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Friday, Feb. 19, 2010

Umibachi skirts industry suits for newest release


Special to The Japan Times

"Basically women are body conscious and men play with their joysticks. The woman is in the more powerful position. The idea is about woman and man, sexual and urban."

News photo
D.I.Y. approach: Umibachi members (from left) Eiji Morotomi, Genta Matsumura, Katsuhito Tateyama and Jotaro Miwa took on the role of producers and distributors for their latest album, "Body Conscious & Joystick."

Genta Matsumura from new wave/dance-punk quartet Umibachi trying to explain the at first glance baffling title of his band's new album "Body Conscious & Joystick," their first new release since 2004's "No School."

"We're all shy boys," agrees drummer Eiji Morotomi, "and then there's the idea of analogue and digital. 'Body-conscious' is more analogue, and 'joystick' is digital."

Of course anyone familiar with Japanese cultural trends would be able to tell you that the phrase body conscious, usually abbreviated as bodycon, was one of the buzz phrases of the 1980s, and the sense of looking back over the decade of the band's childhood runs throughout "Body Conscious & Joystick".

"The album kind of compiles all these ideas from when we were young," says Morotomi, not least being the sound, which brings together the disco punk of '70s and '80s New York bands like Liquid Liquid and ESG, with the gleefully nonsensical atmosphere of Japanese new wavers the Plastics, topped off with Matsumura's wired, hectoring, Fred Schneider-like vocals.

Matsumura's past has been tied up with the new-wave scene at least since the late '90s when, as part of the band Chicago Bass, he was part of the "Tokyo New Wave of New Wave" '80s revival scene alongside bands like Polysics and Motocompo. However, he believes that the situation nowadays is very different.

"The difference was that the '90s new- wave scene was just an image of '80s bands like the Plastics and P-Model," he explains, "but now bands are just behaving like they did back in the '70s, where all kinds of different sounds can be made by people who just have a similar creative attitude."

Part of that change is down to wider changes in how the music industry is structured and the associated cultural changes in the music scene, not least among which has been the increase in the ability of bands to record and release music themselves, not only as a matter of necessity but also as a matter of choice. Despite being established musicians, "Body Conscious & Joystick" was produced and released entirely by the band themselves, only leaving their hands at the last stage to be mastered by Rovo's Tatsuki Masuko.

In a sense the increasing popularity of self-released albums is an unfortunate byproduct of the decline of independent labels in the Japanese music scene, with the increase of self-released records a musical analogue to the dubious system of literary vanity publishing. However, the changes in technology and distribution in the music industry mean that this shift might actually have some important benefits to musicians.

"Big record stores like Tower and HMV don't distribute indie so much," says Morotomi, "They're making their stores smaller, and indie releases are getting squeezed out. On the other hand, Disk Union is becoming more and more friendly to indies releases."

Indie record chain Disk Union have increasingly been taking on the role of distributors, picking up not only Umibachi but also less well known but equally exciting underground bands like tacobonds, The Mornings and Fukuoka band ruruxu/sinn. Looked at one way, all they're doing is pushing the financial risk for the album back onto the band themselves, but on the other hand, by cutting out the middleman of the label, it allows the bands much more control over their music.

As Matsumura says, "These days it's all about the Internet. It's easy to find CD press companies, we can get distribution, and we can promote it through our Web page. All we really need to do is to send the music to the audience directly."

Umibachi plays Shimokitazawa's Three on Feb. 24, and a special CD launch party at Shinjuku Marz on March 26 that starts at midnight. For more information, visit www.umibachi.com

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