Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shinjuku Street Music Scene: August 2007

Japan isn't just a place for creative visual expressions a la the Harajuku fashionistas. It's also a country with a vibrant and eclectic music culture. And anyone who knows me well knows that I love music of all kinds.

In just about any sizable city here (even in blue collar locales like Toyohashi) you can find street musicians outside the train stations. Free music! Sometimes you find just a couple of guys strumming along with acoustic guitars. Sometimes, it's a jazz ensemble. Occasionally, it's a complete rock combo with a full set of drums, amps and monitors. Many of these impromptu concerts are- to be frank- lousy. But some feature crackerjack musicians and venue-ready showmanship.

When I was in Shinjuku over my August holiday, I got to see some impressive bands around Shinjuku Station. There's a wall just outside the south exit where musicians set up and play their sets to passersby. Like these two guys, who are representative of the form:

A small amp, a mike, and improvised percussion. I can't remember what genre their music fell into. Maybe it was something that defies easy labels. I mean, I can't think of too many groups I've seen where the drummer plays a wooden box. But I do remember thinking they were pretty decent. That guy's a much better guitarist than I'll ever be. Although I dream one day to master the box.

Coming back from dinner in Shibuya, I found this electric scene outside the Kabuki-cho exit, just across from Studio Alta:

An androgynous superstar with rainbow hair and nightmarish clown make-up furiously screaming into a highly-amplified microphone, one moment bellowing in a throaty masculine pitch, the next shrilling away in a crystal and ear-drum shattering falsetto, accompanied by a beatbox set at approximately hummingbird heart tempo. In front of him, his loyal fans, 4 or 5 girls and a guy in punk-wear.

This was a performance that definitely defied categorization. And also anything resembling actual music. With the Studio Alta videoscreen providing alternating shadow and light, heavy metal headbanging met avant sound glam clown-style, causing passersby to glance over in horror and dismay, then scurry to get as far away as possible from the sonic disturbance.

But to these two striped punk supplicants, Clownface was like unto a god.

And in a supreme moment where like met like and achieved synthesis, transported by religious fervor into spiritual realms inhabited by knife-wielding maniacs instead of angels, they genuflected to their idol:

That was a truly inspiring scene. The next day, I found something more to my taste, an adorable duo (boyfriend and girlfriend? brother and sister? just pals/bandmates?) playing energetic pop-infused emo rock with a slight twist of twee:

This was behind the station again, with other bands waiting their turn. This is Toy Missile and on this sweltering summer afternoon, their music was as cheerful as the smile that constantly appeared and disappeared only to reappear on the drummer's face.

There are few sounds I love more than tasty, upbeat melodic guitar-based pop-rock. Especially with harmonies. Man, I do love the harmonies! Give me more than one voice, kudasai.

Toy Missile had one of the largest crowds watching, too. About 20 or 30 people watched their entire set, a testament to both their talent and their performance charisma. I mean look at these photos. Can't you practically hear their chirpy music? They have a warmth about them that draws a listener in.

But they also serve to illustrate the reality of playing near a station. No matter how talented and charismatic you are, there are some people who just don't give a damn. They have important places to be and can't be bothered to stop and listen:

Toy Missile also embodies another aspect of Japanese live performance. Between songs, the performers spend a lot of time talking to the audience. Explaining songs, making jokes, expressing their gratitude. I know this happens elsewhere, but you're also more likely to have shoe-gazers or drunks being assholes, like I saw at a Modest Mouse show back in Athens in 2003 where Isaac Brock annoyed the hell out of the audience by prefacing the performance with what seemed to be an endless stream of rambling drunk nonsense that only he found amusing and the audience's increasingly irritated reaction to it only encouraged him to continue.

Whereas in Japan, it's more a matter of the band acting as their own interlocutors. I think. I also have to admit I fell head over heels in love with the drummer approximately .00005th of a second after I spotted them. I think her name is Nakanokumi:

The guitarist seems to be a nice guy. I think his name is Abe Kotaro. I bought their CD single "Rain in August," and he shook my hand and thanked me in shy, broken English.

Toy Missile also illustrates another aspect of playing near the station. If you're in Tokyo or somewhere like that, you just might get to have a backdrop infinitely more impressive than anything a club could rig up for you:

Whaddayaknow! I found a video of the full band on YouTube. Here they are... Toy Missile, playing in Akihabara:

God bless the person who taped this and put it up on YouTube. You are my Greatest Hero right now.


RAB said...

Is there anyone reading this who isn't head over heels in love with Nakanokumi-chan right now?

Hey, there are free mp3s at their website!

Joel Bryan said...

RAB- If this world is the wonderland I believe it to be the answer to that question is- there isn't! She's too cool not to fall in love with.

Thanks for the link to the mp3s, too! I didn't go through their whole site when I was posting this so it's nice to know there's some meaty content on it.

Arkonbey said...

the singer/guitarist for Toy Missile, for some reason, makes me think: Japanese version of Colin Meloy...

Joel Bryan said...

Arkonbey- You're right!