From The Japanese Underground: A Playlist

Jun 14, 2018
Originally published on June 14, 2018 8:43 am

There are two stories hidden beneath the mix of music I've compiled here, each of which has been important in developing my thoughts on Japan's music scene over the fifteen years or so that I've been involved with it.

The first is about the label I run from my home in Tokyo: Call And Response Records is pretty insignificant when weighed against Japan's overall indie music landscape, but the events, bands and compilation albums I've worked on under its banner have been the main way I've seen for myself how the country's music scene works.

The second story concerns the artists around me who I've admired and enjoyed as a fan, and whose various circumstances and approaches I've been able to learn from, either by reinforcing my own experiences, or by offering alternative paths.

The song "Inori" by Nakigao Twintail — which opens the mix — is the one that inspired the title to my book, with its refrain of, "Yamete yaru! Konna bando, yamete yaru!" ("I'm gonna quit! I'm gonna quit this band!") and its snotty lyrics complaining about a soul-sucking world of endless poverty and awful, boring people. It encapsulates a feeling anyone who spends a lot of time in the music scene will recognize.

Bands like Mosquito and The Students were among the ones that first sucked me into the Tokyo underground, both having easily identifiable pop tendencies that they each expressed far differently, all complicated through a variety of oblique strategies.

While Mosquito's and The Students' influences drew, to a large extent, from the quirkier ends of J-pop and major-label rock both from Japan and elsewhere, bands like Deraciné and Panicsmile came from a more defiantly underground background. Coming to grips with their twisted, tortured takes on hardcore and alt-rock, respectively, was my real introduction to a music scene wherein I started to feel I could one day be at home.

One of the problems many people encounter with Japanese music is that it is often mistaken for an inferior copy of similar Western music, when in fact it's trying to do something rather different, based on conventions that have developed along superficially similar, but internally distinct and parallel tracks.

As well as being thrilling acts in their own right, bands like The Warm (whose vocalist Hata now records as Soloist Anti Pop Totalization) and Extruders also had more familiar '70s/'80s post-punk influences, which were like a life vest for me in my early days, adrift in a sea of half-formed context.

While some of these bands appeared on early Call And Response compilations, it was Hyacca and Mir who really kicked off the label for me in earnest. Each had its own take on post-punk without being a direct imitation, and both featured twin male/female vocals, which is a dynamic I've always found interesting. (A formative early live experience when I was in Bristol in the late '90s was seeing the amazing Prolapse, who everyone should immediately listen to).

Mir, but especially Hyacca, set a loose template for a sort of noisy, New Wave and post-punk-influenced, lo-fi alternative rock that often looked for moments of pop in unexpected places. Looking back, I feel that subsequent Call And Response signings like Jebiotto, Zibanchinka, P-iPLE, Hysteric Picnic and the aforementioned Nakigao Twintail all appealed to me by offering some variation of this mixture.

Of those bands, Hysteric Picnic are interesting to me because they're a rare band who eventually, after changing their name to Burgh, took the step of signing with the much bigger (though still indie) label P-Vine. Hiromi Kajiwara from Hyacca also plays guitar in the wonderful avant-pop trio Miu Mau, who took a similar path, graduating from their own label Girlfriend Records to the bigger Vybe Records. I'm always curious to see how well people I know do on bigger labels compared to more DIY releases, and with Miu Mau and Hysteric Picnic/Burgh both bands seemed to accept the slightly greater reach without really changing their behavior as bands.

The Falsettos are a rather different case. After signing with P-Vine, they threw themselves into the process with an enormous amount of energy, producing expensive-looking music videos, engaging enthusiastically with radio promotion and adjusting their live bookings to reach as many different kinds of people as possible.

Other artists have taken different routes in attempting to break free of the indie ghetto. Whisper-voiced indie-pop/post-punk act She Talks Silence signed a management deal with a talent agency to help guide its career in a more productive direction, while hyperactive avant-bubblegum pop artist HNC (a.k.a. Hazel Nuts Chocolate) has recently retreated from center-stage to lend her talents to a teenage model called Manon.

How successful these acts have been is hard to know, but often what matters most in keeping a band alive isn't so much the money they're making — even relatively successful bands still work day jobs — as the feeling of motion. Conversely, the thing that kills bands, above all else, is inertia.

That's true for labels and fans, too, and I wouldn't have been able to keep Call And Response going for so long without constantly and actively looking for new things. Hyacca, Zibanchinka and Nakigao Twintail were all bands I released after finding them in the southwestern island of Kyushu, far from my home in Tokyo. Meanwhile, one of my most exciting finds as a fan was the extraordinary Umiuma, from northeastern Sendai, who released one superb album before the tragic and sudden deaths of two key members.

At home in Tokyo, too, the bands I work with (and hang out with) on a regular basis have a big influence in the direction the label turns. So often, it's not some vision or ideal that drives the music that gets released so much as who has the motivation and willingness to do something. Despite my bias towards '80s British post-punk, the enthusiasm of bands like Tropical Death and illMilliliter for U.S.-based bands like Bitch Magnet, Shellac, Fugazi and Slint made a convert of me and helped nudge the label in a new direction.

Success can be a difficult thing to define for these various artists, but to many it's nothing more than being able to just keep going. A lot of these acts have split up or gone on indefinite hiatus already. They (and too many more to include here) were all a big part of what kept me going though, and it would be nice to think that in some small way I've been able to return the favor.


1. Nakigao Twintail, "Inori"
2. Hyacca, "Riot"
3. Mir, "Iki wo Tomete"
4. The Students, "Sekai Uraata"
5. Mosquito, "Lie Lie"
6. The Warm, "S.H."
7. Deracine, "Business Your Music ¥1,000,000,000"
8. Panicsmile, "Strange" (Wire cover)
9. Extruders, "Kimi no Hane Oto"
10. Umiuma, "Table Yashi-to no Kaiwa"
11. She Talks Silence, "Long Ways"
12. HNC, "Kitten's Breaks"
13. Falsettos, "Johnny"
14. Miu Mau, "Future Classic"
15. Hysteric Picnic, "Cult Pop"
16. Jebiotto, "AxNxC"
17. Tropical Death, "Tribal"
18. illMilliliter, "Frontal Lobe"
19. Zibanchinka, "Hari to Uruoi"
20. P-iPLE, "Starbucks' Curse"

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.