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Thursday, June 23, 2011
Bedroom ears: Japan's new D.I.Y. ethic
Cuz Me Pain feels the love as smaller acts harness Web savvy to get heard
Special to The Japan Times
The dimly lit Bar Fabrica is an appropriate place to meet the four artists from Cuz Me Pain Records, who describe their music as "quite dark" and are known for being shrouded in mystery.
The bar, a few steps away from Umegaoka Station in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, is small and cramped, but the guys are used to making music in tight spaces — in particular, their bedrooms.
Cuz Me Pain's core — Nobuyuki Sakuma, Yosuke Tsuchida, Yuji Oda and Keisuke Tsukanome — are at the forefront of a burgeoning takuroku (home recording) or "bedroom musician" scene in Japan that comprises do-it-yourself artists using the Internet to gain fans. The phenomenon was written about recently by Takeaki Emori in the book "Takuroku: D.I.Y. Music Guide."
Tsuchida, who records as :visited, says each artist records in their one-room apartments, using computer programs such as Apple's GarageBand and Logic.
"Even though we have tiny rooms, we have lots of instruments," he says. "There is basically no space." Members of the label say they choose to record in their rooms instead of a studio because they associate the latter with "higher quality" results and they prefer the rougher sounds that home recording produces.
For Sakuma, who records as Nites and Jesse Ruins, bedroom recording feels more intimate and produces a kind of thrill he used to get when discovering new bands.
"Years ago, if you wanted to find out more about a band, you'd be poring through record crates and magazines," he says. "It was more effort, but in a way it was also quite good fun."
The only scouring anyone has to do to find a Cuz Me Pain track, however, is a trip to many overseas indie-music websites. The Tokyo label has become one of the most buzzed-about music operations from Japan today.
Sakuma moved to Tokyo from the city of Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, about five years ago. He mainly DJed at first, and eventually reached out to Tsuchida via social-networking site MySpace about starting an event. Soon joined by Oda (who, along with Tsuchida, plays in a band called Faron Square and also records solo as both Atlas Young and The Beauty) and Tsukanome (who heads the trio Aaps, and makes music by himself as Melancholic Masculinity), the quartet started the "Cause Me Pain" music nights.
In December of 2009, Tsuchida says each member was making music as part of a band or producing at home, so it made sense to put it all out on the same label. The crew thought the original title of the party was too long, so they tinkered with it and got Cuz Me Pain. Also around this time, Sakuma started making music as Jesse Ruins.
"With Jesse Ruins, I had a specific sound in mind," Sakuma says. "I DJed for about three years as Nites. Jesse Ruins allows me to be heard in a different way."
That sound centers around hazy electronics covering ghostly vocal samples, gifted with a club-ready beat owing to Sakuma's DJ past: Imagine French act M83 forced to haunt a discotheque until the end of time. Every Cuz Me Pain project features such shadowy hallmarks with slight variations. Faron Square's recent "Willy's Anthology" EP adds some funky flourishes, while Oda says his Atlas Young project owes a debt to Swedish acts The Radio Dept. and Air France ("It's music you can cry to," he says). All members agree, though, the label's sound is greatly influenced by the sampling style of Australian group The Avalanches.
Musicians recording from the comfort of their own bedrooms aren't a new development. Texas-based artists Jandek and Daniel Johnston self-released albums from their homes, while The Mountain Goats spent the entirety of the 1990s releasing tapes recorded on a boom box. Yet it took them years to gain a following worthy of being called "cultlike."
Websites such as MySpace, Bandcamp and Soundcloud, which hit 5 million users last week (up from 1 million this time last year) have allowed artists to quickly upload music online and potentially connect to fanbases around the world. More and more Japanese artists have been embracing this method of distribution, including groups such as Hotel Mexico and She Talks Silence, beatmakers such as Pigeondust, and electronic producers such as Osaka's Luka Uemura.
Even with more than 5 million users, though, the Soundcloud or Bandcamp route to success is not a given. And, of course, a few duds can slip in along the way.
Sakuma is doing alright, however, and as Jesse Ruins he recently signed a management deal with Lefse Records in the United States, which has released music from groups such as How To Dress Well and Neon Indian.
"To be honest, I don't know if Jesse Ruins will succeed at all (overseas or in Japan). But if recognition of our music can grow while not having to please a particular audience, then that would be fantastic."
Sakuma says he is appreciative of the international attention he gets by posting his music on the Web, something that major-label Japanese artists work for years to achieve.
"In Japan, there are a lot of artists who sign with major labels and still don't succeed, so I don't think signing with a major label is the be-all and end-all of domestic success," he says. "Yet, I'm still not really sure how effective the Internet and new distribution tools will be. We'll see."
'The Internet changed my life," Syouta Kaneko declares at a cafe in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo's hipster enclave. He records as Friends, which is mostly a solo project that gets expanded to a trio for live shows. Like the Cuz Me Pain crew, Kaneko's music has grabbed the attention of various blogs, including Sweden's No Modest Bear. The Kyoto-based Second Royal Records signed Friends after seeing a post about him on Twitter. Second Royal will release Friends' 10-song debut album this summer (details are yet to be determined).
Originally from Kobe, Kaneko started Friends last September because he had grown tired of mainstream Japanese music. "They make music too complicated," he says about the domestic acts that top the charts. "I think music should be simpler, like two minutes."
The songs he records certainly adhere to that standard, with quick blasts of Beach Boys-inspired pop blanketed in guitar feedback. Friends sounds like a slightly noisier Best Coast, a California-based band whose straightforward songs Kaneko says connected with him deeply. He also cites fellow Brian Wilson-worshippers The Explorers Club and a 10-month stay in Sydney as influencing his music. "I often went to the beach," he says. "I liked to get sunburned."
After listening to these bands, Kaneko thought it wouldn't be that difficult to make the same type of music himself, so he started recording in his bedroom. This impacted how his vocals sounded on his tracks.
"My mom came to my room sometimes and told me to be quiet," he says. "So I just recorded my vocals softly."
Interestingly though, Kaneko is quick to shake off the "bedroom artist" label despite the fact he's almost a textbook example. He says it's because he thinks those acts are often associated with being reclusive.
"I think I'm outgoing," he says, additionally pointing out that even though he records at home, Friends is making "band music" and that he really just wants to lead a group.
Kaneko also says he prefers physical releases over digital music files, likely because he remembers playing CDs loudly while driving around in the family car. "I try to make my music sound good in a car," he says. Cuz Me Pain similarly embrace physical objects, especially vinyl recordings, despite their success releasing mp3s. "Even if you throw vinyl away in your trash bin, it's still there," Tsuchida says. "But if it's an mp3 and you put it in the trash — it's gone forever."
Just as Kaneko emphasizes he is no hikikomori (social recluse), Cuz Me Pain stress they never intended to be so mysterious. They just wanted to get their music out in the public realm, and also lacked the cash for proper publicity shots. They've learned, though, to turn blog-born mystery into an artistic ethos.
"With artists like The Avalanches, you never really saw their faces. It wasn't like they were making a big deal about their image," Tsuchida says. "You could grow to like their music without ever finding out what they look like."
At the moment, the members of Cuz Me Pain are working on their solo projects and aim to put out new, physical releases by year's end. They hope to raise enough cash to do an event in the United States.
"We would love to go to South By Southwest next year," Tsuchida says of the music-industry conference in Texas. "That all depends on finances though."
The label also hopes to add some overseas acts to its roster, which means Sakuma is about to relive the music-hunting of his youth. This time, however, he says he'll be switching the record bins and magazines for Soundcloud pages.
Cuz Me Pain will put on events at Home in Shibuya, Tokyo, on July 1 (12 midnight; ¥1,500 in advance); Bar Fabrica in Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, on July 8 (11 p.m., free); and at Web-Mishuku in Setagaya-ku, Tokyo (11 p.m.; ¥1,500 in adv.). For more information, visit www.cuzmepain.com. Friends play at Echo in Shibuya, Tokyo, on June 27 (9 p.m., ¥1,000 in adv.); and Era in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, on July 10 (12 midnight, ¥1,500). For more information, visit www.myspace.com/friends.jp.
Cuz Me Pain DJs Mix #1 by CUZMEPAIN