Yr Poetry In Japan

We spoke to Alexei Berrow from Yr Poetry about their time in and love for Japan

Yr Poetry In Japan

By Penny Bennett

Nov 9, 2018 15:08

In as much as it’s true of any bunch of western musicians that fluke a first visit and manage to consecutively not fuck it up, we are slightly sorta sorry ahem, big in Japan. By which I mean, the sweet folk that awkwardly ask us for photos when they spot us on the Jr line would be mortally embarrassed on our behalf if they knew that in our own county recognition is mostly bewilderment that we haven’t got a proper job yet.

Big in Japan, but Japan is bigger and better than us. Peak Johnny Foreigner had us zombified thru sound checks and in-stores and radio sessions and evening shows and press, at places and times seemingly precision calculated to make it not worth going to the hotel to find some sleep. In fact; this is peak JF; Me and Jun stumbling into a Mcdonalds at 3am after a late night club show and spending a good 30 seconds staring at a reflective surface thinking we didn’t look that bad, before realising it was a promo picture a group of kids had enlarged at a photo booth after the show, draped on a table while they gawped at us. Hella fun, much ego trip. But at the same time, very isolating. You’re very much aware that this is a process, one band per label per week, grinding through the industry cycle with the audience at arms length. We’d either play on our own, or with other western bands, and the few times we did wander out to see local acts, without being mean, it was hard to rectify the quality of performance with the venue size/crowd response. We just kinda assumed Japan was like, not shit at, but mostly disinterested in the kind of noise we like, unless it came packaged as a pre-established western act.

We were somewhat naive/hella wrong. Our friend Hiro booked two Yr Poetry shows after the last JF show in Tokyo. Hiro’s our hero here, but kind of an outlier in the scene. He’s fully bilingual, and his pop punk band Mugwumps have had some measure of IRL acclaim, but his heart is set on Eupholks; consisting of him, his wife, and a random shifting assortment of hyper competent friends. Their songs are mesmerising, and I frequently (jealously) grill him on how his music brain works. He talks about seeing each part as a puzzle piece, finding fresh ways to slot them together, but to my ears it’s an almost mathematical exercise in seeing how much you can stretch timing, pull chords apart, be weird, before you lose any intrinsic danceability.

But the first time he blew our tiny western minds was organising these shows in 2016. 2 days, barely a tour. It was so low-key, two nights in rehearsal studios in two different Tokyo burbs, that we didn’t think to actually rehearse. But much like Internet Cafe’s have started to discreetly shift themselves, enlarge the rooms, to be transient hotels as housing costs go up, rehearsal spaces fill the demand for those unable or unwilling to involve themselves in the pay to play scene that suffocates the J-toilet circuit. Japanese people are brilliant and caring. And their studios have bars, monitors, lighting, acoustics, merch areas to rival any UK small venue.

We should have twigged the day before. We heard Yankee Bluff were playing a show in a practice space in Kichijoji, off the back of a Dogs on Acid tour. We city mapped our way out there, hung out with them on the steps swapping anecdotes, and walked in to see the local support. 40 people crammed into a tiny box around 3 sweaty boys, and hands down one of the greatest sets I’ve ever seen. This was Falls, who sound like someone went into my head and made a band of all my favourite bits of of Latterman and post-Victor guitaring, playing to their friends all singing and dancing. Even the lyrics we couldn’t understand were (are) gloriously catchy, we spent the trains home singing them. Jun, broken, stayed up all night on their soundcloud.

It was a couple of days later I broke; Summerman supported us in our second practice room show, and I had to leave before the end of their set cos I was legit crying tears of happy that a band like this existed. I ended up playing guitar for the only other band ever to do that to me, but Summerman already have 3 guitarists. They too have the secret righteous Latterman chords and all the Good Emo, but they spread melodies over each other like Death Cab used to and make me wanna add -woah-ohs- onto every song. We partied with all these folk, shyly confessing our admiration and ending each evening arms around each other singing mid 00’s Chicago classics, promising to do this again sometime.

So we did. Because Japanese people are brilliant and caring and keep their word. A 4 day deep dive of the road less travelled by western bands. In the interceding 24 months, Jun became an expert in finding these absolute gems of artists, instagram clips of folks playing these killer songs to microscopic explosions of audiences in tiny rooms. I think, this is much the same as seeing how far ahead of the curve South African scenes were with JF; they’re so globally isolated that no-one really sees music as a potential career like we would. So there’s way less ego and powern trippery, and way more collaboration, boundary pushing, fun.. It’s telling how girls aren’t afraid to crowd surf here, how every other person plays in another band with someone else, how people are hanging out before and after the show whether they’re old friends or new tourists from afar.

Anyway I’m trying to shy away from a tour diary but here’s the other bands we played with in consecutive order, together with anecdotal evidence that Japan has taken our perfect DIY indie rock model and done it properly, thus making it the official punk rock country of the future. Touring party is us, Summerman and Falls swapping places supporting us, and bonus Ben (JF VJ) and Anja (YP artist), long term global adventuring friends hopping in the van to further impinge on their parent’s ideals of what constitutes a suitable honeymoon. Local supports picked from Jun’s list of gems.

First is Heliotrope in Yokohama, a lady perched behind a huge keyboard while a hench bass player and drummer have overkill amounts of pedals and drums. First show of tour but super close to Tokyo where our ultimate finale homecoming is planned, they start playing to 20 or so people in a box room with fairy lights and blower fans plugged into every available socket (Japan gives no fucks for your cowardly 3 prong electrical plugs). She sings and plays quietly, the song sounds like some long forgotten lullaby, we all stand quiet and appreciative, and then within half a beat the walls are quaking, she is loud, all the pedals and drums are being used, it’s like a seismic musical shift. It’d be theatrical if it all didn’t feel so personal, so tied to the storm being weathered by a tiny lady and a big piano. Sometime about halfway thru, their methodology kinda clicks and you get the sense you’re surfing their dynamics, waiting out the lulls for the next huge wave of noise, but then they sucker punch you with some weird ass jazz timing or the kind of thing you can only do if you’re really, really into extra pedals and drums. They finish, the now full room dissipates as locals head out to the bar room and balcony, us gaijin left staring openmouthed at each other. Heliotrope bring us local sweets, because Japanese people are brilliant and caring and are proud of their regional delicacies of delicious novelty food that looks like other food.

12 road hours and 6 capsule hours later, Osaka’s room is precision modelled on a dirty ass east coast 90s rock bar. Graffiti and stickers everywhere, exposed pipework, a mystery warren of steep staircases and partitioned spaces. I’m not even 100% sure it wasn’t a legit venue dressed as a rehearsal room dressed as a venue. For the second time, I break the guitar Hiro has lent me. And for the second time, there’s a late night guitar fixing shop 10 minutes away so it’s not really a problem. The actual gig space is the whole basement floor, there’s like 80 or so folks here. A handful of JF fans, almost as shy as us, but mostly just the Osaka underground rock scene hanging out on Saturday night watching their friends bands.

Diskover (Disk Over?) sass like Crucial Taunt which is so fitting for this venue, and they’re unrehearsed in the best possible way; songs sketch into existence, possess and envelop the band for a couple of minutes before shuddering off, then animated discussions of what to play play next and how it starts. Big and dumb and glorious. And Fireplay are like Rival Schools if they had more than 2 good songs. Or rather, if their audience knew the words to more than two? Idk, but in contrast their stagecraft is hella pro. There’s a lot of them smug Marshall Rock poses you can only do if your drops are of a certain quality and these kids know their shit. Huge sincere shouty vocals hanging off big ass riffs.

This is prolly my favourite Falls set of tour tho, they absolutely kill it, the crowd just eats up every hand in the air chorus and spry arpeggio. People are shouting for an encore and they ask us for permission, because Japanese people are brilliant and caring and wouldn’t want mass personal validation to impede our respectfully pre declared set time. Jun demands a certain song and the whole crowd laughs and they play it and bodies are spilling everywhere.

I’m puking before each show. Partially cos everyone smokes everywhere all the time, but mostly cos I’m feeling the pressure. Like, we’ve played bigger and more “important” gigs, but this scene is so special. It’s the DIY model done perfectly, these kind of semi-legit environments only work if everyone folllows the Don’t Be A Dick rule AND the bands are all good enough to warrant people coming to see them multiple times. The song craft talent standard is so high in these little enclaves, everyone’s jazzed to go out to their local and dance to these amazing and relevant songs their friends are making. I think there’s a passing awareness of JF but it’s mostly not fans, just people who are super friendly and welcoming and all we have to do to repay them is to play a rock show of the killer standard they expect.

Sunday sleepy day, we blitz eastwards past green mountains to Nagoya, which seems positively quaint and Euro-esque compared to the Blade Runner cities we came from. The whole city is pierced by the usual infrastructure of concrete transport arms but also a running block of serene parks, and various members of our tour party retire for a nap in the last of the sun. I go to a record store and spend too much money on t-shirts. Because obviously Nagoya is the place to come if you want to get your long out of date Snowing and Football, Etc merch. Todays space has a bar in the same room and is wonderfully no smoking. Tomorrow there’s some sort of manuscript exhibition, but tonight is Rock Gig and, as with every other gig, an Ampeg 8×10 and a Fender Twin are wheeled out. The holy grail of backline in the real world, but basic furniture for public events in Japan.

4 Brothers play first, and two of them are actually sisters, but it’s hard to pick at semantics when I can barely speak their language. They got intro’d to us as “the Japanese Los Camp!” but I think really we’re all just stealing the same Sonic Youth riff, they’re more like The Thermals with a keyboard. There’s only maybe 40 people here, but their enthusiasm is contagious and like every other show, people are cheering and dancing from the first band onwards. Then there’s Herpiano who don’t even have a piano but whatever. They who look older, like, our age. I mean, I’m 90% convinced that people here just age wilfully whenever they feel like it. So much smoking, drinking, meat eating and not sleeping, but crazy high life expectancy.  Their sound is a time capsule too, weird wiry 90s college rock, traditional chord sequences but also slightly unhinged. They have the catchy compactness of Volcano I’m Not Excited or Rainer Marier. Bass player has a K records guitar strap, and that’s a fair shout as to when and where in the real world you’d place them; that era when you could just about scrape a living touring your niche around the minor leagues. They have fanzines instead of shirts, they’re the kind of band I feel I’d have been starstruck by supporting some c list rock act at the Wolverhampton civic in 1999, and seeing them do their thing so expertly in a tiny room, right now, in front of me, felt proper invigorating. Music is Magic.

Night drive to Tokyo, Internet cafe for a few hours sleep on a wipe-clean mattress and a PAYG shower. It’s only 4 consecutive days but we are old men and not used to evenings that don’t involve driving to the nearest suburban Travelodge and hermitting for half a day. But lack of sleep just adds to the surreal bubble we’re existing in. Cheap and safe places to crash, 24hour convenience stores that sell cheap and good food, public transport so accurate you can use timetables as fucking maps, it’s an environment adapted perfectly to cope with high pressure low downtime jobs. As the building density increases and blocks out the horizon, it’s like being swallowed into a giant machine ready to replenish and ready you for the next day. Japan is brilliant and caring and basically a giant robot. And tonight is the end of our collective trip. Or, FINAL! (all caps) as our new friends say. (It won’t be, obviously, we all meet up the day after and go to some weird Tardis model restaurant that’s way cheaper than all the tourist bars, then go get suitably drunk Photobooth pictures together. We brandish the girls in our party forward so we’re allowed to use Shinjuku’s finest in face-cutifying arcade machines). And it’s coincidence of convenience that this is the same venue we first got destroyed by Falls. Or not. It’s part rehearsal rooms and part record store, and we learnt during tour that Too Smell, who release Falls records and a load of hardcore bands, also operate out of there. Go team. But what we didn’t know till today is that they also have a legit fuck off venue in the basement. There’s a bar, there’s a balcony, there’s a bloody big stage. It’s the most formal show too, we dash out for ramen and then dash back for an opening toast with the venue staff and all our supports.

Jun’s handpicked Wishlist of Ultimate Japanese Bands You’ve Never Heard Off translated well in terms of everyone’s availability but this is the show we’re the most hyped for. Eupholks open with a song Hiro explains in both English and Japanese, that’s instrumental, but he wrote it about his friendship with us. I melt. It has a tappy guitar part that sounds like me if I was really, really good at guitar. I’m just jaw dropped at the rest of the set, his voice spiralling octaves above these jaggy guitars and things that sound like Pavement songs torn apart in search of extra chords. He has a new drummer, he tells us she came to his show 2 years ago where they opened for us, and demanded to be involved. He thanks me for that, because Japanese people are brilliant and caring but also somehow innately aware that it’s an incredible miracle that we’re all intertwined in each others lives and every social action has consequence and measure. Anyhow she’s utterly captivating in the way people at the top of their craft always are. I know nothing about “good” drumming but I can watch a good drummer for hours. Even at their stuttering funkiest, they’re so suave, I can’t think of anyone else making pop songs like this, and the new band struts and shimmers where his old band would charmingly lurch. I start demanding to Hiro in the dressing room that he become famous immediately, but we’re distracted by the opening riff of a song Jun’s been putting on playlists for the last 12 months, and go watch By The End Of Summer first. Buzz Lightyear is so entrenched now, it’s a legit classic emo song in our quarters of Birmingham. The band all look under 20 but the sound is classic road worn gravel voiced college rock urgency, and even the songs we don’t know sound anthemic. They’d fit so well on a 2002 Polyvinyl sampler next to Herpiano, or a long lost Epitonic band.

Tonight is my favourite Summerman set. Homecoming queens, they had crowd surfers from the first chorus. Their last chorus has this refrain, “everything’s so happy happy” that has earwormed itself firmly into my head the last two years. It repeats it for quite a while, harmonies and building up and tonight, giant to western world and mecca sized in Tokyo, our friend Ben being lofted above the crowd. Someone lands on me from the stage and fucks my leg up but I won’t notice till tomorrow and it still hurts but totally worth it. Everything’s so happy happy. Junior’s on the stage. I’ve been thrust a microphone, the band is sprawling all over the venue as the guitars go full on North of America. It’s incredible. I have never seen so much joy in such a small room. This was probably the highest capacity show, it was packed, I doubt there were more than 200 people including us 5 bands. But in sheer terms of emotional affect vs floor space, that was one of the all time greatest set closings I’ve ever seen. To be followed by the best set closing by a band I’m actually in, when Ben derails our mid final song skit to suggest a stage invasion and our new family crowds up on to the stage and dances out the last section with us.

Two days later, goodbyes said to everyone, me and Jun have Tokyo to ourselves for a day. As is tradition, we go to the Harijuka backstreets to find kawaii souvenirs but the area’s starting to feel tired to us. Burned. I peaked on our second visit, a mock coke logo T-shirt extolling the Being of Pure Feedback Noise. Do they have shirts in like, Camden, that have English people’s incorrectly grammar’d interpretation of classic Japanese slogans written in Kanji? Probably not. It’s a fucking crazy hard language, and the fact that everyone is perfectly cool with attempting to muddle by in language when we’re the ones in their country, their shop/venue/sauna/massive confusing compartmentalised human sleeping facility, is a testament to, well, being brilliant and caring. No one in Japan is worried about being mugged. Bands don’t get robber. If you’re a salaryman in Tokyo and you miss your last train, just pile your stuff neatly on the floor, laptop, briefcase, phone and all, and sleep neatly on a sidewalk. No-one will rob or bother you… There’s no bins in most districts because frankly, if you create litter in the city then you’re socially obliged to take it home and recycle. City’s spotless. We’d get fatigued almost, at points doing America, by the amount of dead eyed parrots of “have a nice day” you’d get in shops. I’m from Birmingham, I have absolutely nothing against people hating their shitty but necessary jobs, it seems cruel to force them to pretend to care with little mandatory phrases. But I never once get that vibe here; either people enjoy and take pride in their work and meeting new customers, or they’re so good at faking it no-one can tell and the atmosphere’s still lifted by their presence. It feels like a, if not the future.

We’re in a cafe high up opposite Shibuya station, watching dutch kids downstairs buying $500 trainers whilst some American family slowly works out the little faces on the back of the sauce packets represent spice level. This was Japan to us, alien and expensive and superficial. A kitsch anecdote mine with the occasional mad genius like Hiro, or Coach who run’s JF’s label Vinyl Junkie out of a 3rd floor shop that stocks even the most obscure local releases from tiny ass UK bands of the last 30 years, but generally a future flung impenetrable colony where we could spend western band kudos every other year. We find a hidden mechanical Katsu bar under the station that all the locals praise. There’s no English options so I google Kanji and work it out, little victories. Japan is beautiful and caring and doesn’t really mind if people outside the bubble know about it’s amazing DIY music scenes or not, but I think we all should, just to know that it can be done, and work, and flourish and produce incredible songs tied to incredible memories. Music is Magic.

Here’s a video made by Hirokasu Kobayashi using footage he shot on tour, for our song The Year We Tried To Live…Within Our Means. It’s actually two songs, bridged by a speech spoken for us by John Campbell from Lamb Of Godbecause we asked him nicely and he’s an absolute doll. We’re a rock band from Birmingham, UK. Invite us.

Here’s a link to a split EP featuring new music by us, and Summerman, and Falls.