Japan to the fore at SXSW despite disaster at home

Bands help keep Japan in the spotlight at Stateside music- industry festival

by Shawn Despres

AUSTIN, Texas — Minutes after arriving in downtown Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Conference and Festival, I ran into a Japanese friend from Tokyo. While we were catching up, an American woman passing by overheard him mention Japan and instantly stopped to shake his hand. “I’m so incredibly sorry for what’s happened to your country,” she said before continuing on her way.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of SXSW, one of the largest music events in the world. Along with showcasing 2,000 acts from 61 countries from March 16-20, SXSW 2011 also acted as fundraiser to aid earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan.

Posters were hung at the Austin Convention Center encouraging fest-goers to make donations to the American Red Cross relief efforts in Japan by text message. T-shirts bearing the slogan “Help Save Japan @ SXSW” were sold and collection buckets were placed at selected venues. The original goal was to raise $10,000, but organizers soon decided to push for $100,000. They were successful. As of Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., SXSW had collected $104,141 (¥8.4 million)for Japan.

“Everyone here has been so kind,” says Inko, the vocalist for postpunk glam-rock group Hystoic Vein. “Many people have been asking us if we are OK and if our families are OK. It is very warming to see people so concerned about us and Japan.”

Hyogo’s Hystoic Vein were among the 20 Japanese acts who traveled to North America to perform at SXSW. Several Japanese artists based in the United States, such as Yoko Ono, Birthday Suits and Peelander-Z, also made live appearances. Unsurprisingly, there was a lineup of a few hundred people outside of live club Elysium more than six hours before Ono was scheduled to take to the stage for her Saturday-night headlining concert.

Playing at Headhunters on Wednesday night, Tokyo’s Moja were one of the first groups from Japan to showcase their talents at the fest. An explosion of noise ushered in the duo’s excellent bass-and-drums-driven rock and quickly drew cheers from the two dozen spectators gathered in the small room.

“This is very different from my image of Texas,” laughed drummer Masumi Sakurai in the parking lot across from Headhunters afterward. “I was expecting to see more people wearing cowboy hats and riding horses. It’s totally different, though. It’s amazing here. I want to come back to SXSW again next year.”

She and bassist Haruhiko Higuchi were in New York recording a new EP when natural disasters ravaged northern Japan on March 11.

“We were shocked when we heard the news,” said Sakurai. “So many people are facing difficulties, so I’m very sad. I really want to go home now.”

Chatting with compassionate people before and after their SXSW set helped to lift Moja’s spirits.

“We have been feeling very depressed and are worried about everything. When we started playing, we were able to be happy for a few minutes. We were able to channel all our energy into our concert.”

The annual free Japan Preview day show took place on Thursday, March 17, on an outdoor stage at barroom venue The Grackle. Previously appearing at SXSW in 1996 and ’97, stalwart Tokyo punks Lolita No. 18 were definite crowd favorites as they played under the scorching afternoon sun.

“Hello, Austin!” shouted animated frontwoman Masayo Ishizaka. “It’s nice to see you again. Today we play for Japan!”

With many in attendance already singing and bopping along to Lolita No. 18′s high-energy anthems, Ishizaka stood atop a monitor and called out, “Yeah! More, more, more,” before sticking out her tongue and posing for nearby photographers. Reading from a piece of paper, she announced that the band were donating all their merchandise money to the Red Cross. With the crowd repeatedly chanting “Japan” in appreciation, all four members took turns screaming, “I love Austin!” before launching into a cover of “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

Kyoto’s Suck Piggy followed. Lead shrieker Suckin wore a face mask with “Pray for Japan” scrawled across it as she strolled around The Grackle prior to their show. When it came time to play, she sported a T-shirt with the same message.

Guitarist Kaory raised her arm and gave everyone a devil-horn salute as the self-dubbed “death rock” band began their first loud hardcore-punk cut. Stalking the stage, Suckin hit her head with her fist a few times before jumping into the crowd to thrash around with spectators. Pausing to address the audience, she offered thanks to all the countries that have helped Japan before yelling, “Please pray for Japan! Pray for Japan!”

Japan Nite took place on Friday, March 18. Now in its 16th year, the two-week American tour opened with an SXSW concert in Austin before taking several Japanese bands to New York, Chicago, Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. One of the more popular gigs each year at SXSW, the event is always packed to capacity with fans of Japan and its musical output. Like Lolita No. 18, Japan Nite is contributing all of its merchandise money to aid its homeland.

Electro-rockers White White Sisters performed as part of Japan Nite 2011. The trio, which includes vocalist/guitaristprogrammer Yuya Matsumura, drummer Kazumasa Ishii and VJ Kouta Tajima, were actually in an airplane on the runway at Narita Airport on March 11 when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the nation.

“Our flight was delayed seven hours because of what happened,” said a sleepy Ishii on Saturday morning at the very un-rock ‘n’ roll time of 7:30 a.m. before leaving to catch an early flight from Austin to New York.

While thoughts of their compatriots weighed heavily on the minds of all the participating artists, they strove to keep the mood at Japan Nite positive, so that performers and attendees alike could enjoy themselves and the wide range of musical talent amassed.

“Japan Nite was so exciting,” said Matsumura. “The crowd were very passionate and supportive of all the bands. Everyone played well, but I think (famed alt-rock trio) Mo’some Tonebender were the best.”

Inko from Hystoic Vein echoed Matsumura’s sentiments about Japan Nite being a great experience, but disagreed with his pick for top act.

“Of course, Hystoic Vein were the best band last night,” she said with a wide smile.

Hystoic Vein did their own solo showcase at SXSW last year, tipping the scales in their favor as they already had fans in Austin awaiting their return. By the end of the gig, they had sold out of all of the CDs they had brought for the entire tour.

“We got such a great reaction from the audience,” Inko said. “We are trying to get some more albums mailed to us from Japan for the other cities, but we don’t know if they’ll arrive in time. We’re happy regardless.”

South by Southwest’s charity collection for Japan is ongoing, with donations going to the Red Cross; to donate, visit www.sxsw4japan.org.