Dommune takes a new direction with My Bloody Valentine gig

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

Noise — vast, enveloping noise — is at the core of My Bloody Valentine’s music. Halfway through “You Made Me Realise,” the quartet lands on a single chord that proceeds to suck the entire song into a gawping, sense-scrambling maw of distortion. On the 1988 recorded version of the track, this “holocaust section” lasts for just over 40 seconds; live, the band have been known to stretch it out to as much as half an hour, reaching volumes of 130 decibels in the process.

It’s not just about playing loud, mind you. During their brief heyday — a three-year stretch between 1988 and 1991, during which they reconfigured indie rock wholesale — My Bloody Valentine earned a reputation for being obsessively finicky about sound. Lesser acts have spent decades trying to imitate the textures on 1991 sophomore album “Loveless,” which used unorthodox playing techniques, effects pedals, samplers and studio experimentation to make guitars sound like mellotrons and swirling maelstroms.

When the reunited band headlined at Fuji Rock Festival in 2008, their sound-check the previous evening ended up stretching deep into the night. Playing at the festival again this year, further down the bill and without the luxury of advance preparation, they floundered badly, their potent sonics reduced to a thin, reedy mewl. After a particularly lame rendition of “New You,” Kevin Shields, the group’s de facto leader, broke his customary on-stage silence only to observe, “that was f-cked up, that version.”

“When you’re playing on the same festival bill as a bunch of other bands, you can’t get the exact settings you want,” says Yutaka Asada. The veteran sound man, who flunked high school in the early 1970s because he was too busy recording with psychedelic rockers Flower Travellin’ Band, has been tasked with making sure that things go better on My Bloody Valentine’s latest trip here. “I’ve been preparing for this since the middle of August,” he admits.

The concert — the group’s third visit in the space of a year — takes them to Tokyo International Forum on Sept. 30, where they’ll be performing to a sit-down audience of 5,000, with support from Japanese meta-pop act Sotaisei Riron. Tantalizingly, the show promises to feature the debut airings of new tracks that didn’t appear on this year’s “m b v” album, the long-overdue followup to “Loveless.”

Asada describes his role in the gig as akin to that of a ship-builder. While My Bloody Valentine’s own engineers will be manning the sound desk during the show, he’s been working since mid-August — sourcing equipment, finding staff, conducting computer simulations — to ensure that they have the best possible environment in which to operate. “They’re the ones at the helm, but I want it to be an easy ship to steer,” he says.

The gig is being organized not by an established promoter, but by Dommune, the online streaming studio whose weeknight broadcasts — ranging from political discussions to guest sets by international DJs — are one of the most exciting things happening in Tokyo right now. Though they’ve organized two editions of Freedommune, a free all-night fundraiser held in the cavernous Makuhari Messe conference center in Chiba, this will be Dommune’s first shot at a conventional gig.

“We didn’t keep any of the takings (from Freedommune) — it all went to disaster relief,” says Dommune founder and all-around media maven Naohiro Ukawa. “But if we carry on like that, Dommune’s never going to make any money. If we’re going to do the festival again next year, we need to start acting like a business, which means organizing other events, too.”

Ukawa was approached about the My Bloody Valentine show in July, around the time that Freedommune took place, after other promoters turned down the opportunity. “Kevin Shields wanted to play a show here where the sound was spot-on, but it’s the third time they’ll have been here this year, so they couldn’t find anyone who wanted to organize it,” he says. “There are a lot of established players in the Japanese music circuit — it’s hard for anyone new to enter the game. But Dommune proved that we could do it. We’d managed to put on these free festivals, and the sound was good, so the conversation came to us.”

Ukawa has been working with sound man Asada since 2006, when they set up a clandestine club in Shibuya called Mixrooffice. The PA guru fitted out Dommune’s beefy in-house sound system, and went on to oversee the sound rigs at both Freedommune festivals, where the cast of performers ranged from techno DJs to J-pop producer Tetsuya Komuro, to a spectacular sonic ritual conducted by psychedelic experimentalists Boredoms and 91 drummers. (The latter, not surprisingly, presented Asada with the biggest challenge.)

“When I thought about what we could do to make it typically Dommune-esque, I realized it was all in the sound,” says Ukawa. And he’s promising something pretty special here: “My Bloody Valentine give out earplugs at their shows, so people can use them if the noise gets to be too much — it’s like insurance or a seat belt. But I wanted to put on a show where people could sit down and wallow in the roar, without needing earplugs.”

Ukawa distinguishes between two Japanese terms for loud noise: “bakuon,” which would be used to describe the sound of an explosion, and “gōon“, which might refer to the all-encompassing rumble of thunder. He’s aiming for the latter at the My Bloody Valentine show. “It’s going to be louder than a jet engine, but it’ll still sound good,” he says. “That’s what I want people to experience.”

“Of course, I know that everyone’s ears will still be ringing at the end,” adds Asada, mischievously. Asked what Sotaisei Riron — not exactly the heaviest of bands — have in common with My Bloody Valentine, Ukawa’s response is blunt: “Nothing.” When I put the question to music writer Hidetsugu Ito, who wrote liner notes for the 1998 CD reissue of “Loveless” and last year’s “EP’s 1988-1991″ compilation, he suggests that the two bands share “a punk or post-punk attitude.” “I think Sotaisei Riron’s first (mini) album, ‘Chiffon Shugi,’ is their rendition of punk, postpunk or ’80s indie/alternative music,” he says; “which brought to mind My Bloody Valentine, too.”

Ukawa’s happy to have Sotaisei Riron on board, of course — not least because they helped him sell out a 5,000-capacity venue — but he admits that he originally had someone altogether different in mind for the event. “I thought people who like My Bloody Valentine are definitely going to like Les Rallizes Denudes,” he says, referring to the long-defunct Japanese avant-garde rock act cited as an influence on later psychedelic voyagers including Keiji Haino, High Rise and Boris. “I wanted to combine the thunder of those two bands.”

Never mind that Les Rallizes haven’t played since 1996, or that leader Takashi Mizutani can only be contacted by fax machine (“By fax!” Ukawa repeats, incredulously): the next concert, he insists, will definitely feature them. Is it okay to print that? I ask. After all, Mizutani may end up reading it.

“Oh, I want him to,” he says, and laughs.

My Bloody Valentine play Tokyo International Forum on Sept. 30 (7 p.m.; ¥8,400 in adv.). For more information, visit www.dommune.com.