Japan acts rock on at this year's SXSW

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

After somersaulting through a shallow puddle, the lead singer of Osaka’s Vampillia stared intently at a nearby taco truck. As his band plowed through a noisy, violin-assisted song on the third afternoon of the South By Southwest (SXSW) Music Conference And Festival, he scaled the vehicle and screamed from the roof. The crowd cheered as he danced, all while dressed in tights patterned after the human muscular system. His stunt grabbed the attention of many people walking by the venue.

“Attention” has become the key word at SXSW, one of the biggest music industry meetups in the world, annually held in Austin, Texas. The classic mission of SXSW goes like this: The five-day music portion of the event offers industry types and everyday fans a chance to take in hundreds of acts and hopefully discover some new favorites. Everything from pizza parlors to bridges become ad hoc live houses. This is the environment many Japanese acts — along with the flagship event Japan Nite — anticipate every year.

In 2014, though, this description is pure nostalgia. SXSW has become a loud, buzz-filled gathering in which music labels attempt to out-shout one another . . . and then scream over dozens of deep-pocketed brands also vying for attention. Rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z performed a much-hyped show sponsored by Samsung. Fortresslike venues backed by Converse Sneakers and music-streaming service Spotify boasted long lines. Lady Gaga was SXSW’s keynote speaker, and played a set brought to you by Doritos snack chips.

“It’s really hard for Japanese acts to stand out at SXSW now,” said Austin resident and Japan Nite fan Roberto Villegas. “There’s so much noise going on around them. The message gets lost.”

A handful of Japanese acts pushed on at this year’s installment, though. Rising rock outfit [Champagne] — who has played at large-size Japanese festivals such as Summer Sonic and Rock In Japan — performed to about 40 people in a theater located in the back of a coffee house Wednesday evening. Long-standing noise rockers Gezan, concluding a U.S. tour in Austin, played in front of a little more than 20 punters — with a handful of very dedicated fans up front. The quartet ripped through a wild set that saw the main vocalist leap onto a bar to sing while the rest of the outfit spun around the tiny stage.

Gezan also took part in a new event designed to be more in tune with SXSW’s business-oriented mind-set. The Meet Japan Party, held early Wednesday evening, featured performances from a handful of the Japanese acts at the festival, but equally promoted was the chance to see presentations from “cutting-edge IT startups from Japan.”

“It had a very different vibe than Japan Nite,” Villegas said. “The highlight was Gezan though. They started a circle pit.”

That event was the first of three Japan Nite-related concerts, followed by the free Thursday afternoon Japan Nite Preview Show at The Grackle, a venue situated far from the clamor of downtown Austin. The easy-breezy afternoon show started with Mayu Wakisaka, who jumped between twee numbers and more somber keyboard-guided moments.

“I need a wake-up song,” she told the crowd, before diving into an acoustic cover of electronic artist Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.” Other acts playing that day jolted concert-goers up even more. Raucous duo Zarigani$ delivered a zig-zagging set, while solo singer Romi alternated between dramatic spoken-word passages and screeches. Vampillia put an exclamation point on the day even before ascending the taco truck for a shouty, high-energy finale.

The Preview show was also better attended than in previous years, with The Grackle full of people throughout the afternoon. It’s possible some attendees couldn’t get into anything else — a well-echoed sentiment all week was dissatisfaction at how long lines were for everything — or just came for the free beer. Friday’s Japan Nite showcase fluctuated more all night, but drew out diehard fans to the Elysium livehouse.

Keith Goode, the “Austin Otaku” (“I got to the URL first”), has been to the last five Japan Nite showcases and always finds something to like.

“The best bands are the ones who surprise you,” he said, and this year, he was impressed by Kyoto rock band Happy, who performed a cheery, synth-heavy set. “They knocked it out of the park.”

“This year’s lineup has more variety,” said University of Texas student Xia Yu. Acts ranged from 1970s Southern-fried rockers Sentimental City Romance — whose easy-going rock had fans dancing — to jittery headliners Mothercoat, whose art-school rock alienated some but had the rest of the crowd pumping their fists.

One challenge facing Japan Nite this year was other Japan-related programming — alternative rock group Buffalo Daughter and X Japan’s Yoshiki had shows running counter to it, and many fans left Japan Nite for these gigs. The latter, in particular, drew a sizeable crowd to an intimate church setting for his classical piano set.

“I’m not used to this vibe, but I love it,” he said before he and a small string section played lovely classical tunes. “I am a little nervous.”

Less refined — but the highlight of all Japanese acts — was Jungles, a side project of rock group Red Bacteria Vacuum, who delivered a driving melodic set early in the night at Elysium. They dedicated their show to the victims of a fatal crash that happened just down the street Wednesday night, and put on a showy, entertaining set that held the audience’s attention. Afterward, members of Jungles hung out with fans, and even enjoyed beers with them. “Texas!” one of them shouted before pounding a locally brewed beer with admirers.

The ability for fans and artists to interact closely remains one of Japan Nite’s best aspects, especially as the SXSW around it becomes more geared toward who you know.

“It’s mostly the same, but starting to shift because of the K-pop night,” Villegas said, referring to the Korean music showcase, K-Pop Night Out. The main change was the addition of an idol-pop act, the fantasy-themed trio Starmarie. They opened Friday’s showcase with a poppy, choreographed show that was far from polished. Despite that, fans flocked to have their photo taken with them afterward.

Japan Nite put on a solid, diverse show that stuck to what it has been doing for 19 years now — introducing Japanese acts to an American audience with nothing else to promote. Still, it felt out of step with SXSW 2014, while K-Pop Night Out, now in its second year, highlighted how to succeed — even if it didn’t involve music. This year’s edition, also held at Elysium, resembled Japan Nite closely. There were many groups most had never heard of. Yet the K-pop headliners, Jay Park and HyunA, drew a dedicated fanbase.

Still, what pushed K-Pop Night Out ahead was unrelated to any of the acts. Right before Jay Park started, a sudden influx of security guards appeared inside, and an eye-catching figure walked around the back of the venue. “That’s . . . that’s Lady Gaga!” All eyes and phones turned to her and soon social media was blowing up over her appearance and dancing during HyunA’s set. That gave K-Pop Night Out extra buzz . . . which is all that’s needed at SXSW.