While big-name music acts look to foreign markets to continue fattening their already oversize bank accounts, for Tokyo quartet Mono, it’s a simple matter of survival.
Quickly realizing after forming in 1999 that their instrumental brand of distorted, soaring postrock was too sonically dense and abstract for mainstream consumption at home, Mono opted to gig abroad to create a word-of-mouth buzz and maintain some kind of musical career.
The decision has paid dividends. They now play to established followings across the globe, even if they remain little known at home. That they’re playing the sizable Ebisu Liquid Room venue next week is largely because the show is only Mono’s second, and final, Tokyo live show of 2007.
“I think we’re more popular overseas,” Mono guitarist Takaakira “Taka” Goto tells The Japan Times. The band’s lineup is completed by bassist Tamaki, guitarist Yoda and drummer Yasunori Takada.
“We’re trying hard to lay the foundations for an independent music scene in Japan, just as there’s one in the United States, but it’s hard to nurture,” says Goto. “Many people in Japan are pretty much satisfied with J-pop, J-rock, or Top 40 music from abroad, because this is the music that gets more exposure and is easier to access. I think there is a general tendency here to view music as information and therefore treat it as something disposable.”
But Goto’s disappointment isn’t limited to local audiences.
“None of the Japanese artists who have toured abroad keep themselves active for a long period of time, even if they have a large budget to work with,” he says. “It seems the Japanese music scene tends to start and finish in Japan, without ever branching out.”
While some other Japanese underground musicians similarly rue the lack of ambition of their compatriots, few do anything about it with Mono’s tenacity. Since releasing their second album, “One Step More And You Die” (2003), they have spent more than four months a year touring overseas. It hasn’t always gone smoothly.
“In April 2005, a murder occurred across the street from where we were playing (in Providence, Rhode Island). The police stormed into the venue pointing guns at all of us, the band and the audience. We had to stop the show,” recounts Goto. “Then we played in Poland in November 2006 on the night of a deadly coal-mine explosion. The government asked the audience to show ‘voluntary restraint’ by not applauding or shouting. The audience had to sit down on the floor throughout the show.”
Back in the present and about to finish their first Australian tour (with like-minded Tokyoite and label-mate World’s End Girlfriend), they will continue to rack up the air miles when they head to the U.S. and Canada in the fall before traveling to Europe in November and December.
The dates are in support of two upcoming releases — “Gone,” an aptly titled compilation of out-of-print EPs, and “The Sky Remains the Same as Ever,” a beautifully shot DVD of live and studio footage from the last two years. Both are available Sept. 11 from Tokyo’s Human Highway Records.
Producer Steve Albini, widely recognized for working with The Pixies on “Surfer Rosa” and Nirvana on “In Utero,” recorded several tracks on “Gone” at his storied Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. First teaming up with Mono in 2004, for the awesome “Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined,” the famous producer’s presence brought extra creditability to the following already generated by the act’s powerful live sets.
“We loved Albini’s work and asked him to work with us. At first, we were very anxious about what the sessions would be like,” remembers Goto, “but we were more excited about just being able to work with him in his studio. He is the greatest sound engineer for capturing a band’s raw emotion on tape.”
On “Walking Cloud” and, even more so on its followup in 2006, the Albini-helmed “You Are There,” Mono drew less influence from postrock peers such as Glasgow’s Mogwai and Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, fostering instead their own emotionally-charged, sprawling sound. The band plan to meet with Albini in Chicago next year to record another full-length album and have little desire to experiment with any other producers.
“I think we will be working with Steve until he says ‘no more,’ ” says Goto matter-of-factly.
An instrumental band increasingly finding their own voice with each release, they’re unlikely to hear those particular two words from Albini anytime soon.
Mono play with Envy and From Hell on Sept. 7, 6:30 p.m. at Ebisu Liquid Room, Tokyo; tickets ¥2,800 (tel.  5464-0800). Their North American tour starts Sept. 20 in San Diego, California. For tour dates, visit www.myspace.com/monojp
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