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.

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