Despite its far westerly location (being closer to Seoul than it is to Tokyo), the Kyushu city of Fukuoka has for a long time been one of the musical powerhouses of Japan.

Fukuoka in the 1970s brought the nation “mentai-rock,” a brand of high energy, proto-punk rock ‘n’ roll exemplified by Sonhouse and Sheena & The Rokkets, while in the ’80s it gave us chart-straddling megastars such as Seiko Matsuda, Chage & Aska, and the recently scandal-hit Noriko Sakai. The late ’90s Generation X Fukuoka punk scene created Mo’some Tonebender and Number Girl, not to mention incubating the teenage musical ambitions of Shiina Ringo.

Recently, however, the rest of Japan hasn’t heard too much out of this traditionally noisy city. On a recent trip to Fukuoka, I met up with several of the city’s musical movers and shakers to investigate the current state of affairs.

“There aren’t so many record labels based in Fukuoka,” says Seiji Harajiri, in charge of booking at Fukuoka’s newest live venue, Yakuin Utero, “and audiences aren’t as big as they used to be. Underground music doesn’t seem to be so popular lately.”

Not just that, but the town’s indie record shops, such as Chameleon Records and Plastica, have found themselves downsized and then closed. Also, most shockingly, was the death from cancer this autumn of one of the Fukuoka music scene’s most influential and best-loved figures, Yoshie Fujii of the band Garorinz. She was 38 years old.

“4-Dimension Music Therapy,” a Garorinz tribute album released in September as a fundraiser, drew on contributions from the likes of Eastern Youth, Melt-Banana, Afrirampo and numerous others from across Japan’s underground music scene, while on Dec. 19, more than 20 bands from across the country will gather for a tribute event at Tokyo’s Shibuya O-Nest.

The long-term impact of Fujii’s death is harder to gauge, but looking around Fukuoka now, her legacy is everywhere. The venues with which she was associated — Decadent Deluxe, Cafe & Bar Gigi, and most particularly Yojigen Public Space — are still going strong, while Time Market, the magazine and live event that she created, remains a cornerstone of the city’s music scene, with its operation now falling to her former Garorinz bandmates.

There’s a Time Market event being held on the evening I arrive in town, so Drum Legend, another new venue, in Fukuoka’s busy Tenjin shopping district, is my first port of call. Winding my way up the staircase, threading between seated audience members taking a break from the main hall, I emerge into a long, narrow room drenched in seedy, red-tinged lighting, the kind of place where you might expect Fredo Corleone to sidle up to you at any moment and order a banana daiquiri.

Any air of louche, elegant decadence is dissipated almost immediately with the arrival onstage of Fake Girl Nott, a bouncy, cheerful, blonde-wigged female electropop duo. Then Kyoto/Tokyo art- punks Ni-Hao! drag the audience kicking and screaming in another direction entirely, before local jam-band supergroup Barcelona take the stage, and, it has to be said, much of the dance floor. Featuring two drummers, six guitarists and a trumpet player, Barcelona are deeply infused with the scent of another of the Fukuoka music scene’s prime movers, Shuichi Inoue.

Best known as the guitarist and singer of the blues-influenced lo-fi band Folk Enough, as well as running the Electronics Guitar event and label, Inoue is one of the Fukuoka scene’s liveliest and most charismatic figures. A passionate sports fan, he always performs with the Italian national football team’s crest sewn to his guitar strap. He idolizes Juventus forward Alessandro Del Piero, wouldn’t play gigs while the World Cup was on, and steadfastly refuses to recognize local baseball team the Softbank Hawks.

“The Hawks aren’t a Fukuoka team,” he explains. “They used to be based in Osaka and they only came to Fukuoka when Daiei bought the franchise. The (now Saitama Seibu) Lions are the real, original Fukuoka baseball team.”

Inoue believes that one of the strong points of the Fukuoka music scene is the way its smaller size and more limited number of venues means that bands of different kinds are more used to playing together, away from the comfort zone of single-genre events into which Tokyo bands can often get sucked.

“Sometimes in Tokyo it’s a bit like that,” muses Inoue. “You’ll be at a show and all the bands are the same BPM, just one after the other. That kind of atmosphere really doesn’t work for me. I like there to be more variation.”

By midnight, Drum Legend is closing up, but a few minutes away at Yakuin Utero, the party is still in full swing. As he works the still-busy bar, the club’s bookings boss Harajiri explains the need to balance the Fukuoka scene’s inherent variety with the problem of creating a musical identity.

“At Utero I usually try to book events that have a coherent style,” he states, “so here it’s usually alternative or underground. (Venue) Kieth Flack is mostly hardcore, Yojigen has recently had more rock ‘n’ roll bands, and Graf tends to be the place for young bands who want to get famous.”

Nevertheless, looking around Utero, it’s clear that a more relaxed atmosphere pervades the place than in Tokyo venues, with their strict closing times and often officious managements. A small crowd of people are drinking around a couple of tables, one guy is trying to teach Miwako from garage-punk band Masadayomasa how to play guitar, and, every once in a while, a gaggle of musicians stumble onto the stage and form an impromptu jam band.

The following evening, the previous night’s laid-back atmosphere has been transformed into a scene of unparalleled intensity. The warning signs are there from the moment the bands start to arrive for their soundchecks. Jitta Setoguchi from instrumental postrock quartet MacManaman finished the previous night at 6 a.m., drinking convenience-store beer in the shower of a visiting Tokyo musicians’s hotel room, but he seems none the worse for his experience.

His Tokyo-based drinking partner is obviously less used to such debauchery and immediately falls face-down on some seats to sleep. None of the local musicians notice, however, because Utero’s bar has already opened. By the time the music starts, four hours later, the venue is buzzing.

The DJ is going round the audience handing out free slugs of tequila, Inoue from Folk Enough twice invades the stage and starts jamming on guitar, one audience member strips and starts dancing in his underwear during MacManaman’s performance, and by the time we arrive at tropical progressive art-pop Renaissance men Nontroppo’s climactic set, DJ Dragon is dancing on the bar, still clutching the tequila bottle.

“It’s not usually like this,” warns Harajiri afterward, “It’s just when you get people like MacManaman and Inoue in the same room together. They drink a lot.”

According to Harajiri, there is a bit of a generation gap in the current Fukuoka indie scene. “It’s the thirty-somethings who go really wild,” he explains, “New, young bands and their fans just stand around and listen. They don’t drink or smoke, and for a lot of them, they might as well just watch music at home on YouTube.”

Nevertheless, it’s clear that there are plenty of imaginative, energetic people in Fukuoka working to engineer a revival in the city’s music scene. “People like Inoue, like Bogey from Nontroppo, they’re trying to bring underground bands together with more major bands,” says Harajiri. “And here at Utero we’re trying, too.

“Whether they get famous or not,” he concludes, “Fukuoka has always had really cool musicians, so it’ll be OK.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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