Quit Your Band! Musical Notes From The Japanese Underground
, April 2nd, 2017 18:40
As an outsider, It's tempting to view Japan through an extremely narrow musical lens, a caricature typified by jazz and karaoke – if you're lucky someone might mention either Sakamoto – but Ian F. Martin's new book is a wide angle shot of a sprawling scene
Since Ian F. Martin's fascinating, breezy tour of the Japanese music scene is unapologetically personal it feels appropriate to take the same approach with this intro. Last November I spent ten days in Japan, and about half that time in Tokyo. Before heading over I did a little research, trying to figure out how I could catch some good live music while I was there. Almost immediately I came across Ian's illuminating Clear and Refreshing blog, his label Call & Response and articles for The Japan Times. I sent an email just asking for a few tips; the reply came almost immediately. Apparently he mostly gets messages from South America looking for help with becoming famous in Japan so mine made a pleasant change.
With Martin as my ever-amenable guide, over several nights I caught bands as diverse as the gushingly melodic Luminous Orange, the fascinating rhythms of Beat Satoshi, the mighty In The Sun (pitched as a “thundering disco-kraut instrumental band” - sold!), the kraut n hardcore of The Noup and Takako Minekawa & Dustin Wong's squiggly avant-pop. I also spent an afternoon of excited bemusement watching a sequence of idol groups - matching costumes, cat ears, vocoders, a bellowing man dressed as a wrestler who turned out to be a huge fan of Magma (“best band in the world!”), stylistic mash-ups running from bubblegum to technopop to 'electro-ska' - (m)otocompo, of which more below - and grown men clutching glowsticks bowing down to worship teenage girls. Just describing this I'm conscious that my memories of the event have been overlaid with the pervasive 'weird Japan' filter that Martin does his best to provide a corrective to in his recently published first book Quit Your Band! Musical Notes From The Japanese Underground. There are other aspects of idol that the book have clarified, like its intersection with other underground factions, and the levels of knowingness and/or sincerity that I was too fresh to decode.
But Quit Your Band! isn't just about idol music. In the first half, Martin provides a quick primer on the history of Japanese popular music, from the Western-influenced kayo kyoku and lachrymose enka ballads, through the arrival of rock, punk, city pop, the dawn of J-Pop, the Shibuya-Kei scene of Cornelius and the Trattoria label and onwards. The second half covers themes including scene and sexual politics, the problems of running nights in Tokyo and the impact of language on the form and sound of Japanese music.
One thing that Quit Your Band! taught me was how skewed my experience of Tokyo's underground music scene was, thanks to my having had a guide with similar musical taste to my own - I doubt it would have been so easily accessible had I tried to arrange things myself. Hopefully now others can also benefit from this insider account. Quit Your Band! is a gateway, a gateway drug even. It's also a love letter of sorts, but it speaks of that more lucid love that develops only after years of intimate acquaintance, that looks back affectionately on the early stages of infatuation and mixed signals, and that is equally inspired and affectionately exasperated by its object.
The interview that follows is accompanied by Martin's own musical selections.
Quit Your Band is, as you're at pains to point out, largely refracted through your own experiences and musical interests. Was that always the idea? How did the structure of the book come together?
Ian F Martin: It was a balance I had to strike between being fair to the vast scope of music in Japan and the necessity of limiting the frame in some way. A lot of books about Japanese music limit their scope by some combination of time period and genre. Julian Cope's book ends before punk gets going, while Kato David Hopkins' Dokkiri! Japanese Indies Music 1976-1989 and Michael Bourdaghs' Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon both use the end of the 80s as a cut-off point. There's a lot of value in that approach, because you have the perspective of history on your side, helping you filter what's important from what was a flash in the pan. The main advantage I bring to the table is some first-hand experience of the indie scene from the early 2000s to the present day, which means I don't have access to that sort of perspective - that was the problem I had to resolve. A big influence on the structure was actually Artemy Troitsky's book Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia, which started as a rock history, but gradually began to dovetail with his personal experiences as a promoter. What I realised was that this couldn't really be a guide to the bands or musicians but rather an almost autobiographical trip through my experience within this pretty narrow slice of the scene as a base to explore the environment musicians operate in. Its benefit would have to be in giving readers a framework into which they could contextualise any Japanese music they encounter.
Some of what's in the book originally appeared in some form in your Japan Times columns. Given the time that had elapsed between some of the columns and writing the book, what were you glad to be able to revise?
IFM: When Awai Books initially approached me with the idea for doing a book, their suggestion was to make the book simply a compilation of a few selected articles, perhaps with some minor edits, taken directly from my Japan Times column. This filled me with horror, since a lot of those articles were pretty old by then and I was quite certain they were awful and best forgotten rather than enshrined in a book - my first book! The other problem was that they would by their nature be disconnected fragments rather than illuminating the music scene as a whole in any meaningful way. So in a fit of bravado I told them, “How long do you need? Six months? I'll write you a new book!” I think it ended up taking me about three years, and by the time it came out a lot of it was just as old and embarrassing to me as the articles I'd been so worried about. I think what I got most out of it was having the freedom to play with a larger canvas and experiment with different styles. Using this more autobiographical style in places, or interspersing the text with these semi-fictional sketches of music scene life - even if they were a bit clunky at times, they made it more fun.
Whereas I suppose an 'enlightened' position these days would be anti-canon, you make a strong case for the establishment of a canon being a useful thing, at least initially, even as something that can then be disagreed with and even overthrown later. Would you have been anti-canon yourself naturally before encountering the Japanese music scene?
IFM: I'm probably still anti-canon now, but you can't be anti- something that doesn't exist. I need to construct a canon so that I can be anti-it. I suppose it's a kind of old-fashioned idea, in that a canon anchors the conversations everyone is having around a set of core texts, and someone who's grown up with a fractured, dissipated music scene being the norm all their life would feel horrified by the arrogant attempt to construct some sort of Babel Tower of rock. I see it as a useful lightning rod for discussion though. As soon as it appears, I start seeing a big target painted on it and want to start shooting things at it. Some people seem to think that the obvious fact that musical taste is subjective is somehow the end of the discussion. Bullshit: it's the beginning! Let's lay out our subjectivities and have them do battle! I suspect with the fragmented way music consumption is evolving, canon might not turn out to be the best filter through which to analyse music of the 21st century, but looking at music made up to the 90s, which occurred within a much more shared culture, it's useful, maybe even as a way of reassessing the past through the lens of a changing music culture in the present.
You briefly mention that in Japrocksampler, Julian Cope covers some of the heavy 70s bands, “entertainingly but fancifully.” What did you find fanciful? IFM: Well, just that a lot of it isn't true. If you talk to anyone with actual first-hand knowledge of the 70s underground, it's pretty widely understood that he just flat-out made up a lot of it. DU Books, who published the Japanese translation of Japrocksampler had to post an online fact-check detailing all the parts that are made up. He's always done this with his writings about music though. In his autobiography he admits to having invented anecdotes, and even entire bands, in an article about the 60s garage rock scene. I remember speaking to Damo Suzuki about him once, and he said something along the lines that Julian Cope often writes things that aren't strictly true, but maybe they're true in his personal cosmos. Cope's novel, One Three One: A Time-Shifting Gnostic Hooligan Road Novel is nominally fiction, but it draws heavily on reality, so I think he just finds the boundaries between fiction and reality kind of an unnecessary hassle. The weirdest part is that the bit about the bassist from Les Rallizes Dénudés hijacking an aeroplane and flying it to North Korea seems to actually be true.
Elvis Costello is mentioned as a major ingredient in the formation of the rockier strand of J-Pop, which I found quite surprising. How did that manifest itself?
IFM: I don't know if Elvis Costello was particularly big here exactly - I was really just saying that they were obviously an influence on one particular band, Mr. Children, who also happen to be pretty much the biggest Japanese rock band ever. The way he tells it, his attempt to break Japan by playing on the back of a flatbed truck in Ginza was a disaster and he couldn't even give his records away for free. I think he occupies an interesting position between punk and classic rock though, which may have helped him in places that just weren't ready for punk in its purest form. In Yugoslavia, for example, Elvis Costello was released by one of the official state-run record labels when bands like The Sex Pistols were banned. In Japan, the 'band boom' of the mid-80s was partially influenced by punk, but really these were just nice kids who liked The Beatles and wanted to be in bands. Elvis Costello would have fitted in very neatly with that scene, and I think that's why you can hear his influence so clearly in Mr. Children, who were themselves very much a product of this 80s band boom.
At the various points in the story of idol music, are there ever any common definable musical qualities to it, or is the essence of Idol in the type of group and the fans' relationship to that group?
IFM: Through the 70s and 80s, idol music was just pop music, so it wasn't musically operating under any particularly different set of expectations than anything else. It might have been a bit cutesier, a bit more bubblegum to fit the image of the singer, but I don't think you could have called it a distinct musical genre. Nowadays it certainly gets packaged as a distinct genre, and although it still cribs from J-Pop melodic conventions, I think it's a bit more distinct from mainline J-Pop - probably more in what it hasn't absorbed than what it has. Idol groups in theory crib from a lot of different genres, with Babymetal being probably the most obvious, but the songs themselves haven't really changed that much from the mid-90s. Listen to 'Heavy Rotation' by idol group AKB48 and compare it with 'Blue Tears' by 90s J-Pop band Judy And Mary and the only thing that's changed is that they've taken out anything interesting the guitars were doing and changed the arrangement so that too many people are singing at the same time. What you don't really find in idol music, but which was a big influence on J-Pop from the late 90s onwards, was R&B. You find the odd idol group doing something interesting or different, but it's this mid-90s mean that they always seem to return to.
In the chapter 'Puppets of Sawdust, Puppets of Sound', you manifest a clear discomfort with the “dancing dolls” approach. Is there any wiggle room for the idols? And moral wiggle room for fans of the Idol groups?
IFM: I don't know how much of the irritation I feel with idol culture is really about morality or how much of it is just like when I discovered that Eric Clapton was a horrible racist or the Red Hot Chili Peppers were sex pests - a sense of relief that finally I had a moral high horse to carry the loathing I already had for their awful, awful music. Twelve years ago, all those vaguely emo-ish indie rock bands who'd grown up in the aftermath of Number Girl seemed to rule the music scene, so when Perfume (who aren't really an idol group now but certainly were at the time) started to get hip, it was like a dazzling ray of neon sunshine - like, suddenly there's this bubblegum pop trio ripping off Daft Punk, holy shit! When Momoiro Clover appeared, it was genuinely exciting too that there was something so musically inventive and out-there happening. So part of it may just be that as it got more popular and infiltrated more cultural spaces, it got old for me. At the same time, though, there's something icky at the heart of the kind of fan relationship it fosters that I don't think it can ever really be separated from. Sure, situations like the recent case of a girl being successfully sued by her management, basically for losing her virginity, are extreme, but they're extensions of a sort of paternalistic relationship between performer and audience that is deeply embedded in the culture. There are some idol groups I have a soft spot for - Kit Cat are fun, cool, weird girls - and even something as horrid as AKB48 I'll still take over the latest groaningly earnest J-Rock band like [Alexandros], Uverworld, Back Number or something.
The book gave me a clearer idea of how the indie and idol scenes interact and co-exist. At the time I remember you mentioning that a particular musician wrote for idol groups using a pseudonym and me thinking this was down to an issue of credibility, which it turns out wasn't the case at all. Any Western notions of 'credibility' are very hard to transpose onto the Japanese scene aren't they?
IFM: It's an interesting question, and not just relevant to indie musicians. In the 1980s, Yumi Matsutoya was one of the most respected singer-songwriters in Japan, and she kept her work very separate, refusing to release singles off her own albums even as she was writing massive hit songs for the idol Seiko Matsuda under a pseudonym. I think when we talk about “credibility”, we're usually talking about the perceived legitimacy someone's work has in the eyes of others. It's closely linked with the idea of selling out, which is a concept I don't think really carries much weight in Japan these days. I mean, I pay my bills writing ad copy, and I'd probably get more “credibility” among a lot of people for some of the brands I've worked on than I would for this book. The same applies to writing songs for idols, and a lot of people would be very proud of having successfully sold songs to idols, they'd put it on their band profile page, and they'd milk it for all it's worth. It's probably a bit more personal in the case of the friend of mine you mentioned. She surely knows that she wouldn't suffer any blow to her credibility if she used her real name in her idol songwriting, but since her own songs are of such a different nature musically and in terms of content, she probably feels she'd rather keep her two identities separate. On one level, perhaps it's embarrassing because she puts more of herself into her own songs and considers her commercial songwriting rather like how I consider my ad copywriting. But there may also be a sense of not wanting the expectations that the idol group's fans would bring with them to intrude on what she does for herself.
I'd like to take the case of a group I saw while I was there, Motocompo (or some version of them). As they're mentioned in the book, could you talk a bit about their evolution? There were several twists in their development which, to an inexperienced observer, just seem very strange.
IFM: OK, well the guy you met, Dr. Usui, is an interesting guy in the music scene. He's surfed a lot of waves over the past twenty years or so. Motocompo began in about 1997 or so with a female singer, Chiho, as part of a generation of bands along with the rather better-known Polysics who were reviving new wave and technopop from the late 70s and early 80s - people like Devo and Japanese groups like the Plastics. After Polysics signed with Sony, interest in the rest of that scene died down, but some of the same people emerged again in the early-2000s, making chiptune and Shibuya-kei revivalist music. Again, Motocompo were there, evolving in a more synthpop, dance music direction. In the end, the group Capsule became quite popular out of that scene, with Yasutaka Nakata from Capsule producing this idol trio Perfume with a sound quite similar to what Motocompo had been doing. The next thing that kicked off among that crowd was electro, and again Dr. Usui was there, making a quite well received electro album as a solo artist. When otaku culture became big business, he was there again as a producer and trackmaker for idols and anime - I remember he and I forming half-hearted plans to produce a dance-metal idol group, but fortunately someone else got there first. Then he finally semi-revived Motocompo as an all-male electro-ska-themed fake idol group called (m)otocompo (with a silent “m”), which is a kind of pun on “otoko”, meaning “man”. And somehow it turned out there were people who actually wanted to hear something like that. Ninety percent of genius is persistence.
There's a surprising porousness between Japanese subcultures, but one which co-exists with some apparently very strict segregation between scenes. How do you explain the paradox?
IFM: When people talk about “subculture” in Japan, they usually mean a sort of trashy aesthetic that incorporates anime, some sorts of punk, idol groups, pro-wrestling, cult movies, anything else a bit off-the-wall and larger-than-life. In that sense, “subculture” may cut across certain old genre lines, but really it's just a genre in itself - a genre characterised more by the mode of consumption than of creation. There are subcultures like the industrial and goth scenes that may be interested in a lot of these things too, but grouped under a different aesthetic and without much audience crossover. In the music scene more generally, people stick to what they know because there's no reliable curation. The music media doesn't really take on that role anymore, except in the case of big, commercial entities like Rockin' On Magazine; live venues are desperately trying to find five bands a night, thirty nights a month to keep their doors open, so they can't afford to apply strict quality control; organisers like me tend to be inconsistent in where and when we do events. With tickets as expensive as they are, audiences don't want to take risks.
The CD is still dominant in the Japanese market, even if it's in a state of “glacially slow decline” as you say. Spotify arrived in Japan in September last year, do you think it will accelerate that decline?
IFM: I think the fact the music industry has allowed Spotify to begin business means that they've already done a deal with themselves to carve up the streaming market. Sony and Avex, the two biggest record companies, already had their own streaming platforms before Spotify launched here, and Apple had already launched its own system. I think it will accelerate the death of the CD, but I don't know if Spotify will benefit from it particularly. I can see them closing up shop in Japan again or selling up to a rival within the next few years. I mourn the death of the CD though, and in particular the CD/R, which I have a strong romantic attachment to. It was the most democratic physical medium ever for music - cheap to make, everyone had the means to burn them, ideal for short runs, and if you got the white ones, they were easy to draw on. I have a dream of one day starting a “CD/R Store Day” out of my garage and it being a massive failure. That would make me happy.
Do Shibuya's record stores (or stores elsewhere) still have the power to break artists as they did with Shibuya-kei?
IFM: I doubt it. I mean, even in the 90s, they would never have been able to get a Momus-produced Kahimi Karie song into the top 10 without TV. With TV not really having the influence it did, and record stores certainly not being the same hubs of tastemaking they were, I find it hard to imagine something like that happening again. Tower Records does a lot to promote idol music, and puts out various special releases through its own imprints, but with idol music they're really just following a trend that began elsewhere. A record store can still be influential in helping a band on the road to success, but a lot of factors have to fall into place, and usually there's the marketing grid of some clever management company behind it. One of the more popular upcoming J-Pop acts these days is this quirky project called Suiyobi no Campanella, and they did a string of exclusive releases for individual record shops before they released their first proper album with a big flourish. Record stores definitely helped them, but they were really just tools in a smart buzz-building exercise that was being driven by the band or their management.
You raise the point of the perception of Japanese music abroad. A couple of issues emerge here - one in that that bands that are successful abroad are often outliers within Japan as well. Another is the use, or misuse, of perceptions of the Japanese as generally 'weird'/'wacky', or conversely Japanese artists being aware of this perception and using it to their advantage. Is it possible find a sort of happy medium?
IFM: Well, bands use weird/wacky to their advantage here in Japan as well. The mainstream is very homogenous, and a small number of labels and talent agencies have a lockdown on the conventional paths to success, so if you want to gatecrash that, what you do has to be unforgettable. I talked about Motocompo earlier, and they were pioneers of chiptune in Japan, but they never had big hits with it. You know who had a huge hit with a chiptune song? Piko-Taro, with that 'Pen Pineapple Pen' song last year. Japanese people weren't sharing a one-minute long minimalist chiptune song in a foreign language because it was the sort of typical mainstream J-Pop they hear all the time: they were doing it because it was ludicrous. As far as a happy medium is concerned, I suppose that's really all about what each artist is happy with - after all, I don't really see the point of success that's achieved by being unremarkable or inoffensive. I guess you just have to make a judgment for yourself about whether the effort an artist is putting into distinguishing themselves is serving the music or leaving it behind. There's always a moment where you're watching something and you know, “They're trying too hard,” and the magic's gone. Even with idol music, where the whole selling point of it is that it's always trying too hard, there's often a point where you can say, “You know, you're just not serving the song there.”
Generally, how possible do you think it is to listen to music from another country or culture in a way that's completely uncoloured by deep-seated prejudices and fictions? Do you think you're free of them, or is it a constant work-in-progress?
IFM: I don't know if it's possible to listen to music without it being coloured by your background. I've always found the idea that “music is just music” to be irritatingly simplistic, because music is also all sorts of contextual factors around who you were, where you were, when it was, and who you were with when you heard it. As soon as music leaves the hands of its creator, it's at the mercy of its listeners and all the baggage they bring to it from their lives and backgrounds. I certainly don't hear Japanese music the same way a Japanese person would, and I think you can hear from the way Western musical styles have been reinterpreted by Japanese musicians that people here don't necessarily hear “our” music the way we do. Part of the appeal of music from another place is a delight in the ways it deviates from our expectations. I think there's a challenge in that too, especially for people like me, and I guess like The Quietus, who seek to promote music that pushes boundaries - or at least flatter ourselves that that's what we do. Typically in the past that itch to have our expectations confounded would naturally be served by graduating to more experimental music - free jazz, the avant-garde, that sort of thing. If that same itch can be scratched by the mainstream, industrially-produced pop of another culture, what does that mean for the underground? Should it try to compete? This relates back to idol music as well, in that it's music that's produced under commercial conditions but consumed in an underground fashion. I don't know if it matters, but I feel as if it does.
I know you had a plan to visit and cycle in each Japanese province. When was the plan first conceived and how is it progressing?
IFM: I mention in the book that one weakness of it is that it's very Tokyo-centric, and from the start I wanted to do a follow-up of sorts where I looked at music scenes elsewhere in Japan. That ended up morphing into a plan to visit all 47 prefectures and I actually finished doing that last summer. I cheated in a few areas because fuck mountains, but I did most of it by bicycle - partly because I'm an insufferable hipster and partly because I'm getting fat in my old age, but it was really eye-opening as well in that it really gave me a sense of place and space. When you have to travel three days between even medium-sized cities, you really get a sense of how remote some places are, and you can feel a bit more intuitively why music scenes congregate in certain areas. It ended up, as I guess travel writing tends to, being more about me and my own sense of place and belonging, especially with the end of the trip coinciding with the climax of the EU referendum, so if any publisher is stupid enough to risk another book of mine, they could end up with an odd, difficult-to-categorise document in their hands.
What kind of shape is your Call and Response label in today?
IFM: We've never sold a lot, and I don't know if that's really going to change any time soon, but Call And Response is busier than it's been in a long time, partly because of the little family of people around me, all working on their own projects semi-independently of me. The biggest problem is that as we all get older, it's harder and harder to bring younger artists and audiences in to keep things fresh, but there are also some brilliant people who've been really enthusiastic to work with us and done some amazing stuff. There's this beautiful instrumental album we're just gearing up for the release of now called Ninjin by these two Tokyo-based French guys called Lo-shi, my friend Ryotaro's band Looprider have this brutal post-rock album called Umi coming out.
Who's a recent discovery you're excited about who isn't mentioned in the book?
IFM: There are a lot of good bands from outside Tokyo that I've discovered travelling around Japan. Jailbird Y are an absolutely immense noise-rock band from Hiroshima, and there's this band from Okayama called The Noup who've got really good recently doing this really intense sort of kraut-punk thing with a singing drummer. I can't remember if I mentioned them in the book or not, but this duo from Fukuoka called Sonotanotanpenz are wonderful too. I have no idea what sort of music it is, but it manages to combine folk, hip hop and random atonal messing about, all with this really intricate and quite affecting vocal interplay between the two members.
Quit Your Band! Musical Notes From The Japanese Underground is out now, published by Awai