The New Groove 2012

Photos & Text: Ry Beville

Why is Japanese music so patently bad?

So we asked the previous two years, and so we must ask again. Because it was, it is and, with the big picture unlikely to change soon, so shall it be. Japanese music is so bad, in fact, it seems like a parody of itself. Imagine SMAP doing a cover song of itself doing a cover song of itself, and so on. Everything just gets progressively worse.

Readers have challenged me to explain why it’s so bad. OK. Japanese music is so bad because it is. That ‘artist’ management companies and media production companies collude to produce such detritus of sound for their monopoly on popular attention simply indicates an overwhelming trend (and the extent of capitalism’s decadence). It is not an excuse.

This is not a totalitarian society. Cultural sterility does not abide. A robust public education system—responsible for near 100% literacy—includes ample music education. Musical equipment stores seem as ubiquitous as pachinko parlors. Internet is not a luxury, and Youtube is but a click away. Dewey youth may not always be encouraged to develop innate talents and pursue quixotic musical dreams (not when somebody’s got to bolster the dwindling workforce), but who’s to stop them?

That Japanese music is bad because it is, is demonstrated by the very small minority of really good acts here that prove it doesn’t have to be.

“Good” is not merely a matter of taste. In music, I think it is a fairly simple formula: originality + technique + ability to connect. In our interviews with Japan’s best underground, rock, jazz, organic and jam-style bands over the last three years, I’ve also observed that these members of what we’ve dubbed “The New Groove” all share one other common trait: a deep devotion to an established musical tradition or traditions. They look faithfully to the older masters and often reinterpret their musical legacies in unique ways. While neither new nor terribly surprising, this practice so common to musically rich cultures is sorely lacking in much of Japanese music. Good Japanese artists, time and again, demonstrate not just familiarity with, but also keen knowledge of, music from around the world.

Live DJ culture is contributing enormously to this ongoing education among artists, and even deserves much credit for exposing young listeners to older music they might not otherwise discover. They are the new critics of music, scouring the record bins of yesteryear for forgotten songs whose appeal transcends the decades, and whose compositions may inspire new musicians.

It’s a surprising development because live musicians and DJs once seemed so diametrically opposed. One created music, the other just sampled it—ripped it off in the eyes of many—or remixed it. Where’s the originality in that, people asked. Where is the art? In the end, a love of music seems to have brought the two camps together and their coexistence on the stage has proven increasingly popular to music fans. It’s unusual to go to a music festival now and not see DJs included in the line-up. Even smaller events at clubs and live houses will have popular DJs playing between band sets. Their name has become as big a draw as some of the headlining bands.

Bands, too, have embraced DJ sound and technique. California-based Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) is an equal hybrid of live instruments and DJ-like electronica. They are leading the way in a convincing new genre: jam-band dance music, also known as “jamtronica” (though they describe themselves as “post-rock dance music”). Ironically, while carving out a new genre, they seem to challenge the very notion of genre. Their inclusion, meanwhile, in festivals such as Fuji Rock, Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo attests to their broad appeal across the musical spectrum.

This phenomenon has not passed Japan by. In fact, Japan is surging at the forefront of the movement in terms of talent and innovation. Veteran jam band Dachambo’s members include a DJ/keyboardist and their sound delves into dance and house music as it channels Phish, Widespread Panic and Grateful Dead. Cro-Magnon recreates the sound of house music, though as an accomplished instrumental trio with jazz roots. Nabowa has tipped their hat to DJs, too, noting that they listen to remixes of their own music, which in turn inspires them to play a song differently live. And a remix album of their music does indeed cast them in a new light, allowing the listener to appreciate them in new ways.

The nascent movement shows great potential. As DJs dig up more gems from the past and share it on the live circuit as a part of their sets, creative energy will continue to crackle among attentive musicians. And as the trademark DJ sound of looped beats and repeating melodies fuses itself ever more firmly to live music, artists will search for new ways to play with it, or against it—either way, new material will emerge.

Live DJs are about discovery. Their role is to share. It’s too soon to say, but their endeavors may just yet break the stranglehold bad music has on the Japanese public at large. When people are enlightened, they will always demand better. And when bands are enlightened, they will always play better. We have evidence enough of that already.













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