Scene: Fukuyama, Japan
Off on our worldly travels once again and this time we stop off to discover the edgy and creative scene of one of Japan’s less well known cities, Fukuyama. Paul Spicer is our guide to the local music scene.
Even readers versed in Japan, her culture, history and music can be forgiven for not knowing too much about the city of Fukuyama.
Located in the east of Hiroshima prefecture, it is probably best known for the production of the traditional musical instrument, the koto. Over the past few decades the city has grown substantially in terms of size and population, swallowing up outlying suburbs without mercy.
Fukuyama differs greatly from its near neighbours, where cities such as Okayama and Hiroshima have modernised into fashionable metropolises, Fukuyama has remained a concrete behemoth, colourless, cold and uninspired. There is little sentiment for history or architecture as buildings are demolished and replaced with huge, grey residential tower blocks (which often remain half-empty).
The public transport system has not modernised in line with the city’s expansion, and the insipid city council seem to delight in frustrating, hindering any kind of progress with petty squabbles and childish rhetoric. It is far removed from the image that most of us have about modern, mobile, and techno-savvy Japan.
I asked a friend of mine what she thought was Fukuyama’s most redeeming feature. She replied that it was ‘Route 2’ (the huge, cough inducing Co2 trap that slices through the heart of the city), I asked her why to which she noted that “it was the quickest way out!”
But, like many great cities which are asphyxiated and left to die by political half-wits, it has an edgy and creative streak fuelled by its populace. Fukuyama’s artistic make-up is subversive and, even by Japanese standards, quite divisive.
There is no better example of this than the city’s music scene which is exceptionally vibrant, encompassing an abundance of styles, fashions and characters. What is just as remarkable is how quickly it has developed.
Just over a year ago, attention was focused around JoBox, a live-house in nearby Onomichi city. However since its closure in 2012, bands have moved en-masse to Fukuyama and local clubs, once home to a static and prescriptive musical landscape (J-Core … evil stuff), have become energised and form the focus of the regions musicians.
Local band nights are plentiful, audiences are enthusiastic and most importantly, venue owners openly encourage bands to perform. This last point has been key in the rapid rise of the local scene as bands do not have to beg for gigs, if you have a band (regardless of experience, style, or how many people you will bring), you can play.
The city has a number of venues such as, Cable, Inn-Ovation and arguably the most influential the Meijikan. The latter is any up and coming bands dream; an owner who is completely tuned in, a city centre location, a live house, P.A and engineer. It is fair to say that Meijikan is at the centre of Fukuyama’s musical uprising.
Talking to the Bands, it is clear that in most cases their motivation is the music. They do not wistfully dream of stardom and realise that being in a city which is both deeply unfashionable and not really known for its music, there is not much chance of breaking the monopoly of the major music producing cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.
However, this is not a bad thing as many a good band has been ruined by record company tampering, their ideals and identity destroyed by yen hungry money-men. It could be said that these Fukuyama bands are somewhat untainted; they do it because they dig it.
There is also very little local band rivalry; people work together, self-producing/releasing CDs, organising and promoting their own gigs (the promoting band often at the foot of the bill). There are artwork specialists, sound engineers, promoters and musicians working collectively to create, perform and distribute – it is very much a shared endeavour, very D.I.Y and, it has to be said, kind of inspiring!
In terms of style every base is covered, there is jangly indie, power-pop trios, all forms of punk and metal, solo acoustic artists, cover bands (Aosis anyone?), Mod revival and ska! Gigs are set up regardless of the genre of music, so an evening might start with a folk band and end with hardcore-thrash metal. The reason is, or so I am told, is so that people can experience all genres of music in one sitting. This is an admirable goal, but can sometimes get quite disorientating, such is the contrast. But, audiences here are not so easily confused, and are happy to embrace the chance to listen to music not often encountered.
The bands themselves are always busy and not a week passes without a flurry of gigs, CD releases or announcements. In local music movements such as this, there tends to be a stand out band, one which captures the imagination a little more than the rest.
Again however, such a band is difficult to identify as it really depends on your musical preference, such is the eclectic nature of the sounds on offer. Thrash/hardcore-punk is represented through bands such as Anti-Clockwise, and the Buti Zombie, who power through their songs as if life was dependent on it.
Buti Zombie’s three track self-titled debut single lasts a fleeting 4 minutes, whilst the Anti-clockwise 6 track debut (also self-titled), checks in at a little over 5! There is little to choose between them, it is raucous, musical anarchy which any fan of the genre should sample.
Shitamachi Mandrill fall into a similar category, however they are slightly more experimental, adopting a range of musical styles which they are not afraid to exploit. It is a non-conventional approach which offers fresh and interesting material.
Three-piece band Minor Aura provide fans of garage-punk their fix, producing songs based on a strong rhythm section, washed over with a dirty guitar.
More conventional rock aficionados can find solace in the album Sono Kokoroni Dake Mieru Noroshi by Punkme, or the choppy guitars of Dinosaur Jr. inspired quartet Chihayafuru.
Jaiconism are an all girl indie-pop trio whose three track debut single, The Dog in Sputnik, would have some readers recalling the first time they heard the sparse production and catchy melodies of Shonen Knife.
Mod band the Lost Numbers completes this ample, but by no means comprehensive list.
The aforementioned bands, plus many, many others, are always on the circuit, playing to tuned in audiences in Fukuyama, Onomichi and larger cities such as Okayama, and Hiroshima. You may think that playing larger venues, to cultured city folk may be quite daunting; however it does not seem to perturb the bands whatsoever. I was at a recent gig in Hiroshima where Jaiconism played alongside more recognised artists. They were easily the most interesting band of the night.
In addition, there has also been an influx of bands from further afield coming to the city. Fairly well known outfits from Osaka and Tokyo have played here (promoted locally and supported by Fukuyama bands of course). But, truth-be-told, these ‘bigger bands’ offer nothing that is not already available and, on more than one occasion, have been completely outshone by their lesser known and more ‘unfashionable’ brothers and sisters.
Despite the positives, it could be noted that there is a problem. The scene is highly eclectic in nature and this does tend to fragment things a little. There will never be one predominant genre, as style shifts from week to week and it seems, to an outsider, that as one group of bands begin to gain momentum, they are quickly overtaken by others. In this way, nothing seems to gain a foothold and thus the ability to kick-on, to actually make that leap to the next level remains elusive.
However, having said this, it is an extremely interesting place to be. Watching gigs here is always a pleasure, the bands believe in what they are doing and always ‘out on a show’. Audiences embrace everything and are extremely supportive, and there certainly is none of that ‘come on then, impress us’ attitude that we sometimes see aimed towards local and amateur bands in the UK. These live events are always a major surprise, if you do not know a band on the bill, you never know what you are going to get, and it could be anything … good or bad!
If you decide to look out to the wider world to discover some interesting and diverse music, you could do a lot worse than check out the bands in Fukuyama … if not, well you are free to pass on through … apparently, Route 2 is the fastest way out.
Over the next few weeks we will be profiling a couple of major bands from this local scene. The articles will consist of interviews and album reviews as well as downloads, available exclusively to Louder than War readers.
All words by Paul Spicer. Read more from Paul on Louder Than War here.