Call and Response Records: Cutting-edge J-indies label turns 10

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British expat Ian Martin began “stalking” Japanese rock bands a decade ago, and soon founded Call And Response Records with a mission to bring undiscovered music from the archipelago to a wider audience. Martin talks music with Metropolis.

How did you first come across Japanese rock?

Just from growing up in Britain in the ’90s with Shonen Knife, Cornelius remixing Blur, Melt Banana; that sort of thing. But the actual ground scene came through this band called The Students who I started stalking at their shows. Seeing their gigs at empty venues, I felt I had to put on my own gigs. After doing that for a year, it felt natural to start a label.

What do you hope to achieve through Call And Response Records, and why should people listen to the new albums by Futtachi and Jebiotto?

I just want to get the music I release out to the kinds of people who will like it. Looking at these releases’s contrasts helped clarify what links the music that appeals to me. I love music like Futtachi’s, that takes something avant-garde and draws you in; or Jebiotto’s, that takes something really pop and sabotages it. That tension between discord and harmony is the key. Making the audience work a bit [to like the music] is showing them respect, and they’ll appreciate the result more. Once musician and audience reach toward each other, there’s a “call and response.”

What have you learned in a decade of running Call And Response?

You can’t please anyone all the time and you can’t please everyone any of the time. Whatever you do, things will go wrong. Find glimmers of light and cherish them.

You’re writing a history of Japanese rock: What are the most important differences between Japanese and Western rock?

There are broad differences between Japanese and Anglo-American pop in the number and sequencing of chords, the vocal delivery. The biggest difference, however, is the structure of the industry. In Japan, management companies have all the power, with the artists as salaried employees. Together with the labels, TV companies and advertising agencies, they make a sort of cartel. This makes the industry less prone to change. The structure that promotes popular music and the kinds of challenges facing talented artists trying to break in are where the big differences lie.

What are the biggest misconceptions about Japanese music?

The idea that Japanese music is just a “copy” of Western music is rubbish. Japanese rock and pop have had a lively domestic tradition since the ’60s, and the influence of overseas acts has shrunk to near-irrelevance by now.

Who do you tip to be the next Japanese act to go big internationally?

I think we’re going to see a lot of idol-style acts trying to reach overseas audiences—although trying to transfer a very Japanese promotional model to overseas markets that operate differently seems problematic. Frankly, there’s really no one in even semi-mainstream Japanese pop and rock that I think deserves overseas success.

20000V, Sep 27. See concert listings (popular) for details. http://callandresponse.jimdo.com

1. Hikashu Super, Hikashu (1981)

This album gathers a lot of the best tracks from the first couple of years of what is probably my favorite Japanese band ever. Hikashu represents one of the most original, trailblazing groups of the new wave era.

2. Atsureki,
Friction (1980)

Arguably the best Japanese punk album (though Meshi Kuuna by Inu runs close), Atsureki is effortlessly cool and fizzes with spiky energy.

3. Futurama, Supercar (2000)

Supercar was one of the bands that defined early 2000s Japanese rock, and while lots of people prefer their shoegazey 1998 debut Three Out Change, this album soundtracked my early years in Japan.

4. A Long Vacation, Eiichi Ohtaki (1981)

Happy End and Haruomi Hosono are pretty much the godfathers of all modern Japanese rock. But it’s Ohtaki who I think made the greatest single contribution with this gorgeous, Beach Boys-influenced, multilayered pop masterpiece.

5. Sashitai,
Hyacca (2007)

In 2006, my life was a mess and I took a trip to Fukuoka to get away from it all. I got drunk with some musicians there and woke up the next day with this plain white demo CD in my pocket, containing the most perfect postpunk/pop/noise ever. So I tracked down the band, offered to release it and never looked back.

Metropolis, Sep 4, 2014

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Carl Stone: Resident expat computer music seer

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Computer music pioneer Carl Stone’s career took a left turn when he joined the Department of Information Media at Chukyo University in Aichi. Stone had begun to explore sonic collages via cassettes and turntables in the 1970s, and in the ’80s innovated the use of laptops to create live electronic music. Invitations to Japan led to a faculty position, and Stone now splits his time between Japan and the US. The native Californian spoke to Metropolis about the computer’s evolving role in music and how Japan shapes his sound.

Computer music is now omnipresent. What have been the biggest changes since the ’70s?

Miniaturization and portability. When I was a student we had a synthesizer studio that probably cost about a half-million dollars. Now that studio’s power can be roughly represented in a ¥5,000 iPad app. I used to tour with about 50kg of gear. Now all I take is a laptop, audio interface and toothbrush.

Is the computer now just another musical instrument?

It depends on how one chooses to use it. It definitely can be an instrument, but it can also be a tool for composing, for recording and more.

Much computer music lacks traditional identifiers of music such as melody and rhythm. What differentiates “sound” from “music”?

In John Cage’s theory, nothing. Not only did he feel that any sound could be repurposed as music, but in fact the distinction between even unintended sound and music was artificial. I remember listening to a conversation between Cage and Morton Feldman, another great composer. Feldman was complaining about the time he was walking on the shore, lost in thought, and some people were blasting music from a radio. Cage, who often used unintended sounds including random radio transmissions, laughed and said that it wouldn’t have bothered him because, “I would think they were just playing one of my pieces.”

Tell us about two or three of your defining works, and what you were trying to achieve with them.

Probably my most notorious work is called “Shing Kee,” which takes a small sample of German art-song sung in English by a Japanese pop singer, and methodically stretches it until it becomes a new sonic world. A more current series of pieces I’ve done recently use an electronic process I call “skinning,” where the shape and rhythm of one piece of music is “wrapped” around the harmony of another. Some very interesting things can result. Probably the best example of this is in my piece “Al-Noor.”

How have your many years in Japan influenced your music and career?

In many ways. First of all, just being in Japan serves as a place of constant stimulation, not only because of the arts scene but because of the fascinating urban soundscape. I rarely go outside without a handy portable recorder. But also the music scene itself here is interesting, and I’ve found a lot of musicians I enjoy playing with. I’ve been lucky to improvise with great musicians like Yoshihide Otomo, Yasuaki Shimizu and Yuji Takahashi.

What are some of the challenges you face as a foreigner on the faculty of a Japanese university?

The usual issues of language and culture differences, which of course get mediated over time. I was a freelance composer for many years before I took this job, so I had very little experience in academia besides my early years as a student at an American art school. Academic bureaucracies are problematic enough, but the Japanese seem to have raised them to an art form.

Japan is a hub of computer music. Tell us about a few favorite Japanese computer music composers.

Electronic music has a lot of important history here, going back to pioneering work by Toru Takemitsu, Yuji Takahashi, Akira Ikufube. These days I’m enjoying music by Ryoji Ikeda, Satanic Pornocultshop and Chihei Hatakeyama.

Tell us about your upcoming performances and new groups.

I’ll play on June 6 with Brian O’Reilly from Singapore, who performs as Black Zenith. In the fall, I’ll play with new group Tapakasa, featuring the great Akira Sakata on sax, Yumiko Tanaka on shamisen and Pearl Alexander on bass. We performed earlier this year as an experiment and liked the results so much we are planning to keep it going.

Metropolis, Jun 4, 2014

It Came From Japan: Podcast brings the ‘creamiest’ J-indies to the world

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There is no lack of Japanese tunes on the web, but little of it is presented with the authority wielded by It Came From Japan. English journalist Daniel Robson and his sidekick Asuka Eiki not only offer a Japanese music-crazed perspective and inside details on what’s going on in the music scene—they also produce the only podcast that plays all-Japanese music with permission from the rights holders. We heard from Robson about interviewing the likes of Buffalo Daughter, and which bands he expects to break big in 2014.

When and why did you start ICFJ?

ICFJ started out in 2006 as a tour agency taking Japanese bands to the U.K. and later the U.S. The podcast was originally a freebie for our audience to keep them wet between tours. It turns out—who knew?—that simply submitting a song to be played on a podcast is a lot less commitment for the artists than flying halfway across the world for a show, so we’re able to expose more bands on the podcast than we can with tours. Also, as a journalist who usually describes music in text form, I love that on a podcast the songs can speak for themselves.

Tell us how you became hopelessly addicted to J-indies.

I grew up with Western punk and rock music. Then in the ’90s I retrieved a discarded Shonen Knife CD (Let’s Knife) from a friend’s dustbin and fell madly in love. By the time I became a music journalist in London I was already hooked on everything from Melt-Banana to Puffy and would interview artists like Polysics and Utada Hikaru for U.K. publications. I moved here in 2006, shortly after the first ICFJ U.K. tour, to drink from the source. Nowadays, the indie scene keeps on throwing up new surprises, while most modern mainstream J-pop (AKB48 etc.) just makes me want to throw up.

How do you go about choosing bands to present?

Everything we play is with permission from the rights holders. Some of the major labels in Japan will allow usage on podcasts on a case-by-case [basis], but independent labels make up the majority of what we play. Within that, I mostly pick songs by artists that have a timely release or overseas tour. I program the show from a journalistic perspective but heavily influenced by my own personal taste, which luckily is all over the place, so we cover a wide range: rock, punk, pop, electronic, rap and all the glorious crossovers that Japanese musicians excel at. My cohost Asuka Eiki picks some of the songs, too, and although she’s a model she’s a total metalhead. As for the interviews, I choose whatever artist is most interesting that month, with a particular emphasis on artists who will be of interest to our mostly Western listeners. And of course when ICFJ has an overseas tour coming up we feature those artists, too—all of whom are excellent, if I do say so myself.

Name three memorable ICFJ moments.

I recently interviewed the members of Cibo Matto for the show, which was a big deal because they just re-formed to release their first album in 15 years and it was miraculously not rubbish. Some other great interview moments have included observing the older/younger sibling dynamic between J-klezma sisters Charan Po Rantan, hearing the perspective of worldly Japanese artists such as Argentina-raised drummer-singer Shishido Kavka and an emotional John Lydon appearing on our post-tsunami fundraising podcast. In addition to on-air moments, I’m proud to have persuaded the Japanese government to spend money exporting contemporary artists overseas, with the Japan Rising showcase at The Great Escape festival in Brighton, England, on May 10—that one features Buffalo Daughter, Mayu Wakisaka and TarO&JirO and is going to be a real thrill.

What stands out among the feedback to ICFJ?

We get such a wide range of feedback via Twitter and Facebook that it’s hard to pinpoint specific trends, but I’m pretty sure the majority of our listeners—who are split almost equally across the U.K., North America and Japan—hate AKB48 as much as I do, which means they’re a good crowd.

How are J-indies faring worldwide?

The Japanese artists with a following overseas are not necessarily the ones who are the most popular here—overseas activity counts for a lot, which gives independent artists an advantage. And of course the rise of Twitter has allowed artists to escape Japan’s payola-driven mainstream media and reach out to the world.

Tell us which Japanese act you think is most likely to break worldwide this year and why.

I’d love to see hip-hop duo Charisma.com, hardcore band Mamadrive, pop drummer-singer Shishido Kavka and others succeed overseas, though as with any Japanese artist they’ll have to want it, because the world won’t come to them. And of course, the artists playing at Japan Rising all have a good shot, since they were selected not by us but by the bookers of The Great Escape festival, who know the U.K. market better than anyone.

Name three indispensable Japanese music podcasts and websites.

I love Nihongaku Radio, which is a podcast of Japanese music recorded in Texas by a guy who lived here for a while, Jonathan McNamara. He works in radio, so the quality is great, and he has a very specific taste for Japanese rock. Most of the other Japanese music podcasts I’ve heard have been awful, but they serve as a good example of how not to do it. Basically, we try to keep the editorial and audio quality as high as possible, to mess around but keep it tight, and to show our passion for the music while maintaining a bit of journalistic perspective so it’s not just a fanboy gush-fest.

Mio Soul: The New York-based Japanese artist’s Subliminal Melody

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The Japanese have long headed to New York to imbibe jazz, R&B, house and hip-hop at the source. A few hardy individuals even stay on to forge their careers amid the competitive pressures of the New York music scene. Metropolis heard from young singer and producer Mio Soul about the ups and downs of being an independent Japanese artist in NYC, and what it feels like to be called “the Japanese Alicia Keys.”

How did you come to be making music in NYC?

I am a singer-songwriter and came to New York to sing a few years ago. I was told that I should start making beats since I know how to play the piano, and I’d also been looking for producers to work with but couldn’t find one. So I started producing music. I started off using Reason 5 and then went to DJ school at Dubspot in NYC where I studied Ableton live software. That experience really changed my life. Not only did I learn skills but I also had the chance to be around very talented people.

How does living in NYC shape your music as compared to living in Japan?

Initially I thought I would be more inspired here in NYC, but now I honestly think I can make music wherever I am. But I actually made my way here to NYC because I needed to know the roots of the music I liked—I had to speak the language, breathe the air and feel the music.

Why did you decide to go the production route this time?

This happens to be another tool to express myself as Mio Soul. I really wanted to share another new world that I created with people.

You began Subliminal Melody as a 30-minute beat making challenge at Starbucks every week for 1 year. How important was caffeine to the process?

Hahaha! Caffeine? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I get too excited. I always like to order a tall hot cafe mocha and that makes me feel chill. I came up with the project shortly after the Dubspot course because I wanted to keep studying and to make as many tracks as possible. At the same time, I thought it was a good idea because I started reaching people via Soundcloud. At the beginning, there were only 3 to 6 people listening to the tracks. Then several weeks later I saw that about 30 people had started listening to the tracks and that became hundreds per week. That was simply amazing and I appreciated all the feedback too. Those tracks were not perfect but I kept going.

Tell us about the creation of three songs on the album.

Right before I start creating, I close my eyes. I don’t even know what kind of beats I want to make… is it R&B, hip-hop, house or even EDM or techno? With “My Telephone Number” I was in the mood for something in a house/tech-house style. It was quick programming the house drums and then the next 5 minutes was me focusing on selecting the right instruments and effects. It’s like a puzzle process to put the right elements in the right place… The creative process of “Blind 77” was very interesting. I thought I was never going to finish it actually. At the beginning everything seemed separate and I didn’t know what I was doing. That is where this title comes from… When I started making “Boost Me Up” the first draft that I came up with was very light. I remember around this same time Justin Timberlake’s new album had just come out. The JT influence made me shift to a heavier but also uplifting vibe. I looked at my initial direction with the synths and bass I used and decided to change the whole melody. Suddenly the vibe completely changed and you have “Boost Me Up.” Thank you JT!

How does it feel to be called the “Japanese Alicia Keys”?

That is very honorable. I actually I don’t think I sound like her but as a passionate singer and emotional electronic dance music producer (I call my genre EEDM sometimes lol), maybe we have that in common.

How difficult is it for a Japanese R&B artist to connect with a North American audience and how do you try to reach people there?

First of all, we gotta speak the language so that we can communicate. When it comes to singing, especially, so that people can be really attached to the feeling and emotion of the lyrics. Just the overall music and sound isn’t enough. Vibes, passion and soul are important too. That is the reason why I like to make tracks too—to express my soul and vibe. With these two aspects, I was able to reach many different kinds of people here in the USA and also in Asia as well as Japan. Recently I feel that I could connect with Japanese people more. If I perform in Japan, I think I should perform in both languages.

Why do you think US R&B and rap haven’t been more successful in Japan?

I honestly don’t think that those genres are not not really successful in Japan. They may not be the mainstream like J-pop but there are a lot of core fans. I think the fans love those genres but I am not sure if many are really into electronic music just yet. What is really cool to me now is this new style of R&B. It is like a fusion of R&B and electronic music. That is where my vibe is currently.

Where do you see your Mio Soul project heading?

My first EP In My Skin was the first project here in the USA. I created music that showed the roots of music I love and wrote songs reflecting my important experiences in life. I also produced a few of the songs on that EP and I actually rap and sing in Japanese. In My Skin was the raw me. My current instrumental project is me evolving as an artist to show my diversity as a creator. This is definitely a process of rebuilding myself as Mio Soul, constantly asking myself… Who am I? What is my message? These two projects will lead you all to my next project—my second vocal EP, which I will produce. I will share more of my own style and identity with more messages from life and what I have been through. Life should be happy all the time and I wish I was smiling all the time, however life is tough sometimes. Sometimes you gotta stop and figure it out. And sometimes you gotta just hold on. My music is very happy but also very emotional too. I always want my honesty to be reflected in what I am creating.

Metropolis, Apr 24, 2014