Music

Chai, Otoboke Beaver and Yahyel: The Japanese musicians representing at SXSW 2019

by William Archambeault

Contributing Writer

Every year, more than 2,000 bands flock to Austin, Texas, for the South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW). The internationally recognized event has recently leaned heavy on tech, but music still plays a big part. During this year’s mid-March music showcase, Japan was represented by a small yet diverse group of performers.

For the second year in a row, a Japanese band performed as part of SXSW’s official music opening party. This year, Kyoto’s Otoboke Beaver started the party with intense rock chaos, unexpectedly crowd surfing multiple times. “We are honored! I’m so glad that we could get the chance (to do that),” said guitarist Yoyoyoshie in reference to the opportunity. Still, she admits that members were “a little nervous” about opening the prominent event.

Last year, Tokyo’s yahyel brought its dark, atmospheric electro-pop to the party. Singer Shun Ikegai says that it was a cool yet “totally random” experience, since the band was not part of the lineup initially. He says yahyel joined after another group had to cancel.

At times, SXSW can seem like an alternate universe for Japanese performers. Otoboke Beaver, relatively small in Japan, garnered one of the most dedicated followings of any of the Japanese performers and was even featured on the cover of SXSW’s publication SXSWorld. In contrast, JP the Wavy, a rapper who achieved viral status in 2017, played to a mostly empty room during a late night international hip-hop showcase.

In general, SXSW is most fruitful for musicians that already have international connections. For instance, Otoboke Beaver, yahyel, and Chai performed at some of this year’s largest corporate-sponsored events. In recent years, all three of these SXSW veterans have worked with record labels and booking agents outside of Japan.

Japan Nite provides a chance for Japanese bands without strong international ties to show off their art at SXSW. The event, a SXSW staple since 1996, is often one of the first times that these performers play outside of their home country. This year, it featured established avant garde group Ex-Girl, chill indie rockers The Perfect Me, pop rock trio Regal Lily, alternative rock band Stereogirl, upbeat pop duo Furutori and instrumental metal band Asterism.

This year, half of Japan Nite’s lineup was also featured at a daytime showcase sponsored by TuneCore Japan. Additional performers included electronic artist Machina, garage rock band DYGL, Otoboke Beaver and yahyel.

Although Japanese performers at SXSW are proud to be from Japan, some voice a desire to be seen for more than just their nationality.

“They are from Japan and they recognize and accept the fact that they are Japanese,” says Chai’s interpreter Rena Tyner. “They’re fine with that but they want to start from Japan and grow elsewhere and not necessarily be labeled as just a Japanese band.”

“Representing yourself should come first before just representing Japan,” says Ikegai. “I just really hope that American audiences will discover us as musical artists, rather than just a Japanese band. We just want to prove that we are very similar human beings who carry a similar struggle in life.”

Still, Ikegai wonders if more could be done to promote Japanese music at SXSW. He points out multiple heavily promoted venue takeover projects that showcase music from specific countries. For instance, the intimate Latitude 30 housed the British Music Embassy, which had six days of live music events featuring British talent.

Ikegai also draws attention to the Korea Spotlight, a showcase sponsored in part by the South Korean government. For that event, his past collaborators XXX, a Korean rap duo, performed at Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater, a 2,750 capacity space. In comparison, both of this year’s Japanese showcases took place at Elysium, which houses around 500.

It is no secret that performers at SXSW are usually busy contemplating how to use the festival to propel their careers.

Musician Kengo Hioki gave some advice to Japanese performers at SXSW. “First step is ‘we’ve got to play here’ … But (the) next step is you have to get friends, connections, everybody and sell your name. Third step is (becoming) famous!”

Hioki, better known by his stage name Peelander-Yellow, has been performing at SXSW regularly with his band Peelander-Z since 2003. Now he resides in Austin and hosts his own unofficial showcase during SXSW.

Having seen countless bands come and go, he advises that musicians consider their own interests and aspirations. “Research all the bands and where they play, how they play at SXSW,” says Hioki in hopes that Japanese musicians can learn from the actions of other artists before coming to Austin.

Additionally, Hioki emphasizes the importance of self-promotion at SXSW.

On multiple occasions during this year’s festivities, the two members of Furutori took to guerrilla promotion. Armed with two microphones and a speaker, the duo set up at different sidewalk spots in downtown Austin. They performed karaoke-esque versions of their own songs over pre-recorded backing tracks and handed out flyers for their upcoming appearances.

Sometimes, SXSW’s fruits bear quickly. Janice Li, whose UK label Damnably releases Otoboke Beaver’s music, noted that the band’s invitation to perform at 2018’s Coachella came pretty swiftly after its SXSW debut in 2017.

Other times, SXSW efforts can take years to come to fruition. In 2017, energetic dance rock group Chai made its international debut as part of that year’s Japan Nite. Reflecting back, the group sees the move as a positive step toward touring internationally but not necessarily as a drastic career-defining event.

Chai returned to SXSW in 2018 after American label Burger Records discovered the band on YouTube and began releasing its music in the U.S. Instead of just performing at one event targeted to fans of Japanese music, the band was able to perform to broader audiences at events hosted by the American label. As a direct result of these performances, Chai was able to forge its current relationship with U.K. label Heavenly Recordings.

This year, Chai took things up yet another notch. The four-piece played music at major events sponsored by the likes of Rolling Stone and Dr. Martens. “(These were) things that they dreamed about performing at,” says the interpreter Tyner.

This year, Chai was even interviewed by Nardwuar the Human Serviette, a Canadian interviewer famed for his wacky celebrity interviews. His past subjects include Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell Williams, among many other established names. Although it has taken some time, it appears that Chai is finally starting to be recognized at SXSW.

At Austin’s The Mohawk during Otoboke Beaver’s final set, singer Accorinrin proudly proclaimed “We are the champions from Japan!” After the band finished, rambunctious fans successfully convinced the group to perform two separate encores, something seemingly unheard of for bands performing mid-day at SXSW. Otoboke Beaver managed to win over a dedicated fanbase in Austin.

Chai performed its final set as part of Burger Records’ annual showcase Burgermania at Hotel Vegas. The band’s victory lap was met by rousing applause from a packed audience of the label’s supporters. As the group attempted to navigate out of the space, the musicians were swarmed by hoards of screaming fans seeking photos with the group. Chai’s hard work appears to be paying off.

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