Although not directly related to the topic of art, playing music and the logistics involved in arranging a gig have a lot in common with making art and arranging a show. This topic actually came up several times this week with musician friends lamenting how things are done in Japan. Both artists and musicians have to rent the space, whereas the gallery or bar would pay the artists in North America. Both musicians and artists in Japan are seen only by a small handful of friends, family, fans, and the occasional stranger who is not acquainted with your work. Often these rental spaces are quite small, too. The staff at these spaces help but the onus is on the artist to find someone or to be the person who handles inquiries and any cash, makes and distributes promotional material, and just generally supervises matters. It is really frustrating for everybody.
The other weekend I went to see a new friend’s band play at a small venue called Ogikubo Club Doctor. The band’s name is the Situray Cats (pronounced the Shitsurei Cats in Japanese), but they purposefully chose the spelling to show that they are in essence a Stray Cats double cover band. (Click the link to see a video of a performance.) What? A double cover band. They sing songs by the Stray Cats in English and then the same song in Japanese. That was the explanation I was given, but they actually sang a wide variety of songs. The crowd loved them! One reason was that they sang rockabilly versions of J-pop songs as well as rockabilly classics. Wardrobe, hair, movement, everything was over the top for entertainment’s sake. I could imagine how a college crowd would go nuts for them and how they could fill the dance floor.
Wait! I am in Japan. Things do not work like that here. Back to reality.
These guys have to have joint performances to split the costs. It was a triple bill: the 59 Rockers, the Situray Cats, and the Japs. For the same reasons, many artists participate in group shows. The venue, or “live house” in Japanese, was a tiny space in the basement of a multi-story building near one of the smaller stations in Tokyo. Without Google Maps, these places would be very hard to find. Sounds like many of the small art galleries I have been to in Japan. The lead vocalist of the Situray Cats and his girlfriend sold merchandise to raise money and to self-promote the band. Without asking, they gave me a T-shirt and comb because they knew that I might reach a different audience. They were going to give me several T-shirts, but I declined since I knew that they were paying for them out of their own pockets. Sound like many artists you know giving away artwork or postcards, gift cards, or other things as presents? Everybody in the small crowd obviously knew each other, and people took on various roles to help out. Need a DJ? Check. Need somebody to document the event? Check. Handle merchandise? Check. Buy some of the merchandise? Friends are always willing to chip in. Fill in on vocals? Not a problem.
What is different here in Japan? Night life is different here. I remember being amazed that adults were going bowling on a Friday night instead of going to a club. Yep, bowling. That has changed a bit in recent years, but most people do not do the clubs. Even when they do, most clubs do not have live music. Places like the Blue Note are more like dinner clubs where you can hear big-name performers while you dine and drink for a hefty price. Many cities might have one place where young bands can thrash things out for a rental fee. Those places can attract a few (very few) young people. Monthly magazines, like Tokyo Walker or others in the series, or the amazing and often updated travel magazines, like Rurubu, do not feature a list of galleries or bars with featured artists. Tokyo Art Beat, a bilingual app for smart phones as well as a website, has probably made a huge impact on Tokyo galleries, but no such service is available for smaller cities. in the big city, you can check the Tokyo Gig Guide but I do not think it is well known. People go out to eat and drink; they go to Karaoke in small, private rooms called karaoke boxes. Men are likely to go to hostess bars, snacks (similar to a small, private bar), or other shady places. College kids do not seem to have the same kinds of recreation. Yes, many are working but most seem to be interested in their clubs. Yes, university has after-school clubs just like high schools and companies do. These also serve as social clubs to meet new people, including those of the opposite sex, at your university. It probably does not help that dancing is actually outlawed at clubs that serve alcohol and offer loud music. I could go on and on, but every person and every city are of course different. What to do? Well, maybe some Japanese artists have decided that the only way that they can make a living is to go elsewhere. Look what Ryuichi Sakamoto, Shonen Knife, Takashi Murakami, and Yoshitomo Nara did.
Here are the 59 Rockers. They were fantastic! Check out their classic suits and ties.
And, of course, the Situray Cats featuring Nago on vocals. You can tell that all of the band members get along and enjoy hamming it up for each other and for the audience.
A towel with a cartoon version of a popular comedian makes a great as well as cheap present for the audience.
They also do a rockabilly cover of UFO by the classic J-pop duo, Pink Lady. That was a big hit in Japan and guaranteed to get a reaction from any crowd of any age.
The third band of the evening was the Jap’s followed by people from all of the bands and John R.S. from the Space Cats on stage at the same time for the finale. Don’t ask me why they have an apostrophe in their name or why they chose a racist name. To be fair, they might not even know it is racist. Many people I have met think it is a cute nickname for Japanese people.
It was a bit scary looking at these photos afterwards and seeing the dark cloud hover over the lead singer of the Jap’s. I wonder what that means… If he was a star in a cheesy 1950’s film, you know that he probably sold his soul for rock’n’roll, right?
The club looked like many small clubs found worldwide: small, dark, low ceilings, and posters on the wall. The clientele dressed up for the event. If the event were larger, I might have been less conspicuous and more able to capture people in casual poses. As it was, the audience was still fun to watch.
And, yes! They did dance! Nobody called the cops, so I guess they were safe. That woman in the black-and-white top might look shy but she cut up a rug with the lead vocalist of the 59 Rockers. They were amazing to watch! They were not the only ones either. It was great!