Next Music from Tokyo vol. 9 - An Interview with Steven Tanaka

Few events excite Canadian fans of Japanese music as much as the Next Music from Tokyo tours. On Saturday October 1st, CJLO's own Japanese indie music specialist DJ Lawrell of Fukubukuro (Sundays @ 11 AM - 12 PM) called and chatted with Next Music from Tokyo organizer Steven Tanaka, just in time for the ninth edition of the tour. The Montreal show will be tonight, at Le Divan Orange, at 7 PM!

Special thanks to my good friend zady of Eden Radio for helping out with the transcript.

Lawrell: Hello Steven, this is [Lawrell] from CJLO. How's it going?
Steven Tanaka: I'm pretty good, how are you?
L: I'm great. Could you tell us about the Next Music from Tokyo tour and why you've started doing it?
ST: It's a tour which brings multiple bands from Japan to Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and the reason I started it is because I honestly believe that Japan has the best underground indie music scene in the world, and a lot of Canadians don't know about that, so I thought it'd be my personal duty to introduce Canadians to that fact.
L: Mmhm. And have you thought about ever going beyond Canada?
ST: No I haven't, actually.
L: Is it a financial reason or... what is it?
ST: Yeah, definitely financial, and I have my own full-time job, I work as a physician, actually. I can't take that much time off, and this is just a hobby, so yeah, I just wanna focus on Canada.
L: I see. You fund and organize the tours by yourself, but do you get any help promoting the tour, help from roadies, or any other help while touring?
ST: I just have friends that volunteer, but no corporate sponsorships or anything. I mostly do everything by myself in terms of making ads and posters and, (laughs) pretty much everything by myself. I have some friends that help promote, contacting newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and help try to get the word out, but mostly I do everything by myself.
L: That's awesome. Can people contact you if they want to help out?
ST: Oh! Yeah, well, for this year, in Montreal, three people contacted me - this is during the previous tour in May - they had a lot of fun and they wanted to see if they could help out for this upcoming tour, so they contacted me on Facebook and they helped put up some posters, they were going to help out during the tour as well, to help show the bands around Montreal, and other sorts of things.
L: That's great! Count me in to help for this upcoming tour. Well, maybe it's too late [for this edition], but volume ten, for sure.
ST: Yeah, okay, definitely.
L: What are some of the mishaps or unexpected events that can happen during planning or touring?
ST: Just this tour, or in general?
L: In general.
ST: Well, the very first tour, someone actually got electrocuted. In Montreal, some guy came on stage, and then started spraying one of the bands while they were performing with champagne or sparkling wine or whatever, but one of the microphones or one of the violins (this guy uses an electric violin) got wet, and then when they performed the following time in Toronto, when he went to play, there was a spark from his mic to his violin and he electrocuted [himself]. And he fainted. Not too many people saw the spark but he fainted, but people thought "oh, he's just being dramatic" or "oh, it must be part of this song". And then people realized, "holy... he's not getting up", right? 'Cause I'm a doctor, and also had some people from work who came in to help, support, and watch the show, we all came out and we took care of him, and he was OK. But that was kind of a scare, actually.
L: (Laughs) Alright, well, the band has a thing for flair, so people just assumed that.
ST: And not only that, the next day (we had two shows in Toronto), that band put on the best performance ever, because he had a near-death experience, so he was like "oh, I could die at any time, so each performance could potentially be my last!" So yeah, they really kicked ass all night.
L: That is such a great attitude to have. "I almost died, but let's put [on] a greater show than what I had yesterday."
ST: Yeah.
L: What is your selection process when adding bands to the roster for each edition?
ST: I usually have to plan about a year in advance. I need to be more sure when I have a tour in mind because I have to contact the bands, make sure they're able to come, specific dates. A lot of times, bands will tell me that they're interested, but they don't know for sure, so I have to spend quite a bit of time in advance to make a decision, because a lot of the bands work for salary jobs where they can't get that much time off, even just to get ten days in a row off is really difficult for them, so they have to ask for permission a really long time in advance. Sometimes, just getting ten days off is almost impossible. So I'll invite a band, they'll say "yeah, we're interested," and then six months before the tour they'll say "oh shoot, we actually can't get the time off." So then I have to quickly find another band. I make sure I usually get quite a bit of time to prepare before the tour. And in terms of choosing the bands, I usually go to Japan about six times, seven times a year, just to be there a week or two weeks at most at a time, but I'll be going to shows almost every day. And I get recommendations from a lot of friends in Japan and from other bands. I usually try to see bands more than once before I invite them, but there are times when I know, I've listened to a band's music, and I know them pretty well, and other people who have seen them live say they have a kickass show. There has been maybe one or two times during the tours where I've invited bands without seeing them live, but it's pretty rare.
L: What is the best a band can do to be picked over other bands?
ST: It's basically in terms of live performance. I see them, and I can picture them in Canada, performing for an audience and seeing the audience really go nuts for them. That's what I definitely like. There are bands that I will never invite, even a band like, say, ONE OK ROCK, they can come to Canada on their own. They've toured North America already, they're a huge band in Japan, but their style of music is a bit different. They're kind of rock, but a little bit too mainstream for Next Music from Tokyo. So yeah, they're really popular in Japan, they've come to Canada on their own. I probably won't invite bands that have the ability to tour themselves in North America because there's not too much of a point. I try to bring bands who wouldn't have the ability to come to Canada if they tried to come by themselves, to try to help them out. So that's one important factor, that I try to bring bands who are underground and fledgling but they're really really good, and I also have to like the music itself too. It's hard to say, I get a lot of emails from bands asking to come check out their show and they'll give me YouTube links to get a taste of what they are like. But more than half the time it's totally not the music I'm into so I have to politely have to tell them, "you guys are pretty good, but it doesn't really fit my taste". To answer your question, usually for me to pick a band I have to go and see them live and I have to be really impressed.
L: Well you've brought indie rock bands, jazzy post-rock bands (like jizue and mouse on the keys), experimental hip-hop bands (I'm thinking group_inou and Dalljub Step Club).
ST: It doesn't have to be a particular style for sure. Each tour I try to get a lot of variety so definitely I try to avoid generic pop rock bands. I try to have a little bit more eclectic style. But I also don't like bands that rely on gimmicks. They have to be skilled and they have to have good music. There's a guy called (???), he's really cool but part of him like a big light up a light bulb or whatever, light fixture and all these amps to make these kind of noises from it. It's kind of cool but it's basically just one big gimmick because you can't get a melody from it. He usually comes with a drummer so also the drummer is playing and he makes all these noises from this big ass light fixture hooked up to scepters and stuff like that. It's cool for two minutes but after that it gets kind of old. So I'm not really into gimmicks and I actually appreciate creativity in music and skill, mostly, as the most pivotal aspect of how I choose a band.
L: Continuing from that, do you ever intend to invite DJs, other "less traditional" musicians, performance artists etc. to the tour?
ST: Yeah, that's kind of difficult but, like, group_inou is almost getting to that point where they actually have an MC who sings or raps I guess. But an actual DJ? I could, yeah, as long as the music is really good. But I would definitely consider bringing a DJ if they were really good.
L: In terms of logistics it'd probably be easier than bringing a band, for sure.
ST: Yeah, for sure. It'd definitely be a lot cheaper for me, I'd save a lot of money. That's another good reason why I could be bringing DJs, yeah.
L: Female-led and especially all-female bands seem to be more prominent in Japan than in North America.
ST: For sure, definitely. In North America often times you'd have a male band but with a token female bass player. But in Japan, it's definitely more girls are of their own volition: they're starting bands, and also being treated as equals in terms of joining the band as well in terms of drummers, bassists, guitarists. And also in Canada, if you go to a music venue (they're called live houses in Japan) but if you go to a show in Canada you'd hardly see a PA [public affairs] guy being female, while in Japan, I'd say more than half of the PA people are girls. In all aspects of the music scene in Japan there seems to be a much bigger involvement of females compared to North America.
L: Why do you think this the case? Why are female bands more prominent in Japan than here?
ST: I don't know. In terms of the culture, I'm not too sure exactly why that is the case but it just seems like more girls in Japan seem to like rock and want to be in rock bands. In high school being in clubs is a huge deal, often times after school they join their sports club or music club, and the way that the music clubs are brought in Japan fosters people joining that. Not just girls, guys as well too. They often times play together, they form a band in high school and it's set up so they often practice everyday after school and then it sort of helps bands kind of develop. So you have an equal number of girls and guys in these clubs and so they develop in the bands due to that process so that's kind of one of the reasons why there are so many female bands in Japan.
L: Sounds like a good time. Do you make an active effort to bring these bands here or do they just happen to have the best performances or best music?
ST: I grew up in Canada and I listened to mostly bands from the US and the UK, I was into the punk and hardcore, and indie bands a lot too, and I didn't think too much of Japanese music. Most of the Japanese music I was exposed to, like say you go to a Japanese restaurant and enka plays in the background. In terms of pop, I'd see all these sort of generic cookie cutter boy bands and female bands, and also more like Utada Hikaru. I kinda like her music as well. It sounds kinda fluffy, mainstream pop. When I used to skateboard I knew that there were punk bands, there's a band called (???) they're really hardcore and noisy, and they seemed like they have this niche area in Japan where they have some pretty decent bands that are underground. But I thought for the most part that Japan, in terms of their music scene, there are a lot of bands that try to mimic or copy North American bands, but sort of four or five years behind the times or whatever, but when I actually went to a show in Japan, I went to a smaller show that barely fit a hundred people and I was completely blown away in terms of the quality, in terms of the originality. It seems like in Japan they're way more open to trying new ideas, they're a lot more experimental and doing stuff that's different and more creative. After that show I was like "holy cow!" It was completely the opposite of what I thought the music scene was like in Japan. From that day I decided that at one point I want to bring some bands I really like to Canada just to see how good the quality and the originality is in Tokyo, Japan.
L: What is your opinion on the popular music scene in Japan? You don't seem to have a very good opinion of it. Have you ever tried bringing over major artists here?
ST: I sort of alluded to and answered that question previously. I only see too much of a quaintness in bringing big bands that already have a lot of financial backing. You know, bands like Babymetal, ONE OK ROCK... bands of caliber or size that could easily travel to Canada themselves with what they already have. So they don't really need my help. I wanna help bands that don't have the ability to come here on their own. Because those bands would never be heard in Canada unless I bring them, so those are the types of bands I wanna help. And in terms of me having an interest - Utada Hikaru, she just released an album recently, I haven't listened to it yet but I used to like her music back then, so basically it's not about who's mainstream or who's underground. Good music is good music and I'll always try to bring the bands. I don't mind bringing a band to Canada as long as the music is really good, but usually I try to avoid bands that are already big in Japan but have the means of getting to Canada themselves. A band like Radwimps. A lot of people in Canada [like their music], I kinda like their music as well, but I tried talking to someone who works for them. He said "don't even try to invite them," because if you did, they would, not necessarily the band themselves, but the management would ask for a ton of money. So I would have to pay I'm guessing $10000-$20000, just so that they would accept, and I'd still have to pay for the flight and everything. So it would be like $30000 to give the band a guarantee, a hotel, flights, stuff like that. And not just the band, but they would have to bring the manager, other people, roadies, people to sell merchandise. So I have to bring three or four extra staff, including the band, pay for their hotel and flight, and then also give an additional $10000-$20000. It gets ridiculous. That's obviously another financial reason and another huge reason why I stay with the indie underground bands, because I don't have to give them a guarantee. I just have to pay for their flights and hotels.
L: Out of curiosity, with the rise of bands like Babymetal and BiS, how would you describe the current craze about the heavier underground idol acts?
ST: Yo! Babymetal started when they were only like, 12, 13 years old, and now they're already like, I dunno, 17, 16, 18 years old? I dunno how long they're going to be called Babymetal. Maybe they're Teenmetal. But I dunno, there's a little bit of a fad. In terms of metal, I'm sure that there are people who understandably, true fans of metal wouldn't really consider the music that they're making as metal. It's sort of a pseudo-metal. I can understand the popularity of Babymetal. What they're doing is quite unique, the band members themselves are personable and adorable, they're able to carry themselves, and they're nice people, so I can see why they're so popular, but for me, the music itself isn't that great. So I always haven't really liked it, but I can see why other people would like the band. Big pop bands like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, she came to Canada, she came to Toronto, I don't know if she went to Montreal but she's going to pass as well. Her music is definitely danceable, some of the melodies are pretty cool, but for me, overall, I don't really like her style of music. But I can understand the appeal to other people, especially with her music videos. Without the music videos, she probably wouldn't have been as popular. It's her style, I can understand her popularity. It's good because Japanese music gets exposure. Maybe someone will see Babymetal or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and then that will lead to them looking and searching for other Japanese artists and bands, and hopefully those people will get exposed to even better music. Yeah, that's my thought. I hope I haven't offended any Babymetal or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu fans.
L: No, no, it's alright. Since it's kind of a big thing right now, and arguably go see Babymetal and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu for their [unique] performances, is there any chance that we'll see acts like these, but very underground acts?
ST: Well, Maison Book Girl are an idol group, and this is my first time I've ever brought an idol group. Well, Charan-Po-Rantan came during volume four, they're somewhat idol-like, but they actually perform their own music. Maison Book Girl, someone else writes their music completely, so they don't have any input in writing the lyrics or especially not any of the instrumentation in their songs. So they just perform, they just sing, and that's all about all they have in terms of the songwriting process. But I guess I've become more open to bringing acts as long as their music is good. So they're kind of like pop idols, something like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and I'm bringing them, so I guess that's an example of me bringing a pop idol-ish group. They're not that well known. I started getting interested in them over a year. They were basically an amateur, underground group, but they recently got a deal with a major label, so they are going to get popular very soon, especially in Japan. So that's an example of a pop-ish group, that is sort of almost-mainstream music that I was willing to bring to Canada. 
L: You've chosen Maison Book Girl over other...
ST: Idol groups?
L: ... Yeah, and also other indie rock groups, because of their performance, and because they perform their own music? 
ST: No, no (laughs). They don't perform their own music. They sing, for sure, they don't lipsynch. But they don't write their own music, and they don't play any instruments. All the music is on a CD, that gets played, and they sing over it. That's the case of most almost all idol groups. I know Babymetal has their own backup band, but 99% of idol groups basically just perform over music that's on a CD. That's the same with Maison Book Girl. The reason why I chose Maison Book Girl over any other idol group is because they're the most sophisticated and mature. They're not like squeaky little mall rats or hyper on stage. They're a lot more cool. If I had to pick an idol group that they're similar to, it would probably be Perfume. You know Perfume, they're not an idol group anymore, but they definitely were when they started out, but they don't like the connotations of being associated with idols, so that's why they specifically said "we're not an idol group anymore." Maison Book Girl is similar to Perfume. Their music is more mature, cool, sophisticated. Maison Book Girl also have a lot of songs in odd time signatures, so it's a lot like math rock, or a style of music called "minimal music." It's something you can look up on Google, composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It's really brief melodies tweaked over time to create a weird, odd kind of texture. That style of musical composition is similar to Sakura Kenta's, who writes the music for Maison Book Girl, I guess he's influenced by composers like Reich and Glass. I'm not saying that it's just minimal music combined with idol [music]. Sakura Kenta definitely has his own style of songwriting, and that's another reason why I'm bringing Maison Book Girl, because the music is unique. There aren't any other idol groups who are doing what he's doing. There are idol groups who'd take ska music and combine that with idol music, or metal [with idol music], like Babymetal. It's just a mashup of two different styles. Sakura Kenta has his own, unique, original type of style, and that's very rare in idol music today. So that's one of the reasons I chose Maison Book Girl.
L: Is it also because they don't have a gimmick, like, I dunno, Babymetal for example?
ST: Yeah. They're not gimmicky. They're understated. They don't try to flaunt a lot of style. They just have faith in doing what they do well without trying to shove it in your face.
L: In general, how does touring abroad influence the bands' careers? 
ST: It gives them a lot of confidence. They're mostly bands that never played - the ones that I brought to Canada so far - in a different country. Most of them actually haven't even traveled outside of Japan. Most of them are just getting their passport for the very first time. Coming to a different country, just traveling out of Japan is a great experience for them, a new experience for them. Performing to a crowd with foreigners is also a completely new experience for them. It gives them a lot of confidence, especially when they do well and the crowd's reaction is great, sometimes even better than it is in Japan. That definitely give them a lot of confidence, so when they go back to Japan, their performances are even better. A lot of the people go "holy cow, what happened? You guys made a big transformation!" A lot of the fans would be like "we liked your music a lot, and we liked your performances before, but since you've come to Canada, you guys seem like a new band entirely and you're kicking even more ass!" That's the sort of response we get from the bands after they return to Japan after the tour. 
L: How is the crowd's response in Canada compared to in Japan, for these bands?
ST: I'd say that overall, Canadians are louder and more energetic in terms of cheering and whatnot. I guess it's because Canadians are more drunk. In Japan, there are definitely shows where the crowds go nuts. Obviously, Babymetal and other bigger shows where all the young people go, the audience is nuts. Just like, say, when you have a Britney Spears or Lady Gaga show here in North America. But then, the hipster crowd in Japan? They're a little bit more quiet. After songs finish, they'll often go "woo!" or whatever, but during the performance they're usually quiet and standing still. There are shows where people go nuts and mosh or whatever. But overall, definitely, the crowd response and energy at shows is higher in Canada compared to Japan. 
L: And finally, a last question for you: what kind of music do you listen to in your car?
ST: Most of the time, Japanese music. A lot of the music that I listen to is from bands that I've brought to Canada, and reason I brought them to Canada in the first place is because I like their music, so that goes in hand in hand. I listen to math rock, one of my favourite bands is called (???). They changed their style in recent years, but their older stuff is amazing. Back in the days, I used to listen to a lot of hip-hop, so even now sometimes, I'll have a desire to listen to old school hip-hop like A Tribe Called Quest. But I also listen to other stuff. Most of the stuff I listen to tends to be underground or indie. Even A Tribe Called Quest, even if they were on a major label, their feel was more of an underground or indie kind of a style. Finally... yeah, mostly the bands that I'll be bringing over to Canada next week, and also bands that I hope to bring during volume ten, actually. 
L: Alright. Well, great tastes, and thank you so much for the interview, Steven. It's been an honour to have you, and I'll see you at the show, in Montreal.
ST: You're welcome, see you next week!
The Next Music from Tokyo tours will be having a show in Montreal tonight, two shows in Toronto, and one show in VancouverFukubukuro is hosted by DJ Lawrell. Tune in on Sundays from 11 AM to 12 PM every Sunday for your weekly grab-bag of music from Japan, East Asia, and everywhere else.