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.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

The sweet spot

The next big thing on the Call And Response calendar is the event Tropical Death are organising at the new Jam in Nishi-Eifuku. I met up for some yakitori in Koenji with bassist Shingo and guitar/vocal Eugene last week, along with visiting Filipino sound artist Escuri, who’s staying in Yokohama  for a couple of months to do a sort of artist residency.

One of the things we talked about was the perennial issue that dogs event organisers: what order to put the acts in. There are often unspoken assumptions that certain bands by virtue of seniority get the sweeter spots, and you risk offending them if you drop them below a newer band on the bill. At the same time, though, if you’ve got bands travelling a long way to play, you don’t want to bury them in a quiet slot.

There’s also audience behaviour to consider. If the event’s an all-nighter, it’ll likely climax somewhere around 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning and then fade out towards the end, but if it’s an evening event, it’ll tend to build to a climax right at the end.

Then there’s the kinds of bands on the bill. At least chez CAR, we try to avoid putting bands who are too similar on back to back. Especially if a band is doing one thing in a particularly intense way, you’ll often want another band to work as a palette cleanser between them and anything else slightly similar.

Finally, you have to consider all the annoying but inevitable requirements bands themselves will drop on you, insisting that you organise the timetable around their job schedules, or members booking other gigs with different bands on the same day and trying to juggle both shows.

Talking to Tropical Death, the bands at their event seemed pretty cool about what times they played, so it was just a case of shuffling the pieces round like Tetris pieces or a tile game until the picture looked right. However the lineup ends up going, it should be a pretty sweet event anyway, with post-rock lunatics Macmanaman coming down from Fukuoka, local electro-punk-noise duo Paris Death Hilton, progressive rock collective Musqis, as well as the man Escuri. A chaotic-looking agglomeration of artists are going to do a jam session as well, which is usually an absolutely horrible idea, but hey, it might be good this time.

The Fashion Crisis event on Friday the 7th was weirdly well attended, partly due to our buddy Comicbook Sean (not to be confused with Sean Drums and Indiepop Sean) celebrating his birthday at the same event. It passed through several party stages, including karaoke with a random weird old guy we picked up in a bar, and ended with me and Julien from Lo-shi flaked out on my sofa, listening to Deserters’ Songs by Mercury Rev and making bold, nonsensical pronouncements about the death of music.

Naturally Saturday was a write-off, while on Sunday my wife and I let some fashionable young musicians use our house as a photo studio (we have a cinema screen and projector, so they were able to do funky things with video projections). Listening to these kids and their promoter buddy talking afterwards was educational and a reminder that even the faintest connection to the music industry proper puts you in contact with a very different world to the basement-dwelling underground scene that’s my normal. They’d casually drop the names of popular record labels or bands whose names are jokes to most of my friends because their world seems so inaccessible. One of them asked me what sort of music I’m into and I said something contrarian like, “In an ideal world, all music would sound like a cross between This Heat and Red Transistor.” They just blinked at me and changed the topic.

There’s a very visible change that happens when music steps into the “music industry” sphere (which includes larger indie labels as well as the majors) and you can see it in the fashion and music videos. You can tell when a band isn’t choosing their own clothes anymore, and often what happens is that suddenly everything in their videos is either in slow motion or shot with all fast cuts with that high-contrast, metallic sheen and maybe a wind machine. It looks like total garbage.

One of the musicians was getting bombarded with offers from record labels and fashion brands but had so far resisted them, preferring to do things themselves, while the other had signed with a large-ish indie. Typically, what musicians who don’t want to fall into the homogenising J-Pop trap aim to do is work with overseas producers and sign with a foreign label — ideally one in the UK or US. It doesn’t always work though, because the bands most enamoured with, for example, British music tend to be the ones who offer the least to a British label that they can’t find from a hundred local bands. Something that conforms to the brightly-coloured, energetic and (sorry) “wacky” Japanese stereotypes that still persist in the west stands a far better chance, as evidenced by how the good but annoying Chai were able to sign with UK label Heavenly recently.

The whole conversation left me a bit dazed though, to be honest. Bands fretting over whether this gig or that gig is the right direction for them, whether such-and-such a band is the right band for them to share a bill with, scheduling out their releases to best manage media interest, planning out their careers like military operations, none of it sounds fun and the deeper involved in the industry an artist gets, the less they look like they’re having fun when you see them play (or if they do, it’s with the glazed smiles of trained salesmen).

All of which sounds quite negative, although these were some cool bands that I’m very fond of. However, as a window into a way of thinking that’s normal for a lot of people, it definitely reminded me of how naive and simplistic the way I and a lot of the artists I work with think is.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018


I was out on the east side of Tokyo again on Monday, meeting up with Julien “Vieux Ralouf” from ambient/post-rock/electronic duo Lo-shi and doing some meandering urban exploration, fuelled by a couple of beers from the convenience store. It took us through the neighbourhoods of Minowa, Uguisudani, Ueno and then finally Akihabara, where there was a show at Club Goodman that evening.

Julien’s co-conspirator in Lo-shi, Eric “Gotal” Fournier moved to Tahiti in July, putting the band in a kind of uncertain place, so ever since then, Julien and I have been recording hours upon hours of synth- and theremin-based “punk-ambient” jams at The Boathouse (my house in Koenji) under the name Citizens Of The Eternal Psychic Strasbourg (just Strasbourg for short). The name is a kind of reflection of the precarious, unmoored state of existence we find ourselves in, firstly as foreigners in a country like Japan, but also more generally as kind of spirits in the immaterial world. Much of what goes on in the Strasbourg sessions is jokes, juxtaposing the pretty-bordering-on-cheesy sonic textures of the music with samples from an eclectic and nonsensical range of sources. At the same time, though, we’ve been watching videos of Iain Sinclair’s discussions of the psychogeography of London and thinking about how that applies to Tokyo — in particular the idea that while each generation has typically left their mark on the fabric of the city, the culture created by the internet age doesn’t carve itself into the physical matter of the city in the same way. Perhaps the two of us, sitting in my living room, making electronic music and stealing samples of old TV shows and adverts off YouTube, are an embodiment of that issue.

Strasbourg itself is a strange city, nominally French but also deeply Germanic, and that dual nature is what attracts us to it. A lot of the work I’ve been involved in recently seems to touch on this sense of being in-yet-not-in, in terms of identity. I did a bunch of interviews with musicians on Call And Response early in 2018 with the idea of synthesising them into a semi-fictional documentary script about the relationship between artist and audience. Whether that comes about is anyone’s guess, but when I was writing the script, it became clear that there was a subsidiary theme of making art while dislocated in some way from the culture in which you’re making it. Bands like Looprider and Tropical Death include musicians who are either Japanese people who have been raised for part of their lives abroad or foreign musicians who have moved to Japan. The members of Lo-shi are both French musicians who moved to Tokyo. I’m another immigrant, of course, and throughout the interviews, it became clear that this sense of being in-yet-out influenced the way many of us use music in order to construct a sense of belonging for ourselves, artificial as that might seem.

The show at Goodman was an interesting lineup, featuring a mutual pal of mine and Julien’s, Marc Lowe — another dislocated foreigner, from the USA via Fukuoka, who was delivering his synth-based, industrial-flecked art-rock dramatics to a Tokyo audience for the first time. There were also excellent sets from noise duo Apocalypto, operatic indie songwriter Mamoru from Nhhmbase, postpunk/post-hardcore agitation from bahAMaba, and theatrical noise from Drugondragon.

The following night I was DJing at a very nice little venue called Varit. in  Roppongi. Now Roppongi is one of those places it’s usually pretty difficult to get my friends to come out to, not because it’s a difficult location exactly (although there’s a pretty good general rule that anywhere inside the Yamanote Line rail loop is kind of uncool) but because Roppongi has such a bad reputation for attracting all the worst kinds of people. As I say though, Varit. is a very nice place and I always have a lot of fun DJing there.

I was joined this time by Tsuchi, guitarist from synth-punk trio Jebiotto, and my mate Fidel 500. There wasn’t much of a crowd — even the organiser had to pull a sickie, and a lot of people shied clear in fear of the typhoon that had just destroyed Osaka — but we’ve experienced enough of these ill-attended stormy nights that we know how to make our own fun. I forgot the splitter cable that I usually use to DJ off my iPad (I know DJing vinyl is cooler, but when I can bring 600 albums with me in one little slab of plastic, there’s no comparison) but Tsuchi introduced me to his elaborate-looking DJ controller and it was a lot more fun to use than I was expecting. I took a tour through Nick Lowe, Haruomi Hosono, Throbbing Gristle and ELO, which Tsuchi then blasted into oblivion by opening with a one-two whammy of Bon Jovi followed by more Bon Jovi. Fidel’s set was a hyperactive power blast of indie-rock mega-choons interspersed with weird samples. The other DJs there were pretty eclectic as well, but the best thing was just seeing everyone getting interested in what everyone else was playing, seeing people looking around the room and figuring out how to surprise, trip up and delight the other people there. It was another sparsely attended night, but I think we did a lot with a little.