Japanese bands go big in Texas at SXSW festival

Acts hope to make fans out of Japanophiles

by Shawn Despres

AUSTIN, Texas — ‘We want to conquer the world,” says Okamoto’s vocalist Shou Okamoto after their well-received gig at the 24th annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Music and Media Conference.

Sharing a similar mentality as these young Tokyo rockers, some 1,800 major label and independent acts from 55 countries flocked to Austin, Texas, with dreams of gaining a stronger foothold in the music industry. Held from March 17-21, the massive SXSW boasts more than 80 official stages centered primarily throughout the downtown core of the city.

The festival included 21 groups from Japan. According to Audrey Kimura, SXSW Asia’s tour producer for Japan Nite, close to 100 acts applied.

“About 30 bands got invitations,” says Kimura. “From them, around 20 bands actually came to Austin to perform. These numbers have been around the same over the last five or six years.”

Money is the main reason that some acts passed on their invitations. Playing for exposure rather than payment, bands received a flat fee of $250 or registration packages to attend the many industry seminars presented at SXSW. No extra funds were provided for transportation or accommodation costs.

Seven of the groups appeared at Japan Nite. Started in 1996, the event has become one of the more popular SXSW showcases.

The day before Japan Nite, the Japan Preview Show was held with 12 Japanese acts. Taking place in the backyard behind the Typewriter Museum, several old typewriters sat on the rustic stage, which had a goat in a pen directly beside it.

Glammed up Hyogo postpunk group Hystoic Vein, Tokyo pop-rock band Chatmonchy (who the popular U.S. music magazine Spin named as one of the “50 Must-Hear Bands at SXSW”) and Tokyo noisy guitar-and-drum duo Gagakirise all made strong showings, but Osaka’s Maki Rinka’s highly entertaining set was the standout at the afternoon party.

Backed by accordion, standup bass, guitar and a dancer who sported a purple wig and fishnet stockings, Rinka emerged wearing a mid-drift bearing sailor’s outfit. Performing a mix of 1950s and ’60s styled jazz and cabaret, she was all smiles while flirtatiously singing tracks like “Lonely Girl Blues.” Equal parts sexy and sweet, the infectious loungey vibe of her show worked well in the sunny, outdoor surroundings. Only playing five tracks, when she announced her final song a disappointed groan emerged from a crowd who eagerly wanted more.

Rinka previously performed at SXSW in 2008 and 2009. Hoping to find an imprint to issue her music in North America, she intends to return for as long as she can.

“I always want to come back,” she says. “If they will invite me, I want to play.

“It’s a great festival. A lot of musicians come together. Famous musicians, local musicians and smaller acts like me from abroad. It’s a fantastic chance.”

Although it lacked the intimate vibe of the afternoon preview show, the Japan Nite concert at club Elysium was still a success. Bassist Chihiro Ishida from Osaka’s JinnyOops! twirled a Japanese umbrella as she appeared on the stage getting the Japan-centric audience fired up before the ladies launched into their first rock song. A loud cheer erupted from the crowd when drummer Hitomi Hutenma paused to ask, “Do you like Japan?”

Only 19 years of age, all four members of Okamoto’s had big black “X” marks on their hands to indicate their underage status. Using their youth to their advantage, the group’s lively showing of Rolling Stones-inspired rock rhythms had everyone bouncing along.

Wanting to attract as many spectators as possible, the boys crafted their own Okamoto’s tissue packets with advertisements for Japan Nite inside and distributed them on the streets of Austin just like they’ve seen done outside of subway stations back home.

“We handed out our promo tissues downtown on 6th Street,” says Shou Okamoto after signing CDs in the busy merchandise area. “Some magazines saw us giving them out and asked to interview us, so it worked out great.”

Studying notes of English phrases backstage before playing, Tokyo’s Red Bacteria Vacuum’s raucous punk set was filled with an infectious playful energy. By the time the trio took to the stage at 10 p.m., Elysium was at capacity and there were 40 people queued up waiting to get in. Bassist Kassan made everyone laugh when she made a reference to the city’s popular slogan “Keep Austin Weird,” saying, “You so weird. We weird. We keep you weird.”

“We wanted to come to the festival for a long time,” says vocalist/guitarist Ikumi just prior to their show. “There’s nothing in Japan like this. The whole city has been consumed by music. There are many people and they are very friendly and supportive. We are having so much fun.”

Although the acts associated with Japan Nite already had a built in audience due to the event’s stature, other Japanese bands also fared well at SXSW.

In addition to their regular club gigs, Tokyo’s Bo-Peep played at a supermarket and in the parking lot outside a cafe. At the latter, the band thrashed around on the tiny stage and busted out some stadium-worthy kicks causing the MC to proclaim later that they were “Rock posturing at its best.” Families clapped along to the trio’s dynamic hard rock, and afterward guitarist Mika Yoshimura and bassist Kaori Takebayashi autographed CDs for parents and posed for photos with children with painted faces.

“We are playing six times at SXSW,” says drummer Ryoko Nakano. “The alternative locations are awesome. We want to play more and more here.”

The best Japanese performance, and one of the top shows at the fest, came from Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO on SXSW’s opening night at bar Rusty Spurs. Just before starting, band founder Makoto Kawabata said to the soundman, “Can you push my guitar sound to the audience as loud as possible, please” as the crowd grinned in anticipation.

All in their 40s or older, the quartet began the first of several fantastic psychedelic jams with the insanely high volume causing the floor to shake and bits of dirt to fall from the ceiling. With things winding down, Kawabata and bassist Atsushi Tsuyama climbed atop the speakers at the sides of the stage. Kawabata began rubbing his instrument along the ceiling and then on the speaker adding a greater experimental edge to the proceedings. The audience roared their approval, but their cheers were buried under an avalanche of feedback.

AMT previously played SXSW in 2002, just when they were establishing themselves in international underground music circles. According to Kawabata, the additional exposure definitely helped, and it’s why they opted to return.

“The popularity of psychedelic music has decreased,” he explains. “We need to do more promo to attract more people to our music, so we decided to come to SXSW again. We want to make more new fans.”

Despite being one of the country’s better known indie bands in the U.S., Kawabata says AMT have never had any contact with Japan Nite and doesn’t want to play at it. He feels that standing out and finding an audience that enjoys your music regardless of your nationality are essential to building any kind of longstanding global following.

“Last time we played here, when I went home I saw a Japanese magazine article about SXSW,” Kawabata says. “They only talked about Japan Nite. They never mentioned us, even though one big newspaper picked us as one of the best three acts from SXSW that year.

“We don’t like the idea of Japan Nite. I think people who go there are not so interested in music — they are just interested in Japan. We don’t like this, so we don’t want to be a part of Japan Nite.”

Hole, F–ked Up and Chilton tribute mark rest of SXSW

AUSTIN, Texas — Here are a few of the many memorable non-Japanese concerts from South by Southwest: Reformed by Courtney Love with an all-new backing cast last year, popular 1990s alt-rock act Hole’s three concerts at SXSW were their first U.S. gigs in over a decade. Starting 20 minutes late at their official showcase, when Love finally arrived she flipped off the packed room and said, “I’m doing this for me, not you. If you like it, great. If not, suck it.” Previewing material from their April release, “Nobody’s Daughter,” alongside fan favorites such as “Doll Parts” and “Malibu,” while the band sounded OK at best, it was Love’s profanity-laced banter that kept people sticking around.

The final day of the festival was really cold with the temperature dropping to 2 degrees Celsius. Playing on the outdoor patio of club Red 7, F–ked Up’s hefty, hirsute vocalist Pink Eyes stripped down to his underwear and taunted attendees who complained about the frosty weather. Tearing through a top-notch set that included material from 2008′s “The Chemistry of Common Life” and a Sex Pistols cover, one excited stage diver somersaulted through the air with an open beer can in his hand and then drank it while crowd surfing as the Canadian hardcore band chuckled at his impressive feat.

What was supposed to be a reunion set from influential 1970s power-pop act Big Star turned into a memorial concert after singer and guitarist Alex Chilton passed away March 17 from a heart attack. A parade of guest vocalists including Evan Dando, M. Ward, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood joined surviving members of Big Star for a tribute to Chilton.