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From the Archive: Japanese Innovators with Ian F Martin (June 2018)

Nothing Concrete text
27 Mar 2020
30 min listen

In the third and final episode of our series showcasing the love and obsession the series, author Ian F Martin takes us on a musical journey into the live music scene of some of Japan's pioneering experimental and noise-based artists.

I just started going out to shows finding music that I had just never heard anything like before. 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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From the Archive: Japanese Innovators with Ian F Martin

In the third and final episode of our series showcasing the love and obsession the series, author Ian F Martin takes us on a musical journey into the live music scene of some of Japan's pioneering experimental and noise-based artists.


BE: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're delving into our archives looking back to June 2018, where we spoke to three Japanese music fans who kindly invited us on a journey through their record collections. In this series, we explore the influence of Japanese underground music and the club music of Kyoto to the record stores of Osaka. Discovering and exploring the sounds that have emerged over the past 40 years.

IM: I just started going out to shows finding music that I just never heard anything like before. 

BE: In this final part of our trilogy, we focus on some of the pioneering Japanese music from the 1990s. 

IM: I mean, it's a punk album, but it's going so much further, it's visiting places that I'd never imagined punk music could have gone. 

BE: We're joined by Ian Martin, author of Quit Your Band: Musical Notes From The Japanese Underground. He takes us into the live music scene and some of the more experimental and noise-based artists.

IM: My name's Ian Martin. I'm a music journalist based in Tokyo. I also run a very small indie label here called Call And Response Records. I'm the author of the book, Quit Your Band: Musical Notes From The Japanese Underground, which came out a couple of years ago now. The way I got into Japanese music was, I'd been living here for really just for a few months, I moved here in 2001, towards the end of 2001, and I just started going to shows and finding music that I just never heard anything like before. There wasn't any reliable information telling me what I was supposed to be listening to – like when I was growing up in the UK, it's like you listen to, I mean at the time you listen to Radio 1 and the NME, sometimes they tell you about something good, but I think you ended up getting a slightly more mainstream leaning idea of what of what music was. If you were discovering it in the clubs, you were just getting everything all at once and you'd end up picking up all kinds of very strange things.

The first track I've picked out here is ‘Pop Tatari’ by Boredoms – [from their] 1992 album also called Pop Tatari. Boredoms are probably one of the most well-known Japanese underground bands; they have their roots in the in the ‘80s along with like crazy bands like Hanatarash, you know, coming out of this sort of Osaka-Kansai area, sort of noise-rock scene and experimental sort of post punk scene. This album's kind of an interesting one because it was their first album on a major label and when you listen to this now and you look at what kinds of music major labels in Japan are putting out these days, it's almost unthinkable. It's like this transmission from an alternative universe where sort of crazy mishmash of every single – you've just like, all rock and punk and just weird bits of like bubblegum and all of these things are all just like thrown in together in the most offensive and horrible way.

The next track connects with the Boredoms in a way. So, this is Yoshihide Otomo, he's a very well renowned composer and experimental musician; covered a whole range of genres as a solo artist, collaborating with all kinds of people and also with his – the band he was in in the ‘90s – Ground Zero, who we’ll hear a bit more from later. This track [‘Sony’] and a lot of the tracks on this album The Night Before The Death Of The Sampling Virus features Eye Yamataka from the Boredoms. The crazy screaming on here is, that's him, and he's all over this album. An incredibly strange record. It has about 40/50/60/70 tracks on it, all of them these like really, just like insane collisions of screaming and then little bits from TV commercials and things like that. What this has in common with the Boredoms, I think as well is this, it's got this similar idea of kind of car-crash-collision of pop culture in ways that you wouldn't necessarily expect and done in a very kind of aggressive style.

The third album I picked up was Desire For Agony by Zeni Geva and the track ‘Dead Sun Rising’. Like, Zeni Geva was another band that has Boredoms connection there because the guitarist who's playing with them at this time, Mitsuru Tabata, he was one of the sort of first generation members of the Boredoms. Although he'd left by the time Pop Tatari came out.
Zeni Geva again, they're coming from like, definitely from a punk background, but also, it's like punk with this much deeper influence of like progressive rock. There wasn't really the same kind of division between punk and progressive rock in Japanese music that there was in in British music. I think that progressive rock was so sort of underground in the ‘70s, that it just flowed quite sort of naturally into what a lot of the punks were doing. This album was, I think, the first thing that Zeni Geva released on the Alternative Tentacles label run by Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys, and it was recorded with Steve Albini, which I think you can kind of hear that in the sound. I just think it's an amazing example of Japanese bands, especially in the ‘90s, taking things that would probably sound familiar to kind of western listeners there but taking it way, way, way further. I think it's also an example, and you can you can see it with a lot of these artists I think in the ‘90s, going overseas and working with like foreign producers or getting put out by foreign record labels, that made people wake up and pay attention to these bands, even in their own country, that maybe nobody in Japan would have really cared that much about a lot of this stuff if it wasn't for the fact that people overseas were listening to it, you know.

The next one I'm here is his Ruins and I'm not even going to try to pronounce this one! Was it Hyderomastgroningem – and the track was ‘Pontemcorary Music #1’. Ruins are this, again similar to Zeni Geva – and actually the drummer Tatsuya Yoshida played with Zeni Geva for a couple of years in the early days and then rejoined the band in the 2000s – with Ruins they're definitely taking something from progressive rock, so it's a clear influence I think of stuff like King Crimson, but there's this influence I think from American hardcore as well or like, I guess what you call post hardcore math rock. There's this very kind of stripped down minimal and quite aggressive sound to it. Again, like Zeni Geva, I think there's ideas that come from heavy metal in there, that again I think people from, certainly come from the British post punk scene maybe wouldn't have considered that cool – and again, Ruins are another band made a big impact overseas. I think this album came out from John Zorn's Tzadik label, which has released dozens – hundreds of Japanese underground rock records over the years. 

The next band on here is again probably one of the best known Japanese underground bands overseas, and another band who probably, they’re most certainly nowhere near as big in Japan as they are overseas, but they're definitely a very well-respected band in Japan. It's Melt-Banana and the album Scratch Or Stitch, which like Ruins came out in 1995. They’re another band who’ve worked with John Zorn on releases and I think recorded with Steve Albini. The track I’ve picked out is ‘What Do You Slaughter Next?’ I think this album was in a way their breakthrough album. They're one of the few bands on this list that I would have heard of when I was growing up in the ‘90s. I heard Melt-Banana on John Peel’s show and he raved about them. I think I remember him saying something like ‘that everyone in the world needs to see Melt-Banana live at least once’, and when I eventually did see them after moving to Japan, supporting Wire, yeah, it was incredible. It was one of those sort of life changing experiences for me. This is an amazing album, I mean, it's again a punk album, but it's going so much further, it's visiting places that I never imagined punk music could have gone. [Ichirou] Agata’s guitar on – at any time – he made these incredible sounds, you know, these guitar textures that are doing stuff that just goes way further than what I thought this kind of music could sound like and then you know, you've got Yasuko [Onuki]’s vocals that well, you know, they're distinctive. I'll just leave it at that.

Yeah, the next one is Pulse Demon by Merzbow, from 1996, and the track ‘Spiral Blast’. He's been going since the since the early to mid ‘80s, releases like a hundred albums a year, it’s the only like full on noise record that I chose for this list. I could have chosen more here, but when you're picking out albums, I always feel that full-on noise – as opposed to like noise rock, which I think a lot of the stuff on here is – you know, full-on noise, which you know, there's no drums in it, there's no guitars, it's just grinding, ear splitting, machine noise. It's a difficult thing to say, oh, ‘this is the album you need to listen to’. It's the kind of music that I always feel really needs to be experienced live; you need to be locked in a room and just let yourself get terrorised by this stuff. As soon as you record it it's kind of dead, but of the million albums Merzbow has made this one kind of stands out, I guess. It's definitely, kind of, widely regarded as a classic. 

The obsession with these kind of horror images on there, yeah, like – to the Boredoms album Pop Tatari – tatari means curse in Japanese, and Night Before The Death Of The Sampling Virus, Desire for Agony, Pulse Demon. Yeah, there are a lot of these sort of horror influences. I don't know where it comes from. I guess some of it comes from, it’s just the fact that they're making like obviously very aggressive and confrontational music, and certainly some of these bands like Zeni Geva with Desire for Agony, that's really like a heavy metal album title, isn't it? and there's definitely a metal influence on what they're doing. Pulse Demon, I don't know, so, I guess you just kind of listen to it and that's what it sounds like, it sounds like a demon to him, so that's where he gets it probably.

This track is the only track off of Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.’s [eponymous] 1997 album, which came out on the legendary P.S.F label. This album, like I think more than anything else in in this selection, this album’s really mainlining that 1970s Japanese underground sound that you'd have heard from bands like Hadaka no Rallizes/Les Rallizes Dénudés. Yeah, those kinds of like really dirty, nasty sounding 1970s, like heavy psychedelic rock bands, the tracks called ‘Acid Mothers Prayer’ and it's about what 50-55 minutes long. 

Acid Mothers Temple, I think their roots were in like Nagoya and kind of in the centre of Japan but they're very closely associated with the Osaka music scene, so a lot of connections. There’s still connections there with the Boredoms like Tabata [Mitsuru] from Zeni Geva in the Boredoms, he was a long-time member of Acid Mothers, although I think not at this time. Even Acid Mothers they have something in common with a lot of these bands and they're kind of not indiscriminate, but they're quite wide-ranging in the musical influences, they’ve definitely drawn on a lot of the same sort of punk and heavy metal influences that some of these other bands have, they're not purely like a retro thing. They're part of a tradition that goes back to the ‘70s rather than, like a throwback to the ‘70s. If that makes sense.

Right, yeah, the next album is Plays Standards by Ground Zero. This is, you know, as kind of representative of the whole sweep of like ‘90s underground music in Japan. I think it's an interesting one. This band is Yoshihide Otomo’s band. So, we've seen him before, earlier on in this same rundown of albums. The song’s a cover of the song ‘Bones’ by Fred Frith’s old band from the early ‘80s, Massacre. I mean, this album's an interesting album in the context of what I've been saying before, I think this point I keep coming back to about musicians just like creating these like unholy collisions of different musical genres, using all kinds of bizarre and unconventional sounds, and the album does this a lot. It’s an album of cover versions, I think they've been selected very carefully based on artists and songs that are important to Otomo. Most of the tracks on it or a lot of the tracks on it, like combine two different songs often like, completely, sort of, unexpected collisions of two different songs and then does something sort of horrible and wonderful with them; but this track is by ultimate standards, an almost straight take on a song that's already quite out there, plus, it's just an incredible, amazing song. It starts out, you're like okay, I get this. This is a piece of music and then it devolves into insanity.

Coming near the end here the second from last track is OOIOO from their 1997 album which I think is just called ∞8∞, but they write it in some bizarre way with like an eight and to infinity symbols and the track I picked out ‘Sister 001’. OOIOO or another band with a very strong Boredoms connection, like Yoshimi [P-We] from the Boredoms she founded OOIOO, although it's very much like its own thing, it's not just like, a side project. They have a really wonderful and sort of bizarre meandering catalogue of albums, even within one album, they'll just ping from one sound to another effortlessly really. I think where they're different from the Boredoms is that where the Boredoms like taking this delight in throwing these like really aggressive collisions of different sounds at you, what OOIOO do is they very smoothly move from one thing to another. It's less confrontational but musically I think perhaps richer and it's going a bit, it explores the music in a little bit more in a bit more depth. 

It's difficult to pick one track out that represents them as a band, but this one does a fairly good job of that. It's got these like, kind of tribal rhythms in it and these, the chanting and there's this psychedelic aspect to it, but there's also, you know, throwing back to some of these things that might sound similar to someone who’s grown up with bands like The Raincoats and like the post punk era as well. Yeah, you know, they're still going, they're still making great music when they feel like it and generally an amazing band that everybody should know about.

So, the last track I picked out here is the song ‘Hitchhike’ by Panic Smile off their album E.F.Y.L from 1998. I think their second album, although the first one was like a cassette release that was all vanished for a long time. Yeah, Panic Smile are probably the least well known overseas out of all of these artists that I've picked out here, but they were very important band back in the underground scene that I was getting into when I first came here. Yeah, they've had a big influence, they had a big influence on a lot of the artists that I discovered that like really kind of got me into the music scene here. One of the first shows that really, sort of like, blew my mind open to the kind of stuff that was going on here. They were at that show and I had no idea what they were doing. I was like, ‘what is this? this is horrible.’ I kept seeing them, they just kept being at the shows that I wanted to see and like, the more I listened to them, the more I realised, you know, there's this huge hole in what I'd grown up listening to that I just didn't know. Next to some of the other bands on here, they might seem maybe more like conventionally kind of alternative rock. They were certainly influenced by a lot of the stuff that Steve Albini was doing in the ’80s and ‘90s, some of the kind of stuff like Dinosaur Jr. and also like post punk bands like Wire, I think was a big influence on them, and Captain Beefheart going back a bit before that. I think they just taught a lot of bands in the music scene, the kinds of bands that you just see, you know, if you went out to a show at a venue like Akihabara Club Goodman, where Hajime Yoshida from Panic Smile was the booking manager for a while. You'd find a lot of these same kinds of influences, music that was using these like, punk and alternative rock chords, but stitching it together in a way that was a bit more avant-garde than that. They’re a band that will take a lot of unexpected shifts from one section of a song into another section, but then they'll always do something later on that just lets you know, this isn't just like a random sort of collision of different things, that there's a method to it, it will come back and you'll realise that there's something that they've been doing the whole time that is just holding the whole thing together. I think they've done that increasingly well as their career’s gone on, they've developed a lot of musicians, despite changing their line-up quite a lot, but you can really hear the beginnings of that on this track and on this album. 

I'll go out to three or four shows a week and you stand through a lot of horrible, horrible music and occasionally find something fantastic. It's all word of mouth really, you find people you like and you ask them who they're into and that was the way I found my way through things. My tastes are more extreme now than they used to be, but partly just because I have access to information about all kinds of music that maybe in my teens or my early 20s I'd never heard of. I think that Japan, if you can find it, is a really great place to keep finding new great things though.

BE: Thanks to Ian for speaking to us. If this is your first listen to this mini trilogy, do click back to discover our other two editions looking at the decades of the ‘70s – Through The Ears, a radio show host, Japan Blues; and ‘80s – for the amazing compilations of American reissue label Light In The Attic. I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of the Nothing Concrete podcast – here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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