Despite having had its musical reputation sullied by Yasushi Akimoto’s decision to make it the home of SKE48, the first offshoot of pop-idol army AKB48, Nagoya is home to one of Japan’s most vibrant independent music scenes.
Going back into its history, the capital of Aichi Prefecture was home to two of the most celebrated bands of the 1980s punk era, with the influences of the furious Genbaku Onanies and the poppier Star Club both extending far beyond their hometown. As well, mid-paced psychedelic rockers Katsurei emerged out of the murk of Nagoya’s scene at roughly the same time, demonstrating that the city had more to offer than pogoing and hard riffs.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, however, Nagoya kept one of its greatest delights to itself. Nohshintoh is a band that defies any easy description, sharing the playful, musical quirks of German new-wave, antipop eccentrics Der Plan with a wealth of flights of fancy all of their own that wind through dub, tropicalia and children’s toy music, all presented with a chaotic sense of theater.
Nohshintoh managed for 25 years to avoid releasing any of its music (2009’s “Paa” is officially their debut), only acquired a homepage when a frustrated fan made one for them, and didn’t play in front of a Tokyo crowd until 2006. While all of this naturally contributed toward the act being virtually unknown elsewhere in Japan, Nohshintoh has long been highly influential in its hometown, with close connections to the art gallery/live space K.D. Japon, which remains one of Nagoya’s most important venues for live music, particularly of the more experimental variety.
The state of Nagoya’s indie music was documented comprehensively on the Coup label’s 2005/2006 compilation album series “7586 Nagoya Rock” which, along with a track from Nohshintoh, gathered contributions from stoner-rock riff merchants Eternal Elysium, gothic-postpunk trio Zymotics, hardcore noiseniks Nice View and anything-goes rockers 6eyes, all of whom have gone on to achieve some degree of success beyond the confines of Aichi.
Another important factor in Nagoya’s currently strong underground scene may be in the survival of its independent record shops while those of other towns and cities disintegrate in slow motion around them. In Tokyo, the neighborhoods with the strongest musical reputations often go in tandem with influential record stores. For many years before it closed, High Line Records was a flagbearer for the Shimokitazawa indie scene, and the musical identity of Koenji is closely tied up with record shop/freak saloon Enban. Even the ’90s Shibuya-kei boom was driven by record shops, albeit primarily the superstores HMV and Tower Records.
In Nagoya, ask almost anyone involved in the local music scene who the person to talk to is, be it about the hottest new bands, the coolest organizers and parties, or the best places to go, and everyone gives the name Takehiko Yamada.
As the owner of the record shop File-Under Records, which has for the past 10 years been a hub of the local indie scene, as well as the owner of the Knew Noise Recordings label, Yamada has connections throughout the city and has introduced new musical trends from overseas and acted as a mentor to some of Nagoya’s up-and-coming bands.
“What I can basically do is give bands a chance,” explains Yamada of his role. “For example, I organized (recent) Black Lips, Bo Ningen and Liars’ shows so I could pick out some local Nagoya bands to support them. Bands with self-released CDs I can sell at File-Under, and I can help bring them to the attention of listeners, organizers and the media.”
It’s not just File-Under though. A short walk from there is Stiff Slack Records, another record shop-cum-label, run by Takuya Shinkawa. Specializing in emo and math rock, Shinkawa also releases a mix of local bands such as Urthona and overseas artists such as French instrumental duo Room 204.
“There are also a lot more good bands here in Nagoya than just the stuff I deal with,” insists File-Under’s Yamada. “Record shops like Stiff Slack, Answer, and Zoo all provide support as well. Nagoya is a small city compared to Tokyo or Osaka, but it supports the presence of a lot of organizers and indie record stores.
“It’s an honor for me to see the growth of young bands through File-Under. In the future, I’m planning to release indie bands from the Nagoya area through Knew Noise and in that way I hope I’ll be able to do more to introduce our local scene.”
The fact that while record stores all over Japan are closing in their droves, Nagoya still manages to support several dedicated independent record shops with close ties to the creative and fan communities in the area and abroad, might suggest that the situation there is healthier than in many parts of the country.
It is also perhaps this combination of international awareness (Knew Noise has released Japan-connected U.K. bands Comanechi and Bo Ningen, as well as industrial/gothic band Micron Sixty Three and British indiepop group Shrag) with an intensely focused localism that has helped keep certain parts of the Nagoya scene open to outside influence, whereas a relative lack of external stimuli have driven places such as Fukuoka, with a comparable-sized music scene, into their own idiosyncratic miniature Galapagos-syndrome world.
Nagoya bands such as Hot Hot Sex and the hotly tipped Sekaitekina Band have clearly absorbed recent British and American indie rock trends to varying degrees, although this seems to owe just as much to the traditional young punk’s hometown boredom as to the efforts of cultural curators like Yamada and Shinkawa.
Yamada agrees that many of the bands he deals with have an international outlook, but he’s clear that on its own this is not enough for a music scene to thrive.
“Many of the bands that File-Under deals with are musicians who are influenced by modern music from overseas,” agrees Yamada, “but they’re also enthusiastic listeners of music from the ’60s through to the ’90s as well and they try to make an original sound taking both old and contemporary influences. I don’t think you can make good music just by taking the influence of whatever contemporary bands currently have the hype around them.”
Whether among the small core of internationally influenced indie-rock bands eagerly reaching out to their brothers and sisters in Tokyo, or those more fiercely locally minded musicians such as Nohshintoh and their offbeat fellow travelers, there remains a sense that for all the widespread creativity on display, Nagoya is a city without a clear sense of its own musical identity: that the fourth-largest city in Japan still has something of a small-town mentality when it comes to its music culture.
Just as in many cities in Japan, the number of Nagoya’s live venues is expanding, although certain long-running venues still lead the pack. However, unlike Fukuoka, where the majority of the venues crowd around the Tenjin area, or Tokyo, where venues are clustered around commercial or cultural neighborhoods such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Shimokitazawa and Koenji, Nagoya’s music scene seems to have no easily definable center. While the commercial energy of the place, of which both File-Under and Stiff Slack form a tiny part, is concentrated in the Sakae district and the more easygoing area of Osu, live venues such as punk-rock central Huck Finn and the more sophisticated Tokuzo are a couple of kilometers to the east, and experimental art laboratory K.D. Japon is a few kilometers to the south.
This disconnection and dispersal of the various elements of Nagoya’s indie music scene is reflected in its sonic diversity, from the whisper-voiced bedroom pop of Lullatone to the electronic plastic pop of Budo Grape to the unforgiving sonic fury of Dancebeach. Despite often being forgotten about in the cultural crossfire between Tokyo and Kansai, Nagoya has slowly and quietly built itself a reputation as a musical powerhouse in its own right.
File-Under Records is located at Naka-ku, Osu 3-18-4, Tatematsu Building 4F-2. For more information, call (052) 242-6810 or visit www.fileunderrecords.com. Stiff Slack Records is located at Naka-ku, Sakae 4-5-22, Hato Building 4F-3. For more information, call (052)-252-0874 or visit www.stiffslack.com.