Editor's note: Zac Bentz has been writing about the fringe of modern Japanese music for many years, covering hundreds of bands both in print and on the web, including his own ZB’s A-Z of J-Music. He’s also a musician, graphic designer and pet owner. Bother him on Twitter.
Being a film geek is easy. Being a comic book geek is easy. These days, even being an anime geek is easy. But things start to get a bit tricky when it's bleeding-edge Japanese indie rock that you're after.
Sure, you might get a taste now and then if you're a hardcore anime otaku, but even then you're not getting an accurate feel for what's going on in the sweaty back alley clubs of Tokyo or Osaka. For that, you need to dig deep and have a passion for chasing down the ghostly hints of guitar feedback humming just beyond the horizon. Word of mouth from fellow fans is stronger than any billion dollar PR machine when that machine speaks a foreign language.
For many people, the first taste of what Japan has to offer came from the band Shonen Knife. The all-girl punk rock trio has been not only rocking non-stop for over 30 years, but they've also been touring the world for most of that time. They sing in English and are the perfect blend of foreign and familiar.
“I first got into Japanese music via a discarded Shonen Knife CD, Let's Knife, in maybe 1996 or so. I fell in love with them, because that is the correct reaction to Shonen Knife” says Daniel Robson, a Tokyo-based writer, event organizer and host of It Came From Japan. “After that, a Japanese college friend started recommending some other cool bands to me and I fell in love with some of them, too.”
Robby Takac (of the Goo Goo Dolls) founded the American label Good Charamel Records, which took Shonen Knife into their roster. “Once we began working with Shonen Knife we began to discover many other original and exciting bands in Japan and began courting female fronted rock bands to release to North American audiences...Each time we are introduced to another act, we are blown away by the originality and the unique angle the bands approach their music from.”
That is much of the appeal of modern Japanese bands. Slight shifts, be they traditional folk influences, anime influences, unfamiliar chord progressions or even some new cutting edge bit of technology, manage to reviatalize genres we may be tired of.
For New York based promoter Hayden Brereton (Superglorious Heavy Industries), it was Towa Tei (of the group Deee-Lite) that lead him down the J-rock path. “When I moved to New York for college (late '90s) I looked up Towa's music and found out about the Shibuya-kei [think pop lounge/bossa nova] music scene. I have a huge appetite for music and I didn't really care about genre or where it came from, as long as I got my fix. Thus, my curiosity lead me to listen to a variety of Japanese artists.”
There's often a simple starting point that leads to a never-ending avalanche of discovery for fans. For Brereton, it started with some friends wanting to promote Japanese bands playing local gigs. “First we launched a website talking about the bands we liked and promoting their gigs. This eventually led to us working on an all Japanese punk fest that included Guitar Wolf. After that I gradually got my hands involved in everything.”
Robson echoes those sentiments. “As for why, I guess it was because no one else would do it. At first I simply wanted to see gigs by my favorite bands, which evolved into wanting to make it easier for bands to go overseas and play.”
While the language barrier is a hindrance to traditional media, audiences seeing the bands in a live context, either alongside other local acts or as a tour with other Japanese bands, seem to overcome this hurdle. Takac sees the live experience as something crucial, “We have always had a tough time finding agents that are interested in booking Japanese bands, but [we] always leave a trail of fans behind when the bands do make it here for live appearances.”
Anime cons all around the world try to bring big name Japanese bands in to play live. One of their songs is often featured as an opening or closing theme. Good Charamel Records has had several bands play cons. “Our bands MOLICE, TsuShiMaMiRe and another band we are releasing very soon called Pinky Doodle Poodle have had great experiences around the globe playing anime festivals and conventions” says Takac. “It's a willing, enthusiastic, captive audience, and they love Japanese culture, a great gateway to the West for many of these bands.”
But there's also a passive element to the anime scene in regards to music. “Most people assume that if these folks like anime, then they'll love any type of music from Japan," Brereton said. This is not the case. While there's definitely some crossover, anime fans won't necessarily dig Japanese music. One time at a New York Anime Festival panel I asked the audience if they knew about The Boredoms or Shonen Knife, only a handful probably raised their hands.”
So why is it so tough for Japanese bands to make it big in the west? Simply put, there's no money in it. Japanese labels have a massive industry of their own to contend with. There's really no need for them to shuffle their bands around the world just to play small clubs for confused crowds when they can fill stadiums in their own back yard. So in the end, it's pure passion that drives both the bands and fans to make it happen in the west.
“Indie bands like Shonen Knife, Red Bacteria Vacuum and Melt Banana have spent large amounts of time on club stages across the US and have avid fan bases to come back to time and time again, but it's tough for these bands to make financial sense of these trips.” Takac points out. “So it's the passion for the music that keeps them returning. to deliver their craft to audiences around the world.”
So what's the solution? Robson suggests a sort of Asian-rock Voltron.
“Personally I'd love to see bands from around Asia join forces to create an Asian invasion... and march boldly into the West, hand in hand,’ he says. “Rock, punk, indie and electronic artists have a much better shot and finding a sustainable level of success overseas, in part because their definition of success is different and in part because fans of alternative music are less likely to get hung up on language issues. ...Independent music finds a way.”