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

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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”!

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Fuji TV cancels blackface segment

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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.

Fuji Rock Festival 2014: Still an unmatched feast of sounds

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Fuji Rock turned 18 this year, an age when newly minted adults are able to drink and drive in many countries.

Promoter Smash marked Fuji’s coming of age quietly. Japan’s marquee rock festival isn’t the rapidly growing sprout of its early years. Instead, like its model Glastonbury, Fuji Rock has reached a stage of maturity where few surprises are expected, but it can still be trusted to deliver an unmatched feast of sounds—and offer a snapshot into the state of international music in Japan.

For some perspective consider the following: when Fuji began in 1997, this year’s headliners, Canada’s ambitious Arcade Fire were still fresh-faced teenagers. Late-breaking New Zealand songstress Lorde was an eight-month-old infant.

With Japan’s youth population in a tailspin, Smash has had to cultivate the loyalty of its aging rock demographic. This it’s done in style by building its kids area into a memorable Tarzan-adventure treat (disclosure: I attended with son in tow for the first time).

The quoted attendance of 102,000 over three days was down a bit from peak years, but among the revelers was a growing contingent of families. Cultivating a multigenerational audience—long a goal of Smash boss Masa Hidaka—and attracting more folks from overseas (Chinese accents were heard frequently this year), look to be the key to maintaining Fuji’s run of success.

The larger problem of whether rock itself is facing senescence is something festivals everywhere are grappling with. Fuji’s stabs at broadening its audience into the hip-hop market have yielded acts from Run DMC to Eminem. Kanye West was supposed to headline the 2014 edition but for unexplained reasons canceled, leaving a reunited Outkast to wave the banner.

In the meantime Smash can only hope that emerging lights such as deep-lunged Lorde and indie rock fairy princess St. Vincent—this writer’s best act of 2014—will one day be big enough to fill the Naeba Ski Resort’s gigantic Green Stage with a new generation of rock fans. With stadium-level classic rock, punk and even grunge-era rock bands in increasingly short supply and international music’s market share in Japan stagnant, Fuji Rock may look different in the future.

In addition to fighting to maintain international rock’s appeal in Japan, we’d also like to see Smash do a better job of alerting Japanese to their own emerging rock music. Toward this end we think it’s possible to achieve a more creatively curated selection of young domestic acts for the Rookie A Go-Go stage. This stage has been the launchpad for acts like Sambomaster, but for the most part doesn’t seem to host many of the intriguing bands on Japan’s underground live house circuit.

What isn’t in doubt about Fuji Rock is the promise of a rewarding and diverse weekend of music, performance, freak shows, mountain breezes, and a uniquely freewheeling break from Japan’s grueling day-to-day. It’s the last factor that more than anything else guarantees the festival’s future for many years to come.

Metropolis, July 31, 2014

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.

Miu Mau: Fukuoka trio’s monochrome weekend

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Fukuoka is known for generating some of the most creative rock of the archipelago—think Number Girl and Sheena Ringo. Without relocating to Tokyo like the above, trio Miu Mau are generating accolades all over. A listen to their new single “Monochrome” reveals why. Over jelly synths and airtight drums, singer Masami Takashima casts a spell with a voice that’s at once clear as bell and emotive—a welcome antidote to the simpering songstresses that dominate whatever now passes for Japan’s “airwaves.”

Sung in English, the video for “Monochrome” traces the lonely, ennui-filled “monochrome weekend” of a typical (if atypically lovely) young Japanese woman. “The concept for each of our songs is different,” Takashima says by email. “The best description of our overall approach might be, ‘new wave/experimental/indie-rock/breakbeats/ world/disco.’” However you want to describe the musical formula of Miu Mau (“cat’s tail” in Finnish), they’ve hit on the right combination of artfulness and pop.

The B-side of the single, “Haru wa Kaoru Spring,” is equally compelling, skirting the line of dub and electro without quite being either. Takashima, who moved from Kumamoto to Fukuoka to create a band, says bandmates Hiromi Kajiwara’s “cool looks” on guitar and drummer Miwako Matsuda’s “rock solid” beats made her realize instantly that they were the vehicle for her musical vision.

From their base in Fukuoka—a move to Tokyo is definitely not in the cards—the trio has dreams of one day touring abroad. But if not, they tell Metropolis that in a decade they’ll be the “coolest obasan” around.

Metropolis, Nov 7, 2013

Onda Vaga: The Argentinian quintet reprise their Fuji Rock conquest

With an unsettling eight shows over three days at Fuji Rock 2012, Argentina’s Onda Vaga were the universally acclaimed masters of the event’s small stages. Now they return to Japan to tour their new disc, Magma Elemental. We caught up with singer-songwriter Marcelo Blanco ahead of the quintet’s biggest gig yet in their native Buenos Aires.

Metropolis, Aug 29, 2013

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