Mr. Porter “A Saturday with…Zim of Black Shadow”

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Film by Mr Antony Crook (Text by Dan Grunebaum)

They are Tokyo icons. Visit Yoyogi Park or the waterfront of Odaiba on a Saturday or Sunday and they’ll be there, rain or shine. Swivelling in leather get-ups to vintage rock blasted through portable sound systems, they’re Japan’s self-styled rockabillies.

Zim is the leader of Black Shadow, a well-known gang who dress up like 1950s rock’n’rollers. During the week, Zim is Mr Kinya Ueno and he holds down a regular nine-to-five job. But he prefers not to talk about his life Monday to Friday, for he is a man who is truly working for the weekend.

Black Shadow’s heyday was in the 1980s, when Japan experienced a retro-rock boom and American and British pop culture offered an irresistible lure of freedom to rebellious Japanese youths, who railed against a conservative society ruled by the proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.

Zim left high school in the provinces as soon as he could and fled to Tokyo as a teenager, determined to become part of the scene. Like many who reject Japan’s corporate treadmill, his decision consigned him to a life on the margins.

But for a member of Black Shadow, being part of the gang was more than ample reward. Music and fashion provided more of a satisfying life than being one of Japan’s corporate salaryman drones ever could.

Heavily tattooed, clad in black leathers and with their “Regent” pompadour hairstyles blow-dried and styled to crazy heights, Black Shadows do what many Japanese can only dream of: express themselves. Extravagantly. Unabashedly.

Now these rock’n’rollers are growing old. Zim, now 45, has been in the gang for nearly 30 years. But teens today are into J-pop or electronic dance music. They have home-grown styles such as cosplay (dressing up in anime/ manga/ cartoon costumes) and don’t look to the West as much as Zim’s generation once did.

Still, as long as Zim can wax his Regent and shake his hips to the rock’n’roll beat, he’ll keep coming back each weekend to the place – and the people – that gave him his identity and set him apart from the mainstream; that made him and all the Black Shadows, in a word, different.

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Rock in Opposition: European fest explores prog-rock’s potential in Japan

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The original Rock in Opposition (RIO) took place on March 12, 1978 in London, England. It brought together European prog-rock bands united by their common unmarketability to major record labels, including such acts as England’s Henry Cow, Italy’s Stormy Six and Belgium’s Univers Zero.

Over 35 years later, the fest finally sets foot in Japan, chaired by Akiko Nagai. Head of Disk Union’s progressive rock section for seven years, Nagai also helms the Tutinoko label, on which some of the RIO musicians have released albums. Nagai sat with Metropolis to discuss how it all came about.

How did Rock in Opposition come to Japan?

It grew out of the first tour by RIO headliners Univers Zero. The core group of people behind the festival were involved in producing the tour. Then our release of the documentary DVD About Rock in Opposition sold well, showing there is a demand for this sort of event in Japan. We then negotiated with French RIO festival directors Michel Besset and Chris Cutler for the rights to the name. As it turned out, the name “Rock in Opposition” was already in the public domain. We then linked up with Smash West and the Tokyo Arts Council to put it together.

What are your hopes for Tokyo’s first Rock in Opposition?

We want to share the history of Rock in Opposition with many people—not only prog-rock fans but all people with open ears. We also want to bring together the worldwide rock scene with the Tokyo scene, in hopes that something new will emerge, and that it will provide a platform for avant-garde music in Japan. RIO is expensive to put on, and the tickets aren’t cheap, but we hope that if it’s successful one day we can put on a free concert.

What is the audience like for progressive rock in Japan?

Japan’s prog-rock market is large. Bands can fill large halls here. But there are a lot of young bands that borrow prog-rock’s forms, rhythm changes and instrumentation, but aren’t really progressive rock in the true sense of the term. We don’t want to host a nostalgia-fest. The artists on our lineup are forward-thinking—“progressive” in the true sense of the word. The music may be difficult, but we hope our audience will rise to the challenge.

Nov 15-16, 3pm, ¥14,000. Tsutaya O-East. Nearest station: Shibuya. Tel: 03-5458-4681.

www.rockinopposition-japan.com/index_en.html

The Lumineers: Wesley Schultz‘s sushi-flavored work ethic

1035-MU-The-LumineersIt’s been a year of superlatives for Denver folk-rock outfit The Lumineers since “Ho Hey” went to number one on the back of one of the decade’s most memorable choruses. Yet when Metropolis reaches frontman Wesley Schultz on tour in Florida, they’re coming off another high.

“We sold out two nights at Red Rocks with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, which was just incredible—it was distracting how beautiful it was,” he explains in measured cadences over the phone. “It was the first time we’ve had the chance to play with people of that caliber.”

Schultz says the quintet’s planning for their first symphonic collaboration went smoothly. “Tom Hagerman, who’s in this band Devotchka, did the score. We make pretty minimal music, so there was a lot of room to add more sound. Some of the songs we’d already envisioned with strings, so the choices pretty much made themselves.”

Along with outfits like Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers are spearheading a new chapter in the singer-songwriter tradition.

Founded by Schultz and childhood friend Jeremiah Fraites in New Jersey in the mid-2000s, the group weds heartfelt lyrics to carefully wrought acoustic guitar music, leavened by the cello, mandolin and bass of three newer members. “Jer and I, we’ve been writing songs for eight-plus years together,” Schultz says, eager to show the band is more than simply a 100-million YouTube view wonder. “That experience made me able to appreciate this—and the years of working on our craft in the shadows I hope helped us to make a complete record instead of just one great song.”

Still, the shock and delight clearly continue to reverberate. “Three years ago, my brother and I were home for Christmas,” Schultz remembers, “and he said, ‘Did you see that “Ho Hey” song has 3,000 hits?’ I thought he was joking, but it kept growing and growing. The number gets so big it’s difficult to wrap your head around it—you realize it as you travel to different cities and more people recognize you. So I’m blown away and thankful that song got our foot in the door with a lot of people.”

Rather than musical influences, Schultz credits people outside of music for helping him realize his musical vision and then stay focused enough not to get carried away by the hype over “Ho Hey.” “There have been a few figures in my life—one worked construction, one was a butcher and the other a sushi guy—and they all taught me so much more about music than most musicians ever did about how to conduct yourself,” he says.

The “sushi guy” was the owner of the restaurant Schultz and Fraites worked at in Denver after relocating from New Jersey. “It’s owned by three Japanese brothers, and they taught me what it means to be a hard worker,” Schultz says. “Making sushi at a high level taught me a lot about how to approach our band. It’s about that unrelenting commitment—being really intentional about things and punching a clock helped me far more than knowing the right records or something.”

Which of course makes it a given that the singer, who spent three months in China but has never been to Japan, is excited about The Lumineers’ first visit here. In the meantime, there’s a European tour, and a track on the new Hunger Games movie. “It’s called ‘Gale Song,’” Schultz informs, “but we’re not allowed to play it until the movie comes out.”

Like all Lumineers’ efforts, the song’s simplicity shrouds the elaborate process that brought it into being. “Typically our songs are worked over a lot—we’ll record 20, 30 versions, playing with the tempo and instrumentation and adding verses and taking them out,” Schultz says. “We burn an idea down and then build it back up again ’til we’re satisfied.”

Metropolis, Jan 23, 2014

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