Fuji Rocking 10 years on

by Jason Jenkins

Fuji Rock Festival is the biggest event on the calendar for many Japanese and foreign residents alike. Sure, it costs a stack of cash to go, but the festival is not your typical commercial venture. Word on the street is that it has been anything but a money spinner for concert promoter Smash Japan. Instead, think of it as one man’s idea of how to throw Japan’s biggest (and best) party of the year. That man is Masa Hidaka, head of Smash. As the event is about to turn 10, he talked to The Japan Times at his Hiroo office about love affairs, creating chaos and his old friend Joe Strummer (R.I.P. 2002), the legendary Clash guitarist and patron saint of Fuji Rock.

Some say that you brought the rock ‘n’ roll experience to Japan.

Oh, I don’t think about that. Our company policy is “If we love this music, then we want [to promote] it.” That’s it. When I started Smash in 1983, most of my favorite musicians were not coming [to Japan]. The only ones that came were Billboard [magazine's] Top 10, that kind of thing. And we couldn’t stand at a gig. Even when the Clash came, we had to sit down! We had to see rock bands in locations that were really for classical music. But we wanted to dance! And now we can.

Tell me about how you schedule the bands. Is the sequencing important?

Scheduling is very important for our audience, but from the very beginning, I have wanted to make chaos for them. I want to say: “So two of your favorite bands are playing at the same time. Maybe you love them both, but you have to make a choice.” I want our audience to forget their schedule and look for new experiences. Japanese people love to make schedules. For example, when Japanese people travel, say, to Paris, everything is scheduled beforehand: “When I arrive there, first I’ll go shopping, then I’ll eat lunch at this restaurant, then go to this museum, blah, blah.” That’s not good for them. But this is a music festival. Anything is possible. So I say forget about your schedule, enjoy the day and you’ll find an amazing band you’ve never heard of before. That kind of discovery will make your weekend.

What’s your strategy when choosing bands for Fuji Rock? Do you shoot wide, asking a lot of bands, or do you make specific choices, handpicking bands?

Specific choices. Many bands want to play Fuji, and many come to us, actually, and we choose many this way. Fuji Rock is mostly alternative bands. For this type of artist, money doesn’t work: If they want to do it, they’ll do it. But if they don’t, even a million dollars can’t bring them, generally.

Do you have the final say in who comes and who doesn’t?

I usually choose for some stages, for example, the lineup at the Field of Heaven and nighttime at the Red Marquee. Most of these are my picks. The rest are often made by other staff or stage managers. Sometimes I refuse, but most of the time they make the right choices.

Lots of bands are repeat visitors. Chemical Brothers, Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo come to mind. How do you decide how often a band returns? How do you deal with that, when, say, Patti Smith asks to come back every year?

Oh, it depends on the band, really, but we do have a two-year law: You can come two years in a row, but not three. Sonic Youth is one example. They’ve come three times? Maybe four?

And Mogwai, too.

Right. Sonic Youth and Mogwai want to come every year, but I thought that might be too much, but this year they both have albums coming out so that’s one of the reasons.

Every year there seem to be a few “pet” bands on the ticket; bands that aren’t big or breaking, necessarily, but bands that I think you and the Smash guys love and want to promote. I’m thinking of Los Lobos last year, Banda Bassotti the year before, Manu Chao before that. These seem to be Smash favorites. Would you agree?

Oh, of course.

There’s a distinct Latin theme here. And these bands — especially Banda Bassotti and Manu Chao — are overtly political. How much do politics play a part in your choices, and with Fuji Rock?

The Latin theme is personal taste, and politics play a small part, sure, but when it comes to Los Lobos or Manu Chao, they’re old friends. Besides, I want to give the audience bands they’ve never heard before.

That happens a lot at Fuji Rock. Your tastes have formed a particular type of audience, wouldn’t you say? Now we’re at the 10th Fuji Rock, you could almost consider Smash a brand.

I have no idea. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize ourselves, but maybe Smash has some value for [Japan's] music scene. I think? I hope? Maybe I wish [laughs]. But I can say that we are always trying to find something new and interesting. It’s not just about making money. That’s not our first priority. If we work hard enough, people will notice us.

Speaking of money, Fuji Rock tickets aren’t cheap, but when you consider production costs — artist fees, stage construction, transportation, and band and staff accommodation — the event isn’t a money-making machine. Is that fair to say?

It’s like a love affair. When you love a beautiful woman, it’s much better to say “I love you, I love you” than to say “Please love me — why don’t you love me?” No! You can’t say that! You say “I love you! I love you!” Then, if you are lucky, she will love you, too, right?

Speaking of love, Joe Strummer holds a special place in the hearts of many Fuji Rockers. I still remember him tending the fire at the Palace of Wonder. He seems to still be a part of the festival, don’t you think?

Oh yeah. Joe and I have a long history. More than 20 years. When Joe got married, we gave him backstage passes for Glastonbury. When I arrived [at Glastonbury] that year Joe had a tent but didn’t know how to put it up! Later he became the king of campers, but then he said “Masa, help me!” [laughs]. That year I had a huge campsite backstage, with a big fire. Joe joined us, and he really, really enjoyed it. Then years later, a few weeks before Glastonbury, Joe called and said: “Masa, I’m coming. Is there anything you want me to bring?” And I said: “Bring wood.” Glastonbury has been happening since 1985, so there is little firewood left around the area. So when I arrived, there was Joe with a big wagon. “Masa,” he said, “I did it.” The entire truck was full of wood! [laughs].

Fuji Rock Festival, featuring Red Hot Chili Peppers, Franz Ferdinand, The Strokes and many more, will be held at Naeba Ski Resort, Yuzawa-machi, Niigata Prefecture, July 28-30. (Free opening party July 27); 39,800 yen for 3-day tickets, 16,800 yen for 1-day tickets, 2,500 yen for camping passes. One-day entrance and parking tickets for July 29 had sold out at the time of going to press. For a full line-up and more information visit www.fujirockfestival.com/artist/index.html

NOT TO BE MISSED THIS YEAR

Headliner: The Strokes

Singer Julian Casablancas has been married and off the booze for a while, which means he’s no longer likely to use a mic stand to hold himself up. It doesn’t mean, though, that he’s lost his attitude — good news for fans hoping the group will be at their gnarly best for their Green Stage performance on Sunday. (David Hickey)

Emerging act: Gnarls Barkley

DJ Dangermouse won underground cool galore when he received a cease-and-desist order from EMI Records for his illicit bootleg album that deftly spliced Jay-Z with The Beatles. He then went overground when he got behind the controls for Gorillaz’ mega-selling “Demon Days” album. Gnarls Barkley sees him team up with rapper/vocalist Cee-Lo. The duo went straight to No. 1 in the British singles charts on download sales alone for the soulful dance tune “Crazy,” and it will take some serious muscle to get anywhere near the front when Gnarls Barkley take to the White Stage on Friday. (David Hickey)

Still going strong: Tucker

That Japanese hip-hop punk dude Tucker was touring with Cornelius as far back as ’98 and his guesting on a Money Mark album last year gives an indication of what to expect when he plays the Planet Groove stage on Friday: a genre-bending experience that sees the one-man band play classical standards lounge-style on a retro organ while standing on his head, recording and looping himself playing bass and drums and scratching too. With his tongue. (David Hickey)

Headliner: Zutons

In 2004, the Zutons blew everyone away with their Liverpool brand of rock and soul during an afternoon set. The organizers have promoted them to the headliner position at the Red Marquee on Friday night on the strength of their new hit album, which means they’re competing with Franz Ferdinand. I say no competition at all. (Philip Brasor)

Emerging act: Wolfmother

Fuji eschews metal and classic hard rock, which makes sense given the festival’s rustic hippie vibe, but sometimes you need a shot of power riffage to wake up. Australia’s Wolfmother opens the Green Stage on Saturday morning, when festivalgoers traditionally nurse their first major hangovers of the weekend. A serving of boneheaded Zep-like boogie blues is just the ticket to get the masses up. (Philip Brasor)

Still hot: Shang Shang Typhoon

In the early ’90s, Shang Shang Typhoon rode the pan-Asian wave, and since then they’ve augmented their Okinawan and Taiwanese-style pop with salsa, hot jazz, and standard rock. As the wave subsided, they dropped off the radar and Sony’s roster, but their wild and woolly live shows, centered on the vocal antics of Eimi Shirazaki and Sachiko Nishikawa, are always first-rate. The Field of Heaven on Friday night should be the perfect setting for them. (Philip Brasor)

Headliner: Red Hot Chili Peppers

They played the first Fuji Rock and they’re back for the 10th anniversary. The Chili Peppers will draw the biggest crowd of the festival when they headline Saturday night on the Green Stage. On the back of new album “Stadium Arcadium,” which some critics regard as their magnum opus, and with a back catalog of classic crowd-pleasers such as “By The Way” and “Californification,” they may even better their exemplary ’02 Fuji Rock show. Expect guitarist John Frusciante to take more of a lead this time, rather than bass-slapping Flea, if the new album is anything to go by. (Simon Bartz)

Emerging act: Dirty Pretty Things

With two ex-Libertines on board — singer/guitarist Carl Barat and drummer Gary Powell — DPT should draw a good crowd to The Green Stage on Friday evening and may even upstage Franz Ferdinand, who headline soon after. As their classic debut album “Waterloo to Anywhere” is a collection of fast-paced, swashbuckling songs, the moshpit will probably be one of the liveliest of the weekend. A must-see.(Simon Bartz)

Still hot: Super Furry Animals

The Super Furries are one of the most eclectic bands playing the festival and are well worth the longish trip to the White Stage to see them Sunday night. The band boasts a vast arsenal of great tunes and they merrily hop between beautiful folkish ballads, soaring singalongs, speedy guitar-pop and the occasional burst of manic techno.(Simon Bartz)