Thursday, May 31, 2007

Inokashira Line Blues

Thursday night, at Mona Records cafe in Shimokitazawa.

Several female vocalist bands including Yuyake Lamp finished their sets and I was about to head home, when a pal donated to me her unused drink ticket, and told me there was still one more act to go. The final performer, a Japanese guy in a cheap tux, soon made his way to the stage.

He was named Yuki Ooga, and was a comic folk singer. In a soft, barely audible voice, he said he bought his tuxedo at Yahoo auction and it arrived right before his set was to start; the bow tie and the kerchief in his chest pocket he said he bought at Tokyu Hands. In addition to being a “home-recording folk singer”, Ooga said he's in a country music band.

[Digression: Strange as it may seem, country, as in American country/western, has a devoted following in Japan. I've even run across a country music bar in Ginza, of all places. For the most part, the fans seem to be middle aged or older. Japanese ojisans listening to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton? Weird, yes, but I can see where they are coming from: after a lifetime of commuting on packed rush-hour trains from a cramped home to a crowded office, maybe the wide-open space and freedom that country music evokes are appealing.]

In any case, tonight Ooga was playing folk and kayoukyoku (traditional Japanese pop) rather than country, and I was soon glad I stuck around with a small number of people for the final act, because I'd never been to a show quite like this: everyone around me giggled throughout the show. Ooga's songs weren't slap-your-knees funny, but seemed to stimulate the giggle nerves of the Japanese audience—I even heard the sound guy behind me snickering.

I liked a song of his called “Inokashira Line Blues”, in which our hero wakes up from a nap while on the Inokashira Line headed to Shibuya, and notices, sitting across from him, a cute girl about 20, who seems to smile a bit when their eyes meet.

He falls in love at first sight, but laments:

When the train arrives in Shibuya
We'll probably be split up
And we won't meet again
Until the day the world ends

But then, alas, when the train stops at Shimokitazawa, a guy comes on board and greets the girl familiarly. A boy friend! “My short-lived love ended after three train stops,” he wails.

Our heart-broken hero then imagines the rest of the couple's day:

The two got off in Shibuya
And disappeared into Center-gai
I followed them to where Disc Union is, and then went my way
While I look for records, they will probably be looking for clothes
Maybe they will buy party goods at Tokyu Hands too
And then have tea
When it gets dark they will have dinner
Probably at a dive like O-toya [a cheap Japanese food chain]
And then they will head to Maruyama-cho [where the love hotels are]

But then on the return trip on the Inogashira-line, he sees another cute gal, and falls in love anew.

I know the lyrics, by the way, because I took one of the free CDRs he handed out after the show.


There's some sort of movie about kayoukyoku playing now in Japan, and to mark that, Mona Records had old kayoukyoku singles (from the 60's and 70's?) displayed on its walls, and I was surprised how stylish their cover art was. Maybe I'll start collecting them.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


I'm glad Momus has profiled the duo Lullatone because their 'pajama pop' really sounds like my kind of thing. I love the 8mm music video "bedroom bossa nova" on their website showing a pajama-clad Shawn tapping a toy xylophone in the oshi-ire while Yoshimi gets up from a futon and grabs a mike lying around so she can sing.

One thing though, ever since I saw their name "Lullatone", it's been doing laps inside my head--I know I've heard it somewhere before but I can't remember where. If all the bands I know well form a small circle, there's a penumbra around it of groups whose names I've heard but not their music, or I saw them once but they didn't leave an impression, or they were at an event I went to but I missed their set, or maybe I just imagine I've heard of them but actually haven't (and beyond this penumbra is the endless, dark outer space of bands I know nothing about), and that's the case with Lullatone. I'm trying to recall why I know them, but I'm blanking.

Their website says they were at the Formoz festival in Taipei last year, which I attended, and maybe I saw their name there? Hmm, the mystery...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Shows I'll Miss But You Shouldn't

There should be a corollary to Murphy's Law that says, "whenever I'm out of town, the best Tokyo shows happen".

Well, OK, I do make it to most of the good ones, but I'm not so lucky next week: I'm traveling abroad and as a consequence will miss some events I would otherwise undoubtedly attend.

One of those is the gig on May 17 at the Nishiazabu Baron featuring Japanese+American indie pop group Lost in Found, who split up but are getting together again for a couple of nights, and are playing with 4 Bonjour's Parties and a few other bands. Actually, I'm not that surprised Lost in Found are playing together again because the members still seem friendly with each other, but in any case it's good to see them together once more.

The next day, on Friday May 18, is shoegazer/artistic rock band Luminous Orange's show, where their (actually, strictly speaking, her--Luminous Orange is Rie Takeuchi) new album sakura swirl will be on sale, ahead of their official record store release. Again, if I weren't out of the country, I'd definitely be at this performance: Luminous Orange only plays rarely and I want to listen to the new album ASAP.

The day after that on May 19, head to the Bogaloo in Yoyogi for some guitar pop: One Light, murmur, Orang, Ricarope and humming parlour will be weaving bright melodies.

Also this month, on May 30, pop trio Swinging Popsicle is releasing their long-awaited 5th album Go on--I'll be buying as soon as it hits the store shelves.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Backstage Pass

Musicians and fans mix freely at most Japanese rock events, but you can always tell who the performers are because they are the ones that have backstage pass stickers stuck to their jeans or wherever else on their wardrobe they decided to park them.

The stickers are usually made of a shiny fabric and say the name of the club, and the musicians write on it what unit they belong to. Clubs issue them to make sure customers don't get in for free passing themselves off as entertainers at events, where it's not unusual for there to be a couple of dozen musicians.

Many musicians treat old stickers as a memento of past performances, and you often see guys cover their metal brief cases (containing effect pedals) with used backstage passes.

Maybe when band members get the backstage pass for a bigger club like the Que or Loft or Quattro, they feel like they are going places.

They must really feel they've gotten somewhere when a big club doesn't ask them to put on a backstage pass because they're now so famous that all the staff recognize them. But, of course, hardly any musicians get that far.


I was bitching about the lousy state of Tokyo live houses in a previous post, but then last night I went to a club that was pretty ideal. It was called the Mosaic in Shimokitazawa. Several things I liked about the place: first, it's divided into two floors, with the basement the live space and the ground floor a bar with a TV that broadcasts the show going on downstairs. So, if the band playing doesn't interest you, you can go up for a drink in the bar, but then if the band looks good after all on the TV, you can descend the stairs again. Mosaic isn't the only club with this sort of set-up (the O-Nest in Shibuya has two floors too), but most aren't like this—it's a great thing if the club has the space.

Mosaic also looks nice with an all-white-colored live space, has good sound, and the staff is friendly.


The bands I saw at the Mosaic were Yuyake Lamp, a one-girl three-guy pop group named the 606, and vocalist Roco. The 606 was good, but I felt they could improve their stage presentation: the female vocalist/keyboardist sat at the very right while the three ordinary-looking guy musicians took up the rest of the stage, resulting in an out-of-balance look. Maybe if the bass on the very left of the stage were really unusual-looking, say, more than 2 meters tall and muscle-packed, with rainbow-colored dreads and donning schoolboy shorts, the left-right visual balance would have been better.

Roco was Only-In-Japan: a kogyaru(-like) lounge jazz vocalist. She'd sing nice pop-jazz, then between songs she'd talk in that abbreviated, hyper, alien Japanese of the very young, about subjects such as her favorite sort of cake. Or, maybe she's quite normal and the problem is aging me...

Yuyake Lamp I've written about many times, they are one of my favorite bands, but at this show during some moment I felt vocalist Yunn's voice sweep over me like waves, like her emotions caused the laws of the physics of sound to become manifest. Someone who possesses neither an especially powerful voice nor remarkable formal singing skills, Yunn is nevertheless a great vocalist.

P.S. These illustrations don't have anything to do with the text. Just some random fliers I was handed at the Mosaic show...

Friday, May 04, 2007

Tokyo Music On Melt-Banana Etc. Show

I was debating with myself about whether to write about the May 1st show featuring Melt-Banana, nhhmbase, Clisms, Yolz in the Sky and Shift at the Akihabara Goodman, but then I found that blogger template-mate* Tokyo Music had already done a very fine job reporting on it. Check it out. I especially liked this part about Melt-Banana:

According to Wikipedia, Melt-Banana singer Yasuko Onuki's vocal style has been described as "a rabid poodle on speed". After their set (this was the first time I'd actually heard any of their music - am I allowed to write a blog on Japanese music after such a confession?) I was trying to figure out what to say about them when my girlfriend trumped both my half-arsed notes and the anonymous critic cited on Wikipedia - "The music was OK but she sounds like Alvin and The Chipmunks going through teenage angst." 'Nuff said.

For my part, slight differences of opinion with Tokyo Music (but let a hundred flowers bloom, etc.):

1. The Goodman show was the third time or so I've seen nhhmbase, but I still don't get them. I can see they do sophisticated, occasionally beautiful music, but are they that special?

2. Tokyo Music didn't like Yolz in the Sky from Osaka because of the vocalist, but they were my favorite act of the night. They were like Suicide meets the Stalin, except on a record mistakenly played at 78 rpm--I have a major weakness for that sort of sound (maybe to make sure their influences were obvious, Yolz's guitarist actually wore a Suicide T-shirt).

3. I'd seen better gigs by both Clisms and Melt-Banana. Clear & Refreshing's Ian, who was in the audience, said Clisms (pronounced Chlistmas...) is best when the audience is completely drunk and radiating good vibes toward the stage, and that seemed true enough. As for Melt-Banana, for the full experience I think you need to catch them at an even smaller live house like the Shelter, and stand at the front so that at climactic moments you can see the female vocalist's irises swing like a pendulum inside her eyeballs like a Balinese dancer's.

Tokyo Music also highly recommended Shift, but I left before their show started. I seem to often miss out on their shows...


I said at the top I debated whether to write about this event--that's because, tell the truth, this event was another one of those unpleasant shows I touched upon in my previous post, and I wasn't sure whether writing about it was worth it: just too many people packed into a small, smoky space, and the Japanese live house dynamic was at work where, during the show, people in the audience had invisible but inviolable territories marked out for themselves, so that if you wanted to walk over to buy a beer or go to the bathroom it was a bit of a struggle because people didn't want to cede you their space to let you pass; the weird but typical result of which was that everyone went to buy drinks between sets, resulting in massive lines; of course, you could ignore the routine and shove your way to the bar, but that would be uncouth and out of line with the Japanese sensibilities I've developed from being in Tokyo too long (reading this outside of Japan you might not get what I'm talking about, but I think people who've been to their share of Japanese shows would understand).

Is it that hard to design a live house where it's easy to buy a drink even when the show is crowded?

Maybe because of Golden Week, there was a fair number of English-speaking foreigners in the audience, and I overheard one Japanese guy tell another: "I think the gaijin-san are here to see Melt-Banana". 'Gaijin-san'! Thanks for the politeness even in a private conversation not meant to be eavesdropped!


* RE my blogger template: a recent, positive review of Japan Live started out saying something like, 'its generic blogger template may lead you to think that it doesn't contain any valuable info, but nothing can be further from the truth'... Hmmm, I've sometimes wondered whether I should customize the template, but I never have, because 1. I'm lazy, and 2. I actually like this generic template with its dark colors, and think it's appropriate for the subject. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Disappointing 'Neo Underground'

About half a year ago someone told me about a must-check-out mixi community called Neo Underground. Put together by a few Tokyo-based musicians, it posed the questions that a lot of us were thinking but didn't ask out loud, at least not to a wide audience: why is the Tokyo music scene so unsatisfying in many ways, in spite of all the talent and variety? What are its problems? And what can we do to fix them?

In the section for introducing the community, where another mixi group might write, say, 'this is a community for people who love spicy food', was a long manifesto, written by the founder. It looked like something that took the person a whole night to write, in a feverish state. That original declaration has since been taken down, but here's what I remember of the Main Questions it asked: Why are Tokyo shows so expensive (both for the audience, and for bands to play)? Why is there always a one or two drink minimum, and why are those drinks always overpriced? Why do most bands have to pay to play gigs? Why are the shows always at the same few tired live houses? How can we get more shows going by like-minded, good bands? How can we get more people to come to more shows that are more fun, cheaper, and at more interesting venues and events?

Forums were set up to discuss those issues: for example, one forum was devoted to discussing alternatives to playing at live houses. How about playing at college campuses? Or, abandoned buildings? Parks with outdoor stages? Ideas flowed in, and it looked like, if these ideas were realized, in the near future we'd be seeing a lot more live shows that were different, enjoyable to go to aside from the music itself, and that didn't cost an arm and a leg to get in.

Maybe here it would be best to explain what is wrong with the Tokyo music scene, to give you a sense of why the solutions proposed by Neo Underground excited a lot of people. The most basic problem is that there are too many bands that want to play in front of paying audiences, and too many live houses (clubs) to accommodate those groups, but too few people who want to see shows. As a result, live houses have come up with a business model that would prevent them from losing money even if not many people show up for shows: they ask bands to guarantee a number of tickets, say, twenty tickets, and if twenty people don't show up the groups have to pay for the unsold tickets themselves. What this means is that most beginning bands have to pay to play, because they can't sell the minimum number of tickets.

As far as I can tell, live house managers rely mostly on the revenue from these guaranteed tickets sold to make ends meet, so, for example, it doesn't make a huge difference to them whether or not a lot of drinks are sold. Sure, if the fans buy a lot of drinks, so much the better, but if they don't, it's not a big problem because they are raising revenue from elsewhere: the bands themselves. And, indeed, one of the most striking things about Tokyo shows is that even though all live houses have bars, and they don't really check IDs, most fans don't drink that much. At most shows I've been to, I'd say that the majority of the people only imbibe their minimum 1-D.

Because selling drinks isn't a big consideration for the live houses, they don't make much of an effort to, so that, at a typical club there's one overworked employee selling expensive beers and badly-made cocktails; there are also no chairs or tables—you drink standing up, in a basement, facing the front like everyone else.

Neo Underground's goal was to change all this. How about doing a gig at an unused school building? The door charge would be half the usual price. And there wouldn't be a one drink minimum—but the drink charges would be close to their original cost, so people would be able to have more. Bands wouldn't have to pay anything to do gigs. And, organizers would only invite groups they thought were good, so there won't be shows where a batch of bands that had no connections with each other shared the stage.

It was exciting stuff, and the number of community members soared. There was to be a big meeting where the founding members and anyone interested could show up and talk about how to make all these ideas reality.

And the big meeting was held...but then, nothing happened.

For a couple of months, there wasn't even a report on the meeting itself. After a while, with apologies about the delay, a meeting report was published. The ideas mentioned above were apparently brought up, but, as would be expected, one meeting didn't change the world.

However...from about the time of the meeting, the air seemed to have gone out of the tires of the Neo Underground juggernaut. The energy level declined. There were far fewer ideas being thrown out in the forums, and no projects being planned. I got the sense that the key players of the community decided to make compromises. They got bored of trying to bring about changes. Or, they still thoughts changes would be good, but could come about more gradually, little by little.

In short, Neo Underground turned out to be a disappointment. The ideas were all great, but the mixi community wasn't able to realize them.


Moving forward a few months, last week there was an event organized by bands related to Neo Underground in Shinjuku, called closer Vol. 1. I wanted to see it to find out if the musicians were able to create anything new. It didn't live up to my expectations.

The event was held at two Shinjuku live houses at once, the Motion and Marz, and you walked from one club to the other depending on which act you wanted to see. That was a good thing—you could also hang out outside or buy cheap drinks or food at a convenience store, before heading back to see a show. But that wasn't a Neo Underground innovation—it's something others have tried before too.

Other than that, it was the usual, weariness-inducing Tokyo gig: too many people crammed into a tight space where there was nothing to do but stand around with drink in hand, listening to music.

I was there to see Yucca, but I ended up seeing only one other group besides them (out of the ten playing at the two clubs). It's this sense I think I've developed after seeing hundreds of shows these past few years in Tokyo, that after a few minutes I could tell whether I'd be bored with an event, and that was the case this evening. (Though, who knows, maybe if I stayed around I might have discovered some unbelievable band.)

The feeling I got was that these groups would be too much brains, and too little heart. They listen to a lot of prog and post-rock and currently trendy alternative music and create beautiful music, but they don't connect to the audience. Their shows are like a classical recital. And I think that's the style of a lot of the musicians who initially were behind Neo Underground. The funny thing is, if the venue was better, and more in line with some of Neo Underground's proposals, these shows might have been more tolerable, or even satifying. Just imagining here, but say, if the show had been at some abandoned building with lots of space, and you could watch a show or you could ignore it and have drinks with a friend, I think it would have been much more fun.

So, in spite of my disappointment over Neo Underground, I think their ideas and goals are worthy, and I wish people would follow through on them. That would be a good thing for the Tokyo music scene.