If you’re in a foreign band trying to plan a tour in Japan, you sometimes need to improvise when it comes to booking venues. That may be why you’re more likely to find Australian six-piece The Lagerphones at a cozy cafe than a grimy Shibuya live house.
This New Orleans-style jazz act from Melbourne once played an impromptu performance inside a train car, but their go-to stop in Tokyo is a kissaten (traditional coffee shop) called Lawn in Yotsuya.
Vaughan Allison, who has lived in Japan for around 10 years and is the band’s manager, says he’d been asking Lawn’s owner about hosting a music night there for a while.
“The owner goes, ‘We’ve been here for 50 years, this is not a music venue. This is a coffee shop that sells a beautiful tamago sando (egg-salad sandwich). The answer is no,'” Allison recalls. “But I was persistent, and one day the owner came up to me and said, ‘Do you still want to host at this venue?’ and I go ‘Yeeeeah,’ and he said, ‘Let’s do it, let’s try it.'”
Allison proudly claims that The Lagerphones were the first-ever Australian jazz band to play a traditional 50-year-old kissaten — “That’s breaking rules,” he adds proudly. “The owner had a good time, of course, and after that he said, ‘I’m going to host one of these music events once a month.'”
Over the past four years the band has come to Japan every September to tour, adding more dates and playing more venues. Occasionally they’ll hit up a traditional live house, but they’ve largely stuck to their formula of coffee houses and a few bars and restaurants. That has helped them develop a small but reliable fan base that has spread the word about the band’s rambunctious shows.
What people may want to know, however, is how an Australian jazz band was able to jam their way into the second-largest music market in the world. Bass player Marty Holoubek says the first step is to woo your Japanese fans. This month’s Yo Ji Kai Tour will be The Lagerphones’ fourth in this country, its name a play on the Japanese word “nijikai,” which means “after-party.” The band’s albums sport titles such as “Kanpai Mina-san” and “Atarashidi,” and vocalist Ben Harrison has gone as far as learning how to sing in Japanese.
“Every year we’ve come back and gained more influence from Japan and our experiences here,” says Holoubek, who made the move to Tokyo in August. “I was always staying for more and more time. And this year it was like, OK, maybe I’ll stay for a long time.'”
Allison adds that going the extra mile to tailor the music to the audience doesn’t go unnoticed. “My wife and friends say, ‘These guys learned all the lyrics in Japanese. It’s very erai (admirable).”
Allison takes part in the interview more than a manager usually does, which points to another way bands can break into Japan: Have someone who’s already on the ground when you arrive.
Allison is pretty skilled in Japanese and isn’t afraid to strike up conversations with almost anyone, from the bank security guards at his local ATM to shop owners with just enough room to entertain a small crowd. Even seasoned conversationalists are going to have a hard time convincing cafe owners to let a gang of six foreign musicians take over their space for a night, but Allison seems to have figured out the best way to say please: “I’ve built up personal, trusting relationships and I go, ‘Can we get six Aussie guys in here playing music?’ and at the beginning they say, ‘Did you say six?!'”
The Lagerphones had a loyal fan base back home when they decided to come to Japan “as a kind of holiday” and to “see if we could get a gig,” according to Holoubek. They weren’t expecting their trip to turn into a full-blown tour. Trombone player James Macaulay got in touch with Allison, a friend from before, about setting up some shows and Allison quickly wrote back to say he’d lined up 12 gigs in 10 days, as well as a few photo shoots and interviews.
So with an interest in the country and a manager already setting things up, all The Lagerphones needed to do was charm the locals. That meant getting to know fans on a first-name basis and hanging out with them after their shows. The band has affectionately nicknamed one loyal fan “The Looseman.” He has become such a regular audience member and drinking buddy that he scored a shoutout in the liner notes of “Kanpai Mina-san.”
“Maybe it’s to do with the band or with the places we’re playing, but we’re coming here and we’re having fun playing music for people who are really enjoying the music,” Holoubek says. “We want to know what their story is and why they’re (at the show) or why they’ve come to see this weird Australian band playing New Orleans music in Tokyo.”
“The band’s not famous,” Allison says. “They’ve always played small, intimate shows and they’ve built this cult following. It’s not strange to see people on one night and then come back the following night to see the band again, and then to come back every night.”
What’s next for a band that has mastered (and created) the kissaten circuit? The Lagerphones have aspirations to make it onto the stages of some of Japan’s biggest music festivals, and this month their tour stretches outside of Tokyo for the first time to Osaka and Kyoto.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously but the music is very serious,” Holoubek says. “It’s more about intent — our intentions are high but we’re not so caught up in being such a polished product. It’s all about the journey, and the fun that comes together to get to that point.”
The Lagerphones play Citan hostel in Chuo Ward on Sept. 14. The Yo Ji Kai Tour will then continue till Sept. 30 with performances in the Kansai region taking place from Sept. 21 to 25. For more information, visit www.thelagerphones.com.