Sunday, December 18, 2011

From Here On Out: Where Occupy Tampa Has Been, and Where It Can Go Next

Yesterday, Tampa Food Not Bombs and Occupy Tampa jointly held a luncheon at Voice of Freedom Park near central Tampa, Florida.  Voice of Freedom (VoF) is a park privately owned by Joe Redner, a Tampa entrepreneur and frequently outspoken public figure.  The event included not just some great food from FNB, but several great activities for local kids and training for Occupy participants.  There was some press coverage,  a good number of visitors both from out of town and from the local community.

Though it was by design small and casual, yesterday’s event represents an important evolution of Occupy Tampa specifically, and may offer some useful points of reflection for other Occupy groups. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ritual Unrest - On the Symbolism of Occupation

On the evening of Thursday, December 1st, at about 8pm, a group of about 150 people operating as Occupy Tampa conducted a march from Curtis Hixon Park in Downtown Tampa to Julian Lane Riverfront Park.  After arriving at Julian Lane, members of the group held a meeting at the park’s ampitheatre and collectively agreed to establish an encampment there.  The group then moved to a small hill, where they pitched a handful of tents.  At 10:56 pm, 13 unmarked Tampa Police Department squad cars pulled into the parking lot of Julian Lane Park, and around 30 police officers moved into the park.  They issued a warning to the group of campers that they were trespassing in the now-closed park.  After allowing several members of the group to exit willingly, the police surrounded those who refused to leave.  Two hours later, 29 people had been arrested for trespassing and, in many cases, resisting arrest.

These facts, like most, do not speak for themselves.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

WTSP - Bought, Paid For, and Worth Every Penny.

You can’t expect much from local news, with anchors hired primarily for their hair and content intended to titillate mouth-breathers.  But on Tuesday night, Tampa’s WTSP 10 mixed up the usual local palette of heroic three-legged dogs and unfilled potholes with coverage of the most important political event of the last year – the Occupy movement.  Predictably, understanding the significance of Occupy and presenting it to its viewers in a coherent, balanced manner proved too much for their pretty little heads.

The story that aired last night was focused on Occupy Tampa, and it made no bones about being a "gotcha" attack.  The tagline - "Are Occupy Protestor's Hypocrites?" - invites only one answer, and the setup during the show was no more subtle.  “They say they want change, but do they practice what they preach? A look into some of the protestor’s own voting records, and some startling results.”  The meat of the story is that the station had pulled the voting records of the 22 participants who have been arrested since the beginning of the Tampa Occupation about six weeks ago.  Their findings were that of the 22, 64% were registered to vote, about 33% voted in the last presidential election, just under 25% voted in the primary, 15% voted in the 2010 midterm, and less than 10% voted in recent municipal elections.

Leaving aside the issues with sampling, these are objectively not good numbers. As the smug, spray-tanned, pudgy male anchor framed it, “many [Occupiers] may be a bit hypocritical.”  But, blinded either by its overt hostility to Occupy (whose motivations we'll get to in a second) or by a more basic inability to see further than the tip of their nose, WTSP’s team failed to put them into any kind of context.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

ASAP Rocky is the fucking future

I didn't post about it when it came out, but it's taken me a month or two ago, but it's taken me that long to really absorb what genius this track is.  Somehow the most amazing part is how conventional the lyrics and imagery are - and yet it totally embraces its own mythic dimension, twisting it around so the 'hood is the most unreal place possible, a slow-motion fantasy without equal.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

How I Invented Witch House

No, seriously!  I just noticed that Craig Eley, master of Field Noise, current member of Datagun and former member, with me, of Single Indian Tear, has posted our little-seen non-masterpiece, a 30-minute remix and re-scoring of Dario Argento's epic Tenebre.

This was performed about two and a half years ago, and while it's not nearly as polished as the Pictureplane or Salem stuff that was coming out at about the same time (in our defense, the sound here is from a live recording) we were really treading some strangely similar water - dance beats, analog synths, and vintage spook themes.  It's particularly striking if you check out the stretch from about 5:30 above, or the beginning of Part 2 below.

Part 2:

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Basic Training: Japanese Hip Hop as a Legacy of Militarism

Note, 2013: Those with University Access can now read the fully-fledged article that came out of these ideas in Communication, Culture, and Critique. 

Second Note, 2013: I now blog at  It's much prettier to look at, and more focused on fun stuff like weird fiction, extreme music, and awesome art.  Also check out my Tumblr at

Image and some info from Mixtapetroopers

This is the cover of a mix CD put out near the end of 2010 by DJ Muta of Libra Records and Juswanna, Mega-G, and DJ 49 (not really familiar with the latter two guys, but Mega-G apparently hosts an occasional Ustream show).  The cover echoes an earlier Japanese hip hop CD cover - I think by Buddha Brand, but I'm not sure? - and the idea of the CD is using the instrumentals from old records and putting new vocals over them.  The title connects to military themes and images that have long been prominent in U.S. and, in turn, Japanese hip hop.  Examples that jump to mind include Public Enemy's S1W security/dance troupe and the Wu-Tang Clan-affiliated Killarmy, who took the contemporary trend for camouflage to a logical conclusion.

But in Japan the military connection is particularly deep and multidimensional, going back the better part of two centuries and connecting contemporary Japanese hip hop to the forces of Western imperialism and Japanese modernization.  And "Basic Training" is specifically part of it.  In his book Kokka to Ongaku [Nation and Music], Okunaka Yasuto tells the fascinating story of how the bakufu, the military government of Japan in the fading years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, came to introduce Western music to Japan for the first time (with the exception of missionary music that Christians had brought in the 15th century before their exclusion).

The motivation was not aesthetic - the introduction of the fife-and-drum corps was part of the bakufu's efforts to upgrade their military forces to modern standards of uniformity and organization.  The Japanese military before the mid-19th century had their well-known equivalent of knights - the samurai - who mostly engaged in single combat on open fields or rode independently on horseback..  Then they had foot soldiers, who were decidedly not the equivalent of relatively well-organized English men-at-arms and bowmen.  Rather, they tended to be utterly untrained and undisciplined peasants who ran around in chaotic masses. This was all well and good when they were fighting each other, but as soon as the bakufu became cognizant of the threat posed by the better-organized and -armed Western powers, they became quick students of modern military arts - or at least, to the extent that they could through the somewhat narrow channel of information they had access to, Dutch scholarship.

Along with technology (mainly guns), the bakufu realized they needed to adopt discipline, and this was strongly rooted in drilling and marching.  There are some pretty fantastic scenes in, if I remember correctly, The Seven Samurai that suggest just how important the drum would have been to implementing uniform drilling.  The townspeople that Takashi Shimura's character attempts to teach have a firmly ingrained habit of running at top speed and with no sense of unit cohesion when under the duress of training, up to and including running into each other.

Shogunate Troops with Drum

I found a trove of great information about this period over at Axis History (a site whose politics I know nothing about). The drum was introduced, along with other reforms, by Takashima Shuuhan, as a tool for management, giving marchers a guide for timing their step, regulating their speed, and in turn, staying out of one another's way.  Here is a frame of drum scores from the book he released, and here's a great video of a contemporary troupe re-enacting what a pre-Meiji Japanese military band might have looked and sounded like:

This was, of course, a pivotal moment in Japanese history, of which the musical impact was among the smallest parts.  But the link between music and militarism continued.  Take, for instance, the so-called gunka, military or patriotic songs largely derived from the Prussian tradition (which replaced Dutch Learning as the basis for Japanese military practice in the Meiji era).  And while the flowering of jazz in Tokyo starting in the 1920s was part of the strongly anti-militarist "Taisho Democracy," the groundwork for it was no doubt laid in part by the exposure to Western sounds that had started with Japan's military - particularly since military instruments were much closer to the sounds of jazz than the palette used in classical music, the other musical import aggressively promoted by the Japanese government as part of Meiji reforms.

But the biggest further impact of militarism on Japanese music came, of course, during the American occupation.  During this time there were massive food shortages among the Japanese general public, and working musicians would certainly have mostly belonged to this group of the not-particularly-elevated.  The only people with food and money in abundance were the occupying forces, so Japanese musicians quickly learned to play what the American soldiers wanted to hear - initially jazz, which they would have already understood well, and later early versions of rock and roll.  The same dynamic continued into roughly contemporary times, though not in Tokyo - even today, the areas of Okinawa's capital city of Naha surrounding the American bases have clothing stores and music shops catering specifically to black American soldiers, forming a cultural resource for Japanese youth with any sort of interest in hip hop.

The bigger questions here are profound.  I had long assumed that the story of Western music in Japan began with Admiral Perry's landing and the group of minstrels he brought with him, making the entire ensuing history of Western music in Japan a matter of imperial imposition.  But this isn't the case at all - as happened again and again throughout Japanese history, something was consciously adopted from abroad as part of attempts to transform Japan into a nation that could compete internationally (that 'internationally' is complicated but key - at this point the Bakufu were reforming the military as part of a frantic rearguard action against international interference, so in some sense they were trying to keep from internationalizing - but were nonetheless doing just that).  The same pattern would continue over the next century-plus, in music as in other things.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Percussion Lab - Saturn Never Sleeps - Exclusive DJ Mix

This is some really compelling stuff, a mix of a huge variety of understated dub-pop and fractured science-fiction soul. One early revelatory moment is the "Billie Jean" remix at about the five minute mark, which turns MJ retroactively into a Frank Ocean from 1985:

Percussion Lab - Saturn Never Sleeps - Exclusive DJ Mix

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Oricon and Corruption: The Ugaya Case

Just a quick set of links I need to follow up on later.  In 2006 freelance journalist Ugaya Hiromichi was sued by Oricon for having been quoted suggesting their rankings were not objective, and were perhaps influenced in unethical ways, particularly in connection with Johnny's artists.  He does seem to have eventually prevailed, but I haven't yet found details of that aside from a 2009 post made to Ugaya's personal homepage.

Exile and Avex: The Very Platonic Form of Shady-Ass Japanese Culture Industries

Just a quick note about an interesting tidbit I dug up a few days ago.  In my conversation with Kuzoku, the creators of the excellent film Off Highway 20 (my preferred translation of the title is a little different from the official one), we got to talking about the 'Yankee Culture' that is so central to their sensibility.  Yankee, in this case, refers of course to down-and-out proto-thugs who ride cheap motorcycles and generally don't have much going for them but their hair. There's a scene in Highway 20 where one of the main characters sings a Namie Amuro song in a karaoke box.  Amuro, along with  Ayumi Hamasaki and Exile, is under the Avex umbrella, though their levels of involvement vary and I've not dug deep enough to determine who's managed by Avex and who just releases their music on an Avex label.

Regardless, the Kuzoku guys painted Avex as pretty much specializing in "Yankee Culture."  Exile, with their deep tans, careful facial hair, and upwardly mobile bling-bling image, embody a certain 'neo-yankeeism' that has replaced the more rock-influenced, explicitly anti-authoritarian yankee ethos of the '70s and '80s.  Supposedly, EXILE sell pseudo-customized cars reflecting their "VIP" image, though a quick search didn't turn up evidence of that.  This is in stark contrast to the "chopped and dropped" customization style that prevailed among Yankee in the past.

Anyway, all that is sort of secondary.  The most arresting thing is that Avex both sell this new Yankee ethos and embody it through some pretty shady business practices. The best example is that Avex owns a lot of pachinko parlors, and gives out Exile CDs as prizes, while counting these as 'sales.'  Pachinko isn't legally supposed to constitute gambling for money, so counting these CDs as having been 'sold' in exchange for little metal balls seriously calls into question either Japanese gambling law or the Oricon charts.  I'm not sure which.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Academic Cliche Watch, Minisode 2: Dyer on "Argumentation by Announcement."

Several months ago, I wrote a post about the phrase "I want to argue that . . .", pointing out just a few of the reasons that it's worthless and destructive to the integrity of academic writing.  Geoff Dyer, the genius author of unparalleled books like But Beautiful and Out of Sheer Rage, seems to have noticed the same thing - though not surprisingly, he's responded with a level of subtlety and comprehensiveness that outstrips my modest effort by several degrees of magnitude.

In my defense, he seems to have found the perfect target in Michael Fried's "Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before," which he dissects with a precise brutality that could be paralleled to what Christian Bale did to all those poor women in American Psycho, if it were done in defense of decency and clear thinking.  Geoff Dyer is easily one of the most brilliant cultural essayists alive, right in the league of Joan Didion or . . . well, very few others.  So to be on the receiving end of such a performance from him, while certainly painful, could also be considered receiving a scolding from someone so elevated the rest of us could hardly be expected to even aspire to the same plane.

That said, I have no sympathy for Fried, who I hope is enjoying the comforting sleep of reason in the bed he's made for himself.

The Dance of Fate: Success and Failure in Music Business and Music Life

I spent much of yesterday helping a friend move into a new place.  This friend is also the owner and manager of a mid-sized independent record label in Tokyo - I met him initially through my research and have spent a lot of time with him since. There were about a dozen people there to help, but since he'd also hired a super-efficient group of professional movers, there wasn't quite enough to keep everyone busy.  In the end, it was more than anything a group celebration of a new stage in the life of a man who was to various degrees friend, business associate, or boss to the rest of us.

The condo he was moving into with his fiance was pretty great by Tokyo standards, a three-story with space for a guest room, a room that will serve as the fiance's home office, a really nice kitchen, a ground-floor patio AND a second-floor balcony - and most important, room for the baby they'll be having in just a couple of months.  I also got to see the apartment they'd occupied for the previous five years, a small, cramped space that I could hardly believe had held the two of them and their dog.  The move was a moment of success, mostly paid for by the truly righteous work my friend does providing a place for artists outside of Japan's major-label system, putting on shows that attract thousands of people and festivals that attract tens of thousands.

I was reminded of a quite different celebration I went to a month or two ago.  Another friend of mine, a DJ and producer, held a release event for his latest EP.  It was in an obscure bar in Shibuya, not even really an event space, just barely big enough to hold the fifty to sixty people who showed up.  The release was a CD in a hand-stamped/painted sleeve.  It was a fun event, full of people who were friends with the star of the evening, and with each other, but who had basically no potential to make money from or through one another.  I talked to my friend after the event, and learned that the EP had been released in a miniscule run of 300, and also that he hadn't DJed or done any shows in the six months preceding.  He had, however, recently met a woman he was planing to marry, and said he was going to start looking for work more reliable than his current gig at an amusement park.  He knew that if he took a full-time job, he wouldn't be able to keep going with music consistently.  But he said that he had accomplished many things he wanted to (releasing an album or two, playing plenty of shows, working with other gifted musicians) and was ready to move on.  He struck me as genuinely happy.

I'm at a stage in my life where I inevitably think about success and the long arc of human life quite a bit, and the comparison between these two is fascinating, if not entirely illuminating.  They've arrived at similar stages of their lives in dramatically different shape.  One had built a small empire and was able to live comfortably.  He works incredibly hard, but is moving in a straight line that seems to lead only upward.  The other is about to go through a transition that promises to be both exciting and wrenching, as he tries to launch a sustainable career in his early thirties.

What's the difference between these two?  One reason it's an interesting comparison is that their musical interests are about equally accessible - not pop, but not noise, either - so we can eliminate that as a determiner of "success."  In many months of getting to know these two guys, the difference seems to be simply how hard and consistently they've worked, and how goal-oriented they've been.  From my friend the DJ/producer, I always got the sense that music occupied a vague space between hobby and ambition.  He was around people with an equally hazy vision.  On the other hand, the label head has had his priorities very much in order since he was in his late teens, when he skipped college to pursue music promotion.  In addition to working about sixty hours a week, he very much treats music as a business.

But there seem to have been tradeoffs, corollaries to these two men's different natures.  My friend the DJ is a profoundly warm person, generous and cheerful and relaxed.  He is surrounded by friends who like him for himself, many of whom enjoy making music with him, but as a communal rather than commercial activity.  The ties that bind them are personal and intimate. The label head, on the other hand, is surrounded almost entirely by people he works with.  Now, this is a million miles from the sad workaholism it might sound like - the reason he got into the music business in the first place was because he loved working with artists, with musicians, photographers, writers.  These are people with interesting personalities, and maybe we should all be so lucky as to enjoy the permeable boundaries between friendship and work that my friend does.  I certainly know I enjoy this in my own life - the relationship we share is exactly one of these business/friendships.  But I also know firsthand that there's a certain gnawing emptiness to it, a need to get outside of the circumference of the functional and be with other people purely for their own sake.  I sometimes sense that this label head has sacrificed more than might be immediately obvious - that the cost of making his own path has been a hypervigilance that separates him, every so slightly, from the rhythms of normal human social life.

There's no line here between good or bad, the right or wrong way to do things.  Both of these people have led incredibly rich lives, and done great services to the rest of their community and culture.  Certainly the more important distinction to be made from those who have not felt empowered to pursue their grand dreams, or those who were never lucky enough to have them in the first place.  Those are the people - arguably, the 'normal' people - who I truly can't understand.  But even within the realm of the creative, there is  a wide spectrum of approaches, ambitions, ideas, personalities . . . and we eventually find our way back to the most difficult question of all, that of will.  My friend the label head indulged in some very rare self-mythologizing last night, telling the brief story of his (entirely legal) entrepreneurialism as a teenager.  The money he made from this early dip into business let him buy the records that inspired him onto his current path.  None of what followed would have happened without  that early moment when some built-in impulse to buy low and sell high kicked in - but at the time it was with no goal in mind, something you could even call instinctual.  In turn, he's had a profound impact on hundreds, maybe thousands of Japanese kids by putting interesting music in their hands.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Megane Super Rapper

Megane Suupaa (literally, "Glasses Supermarket") is a pretty bland chain of big-box glasses retailers throughout Japan.  But this one guy in Shinjuku is semi-famous for pitching their deals on glasses and contacts in the form of high-speed and basically not bad rap.  Just another little sign that, while it might not be nearly as dominant as it is in the U.S., hip hop has nonetheless penetrated deeply into the fabric of Japanese life (well, okay, at least urban life).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Least Wu-Tang of All Wu-Tangs: AKB48 and the Bulbous Egg Sac

Credit for the strange title goes to, whose review of Darksiders sussed out the idealized features of "Zelda" as a game type, and used that as a rubric for finding Darksiders "particularly Zelda" (though not particularly a good game).  I had an apparently similar insight last year when I first started learning about AKB48, a hugely popular pop idol enterprise, who superficially capitalize on a music marketing trick first pursued by the Wu-Tang Clan.  AKB, started in 2005, has (yes) 48 members, and they are divided into a series of ranks, grades, and 'teams' which form a variety  of sub-groups, fulfill different roles, and appeal to a variety of different fans, all while operating under the same umbrella.  This makes AKB48 a many-headed dragon, each head strengthening the constantly-growing body - pretty much in the same way Rae and Ghost would go off and do a couple things, building their own brands and Wu-Tang's all at once.

But AKB48 take everything a step farther.  Today was the release date for the first single, "The Extinct Brunette," by NMB48  [warning: don't watch if your faith in humanity is tenuous, it's an unbelievable mess].  Founded just last year, NMB are a parallel AKB, with the same massive, complexly tiered internal structure. While AKB stands for Akihabara, NMB stands for Namba, a section of Osaka.  There's also SKE48, started in 2008 and based in Aichi Prefecture. Finally, there's the slight variation of SDN48, with the SDN standing for "Saturday Night" and suggesting the very slightly more adult orientation of that group, composed in part of 'graduates' from AKB (aka women who can no longer pretend to be little girls).

Akimoto Yasushi,
 who I hope is proud of himself.
So, with four groups of 48 members each, and numerous smaller formations within each of those, the AKB empire begins to look like a Wu-Tang of Wu-Tangs, as if Killarmy and Sunz of Man had each become a hit factory in its own right.  Except, that is, for the part where this Meta-Tang (copyright) is put together by a svengali-like behind-the-scenes producer, Akimoto Yasushi.  Wu-Tang negotiated its revolutionary deal as a true group (albeit initially with RZA in a clear leadership role), from a position of little power, and with an eye towards a democratic future in which they could all be equals, without at the same time having to submit entirely to the risks of rule by committee. By contrast, AKB and its spawn were the creation of one man, and every move made can be assumed to have the goal of further enriching him.

You can question a lot of what Wu-Tang have done over the years, but despite the strategic nature of their business arrangements, their music has never been carefully market-conscious.  Frankly, they just got really lucky for a few years there, and have since returned to their proper place as vanguardists.  The AKB organization, on the other hand, applies the Wu-Tang model to aesthetic, image, and marketing decisions that range from run of the mill pop-machine exploitation to borderline sociopathic mind-fuckery to just remarkably dumb.  An instance of the former was the recent introduction of "Aimi Eguchi," a new member who turned out to be a computer amalgamation of five other top members (and whose name was actually a play on the gum she was digitally created to promote).  More nefarious, and vastly more fundamental to the AKB plan for domination, is the annual 'election' of the most popular member of the group. This is like a less-democratic version of American Idol, especially since to be able to vote you have to buy a copy of the group's most recent single.  There are images floating around of obsessive AKB fans who supposedly bought dozens or hundreds of copies of the single to vote for their favorite member - in other words, the entire scheme aims to exploit some seriously desperate shut-in otaku.  (Oh, and for the "just dumb" part? There's an annual intra-group rock paper scissors tournament that takes place AT BUDOKAN).

Of course, as much as it's exploiting the audience, AKB is almost certainly exploiting the girls in the group.  Unlike the Wu-Tang, AKB members haven't shown much ability to move into productive solo careers, even as they (Menudo-style) get shuffled out of the main group as they get older.  Some go into the older-skewing SDN48, but others take, well, less conventional paths.  Most dramatic is Rina Nakanishi, who now works in Adult Video under the pseudonym Yamaguchi Riko.  Note, this is not softcore or private sex-tape stuff, but actual hardcore porn starring a former member of the currently most succesful pop group in the country.  Of course, the path to that outcome was well paved, since the girls of AKB are trained primarily in dance and dress-up, including donning skimpy clothes for photo shoots, sometimes from a very young age.  Not that I'm against half-naked women in principle (or for that matter, totally naked ones), but the unremitting focus on youth is pretty icky - for instance, the video for the new SDN single has them all in schoolgirl outfits, which is standard through the AKEmpire.

Finally, just to reiterate, none of this is anything but a total disaster for Japanese fans or the quality of culture.  The core fanbase of socially maladjusted and detached Akiba nerds has resulted in music that would seem to be targeted at children if it weren't for all the overblown synth and sexual innuendo (So, half-deaf, horny children).  Ian Martin of the Japan Times makes the apropos comparison to the Korean band Girl's Generation, who while still managed to within an inch of their lives, are also quite clearly being given better music to work with.  Pop is pop, no doubt, and maybe America has been spoiled over the past - what, forty-five years? - by the constant availability of some slight counternarrative amidst the pap, whether it was Kate Bush and Blondie cropping up inexplicably in the Eighties or the more recent likes of Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga (whose music is disposable but who is at least genuinely opinionated, provocative, and let's just say it, gay).  What exactly is it that has kept Japanese pop so docile and irrelevant for so long?  The more I learn about it, the more I believe it has something to do with the hierarchical nature of the music business . . . and the more I wonder how long this crap can survive the internet, however clever the branding structure.

Dipset Trance Party: Witchhouse Without Prejudice

As the kids say I've got this "On Blast," after reading about it way late in the game in a review of AraabMuzik's new album.  It's absolutely gold from beginning to end, dark and electronic and hyperactive and grimy/shiny, full of cheap-sounding drums that'll puncture your eardrums.

Front Cover
Dipset Trance Party

The greatest/weirdest part, though, is that it basically sounds like the best Witch House compilation imaginable - like what would happen if Salem actually knew what the fuck they were doing, Holy Other lost all that dreary self-reflexivity, and Pictureplane stripped away his melodic hooks in favor of raw chunks of emotive horn stab.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

James Blake in Japan: How to Import An Enigma

Update 7/24/2011:  A friend told me that the Tokyo radio station J-Wave plays James Blake "all the time."  They did, at least at one point - "Limit to your Love" peaked at 47 on the Tokio Hot 100 back in February.

A friend just let me know about the fantastic and fascinating article "Japan in Japan: Notes on an Aspect of the Popular Music Record Industry in Japan," by Toru Mitsui (Popular Music, Vol. 3, Producers and Markets (1983), pp. 107-120).  It's a detailed and well-informed description of, first, Japanese labels' practices in the late 1970s and early 1980s with regards to the import of foreign records, and second, of the popularity of the English band Japan in the early 1980s. Though of course not quite current, it's a great window into the subtle processes that can dictate how culture travels between modern societies.

What Mitsui primarily focuses on is the fact that by the 1970s, bidding wars between Japanese labels had made artists already well-known in the West progressively less profitable as higher and higher royalties and advances were promised.  This led to Japanese labels more aggressively scouting unknown international talent, who still held a broad appeal for the Japanese market. Particularly interesting to me is that Japan were essentially an art-rock band, but they managed to attract a teenybopper audience in Japan because of their heavily made-up, androgynous image.  This audience supported them through three early albums that didn't sell particularly well in England or America.  David Sylvian, once a member of Japan, is now one of the leading avant-garde musicians in the West, a position he might not have achieved without the financial support of the Japanese market.

Cases of bands not popular in their home turf succeeding wildly in Japan are so common they've become a cliche.  Mitsui cites the early success of Kiss in Japan, and the paradigm case is the band Mr. Big, who are essentially unknown in the West but still tour incessantly in Japan.

More recently, there's the case of James Blake.  My general impression is that while he's become quite well known in the U.K., he's definitely a niche product in the U.S., pushed by fringe indie websites like Pitchfork and Gorilla vs. Bear.  In Japan, while still not a star, his extremely bleak and fairly abstract album has reached the 70th spot on the Oricon album charts since its release about six weeks ago (I'm really wishing I had a full Oricon subscription right now).  According to an interview with Ele-King, his import singles were selling out back in February, the kind of thing that builds great buzz for a domestic release.  That qualifies him to represent a sort of indie/underground version of the more thoroughly dominant, but also clearly more straightforwardly marketable, likes of Kiss and Mr. Big.
Courtesy Kishimen

It's not entirely clear why or how this happened.  He's backed here by the Universal International label, but there aren't overwhelming signs of where that power is going.  He's had prominent listening station placement in Tower Shibuya, but that's not something that requires a major label's backing.   He was recently featured on the cover of Sound and Recording magazine, a very prominent magazine but hardly directed at the masses of people buying records.  It's hard to argue that the music itself is in tune with the "Japanese market" as a whole, since that's overrun with a pestilence of throwaway pop that seems, at least superficially, to be satisfying public demand.

This may have been one moment of a trend I would like to substantiate.  What if, as the music industry as a whole declines (and it is declining in Japan, albeit more slowly than in the U.S.), artists who people are more deeply invested in decline less steeply than more disposable pop?  What if owning an album like "James Blake" is more intimately tied up with identity creation than owning an AKB48 record?  And of course, that's where my little hypothesis breaks down, because it's undeniable that the otaku gain a great deal of identity from their purchase (sometimes en masse) of AKB records and merchandise.  The fact that it is inherently less valuable and interesting than James Blake, that these people are building their identities on sand, doesn't seem to make their activities any less persistent over time.  In that context, the question shifts - we have to ask not, "What made this strange James Blake record successful?" but the rather more depressing, "What kept this excellent James Blake record from being a much, much bigger success?"

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Red Bandana Lab, Ochiai Soup, 7/2/2011

Had a really fantastic time Saturday at Soup, normally a home for experimental music, this time more focused on political messages and satire. The first act was a Ukelele/drag singer.  The prominence of broad drag on the Japanese radical left is something I've only just really noticed, and I haven't quite processed it. It's particularly interesting because the same scene is home to a higher-than-normal concentration of transgendered people.  It was a lot of fun and in good humor, but still I wonder how those in the audience (a couple) felt about seeing this:

June 2011

The main attraction was Red Bandana Lab, who I knew from their appearances at numerous sound demos going back years. They really blew me away, both with their otherworldly track selections and MC Yuso's furious styles.

June 2011

The event attracted a huge swath of Tokyo's radical left.

June 2011

Kei of Irregular Rhythm Asylum

June 2011

Taku from Shirouto no Ran

June 2011

Photographer Goso Tominaga.  I wrote a mini-essay for a book of his pictures coming out sometime in the fall.

In conclusion, stay away from awamori, that stuff is dangerous.

Event Announcement: Understanding (and improving) Independent Music in Japan

From The Ground Up: Possibilities and Obstacles for Independents in the Japanese Music Industry

A conversation with Hiroki Sakaida of Pop Group Records

Toukyou Geijitsu Daigaku (Geidai), Kitasenju Campus, Lecture Room 1, 18:30-20:00, Tuesday January 12th

[I've put together a fairly informal event for next week, and I sincerely hope you can attend.  Information follows.]

In 2005 Hiroki Sakaida independently produced and released “Kaikoo,” a DVD chronicling the activities of a group of hip hop and electronic artists in Tokyo.  Building on the huge success of that release, he founded Pop Group records, which has become the home to a wide variety of artists, from hip hop to punk rock and R & B.  Pop Group’s aim and philosophy is to introduce innovative artists with an exploratory spirit into the Japanese mainstream.  With an entrepreneurial ethos and constant eye for new channels that can carry the label’s message, Sakaida has grown the business consistently over the last five years, including establishing the annual Kaikoo festival.

However, considerable obstacles face efforts to operate outside the traditional channels of the Japanese music business.  Many independent artists perceive an “indie glass ceiling,” a limit to success due largely to the cozy relationships between mass channels, such as television, and powerful artist management companies and large labels.  Independent labels such as Zankyou and Rose that have launched the careers of successful artists, but such cases seem comparatively rarer than in, for example, the post-Nirvana U.S. music market, where the route from indie to major is more well-worn.

In an informal conversation format, Sakaida will discuss his experience founding and expanding an independent label in Japan, and consider how infrastructure, policy, and culture have impacted his efforts to champion new aesthetics.  We will attempt to draw lessons from his experience about what changes to these conditions, if any, might make it easier to foster and spread adventurous Japanese popular music.

The conversation will be in Japanese, with English translation available as needed.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sleep of Ages - Hercules Against the Moon

Sleep of Ages - Hercules Against the Moon-Men by Sleep Of Ages

I've been trawling Soundcloud (or is that trolling?) while I do a last mad set of JLPT drilling.  This track in particular jumped out at me.  Of course, if you're not into noise, it's unlikely to connect, so enter at your own risk.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Glaciers of Ice: "DUBWIS6"

DUBWIS6 by Glaciers of Ice

I am legitimately proud of this.  I haven't got a clue how it happened.

Does it count as 'self promotion' if it's on my own blog?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Characterizing the Japanese Music Industry

I've been trying lately, as I move toward the end of my time in Japan (for now) to do a little summing up - to think about what I've learned, how I can structure it meaningfully, and what holes I want to plug before I leave.  Much of what I've learned revolves around the daily lives of musicians, but I want to place that within the broader context of the general conditions within which they're working.  So what can I say about Japan as a context for the production of music?  As an initial stab, the Japanese situation is one of:

1. Intense stratification and hierarchical control.  For musicians who want to reach a mass audience, there are no strong alternatives to the major labels and management companies.  For a variety of reasons (including strong-arm tactics by dominant management companies and, just maybe, high-level ties to organized crime), it is almost impossible to access television except through these channels. Where in the U.S. we've become used to seeing independent musicians on late-night talk shows, hearing their music on commercials, etc, there's no real equivalent to this in Japan.  Meanwhile, for musicians who bow to the structure, management companies tightly control their talent (even those with genuine musical talent), approving and limiting their releases as well as non-music projects.

Do you really even need to listen to this?
2. Partly as a result, there is Palpable Contempt for Mass Audiences.  This is not a cultural constant - Japanese pop music from the sixties and seventies was of high quality and often aesthetically or culturally progressive. But music of the recent past is simply insulting, pandering to an (admittedly often true) image of mouth-breathing otaku and blandly disinterested housewives. Of course, AKB is the apex of this (the recent CGI affair is only a rather patent manifestation of the plasticine idiocy they represent), but it's everywhere - teenage girls singing meaningless lyrics over cookie-cutter tracks.  Even artists who use visuals promising something interesting usually . . . aren't.

3.Thorough Domestication, at least at the top. The very biggest Western artists still get some traction (for instance, currently, Lady Gaga), and there is a genuine 'Korean Wave' of bands like Girls Generation.  And if you look at the culture more broadly, of course, there's a huge engagement with, in particular, Western (mostly American) pop, rock, jazz, soul, and hip hop from the fifties through nineties.  But charts are dominated by domestic artists. This might not be a problem, maybe not even notable, except that this insularity is self-fulfilling in the export market - the failure of the Japanese pop machinery to engage with global aesthetic developments over the last ten years has left Japanese pop relevant abroad only to a marginal, if not exactly small, group of international otaku. Again, this doesn't apply nearly as much to indie and underground acts, for example bands like Boris, Acid Mothers Temple, and Melt Banana who are active, relevant contributors to global music.

Monday, June 20, 2011

International Transport Volume 5A - Clean it Up And Dub It

Kaori 6.19.11 021
(The idea behind these mixes - of pointing out little-known American music for Japanese audiences, and vice versa - has been inconsistently executed.  But now we're doing it for real - this is part 1 of a matched set, and the second part should go up in no more than a few days.  This one's for my Japanese friends.)

International Transport 5 - Clean It Up and Dub It

ここに集まった欧米に作った曲には、最近も、ちょっと前の曲も入ているのに、ほとんどダッブの生気からインスピレーションもらった。The Weekndは基本的にR&B,ピーキングラライトスはIndie世界から来たん、HolyOtherは多分テクノと言うんだけど、三つは似ているようにダッブ芸実使う。

俺は最近得にテキサスをはじめアメリカの南から2000年代に出たヒップホップにはまっている。”Screw”と言うスタイルは日本にほとんど知られていないけど、最近サイケデリック世界にも音響している。特にSalemというバンドを影響された。スローはキーワード。いわゆる”Syrup”麻薬がこういう雰囲気の作るのに強い影響あった。 ”Still Tippin’”は私が一番好きのScrew風な曲。

ダッブや、Screw、「ノイズ」もこのミックスの中心です。ClamsCasinoと言う、日本にまだ知られていないトラックメイカーはノイズだらけ、けどフックも信じられない。同じ用に、ビッグジャッスの「Dedication 2 Peo」はある表面にきれいの逆けど、美しいになる。

Playlist Next

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Best Music Podcasts

Note: I now blog at  It's much prettier to look at, and more focused on fun stuff like weird fiction, extreme music, and awesome art.  Also check out my Tumblr at

As a city knit together by public transportation and lots of walking, Tokyo has made me more of a podcast junky than ever.  And of course, what I'm looking for most of all is music-related stuff.  Strangely, there's not exactly a wealth of greatness out there, but here's what I've found:

Sound Opinions (Itunes)

Sound Opinions is the only podcast I've found that actually engages with music, in the deepest sense - talking about it, interviewing musicians, reviewing history, putting things in context, and making critical judgments.  It's fantastic that it exists, but it's a shame it's so unique, particularly since its hosts are well into middle age, and while they tend to have a great sense of perspective, they're not very adventurous.

And if I can resurrect an outdated slur, they're the very definition of "rockists."

Gorilla Vs. Bear

Gorilla Vs. Bear is an amazing site, featuring new tracks daily.  But my favorite feature is the monthly mix, which compiles the best stuff from their posts.  It's a reminder of how nice it is to put your faith in an expert curator, against the current norm of always being your own DJ.

Altered Zones

Most of what goes for GVSB is true here too, except that Altered Zones hosts a series of guest mixers to produce their monthly mix series.  Recent standouts include John McEntire and Ford and Lopatin.

Experience Music Project Oral Histories (Itunes)

Not technically a podcast (it's part of ItunesU) but exactly the sort of thing I'd love to see more of - lineup includes conversations with Krist Novoselic and Henry Rollins.

Dublab (Itunes)

A series of live recordings by of-the-minute bands.  As the name implies, skews towards downbeat, lo-fi grooves. I can specifically recommend the great set by L.A. Vampires.

XLR8R (Itunes)

A pretty mixed bag, as they frequently (and surprisingly) throw in some rather lame rock, but I still dip into it every once in a while.

You might have noticed this is a rather short list.  It defies sense, but there's a genuine dearth of compelling and creative music podcasts.  If you have other suggestions, post them in the comments!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Japanese Horror-Ween 3: Kazuo Umezu

This is roughly my 200th post at Minds Like Knives - I have several unpublished drafts that Blogger counts as posts, so I can't be quite sure, but since I'm excited about this post (as opposed to the alcohol reviews preceding it) let's call it number 200. Yaaaaaay! Now on to the dismemberment.

I doubt he dressed like this in the fifties.
Or for that matter, the eighties.
Kazuo Umezu is a weird one - not just a weird guy, though he would seem to be that, but a weird career arc, which somehow links into the weird arc of Japanese culture over the last fifty years.  His first well-known work, and still considered something of a minor classic, is Nekome Kozo, or Cat-Eyed Boy.  It's a spooky but fairly innocent story about a supernatural child who goes around bumping into ghosts and spiders and assorted lighthearted symbols of the weird and scary, in a halloween-childish sort of way.  It's honestly not to far from what you'd imagine Miyazaki would come up with if he was contracted to write a "ghost story."

But as time went on, Umezu was given the opportunity - maybe even the impetus - to explore some profoundly dark places.  I recently picked up 'Kami no Hidari-te Akuma no Migi-te' ('God's Left Hand, Devil's Right Hand'), and it contains three of the more deeply unnerving stories I've come across this side of Lovecraft.  Moreover, these are stories that, if not actually intended for children, maintain (intentionally or not) many of the tropes of children's literature, leaving the adult reader with the impression that they've come across something that quite possibly deserves to be banned or burned - except it's four decades too late.

This is the first page of 'Kami no Hidari-te.' It requires a little context - you see, this is a nine year old girl getting her eyes gouged out by a pair of scissors from the inside.  It turns out this is a dream sequence, but generally Umezu doesn't pussyfoot or dodge the disturbing elements of his stories.  Most notably, the second story in 'Kami' begins with the totally unprovoked plot of a group of third graders to brutally murder their teacher so they can "see her true character" after she dies.  Child characters prove themselves capable of astonishing violence again and again in this book - sometimes heroic, just as often cruel and malicious.  And even the 'heroic' acts are often justified in ways that would get real-world kids locked up - for instance, setting a bear trap in a woman's car because of something seen in a dream.

The grotesque sequences just keep coming, and if you've got a taste for artful shock, they alone will keep you engrossed.  For instance, while it's been done to death since (see Stephen King's cockroaches), one might consider these sequences of full-body spider infestation visionary.

What elevates 'Kami no Hidari-te' beyond mere shock, though, is the narrative surrealism.  In many cases, the conciets are hard to summarize, which in my book is an endorsement. In the first of the three stories, an extended set piece revolves around the idea that 1) a young girl is being possessed by the vengeful spirits of murdered children, 2) the inside of her body has become a battle ground between those children's murderers and the young girl's brother, who is some kind of dream-warrior, and 3) the dead children are ejecting everything from newspapers to tricycles through her into the world, without killing her.

It's gory to an almost mind-numbing extreme, but the plot keeps things moving along and never allows any image to get stale.  The same effect holds throughout the book, especially in the third story, which involves the genuinely surreal and delightfully unexplained flexibility of the boundary between dream and reality.  The protagonist (the same young boy from the first two stories) at one point enters a dream state, transforms into a crow to kill a spider-queen by ripping her tongue out, and then awakes to spit out the mangled corpse of a spider.

And as I said, what's most insane about all of this is that it relies so heavily on conceits that imply that the intended audience is preteen.  The same young boy character (Sou, meaning roughly "idea") is the  protagonist of all the stories.  His older sister never believes him when he says he's seen something (in a dream or reality, which ultimately become interchangeable), and adults, similarly, seem to distrust something about him.  Both of these (like the inarticulate adults of 'Peanuts') seem intended to appeal to actual ten year old boys.  Sometimes the kid protagonist is actually right, but then there's also the time that he murders his third-grade teacher, in the real world, without any remorse or consequences.

In short, if it was ever actually intended for children, this is a deeply fucked up book.

If we're talking about adults, though, it's amazing and highly recommended.  This is a recent reprint, with this kickass day-glo cover and a lot of rich and varied partial to full color schemes scattered on the newsprint within.  It's a fat book, but even with my middling Japanese it's a pretty quick read (and that's actually another disturbing point, because the simplicity of the language seems to have too-young readers at least partially in mind).  Ultimately, if you're sick in the head and enraptured by monsters, death, infestation, mutation, and body trauma, this is an absolute must-have.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

YoYo-C: Yokohama Reggae

A recommendation straight from Rumi, a nice bit of rootsy reggae from Yokohama's YoYo-C:

Booze Views: Sparx

boozies Sadly, there's no direct relation between this beauty and the similarly-named, now-dead-to-me American caffiene-booze cocktail.  But they are spiritual brothers, with the shared aim of getting drinkers as quickly and thoroughly messed as possible.  At 9% alcohol, this is basically like drinking two Chu-hi at once, with fewer weird stares from the other people at Hello Work.

The tradeoff, of course, is that you can taste the grain alcohol seeping out from behind the chemically-generated Lemon Pledge like some flavor tech's unsuccessfully repressed unconscious memory of an alcoholic absentee father.  Drinkable, but only if you have a robust and durable sense of self-worth.

Booze Views: Cocktail Partner - Mango and Orange

The name of this concoction is deceptive for several reasons.  It's not a cocktail 'partner,' since it already contains booze - it's just a 'cocktail'.  Second, while it emphasizes its fruitiness, it only contains 2.8% fruit juice (if you're annoyed by 'fruit cocktails' in the U.S., Japan is ten times worse about that sort of nonsense).

boozies And finally, this drink is only a partner to you, the drinker, in the sense that Ike was Tina Turner's "partner."  While the initial sweetness may be beguiling, it's all going to get messy later.

The first noticeable thing is a bitter, tonic-y, almost medicinal taste.  It's not overtly disgusting, it's just so utterly fake you'd be as well off pouring Everclear into Kool-Aid.

That said, I finished the whole can.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Booze Views: Umeshu Jelly

All you need to know about this abomination is that it says you should "Shake Before Drinking."

Why, God? Why would you visit such punishment upon mankind?  Umeshu itself is a mixed blessing - a plum wine/liqueur that's very delicious and very sweet, like a more natural version of a wine spritzer.  It's enjoyable like Diablo II - after a couple of fun hours you're going to feel really bad about yourself.

So anyway, Jelly.  It's one of the weirder trends in Japanese drinks, alcoholic and otherwise.  People who don't read Japanese are at some point certain to end up with something that looks like grape juice, sports drink, or even cola, and find their first sip full of what feels like curdled milk.

In short, as with most of mankind's sufferings, this is one we have visited upon ourselves.  Drinking this is a reminder that I could live in Japan for a decade and there are still things I would never understand.  It's also very tempting to see it as a sign that the Japanese are, as a nation and a people, of the devil.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Booze Views: Calpis Makkori

I keep things pretty serious around here, so reviews of alcoholic drinks may seem too ephemeral.  But let's not forget that this is actually an incredibly depressing subject!  You see, I am a deeply flawed human being.  Along with billions of others, I deal with my imperfection by periodically blunting my consciousness, papering over the cracks in my own facade with a pleasant haze.  In Japan, this is most often done with booze - and as perhaps the world's most consumerist society, booze comes in a dizzying and ever-changing spectrum of varieties and flavors.  Won't you come with me, then, for some help in choosing how to reconcile yourself to the inherent contradictions of postmodern risk society?

Say hello to Calpis Makkori, the very idea of which is revolting.  Calpis is a Gatorade-esque amino-restorative sports drink, and makkori is a milky-white Korean rice liquor, like a thicker version of sake.  Makkori has made a huge play for the Japanese booze market lately, reflecting the ongoing, broad "Korean Wave" that has included an incredibly diversity of kimchee brands, bibinba fixings made fresh in every supermarket, and (let's not forget) a seemingly bottomless love of Korean pop stars and actors.

Surprisingly, once you get over the idea of drinking alcohol-laced baby formula, this becomes a cheerful suggestion that another, more harmonious world is possible.  It's flat, sweet, and surprisingly fruity.  Could be a good summer jam.

New Glaciers of Ice: "Low (inst)"

Low (inst) by Glaciers of Ice

What may superficially look like a fun side project or even a "hobby" insidiously links back to my professional life.  Making music isn't just important in its own right, but is also a way to better understand the musicians that I write about.  But as I get better at it myself, these rationalizations and diversions become less and less important.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why Isn't Chiyori Famous? or, a Grainy Endoscopy of the Japanese Music Industry

I have plenty to say here, but let's let her speak for herself first, in this video from a performance last night at a small club called Bed in Ikebukuro (Western Tokyo):

So, now you'll have at least some small sense of where I'm coming from.  This is a woman with gifts in the realm of an Amy Winehouse or Adele (admittedly, this video doesn't quite do those justice), but with a fierce and unique, subtle strangeness that she seems barely aware or in control of (a fact this particular song does highlight).  The question is, why is she playing a tiny club like Bed, after putting out a full-length album on a relatively high-profile indie, and putting in years worth of work building a series of events and nights (including this monthly event, Zettai-Mu, itself)?  As she said herself when I walked in last night, Bed is "a pretty ghetto club," though in Tokyo that means more 'marginal and cheap' than 'sketchy and dangerous' (You can read her blog here (Japanese), and hear a few more polished recordings here).

In fact, I had a far better time there last night than I did on Friday at Air, which had a vastly superior soundsystem, some great DJs, and all the personality and atmosphere of a Soviet pharmacy.  Air is one of what I would call Tokyo's "listening clubs," places including Daikanyama Unit, WWW in Shibuya, and Liquidroom.  They have the most mind-bogglingly incredible sound systems (I'm willing to bet) of any club their size on the planet.  And they're all beautiful.  But they cater to an aggressively upscale trendy market (editors note: decidedly not a 'hipster' market, but young professionals).  They most often feel like a collection of strangers, though there are exceptions (for instance, when Liquidroom hosts smaller events in its upstairs lounge).

On the other hand, there are smaller places, quite literally on the outskirts, like Heavy Sick Zero in Nakano, Bed in Ikebukuro, or Family, which is able to exist in Shibuya only because it's literally the size of my apartment.  These clubs host smaller, sometimes stranger, always more amateurish shows, for crowds that tend to be more intimate.  They're also usually cheaper (entrance to Bed on Saturday was 1/2 to 1/3 the charge for Air on Friday, even though Air was basically just a DJ night and Bed had three bands).

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Second Lost Generation - The Story of One Wandering Japanese Engineer

At first it might not seem that cataclysmic that only 90.1 percent of Japanese college grads had jobs lined up on graduation.  But the current slump is likely to create a "lost generation" in which large numbers of probably high achievers are completely or largely locked out of the conventional job market, and forced into part-time, temporary, or international work.  That's because of a hiring system that only gives seekers one shot - in the period just after they graduate.  Those who either want to take some time off, or who slip through the hiring cracks despite a sincere effort, are out of luck.  I spent about eight months after my (alread unconventionally late) graduation living on a friends' couch, substitute teaching, then hitchhiking across the U.S. and travelling in Mexico.  If I had been Japanese, I'd have been screwed.

I had a brief conversation last night with a guy who has actually had to leave Japan twice for economic reasons.  He was part of a previous 'lost generation' of the mid-1990s, and had ended up living and working in New Jersey for several years as a young man, including being in the National Guard, which he told me was a possibility for permanent residents - news to me.  This is of course pretty adventurous, and he seemed like he'd banked some pretty amazing experiences, but what he wasn't doing during the most dynamic phase of his life was contributing to Japanese economy and society.

He did eventually get back to Japan and, with the experience accrued (in engineering) in America, got a job with the Japanese arm of a European company.  And then came the Lehmann shock, and the Tokyo office got folded and combined with the Shanghai branch.  So he was back on his ass, and subsequently couldn't find work for a year.  Now he's doing some (frankly illegal) entrepreneuring, running a company that scans books from Amazon Japan for use on e-readers, since there is as yet no e-book market there.  He had imported a Kindle from the U.S. (which I've seen before but this time particularly struck me as impressive) and clearly had a lot to offer in terms of insight and innovation to Japanese society.  Unfortunately (as confirmed by the small anarchist bar where I ran into him) he's now been almost totally relegated to the fringes, where it's unlikely he'll have an easy path to making those contributions.

In the economic tumult following Japan's largest natural disaster, there will be more like my new friend, having to improvise to survive outside of the mainstream of Japanese business culture.  The question is whether there will be any more second chances for them, or any new effort by the nation to make the most of its infamously dwindling workforce.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Photo Roundup: Nikko

Late last week I took a quick trip to Nikko, famous for its monkeys, hot springs, and an ornate shrine to the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Late May 050

The monkey thing is real.  Unfortunately it seems like contact with humans has not been great for their dispositions - just moments after I took this photo, these monkeys were aggressively harassing and chasing a woman in her sixties.  Hard to imagine anything more terrifying.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Regarding Workers

Post-Quake 038

I took the above photo a couple of days after the 3.11 earthquake, mainly to illustrate the amazing speed with which Tokyo returned to everyday normality. The guy in the middle is just one subtype of an eternal Tokyo presence - the sidewalk promoter. He's giving out flyers (and probably tissue packages) to promote a contact lens shop, but you'll also see people doing much the same work in service of Italian restaurants, Karaoke boxes, manga kissaten, Korean barbecues, and hostess clubs (including the vile subspecies who harass passing young women to try and lure them into the sex industry).

I've lately been thinking about how little I understand the human element of a job like this. It's just one of a variety of undeniably crappy jobs you see people doing every day in a city like Tokyo, from fast-food server to Donki clerk to construction-site traffic-director.  The last time I worked a job of this sort was about a year ago, when I did short stints as a parking-lot attendant and line-cook as part of my confused attempts to deal with unexpected funding shortfalls in my last year of grad school.  Both were part-time jobs, and the line cook job was actually a hell of a lot of fun, but  I ended up quitting both jobs with no notice in moments of frustration and/or overwork.

I had that option, because I knew I was on my way to other things, but I was nonetheless able to hold onto some (facile, superficial) sense of solidarity with "workers," thanks to my cushioned, provisional version of poverty, and the genuinely merciless grind of grad school, in some ways undeniably more demanding and even exploitative than this sort of service job.

Now, though, I'm realizing how much that illusion of lived solidarity was insulating me from a real consideration of the challenges posed by living in a mercilessly stratified society.  Job-wise, I'm now living a ridiculous fantasy, which if not quite financially secure does happen to include total freedom.  I'm suddenly not sure how to feel about the legions of workers through whom I float, to whose daily struggle I find it more and more difficult to truly relate.

Food Fetish: Nikko, Yuba, and Localism in Japanese Junk Food

Towards the end of last week I spent a couple of days in Nikko, a nice relaxing solo trip.  I made a point of eating every variety of the local specialty, yuba, that I could get my hands on.  Yuba is made from the curd skimmed during the process of making soy milk, and is particularly associated with Nikko because it was a source of protein for the vegetarian yamabushi (mountain monks) that populated its famous shrines (and, in smaller numbers, still do).

It's more appetizing than it sounds, making this a tasty chance to trace an archetype of Japanese food localism.  In short, this localism is mostly a marketing strategy aimed at travelers that provides nominal variation while still keeping things comfortably familiar.  To wit:

Late May 046

A typical bowl of soba, you say? Not at all - it's yuba soba, transformed by those yellowish rolls.  This was the tastiest of the variations I tried, partly because it was eaten in a small restaurant at the end of a five-hour hike.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Interview: Strotter Inst.

At the beginning of the month, I was lucky enough to get my socks blown off by Strotter Inst, a.k.a. Christoph Hess, a Nordic mad scientist who has modified a series of turntables into some retrgrade form of drum machine, and feeds them fragments of destitute twelve-inch corpses to produce hypnotic industrial polyphony.  I was so enthused I took the time to send him a few questions, and he was generous enough to answer them. (All photos courtesy of Strotter's website).

Q: This was your first time to Japan, what did you think about it?

A: I just stayed for one week, but I have had a great time impressed by the whole town, meeting all these nice and friendly people. And it was big fun to play again with SXQ from Tokyo, after we met on a Russian tour in

Q: Are the audiences here much different than what you’re used to?

A: As I am lucky to play in very different kind of venues and scenes, I'm used to very different audiences. But I had hardly seen such an enthusiastic one like in Tokyo. Another point is the volume the concerts were played and no one was using earplugs...


As a way of (deluding myself into thinking that I'm) practicing Japanese, I picked up a couple of Japanese-language video games. One I just started (Referenced above) begins with a forty-minute (at least) narrative sequence. According to wikipedia, the designers of this game were not drug into the streets and beaten to death upon its release. The only possible conclusion is that Wikipedia is, just as has been said for so long, an unreliable resource.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Photo Roundup: May 2011

A few highlights from the past few weeks:

May 2011 045

Melt Banana today, 5/14

May 2011 043

A really stunning juggler in Ueno park

May 2011 014

A famous mural by Okamoto Taro in Shibuya Station. Apparently the central figure is the inspiration for the apocalyptic robots of the Evangelion cartoons.

May 2011 007

Slovenia's most popular rapper, at a small bar in Koenji called One.

May 2011 006

Noise and generative video at Soup, Koenji.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

BRK(L)N Connections: Hip Hop and Noise and Music and Technology

Tomorrow from about 7:30 at the fantastic club Superdeluxe, the leftfield rapper Killer Bong teams up with Japanoise stalwart Hair Stylistics – Masaya Nakahara, formerly known as Violent Onsen Geisha – to do . . . something. I’m not sure what. But apparently K-Bong does it pretty frequently, and has performed in the past with a lot of other noise artists. There’s a three-way collaboration coming up in July between Bong, DJ Baku, and Merzbow (more info as it comes my way).

The connection between hip hop and noise is also being mined across the Pacific, where the single hottest rap crew of the moment, OFWGKTA, made a big portion of its bones in affiliation with the underground psych blogosphere, sites like Gorilla Vs. Bear that mainly traffic in spacey drone-pop and the softer-edged, lo-fi, Occidental version of ‘noise.’ Another current example is the group Shabbazz Palaces, who make rap that’s stretchy and dubbed-out enough to sit comfortably next to neo-hippies like Peaking Lights and Grouper.

But this is deeper than any of-the-moment trend. Hip hop and experimental music have been worshipping at each other’s altar since the early eighties, a source traceable backwards not just in the self-conscious path through DALEK, Cannibal Ox, cLOUDDEAD, Kid 606, Dr. Octagon, Maquinquaye, and Bill Laswell* (*figuring out why exactly he’s terrible deserves a separate post), but all over the pop charts and the hearts of the dismissed “old school.”

Here’s Rammellzee’s epic “Exterior Street” (1985)

Yin-Yang Twins "Salt Shaker" (2003), which still basically sounds like Can. I could also have linked J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” (2007), the stupidest extremely weird song I can think of.

And Lil B’s “Motivation” (2011), with Clams Casino mining psych to give us one of the greatest tracks of all time.

Why do these aliens keep surfacing in a genre that we tend to believe we’ve tamed? More than some weird micro-trend that’s kept alive by willful eccentrics, this is the inevitable return of the repressed – hip hop may have gone pop, but at its root are the same forces that have been explored more self-consciously by “art music” in both its conservatory and basement forms. Hip hop is a product of technology as much as of music – its lineage stretches to the turntable and sampler no less than to James Brown and Lee Perry (and there’s no Lee Perry without the reel-to-reel, a.k.a. the turntable before the turntable).

While Morton Subotnick, Robert Moog, and various inventors and entrepreneurs were pushing the boundaries of audio technology, the beatmatchers and backscrathers of the Bronx were encountering and harnessing the potentials that had already been released into the world – new forms of recording, playback, amplification, and (later) sampling and synthesis. But they weren’t just going with the flow – they were breaking things, overloading them, detourning them: the “scratch” is a more radical analog to John Cage’s prepared piano (more radical because it entirely reconceived the purpose of the turntable, though this was itself a repeat of another of Cage’s accomplishments). Add to that the fact that while rapping did derive partly from Jamaican toasting, which derived, along with reggae, from American soul and R&B (and thus has at least a link with rock and roll), another major source was the patter of DJs on southern black radio stations – here again another cultural innovation driven powerfully by technology (for more on this, including some amazing transcriptions of proto-rap from the 1950s, see Roni Sarig’s Third Coast).

There's something here about the relationship between the avante-garde and the everyday. Did experimentalists like Luc Ferrari somehow prepare the way for hip hop? There are, of course, a few direct connections, particularly how much the Bronx loved Kraftwerk. And never underestimate the determination of a music nerd to self-educate, even if they're mired in abject poverty. But I've never read any indication that people like Herc were consciously aware of those developments. The more plausible, and coincidentally much more interesting hypothesis would be that hip hop and noise are parallel outgrowths of our media and technological environment, though certainly inflected by cultural differences. The consequence is that whenever hip hop gets truly self-reflective, it has a strong tendency to turn into noise and go underground. Just about as often, the pop impulse in hip hop forms a channel for the welling up of strange machine artifacts into the mainstream of American life.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

5.7 Anti-Nuclear Demo: A Simplistic Message Fuels a Profound Event

I've already waited too long to set down some version of my very intense experience at Saturday's anti-nuclear rally.  The numbers coming back from news organizations paint it as a bit of a disappointment - partly due to rain, partly due to a major victory handed to activists by PM Kan just the day before, in the form of the ordered shutdown of a reactor in central Japan.  Speaking strictly for myself, I think the core message of the demo - "No Nukes!" - is almost childishly simple, perhaps distracting from the really constructive project of promoting renewable energy, not to mention the more profound and radical possibilities for overhauling industrial capitalism (perish the thought).

All that aside, this was a transformative event.  I came to it as someone who has attended a lot of marches put on by the central organizers of this demo, Shirouto no Ran.  They frequently have demo/parties on May Day and generally are interested in poverty issues - but always with a slightly confrontational edge, including a profusion of absurdism and rnoisy music, which helped these marches palpably alienate passersby.  This one was different.

Hangenpatsu Demo 404

All along the route, there were both people who seem to have broken off from the march (as seen here), and those who just happened to be passing by, saw what was happening, and smiled, waved, or in some cases started cheering along. The energy was amazing.

Another great thing was how wide a spectrum of people was represented, from kids to older folks, and not just fringe or freaky people. Many of these people had never participated in this sort of demonstration before.

Hangenpatsu Demo 209

Hangenpatsu Demo 205

This is a huge contrast with the regular Shirouto no Ran demo, which is made up largely of punk rockers, dadaists, and other weirdos (not that there weren't some of those here).

Hangenpatsu Demo 124

I suddenly found myself with a new appreciation for all those slightly alienated May Day marches, whose effectiveness I've always been pretty skeptical of. They were dress rehearsals for this - an issue powerful enough to draw in people, who just need experienced organizers to give them an outlet for their anxiety and anger.

Hangenpatsu Demo 077

Hangenpatsu Demo 145