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MBV inspires Japan to keep staring at its feet

by Ian Martin

In February 2013, there were three events that shook the world: the resignation of the pope, North Korea’s successful test of a nuclear bomb, and the release of Irish/British rock band My Bloody Valentine’s first new album in 22 years. Dispatched with less frequency than popes and comparable volume to nuclear bombs, My Bloody Valentine albums are rare and dangerous beasts, with venues on the band’s recent tour handing out complimentary earplugs to the audience on the way in.

They’re also hugely influential — within minutes of the new album “MBV” being made available on the band’s website, fans had broken the Internet in their clamor to get hold of it — and nowhere is that influence more keenly felt than in Japan’s indie-rock scene.

My Bloody Valentine’s reputation rests on two albums: 1988′s “Isn’t Anything” and 1991′s “Loveless”. The former was like a bolt from the blue, its multi-layered guitars and multitude of effects intertwined with sweet, caressing melodies sounding like nothing that had gone before, and inspiring a legion of copycats like Chapterhouse, Lush, Ride and Slowdive. The latter album honed the band’s sound and cemented their position as one of the most important groups of the era, and thanks to guitarist and band leader Kevin Shields’ refusal to release anything short of a masterpiece as a follow-up, My Bloody Valentine protected their legend, avoiding the pitfalls into which contemporaries The Stone Roses dived with such suicidal abandon with 1994′s turgid “The Second Coming”.

The scene in Britain dissolved soon after, overtaken by grunge and then Britpop in the nation’s affections, but it was eagerly absorbed and assimilated by Japanese indie musicians. Formed in 1992 and taking initial inspiration from The Pale Saints, Luminous Orange were one of the early flag bearers of shoegazing in Japan, although it took until the 1998 album “Three Out Change” by Aomori band Supercar for the genre to go mainstream. Since then, MBV, and “Loveless” in particular have achieved a level of universal adoration among Japanese indie musicians — there is literally no one who doesn’t like them. But how has their popularity, and that of shoegaze in general, been maintained for so long?

One of the reasons shoegazing’s lifespan was so limited in Britain was down to the competitiveness of the British rock scene and the backbiting nature of the music press. The term “shoegazing” was a derogatory term, apparently coined by the magazine Sounds in a review of the band Moose, and it carried with it an image of self absorption and dreary stage presence. The scene from which shoegaze sprang was also known, with equal derision, as “The Scene That Celebrates Itself” due to the incestuous nature of many of the groups (Stereolab, Moose and others would regularly swap members, and band members were often seen at each other’s gigs), and the perception of the scene as insular and elitist meant that bands either had to distance themselves from it or accept irrelevance.

However, the idea of “The Scene That Celebrates Itself” pretty much defines the way Japan’s indie scene operates. British bands took the music press’ taunts too seriously and rushed to define themselves in opposition to each other, causing the scene to fragment rather than evolve. On the other hand, Japanese bands are either ignored completely or celebrated uncritically by the local music press. Most events are organized by bands themselves, and musicians have to support each other either out of solidarity or naked self-interest. In this environment, a banner like “shoegaze” becomes less a critical albatross than a useful branding exercise.

Kentaro Nakao, now of alternative band Crypt City and formerly bass player with Luminous Orange and Number Girl, jokingly remarks that, “The first shoegaze band was Japanese, it was (’70s psychedelic noise band) Les Rallizes Denudes.” He’s being tongue-in-cheek, but he makes the good point that loud, feedback-heavy, effects-laden rock has a long history in Japanese underground music. Nakao’s bandmate, guitarist Seb Roberts, points out, however, that many Japanese shoegaze bands miss the loudness of My Bloody Valentine.

“They have the soft, oceanic wash and lush harmonies,” Roberts notes, “but they don’t have the physically transformative, pummelling aspect. When I saw MBV for the first time, I could feel it in my spine, and then it was flushed into my stomach. It was like being at a cult induction. The girl in front of me passed out.”

Sound engineer and guitarist of Cruyff in the Bedroom Shigekazu Sannohe agrees that shoegaze bands in Japan rarely reach those noisy peaks, but believes it’s not so simple. “Japanese shoegaze covers a really wide range,” he explains. “As an engineer, if the guitar is too loud, that’s no good. The important thing is the balance rather than the volume.”

The range of sounds is a key issue. Another important reason behind shoegazing’s enduring popularity in Japan is the way Japanese musicians have embraced the influence of My Bloody Valentine without feeling they’re in its shadow. This has allowed the genre to evolve in ways the original UK scene was never able to, with bands from multiple genres incorporating its influences.

Among the flurry of Japanese shoegaze-related events and tie-ins, which in addition to the MBV tour also included several parties, a book and a minifestival, there was a tribute album called “Yellow Loveless”, in which 11 Japanese bands covered My Bloody Valentine’s legendary second album track by track. Compiled by the band Lemon’s Chair, the album eschewed obvious choices such as Luminous Orange in favor of bands from a scattering of different genres, including punk-pop trio Shonen Knife, experimental rock band Boris and Shinobu Narita of new wave/electronic group 4-D Mode1, while the accompanying Japan Shoegazer Festival (also organized by Lemon’s Chair) cheerfully mixed rock and electronic music. Elsewhere, you can find shoegaze sitting comfortably alongside genres as diverse as idol music (check out some of Narasaki from Coaltar of the Deepers’ work with Momoiro Clover Z), visual kei, hardcore and metal.

The last reason for shoegazing’s popularity is one many will claim is the biggest of all, and that is simply My Bloody Valentine really were very, very good. They were easily the second-best band of the shoegaze era (Flying Saucer Attack were the best, and I will brook no disagreement on this), their albums still stand up to modern scrutiny, and the new “MBV” is a worthy new chapter in the story that will probably give the scene reasons to celebrate itself for many years to come.

My Bloody Valentine will play at Tokyo Rocks 2013. For more information, visit tokyorocks.jp

  • Shane

    While it’s nice to have an article like this, I think describing Chapterhouse, Lush, Ride and Slowdive as copycats isn’t particularly accurate…

    Japanese shoegaze can be a mixed bag – there’s a lot that’s pretty generic and boring. There’s interesting stuff mixed in too though – nemlino, Lilly of the Valley, Kanina, Shelling, and prantron are the bands that immediately spring to mind.

    • Ian Martin

      I’m actually a big fan of Lush, and of Ride’s early stuff (pre-Carnival of Light at least), so I hope you’ll forgive a bit of editorial hyperbole there. They’re all bands who owe the greater part of their existence to MBV (as opposed to Stereolab and FSA, who are a little more distinctive) but I’m not denying some of them did some good stuff.

      Cheers for dropping in the recommendations. I’d add that with a slightly different, more lo-fi, Jesus and Mary Chain-influenced sound there’s the excellent Slow-Marico. Hour Musik are another great one, more in a Stereolab vein.

  • http://twitter.com/ryodrums ryodrums

    Hi, it’s Ryo (dr) from Lemon’s Chair. Thank you The Japan Times for introducing Lemon’s Chair!