Monday 27 April 2015


As Call And Response Records prepares for its first releases of its tenth year since it was founded in 2005, I’ve been looking back on what I was trying to achieve with it and the extent to which I’ve had any success with that. It’s not a big label, and I never wanted it to be, but what it has done is help foster a small community around its base in the Koenji area of western Tokyo.

The idea of the role community plays in the indie music scene is something that comes back again and again in my thinking, and one of the biggest successes I’ve had with Call And Response is in how a small crowd of musicians and other creative types has grown around the label and my monthly Fashion Crisis party. In particular, there’s a core of musicians who, like a musical equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers or DC’s Justice League, regularly team up and cross over into each other’s projects, helping each other get their creative ideas off the ground.

With the label’s ten year anniversary coming up at the end of the year, Call And Response is helping the members of this musical superhero team as best it can too, by putting out a string of new releases from some or hopefully all of them.

First up is this cassette EP from Sharkk, a.k.a. Sean McGee. I met Sean through his role as drummer in instrumental post-rock band Henrytennis, although he shares his talents widely, playing in (future Call And Response releases) Looprider and Tropical Death Metal, as well. Sean spent his youth ricocheting between the US, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Vietnam. It was at middle school in Venezuela where he started playing in bands – something he continued through high school in Vietnam (one of his early performances drew the dubious praise of a fugitive Gary Glitter), before settling in Japan in 2006.

Sharkk’s self-titled debut EP is available as a cassette from Call And Response or as a download directly from the band’s Bandcamp. In the lull between the completion of the recording & mastering and the delivery of the finished tapes, Sean and I sat down to listen to music and talk about the EP.


1. Stick Around
2. Cinnamon
3. If I Could Be Giant
4. Changing For The Weather (Feat. Jordan Kyle Sirven)
5. Doe

Interview between Ian Martin (IM) of Call And Response Records and Sean McGee (SM) of SHARKK:

We’re already a couple of beers in by the time I start taking notes, and I’ve just pointed out that the title of the song Changing for the Weather is misprinted as “Dressing for the Weather” on the tape jacket. We’re having a geeky discussion about the origins of emo and realising that the age and geographical gap between us has left us with quite different formative memories of some kinds of music. In On The Kill Taker by Fugazi is playing in the background.

IM: Listening to this now I realise I just wouldn’t have understood this growing up in Britain in the 90s. It’s only after moving to Japan and getting into the music scene here that American music really started making sense to me.

SM: Me too, I think. Not hanging around in Bartlesville, Oklahoma I wouldn’t, but living in Vietnam I kind of got what was cool about it. I think if I’d stayed in the US, I’d have ended up listening to completely different stuff.

IM: Does this count as emo?

SM: Haha... no. Emo kids will like it though – you can pump your fist in the air, let it all go. Fugazi were still political though; they were fighting against something. Emo doesn’t really have anything to say: it’s privileged white kids being sad about what’s going on in their little space and not paying attention to other people – it’s easy to make fun of emo! With this EP I really don’t take that approach. It doesn’t take the political route either though. I want people to relate but I don’t want to be so obvious and on-the-nose about it. I want to give people a bit of space to take it how they want. I was joking with this friend of mine who did the cover art for the tape, Mike Taylor, about making an experimental album and he described the idea as, “The sounds are not exactly intelligible, but they signify great meaning to the poor bastard trying to make sense of it all.”

IM: That’s basically all music! Just think about REM – totally unintelligible lyrics and Michael Stipe is hailed as a genius.

SM: I’m just thinking now about how I’m going to tell Jordan (Jordan Kyle Sirven, co-writer and contributor on Changing for the Weather) I got his title wrong. He wrote the lyrics except for the chorus, which I wrote. I said, “You don’t mind that it’s got this kind of anti-cop message?” and he said, “No, that’s perfect.” I still don’t know what it’s about though. I asked if I can call it Changing for the Weather and now they all have the wrong title. I wonder if I did it unconsciously because I like misprints so much. Better that one rather than one of the others, so at least me and Jordan can joke about it.

IM: Rather than just you stewing in your own shame.

SM: Yeah, “Sorry man. Fuckit.”

IM: So you wrote the melody, yeah?

SM: Yeah. I made the track and said, “Scream here. Say what you like.” Then I added my vocals. He sent a demo and the lyrics and then I wrote based on the vibe I got.

IM: Why cops?

SM: It’s not really about cops – they’re just the easiest ones to direct the most extreme problem I have with authority at. Teachers always told me at school that I had issues with authority, but as you get older, you meet assholes and that just reinforces it. Living in Japan, cops are an easy target because they’re sort of weak and they hassle you for petty reasons. A worse example was when the US Navy came to Saigon and the sailors were all swaggering around, asking, “Where’s the whorehouse?” Living in the international community at that time, you’d often get this attitude along the lines of, “9/11 was something you guys kind of asked for,”  and that kind of bums you out, but then the US Navy comes to town and it reinforces everything they say – people you are supposed to respect are acting like jerks. I have a similar issue with the whole sempai-kohai thing (institutional hierarchy based on seniority) – I respect people if it’s deserved.

IM: The thing that gets me in Japan is how they try to make it seem so fluffy and cute, like with the police mascot Pipo-kun. Those guys carry guns – they represent the implied violence of the state in its power to enforce behavioural rules on you – and it’s presented as something fluffy and cute, treating you like a child, looking up to authority and being happy and grateful for it.

SM: The leader of the second serious band I was in in Japan was really big on that sort of “sempai” thing. “You don’t need to be told when you’re good: you only need to be told when you suck.” Well actually, quite the opposite! He had this approach of beat you down and then build you up. No, I’m just going to stop playing for you. It broke up the band and broke up our friendship – that’s partly what Cinnamon is about, or at least something I had in mind. I think a mentor is someone who has more experience and uses that to help, teach, build you up. They have faith in you, know your weaknesses and help you grow. Authority is just saying, “You should be this, you suck.” It’s morale-breaking and toxic. And it’s against the spirit of what indie music is about.

IM: Is that one of the differences between your music and emo then? That you can’t deal with that sort of “you suck” negativity?

SM: Is emo negative? I think fans would say that it’s not negative: it’s romantic. My lyrics are sometimes negative or angry, but emo is negative in a depressive sort of way, not a fuck-you sort of way.

IM: It’s too self-obsessed to be angry at others?

SM: I think I do both, but then that’s just rock music, isn’t it? Sentimental rock. When I think of my music in terms of emo, I think it comes down a lot to the influences. I like the idea of “word painting”. At it’s simplest level, that’s when you sing the word “high” and the melody goes up, or when you’re singing about something dark, you sing it in a dark way. I don’t actually do that, but where there’s a particular sentiment I want to express, I’ll sing it in a way that highlights a particular word or phrase – which is something al lot of my influences do.

IM: But what music doesn’t do that in some way?

SM: Yeah, but my influences really rely on that approach. In hip hop, the MCs I like do that. They’re not singing, of course, but they deliver the lines in a way that brings out the meaning. There are great MCs who are really rhythmic, or have great words, great tracks, but there are also MCs who are more emotive, not purely rhythmic.

IM: I guess it can go to far in that direction as well, though, right? I wrote a song once called My Boring Feelings that was a sort of satire of confessional, emotionally-wrought songwriting.

SM: Yeah, you don’t want to alienate people completely by banging them too hard over the head with it. Stick Around is a good example of that, I think. No one’s going to really know what that’s about because it’s made of two parts that aren’t directly related, but parts of the lyrics are still something people can relate to. It also has enough ambiguity that it keeps things mysterious. The only really literal song is Doe: Doe’s a love song – standard shit! I don’t like boring emotions, so I hope to take away the boring part by adding ambiguity, imagery, something that enables people to visualise something.

IM: So Stick Around was originally made from two different songs?

SM: Well, one of them is really talking about music. It’s angry, saying, “No, I don’t want to wait around: I want to do it!” and say, “fuck ‘em” to everyone holding me back. But then there’s something about death in it as well, so it gets vague. It’s saying everything dies but it’s OK because you keep going – “Get outta my way!” I don’t want people to think I’m telling death to get out of the way here, but it’s the line “I don’t need no one to tell me / That it all just trails away,” and in that it all gets wrapped up together, because that relates to people who are involved in music as well.

IM: What you were saying about delivery is interesting too. I guess there are a lot of ways of singing that don’t directly relate to the content but that are distinctive in other ways because of the particular vocalist.

SM: Recently I’ve been listening a lot to the Sleaford Mods and thinking, “This is so cool, but do I just like this because of the accent?” I mean, could an American possibly do this?

IM: I think there’s a bit of an American parallel in something like Jonathan Richman’s delivery in The Modern Lovers, but it depends on the individual vocalist’s characteristics. I mean, could another British guy do what the Sleaford Mods do? There’s Mark E Smith, but that’s a bit different, and there’s Shaun Ryder, but that’s different again. Pavement?

SM: They’re back now. Sort of.

IM: The ‘90s is back, man. New Blur album, Happy Mondays and Ride at Fuji Rock. There’s a lot of the sound of the ‘90s in the Sharkk album too, I think.

SM: Superchunk are back too. They’re one of my favourite bands.

IM: Guided By Voices came back, released six albums, and split up in the space of two and a half years.

SM: Without them, I don’t think I’d have ever had the motivation to keep trying after I first started writing songs in high school.  I came across them in 2003 and I’d already given up on writing songs. I listened to all their early, really shitty-sounding stuff, and it encouraged me. They did what they wanted to do, put it out, got it done, and people loved it. The Cloud Nothings’ early seven-inches more recently also inspired me a lot. I drew a lot musically there.

IM: Your EP’s much more nicely recorded than anything Guided By Voices would have been able to do.

SM: It was a kind of messy experience. After I got the vocals down, I didn’t really know what to do with it because it was my shit. Julian likes loud vocals but I didn’t want it to be right in your face, so we kind of met in the middle there.

IM: That’s Julian Peters, the engineer.

SM: Yeah. I knew Julian from the “foreign rock scene”, with Jimmy Binks & The Shakehorns, and he’d mixed this compilation I was on. I was looking for someone to mix and master the album, so I thought I should kind of “use the scene”, support the people around me.

IM: That’s quite Japanese in a way. The idea that you should know and have a relationship with the people you do business with.

SM: It’s also very indie – having a collective, a community, is important. Julian understood my influences, so first we recorded at his place. That was where we got to know each other really. The way we took breaks was that we’d destroy the tracks with this Cher-style autotune. Then him and Yoyo (Ryotaro Aoki of Looprider) helped recording guitar and drums. At first I wanted to do it as lo-fi as possible, so I borrowed Yoyo’s four-track, but then the concept changed and I started wanting to make it better, but you can’t really do that once you’ve started from that lo-fi point. We ended up meeting in the middle and Julian made it sound good, but he’ll work right from the start next time.

IM: The idea of a community seems quite important. When no one really makes any money, and the music industry itself doesn’t really look after the music scene, the music that gets made is only ever as good as the community it grows out from.

SM: Yeah, the music scene is very important. That scene around these foreign musicians, like Jimmy Binks, The Mootekkis, The Watanabes and others are always really supportive of everyone, and then here in Koenji with the Call And Response crowd. I used to live in Koenji and I never even know there was something like that happening. I think if scenes overlapped more, it would be great, especially now that I’ve been part of a couple of different ones, but, y’know, some bands want to make it big, they want to get organised, but if you’re making music with people you like – there’s nothing bigger than that!

IM: You play with quite a lot of different musicians on this EP. The list of contributors makes a pretty extensive musical community in its own right.

SM: Right. I should mention as well Esther Thirimu. She’s actually a proper singer, who sings professionally and she was in the Arashi movie (Pikanchi Half, 2014), but I was in a band with her for a while and thought she had an amazing voice, so I wanted to use her as the sort of “voice of encouragement” in Cinnamon. There’s a lot of my past self that I wanted to get out in this album, but also lots of people, lots of recent friends, who really influenced it. I think my old self comes through, but it’s very much a snapshot of what’s happening around me now. Julian, Ryotaro and Esther are all people I’ve got to know in the past couple of years or so, while Jordan and Mike are old partners in crime. Jordan was in my first band together, so he knows what it means to me to be releasing something. I wanted them involved, but I also wanted to celebrate where I am currently. It’s a kind of chapter closer for me – in fact, that’s what If I Could be Giant is about: people are going to think it’s about a girl, but it’s really saying, “Goodbye, my sixteen year-old self!”

[Crickets: The Best of the Fading Captain Series 1999-2007, a compilation of side projects by Robert Pollard from Guided By Voices is playing in the background now. The song Death of the Party by the Keene Brothers comes on.]

SM: It’s funny, because listening to GBV I suddenly feel completely OK with having the wrong title on that song.

IM: This song has an amazing opening line: “She used to be an American airline...” I’m a big fan of a strong opening line. What are the opening lines like on Sharkk?

SM: Let’s see, the first is, “I don’t need no one to tell me / That it all just trails away.” OK, that’s stupid! Then on Cinnamon it’s, “When you mark us / You never get the coding right”. If I Could be Giant is, “We were just like aeroplanes / Vast skies where we collide and fade away.” The fourth one, Jordan wrote that, so I don’t know what it’s about: “I’ve been getting used to the whole dressing for the weather thing” – oh, so he does say “dressing for the weather”! Then the last one is, “Secret nights, doesn't make any sense to me / Wrong in us, all we needed was us.” So I guess Cinnamon is the coolest one. I was thinking that anyone who buys a cassette, I’ll hand-write certain lines from one of the songs on the blank side of the tape. All the ones I was planning to write are pretty lame though, now that I think back on them.

IM: I think if you’re going to do something as lame as writing lyrics on a cassette, then you kind of have to write the lyrics that you poured your heart into, right?

SM: Yeah, exactly! “Hey, I made you a tape!”

IM: “And you broke my heart!”

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