Sunday, September 26, 2010

Freaks and Fire in Japan's Second City

Funny how stereotypes can be so stubbornly self-sustaining. A few years ago, I showed some friends in Baltimore my favourite Japanese TV show, Gaki No Tsukai. Though most found it hysterical (if mildly disturbing), one friend was actually angry with me. "Y'know," she started, "whenever I say 'my friend lives in Japan,' I spend all this time telling people it's not like you live on Mars, it's not completely batshit insane, not a real-life Blade Runner, the Japanese are just normal cats with some slightly different cultural conditioning - and then you show me this. What the hell am I supposed to think now?"

Similarly, six years ago, almost all I knew of Japan was the lunatic notoriety of the Osaka noise scene. Tokyo was forest of steel & neon, Kyoto was all bamboo & raked pebble gardens, and Osaka was an open-air asylum packed with certifiable nutters who'd swapped bushido for bulldozers & fuzzboxes. Of course, after moving here, I saw how coarse & ignorant this assessment was. Tokyo is an omnivorous hyperreality, Kyoto is more than a historical diorama, and any perceived derangement on the part of Osaka-jin was likely more middle-child contrarianism than a hysteria innate to the city.

But after last weekend's Bakuto festival, I take that last bit back. There really is something in the Kansai water, and Osaka people are off the fuckin' hook. Okay, that's a little unfair: any festival will draw a self-selecting (and thus unrepresentative) multitude. Bakuto is equal parts skate show, dub-head soundclash, tattoo convention, and experimental rock extravaganza - none of which screams "mainstream appeal." But if I threw a loudly-'n'-proudly "countercultural" festival in Tokyo, I'd likely draw as many reactionary nationalists ("Death to post-modern demographics!") as anyone. I certainly couldn't expect the diverse congregation of J-dreads, mori gyaru, baggie skaters, gangsta pseuds, techno-hippies, hardcore punks, fashionistas, greasers, tweakers, pushers, enforcers, Vice mag devotees, expat Williamsburg/Brighton wannabes, aloof chin-strokers, awkward tag-alongs, and unhinged musos that populated Bakuto.

Immediately striking is the festival's setting: a disused shipyard, backdropped by the post-industrial rust & grime of the Suminoeku waterfront. Strolling the docks, it's hard to see whether or not the outside world has indeed crumbled into the yawn of the apocalypse. This dilapidation at once encourages avant-gardistes to bring their convention-smashing A-game, yet makes whatever Neubauten-esque mayhem ensues seem merely appropriate to the environs.

My band was playing the outside stage (next to the skate park) in the mid-afternoon. I spent most of the morning people-watching and wandering wantonly. The earliest bands were all the kind of willfully-amateur, pseudo-tribal dance-punk acts that made Wham City famous, despite how dull & gimmicky they are. Watching a band with the exquisitely dull & gimmicky name Ultrafuckers (ウルトラファッカーズ), a Jared Swilley lookalike was trying way too hard to be really into it while simultaneously stonewalling me, as I depressed his currency as "in-the-know" white guy. Tokenism will only get you laid for so long, dude.

Lunch was a Kafkaesque experience that bordered on sensory breakdown - which had nothing to do with the quality of food. I'd slunk indoors to avoid sunstroke, but the second-floor concourse was sandwiched between competing bass frequencies of obscene volume. From above came the indolent throb of house DJs soundtracking the tattoo convention, while below bands on the Gareki stage vied for sonic supremacy with the incessant thrum of the "Black Chamber" drum-n-bass room. The whole building - windows, walls, ventilation ducts - groaned as several streams of sub swam in and out of phase, coalescing into the same ear-canal-clenching whomp as the Inception score. It sounded... no, it felt like a war zone. Seasick and half-deaf, I stumbled back outside.

Happily, Bakuto delivered that epiphany you always hope for at festivals: when you discover the kind of music you knew someone had to be making but had yet to hear. Kyojin Yueni Dekai (巨人ゆえにデカイ) more-or-less translates as "Because I'm a Giant, I'm Big," which explains why frontman Mizuuchi Yoshihito plays atop stilts, exaggerating his already wiry & mantis-like frame. His guitar has the tinny, equivocal tone of a shamisen or wounded banjo, except for the bass string substituted in the instrument's lower register. The bass string is so roughly detuned that it doesn't so much articulate notes as belch concussively; an atonal gut-punch. Skinsman Wada Shinji alternates between the most minimal of percussive accents and blastbeat freakouts, mirroring Mizuuchi's vocals as he leaps from stony blankness to hoarse bellow. But catharsis is always deferred in favour of suffering the anticipation of the next note; restraint and painfully drawn-out pauses become more tensely theatrical than any punk shitfit abreaction. The effect is like mid-'80s Swans if Gira had been a kabuki student instead of a construction worker.

Unfortunately, two acts that I was especially looking forward to - オシリペンペンズ and オニジャガデルカ - were both playing at the same time as my band. Still, we had a healthy turnout considering we were competing for attention with two giants of the Osaka underground. Hell, I wouldn't even blame someone for skipping our set to go watch the Battle Robots.* Don't get me wrong, I think we're pretty good, but not a lot can compete with remote-controlled scrap-heaps going at it hammer-and-tongs-and-flamethrower.

Some acts were less willing to sacrifice their audience share to automated warriors, and fought fire with fire - literally. Following our set was D.D.S., who performed as a kind of checklist for "subversive" noise rock. Bondage masks? Check. Samples of Hitler? Check. Theremin, circuit bending, turntable abuse? Yep. Gratuitous immolation of old televisions? Of course - but these brainiacs had set the TVs atop a stack of old tires. They deliberately started a tire fire. As plumes of noxious yellow smoke rose into the sky, an ambulance came screaming onto the festival grounds. I suppose the authorities reasonably assumed the sudden expulsion of fumes meant some bad shit was going down.

D.D.S.'s vocalist responded to this incursion by clambering atop the fence and hollering at the EMTs, "Dees eez LOCK AND LOLL!" Couldn't really argue with that, eh?

(*) - That's actually my band in the background of this video clip.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Cold Hard North

The problem with Osorezan is Mutsu. Poised at the base of the Shimokita-hanto axe-head, it is the gateway to & from the peninsula and, as such, an unavoidable hurdle for anyone who wishes to visit the holy Mount Dread.

Though Mutsu suffers from the same sluggardly pace and surfeit of empty storefronts common to much of northern Japan, it immediately differentiates itself by its North American-style sprawl. Most Japanese cities conform to the global standard of socio-economic topography, wherein wealth & power are concentrated at an urban core and fade the farther they're stretched out towards shoddy suburban estate housing. But Mutsu fits the classic (if inching-towards-obsolescence) North American mold: the decaying husk of a downtown nucleus is ringed by prefab strip malls, car dealerships, and chain restaurants which give it a curiously nostalgic, pre-globalization anonymity. Standing outside the Mutsu train station, surveying the McDonald's, the Exxon service station, the D.I.Y. home furnishing warehouse, this could be Brandon, MB; Decatur, IL; Surrey, BC; anywhere really. Only the garish facade of the pachinko parlor insists on the place's specificity.

Suburban sprawl is only the start of Mutsu's strangeness. At the tourist info office, they handed us glossy-print maps that highlight Mutsu's "nightlife & eatery hotspot" in pink, a colour that in Japan carries connotations far more sinister than girlish innocence. But in a town of barely 60,000 residents, we were sort of stuck for options, so off we went with hopes of finding a foreigner-friendly pub. Sure enough, the "nightlife & eatery hotspot" was solid square kilometer of snack bars, stucco-shedding windowless shoeboxes of iniquity with asphyxiating neon signs that crackled with all the hostility of an electric fence. The only things on the street in fewer numbers than working streetlights were women. Everyone we passed was some leather-necked man in ratty sweatpants.

We eventually found one izakaya with some guileless students stood out front, so it seemed like a safe bet. That didn't stop the young waitstaff inside from being struck speechless by the sight of two foreigners. After a panicked exchange, they hauled the head chef - apparently the only one with any English ability - out from the kitchen to seat us. Once we'd shown that, yes, we did speak some Japanese, the evening proceeded without problem and we enjoyed some grilled chicken before retreating to our hotel.

The next night, I thought steal a few snapshots of this roughneck warren, given that it's the kind of place few foreigners ever visit, even by accident. Except for the photo above, I came away empty-handed. It took little more than two minutes before I realized how obnoxiously I stood out, a lanky John Lennon lookalike armed with a camera in a backwoods red-light district. Gaggles of half-drunk fishermen and farmhands felt silent as I passed, sizing me up and finding me their physical inferior. Nowhere else in Japan have I ever felt such intense, ambient hostility. I remembered how distinctly unwelcome some friends had felt when they'd visited Tokyo's oldest adult-entertainment area. The key differences, however, were that the locals of Yoshiwara are used to seeing foreigners; my friends were traveling as a pair, not alone as I was that night; and they had a pronounced height advantage over any potential adversaries, which I did not. If any belligerent goon wanted to test his mettle by jumping the gaijin, I would've been sausage stuffing. I was one rude gesture away from starring in a Japanese remake of Easy Rider.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Life's Rich Tapestry (Music Edition)

Shimokitazawa is the Williamsburg of Tokyo: a hustle-bustle locus of all things cool & au current that may have been genuinely countercultural a decade ago that is now more populated by tourists & trendspotters than radicals. Why it became a hotspot is a bit baffling: Shimokitazawa stands on the suburban border of the metropolis with nary an arterial road nor marquee metro line to access it. Beyond that, the neighbourhood is a near-unnavigable tangle of tiny streets wherein even the keenest sense of direction chokes in confusion.

At the bottom of a sloping street, in the unmarked basement of a liquor distributor, is Three - arguably the worst live venue in Tokyo. Sure, it's got glossy brutalist decor that screams modernism, and the clientele is tragically hip, but lord does it suck. The PA was set up by someone I wouldn't trust to fine-tune a home stereo: the speaker stacks face inward towards each other at 45º angles, creating a swamp of phase-cancellation that makes every square inch in the room sound different and bad. Then there's the one-meter-diameter column right in the middle of the fucking floor.

But there's something psychically wrong with Three as well. Maybe its low-lying location at the bottom of Shimokitazawa's labyrinth make it a sinkhole for bad voodoo, but whenever my band has played there we've suffered catastrophic, show-stopping technical difficulties. The first time, the bass cabinet blew out and the bridge on my guitar collapsed. A week ago, barely two songs into the set, I broke two strings and the drummer's kick pedal came unscrewed during the same verse. It's enough to make you wanna get medieval on a motherfucker.

The good news is that we've a chance to redeem ourselves tonight at a sightly more upscale venue in Shibuya. The better news is that in a little over a week, we're playing the Bakuto Festival in Osaka. Not only are Osaka audiences as bacchanalian as the Japanese get, the line-up includes some of my favourite bands - Solmania, Oshiri Penpens, OOIOO. A good way to spend a long weekend, indeed. (And I don't even have to do any of the 8-hour drive!)

The best news for the time being, though, is that my latest solo effort, Rogues Gallery, is finally available to you dear people overseas. Six months after its initial release in Japan, the album is now for anyone-from-anywhere to own on cassette. Yes, cassette, but not because I'm capitalizing on Reagan/Thatcher-era nostalgia. I simply ain't got the scratch for a vinyl release right now. But format snobbery aside, it sounds delightfully thick & feral on tape and every copy comes in a handmade cardboard case.

Still need to be convinced of this fine product's artistic worth? Well, you can stream the whole album on Bandcamp and the lead single, "The Bug Man", is available online for free. Lend me your ears and they will be richly rewarded.