Rock God Dam’s teen mastermind: Eighteen-year-old student pulls off two-day music festival for charity

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

With 90 minutes to go before the start of the Rock God Dam music festival, organizer Nakako Isoo is trying to find one of the headlining acts. She’s supposed to pick up Virginia band Suburban Living, but comes back to Shibuya club Vuenos alone. “They are going shopping,” she says. “I will try one more time.” After catching her breath, she’s out the door again.

Isoo was in constant motion during the two-day event held in Shibuya. Rock God Dam festival was her idea, and she’s handled nearly every part of putting the event together, from picking the acts to making the T-shirts. She’s managed all this while also studying for college entrance exams — she’s a third-year high school student who has just turned 18.

“My friends say to me, ‘Are you serious? You need to study more!’ ” she says.

Tests are the last thing on her mind before the official kick-off of Rock God Dam. Isoo looks over papers, calls up people working the event and helps prepare a special drink menu for the weekend, featuring items she can’t legally buy. She also guides the event’s biggest act, German indie-rock outfit Blackmail, to their hotel with about an hour before the festival’s start.

“We got a Facebook mail in March from Nakako,” says Mathias Reetz, the lead singer of Blackmail. “She said she was a big fan and that she had been listening to us since she was 9.”

Isoo grew up in Nagano, but moved to a dormitory in Tokyo for high school three years ago. She says she’s always been drawn to rock music, having grown up reading magazines like Rockin’ On and Rolling Stone (the latter was where she came up with the name of her festival, after reading the phrase “rock god damn” in an interview with The Smashing Pumpkins. “I had no idea what it meant,” she says, “but it sounded cool”). When she came to the capital, though, she started visiting more live houses. Last year, she organized the first Rock God Dam festival: a one-night show at Shibuya’s Yaneura venue that featured only Japanese acts.

“I want to make an event like South By Southwest, even if planning for two days is way harder,” Isoo says, referring to the yearly music conference held in Austin, Texas. That’s why this year she expanded Rock God Dam to two days and four venues.

Plenty of other festivals based in Tokyo have aspired to be the “Japanese South By Southwest,” but what separates Rock God Dam is the wide-eyed motives fueling Isoo. She says she wants her event to appeal primarily to high school students in Tokyo, as a way for them to be exposed to a wider range of music.

“I hate J-pop, K-pop and pop,” Isoo says. “I don’t listen to Justin Bieber. I’d like to tell high school students how wonderful different types of music from around the world are.”

To that end, Rock God Dam offered discounted tickets for high school students and made all four venues smoke-free. Isoo’s dream still has a way to go, Rock God Dam was small for the most part, with some early afternoon shows featuring less than a dozen people in attendance. Crowds picked up at night, though, as more people came to watch Blackmail’s Saturday and Sunday sets (to the point it seemed as if they had just bought the tickets to see those performances).

Rock God Dam might need to work on drawing more punters, but the lineup was impressive. Isoo says she knew most of the Japanese bands playing thanks to hours of clicking “related video” links on YouTube. She presented a wide variety of rock music across several dozen performers, from straight-up rockers such as Molice and Honeydew to twee-leaning acts such as With Me! and The Boys Age to more experimental units such as PeopleJam.

“We were originally contacted for the 2012 Rock God Dam, but it didn’t work out,” says Wesley Bunch, lead singer of dream-pop band Suburban Living. “We get weird offers all the time, but we followed up on it. Isoo booked our flights.”

Teenage ambition aside, Rock God Dam was also a charity event, with any profits going to help live houses that were damaged in the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku. Artists weren’t paid for their appearances — and paying for everything wasn’t easy. “We tried to find a sponsor, but couldn’t. So my parents ended up sponsoring us,” Isoo says. Her parents have a small clothing shop.

“We told the German government that we were invited to this event, and could they help us with some money, and they said ‘Sure,’ ” Reetz says. “We just added two shows beforehand, too.”

Budgetary concerns also forced Isoo to be constantly on the move between the venues, as she also served as the festival’s official photographer. During The Boys Age’s set at the small Ruby Room bar, she had to stand on a sofa to get a good shot of the duo. She also sold official shirts at the Vuenos venue … after lugging a suitcase full of them around the streets of Shibuya.

“No 17 year old has the ambition she does,” Bunch says. “It’s really incredible.”

Despite her busy schedule, Isoo had some opportunities to enjoy what she created over the weekend. Later when talking to the singer of Molice, she looks a little awe-struck. Her biggest burst of energy comes when Blackmail, who she first read about in Rockin’ On, rip through an energetic, hooky set. She walks into a “passes only” section and starts dancing and hopping around. Organizer, photographer, vendor — it’s obvious that the best role Isoo plays this weekend is fan.