Dive into the Underground Japanese Musical Scene with Ian Martin

Japanese-American publisher Awai Books has just released a book called Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground, by Ian Martin, which centers on Japanese indie music. In the book, he discusses the difficulties musicians face when trying to make a living from their art, touches on the culture of J-pop idols, and explores various facets of the underground Japanese music scene.

Ian Martin left his native United Kingdom on a whim to move to Japan in 2001. After finishing a degree in screenwriting, he managed to get a visa to teach English in Japan. With a passion for music, he began writing a blog about concerts he saw there, and later moved on to writing about music for the English language newspaper Japan Times. In parallel, he started organizing concerts and even founded his own label, Call and Response Records. All this experience gave him an excellent understanding of the underground Japanese scene. His book, Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground, has just come out via Awai Books. In the book, he expresses his love for Japanese music and explores various facets of the underground scene. Get to know Ian and check out his playlist below.

What made you decide to write this book?

I’d been writing a monthly column about music for The Japan Times for a few years, and a friend of mine who had been using my articles as the basis for some of the university classes he taught suggested putting out a book compiling a few selected columns. I was reluctant to take this approach, partly because a compilation of my columns felt too disconnected and disparate a collection of thoughts. Also partly because even then a lot of those columns I’d written a long time ago, and I was quite embarrassed about them. I suggested writing a new book from scratch, incorporating a lot of the same ideas, but updating the ideas, filling in some of the gaps, and linking it together in a slightly more coherent way using my own experiences over the past ten-fifteen years as a loose framework. It’s still meant to be something you can read in a fragmentary way, just picking individual chapters as standalone essays, but hopefully I was able to impose some sort of order on it.

Why did you choose the title “Quit Your Band?”

That came from one of the bands I work with, an amazing young band called Nakigao Twintail. I saw them at a small venue in Fukuoka back at the beginning of 2013 and they had this song where they were just screaming about how the music scene was so boring, how they never have any money, how school’s a pain in the ass and they hate maths and sports classes, and then some weird stuff about religious cults and ritual suicide or something. It was the most joyously antisocial teenage punk song I’d ever heard and the phrase, “I’m gonna quit this band!” really stuck with me. I mean, the whole music scene in Japan often seems designed to make bands quit: it just sucks money out of them until all their hopes and dreams wither and die in a little dry puddle of indifference. I have boxes and boxes full of CD/Rs by bands who have disappeared without a trace and no one even remembers anymore. Some of it’s pretty good, but no one cares.  “Quit Your Band!” is probably pretty good advice if a musician is being really sensible. And yet still a lot of them don’t, and thank God for that! The title is a kind of challenge: give me a good reason why you shouldn’t quit your band, because that’ll keep you going through some really tough times!

Quit Your Band

What makes the Japanese music scene special?

I big part of the book’s thesis is that it’s not special really. Musicians here are just people trying to make art the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in. A lot of what makes the Japanese music scene unusual is the negative stuff, like the inverted business model that sucks money out of artists and tends to disregard the audience as a factor, but I wonder if in a lot of ways Japan’s just ahead of the trend there. More and more throughout the world, artists are expected to work for free, and the whole way tech is orientated at the moment is towards driving the costs of all kinds of work down to zero. There are cases in the US of companies taking bids from people for the opportunity to do unpaid internships. Philosophically, this isn’t that different from what music in Japan is like. All across society, entertainment is becoming pay-to-play. How you respond to that matters. You can demand fair pay for work, although if you do that, you have to accept that you’re then someone’s employee. Or you can say, “Fuck it, I’m not getting paid for this, so I’m going to do precisely what I want and create the maddest, craziest shit imaginable!” Obviously it’s not quite as simple as that, but if you listen to some of the extreme music or see some of the insane unclassifiable theatrical things that happen in tiny rooms above shops or in converted porn theaters or wherever, maybe what you’re seeing is a glimpse of a world where an art form is completely disconnected from the financial imperative. I don’t see it as a case of “The Japanese are crazy, aren’t they!” so much as a case of just, “Why not!”

Is it difficult for an outsider (or foreigner) to get into the indie Japanese scene?

I think it all depends on the baggage you bring with you. Gigs are expensive, and a lot of foreigners balk at the costs compared to back home. Also, if you want to get involved in the scene on a creative or organisational level, you’re still expected to “do your time”. You don’t get to swan in from outside and just be a scene superstar. You might be hot shit back in your hometown, but here you’re nothing, so you have to prove your value from the start. I think there’s also some wariness that foreigners are ephemeral and liable to leave suddenly, so the investment in a relationship that people in the scene are willing to put in may have an element of caution to it. That said, the absolute best friends I’ve ever made in Japan have been through the music scene.  For foreign musicians, it can be awkward in that record stores tend to classify music as either foreign or domestic, and they often get terribly confused by Japan-based foreign musicians. I recently put out a CD by this band Lo-shi, who are two Tokyo-based French musicians, and CD stores kept trying to send us to different floors.


How has the underground scene evolved over the years?

In the time I’ve been here, it’s hard to say, because everything’s so diverse that everything is happening all the time. I think musicians nowadays care less about genre than they used to, but that doesn’t seem to make the scene any less factional or disconnected. People just order their cliques around things other than music. Bands nowadays seem less naive, less idealistic, more practical in how they organise their musical lives. A subtle but I think significant change is the impact the Internet has had over the past fifteen years in how information is distributed. Bands get very hip very quickly now, which I guess is helpful to them in some ways, but it also means they’re in danger of getting stuck in a state of arrested development, where they receive a lot of praise for what’s usually pretty derivative early work and then struggle to break out of that and really find their own voice. As a fan, it’s great just having access to things like YouTube and Soundcloud, because it takes a lot of the risk out of dropping 2,000 yen on a gig. On the other hand, it also means I’m rarely surprised now, which is a shame. A band who sounds good on a laptop’s speakers isn’t always the same band who’ll sound good in a live venue with a thundering PA either.

What made you want to explore the scene?

At the time, I thought it was just because I liked music and I wanted to find out more. Looking back, I think a lot of it was about feeling a sense of belonging. Tokyo’s huge, so in order to live in it and not go crazy, you need to make a little city-within-a-city that’s your own, with its own community and network of people and places. That’s a big part of the attraction of an indie music scene anywhere, I think – a place where you can all not fit in together! I think that’s also what the idol scene tries to foster and monetize with the way it encourages a sense of closeness and interaction between idols and fans through the meet-and-greet sessions and the way some groups involve fan votes in management decisions to do with the membership.

Can you tell us about your experience managing a label and organizing concerts? What’s your best memory? And your worst?

The music scene’s a small world really, and the biggest joys and disappointments can be triggered by the smallest interactions. The worst experience was probably being slagged off publicly by a musician I’d worked with over some perceived incompetence on my part in the project he’d been involved in. My wife always makes fun of me that the acknowledgment of critics and other music scene people are more important to me than “normal people”, and it’s true because your peers are always the people who have the greatest power to hurt you or make you happy.

One of the best experiences was actually the other night. I ran into an old friend of mine – a DJ and organiser I’ve known since both her and I were getting started in the music scene. Anyway, she congratulated me on the book coming out and added that she was proud of me. It felt like a slightly odd way to phrase it at first – “I’m proud of you” – but it was quite moving as well. People I came up with through the Tokyo indie scene have all been through various dramas and life events – marriages, divorces, kids, all the big things that happen to you as you get older – and there’s a lot of attrition along the way. Bands break up, people die, some people just move away or drift into a different parallel existence, and I hit a point where I start to recognize even people I used to make fun of or have petty rivalries with as peers and fellow survivors – to see their lives as somehow part of my own. Hearing acknowledgment from people who’ve lived through the same world I did means a lot to me.

The Falsettos
The Falsettos
Nakigao Twintail
Nakigao Twintail

You explain in your book that band life is very different in Japan compared to Europe or the United States. Can you say more about that?

I suppose one big point is that if you make music, you have to have a real job as well, and that means you only get a couple of weeks off work a year, which even in Japan isn’t long enough to make a profitable tour. You can’t get money from gigging in your hometown either, so basically making music is a hobby. I think it’s increasingly getting like that in other places too, and you can really see in the UK how rock music especially has become so much more dominated by the upper-middle classes compared to in the 80s and early 90s. Even on a major label, you’re probably not getting that much money, and you need to keep your day job – and again, this seems like it’s increasingly echoed in the UK these days. If a band gets lucky and is signed up by a talent agency, they get access to other revenue streams, from endorsements and suchlike. In that case, it differs from the West in that they’re then the employee of their agent rather than the other way round, and switching contracts is very difficult – there are cases of huge stars like Ami Suzuki and GLAY, whose careers were deliberately sabotaged by vindictive industry blacklisting after they took their managements to court. Although the case of Kesha in the US suggests that this kind of situation isn’t totally unheard of overseas either. The “idol” model of producing stars seems like it has a tendency to compound rather than alleviate this problem.

What are your favorite Japanese bands of all time?

Hikashu are easily my favorite Japanese band of all time. They started out as a very odd techno pop or new wave band, and nowadays they’re a mixture of jazz, experimental improvisational breakdowns, psychedelia and then these moments where they just remind you that they can write the most sublime, silly, fun pop songs whenever they want. Another really important band for me is Panicsmile, who are really a key influence behind so many of the bands I watch and book at my own shows. It’s punk, but filtered through this experimental, Captain Beefheartian approach that chops and changes rhythms and uses really un-rock chords. You can’t copy Panicsmile, so everyone who tried ended up getting it wrong and making something unique in the process. That’s a great influence to have. Another one I have to mention is Melt-Banana as well. They’re already pretty famous abroad, but they deserve a lot of credit not just for making amazing music, but also for being really good participants in events. While a lot of bands will disappear to get food and only show up to play their sets and then disappear, Melt-Banana always seem to be there at the venue, hanging out, watch the other bands on the bill, talking to fans and other musicians. They’re not sucking up to people and networking, they’re not lording it over anyone: they’re just serious about what they do and seem to be genuinely nice people.

What are your favorite current bands that you think we should check out?

Obviously there’s the stuff my own label, Call And Response is putting out now, and I’m not going to be ashamed of plugging that here because I’m very proud of all of it. There’s Lo-shi, who I mentioned before – two French guys based in Tokyo, who make this sublime instrumental music mixing electronic beats with these eerie Twin Peaks-esque soundscapes. We also just put out a new album caled “Umi” by Looprider, which is this single immense 25-minute-long progressive rock epic track. We’re also working on a new release by this fantastic noise-punk band called P-iple, which is sounding great. Outside my own projects, there’s a band called the Falsettos, who are simply fantastic. A lot of the best Japanese rock is really all about sonics and dynamics than it is about melodies, but the Falsettos have everything despite sounding like nothing else. There’s a band in the Tokyo area called In The Sun, who are well worth checking out if you have a chance too. They make really propulsive, intense noise rock and push it to the point where it becomes this trancelike thing, almost like dance music. I could go on and on here: Sonotanotanpenz, Hyacca, Miu Mau, Jailbird Y, Mechaniphone, Yolz In The Sky, BLONDnewHALF, Otori, Sea Level, Noiseconcrete x 3chi5, Tropical Death, Nisennenmondai, Narcolepsin, z/nz, Futtachi… Most of this is in the fairly narrow, experimental punk, new wave and noise-rock genres that I spend most of my time, but I’m always finding new things.

Ian’s Japanese underground playlist:

Hyacca “34DANCE”:

Sonotanotanpenz “Conga”:

Lo-shi “Yage!”:

Falsettos “Terrible Boy”:

Miu Mau “Future Classic”:

Jailbird Y “Goemon”:

mechaniphone “octbat”:

Panicsmile “A Girl Supernova”:

Hikashu “Puyo Puyo”:

Nisennenmondai “Ikkyokume”:

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