Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Foreign angles

Growing as a band or as a label in Japan can be a difficult and often dispiriting experience. Bands rehearse, write songs and play shows week after week and yet never seem to get a foothold. The paths to something greater seem few, and distant. However, looking overseas can be one way of breaking this sense of inertia.

This brings its own set of difficulties, since the cost of physically travelling overseas and the short amounts of time most Japanese musicians can take off work mean that foreign tours are only for the very wealthy or very dedicated. Embarking on something as logistically challenging as a tour isn’t the only way to reach out and keep things fresh though, and some of us here in the CAR family are working on a few different projects at the moment.

The most immediate one is a tour by US band Pregnant, starting November 1st and which Shingo from Tropical Death has (among others) been working hard to help set up and support.

Pregnant (from USA) Japan Tour:
11/1 Tokyo, Shimokitazawa Basement Bar, w/ Tropical Death, Bonstar
11/2 Tokyo, Akihabara Studio Revole, w/ 1000s of Cats, Mekare-Kare
11/3 Tokyo, Shinjuku Ninespices, w/ Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots, Windowz
11/4 Tokyo, Kunitachi Chikyuya, w/ Tropical Death, / Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots, Suppa Micro Pamchopp
11/7 Osaka, Namba Bears, w/ Los Oxxo Sexos, Tokiyo (And Summer Club), Sou + Kanchenjunga
11/8 Fukuoka, Kokura TBA
11/9 Hiroshima 4.14, w/ Usagi Bunny Boy, Uma-darake, Le Film, Shyboy

The other angle we’ve been working is setting up releases of a couple of split singles/EPs with overseas bands, although as always with projects like this that have so many moving parts, it’s difficult to know when is a safe time to announce any details. For now I’ll just say that one is a vinyl single that we’re producing in collaboration with a UK-based label, while the other will probably be a CD EP with another Asian band. In both cases, releases early next year are most likely. As far as tours supporting the releases go, they’re both under discussion and we’d love to do something if possible, but let’s just see how that goes, alright?

Other news from CARland is that I’ve given notice to quit one of my jobs in order to spend more time with writing and the label – two activities that are becoming increasingly difficult to separate, with all the problems that entails. Meanwhile, I’m DJing at about a hundred events over the weekend (well, three), so if you’re not catching the Pregnant tour on that particular day, by all means drop by.

11/3 (evening) @ Koiwa Bushbash – Excellent noise-rock event featuring Jailbird Y, In The Sun and more great bands.
11/3 (night) @ Shibuya Lush – Another event with a great looking lineup, which I’ll be joining at some insane hour of the night/morning.
11/4 (evening) @ Roppongi VARIT. – A ‘90s-themed DJ night featuring a pretty eclectic-looking range of DJs, at which I’ve threatened to play a set composed entirely of Guided By Voices but probably won’t follow through.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Experimental Cocktails

To celebrate the release of the Velvet Ants’ debut album Entomological Souvenirs I, I took a trip to Nagoya the other weekend for the release party at Spazio Rita. Rita is a really nice venue — just a simple, open space with no raised area for the stage, so you can move around freely, without feeling cramped in the way you can in a place like the differently lovely Bar Ripple, where Call And Response’s last event in Nagoya was held in 2017.

The lineup Joe from Velvet Ants put together was superb as well, with the Sonic Youth-esque Free City Noise kicking the party off ferociously. Osaka-based experimental electronic duo Nehan were an interesting follow-up, while the always entertaining new wave/postpunk band Compact Club were visiting from Tokyo and the excellent Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 held things up from the Nagoya end.

Hiroshima noise-rock maniacs Jailbird Y were also visiting, although they brought most of their band from Tokyo, including guitarist Mayumi from punk/no wave band P-iPLE, playing what I think might have been her first gig since having a baby in the summer. Mayumi is also my main collaborator on the Tension! events that we’ve been running on and off for the past couple of years, and the first thing she said to me after not seeing her in three months was, “Let’s do Tension! in Taiwan!”

I’ve written on here before about how, maybe even more than the music, the thing that determines what artists I work with is whether they’re someone who is going to be a good experience to work with. With 95% of the people I know, when you suggest something to them, the first thing they start thinking of is reasons why they can’t do it, but with people like Mayumi, and Anndoe from Jailbird Y is like this as well, if you suggest something to them, the first thing they start thinking of is ways they can make it happen. I’m probably a bit more cautious than either of them, and I’m certainly very selective in who I choose to be enthusiastic with, but at least with people who are feeding me good energy, I try to respond positively in return. “OK, let’s go to Taiwan!”

Also joining me on the trip to Nagoya was Julien from Lo-shi, who I coaxed into coming by telling him, “It’s not a gig: it’s an adventure!” The day after the show, we went to Hamamatsu in Shizuoka prefecture to visit Sone Records — a really nice little record shop that’s been supportive of Call And Response in the past. I was pretty hung over and generally feeling icky, but Julien went straight for the chu-hi at the first convenience store we passed in the morning. We arrived in Hamamatsu only to find Sone Records wouldn’t be open for another four hours, and we quickly realised that Japanese cities with populations of less than one million people are wastelands on a Monday afternoon. The only place we could find that was open was Saizeriya, a cheap family restaurant mostly frequented by schoolkids, so we parked ourselves in there for a couple of hours and made experimental cocktails with the drink bar and the disgusting wine they serve.

The record store was a productive experience in the end though, and with the Velvet Ants heading to Hamamatsu the following weekend, it was good to get their CD in stock. Meanwhile, I came away with a trio of releases from excellent local Shizuoka bands Towel, Half Kill and Qujaku.

The other useful thing I was able to take away from this trip was a lot of video footage of the Velvet Ants live, which I’ll soon hopefully be able to cut together into a music video. I’m also working on an music video for Sea Level, whose album came out on CD in July and who have recently made it available via various online and streaming outlets. While the Velvet Ants video should come together fairly quickly once I start, the Sea Level video is all being done with animation, which is inevitably a slow, tedious process. At the same time, though, there’s something calming about all the mechanical repetition it involves, and it gives me an opportunity to listen to a lot of music in the background, which is something I don’t usually feel like doing when I’m at home.

We’re also working on a couple of new releases, both of which are trapped in a spiral of interminable delays, but which I’ll hopefully be able to talk more about soon. 

Friday, 28 September 2018

People are the weather

While I tend to describe the range of activities I do with Call And Response collectively as “doing music”, obviously I’m not personally making music most of the time. Most of the work with this label is dealing with people, and the extent to which I’m ever able to get anything done is really down to my ability to coax other people in a foreign language into doing things, usually for no money.

After nearly 15 years of putting on events in Tokyo and around Japan, the process is smoother and better-organised than it used to be, but it’s not always like that. These days, most of the vents I’m involved with run on a more or less regular timetable, with the Fashion Crisis DJ parties in Koenji happening on the first Friday of every odd-numbered month when possible, and the Call And Response Indie Disco nights happening in Shimokitazawa Three on the first Monday of every month. The advantage of a regular schedule is that you always know when you’ve got something coming up and you can fall into a rhythm, but the downside is that it’s a fixed deadline constantly bearing down on you.

One of the things I really appreciate about organising music events in Japan is that when someone says they’ll do something, they nearly always will. I remember trying to book some shows for a Japanese band in the UK and one London venue cancelling the event a few days before simply because someone else had offered more money — that would never happen in Japan. Bands, too, are usually pretty reliable about following through on commitments and if a band cancels, it’s usually because of extreme sickness or a family death.

The next Call And Response Indie Disco, which is happening on October 1st at Shimokitazawa Three, wasn’t a smooth process. Partly this is because I got overwhelmed by dealing with new releases and plans for a big event in December. Partly it’s because two of the bands I invited were people I knew would take ages to get back to me with what would probably be a negative answer. Partly it’s because one of the bands I did confirm managed to cancel, then sort of un-cancel, and then cancel again, leaving me desperately floundering around for a replacement with the clock rapidly running out.

In situations like these, you have to be zen about the situation. Bands being unreliable or flaky isn’t something you as an organiser can control, so you have to sort of take a deep breath and repeat to yourself, “People are the weather.” You can recognise the signs and dress appropriately, but you can’t prevent it from raining if that’s what it wants to do. Part of the problem I had with this event is that I didn’t dress appropriately and thus got caught in the downpour.

Another part of the problem is that musicians will usually give you the most polite excuse (work, schedule conflicts, etc.) and never tell you if the real underlying reason is simply, “We’ve judged that your party isn’t high enough status for where we think we should be at this time,” or just, “We can’t be bothered.” I was talking with another event organiser the other week and I remarked to her that if the same artist turns me down three times in a row, I basically won’t invite them a fourth time (at least not for a very long time) and she responded enthusiastically, “Yes, exactly that. I know exactly how you feel.” Another organiser I spoke to last weekend said something similar. On any given day, there might be very good reasons why someone can’t play your show, and second time might be bad luck, but if it’s three times, an artist probably just isn’t serious about the kind of thing you’re offering. If you’re a musician, you should probably know that this is how a lot of organisers think.

On the other hand, if someone is easy and smooth to work with, and treats organisers with respect and without bringing a lot of ego to the table, they’ll get a good reputation that will spread (organisers talk to each other, and we absolutely talk shit on bands who dick us about). After the cancellation for the October 1st show, I was rescued by the fantastic Transkam, who make this kind of groove-centred post-rock with psychedelic layers of delay loops. Joining them will be postpunk duo Demon Altar, who have recently emerged from the ashes of the excellent You Got A Radio, and minimal synth/EBM/industrial artist Soloist Anti Pop Totalization. DJs m87 aka Everywhereman and Yuko Araki from tribal psychedelic trio Kuunatic are joining me spinning tunes, so finally, after all the hassle, it’s shaped up very satisfyingly for me. I’m glad the process isn’t always like this though.

In other label news, the Velvet Ants album Entomological Souvenirs I is now up on the Call And Response online store after a short delay, and we’ll ship it anywhere in the world. The band are playing a release party in Nagoya on October 14th and they’ll be in Tokyo on December 8th for that big show I mentioned earlier, so mark that in your diaries if you’re in the area.

We’ve also got all the tracks in for a very cool new EP that should be out before the end of the year, but I’ll keep that under my hat for a while and make an announcement soon.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Sound is a weapon

The Tokyo neighbourhood where a lot of the Call And Response scene live and where we mostly hang out is Koenji, a few stops to the west of Shinjuku. It’s got a reputation as a cool area with a lot of interesting stuff going on, but it suffers from the same problem that cool areas everywhere have in that it’s an attractive area for property developers and all the destruction they bring.

On a micro level, my wife and I moved house last year and already the two beautiful, old houses next door to us have been torn down and replaced with ugly, anonymous flats. On a far larger scale, the local authorities are using the issue of access for emergency vehicles as an excuse to rear a gaping wound through the centre of the town’s north side, destroying many of the local shops and oddball culture that thrives there. Needless to say, the form of this development was not decided in cooperation with residents or local business owners, but builders of luxury condos are happily eyeing the destruction.

As a result, I joined a small crowd of local weirdos in a protest march on Sunday, beginning with speeches by local activists and politicians, plus sympathetic voices from similar local protest movements elsewhere in Japan and throughout Asia and a star appearance from philosopher/critic Kojin Karatani. The second stage was a march together with live punk and psychedelic bands on the back of a truck, jostled and shoved by an extraordinary and highly excessive turnout of cops.

One friend of mine remarked on how the freaky fashion and style of most of the protestors wasn’t going to change any straight folk’s minds about the issue being addressed, but I suspect that’s not the point. The sound trucks that blast right wing music through Tokyo or the trucks endlessly repeating politicians’ names at election time aren’t trying to persuade anyone either. Their only function is to say, “We are here and this is our turf: notice us.” The kind of music the bands on the truck were playing is usually banished to soundproofed basements, so hearing it blasting out proudly through the streets was a powerful experience for many of the people involved. It was our time to come out of the shadows and remind the world of our existence, and maybe even power. The massing of cops had the same function: it was to make a statement of power and control over us and let the neighbourhood know that they had us outnumbered and outgunned. Towards the end of the march, as we returned to the staging ground in Koenji Central Park (for Haruki Murakami fans, that’s the park from 1Q84), the cops took to shouting out their instructions of “Three in a row, move on!” on mass, like a mantra, attempting to drown out the chants of the protestors and the band. Sound is a weapon.

The protest organisers, the Shiroto no Ran collective, pitched the protest partly as a way of protecting the central appeal of Koenji to foreign visitors, but there were few foreigners involved in the protest. That’s probably for the best, since people who are visibly (and therefore voters) really should be the most visible face of the movement. Still, some of us started plotting things the foreign community in the area could contribute by way of propaganda or fundraising. I dropped by a local art space called TKA4 that recently opened up near my house and where a protest after-party was happening, where I to the owner and some other jubilant post-protest revellers, and even if we lose, the connections these protests help forge can in the long term be their most important benefit.

The protest was also pitched very strongly as a protest against gentrification, and one of the concerns I’ve had over the years is that the presence of me and people like me here has been in part a gentrifying one. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why, but perhaps in internationalizing the area we’ve diluted some of its own weird culture. Hopefully, I’ve been able to mix it in with enough weird culture of my own, and it remains a guiding principle that I always try to make sure I contribute at least as much as I gain from my neighbourhood.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

A bit of an edge

Last Thursday was a rare day where I was absorbed entirely with music, as I’d been asked to give a series of talks about Japanese music to my friend Matthew’s students at the university where he teaches. My book and some of my articles are used as course texts by his students, and they often engage in interesting ways with the subject. On this occasion, I was talking to three different classes and spent most of the first couple of classes playing videos of old idol music and picking apart things like the costumes, choreography, musical style and fan dynamics to build up a story about how this aspect of pop culture has developed. That said, the first class started at 8AM, so I decided to wake them up by blasting a minute or so (which is to say, basically a full live set) by Osaka noise weirdo Masonna. By the end of the day, I was sick of the idol stuff, so I looped back round to oddball underground and noise material, probably boring the students stupid with my meandering rambling.

One of the topics that came up was the way idols use indie/alternative musicians to give their garbage music a bit of an edge, with a recent example being former Number Girl guitarist and current Toddle main person Hisako Tabuchi, who is all over some new song by BiSH. I’d come across it a few days before when I found my wife listening to it online, and it's fine but didn’t really do anything for me. I just find the whole way the idol scene uses people like Tabuchi kind of parasitical and gimmicky. I wonder what would happen if someone offered a Call And Response act the chance to work with an idol group, and I guess my own position would be that they’re free to do whatever they want, but it’s not something I’d be comfortable with.

A few years ago, it was pretty common for indie organisers and bands to invite idol groups onto the bills of their events, but that seems to happen less often now. One reason for that is that idol groups’ fans don’t really engage with other kinds of music. They’ll come to the show, watch the act they came for, doing their creepy coordinated dancing and chanting, and then go outside to queue up and get photos with the girls. Yeah, the event gets their money, but it’s a relationship that doesn’t leave any positive lasting mark on the indie scene. I can understand why indie musicians collaborate with idols, but I nearly always lose a little bit of respect for them when they do. If you’re going to work with an idol group, just do like Yasutaka Nakata and Perfume, write a great pop song and leave it at that — spare me the bullshit fauxternative trimmings.

After the class, I dashed off to Shindaita to see a terrific trio of bands — DMBQ, Crypt City and Panicsmile. I unexpectedly ran into Kaz from Velvet Ants, who had taken the bus up from Nagoya just for the gig, and since Shinji from DMBQ had recorded the Velvet Ants album, we met up with him afterwards to give him a copy of the CD. Meanwhile, Crypt City bassist Kentaro Nakao (also formerly of Number Girl) was one of the people I interviewed for my book, and this was the first time we’d met since then. Ryotaro from Looprider was there as well, so he, Kentaro and I had a brief chat about the state of the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (I’m a snob about idols, but have no shame about comicbook crap — season 2 of Iron Fist was good, so shut up!) I’ve always felt Crypt City are a good example of the kind of thing a band like Looprider could look towards in the sense that they’re doing something vaguely similar in taking metal influences and approaching it with an alt-rock sensibility, and the fact that they’re achieving a certain level of success that usually escapes people in our scene. Just being able to look at someone doing something similar to you, with no obvious creative compromises, and see them escaping the underground ghetto even slightly gives you a bit of hope.

For me, meanwhile, Panicsmile are one of the bands I admire most in Japan. It’s cool, intelligent music with raw, jittery, awkward dynamics. They’ve been around for ages in various incarnations, but they’ve always been interesting and satisfyingly strange, like a postpunk Captain Beefheart. They contributed a song to the Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show compilation Call And Response released last year (sold out from our online store, but there are still a few copies knocking around record shops and among the bands), as well as the Post Flag Wire tribute album we released ten years ago (I keep surprising myself at how long this ridiculous label has been going!) A student attending one of my talks earlier had asked who my favourite Japanese band was and I’d answered, without pause, “Hikashu,” but I could just as easily have said Panicsmile.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Getting fresh

Last Saturday saw a couple of CAR bands stepping out live on opposite sides of Tokyo, so I headed out east to Akihabara to see synth-punk trio Jebiotto in the afternoon, who were playing a memorial event to the melodramatic, ultra-glam synth-kayokyoku nonsense of Techma, who died suddenly and unexpectedly a couple of summers ago.

I wasn’t particularly close friends with Techma, although we certainly knew each other, and he had played at one of my events many years ago. Tsuchi, the guitarist from Jebiotto, was a big fan though, and you could tell he was affected by it, so it was nice of the organisers to invite Jebiotto to play the event. Most of the lineup was composed of Techma’s old friends going back 20 years, though. When I started going to Goodman regularly around 10-12 years ago, I was a late arriver to a scene where the network of friends and relationships was already established, so the party was very much about people who are now deeply immersed in middle age wrapping themselves up in memories. Obviously, as a memorial to a dead friend, it was entirely appropriate that a powerful sense of nostalgia hung over the event.

I didn’t stay long though, because over on the other side of town, at the new venue Jam in Nishi-Eifuku, Tropical Death had an event, so I dashed over there as soon as Jebiotto departed the stage.

Actually, Jam isn’t strictly a new venue, since there was an old Jam in Shinjuku that closed down several months ago. The new venue feels like a completely different place with different staff, a different system, a totally different layout, and much bigger. It really just felt like the owners, rehearsal studio chain Rinky Dink Studios, were just leveraging the brand and reputation of the old venue for a completely unrelated venture.

What Tropical Death seem to have been aiming for with their event, entitled “Fresh off the Boat”, was to try to point a way forward, looking for a way of breaking the sense of stalemate that can pervade the Tokyo music scene. They were joined as co-organisers by Fukuoka post-rock band Macmanaman, whose bassist Takeshi Yamamoto also plays guitar in Sea Level, who put out the excellent album Dictionary (Handwritten) through Call And Response in July. The Sea Level release party and the Macmanaman/Tropical Death show last Saturday had a few things in common, in that they both sought to mix electronic and more conventionally “rock” music (sometimes within the same band, as in Paris Death Hilton's explosive electro squalls), and put varying emphasis on DJs as an important part of the overall mix of the event.
 Of course “freshness” and “youth” aren’t necessarily the same thing, and I think we ought to be wary of conflating them. Young musicians produce some of the most derivative music out there, and it can take a long time for them to really find their own voices. Still, as we get older, we tend to bring a crowd of our contemporaries with us, and breaking through generational boundaries should be part of keeping a scene lively.

Breaking through national boundaries should as well, so having the excellent Escuri from the Philippines playing, both solo and as part of a session including turntable-noise maestro DJ Memai, and members of progressive rock collective Musqis and Kansai-based art-punk band LLRR, was great. That said, I get a lot of emails from foreign bands asking for my help with their Japan tours, and, while I do listen to everything people send me, my main priority is still finding new local bands I can form a long-lasting relationship with. As a result, most of the overseas requests that land in my inbox fall by the wayside.
With the release of the first Velvet Ants album, Entomological Souvenirs I, tomorrow, I’ve naturally been fretting about that a lot too, sending out emails to record stores, media and suchlike. As I’ve mentioned before, getting taken seriously by record stores is a painful and usually futile struggle, but the only way that situation is going to change is if people actually go to stores and buy the stuff we (and other small labels like us) release. You’re helping keep record stores alive, and you’re also helping keep a vital lifeline open for artists and labels to reach outside their immediate circles of friends or the quid-pro-quo circle of purchases that goes on among musicians themselves.

If you’re in Nagoya, where the Velvet Ants are from, File-Under Records is a great record store and is I think the only place in town carrying the album. In Tokyo, my distributor tells me Disk Union ordered it although I have no information on which specific branches. Hopefully, there will be a couple more outlets soon.

Thursday, 13 September 2018


After a hectic weekend, it’s been a quiet few days here at Call And Response, with me mostly focusing on writing some articles and making preparations for the new album by Nagoya-based noise-rock band Velvet Ants.

I’ve started using the term “noise-rock” more these days because all the other words people use to describe the kinds of music Call And Response deals in are such a jumble of overlapping terms and hardly anyone really knows what any of them mean. How is postpunk different from no wave? How much overlap is there between post-rock, math rock and post-hardcore? We end up piling on new terms to the point where it becomes incomprehensible. Noise-rock, on the other hand, is at least pretty simple in comparison: it recognisably contains some of the features of rock music, but it has a noisier, more dissonant take on them. All I need to do now is get the rest of the world, or at least Japan, to join me in making all our lives a bit easier and less complicated.

Anyway, the Velvet Ants album is called Entomological Souvenirs I, named after the series of insect studies by French naturalist Jean Henri Fabre. The band developed the six tracks through a series of jam sessions, but as the album came together decided that each track could be seen as expressing the feeling of a different kind of bug. Perhaps feeding into this is the fact that the band have two guitarists but no bassist, which gives their music a spindly edge, tilted towards treble and mid (although plenty heavy when they want to be). I posted a sample track from it on Soundcloud a couple of weeks ago, initially mis-labelling it Centipede before the band noticed that the track was actually Wasp. It covers a good range of the band’s sound anyway, so I think it’s a pretty solid introduction to them.

Since they don’t have a music video yet, I decided to make a short preview or trailer of the album to give people a sense of what’s going on in it and to give the band something to share. Initially, what I thought of doing was downloading clips of the relevant insects and using them to represent the tracks. I did a quick search of “centipede” and just glancing at the first page of results made it pretty clear that anyone even slightly squeamish about terrifying, many-limbed insects, arachnoids and whatevers was going to have a hard time with a fully bug-focused video.

Instead, I decided to take a more oblique approach, digging out clips of machines that to me evoked in some way each track’s patron insect. The final track, Cicada, was the most difficult one for me, because I suspect a lot of people (at least in the UK, where I’m from, don’t really have a clear image of what a cicada looks like. They’re just sort of oval shaped and their main defining feature is the constant, screeching noise they make, so I went with something that looks like it sounds like a cicada, if that makes sense. Anyway, here’s the video:

The current stage of the process with the album is the most depressing one though. With the release next week, I’m currently at the final stage of hassling uninterested record/CD shops to stock my stuff and feeling every unreturned email and rejection as a personal rejection of Call And Response’s whole project. Anyway, that whole process is an ongoing battle and one I don’t have the option of opting out of, being basically the only staff of the label. If I ever quit music, it’ll be record stores who drive me to it though.

On the positive side, the Velvet Ants release party at Nagoya Spazio Rita looks like being an excellent event. I’m planning on taking an overnight trip there to celebrate with them. The fantastic and brutal Jailbird Y are coming from Hiroshima, spindly new wave oddballs Compact Club are heading over from Tokyo, fantastic local Nagoya bands Free City Noise and Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 are also playing, along with Osaka-based Nehan, who are the only band I don’t know in the lineup and am thus very interested in seeing. Meanwhile, the Tokyo show they’re playing in December is shaping up to be epic.