The Telephones: It may be 2014, but the Saitama group is laughing, crying, singing…and dancing like it’s 1999

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Poking relentless fun at Japan’s crassly commercial late 20th century pop culture against a backdrop of disco-infused postpunk, The Telephones have in eight years cut an increasingly large profile across the Japanese popscape. Metropolis talked to vocalist Akira Ishige about the Saitama band’s latest, Laugh, Cry, Sing… And Dance!!!, ahead of their Go Live Vol. 1 gig at Ex Theater Roppongi.

The first time Metropolis saw the Telephones was some years back at Chelsea Hotel in Shibuya. How has your sound grown?

These days we’re going for a more pop sound. Which is not to say out and out pop, but pop with an alternative flavor. We used to be more postpunk influenced.

What is the band’s backstory anyway?

We met at a live house in Saitama. My first thought was, can this really become a rock band? The members seemed too nice. I couldn’t believe it was going to work, but the first time we got in the studio it felt right.

Tell us about your first song…

We didn’t start with a cover but wrote an original right away. Our first track had the disco punk sound typical of our early days. We actually still play the song—it’s called “Used Skin” off our Japan album. We still have the same members. We fight like any other band, but no one’s quit yet. We just hash it out until everyone has come to terms with whatever differences there are between us.

Last summer you played your first Fuji Rock Festival. How was it?

It was a dream come true. We were pretty nervous but psyched. Fuji Rock is a dream for any Japanese band. You feel like a star playing alongside all those international acts—it’s completely different than your typical Tokyo live house.

The fans have been waiting all year—they really get into it…

Yeah, and the location is fantastic. We played the White Stage, which is beautiful and also has really good sound.

What are some other events to aim for?

It goes without saying that Glastonbury would be awesome and Coachella, too. Then there’s always the Fuji Rock Green stage.

Have you been abroad yet?

We’re going to Europe next month: France, Belgium, Switzerland and England. We’ll be playing with Polysics.

Tell us about your new album…

We’ve gone in a melodic, pop-oriented direction.

Was it a conscious choice?

It was more of a natural tendency than a calculated decision.

The song “It’s Alright To Dance” hits the nail on the head in light of the current police campaign against dance clubs…

It was inspired by Eurobeat but done in a Telephones style. We love that kitschy, Eurobeat sound.

The song title “90s Drama Life” is attention-catching…

It’s inspired by ’80s and ’90s electronic music, which is a huge influence on us. I go clubbing in Tokyo a lot and also DJ. I got into electronic music via the Manchester sound, beginning with bands like the Happy Mondays and New Order and then house and techno.

What Tokyo clubs do you like?

Ageha, WWW, Liquidroom are a few of my favorites. But I usually spin at smaller clubs in and around Shimokitazawa. I like to move between the live rock and electronic scenes, which have really been coming together anyway for the last seven or eight years.

Yeah, it almost seems like you can’t have a rock band without a DJ or synth/effects player these days…

Actually there are still a lot of purely guitar-oriented bands. They may not be trendy at the moment, but there are many Japanese punk and metal bands that wouldn’t think of having anything electronic in the lineup.

Tell us about a song you’re working on now…

We’re recording a new song right now. It’s got a ’90s dance music vibe. I think you’ll find it interesting—it’s quite funny.

Is humor important for you?

Yeah, we always try to inject some humor into our songs. We’re pretty serious about music, and maybe as individuals, but when we get together something happens and we tend to lose it.

Does humor make it easier to stick together as a band?

We’re serious when we need to be serious, but we’re also serious about being funny, too… if you get what I mean.

Who’s the goofiest band member?

It’s hard to say. Everybody is funny in his or her own way. But maybe our synth player Nobu is the most obviously goofy. His stage persona reminds me a bit of The Happy Monday’s “Bez” [notorious dancer Mark “Bez” Berry].

What does music mean to you?

Music has always been part of my life. It’s a release for me, whether listening to it or playing it. I started playing music in elementary school, and MTV was also a big influence. I was into hard rock and heavy metal even as a small child.

Metropolis, Jan 22, 2014

Los Lonely Boys: Garza bros deliver a “Texican rock” Revelation

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Somehow, the image of three Chicano brothers singing rootsy rock songs steeped in Christian ideas of family and faith, didn’t seem quite the natural fit for Club Quattro in trendy, materialistic Shibuya.

Yet there Henry, JoJo and Ringo Garza were, searing themselves into the audience’s consciousness in their first visit to Japan in 2012. “We always want to make sure our music is about being in the light,” JoJo says from the Los Lonely Boys’ San Angelo, Texas hometown, “by which I mean god being the ultimate source. It doesn’t mean if you don’t believe we don’t care for you; all it means is that’s how we live our lives.”

Not so long after a follow-up Fuji Rock appearance, their faith was severely tested. Singer and guitarist Henry broke his back at the beginning of 2013, falling off the stage during a concert in Los Angeles.

“It was a horrible, horrific accident, not only to the business, but most importantly to the family,” JoJo says. “It put our lives back in perspective. We got together as a family and are a lot closer again. It’s sad that it takes something catastrophic but sometimes that’s what it takes.”

Henry’s recovery has been two steps forward and one step back, but the band was able to complete their brand-new album, Revelation. “When the accident happened we were already working on the record, and I can remember Ringo and I were going into the studio without Henry trying to work through the parts we could, but it just didn’t feel right,” JoJo says. “We even played a gig without Henry, but decided that wasn’t going to happen again. It’s been one of the tougher years in our lives and I’m thankful we’ve had the opportunity to learn, because it could have been swept out completely from under our feet.”

Revelation sparkles with Los Lonely Boys’ “Texican rock ‘n’ roll,” their sublime blend of Latin rock, blues and Americana. It’s a style the brothers have been honing for a decade since they emerged out of Nashville, where they’d moved to break into music.

Willie Nelson, virtual personification of Americana, helped propel the brothers along by guiding their debut album, which saw the track “Heaven” go to number one. “Willie gave us a big push in the early stages of our career, and he’s treated us as his own family, and loved and respected us,” JoJo says. “He was also one of our dad’s biggest inspirations, as well as Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.”

Los Lonely Boys’ new single, “Blame It On Love,” encapsulates the band’s musical trajectory. Launching with simple acoustic guitar and mariachi accordions, the track segues into a rollicking country rock jaunt, climaxing with a sizzling Fender guitar solo, all topped off with the brothers’ crystalline harmonies.

“Dad taught us about Mexican-American cats that weren’t doing the traditional music, people like Santana, and earlier cats,” recalls JoJo. “He and his brothers were actually playing traditional music, but they would also step away from that to do country or rock. It’s something we’re really proud of, to know our own traditional music, but also be able to branch out into Americana.”

Music is the family business and the Garza brothers are handing it down to their own kids. “You can’t help what gets played on the radio and TV, and when the kids are out with the other youngsters, they want to blend in,” JoJo grants. “So my kids are aware of computer-based music and the computer controlling everyone’s voices, and that’s cool in its own right. But our music comes from raw wood with a few strings attached, and we feel it’s something that has to be passed on, and not only to our children, but to everyone’s kids.”

The Japan-edition of Revelation, as is customary, features a few bonus tracks in the form of a cover of Santana’s legendary “Oye Como Va” and a live recording of “Heaven” from that night at Club Quattro.

“I don’t know why they expect more tracks—it’s kind of weird to me—but ‘Oye Como Va’ we recorded a while back and they liked it and we were like, ‘Yeah, if you want to use it go ahead,’” JoJo explains. “Because at that time it was impossible for us to get back in the studio. But then when they used ‘Heaven,’ which was recorded in Shibuya, we were super happy about that.”

“We love Japan and we can’t wait to get over there again,” JoJo finishes. “I didn’t want to come back to America. The humbleness of the people, the courtesy… I just felt like that was where I belonged.”

Metropolis, Jan 8, 2014

Padmasana II: Asia expats head back to the chillout room

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Almost a full generation since the first Western tripsters blissed out to sunrises on the Eastern beaches of Goa and Koh Phangan—and 13 years since their last album—Padmasana take up where they left off, providing the sonic downward glidepath for nights of electronic music and mind expansion. The duo of veteran Asia hands and occasional co-producers Gio Makyo and David Hikari (both at times Tokyo residents), with spiritual advisor S. Widi, expertly guide listeners on mood journeys via tracks such as “Transition” and “Vibration.” The musical references are as much to Indian ragas and Jamaican dub as they are a knowing wink to the 90s ambient house of The Orb or Subsurfing. The intriguing aspect of Padmasana 2.0 is that the music sounds good even without the presumed benefits of ecstasy or LSD. Is this because it brings the listener back to a certain time and place? Or because well-produced chillout music was always mind-expanding enough for it to stand alone?

Metropolis, Jan 7, 2014

Sebadoh: The indie rock warhorse’s new Defend Yourself

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With long-serving US indie-rock outfit Sebadoh, what you see—and hear—is what you get.

“I always write from a very direct place,” offers frontman Lou Barlow from his home in Los Angeles, “which is good, but bad in some ways, because classic songwriting is about putting yourself in characters. With Sebadoh I write in a way that literally documents what’s going on in my life.”

Early Sebadoh songs famously took up Barlow’s expulsion by leader J. Mascis from Massachusetts band Dinosaur Jr. On their new album, Defend Yourself, the confessional atmosphere is even more personal and painful. “In the last year I left my wife,” Barlow says simply. “We’d been married for 17 years and together for 25 years. I left her during the recording of the record. So that informed a few of the songs.”

Where Barlow played the foil to Mascis in Dinosaur Jr., with Sebadoh, it’s all Barlow and co-leader Eric Gaffney. The pair formed the band in 1986, later filling out the lineup with drummer Jason Loewenstein.

Barlow and Gaffney’s songs have a less choked atmosphere than Mascis’s, but they remain quintessentially indie rock in flavor. Barely tuneful vocals are mumbled under grinding guitars—the ability to emote, rather than play a solo or pen a clever song, is the goal.

After releasing a few of lo-fi indie rock’s more influential albums (Weed Forestin’, Bakesale) in the late ’80s and ’90s, Sebadoh (a nonsense word coined by Barlow) went quiescent for a while. Barlow mended fences with Mascis for the 2005 Dinosaur Jr. reunion, and Gaffney had his solo project.

But Barlow and Gaffney went out on tour together again in 2007, even visiting Japan a few years later for a gig at O-West in Shibuya. The groundwork was set for their first recording in 14 years.

“We just finally found some time to do a new album,” Barlow explains. “We’ve had some really great tours, but it wasn’t realistic for the touring band to record for various reasons. Then Bob [current drummer Bob D’Amico] joined Sebadoh in 2010, and that went really well. So we made some definite plans. Jason and Bob flew out to LA and we got together in my practice space and recorded.”

The three tracked Defend Yourself without a producer, and the results are loose and lo-fi—yet surprisingly energetic for a bunch of middle-aged guys. “The last record we did in a studio and there was a lot of pressure and money involved,” Barlow relates. “What we learned was, if we were going to make another record and have a good time doing it, we wouldn’t get involved in any of that.”

At this stage in life, Barlow is unconcerned about staking out any new musical ground. “So much of what is considered modern music is actually regurgitated,” he believes. “I don’t think rock has progressed in any real way for a very long time—I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying the most natural thing is to just write some songs and play them, and not make a conscious effort to evolve in any way or make anything timely.”

The name for the album came after the realization that three songs had the word “defend” in them. “A lot of our songwriting has been about understanding other people, but at some point you have to consider your own emotional wellbeing,” Barlow affirms. “Rather than always understand someone else, I had to go, ‘Well this is how I feel.’ There’s a double meaning: literally ‘defend yourself,’ but also to send the message to someone else that I’m not taking care of you any longer. It’s harsh, but it’s my life and I only have one of them.”

Showing archetypal indie rock lack of self-esteem, Barlow is sanguine that few people will actually relate the lyrics to events in his own life. “I’ve always felt my life doesn’t really matter that much and that no one is listening when I expose something,” he says. “I feel really anonymous when I do it. Even in my personal life, when I write for people, rarely do they see themselves in the songs. I take the view that the more honest I am in writing about myself, people will take that and apply it in their own lives.”

This goes for Barlow’s own experience of music. “When I hear a classic, great, incredibly personal song, I am not thinking literally about the musician who wrote it—I’m applying it to myself,” he says. “And I write my own songs with the naïve hope that other people are doing the same thing.”

Metropolis, Nov 21, 2013

Damo Suzuki: An improvised life

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The gyaku yunyu (reverse import) phenomenon is a familiar route for Japanese artists like The Boredoms, who remained obscure until stateside recognition brought them to the attention of a wider audience at home.

But Japan also has a coterie of artists who go abroad never to return. Counterculture hero and former vocalist for Krautrock visionaries Can, Damo Suzuki has been overseas over four decades.

“Honestly, I was just a hippy traveling with my rucksack and guitar,” Suzuki says about leaving Japan in the late 60s on a ship headed for Russia with only twenty-thousand yen to his name. Yearning for wider horizons of which he’d caught a glimpse growing up next to a US military base, a teenage Suzuki had no inkling he’d end up a counterculture icon.

But he was clearly already one of Japan’s proverbial nails that stand out. “The meaning of travel was different back then,” he says from his longtime home in Cologne, Germany. “When I left Japan I thought maybe I would never come back.”

Like for YMO star Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose years in New York have given him the distance to pillory Japan’s “nuclear village,” Suzuki’s decades abroad have given him a different perspective than most domestically based Japanese musicians. “If you are abroad you can see your country from another perspective, and are much more critical,” he says. “I can now see Japan clearly, and it’s not a place I want to live.”

Nevertheless, Suzuki returns to Japan on a frequent basis—often to perform with musicians a generation or two younger than him—and calls Tokyo’s current experimental music scene “fantastic.” He’ll be back next week to “curate” an event for Red Bull—the caffeinated beverage maker that targets young urbanites through its Red Bull Music Academy events.

Still a bearded, idealistic hippy, if wizened and transformed by his years abroad and battle with cancer, Suzuki will stage an expanded edition of his Damo Suzuki’s Network improvisational happenings.

With Red Bull’s backing, the event will see Suzuki lead a group of 25 musicians in a giant improvisation to the 1927 silent film Metropolis. Among the noted players to appear will be noise music giant Keiji Haino and Omar Rodríguez-López of Mars Volta fame. “The event will be improvised,” Suzuki tells Metropolis. “I might give some simple directions for the flow, but there will be no rehearsing.”

Suzuki tours the world creating instant musical happenings. “I travel from place to place and improvise with local musicians I’ve never met before. There’s always a good energy, because I work with open-minded people who like to do this,” he explains. “Improvisation is the best way to share energy with the audience, because no knows what will happen. Music is not an answer, it’s always a process and question. Like Laotse said, the way is the goal.”

For Suzuki, improvisation is more than a method to generate an artistic experience—it’s a means to live life to its fullest. “If you travel with a plan then you concentrate only on famous buildings or restaurants,” he notes, “but if you don’t have a plan you can have a much more creative experience.”

“If you lay in a coma once and survive, then you have another philosophy,” concludes Suzuki. “It’s very special. I had a blood transfusion and survived, so I feel every day is important.”

Benjamin Skepper: Aussie-Japanese musician’s postmodern soundscapes

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Avant-garde cellist, pianist, sound designer, fashion icon, and now cultural ambassador. Musician Ben Skepper is an artist of many hats (literally), among them being a bicultural Australian raised Melbourne by a Japanese mother and Aussie father who sometimes inhabits Tokyo. Metropolis heard from Skepper about his new album of field recordings, and his upcoming cultural mission to Russia.

Why did you decide to base your new album around field recordings?

In The Field is my fourth album, however, I present a different perspective on my work as a sound artist. This album is not instrumental, but rather an exploration of different sounds recorded around the world. Boiler rooms of a naval ships, Rom gypsy weddings, chanting in Roman Cathedrals, street life in Paris, environmental sounds from the forest in Australia, temple sounds in Kyoto, there are many different sound bites that I have captured. Back in recording studio, I separated all the files by country and then set about remixing field recordings into a multi-track recording. Italy, France, Turkey, Japan and Australia feature on this album, and each sound composition is designed as a “sound trip” into my sonic view of the landscapes of that country during my travels between 2006-2012. I hope that the sounds trigger visual images in the listener.

How do you incorporate the recordings with your cello and piano performances?

The field recordings form part of the live performance, interspersed between live instrumental compositions, and sometimes blurring into them. It is like a DJ mixing two tracks together, one is the live sound the other is the sounds of the field recordings.

What did you learn about yourself and your travels in making the album?

When we travel, we tend to capture a memory of a place or space on our iPhone. I see the world through sound, and while I love photography, to capture sounds from the places where I travel brings me back into that time space, triggers a memory. I rarely leave home without my sound recorder!

Tell us about a few of the more intriguing field recordings you made.

On the Turkish recording, when I was walking around Istanbul with my dear friend Aysu, we were suddenly invited into a Rom gypsy wedding party. People are very much scared of the Rom as they are often represented as thieves and criminals, however, we seized on this opportunity to join the fun, and I took a little recording of the live band and background chatter. It was a fantastic evening! The Italian field recording features many sounds taken on 11 March 2011, the day of the Tohoku disaster when I was supposed to fly back from Rome, but did not due to the disaster. That night I found myself on the Spanish Steps, in prayer, that friends, family and all in Japan would be safe. I captured a number of field recordings on this day as a memory of what happened even though I was outside Japan.

Tell us about your role as an Australian cultural emissary to Russia.

In July this year, I had my first tour of Russia. Alongside my work as an artist, I was also sent on a mission from the City of Melbourne to the City of St Petersburg with the intention of developing international intercultural exchange and to research the artistic landscape more generally. I met with some of the most prestigious Russian Public Arts Institutions, one of which was the State Conservatory of Music. I have now been invited back for a fellowship next year, which I am extremely excited about. I have always had a deep respect for the cultural history of Russia, and I now possess the chance to become part of its cultural fabric. Next year Melbourne and St Petersburg celebrate 25 years of sister city relations, and I have curatorial and collaborative performance plans in the pipeline. I intend to share my experiences as an artist with Russia, and to introduce Russian art and artists to the rest of the world. It is a big dream, which is coming into fruition.

Metropolis, Oct 15, 2013

DJ Emma: Up close with Tokyo’s hardiest house DJ

Going back to the heady early days of Tokyo’s house music scene and fantabulous clubs like Gold, DJ Emma was there. Two decades on and he’s still there, behind the decks at Tokyo’s biggest discotheques, ministering the gospel of classic house music to the faithful. Metropolis tracked Emma down for a quick Q&A on the occasion of his latest dance remix album for Daikanyama club Air.

Metropolis, Sep 5, 2013

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Gamarjobat: Mime duo jacks Tokyo

Japanese acts that first find success abroad often then have to convince domestic audiences to reimport them in a bit of legerdemain called gyakuyunyu. Something of a fallacy exists that overseas acclaim immediately translates to success here as well. “We are originally from Tokyo, but ended up performing overseas a lot,” Ketch! (the red-mohawked one) says about comic mime duo Gamarjobat’s trajectory since their discovery at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival. “We tour Japan every year but we hadn’t done Tokyo much, so this time we decided to devote ourselves to the capital.”

Metropolis, Aug 2, 2013

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