Räfven: The Swedish klezmer band’s Martin Nurmi on bringing back the dinos

shapeimage_3

One of the joys of Japan’s biggest rock festival is visiting the small stages that dot Naeba Ski Resort, between the mammoth lawns where the headliners perform, and happening upon unknown bands.

So how did an obscure Swedish klezmer collective come to be a star of the festival?

Martin Nurmi

“It started when we met Jason at Glastonbury in 2008,” saxophonist Martin Nurmi says from on the road in Sweden. Nurmi is speaking of impresario Jason Mayall, who boasts a long connection with England’s Glastonbury festival as well as its Japanese sister event Fuji Rock.

“Jason invited us to play his after-party. He said, ‘If you play for me now, I’ll bring you to Japan.’ We trusted him and he followed through, and that’s how we ended up at Fuji Rock in 2009.”

Eight-member outfit Räfven (pronounced “raven”) bowled audiences over that year with their combustible blend of East-European Jewish klezmer and Gypsy music, juiced with the spirit of punk and ska. The group played eight sets and have been back to Japan four times, including an encore at Fuji Rock 2015.

The life of a hardworking Swedish klezmer band isn’t a simple one—wedding gigs and day jobs come with the territory—but Räfven have managed to keep it together since 2003.

“We started out as a street band and didn’t have deep thoughts about which songs we chose,” Nurmi recalls in gently accented English. “We just found we liked the klezmer and Romany traditions, and everyone in the band was composing with inspiration from all these traditions.

“We’ve been together 12 years,” he adds. “It’s pretty impressive and crazy for an eight-person band. We are mostly freelance musicians doing other kind of work, but there’s a lot of time spent together and a lot of love in this band. It’s like a marriage—but with eight people.”

Tonight’s concert is a sedate sit-down event for a classical music audience, but gigs have bordered on the bizarre: one promoter asked them to perform from up a tree. “It was a restaurant opening party, and they wanted us to climb the tree outside the restaurant and play,” Nurmi laughs. “I think it was a better picture in their head than the reality, but we tried—and I’m scared of heights.”

Räfven’s forthcoming Japan tour sees them promoting their new album Bring Back the Dinos. “We stretched out with longer songs and melodies this time, and changed the instrumentation a bit too,” explains Nurmi. “Sometimes, we just had this feeling the dinosaurs will run the world better than humans, and also we are kind of old and now dinosaurs in the band ourselves, so you can look at it from different perspectives.”

For Nurmi, in its own small but determined way, Räfven has meant an opportunity to use music as a springboard to connect with people around the planet—many of whom he can’t even communicate with verbally.

“Music makes people happy, but this specific music—folk music—belongs to all of us,” he believes. “You can feel the connections between the different folk traditions—for example between Irish and American folk, and I think it’s also true with our style of music, it’s easy to connect to in one or another way. It may seem weird, but I think there are even connections with folk music in Japan. 

“Music is the best kind of language,” he concludes. “I’m not so good at any other language. It’s a language for the mind, body, and soul—everything. And it’s so important to connect with each other through music. For me it’s a dream.”

Advertisements

Nisennenmondai: Japan’s hippest instrumental rock exports go electronic

music-01-860x480

They don’t sing anime songs or wear uniforms, and they aren’t part of the “kawaii” boom. But instrumental rock trio Nisennenmondai—Japanese for “the Y2K bug”—are one of Japan’s hippest musical exports. Metropolis caught up with guitarist Masako Takada and drummer Sayaka Himeno in Tokyo to hear about collaborating with U.K. electronica engineering wizard Adrian Sherwood on their hypnotic new album #N/A.

Where are you at present, and what do we find you doing?

Sayaka Himeno: In Tokyo.
Masako Takada: At home; just woke up.

What brought the three of you together, and what keeps you together?

SH: We met each other in band club at our university.
MT: Probably the fact that we are not too musician-like helps us stay together. All of us are very honest and serious, and share responsibilities without thinking too much about it.

Your music has a repetitive techno quality. Why use live instruments, instead of computers?

MT: We want to pursue the possibilities that only live instruments have rather than using predictable sounds. Making repetitive music by humans creates a sense of instability and uniqueness that you wouldn’t achieve if you used computers.

What was your first impression of Adrian Sherwood?

MT: I thought he seemed gentlemanlike and kind.

Tell us about the experience of having him mix you live in Tokyo.

SH: During the performance, we couldn’t hear the mixed sound from the monitors onstage, so didn’t really know how it sounded. It looked like the audience was reacting to parts that I wasn’t expecting, which made me nervous. But I listened to the recorded audio and found that he was able to maximize our songs and lay on just the right amount of effects.

Why did you decide to record together?

SH: To be honest I only knew his name but [label] Beatink brought up the idea and I thought, why don’t we give it a try?

MT: I knew Adrian, and even though I had no idea how it would work, I thought he was the right match for our music.

How was the experience different than producing yourselves?

SH: We just released our album earlier this year and this idea came to us on short notice, so we didn’t have any new songs. They were like, “Just do a session and give it a try.” So we did, but I had no idea how this would result in an album.
MT: It was completely different from producing ourselves. We normally write music in advance, but for #N/A, almost everything was session-based. Adrian had some ideas for parts, so some were improvised on the spot.

How does #N/A evolve from your previous albums? Tell us about the making of one song on #N/A.

MT: I forgot which song it was, but Adrian asked me to play like I’d gone crazy and I tried to do so. He seemed very happy with it so I remember feeling relieved.

Tell us about working with New York rock band Battles.

SH: It was 2003 when we first played together in Shimokitazawa. Since then, we’ve opened their shows in Japan, and they also come to our shows in NYC. In 2011, they took us on their U.S. tour and we also played together at Shibuya AX, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and London Forum. Thanks to Battles, we’ve had chances to play to bigger audiences, so we’re really grateful for that.

TV On the Radio: A member down, the Brooklyn band is wiser if not wearier

It’s been almost a decade since Metropolis last talked with TV On the Radio. In 2006, the quintet were the latest darlings of the exploding Brooklyn indie rock scene—part of it, but with a lush sound distinct from the disco-punk leanings of many Williamsburg bands of the era.

Nine years later, TVOTR are, if not wizened, then wiser and more reflective in the wake of the death of bassist Gerard Smith, who died of lung cancer in 2011. Their new album, Seeds, is the first recorded without his presence.

Tunde Adebimpe

“You do a certain amount of creative work with someone who’s basically a family member, and it shifts the notion of what can be accomplished in the band that had five members,” singer Tunde Adebimpe says from their tour stop in Oakland. “For me, when someone passes away I almost think about them more than when they were alive. That’s how your heart is connected to friends. But in terms of music, he was not somebody who liked to make bullshit; so we’re conscious of that now.”

Adebimpe plays down the direct effect of Smith’s death on the album, but considerations of love and loss are central to the urgency of Seeds. On the elegiac, synth-driven “Careful You,” for example, Adebimpe sings “I know it’s best to say goodbye, but I can’t seem to move away.” It’s a sentiment that could be applied as equally to a disintegrating love affair as to the death of a friend.

Having absorbed Smith’s passing and elected to continue on, the four remaining members of TVOTR—Adebimpe, producer/guitarist Dave Sitek, guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone, and drummer Jaleel Bunton—are currently in a sweet spot. Seeds has been nicely received as a return to form, and Adebimpe says they’re having a blast touring for the first time in several years.

“We’re in a place now where we realize the value of having been able to pursue the band for as long as we have, and the good fortune to have an audience to sustain us,” he says. “We recognize how special that is—because we don’t make the most accessible music. Bands that are willing to explore as much as we do are not always rewarded with a career, and we realize it’s a super lucky thing.”

TVOTR’s music is unconventional, but on a song such as, for example, “Happy Idiot,” it’s close enough to mainstream at times that one can imagine a record exec pushing them in an out-and-out-pop direction. That’s exactly what happened, says Adebimpe. “We’ve been advised a lot to tone things down to find a wider audience, mostly by people in the music industry,” he explains. “They’ll say, ‘If you would only do this and that …’ You have to look at them and tell them it’s like teaching a fish to breathe air. We just don’t do that.”

Despite the gloss of Sitek’s production work, when you look at TVOTR, you see three aging black guys and one geeky white one—not exactly the recipe for mainstream marketing success. Yet, they’re not really part of the black rock movement pioneered by outfits like Bad Brains, either.

“Thinking about Bad Brains or Living Colour, anytime you have an example of someone who looks like you, it’s helpful to a young person,” Adebimpe recalls about his entry into the rock world. “But I’ve never considered us strictly a rock band, because, if we were, we’d probably have a few more awards by now. There are a lot of rock bands with people of color in them now, but with genres melding, it’s become diffuse.”

Adebimpe says TVOTR are looking forward to their first visit to Japan since a quick solo tour and appearance at Summer Sonic those many years ago. He says these days crowds are asking for “Staring at the Sun” off Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, and “Wolf Like Me” off Return to Cookie Mountain.

“We didn’t know what we were doing with those songs,” he laughs. “They just showed up at a time when a lot people connected with them. It was a fresh sound even though we didn’t realize it—we just knew we liked it.

“The best songs come as epiphanies. It’s like seeing a painting that might look dashed off, but it seems more alive than something that’s been labored over for years. I think it’s because you’re getting a message and you jot it down as quickly as you can. You capture the message, and the immediacy of how it’s put down carries through to the song. Especially with new wave and punk—it’s so earnest and barebones, it’s the only thing they possibly could have done, and the energy of that music is still palpable.”

 

Belle and Sebastian: Scottish rockers on not being “indie”

1412458775000-Belle-and-Sebastian

Keyboardist Chris Geddes talks to Metropolis about the band’s new album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, Scottish independence, and why Glasgow still rocks their world.

Are we right to think of Girls as something of a departure?
To a certain extent. We took some musical styles a bit further than we had before, but it was probably all things that previous records had hinted at rather than a complete departure. You hope every record you make will be different from previous ones in some way, but we’ve never gone for a complete reinvention.

What was the backstory behind the approach?


We’ve always been led by the songwriting, rather than deciding a musical direction first, and then fitting things ’round that. Stuart [Murdoch, lead singer and songwriter] said something early on about making the album like a ’70s Eurovision song contest, with each tune from a different country. It wasn’t meant entirely seriously but it conveyed the idea that it was OK if different songs went in different directions.

Chris Geddes

Tell us about your contributions as keyboardist in the band’s working process.
It varies a lot. Sometimes the songwriter has an idea for a part, and you take it from there; other times, they’ll play you the song, and the very first thing you come up with yourself is what goes on the record. Still, other times, I might work trying to find an interesting sound, and then the sound dictates the part, or I might do some programmed stuff and add that, or something I’ve done on the laptop might be the start of a song for someone else. On this record there was more programmed stuff from me and Ben the producer than on previous records.

What’s your own personal favorite song on the new album, and why?

My favorite is “Ever Had a Little Faith?” because, even though it starts off sounding like a fairly straightforward “old” Belle and Sebastian song, by the end, we’ve taken it somewhere else. I really like “Play For Today” as well. I loved Stuart’s vocal on it, and then Dee Dee [vocalist and guitarist of Dum Dum Girls] came in and did a really great job with her part, and I love the way it builds to the end with all the effects and stuff.

How did you end up recording in Atlanta? What did that bring to the album?



We went there specifically to work with Ben Allen. It was really great. Ben; Jason Kingsland, who engineered; and Sumner Jones, who was the assistant, were all really cool guys. It was a very open atmosphere in the studio, and I learned a lot from each of them. We wouldn’t have made the same record anywhere else. Ben contributed a huge amount in terms of sounds and the direction of some of the songs. I think everybody really enjoyed being in Atlanta as well, the vibe of the place and the food.

Tell us about the press shot that shows the band holding newspapers with Scottish independence referendum headlines.



It just so happened that the photoshoot took place on the same day as the referendum, so the photographer, Søren Solkær, brought the newspapers along to use in the shoot. I was a bit hesitant to do it, from the point of view that all of the mainstream media was against independence, and I didn’t want posing with the papers to be seen as an endorsement of that. I’d been getting most of my news from social media, which was why I was surprised when it was a comfortable victory for the “no” side.

What song do fans call for most in concert, and why do you think that song touched a chord with folks?

People shout a lot for “This is Just a Modern Rock Song,” which we never really play, or “Your Cover’s Blown.” I guess when people shout for things, it’s often not because they expect you to play it, but to show that they are the kind of fan that wants you to play a seven-minute-long track. The song that connects most with the audience is probably still “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” because the lyrics are a manifesto for the early days of the band.

Over two decades of Belle and Sebastian, what’s changed the most, and what’s stayed the same?


Within the band, it’s been the changes in personnel that have made the biggest differences: Isobel, Stuart, David, and Mick leaving; and Sarah, Bob, and for this album, Dave McGowan joining. Everybody had brought something different to the group when they’ve been in it, and making this record with Dave as part of the group was really good. His playing on every song was amazing, and made everybody else raise their game. There’s certain things within the writing that have stayed broadly the same. We’ve always written songs based on the harmonies that evolved in ’60s rock and pop, and not followed recent trends. The records almost always consist of melodic, lyrical songs, rather than any other form of music.



How has “maturity” affected the band?


In terms of the music we make, not much. It’s more people’s personal circumstances that have changed over the years. But we’re in a band so that we can avoid maturity!

How does Glasgow continue to shape your sound?


It’s still important for me. I hear stuff recorded at Green Door, the studio next to our rehearsal space, that really excites me. My friend Holly, who puts on a psych weekender called Eyes Wide Open, has been really good at turning me on to touring bands that have come through. My friend Andrew still does his club Divine, where we heard a lot of stuff that shaped the sound of the band.

What do critics get right—and not—about the band?



Sometimes, I’ve read critical stuff about the band and thought there were some fair points, and other times there’s been both positive and negative things where I’ve read it and thought the person just doesn’t get what we’re doing. Maybe the main thing is, we think of ourselves as more pop than [the] critics, who put us very much in the “indie” or “twee-pop” box. It’s fine, it’s just a label. I sort my record collection by genre myself, although there’s no “twee-pop” section. I’d have us filed under “other”!

Supercozi: Producer Yukimi Yonezawa finds musical freedom in Bali

supercozi1-380x215One of a few Japanese women electronic music producers to make an international impact, Supercozi (Yukimi Yonezawa) says her new album Bioshifter—the title of which stands for “secret evolutionary process”—represents her growth over a decade as a solo artist. She shared the twisty techno pleasures of the disc and her thoughts on Japan as an outsider, from her home in Bali.

Why did you leave Japan?
The sense of stagnation I felt in Japan became unbearable by the end of 1999. I already had many travel experiences by then, so I was ready to build a new life outside of a familiar matrix.

How does having a career outside Japan compare to staying in the country?
The music industry changed dramatically after the internet became widely available. Where you are located is no longer the critical issue. I welcomed this sea change, because I spent 10 years in the Japanese major music industry, and it was like working in a factory. You have to squash your creativity to fit into the pathetic J-pop system in order to get a tie-up deal with a shampoo ad or something. Compared with this period, running my label outside Japan is like driving a spaceship on my own. It’s fantastic to have unlimited freedom to express myself, releasing whatever I want, and connecting with collaborators and listeners from all over the world.

When you return to Japan, what are your impressions?
There was a mass awakening after March 11 and Fukushima, until Abe’s regime started in 2012. All of a sudden, many ordinary citizens joined SNSs such as Facebook and started discussing nukes, clean energy, our constitution and democracy, forming a new network of grassroots activism all over Japan. Joining a peaceful rally became a normal way to express our concern. This was the biggest change I ever witnessed. But many now practice willful blindness. Sometimes I feel as if I’m witnessing a lemmings march by my own people.

Supercozi Bioshifter Cover

Your posts often criticize Japanese politics. Tell us how life abroad influences your perspective.
Fortunately, I had been always surrounded by people with the mindset of global citizens, no matter where they are from. Being able to exchange opinions on many issues with people of different nationalities inspired me to develop my point of view as a global citizen, too. And yes, I’m very concerned about the current trend of Japanese politics to drag Japan back to the mindset of the pre-war era.

How is life in Bali?
Bali has an ideal balance for me. First, Balinese Hindu culture and Balinese people’s charm remain strong. I fell in love with Bali in 1995, and am still amazed how they maintain their spiritual calmness despite the tsunami of globalization. Of course, there is a huge negative impact from overdevelopment, but Bali still has an unchanged charm if you go to the countryside. Second, Bali has a truly eclectic international expat community—so many creative individuals from all corners of the world. They mix dynamic thinking and an artistic approach in a peaceful lifestyle. I love being here.

There are still very few female DJs. Why do you think that is?
To be a professional DJ for the long term, you need an otaku mentality toward music. You’ve got to spend years developing the knowledge, and keep up-to-date. Looks like males are more equipped for digging into the long tale of the music industry for hours and hours than females. Also, there are technical skills involved to be able to deliver a good mix and adjust the sound to fit each venue. It’s a multitask job that requires wide knowledge and technological ability.

Give us some insight into the making of Bioshifter.
The album is a nice mix of chillout: Slow, sexy techno tunes, and slightly twisted electronica. I’ve got a few exciting featured vocalists, including Sophie Barker from Zero7 and MC Reason. I’m also working on a new album from Zen Lemonade—the unit with my husband Gus Till. It’s a full-on dance album, a mix of techno and progressive psytrance.

Tell us about your label, Hypo=espresso.
I founded it in Bali in 2005. We mainly release our own creations. So far we’ve released six albums. But I like this pace and Hypo is my life’s work. Sounds from Hypo will mature as we get older and absorb more things. It’s nice to have a personal platform like that. We just released an ambient compilation, Music For A Rainy Season, as a limited-edition CD, and it’s selling pretty well already.

For more info, check out www.supercozi.com or http://facebook.com/supercozi

Wrecking Crew Orchestra: Street dance meets Japanese hi-tech

wrecking-01-380x215Irregular hours are a fact of life for a dancer. Metropolis’ Skype call to Yuichi Yokoi finds the leader of Osaka street dance group Wrecking Crew Orchestra about to begin rehearsal at 11 in the evening.

“We were all once dance instructors; usually we worked during daytime,” Yokoi explains with a laugh. “So the only time we had to practice was at night after work. It’s a habit we can’t seem to drop.”

The eight members of Wrecking Crew are rehearsing what may be their biggest show yet: A 10-day residency at Tokyo’s Zepp Blue Theater.

“We wanted to test our limits of expression,” says Yokoi of the production, which employs sophisticated projection mapping. “With Doodlin’, we go beyond street dance to create an entertainment spectacle. We’ve used projection mapping in our performances before, but we wanted to try something new in terms of integrating technology with street dance.”

Doodlin’ melds street dance with Japanese hi-tech, taking the integration of projection mapping with performance art to a new level. Working with visual director Takehito Suzuki and a pack of costume and stage designers, Wrecking Crew Orchestra employs what’s called a “see-through screen” that allows them to seamlessly blend the dancing and visuals.

Yokoi says the title Doodlin’ stands for graffiti. “The theme is based on childhood,” he offers. “Kids have a limitless imagination. For example, if you have kids draw a cat, but they don’t do a very good job, the cat’s ears may look like mountains. Then they draw a sky as background, and what was supposed to be a cat becomes a landscape. That’s the idea of Doodlin’—images transform before your eyes into something completely unexpected. When we become adults, our freedom of imagination gets hemmed in by social expectations and common sense. With Doodlin’, we want people to recall the freedom of their childhood. We hope to inspire people to open their minds.”

After decades as a dancer and stints representing Japan at overseas events, Yokoi speaks with the voice of someone who’s had time to consider the meaning of his life’s calling. “It has to be a conversation between the dancers and the audience,” he believes. “Dance isn’t just a tool to entertain—but also to tell a story.”

When they go abroad, Wrecking Crew find themselves in the intriguing position of representing Japan via an art form that began on the streets of the United States. “Street dance isn’t Japanese culture, so for us to represent it to Myanmar people was a bit strange,” he recalls forthrightly. “[The] Japanese first imitated American culture, but then we made it our own over time. So we tried to bring that to Myanmar. It was a powerful experience.”

What makes Japanese street dance unique? “[The] Japanese are subtle,” he says, pondering a good answer. “And precise. We’re able to take advantage of that for performances that, for example, involve projection mapping. We try to bring those aspects of Japanese culture to street dance; and Japanese hi-tech—mixing that with street art.”

Rather than finding overseas habits strange, Yokoi says it’s the local response he finds odd upon returning to Japan. “Japanese people are very shy—they’re always checking other audience members out before they decide how to respond,” he responds. “Nearby Asian peoples are more open. So rather than finding other countries strange, when I get back, I find Japan different. I wish Japanese would learn how to enjoy themselves more easily, and not be so uptight.”

While amateur dance forms from salsa to ballroom to Jamaican-style twerking are wildly popular here, dance at the professional level is still a tiny community divided into factions from street dance to ballet to butoh.

Japan needs someone who can unite dance fans, and in Yokoi they may have the right person. Whether it’s in front of audiences in big Japanese cities, or on international tour, what comes through from Yokoi is that he enjoys being on stage at least as much as his fans take pleasure in watching him.

“It’s all I know,” he concludes. “I’ve been dancing professionally half my life. It’s also the area where I express myself best. And it provides a way to interact with people. I even met my wife through dance—and the members of Wrecking Crew, too. More than art, for us dance is a communication tool.”

http://wreckingcreworchestra.com/

Fuji TV cancels blackface segment

edited2

A successful petition launched by Yokohama resident and blogger Baye McNeil apparently led Fuji TV to cancel a long-running blackface segment on its music program “Music Fair.” The segment was to feature vintage vocal group Rats & Star and idol outfit Momoiro Clover Z, but after Brooklyn, New York native McNeil gathered more than 5,000 petitioners, Fuji ran the segment blackface-free, even joining his hashtag team #stopblackfacejapan #日本でブラックフェイスやめて. Read McNeil’s account here.