Have you heard or had this conversation recently?
“Hey, long time no see! How are you? Are there any cool new bands where you are?”
(Pained expression) “Not really, no.”
Exchanges like this are going on between touring musicians and local indie scene faces all over Japan, like Dust Bowl migrants desperately grasping after rumors of jobs in some prosperous far-off place.
As a music columnist, I find myself on the receiving end of these inquisitions whenever I travel — withered faces waiting for me at the airport, eyes full of pleading hope, desperate for news that in Tokyo, of all places, there must surely be a wealth of spiritual nourishment.
I try my best to give them drops of optimism — that yes, of course there’s a lot of good stuff in Tokyo — but then I struggle to give examples. What have I unearthed since last time we met? I draw a blank.
How could this be? Has new music really dried up to this extent? Has it been reduced to artisanal tote-bag boutiquery and bleached-dry city pop coffee shop aestheticism, with only the empty calories of idol groups to provide a temporary synthetic rush?
Or is it me?
A few months ago, I was walking down the street in Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood with my wife and was approached by a couple of young guys who knew that I was a music journalist. One passed me a CD, which promptly landed on a pile of other CDs in my apartment and disappeared down the memory hole.
More recently, I ran into one of them at a show and was forced to admit that sorry, no, I hadn’t listened to the CD. “Oh, no problem, no problem. It doesn’t matter!” he said, laughing it off.
But it does matter. It matters a lot that I was too lazy to listen to a new band, even when the CD was pressed into my hands by the musicians themselves. How many Soundcloud links zip by in my Twitter feed every day that I just don’t even make the effort to click through? How many shows have I passed up in favor of something more familiar, because there were too many bands I didn’t know on the bill?
And I don’t think I’m alone in this failure of curiosity. Technology has democratized and changed music in many ways, but this very ease of access to new music may also be inuring us to its impact. Its very attainability denying us the unique context that makes the moment of contact — the first kiss of a fresh sound — so special.
So I’ll beg indulgence here to perform a little public penance, and pay a short, gushing tribute to the vast amount of wonderful music being made constantly in Japan — not only online and in dry little scenes that are more about fashion than sound, but also in physical places, in front of real people, and employing actual ideas.
On a recent visit to Nagasaki to see an event organized by the incredible Neue Sanssouci (a genre-surfing, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink junk-quake of a group), I discovered some fantastic bands, including the restrained, offbeat geek-pop of Sankaiten Hitohineri and the ferocious, rhythmically sophisticated garage-punk riot of Mechaniphone. Through these bands, I later discovered Clicker from nearby Sasebo and can confidently say that didgeridoo-based spacerock-funk is the future of music.
In Fukuoka on the same weekend, I saw art-punk trio Narcolepsin play a minimal yet electrifying set to an empty room and fell in love instantly, while the equally minimal but far prettier and more fragile Sonotanotanpenz is another party to which I was way past fashionably late.
On a recent flying visit to Nagoya, I picked up a fabulous 7-inch of propulsive, tortured postpunk by an Okayama-based band called The Noup, saw an immense live performance by Mie-based rapper Hakaiou Eia, and picked up the energetically disorientating debut CD by Tokyo’s Platskartny. Back in Tokyo, I am rapidly becoming obsessed with the eccentric, eclectic, and quite excellent Falsettos.
The ongoing changes to music being wrought by the Internet may yet have earth-shattering effects on the alternative rock scene, either for good or ill, but there is still plenty of it being made if we’re willing to take risks — or even just take a few minutes of our time — and seek it out.
Oh, and the CD the guy gave me while walking down the street in Koenji that night earlier in the year was called “10 Minutes Suicide” by SaiKouNiCooL Quartet, and it was fantastic.