Everyone goes home, seeks out some sympathetic tunes, and cries now and then. I know hardened punkers with Belle & Sebastian albums hidden under their futon. Let’s face it, every rock ‘n’ roller needs a metaphorical teddy-bear to cuddle at times even if they’d never admit it — hence the enduring spirit of indie rock. And thank Buddha for this often-ridiculed genre. A few weeks back it probably saved my life.
I knew things weren’t right when I started puking before gigs, and my teetotaler boss was whispering in my ear, “Are you on narcotics?” The doc said my nervous system was shot to pieces from chronic exhaustion. She stuffed me with vitamins and chill pills, and came out with stuff like: “Salarymen can’t do rock ‘n’ roll. You can’t have so much fun and work. This is Tokyo.”
I told my friend Stig this over a few beers and he said: “You got the entire Smiths back catalog and even a Belle & Sebastion album. Yes you do, I saw it! Quit the hardcore stuff and go see some of those indie-rock bands for a change. It’s a moshpit-free zone. There are no punch-ups. No one gets drunk or takes drugs. It’ll chill you out.”
By indie rock, he didn’t mean “indies,” which in Japan refers to any band on an independent label. He meant a genre of music that dominated the British alternative scene in the ’80s and is characterized by either the droning guitar fuzz of what are often called “shoegazing” bands or, alternatively, fey jangling guitars, and ideally a mixture of the two (The Smiths are the classic indie-rock band with Morrissey’s ululating vocals a perfect, if ironic, counterpart to Marr’s playful guitar shapes). The drone has a hypnotic mind-numbing effect, like musical Prozac, while the jangle uplifts the spirit, giving hope. And the downbeat lyrics were ideal: You gained comfort from knowing you weren’t the only person in the world feeling like crap.
Anyway, being so washed-up, I needed Stig to inform me that three of my favorite indie-rock bands — Salt Water Taffy, Noodles and All Tomorrow’s Party — were playing over two nights in Tokyo’s indie-rock heartland of Shimokitazawa at the weekend. Punks, garage-rockers and metalheads might have overrun the Shinjuku and Shibuya livehouses and now rule them with a tattoed iron fist and lots of screaming, but Shimokita, and especially the venues Club Que and Cave-Be, have held out against the odds and host indie bands every week.
Checking into the trendy Thamkrabok Monastry rehab clinic in Thailand was an option, but I didn’t have the cash for a plane ticket, so instead I took a 120 yen train ride to Shimokitazawa.
Saturday night at Que and the drummer of the all-girl quartet Noodles is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with one word, “Seattle” (read: grunge), and the highlight of their set is a brilliant cover of The Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love With Someone” driven by incredibly angular post-punk guitar motifs. But Noodles are kidding no one. They’re total indie-rock. They rarely smile, don’t joke between songs, wear little makeup and are clad in the kind of things you’d put on to go visit your 90-year-old blind grandmother — whatever’s lying on top of the bedroom clothes pile. And the buzz of the guitars in each of their pristine three-minute speedy pop songs is a lot more soothing than a shot of tequila or a sniff of chemical snuff.
Yusuke from indie-rock stalwarts Cruyff in the Bedroom is on the decks between bands, and includes a few tracks from ex-Blur guitarist Graham Coxon’s superb new album “Happiness in Magazines,” which is the most indie-rock indie-rock album ever!
Then we get Vasallo Crab 75, who do the most un-indie thing possible and introduce funk to groove up the set. We are not impressed, but singer/guitarist Daisuke Kudo looks like a Japanese identikit of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe (indie icon) so we’ll let them off.
The venue has packed out for Salt Water Taffy, who have beefed up their sound and added swirling effect-laden guitars to give them a psychedelic edge, but they do not betray their roots, and motor through a set of beautiful but edgy melodic guitar-pop that has me thinking I’m never gonna go to a garage-punk gig again.
Cave-Be has a fog machine and they love using it. It’s Sunday night and I don’t even see Cocoon Pit take to the stage as it’s shrouded in impenetrable chemical mist. But then they kick off their set with an amazing cover of “Sympathy for the Devil.” They slow it down, strip it of the “woo-hoos” and bongos and instead add scratchy guitars that make it sound like something off the first Velvets album. But after such a high, they spiral downward, churning out Mogwai-ish misery.
All Tomorrow’s Party headline and they’ve shrugged off the schizophrenic streak that ran through 2002’s home-burned mini-album “Wired.” I’m not sure if that’s good or bad as it was kind of cool listening to one track that sounded like Joy Division, another like a Radiohead ballad, and so on. Instead (as demonstrated on ace debut album proper “Temptation”) they’ve melded their influences together and given birth to a cathartic indie-rock blur, something between Jesus & Mary Chain and Echo & The Bunnymen. When this baby sheds some of its fat and gains more muscle then All Tomorrow’s Party have the potential to sound just as great in a field at Fuji Rock Festival as they do at the tiny Cave-Be.
Us, the fans, barely move and instead contentedly stare at the floor; self-absorbed indie kids shoegazing in petrified ecstacy at having discovered a band that connects with our cracked lives and chases off the bunch of little devils tormenting us. When singer/guitarist Tetsuo repeatedly intones “monkey on your back” (from best song “Cracked”) in his monotonous Morrissey-like drone, we feel those primatial fingers digging into our pale white flesh and we wriggle a little, unable to conceal our satisfaction. And these are the most active dance moves all night.
“We changed our style intentionally,” says Tetsuo after the gig. “We wanted to make our sound darker. Do we think our sound will get even bigger? Well, we want to make it sound like we are living in a spaceship and moving around the globe slowly.”
As for me, I’m on my futon before midnight contemplating a cup of steaming hot milk, but I’m thinking, “S**t, man. It’s gonna be tough resisting that Watusi Zombie gig at UFO Club next Sunday. That show’s gonna be f****** mental.”
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