“Making Curry a Threat Again”–Mortar Records, Kumagaya, Japan.

July 4, 2009

Scrap and I toured Japan in June; we got together with a band from Tokyo (from Kasukabe, in the suburbs, actually) called Uhnellys; they drove us around the country, playing right before us every night, on bills that would include three or four other Japanese bands. It was pretty hardscrabble; ten day tour, ten shows, no days off. Fatiguing, but wonderful; Kim and Midi, the bass/vocal and drummer duo that make up the Uhnellys, are fantastic people, and a fantastic band, and I felt like I got a view of Japan I wouldn’t have gotten if I hadn’t toured with a local band.
I don’t even have a record out there–haven’t been to Japan since a two-gig trip in 1997–and yet there were 30 or 50 people at each show (including three shows in Tokyo–!!), and we kept encountering those legendary Japanese fans that are so devoted, and freaked out, giving us small gifts and trembling when they met us. Amazingly, too, outside of Tokyo, most of the audiences were made up entirely of Japanese–usually Americans come crawling out of the woodwork for American bands.
Everywhere I looked, there was something fascinating; I have roughly a billion pictures that I hope to post eventually. Despite this, and despite the wonderfulness of the whole scene, when I got lonely, I got homesick, it was such an alienating environment, everything utterly other for a Westerner. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten homesick on tour.
One of the gigs was at a store in Kumagaya called Mortar Records. It may have been my favorite show of the tour. There was a tiny space with a low ceiling upstairs from the store; people sat Indian-style on the floor.
This guy above had a bookshelf on wheels outside the store; he called it his “free library.” He asked me to take his picture while he drew me. I asked Kim if he was crazy and he said, “No crazy. Just funny.”
Funny indeed. There was a solo folky Japanese guy who played a song with English lyrics that went like this: “I make up scenarios. I make up scenarios. I make up scenarios. I make up scenarios. I make up scenarios. I make up scenarios. I make up scenarios.” I fled outside. (in fact, nearly every show we played had a guy on the bill that played whispery, unintentionally creepy folk songs in English; after Kumagaya, we started calling it Scenario Rock). The free-library man was making something unidentifiable out of cardboard boxes. I came back to watch Kim, and right before he went on, free-library guy came up with his cardboard contraption, which turned out to be a lion’s-head. He went around the club biting people on the noggin with it.
I didn’t get a good picture–in the pic of the girl sitting on the curb reading, you can see it in the lower left corner.
Kim played a solo acoustic set, because Midi had to work; he did lots of freaky loop-pedal stuff–freaky loop pedal stuff is his mainstay. He is great, great, great.
There was this thing going on in Japan with surgical masks; everywhere you went there were people wearing them. Maybe it had something to do with Swine-Flu hysteria (are epidemics capitalized?)–when we landed in Tokyo, they sent people in scrubs and masks, with stethoscopes, on the plane seeking out sickly passengers; before we got to customs, we had to go through a station with heat-sensor monitors to detect people with fevers (it was insanely cool looking; the people coming through looked like ghosts).
On the streets of a big city, I could understand it, but people were in the audience at the gigs with surgical masks on. Some people in the opening bands were wearing masks when they soundchecked; happily, no musician wore it during the show. There was a surgical mask wearing woman, blase as could be, sitting in the corner.
Anyhow, it was a fantastic gig. Another opener, whom I didn’t get a picture of, played a Steinberger bass (one of those 80s-futuristic basses you’d see played by Lee Sklar in Phil Collins’ band circa ’85, with no headstock and a tiny rectangle for a body–where the hell does he get strings for that thing?), and while he played bass, did Mongolian throat singing. Actually, he was the best Mongolian throat singer I’ve ever heard live. Between acts, they spun vinyl–a lot of old Judee Sill tunes, which made my heart sing. Really special place. If you’re ever in Kumagaya, stop in–and be sure to try the curry.