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Friday, April 9, 2010

Up from the underground: Womb turns 10

Special to The Japan Times

Since opening its doors in April 2000 with a live set from New York house legend Junior Vasquez, Tokyo's club Womb has been credited with doing more than other local venues to bring dance-music culture into the mainstream.

News photo
The weekend starts here: Revellers hit the dance floor at Womb, one of Tokyo's most popular nightclubs.

Ten years later, around 4,000 people walk through the venue's doors every weekend to party until the early hours of the morning.

The club pays a near ¥600,000 electricity bill each month to power its state-of-the-art light show and Phazon soundsystem in an 8.8-meter-high main room.

Womb has also grown to become a globally respected venue. In a 2009 poll of artists conducted by Britain's DJ Magazine, it ranked fourth best in the world, behind Ibiza's Space, London's Fabric and No. 1 club Berghain in Berlin. Ageha was Womb's closest rival in Tokyo and ranked a distant 31.

Richie Hawtin is among the DJs with praise for the club: "Its room is special; when you get a crowd in there and you turn the sound up high and the lights down low, it just goes off. It's really, really inspiring," he told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

"The atmosphere of the crowd, the lineup and the soundsystem all make a Womb a club that is globally respected and that Tokyo can be proud of," says DJ Maar, who along with DJ Daruma make up Dexpistols.

At the time of the club's launch, Womb manager Sabi Takahashi argues the club was badly needed: "When I came back from the United States in 2000, there was such a big gap between dance culture in Tokyo and that in the United States or Europe," he says. "There were a lot of good small clubs and a very nice underground scene, but there was nothing mainstream. So it seemed to be 20 years behind the West.

"We have tried to make a culture and expand, and develop a sense among punters of the global club scene. I think the scene here is growing up quickly. I think Womb has helped the city to achieve that."

Over the course of the decade, the club has invited a who's who of the dance music world to perform in Tokyo. Highlights have included weekly residencies by Sasha and Jeff Mills. For one month, those DJs performed a different style of music each Friday night to packed crowds.

"Jeff's wife was a friend of mine when I was a promoter in New York," Takahashi says. "Before she married him, she used to help me to book techno acts over there. When I came to work here, she told me that she had married him and asked about the residency. It took a long time to organize though.

"For the weekly residency concept, I doubt any other club could do it," he adds. "We are the only ones with the connections, community and concepts to do this sort of event."

Like any major venue in the capital, Womb has had a fair number of rumors pop up surrounding the origins of the club. One resident DJ, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprimand, told The Japan Times that the club's main floor was initially supposed to be two separate floors, but as opening day neared, and cash ran low, the owners decided to keep the cavernous single room that has made the club so famous worldwide. Takahashi, however, denies the rumor.

Despite any rumors on the behind-the-scenes workings of the club, Womb has brought patrons top-quality lineups on a weekly basis and has attracted the attention of internationally respected promoters and DJs.

News photo
At the decks: DJs Daruma and Maar make up the Dexpistols. They'll help Womb celebrate its 10th anniversary.

"Lots of different DJs are friends but also business partners. Since we invited Layo Paskin (one half of Layo and Bushwacka! and a former co-owner of The End in London) to play here, he has helped us to learn how to run a club, and we have tried to help him when we could," says Naohiro Momoi, another member of Womb's management team.

Womb seeks out the biggest acts of the moment, a policy some local promoters and DJs criticize as changing with the trends. It's a policy that contradicts other clubs such as Eleven (formerly Yellow), Air and Amate Raxi, which all tend to stick with one genre of music in order to nurture it, and hire only artists associated with that genre regardless of how trendy it is.

Takahashi, however, rejects arguments against Womb's approach, and can point to the fact that Womb seems to dominate the local clubbing market because of it.

"We always transmit high quality, fresh and contemporary electronic music on the floor in Womb," he says. "That is our policy. We don't think we have a changing music policy."

Takahashi stresses that Womb has made a strong contribution to the club scene, and he is correct. Recently, the club's staple of genre-specific events has seen an addition in the form of the fashionable style of electro currently emanating from France's Ed Banger records. Local DJs such as the Dexpistols, who are known for their sets that combine electro, house, techno, rock, and anything else that takes their fancy, have seen their profiles rise because of Womb's newfound passion for the nascent electro scene.

"I think the new electro sound has become popular because it is very cultural, involving fashion and art," explains Dexpistols' Daruma. "Moreover, since the electro movement over here started to grow in popularity, a lot of young people in Japan have started to hope they can help change the dance scene, which is positive."

Womb's Takahashi says that has always been a goal of the club.

"The image in Japan is that clubs are pretty much bad places and they have remained underground. If you go to places like Brazil, parties are organized almost anywhere, and dance festivals can get 100,000 people down; that is such a healthy structure. In Japan, there are a lot of communities that would probably love to see that sort of thing going on here. The question is, how do you demonstrate to them that dance music is not about fighting and drugs, but about good times and good music? We are trying to change the way (dance music) is seen."

Womb's 10th anniversary party takes place April 10. Doors open at 11:00 p.m. Tickets cost ¥4,000 at the door, with discounts for members and those holding flyers. For details, visit www.womb.co.jp

Tokyo's music scene continues to grow outside of Womb

Apart from Womb, other promoters have helped grow Tokyo's club scene. While a few years ago clubbers often had a small choice of destinations limited to Fridays and Saturdays, the city now offers a more diverse range of music events Thursday through Sunday.

Mike Munoz, DJ and copromoter of Tokyo and Osaka's London Calling night, recently chose to move his event in a different direction — Nu Disco.

"We started the party a few years ago in Osaka, and we were pretty much the only people doing electro, but now pretty much everywhere is playing that music," says Munoz. "Our roots are house and disco, and we saw that the music was making a comeback, so we took a chance and brought the sound into the events."

Elsewhere, 4 The Love's occasional Sunday parties have proved a success, bringing in around 200 people for each event. Promoter Mitch Norris, who DJs as Billion-dollar Boys Club, was surprised by the popularity of the party.

"When I first started the party in July 2008, I only expected my close friends to come down, but the party had over 100 people in attendance for our first party which blew me away."

Amid the expansion, Club Yellow has also reopened as Eleven, making for steep competition, not that this bothers Womb manager Sabi Takahashi.

"If (other clubs) get a lot of people down then that can only be a good thing for all of us. There should be a lot of quality clubs in Tokyo."

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