LA and Tokyo mix it up at Dublab

by Erik Luebs

Special To The Japan Times

As cities, Tokyo and Los Angeles could not be more different. With its year-round sun and wide-open spaces, Los Angeles poses a stark contrast to Tokyo, where buildings are swallowed up by bigger buildings and even the tiniest spaces are a precious commodity. But as creative places, both cities resonate with one another as creative partners.

Over the last decade, a compelling relationship has developed between a generation of forward-thinking artists. One of those is the LA-based Dublab, a listener-funded Internet radio station that launched a Tokyo broadcast in January.

Throughout the year, Dublab broadcasts a mix of electronic, folk and ambient music. The organization functions as an art collective and label, too, making records, events, and mixed-media art projects with groups in LA and elsewhere. The nonprofit, which was founded in 1999, has been a stomping ground for many influential artists of the last decade, with musicians such as Mia Doi Todd, William “The Gaslamp Killer” Bensussen, Carlos Nino, and Jimmy Tamborello (of The Postal Service) among its collaborators.

Years of broadcasting noncommercial radio, putting out records and proactively reaching out to music communities abroad helped develop a devoted audience in places such as Japan, according to founder Mark “Frosty” McNeill.

“One of the reasons we chose to leap into Internet radio was its international reach,” he says. “We were thrilled by the idea of sharing sounds on a global scale.”

Mayumi Takada discovered Dublab’s affiliated artists in the early 2000s. Now she goes to LA several times a year to purchase music-related goods for her shop, Loser, in Osaka’s Namba neighborhood.

“When I first went, I noticed that everyone was very friendly,” she says. “In regards to music, it feels very free — that’s what really pulled me in.”

Masaaki Hara, a Tokyo-based journalist, record-label owner and event organizer, first met Dublab’s McNeill and Elvin “Nobody” Estela in the late 1990s.

“Around 1999, right when Dublab was first getting started, Frosty and Nobody came to Japan. Frosty and the LA guys were listening to the music from my label and they wanted to meet me. So I’ve known them for quite some time.”

Likewise, longtime Tokyo resident Hashim Bharoocha was working as a translator and musician with Hara at the time when he encountered Dublab. “I ended up DJing at an event with Frosty in Tokyo, and that’s where we started to become friends. After moving to LA, I started to DJ more on dublab.com, and Masaaki and I started to bring Frosty and other artists from LA to Japan.”

Through Bharoocha’s relocation in 2006 to LA and Hara’s work in Tokyo, the Japan/LA relationship gradually blossomed.

For the 2008 Web-exhibition, “Into Infinity,” artists from Japan, LA and elsewhere contributed eight-second musical loops and 12-inch circular illustrations to be shuffled together at random.

Following that was the Dublab film project “Light from Los Angeles,” in which Tokyo-based boutique camera manufacturer Powershovel distributed cameras to Los Angeles musicians, who shot short videos alongside new original music. These films were then screened last year around Tokyo.

Finally, this year, Dublab launched a weekly two-hour show broadcast in Tokyo. DJs Shhhhh, Eharamen, Yakenohara, and Sagaraxx are among the frequent contributors to the broadcast.

Among the first of its kind in Japan, Hara says establishing this noncommercial radio format presents several challenges.

“Japan has been very late to the Internet-radio scene,” he says. “For one there are some legal issues. In America, there are clear legal precedents for how to operate independent radio. There are many stations that can operate on donations alone. In Japan’s case, there are very big radio stations, NHK, J-Wave and such, but there are not many independent stations. It’s a difference in culture perhaps. Trying to adapt a radio-based concept like Dublab to Japan took a lot of time to establish.”

One of the challenges Dublab faces in Japan is fundraising, which Japanese audiences are not accustomed to. “In Japan, soliciting donations for a radio station would be impossible. So rather, we are putting on events and putting out special merchandise to help fund the project.”

Moving forward, Hara hopes that this radio format will foster a unique community for Japan’s DJs: “There are many DJs, but they are not active in this radio style — someone who presents and introduces music to a listening audience. We want to create a place for DJs to get involved with this style of deejaying.”

Dublab is also organizing special events, such as the recent “Beacon in the City” night held at Roppongi Hills, which featured performances from Tokyo-based electronic musicians Daisuke Tanabe and Yosi Horikawa, and additional live performances and DJ sets from LA-based artists broadcast live from Dublab’s studio. This creative approach to organizing, characterized by mixed-media and cross-cultural collaboration distinguishes Dublab as an arts organization, and has provided a channel for artists to make transcontinental connections with one another that resonate as meaningful personal experiences.

As Bharoocha recalls, “When the earthquake and tsunami happened in Japan in 2011, I did a benefit radio show on Dublab, and people like Gaslamp Killer, Money Mark, Cut Chemist, Samiyam and Shing02 all came through to DJ and lend support, since they all love Japan so much. That led me to start a charity compilation album called “LA Loves Japan Loves LA,” which combined artists from both LA and Japan. All the artists were passionate about being a part of the project, which made me realize how much power art can have in bringing people together. So there seems to be a healthy bond between Japan and LA, which I hope I can help to foster more. Entities like Dublab certainly have a big role in fostering that bond.”

Dublab broadcasts every Wednesday from 8 p.m. till 10 p.m. at Cafe Malmö in Meguro-ku, Tokyo. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.dublab.jp. The Proton Drive, Dublab’s biannual fund-raising event takes place May 13-31. Four commissioned shirts by Japanese designers are being manufactured as part of the drive. Elvin “Nobody” Estela will play the Dublab-related party “Low End Theory” at Unit in Tokyo on May 25 (11 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance; [03] 5459-8630); and Osaka on May 26 (9 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in advance; [06] 6241-3822. For more information, visit www.lowendtheory.jp.