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Otori, Jesse Ruins can learn from each other

A tale of two paths to indie success

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo postpunk quartet Otori is an archetypal product of the city’s underground live-music scene. The band’s sets feature a machine-gun rattle of drums, slashes of guitar that explode in fierce climaxes, and bursts of scattershot vocals that teeter on the brink of hysteria — the kind of music that gouges tortured metaphors out of music writers like jagged shrapnel as they struggle to describe it. In the end, though … you just had to be there.

By forging an identity there in sweat-drenched weekend parties and amid the cold indifference of half-empty Tuesday-evening bookings, the live-music circuit has traditionally been where a group can build up a fan base. Taking cues from the electronic-music scene, however, bands have started to bypass this route with the help of websites such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Now it’s increasingly possible (and even more attractive) to reach out to an audience with whom “just having to be there” is geographically impossible.

A big advantage of this digital route is that it’s a far more efficient way of reaching listeners. While independent bands in Japan measure their audiences in the dozens, online they can see such numbers climb into the hundreds or thousands. The traditional live-music slog also carries with it huge costs both in time and money.

If there’s one kind of music most suited to live performance, it’s punk — not least because so many punk recordings are awful. By focusing primarily on live performances, Otori has been steadily building a good reputation in the independent-music scene. With just a lone six-song CD/R to show for two years of steady gigging though, the band would likely be the first to tell you that it’s a slow process.

“Firstly, we’ve been trying to find bands and venues we can work with,” says vocalist Sae Kobara, with bassist Wataru Miyata emphasizing the importance of building relationships with other bands not only to get access to fans of similar music, but also because musicians themselves make up such a large part of the audience at many gigs.

It’s a slow gathering of support that is further set back by the financial burden imposed by Japanese venues’ noruma (pay-to-play) system.

“We play live on average three times a month, which might lose the band about ¥30,000 each month,” Miyata explains. “On top of that, we’ll go on tour to places like Osaka and Kyushu maybe three times a year.”

Split between Otori’s four members, the outlay isn’t that bad by Tokyo’s notoriously expensive standards, but it’s still a big investment to make in an environment where live music is an uncertain road to bigger things. Big labels will discourage newly signed bands from playing gigs just in case they play the “wrong” show.

Meanwhile, despite beginning at a similar time to Otori in 2010, Nobuyuki Sakuma of bedroom-pop three-piece Jesse Ruins took the opposite path. Working at home, he focused on recording, and after a couple of cassette releases, he posted his tracks online. This resulted in Internet buzz abroad that helped net him record deals with U.K. label Double Denim and Captured Tracks in the United States — in turn winning him new fans in Japan. However, it wasn’t until the end of 2011 that he put a band together and attempted a live performance.

“The reason we took so long was that we had never played our instruments,” explains Sakuma, who had previously worked primarily as a DJ. “Not only that, but it had been about 10 years since I’d played in any sort of band.”

Sakuma’s dreamy synthesiser soundscapes, similar to the kind of electronic music exemplified by Warp Records in the 1990s and the more recent Web-driven phenomenon of chillwave, are perfectly suited both to software-based recording and the online world — drifting toward you through your laptop speakers rather than roaring at you from the stage. The songs from his first EP, “Dream Analysis,” were devoured by the online community that has built up around blogs such as Gorilla vs. Bear and No Modest Bear, which focus on aggregation. They then moved onto other sites that provide more analytical and critical appraisal, such as The Guardian’s music blog.

The problem is that while bands can benefit from the hype the Web provides, it also creates a certain amount of pressure to live up to expectations when people finally go see the act play live.

Sakuma understands the need to move Jesse Ruins into a live environment and embrace its rawness and physicality. It brings challenges, but also provides an opportunity to add a new dimension to the group.

“At first, I was seeking to recreate the original sounds onstage,” Sakuma says. “Now I’m coming to believe the live performance should be a little different. After I played some gigs, I started to care about the live performance a little more, I think this is having a good influence on Jesse Ruins’ music.”

There is an analogy here with U.S. artists such as Toro Y Moi and Washed Out, both of whom were tied to the chillwave boom pushed by music websites in 2009-10. The blog buzz led to label interest, which helped those artists take their solo recording projects and turn them into fuller sounds with bands that worked in a live environment. Japan’s numerous bedroom producers might want to listen to Washed Out’s original version of “You’ll See It” and compare it to how he performs the track live with four other musicians — the difference is stark.

For Otori, the situation is reversed. Their live performances are finely honed, but like many acts in Japan’s alternative-music scene, their online presence is confined to a simple website and clunky MySpace page.

Miyata recognizes the challenge of “translating the power and force of our live performance into a recording.” This is harder to do with bands as fierce and physical as Otori than it is with synth-based lo-fi dreampop, so perhaps Web promotion should come packaged with high-quality video of their shows.

In the end, the traditional values of rehearsals, live performance and touring are still necessary for groups such as Jesse Ruins to garner support and new fans, just as the Internet can be harnessed to help bands like Otori reach a broader audience. For fans, the benefits should be obvious: Better access to new music, and better music when they get it.

For more information on Otori, visit otorijpn.web.fc2.com/top.html. Jesse Ruins plays Seco Bar in Shibuya, Tokyo, on April 6 (11 p.m.; ¥2,500; [03] 6418-8141). For more information, visit jesseruins.tumblr.com.