Turning Japanese

Back in the 80s American business was doing its darnedest to staunch the flow of consumer goods–primarily cars and electronics–from Japan. This week Chicagoans will get a good dose of the latest Japanese export to threaten American dominance: pop music. Admittedly the chances of 800 Cherries, Fantastic Plastic Machine, Sunnychar, or Takako Minekawa playing Toyota to Keith Sweat, Shania Twain, or Marilyn Manson’s clunky Chrysler are slim to none, but their music does shift gears with an ease that only a few American stars–like Beck–can match.

Quite a few Japanese pop artists have crossed our radar screen in the 90s–from noisy experimentalists like the Boredoms to hip-hop heads like DJ Honda to retro rockers like Guitar Wolf. But the current wave has a distinctly international flair, tossing together American, Brazilian, and European influences for a musical equivalent to those Japanese translations of American advertising slogans that periodically make the rounds on the Internet: wonderfully, entertainingly syntactically askew. Though this blend has been brewing in the Shibuya section of Tokyo for much of the decade, and many of the bands are on major labels in Japan, it’s taken years to catch American ears. Matador Records was first on the bandwagon by far, licensing music by Pizzicato Five–once leading lights of the Shibuya scene–back in 1994.

A few weeks ago DJ Tomoyuki Tanaka, aka Fantastic Plastic Machine, spun a set of his suave easy listening-Brazilian-drum ‘n’ bass fusion at Double Door. On Friday and Saturday, breathy pop star Kahimi Karie plays Empty Bottle; on Wednesday and Thursday hip-hop- and techno-inflected garage rockers the Zoobombs play Lounge Ax and Thurston’s; synth-heavy art-pop singer Minekawa plays Metro on Thursday and Schubas on Friday; and in November the frenetically eclectic rock project Cornelius–which routinely sells out arenas in Japan–plays Double Door. Why now?

“For years Shibuya has been turning out great stuff,” says John “Skippy” McFadden, the former Chicagoan who owns March Records and serves as director for Emperor Norton, a New York indie that’s recently released CDs by the Zoobombs, Fantastic Plastic Machine, and Minekawa. “But for the most part American labels have ignored Japanese stuff. I just think that the scene has blown up so big that it’s become easy to find good stuff.”

It hasn’t, however, been easy to get the music out. Jim Powers and Anthony Musiala of Chicago’s Minty Fresh label started working on their newly released Kahimi Karie compilation three years ago, and their travails illustrate the difficulties of doing business in Japan on limited resources. Once the pair had selected the tracks they wanted and arduously procured licensing rights from the two labels Karie had recorded for–Trattoria, the label run by producer and Cornelius mastermind Keigo Oyamada, and Crue-L–they wanted to double-cover their asses by clearing any samples used in Karie’s heavily referential music. “We faxed both labels to find out what they were so we could get them cleared, and we never heard back from them,” says Musiala. “Eventually they suggested that maybe it was best not to release the record.” In January 1997 it was pulled from Minty Fresh’s production schedule.

But Musiala says that pressure from a handful of interested music journalists kept the project on their minds, and encouraged by the news that Matador was releasing Cornelius’s U.S. debut, Fantasma, they resumed work on the Karie CD this March. Musiala set up a meeting with Oyamada during the South by Southwest music conference, where Cornelius made their first American appearance. “I literally jumped in a van with him while they were doing this MTV video shoot, showed him the tape, and sat down with a pen and paper and said, ‘Let us know what samples you used on this,’ and he was happy to tell us.” They repeated the process with Nick Currie (aka Momus), the perverse British popster who’s written and produced many of Karie’s songs and who’ll back her in her Chicago performances. In the end there were only two samples that needed clearance.

“I think it was almost a blessing that it came out late,” says Musiala, “because the Cornelius record has sort of been paving the way for Kahimi’s record.”

Whether Cornelius has paved a four-lane road or a footpath remains to be seen: the word on Karie’s New York debut last week–her first live shows ever–is that she came off as little more than a glorified karaoke singer. She and most of the other artists mentioned here frequently sing in English, but cultural barriers remain, and while the Shibuya scene’s extremely-short-attention-span aesthetic keeps the music lively, it may prove too slippery for American audiences. On the other hand, when Cornelius played in Austin this year, their abrupt stylistic leaps and less-than-subtle multimedia presentation projected more than enough energy and information to keep an unfamiliar audience riveted like old fans–so if you don’t like Karie, don’t take it to mean you should miss Oyamada and company next month.


The 3rd Annual Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival, which began on Thursday, October 22, and runs through Sunday, is the biggest and best version yet. In addition to usual suspects like organizer Tatsu Aoki and San Francisco composer Anthony Brown (see Neil Tesser’s Critic’s Choice on his Asian American Orchestra), this year’s event includes Japanese experimentalists like Otomo Yoshihide and Yuko Nexus6 Kitamura (see Spot Check) as well as the Osaka Blues Band, plus some collaborations between American and Japanese artists. Most events take place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but HotHouse, Empty Bottle, and the Chicago Cultural Center are also hosting programs. Check Reader listings for more details or check out Aoki’s Web site at www.petey.com/tatsu.

Giant Sand’s mad genius Howe Gelb frequently has a tough time reconciling his rootsy songwriting style with his loopy improvisational impulses, but his recent solo album, Hisser (V2), does a remarkable job balancing the two. Gelb plays a free show Wednesday at 8 PM at the Rainbo Club, 1150 N. Damen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kahimi Karie uncredited photo.