Where the Wild Things Are

Posted by Pete DeMola on 1. Des 2009

BEIJING, Dec 1 - Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in Beijing's heavily-scrutinized independent music scene and forget that across the Sea of Japan, a nearby archipelago has been fortifying it's own rock and roll culture since olive-colored uniforms were still en vouge here in the Middle Kingdom and music, whether pop or otherwise, consisted primarily of nationalist patois pumped into tinny AC-DC radios.

Japan's unique live house phenomenon grew from the cafe culture of the late-1960s when folks would request a song to be played alongside their lattes on in-house record players. Now, forty years later, Tokyo alone has some 300 live houses, with an additional 700 sprinkled throughout the rest of the country.

If one adheres to the strict definition of "live house," which refers to a venue specifically designed to facilitate both the creation and enjoyment of live music in which the bar is separated from a well-equipped performance area, our fair city possesses only two thus far: MAO Live House and 13 Club, with about a dozen-or-so additional venues dedicated in varying degrees to showcasing live music and the construction of a healthy scene.

In Japan, hundreds of bands perform nightly in these live houses to armies of dedicated fans in a subculture with its own unique customs, which range from specific guest list etiquette, after party events (uchiage) to the concept of kikaku, or the practice of veteran bands taking on a benefactor role via inviting their younger brethren with similar sonic tastes to play gigs with them.

Journalist-slash-filmmaker Kevin Mcgue, an American who has lived in Japan for most of the past decade, captured this live house culture in his feature-length documentary, the aptly-named "Live House," which was released this past autumn and was created, in part, through a grant from the Japan Foundation, an non-governmental organization that seeks to spread Japanese culture throughout the world.

The flick will be screened here in Beijing on Thurs, Dec 17 at D-22 alongside performances by local bands Trash Cat, Pacalolo and me灌me, laying down street punk, synthpop and bluesy rock and roll, respectively.

In the lengthy interview below, Mcgue explains how a live house differs from a bar, what legendary songwriter Mike Watt had to say about his work in Japan and fills us in on some of the best bands that you've never heard of.

WLIB: In your article in Metropolis magazine (Sept 2009), you state that Tokyo's live house music scene is "set to go global," while producer Ryohei Tsutsui echoes the same sentiments. What's the catalyst?

Kevin Mcgue: The explosion of exports of manga, anime and film from Japan that started in the late-1980s left people curious about what music from Japan is like, and left them primed for exposure to other facets of Japanese culture. Anime and Japanese horror films often features chart-topping anime songs, due to tie up agreements within media giants here. While this is fine for the Japanese market, I think people in other countries that are into anime and Japanese film have more obscure tastes, and so they are willing to dig a little deeper. Also, the effect of MySpace and iTunes really can't be overestimated in my opinion. When I first started to get get into Japanese music when I was in college, I went through great pains to get my hands on a CD or tape. Now people can access bands instantly.

WLIB: What is unique (and exportable) about Japan's live house culture aside from the music?

Mcgue: In the States and England, bands of this level play at bars and are hired to help sell beer. People go to drink, and may or not pay attention to the band. At a live house, everyone is there for the music, and they really get into it. It would be nice to see that attitude applied overseas. Also, while it is expensive to put on a show at a live house, it really does provide a complete package for bands. The sound and lighting systems are great, and the sound engineers and other staff take their jobs seriously. There is time for rehearsal, and drums, amps, etc are all provided. My understanding is in other countries bands have to bring all their own gear. In this sense, I think live houses make it easier for bands, especially those just starting out.

WLIB: We have a few places like that here in Beijing, but not many. Which genre(s) in particular are currently generating the most internal buzz at Japanese live houses?

Mcgue: There are lots of girl bands, as there have been for a while. I think now there is less pressure for them to act cutesy, a la Shonen Knife, if they don't want to. While the major genres are still rock and punk, there are a few bands coming out with electro and dance punk -- it's quite diverse. If you want to go see rockabilly bands, you can do that. If you want hardcore or punk, you can get that, too.

WLIB: Cool. It's about the same here in Beijing, with a lot of bands drawing inspiration from the first wave of post punk and the No Wave movement. You've lived and worked in Japan for over eight years. How has the scene evolved since your arrival in 2000?

Mcgue: There has definitely been an increase in bands touring internationally, both bands from overseas doing the live house circuit in Japan, and live house bands going overseas. This has been true since the Beatles came to Japan, but recently, less-established bands with small fan bases are able to do this.

WLIB: Who are some of the best live acts that we know nothing about?

Mcgue: Ed Woods always put on a show worth more than the price of admission. Tsushimamire, Bo-Peep and Red Bacteria Vacuum are three girls bands that kick ass.

WLIB: Tell us about Bo-Peep. We're going to use their photo as the cover image for this article.

Mcgue: Bo-Peep is a band consisting of three Japanese women, but they do not want to be seen as a "girls band" or a "Japanese band." I think they are doing pretty well on both counts. I went with them on their third tour of England, and I was surprised that a lot of people were not there to see some band from Japan, but to see Bo-Peep, as they knew them from previous tours or iTunes. They went to South by Southwest this year where the music critic Jon Pareles saw them by accident, having misread his schedule, and then went on to rave about them in the New York Times.

WLIB: How about newcomers?

Mcgue: Moja and Zarigani$ are two bands that have given a new slant to rock by eschewing guitars. With just bass and drums, they create really full sounds with an experimental edge.

WLIB: What were some of the highlights in the creation of this documentary?

Mcgue: I got the chance to interview Mike Watt, founder of the Minutemen. Watt has previously come to Japan playing bass with big acts like Iggy Pop, etc. Recently he has been collaborating with musicians in here and doing tours of the live house circuit. It was great to see someone with his background revel in the spirit of live houses.

WLIB: What kind of collaborations has he been working on?

Mcgue: He has a band in Japan called brother's sister's daughter, which has revolving personnel including Jim O'Rourke and players from various Japanese band. He also plays with a Tokyo band called Migu, as well as Afrirampo.

WLIB: Did you learn anything in the process of directing "Live House" that you were unaware of before?

Mcgue: Film everything. Several times I turned the camera off when I thought the interesting parts of a concert or interview were over, and something magical would happen after that. Tapes are cheap, so capture everything you can.

WLIB: What kind of magical things?

Mcgue: I interviewed the band Aggressive Dogs, who have been playing non-stop since 1982. They talked about the early days before live houses became common. They used to rent out a cafe, build a stage out of plywood, print flyers, sell tickets, and everything themselves. It was a great interview and after I turned the cameras off, the guys started hauling their gear into the venue for a show that night. I wish I had caught that as well, as it shows their D.I.Y. attitude hadn't changed a bit.

WLIB: What are the biggest differences between the Japanese and Chinese independent music scenes?

Mcgue: Japanese punk is widely seen as having started in 1979, so it just hit 30. The Chinese scene is of course much newer. Because of this, the genres and sub-genres in Japan are well established, and there are lots of bands that have been around 12 years or more. On the other hand, the Chinese scene seems to be more energetic and certainly faster-growing.

WLIB: A few of us decided to skip out on Friday's morning meeting. A few hours later our plane is taxiing at Narita International Airport. We've got about 65,000 yen each, no hotel reservations and love rock and roll. How's our weekend looking?

Mcgue: You could try to get some solid info before heading out. Juice and Metropolis magazines have gig listings, and tokyogigguide.com is a good place to start. You can also just go a live house and hope for some good bands. Heaven's Door in Sangenjaya is consistently good. ACB and Antiknock in Shinjuku offer good punk bands. Shimokitazawa and Koenji are two areas of Tokyo that have high concentrations of records shops, bars and live houses, and there is bound to be something good going on. Record shops usually have stacks of flyers for live shows in the area, and people often hand out fliers to crowds leaving shows for future events, often the very next night, so take those. Capsule hotels and business class hotels can be found near major stations. While Tokyo is notoriously expensive, 65,000 yen for a weekend is a lot, and you would definitely have money left over to buy CDs.

"Live House" will be screened at D-22 on Thurs, Dec 17 at 8pm. It's 30 RMB (20 RMB for students). Kevin Mcgue will be there, as will local bands Pacalolo, Trash Cat and me灌me. Click here for more details.

Bo-Peep photo courtesy of the organizers.

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