Music | Sound Off

SuperDeluxe provided a safe space for experimentation that Tokyo will miss

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

For the past 16 years, Tokyo’s SuperDeluxe has been a place where it felt like almost anything could happen, and it quite often did. So when the venue announced a few weeks ago that it would be closing in January, after its building was earmarked for demolition, the news was akin to hearing that a close friend was about to leave the country.

That it’s hard to imagine Tokyo without SuperDeluxe is testament to the unique place the venue has occupied within the city’s cultural landscape. When architects Klein Dytham set it up in 2002, they envisaged a place that could be something to everyone: live music venue, gallery, meeting hall, performance space and a lounge in which to enjoy the house-brewed Tokyo Ale.

With its modular furnishings, ample wall space and blessed absence of pillars to interrupt lines of sight, SuperDeluxe’s basement location proved more adaptable than venues designed with a more specific purpose in mind. That it was situated in Roppongi, a once disreputable party spot that’s now morphed into something more closely resembling Singapore, merely added to its singularity.

One of its early successes was PechaKucha Night, a sort of speed show-and-tell session for creative types that ended up spawning editions in more than 1,000 cities around the world. SuperDeluxe has also hosted fashion shows, screenings and exhibitions, but its contribution to the city’s music scene has perhaps been the most significant.

Under the guidance of booking manager Mike Kubeck, the venue offered a home to experimental music at a time when few places would touch it. Countless luminaries from the worlds of free jazz, noise, improv and electronic music have played there over the years — just off the top of my head, I can think of memorable performances I’ve caught by Tony Conrad, Alvin Lucier, Han Bennink, Peter Broetzmann, Keiji Haino, Phew, Incapacitants, Jim O’Rourke and Colin Stetson (plus a whole lot more that I wish I’d been able to go to). The free Test Tone events, which ran for 100 editions, became an essential monthly ritual for fans of unpredictable sounds.

Over time, the scene SuperDeluxe had helped nurture became atomized, spreading out to smaller venues inspired by its flexible, DIY ethos; it’s hard to imagine places like Soup, Forestlimit or Nanahari existing without it. (Farther afield, it was a direct inspiration on Cafe Oto, London’s leading venue for experimental music.)

Attendance at SuperDeluxe probably suffered as a result of this fragmentation, and the venue gradually scaled back on shows, while reducing kitchen service to a bare minimum, but it was the dilapidated state of its building rather than financial necessity that ultimately forced it to close.

There are still a few months left at the present location, and SuperDeluxe is currently on the lookout for a new home (art-loving patrons with vacant properties on their hands, take note). In the meantime, Tokyo residents would do well to make one last pilgrimage to this bastion of alternative culture. Or three.

For details of upcoming events, visit super-deluxe.com.