AUSTIN, TEXAS – On the afternoon of the South By Southwest (SXSW) Music Conference And Festival’s second day, I sat on a shuttle bus with eight people who had been hustling between the countless concert venues in this city. True to the its slogan “Keep Austin Weird,” a local resident whipped out a bag of marijuana and the driver nodded his approval. As a small pipe went around the bus, passengers discussed acts they wanted to see — DJ Diplo, pop duo The Ting Tings, buzzed-about rapper ASAP Rocky. After declining a smoke, I said “Japan Nite.”
“That’s one of the highlights of SXSW,” the Austin native said. “It’s always great.”
Still popular with locals after 17 years, Japan Nite serves as a hub for a handful of Japanese acts that made the trip to SXSW 2012, a five-day festival featuring thousands of bands from around the world.
Most unknown musicians hope they’ll gain new fans and maybe catch the eye of industry insiders, a goal long associated with SXSW. The festival has changed drastically over the years, though, and it now serves more as a showcase of hyped-up acts surrounded by an assortment of mysteries. Japanese performers fell into the latter category this year, mostly playing for audiences already familiar with them instead of those who could take them new places.
Several Japanese artists went the classical route of playing shows at various venues and bars scattered all over Austin. Tokyo rock outfit Toquiwa played a set at the spacious Swan Dive on Wednesday night to a more middle-aged crowd. The group won the audience over via high-energy rock sprinkled with goofy banter — the lead singer shouting “We love U.S.A.!” while waving a miniature flag being the most groan-worthy. Later, noisier acts Lagitagida and Gagakirise played at Headhunters, a cramped bar with toilets in a perpetual state of overflow. Lagitagida’s psychedelic take on progressive rock wowed the cozy crowd, while Gagakirise’s guitar-and-drum-powered noise attack one-upped them, capped off by drummer Ryo Inoue jumping onto the bar. Both bands were met with many “Great show, dudes” following their sets.
The three aforementioned bands also played at the Japan Preview Show, a Thursday-afternoon party at The Grackle, a bar far removed from downtown Austin. These groups joined the lineup of Japan Nite 2012 to play brief sets in advance of Friday’s main event. It was a calm afternoon, an intimate affair boasting the atmosphere of a family barbecue, complete with several local food trucks and Japanese capsule-toy dispensers.
It also felt like it was happening on another planet from SXSW. Although the majority of bands at the festival toil away in anonymity, the media swarming Austin focus on acts that have been hyped over the past year instead of trying to break a new band. The most popular shows also usually have corporate backing — some of the busiest venues are brought to you by Converse, Taco Bell and Doritos. The Japan Preview Show’s most prominent sponsor appeared to be something called the Austin Facial Hair Club.
Yet Japan Nite chugs on, and the bands that played at music venue Elysium this year still went all out. First act The Rubies (formerly The Emeralds) put on a show in which they handed audience members tambourines, shouted into megaphones and formed human trains in the crowd. Though they lacked the showmanship of The Rubies, The Akabane Vulgars On Strong Bypass followed it up with an aggressive style of guitar rock. Later, The ZZZ’s (featuring members of the group Hystoic Vein) thrilled the crowded floor at Elysium with loud, yelpy rock belters. Kansai indie-pop outfit Nokies! and Saito Johnny played it softer, the latter turning Daft Punk’s “One More Time” into a line-dance number received by a wave of “Awesomes!” The highlight of the evening was Osaka’s Vampillia, a theatric group melding guttural screams with opera singing with hair-tossing metal.
The crowd, featuring many older people and very few sporting the wristbands needed to gain entry into buzzed-about gigs, responded warmly to every act.
“They don’t care as much about what audiences think, they have fun,” Japan Nite attendee Andrea Castro said. “They work harder than American bands.”
Rei Ryokazaki, a veteran of five Japan Nites, agrees with Castro, and enjoys the annual showcase. “The audience is always energetic,” he said, though he also said he had seen bigger crowds in the past. “It all depends who is playing,” he said before noting Elysium featured a massive line last year when Yoko Ono performed.
The majority of Japanese acts either played at an assortment of venues around Austin to random crowds or showed up at Japan Nite to perform to a very niche group (people who love Japan and, presumably, Japanese music). The one exception this year was Tokyo bedroom producer Kinuko Hiramatsu, who is known professionally as Sapphire Slows. Her swirling electronic compositions landed her a spot on American imprint Not Not Fun last year. She performed at two label-related shows at SXSW, barely playing up her nationality. Her second gig, at the cozy Longbranch Inn, attracted a decent crowd for a near-midnight start Saturday.
Slows’ live show found the young musician standing behind a laptop, a microphone and a few other pieces of equipment. Her music merged the worlds of ambient sound with dance, and was spiked by her singing, which stood out as the best live component. Although it didn’t seem like the sort of stuff you would dance to, several audience members did just that, enthusiastically. Richard Muniz didn’t dance, but he was “very, very impressed.” “I’m ecstatic to see a woman making electronic music,” he said, “and that it’s really good makes it even better.”
Despite drawing a crowd very different from the one at Japan Nite, Slows still played to a very specific audience (Not Not Fun fans) instead of the large and varied ones that bands built up by the media get. The changing nature of SXSW means that, unless a Japanese artist can hitch themselves to the online hype cycle or connect with a prominent brand, they will always have to deal with niche audiences. This isn’t a bad thing — Japan Nite still earns praise from locals and out-of-towners alike, and the bands playing the event moved a lot of merchandise. Even those operating outside of Japan Nite, like Sapphire Slows, were shaking many hands and being patted on the back.
As SXSW came to a close Saturday night, Slows sat on the side of the Longbranch Inn, clutching a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and looking despondent. “America was so much fun,” she said. “I don’t want to leave.”