Gaijin band scene welcomes music fans of all kinds

by Laurier Tiernan

Special To The Japan Times

A large multicultural crowd gathered at Club Edge in Tokyo’s Roppongi district in March, socializing and laughing boisterously before watching three bands. They remained pretty boisterous throughout the performances.

Japanese audiences have a reputation for being quiet during concerts, taking in every single note of a performance. At this show, though, remaining silent isn’t really an option.

Gaijin (foreigner) audiences seem like they enjoy music and drinking even more than our Japanese customers,” says Edge booking agent You Tsukazaki with a laugh. The venue has been entertaining such crowds since it started hosting expatriate band nights in 2008.

Tonight’s lineup includes three acts: Stolen, Tits, Tats & Whiskers, and Jimmy Binks and The Shakehorns. The crowd includes comedians, aspiring filmmakers and photographers — the latter of whom rush the stage to get a shot of Shakehorns co-vocalist Julian Peters as he lifts his glass to lead a toast to the all those in attendance.

Jimmy Binks and The Shakehorns style themselves as alternative country, and are comprised of four Brits, a Canadian and a Japanese bassist. It’s tempting to look at the project as a hobby for its members — they all have day jobs — but in their three-year existence they’ve racked up some pretty good credits: a self-released EP titled “Not Too Late,” slots at Japanese festivals and airplay on British radio. Two songs, “Such a Smile” and “Junjo,” have also been featured in American TV shows.

At this point it seems the band is more than just a hobby, but co-vocalist and guitarist Sam Berry says he is happy just to be a part of the scene.

“Everyone feels welcome, and there’s no barriers between the audience and the performers,” he says. “It’s also nice, in that you can go alone to a Jimmy Binks show, a Mootekkis show or a Watanabes show — or whoever — and you’re gonna know someone else there.”

Berry points out that it isn’t an exclusive group and that Japanese people, who can sometimes be shy, should have no problem joining in the fun. He says this is partly because the expat band scene is essentially quite small.

“Maybe because Tokyo is so big, it’s hard to feel part of something,” he says. “But I think the bands and fans do very much feel part of the Tokyo ‘gaijin scene’ . . . for want of a better term.”

Like Jimmy Binks and The Shakehorns, The Watanabes are a folk-rock band fronted by two British guitarists, an American keyboardist, and a Japanese drummer and bassist. Also like The Shakehorns, The Watanabes have received song placements and airplay on the BBC. Lead vocalist Duncan Walsh enjoys being a part of the growing expat scene.

“It’s so completely different from a typical Japanese live house, where the audience is still, respectful and silent,” he says. “Gaijin bands perhaps pay less attention to the musical details, but more attention to the crowd.”

Finding the gaijin band scene in Tokyo isn’t as hard as you’d think and a good place to start is the Tokyo Gaijin Bands group on Facebook, which posts concert and band information. From there you’ll be able to link to the Facebook pages of bands in the capital, as well as some from surrounding areas.

According to their official Facebook page, The Mootekkis are a “boozy loose garage-rock” act. In addition to international touring credits and self-released album, the five-piece have also fought their way up to the top 10 in Red Bull’s “Live on The Road” competition, which could earn them a chance to perform at the Summer Sonic music festival in August.

“There are bands on the gaijin circuit that offer a type of rock ‘n’ roll that is true to the original style,” says lead singer Mike Hannah. “It’s not as clean, it’s dirty — and I think that’s something that is lacking in the Japanese mainstream. That’s the most true-to-its-roots rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s what we try to do.”

The audiences at expat events are, of course, people of all ages and nationalities. However, it is noticeable that there are a surplus of foreign men and Japanese women. Cliche? Perhaps. But visual artist Miki Meguro doesn’t see concerts by bands such as Inside Neon and Jimmy Binks and The Shakehorns as mere hook-up joints.

“When it comes to concerts of foreign indie artists who live in Japan, the audience members tend to socialize with each other even if they are strangers. This doesn’t happen too much at concerts by Japanese indie bands,” Meguro says. “I think this is one of the positive points for expat indie band shows, we can make new friends and grow together as a community.”

Tits, Tats & Whiskers’ Italian drummer Mattia D’Ambros agrees.

“In our experience, friendship has been the primary motivation for any audience attendance,” he says. “Through these friendships, bands achieve wider audiences and get new fans.”

D’Ambros says his band has received a lot of support from the expat community. Tits, Tats & Whiskers, which is rounded out by U.S. vocalist Ponzi and Phillippine bassist Astrid, released their debut album, “All the Things,” via iTunes and Amazon.com.

While Tits, Tats & Whiskers’ support mainly comes from their home base of Tokyo, D’Ambros says he has noticed similar scenes outside the capital.

“When we played the Summer Splash festival (in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture), I’d say that the audience was divided equally between Japanese people and foreigners,” he says. “The audience was quite enthusiastic, especially for the (foreign) headliners, Johnsons Motorcar.”

Osaka also has a noticeable expat-focused music scene. Artists such as Tender, Cassandra Peake and Davina Robinson are all gaining a foothold, the latter having won the Hard Rock Rising competition put on by Hard Rock Cafe, as well as artist of the year at last year’s Kansai Music Conference Awards.

The American singer, whose album “Black Rock Queen” is available for purchase on her website, has also snagged television appearances. She says that while there’s a window of opportunity for expat artists, she believes the situation is often gender-biased.

“Many bands are made up of mostly men with a dedicated group of female fans,” Robinson says. “Women make ‘better’ fans because they will consistently come out and support, but they tend to support the men (more than the female artists).”

Grabbing the attention of local fans isn’t impossible, however, Robinson says she’s built up a support base by making frequent appearances at jam sessions and open-mic nights.

” ‘Guest’ appearances have been very helpful for me in attracting new fans,” she says. “It’s important to expand your musician circle, and also to get out and actually sing for people and show them what kind of artist you are and what you can do. Consistency is important. If you become a familiar face, people are more likely to reach out.”

Since 2009, Osaka has been home to the Kansai Music Conference, which is modeled on the hugely successful South By Southwest annual music showcase in Texas. It’s founder, American Duane Levi, thinks gaijin bands can offer something new to local music fans, and perhaps something familiar to other expats.

“It’s a completely different type of performance,” Levi says. “For a Japanese person, coming to see a foreign act is like going to see a band in a foreign country.”

Jimmy Binks and The Shakehorns will play with The Watanabes at What the Dickens! in Ebisu, Tokyo, on May 31 (8 p.m. start; admission is free; 03-3780-2099). For more information on the musicians mentioned in the article, visit www.jimmybinksandtheshakehorns.com, www.thewatanabes.com, www.afromootekki.wordpress.com, www.titstatsandwhiskers.com, www.davinarobinson.com and www.kansaimusicconference.com.