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Tokyo Boredom is blazing its own trail — and the first stop is Taiwan

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Of all the cliches about Japanese music being bandied around, the one I find most baffling is the idea that bands here are “just copying Western music.” It’s a rehash of the old jibe, originally born from fear of Japan’s rapid postwar industrial growth, about the Japanese being dedicated imitators but lacking originality, so let’s just call it out for what it is: obvious and utter nonsense.

Of course a selective perusal of the Japanese music scene will always throw up its fair share of imitators, just as every musical genre in the history of rock and pop has its adherents the world over and, yes, mainstream music here is in as dire creative straits as anywhere. But for all its problems, the Japanese alternative scene remains thrillingly alive with its own power to inspire, and one of the places this energy burns most fiercely is in Tokyo Boredom.

Driven by a restless 10-member team of organizers, the event occurs only when and where the collective’s members think they can do something fresh. Tokyo Boredom inspired Canadian music fan Steven Tanaka to set up his “Next Music From Tokyo” tour series, Tanaka telling The Japan Times in 2010 of the event’s “unbelievable energy and camaraderie,” and how it, “dissolved any kind of hierarchy or barrier between the musicians and the audience.”

More recently, Tokyo Boredom has expanded its operations to include shows in Taiwan.

Taisuke Endo from noise band Groundcover. (the period is part of the name) forged the initial connections through his old band Six O’Minus in 2005, influencing local Taiwanese band Hang in the Air both in their sound and ethos. The first Taiwan Boredom took place in January 2013 featuring (alongside Hang in the Air and Groundcover.) trancelike rhythmical duo Kirihito and instrumental dub band Arakajime Kimerareta Koibitotachi E.

“That show wasn’t really like Boredom though,” claims Endo. “It was more like an Arakajime headline show than a full Boredom event so we wanted to do it properly.”

So in September, 11 Japanese bands faced off against 11 bands from Taiwan in a two-day extravaganza, with core Boredom members such as jittery post-punk trio Tacobonds, frenetic garage-noise band Worst Taste & SpecialMagic, and funk-punk dub merchants Bossston Cruizing Mania leading the charge from Japan and groups such as Hang in the Air and heavy riff merchants Sleaze holding up the local end.

“When we started going over there on tour,” says Ataru Mochizuki, Groundcover.’s hirsute frontman, “the scene was very young, but now it’s not so different to the Japanese scene in terms of the sound or the audience.”

Nov. 9 will mark the 10th official installment of the Tokyo event and true to their restless spirit, the organizers have taken the step of banning all of their own bands from participating in favor of unpredictable Nagoya weirdniks Milk, minimalist psychedelic trio Extruders, oddball Koenji punks Firebirdgass and more.

“There are 10 organizers,” explains Mochizuki, “so none of us can express a clear individual influence over the event. And this is good, there shouldn’t be a special leader. The problem is that members can only book bands they know, so it’s difficult to expand the pool of bands. To make room for new artists, next time none of us 10 organizers are allowed to play.”

Part of what keeps Tokyo Boredom fresh might be the way that many of its members are embedded in aspects of the city’s alternative music infrastructure, with Mochizuki and Bossston Cruizing Mania’s Esuhiro Kashima managing booking at well-known Tokyo alternative live spots Ni-man Den-atsu and Club Goodman respectively, and others in the greater Boredom sphere of influence connected to parts of the indie music press and that most reliable hub of the scene Disk Union.

Not just a record store but also functioning as a distributor and label, Disk Union has had a hand in the release of vast swathes of the alternative scene in Tokyo and beyond, including several of the core Tokyo Boredom bands. Having live and label infrastructure sympathetic to the artistic goals of bands who are often decidedly uncommercial helps provide a measure of security, but the Boredom way is also to be suspicious of falling into a comfort zone.

“Disk Union is like the king now,” posits Kashima, despite a Disk Union imprint being behind his own band’s 2012 album “Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead,” “to the point where perhaps it has too much power. One label having too much power isn’t good for the indie scene.”

Obviously, a dedicated influence-spotter will be able to pick out various post-punk, hardcore and post-rock references scattered throughout the music of Tokyo Boredom, and there are certainly those within the Japanese alternative scene (or even within the event itself) who feel its scope is too limited. However, it’s clearly no museum piece and there’s a vibrancy at its core that anyone who attends the event will be able to see for themselves.