songs.

“Since I’m going to be on NHK, I decided to wear a morning suit today,” the guitarist told a radio audience, who wouldn’t see he actually had on a shapeless gray long-sleeved shirt.

“Oh, well, we’re wearing yukata,” the two girls in the band said, and proceeded to compliment each other’s imaginary summer kimono (singer Spike was in reality wearing a navy blue summer dress with a plum blossom design, and bassist Tomoko had on a black X T-shirt).

They also did a new song about Ichiro, and when Tomoko was introducing the number by talking about the Seattle Mariners, she called someone involved with the team a ‘kichigai’, meaning a nutter, and definitely not a word that could be broadcast on public radio. So she started over with the introduction, but then one of the fans yelled out “Kichigai!”, and she ended up doing the intro for a third time.


VooDoo Hawaiians, in contrast to Supersnazz, hardly said anything between songs, and focused on their music, which was hard rock with long jams at the end of each song. The female vocalist looked like a classic Japanese doll, only with red-violet hair and wearing a bright red dress that said Pepsi-Cola. The other members, all guys, were hollow-cheeked, cigarette-stained rocker types, and the lead guitarist clearly had a Keith Richards thing going.

Mysteriously, the fans that showed up to see VooDoo Hawaiians were almost all un-flashy ladies in their twenties—I couldn’t work out why their music appealed to this demographic group in particular. The band rocked enough that I thought they should be embraced by a much wider audience.


All in all, it was a fun change of pace to see bands in a radio studio, but there wasn’t the booze and atmosphere of a live house, and I also sensed that going to see a band play at a radio event is more of a thing for hardcore fans to do (partly because you have to go through hoops to make it to the event, including sending a letter to NHK to get on the guest list), and though I’ve fallen hard for Supersnazz, maybe I’m not quite that hardcore yet, so I sorta stood out. Still, it was worth it—for one thing, because of the awesome acoustics, I was able to hear all of Supersnazz’s instruments crystal-clear and was able to appreciate more fully what great musicians they are. And I got to see VooDoo Hawaiians, who I’ll be checking out more in the future.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

CDs Of Note: Spaghetti Vabune, The Caraway

Two great Japanese ‘guitar pop’* albums just came out:

One is Guitar Pop Grand Prix by Spaghetti Vabune. This strangely named sextet from Kobe has been growing in popularity, and I’ve been a fan of their ultra-catchy pop for a while. But their latest album took me by surprise: while their debut effort Summer Vacation, Sunset Vehicle was good, this second album of theirs marks a quantum leap in artistry. It’s my favorite Japanese album so far this year.

Opening with an anthemic declaration of their musical loyalties, ‘this is guitar pop!’ (‘this, is, guitar, pop, and you love I love guitar pop’, the song goes), the album runs through one after another bright and upbeat tunes that stick in the mind. Spaghetti Vabune songs are instantly recognizable because of their girl-guy twin vocals: neither is in any way an accomplished vocalist, but that’s part of the charm of this band. The female singer Chee’s style in particular is distinct, a warbling, nasal voice that seems to come out of the corners of her mouth—it’s probably an acquired taste, but one that you get hooked on once you do acquire it. Overall, the album is more bass-heavy than the lighter debut album, and the songs are lined up in a more focused way, to progressively jam up the listener’s voltage. The only shortcoming I can think of is that Spaghetti Vabune’s songs don’t have much variety: they’re all fast, energetic, sunny pop songs. But maybe that’s the Spaghetti Vabune sound, and moving away from it will make them a different band.

I also like Guitar Pop Grand Prix for its colorful art and design, all created by singer Chee, and for the fact that the lyric sheet includes chords, in case you want to play the songs yourself.


The other nice album is the self-titled debut CD of the Caraway, the trio led by Swinging Popsicle guitarist Osamu Shimada. Shimada is a connoisseur of American and European indie pop and rock, but his biggest love is the Beach Boys, which he says he listens to every day. And, indeed, this album from perennially overcast Tokyo is California sunny in sound, every tune joyful (Shimada plays for several bands, but he always seems to be having the most fun when performing for the Caraway). Shimada sings in all the songs but one, ‘Dislike You’, in which keyboardist Miyuki Yoshida does lead vocals, and it’s a good change of pace. Shimada says the band will be featuring her singing more in the future, something that will make their sound richer.

I’m listed in the ‘thanks’ list of this album, by the way, partly because, for reasons I won’t get into, I provided the band with a childhood photo of myself…

*Guitar Pop is a hard-to-define musical genre that I haven’t seen mentioned much outside of Japan. Think the Cardigans and Smiths.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Japan Live Radio Updated: Mellow

Japan Live Radio has been updated, this time featuring lots of mellow songs by artists such as Kuki Kodan, Nikaido Kazumi (thanks for the recommendation David!), Cibo Matto (thanks for the recommendation Justin!) and Frenesi (though I also managed to fit in the garage rock of Supersnazz, the Clicks and Teeny Frahoop...).

One thing to note: although I describe the station as 'the best of Japanese indies music', I also play music from Korea, Hong Kong and elsewhere from time to time, and feature major label music that I like. I note this because this time I included Aoi Teshima's 'Teruu No Uta', a big hit from the animation movie Gedo Senki's soundtrack. There's nothing remotely 'independent' about the producers of this song, but it fits the mellow theme well, and the 19-year-old Teshima's vocals are fragile and lovely, like a song heard from faraway in a grand open space like the Mongolian steppe.

By the way, for reasons I'm not aware of, the number of people listening to the radio has shot up in the past few weeks. I'm talking a three-fold rise... A lot of the listeners are from Japan and big groups of them seem to tune in at the same time. I'm wondering whether there's something wrong with Live 365's listener tracking system, but then again, maybe it's something more interesting, like a class full of schoolkids with computers all listening to the radio at once, for example...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Frequently Asked Questions

I think it’s about time for a Frequently Asked Questions post.

Q. Who are you?
A. I’m an American guy from LA who has spent more than a dozen years in Japan. I have a full-time job in Tokyo.


Can we leave it at that?

Q. How do you afford to go to so many shows?
A. I work.

Q. I will be going to Japan. Can you recommend some shows for me to see?
A. This is the question I get the most from readers, and I usually make the same recommendations.

First, go to Tokyo Gig Guide, which has a good schedule of shows and directions to all the major live houses. Pia has a more extensive schedule, but it’s in Japanese.

The live houses I often go to include the Que, Shelter and Club 251 in Shimokitazawa, O-Nest in Shibuya, and the Red Cloth and Loft in Shinjuku. Check their listings.

If you have any specific Japanese bands you like, try their websites too, because they might just be playing while you are in town.

Q. My band wants to play in Japan. How can we do it?
A. Not easily—I’ve written about this before, here.

Networking might do the trick. A suggestion: if there’s a Japanese band you like, offer to help them come to your hometown and do gigs there. Then, they will probably return the favor when you say you want to go to Japan.

Or, if you live in a big city where Japanese bands go on tour, chat them up after shows (buying their merchandise will help) and become friends with them.

You can try sending clubs your demos and press packs, but don’t expect miracles. Writing them in Japanese will also help, because this is, after all, Japan.

Q. Can I send you my CDs, MP3’s, etc.?
A. Yes, of course!

But if you mean, can I review and write about them in Japan Live, no, probably not. I write (mostly) about Japanese music, and only about music I like.

Q. Can you recommend some good Japanese bands and musicians?
A. The ones I write about in Japan Live are all good. The ones listed on the left, in the section “Bands-“, are among my favorites.

Check out the music I play in Japan Live Radio too—those are all musicians I like.

That’s about it for now. Feel free to write me anyway even if this answers your questions, though, because I always like getting e-mails.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

advantage Lucy & Three Berry At Formoz Festival



That’s what everyone calls advantage Lucy for short.

When the Japanese say it, it sounds like ‘Loo-shee’. Friends of the Japanese band also say ‘Lucy’ when they are talking about its two members, singer Aiko and guitarist Yoshiharu Ishizaka, like, ‘Lucy is staying at that hotel.’

I followed Lucy and another Japanese unit called Three Berry Icecream to Taipei to see them play at the Formoz music festival. For a long time I’ve wanted to visit Taiwan anyway, and thought this would be a good opportunity.

Taipei was hot and the sunlight strong, and many shopping streets had arcades to avoid it. Walking in town, sometimes out of nowhere came the smell of burning incense and herbal medicine. At temples and shrines, people bowed holding lit incense above their heads and tossed red crescent-shaped tablets to the ground to tell their fortune. It seemed to me that traditions lived on in Taiwan that had largely died out in mainland China because of the communists.

The festival was in a big children’s recreation park filled with ponds and pavilions and Chinese-style houses. Once the sun went down, bands from Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere performed at stages named after natural elements—wind, fire, stone, etc.

I saw a Taiwanese band called 悲情土台客 (which I guess means something like ‘the sadness of the Taiwanese’?). They were an interesting bunch: the guitarists all had little flags on their guitars, and they had up banners in Chinese characters. They did songs that sounded like canto-pop, and the singer told jokes between numbers in Taiwanese, which of course I didn’t understand. Someone told me later that they aren’t a full-time band but rather a gathering of various well-known musicians.

Other than them, I wasn’t able to spend much time seeing the many local groups at the festival, for various reasons, and that was my only regret about this Taiwan trip. I really only saw advantage Lucy and Three Berry Icecream…maybe next year.

advantage Lucy rehearsing

Three Berry and advantage Lucy both played at the Electric stage, which was next to a pond where carp swam. It was also next to the bigger Wind stage, where all the top acts performed, and because it directly faced Electric, at times it was a battle of noise between the stages. Three Berry plays gentle, semi-acoustic pop and was competing with the Taiwanese rock band 1976 next door; it lost the battle. During Three Berry’s first few songs, 1976’s hard rock was always in the background, and you had to make an effort to distinguish Three Berry’s accordion, glockenspiel, viola, bossa nova guitar and piano sounds. But the audience did and liked what they heard, and the 1976 set ended about midway into the gig so the second half was quiet, and the happy crowd asked for an encore.

Three Berry Icecream

I had heard there are advantage Lucy fans in Taiwan, and at Formoz I saw them for myself: the crowd roared when the band went on stage around ten in the evening, cheered again when the band played a few warm-up notes, thinking the show had begun, roared when singer Aiko hit the stage, and cranked up their cheering to maximum volume when the performance finally began with the song “Red Bicycle”. During some of the songs, incredibly, the Taiwanese crowd sang along to advantage Lucy’s Japanese songs, and I did too, utterly moved.

advantage Lucy

The Taiwanese reaction to the Japanese bands was a great thing to see. I’ve lived in China and studied its language, and was happy to see Chinese-speaking people discover and enjoy Japanese bands. Another thing was that for historical reasons and other reasons, the Chinese and Japanese haven’t gotten along, and it seemed like something that gives hope to see they could at least dig each other’s music.

After a wonderful set, Aiko and Ishizaka sat down at a table and started autographing CDs for fans. A lengthy line formed of fans who waited to get autographs, shake hands and take pictures together. The two must have been there for an hour or more, after a long day and a performance. This was amazing for me because I had heard that Aiko wasn’t in the best physical shape when she left Tokyo (she wore boots to hot Taipei because she was worried about the air-con) and knew she must be tired. In fact, during their time in Taiwan Lucy spent a lot of time in the hotel and didn’t even hang out much with Three Berry Icecream, who are some of their closest friends. One of the evenings I had dinner with them, but they must have been thoroughly exhausted at that point—at the restaurant the group occupied two tables, with Lucy and the other Japanese at one, and the Taiwanese at another. There was little interaction between the two sides, and it made me a bit uncomfortable to be there, like I was peeking behind the curtains at something I shouldn’t see backstage. But it sounded like at other times there was much more friendliness so that on the final day at the airport, lots of tears were shed.

A thing I missed that I regretted was an “After-Party” show at a club called the Wall the day after the Formoz festival ended. There, Lucy sang their one Chinese song, ‘The Season Of Apricot (杏の季節)’, and the audience apparently sang along in a grand chorus. Damn, damn, wish I could have been there!