Next Music from Tokyo promoter Steven Tanaka on idol music, female bands in Japan, and drinking with the boss
Interview—Steven Tanaka on Next Music from Tokyo Vol 11
Next Wednesday, Oct. 11, Next Music from Tokyo Vol 11 comes to KW Studios (111 W. Hastings St.) in Vancouver.
I’ve only been to two previous editions, but both were amazing. And the story behind the NMFT is as fascinating as the bands. The showcases are the result of one music fan, Steven Tanaka. Originally from Vancouver, Tanaka is a Toronto-based anaesthesiologist who regularly visits Japan on scouting missions to find the most exciting new bands in the country’s diverse and vital music scene. And he has made it his mission to introduce his favourites to North American (though mostly Canadian) listeners.
Next week, on Oct. 11, Tanaka brings the 11th instalment of Next Music from Tokyo to Vancouver. (Typically, the bill comes to three cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The tour begins in Toronto tonight, Oct. 6). I recently talked to the part-time music promoter for the Vancouver Sun, where we covered his reason for doing this, mistakes he made early on, and how the musicians react to coming to Canada (for many, it’s their first time leaving the country!).
But I only had 600 words to work with, and the conversation was so interesting that I wanted to share the rest of what Steven had to say. Below, you’ll find out his thoughts on Japan’s “idol” music scene, the ubiquity of female-fronted bands in Japan, and more.
Japan’s idol music scene
Shawn Conner: You’re bringing six acts to Vancouver for Next Music from Tokyo Vol 11. They range in style from electronic to intricate, complex rock, to noise-y pop. There’s even what the Japanese call an “idol group.” Can you explain what this means?
Steven Tanaka: It’s a manufactured music group. They don’t write their own music, they don’t write their own lyrics. A production team is responsible for these things. They tend to pick girls with a more girl-next-door look. Sometimes they don’t even have any background in music at all. But then they go through rigorous training to become proficient in dancing. The quality of singing isn’t that important. They often sing as a group, so vocal deficiencies are often hidden.
There’s a big different between a mainstream idol and an underground idol group. In terms of a mainstream idol, the music is secondary. They’re trying to sell the image and style of the girls, often to appeal to an older, middle-age male demographic.
Outside of the actual music, there’s the selling of merchandise, and this includes a two-shot, or “checkie.” (Shawn’s note: I have no idea what the correct spelling is.) Basically, you pay between five to ten dollars. After a group does a performance, the fans will line up for one or two hours to have their photo taken with a member of the group. That’s a big way that the idol group, or the management team, makes money.
SC: But then there are underground idol groups too.
ST: Yes, that’s evolved in just the last five years or so. They often have the singing style of the mainstream idol groups but they pay more attention to the music. They’ll amalgamate a certain genre of more extreme music, like hardcore noise or punk, or hip-hop, with idol music. They’ll come up with something a bit novel. They’re less focused on merchandising.
Women rule in Japanese music scene
SC: In this lineup, at least one band is coming back a second time, Gozen Sanji to Taikutsu. But is it rare to bring bands back a second time?
ST: No, I’ve brought maybe five or six bands a second time. But I usually wait a few years.
SC: A lot of the bands coming over for Next Music from Tokyo are co-ed, female-fronted, or all female. Is this reflective of the Japanese music scene in general?
ST: Yes. Girls play a significant role. Oftentimes there might be bands where you have a token female bassist or drummer, but they definitely stand as equals as musicians. Compared to most countries, females do play a larger role. Even in terms of sound engineers. In Canada, it’s rare to come across a female sound engineer. Whereas in Japan, I would say the majority are female. And definitely there are lot more all-female bands.
SC: Is there any hierarchy on the part of bands writing their own music looking down at idol bands?
ST: On my end, I didn’t appreciate idol music at all. I felt that it was a bit of a joke and exploitative. And it is, even now, even on the level of underground idol bands, a bit exploitative. But with some of the underground idol groups I legitimately like the music. That’s why I decided to bring them over. But a lot of bands probably do feel that the idol groups are taking opportunities away from people who are writing their own music. And who, at least in their minds, have more actual talent.
Idol bands in the lineup
SC: Was there any tension in the last volume, when you had one idol band?
ST: Not that I saw. Maybe in secret they felt the idol group didn’t belong on the same tour. But for the most part everyone got along. They recognize the idol phenomenon for what it is and why it’s popular. They’re okay with it, for the most part. A lot of the bands often do shows where there will be one or two idol groups on the same lineup.
SC: Are a lot of these musicians meeting each other for the first time at the Tokyo International Airport, on the way to Canada?
ST: Exactly. You’d think they would recognize each other based on who looks more like a musician. But then they’ll be on the same flight and sitting near each other—I try to seat them close together. And then they’ll be in Toronto, and they’ll be like, “Hey, weren’t you on the plan?”
Oftentimes they are meeting for the first time. Tokyo’s a big city with a big scene. Bands might have heard of each other, but they’ll be meeting for the first time on this tour.
Big in Japan, and better too
SC: You mentioned that the first time you went to see shows in Japan that the quality of the bands blew you away, especially with how they seemed ahead of their Western counterparts. And that that was the opposite of what you were expecting. Is there a generalization you can make about Japanese musicians, or at least of the artists that you bring to Canada?
ST: In the work culture in Japan, people often work overtime for no pay, and they work long hours. They might work from, say, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. And even after they finish work, they’re often obligated to drink with their bosses until late. So work can be stressful, and music might be an outlet to relieve all this pent-up stress. Maybe that’s why they seem to work hard on practicing and jamming. And they put a lot of effort into in their stage presence as well. That might be one reason why they seem to practice more, and to give it their all onstage.
SC: Have all these awesome Japanese bands ruined you for the Western music scene?
ST: Yeah. I don’t go to shows as much in Toronto. I went to one a couple of days ago, Quicksand. But before that I can’t remember the last time. So it has a bit. Because I predominantly listen to Japanese music, I haven’t been keeping up with newer acts in North America. I’m sure there are lots of amazing bands. I just haven’t introduced myself to them. But overall. I would say there is more interesting music coming from Japan, is my biased opinion. I’m getting a bit prejudiced in that sense, so I don’t need to focus my attention on Canadian and U.S. bands. I’m sure there are some popping up that I should be paying more attention to.
The bands coming to Next Music from Tokyo Vol. 11, in a nutshell:
Koutei Camera Girl Drei—An underground idol group originally known simply as Koutei Camera Girl. Koutei Camera Girl is the third (“drei” is German for “three”) incarnation of the group, which features rap but isn’t hip-hop…
Ame to Kanmuri—Ame was in the first version of Koutei Camera Girl. She’s opening the show with a set of her own electro-pop, in which she raps and DJs over lo-fi house instrumentals.
o’summer vacation—A noisey/mathny trio whose music “is an awesome combination of loop-pedal augmented intricate bass riffs, frenetic powerful drumming and dynamic soft to screamed vocals,” writes Steven on the group’s NMFT profile.
Gozen Sanji to Taikutsu—Translation: “3 a.m. and Bored.” The band first came to Canada with NMFT Vol 8, and were “an unequivocal hit with Canadian audiences.” Tanaka describes them as “immensely enjoyable” and a band with “a fun, whimsical attitude” and “an unpretentious yet profound flair for experimentation.”
Jyocho—Guitar virtuoso Daijiro Nakagawa’s follow-up to his first band, Uchu Conbini. Steven describes Uchu Conbini as “sublimely crafted math-pop… incredibly soulful with a clean sound and jaw-dropping instrumentation.”
Nuito—”Not for everyone,” Tanaka warns. An instrumental rock trio from Kyoto, Nuito released one album before disbanding. However, that 2009 album, Unutella, is regarded as “possibly the greatest math rock album ever recorded,” according to Steven. It’s rated “classic” on sputnikmusic.com, who say that it is “as math rock as math rock gets.”
For more info or advance tickets visit NextMusicFromTokyo.com. Tickets are an incredible bargain at only $14 in advance and $20 at the door. The show is at KW Studios at 115 E. Hastings, a dance studio without a stage. So it should be interesting!