These are trying times for gigging musicians. As COVID-19 continues its relentless spread, tours are being cancelled and artists and promoters are having to adjust to a brutal new reality, in which the activities that livelihoods depend on are suddenly rendered taboo. When I meet the members of alternative rock band Gezan in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in early March, the Japanese media has been obsessively covering a cluster of coronavirus cases linked to some music venues in the band’s former hometown of Osaka.
“There’s this kind of beauty in the energy that’s generated by bringing people together, and we want to do something that makes it tangible,” says Mahito The People, Gezan’s elfin frontman. “But we just have to sit tight for now. If you try to do anything at the moment, you’ll be hung out to dry by the media.”
Asked about the band’s upcoming live shows in support of its rousing new album, “Klue,” he sighs. Yet he’s not about to admit defeat.
“Sure, there’s a mood of self-restraint,” he says, “but for those of alive right now, 2020 is all we’ve got.”
Gezan has managed to overcome adversity before, albeit of a different nature. Last October, the strongest typhoon to hit Japan in decades forced the group to cancel the Tokyo-area edition of its Zenkankakusai festival, a DIY event at which both the music and food are provided free of charge. But, in a heroic comeback, the group commandeered half a dozen venues in Shibuya the following night and staged the festival there instead, drawing a 3,000-strong crowd.
It was a triumph, and clinched Gezan’s reputation as folk heroes of the independent music scene. Mahito spent the next three weeks recovering from the strain of pulling it off.
“After the show was done, my lymph nodes flared up, and then my face got all swollen with pus,” he says, showing some photos on his phone. It’s quite the transformation: features comically distended, he looks more like a latex prop from a horror movie.
Zenkankakusai (literally, “All Senses Festival”) is the most conspicuous example of Gezan’s continued refusal to play the industry game. The group has risen to a level of prominence in Japan that’s unusual for an act that self-releases its music and is given to making bold — if sometimes opaque — political statements.
Despite Gezan’s increasing profile, Mahito has managed to keep his real name out of the public domain, and the other members also go by aliases: guitarist Eagle Taka, bassist Carlos Ozaki and drummer Loscal Ishihara. (Owing to a communication mix-up, they all turn up for the interview, but end up letting their vocalist do most of the talking.)
“In one sense, not using my own name is what allows me to be defiant,” says Mahito. He compares it to the band members playing characters in a film: a distancing device that allows them more flexibility in what they do.
“It gives me an opportunity to think about who I want to be when I’m with the rest of the group,” adds Eagle.
When Gezan first started to draw attention on the Osaka live scene around the start of the 2010s, the group appeared to be heir to Japan’s rich psychedelic rock tradition. It was a regular at Namba Bears, an underground institution, and picked up endorsements from veteran acts such as Acid Mothers Temple. Debut album “Katsute Uta to Iwareta Sore” (“It Was Once Said to Be a Song”) captured the barely controlled chaos of the band’s gigs.
Yet, when Gezan relocated to Tokyo in 2012 and started penning catchier songs, it became harder to pin the band down. By 2016’s “Never End Roll,” only Mahito’s nasal vocals — an acquired taste, it must be said — confirmed that you weren’t actually listening to a more workaday guitar band like Asian Kung-Fu Generation.
When I confess that I kind of hated the album, the members seem unfazed. Asked about their repeated stylistic shifts, Mahito demurs: “It’s just about what we’re into at that time.”
Releasing music on its own Jusangatsu label, Gezan couldn’t be accused of selling out. 2018’s “Silence Will Speak,” recorded in the United States with famously austere audio engineer Steve Albini, returned to a more abrasive approach.
“It’s not like we’re looking to hit the big time, or we want to become famous,” Mahito says. “We just want to give ourselves a buzz.”
On “Klue,” released in January, Gezan has undergone another metamorphosis. Working with veteran dub engineer Naoyuki Uchida, who often mans the PA during the band’s shows, Mahito and co. have reinvented themselves as an apocalyptic jam band. The album is a thick gumbo of tribal rhythms, enveloping delay effects and guttural chants that resemble Balinese kechak. If you listen closely, you can hear bassist Carlos doubling up on didgeridoo.
The entire album hovers at a tempo of 100 beats per minute, letting songs flow into each other in a continuous mix. Although Mahito is Gezan’s main songwriter, he describes “Klue” as being built up from “fragments” that each of the members contributed.
“I started with an image of creating a kind of collage,” he says, comparing it to the place where our interview is taking place. “When you look at Shibuya at the moment, it’s non-stop construction. I’m fascinated by the way things are constantly changing — a building that was there six months ago is suddenly gone — and I wanted to create that same kind of sense. There may be some songs that immediately stand out, but there are others that only take shape within the overall flow.”
This overarching concept, which he calls “reassemblage,” results in an album that demands to be heard from front to back — Spotify be damned.
Mahito’s lyrics maintain a sense of urgency throughout, and are littered with references that plant “Klue” firmly in the present. He teases his audience on the title track — asking: “Where are you listening to this voice? Over some tinny iPhone speakers?” — and then proclaims a “rebellion with a discount sticker attached.” One of the tracks is called “Free Refugees,” recalling a graffiti tag that went viral in 2018 after it was tweeted by the Tokyo immigration bureau.
The album’s lynchpin, “Tokyo,” is an epic cri de coeur, with lyrics sketching a capital haunted by discrimination and the specter of violence. It reflects Mahito’s conflicted relationship with the city; while Gezan’s members all hail from western Japan, he says he moved so many times as a child that he doesn’t have anywhere in particular to call home.
“Tokyo is a city of migrants, so it’s a good fit,” he says. “Everyone is an outsider here. Even though I didn’t particularly like the place, in that respect, I could feel at home in Tokyo.”
Gezan held the first Zenkankakusai in the city in 2014, at a public plaza in suburban Tama, then shifted the event to Osaka a few years later.
“We felt we couldn’t just rely on someone giving us a place to have fun,” says Mahito, explaining the festival’s original impetus. Since then, it has grown in ambition. Last year’s was the first for which the band held editions in both cities.
In last year’s film “Tribe Called Discord: Documentary of Gezan,” Mahito is seen delivering a manifesto of sorts, when he announces from the stage at Zenkankakusai: “This is our politics.”
Yet he’s keen not to be seen as a rock messiah, or some kind of opinion leader. On the track “Akayobi,” he makes this explicit: “Kill gods, kill authority, kill systems, kill Gezan.”
“I want to tell people not to put too much faith in us,” he says.
Despite the gloomy atmosphere enveloping the music scene at the moment, Gezan is already looking ahead. Mahito talks about the band’s plans for the next Zenkankakusai, and ponders what’s going to happen for his generation when — or if — the COVID-19 outbreak and the Tokyo Olympics are just a memory.
“As people get driven further into a corner, I think music is going to become even more vital,” he says.
For more information, visit http://gezan.net.