August 21, 2009
Summer Sonic Tenth Anniversary
Four bands, two writers, one festival
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on August 2009
The UK goth-rockers get drenched in Shimokitazawa
It doesn’t start well.
Metropolis: “So, what have you got lined up for your set at Summer Sonic?”
Faris Rotter, singer with The Horrors: “Some of our songs, probably.”
Metropolis: “Any surprises for the Japanese crowd?”
Rotter: “Yeah. Lots of surprises.”
Metropolis: “Are you going to tell me what some of them are?”
Joshua Third, guitarist: “That’s what makes it a surprise, you see.”
Sometimes you have to be thankful to be having merely a brief conversation with someone—just imagine being their mum.
But of course, The Horrors’ contrary attitude has played a big part in their success. The band may hail from the British seaside resort of Southend, near London, but “sunshine sound” was never the buzzword for the neo-Goths. Formed in 2005 around a love for dark washes of noise and a predilection for the darker things in life, Rotter and co. soon fell in with twisted video director Chris Cunningham and found themselves the darlings of UK magazine NME.
In other quarters, the initial reception was mixed. Debut album Strange House (2007) was wafer-thin, and the group’s live shows two-dimensional, but their terrorrific image won them a zealous cult following nonetheless. And somewhere along the way, the band discovered its soul, resulting in this year’s Primary Colours, a complex and balanced album that borrows elements from bands as diverse as Joy Division and The Shangri-Las.
It is from this album that the band pulls most of their set on Saturday, making for a far more engaging performance than their appearance here two years back.
“It’s probably the best crowd you could ever get,” enthuses Rotter. “It’s really insane how people respond to us here. I think everyone probably gets a different reception from Japanese crowds, but we certainly appreciate it.”
Like many bands, The Horrors are herded to Summer Sonic’s Osaka site straight after their set. “But hopefully tomorrow we’ll have a chance to see some bands,” says Rotter.
“I’m gonna go to watch The Tom Tom Club,” says Third. “Oh, The Vaselines are playing as well, aren’t they?” adds Rotter.
In the meantime, the band is trying to soak up as much of Japan as it can—literally. “Me and Josh yesterday went to Shimokitazawa. We spent a good day walking around and then got caught in the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced,” says Rotter with a smirk. “That was excellent. I like the Japanese weather.”
Primary Colours is available on Warner Music Japan. www.thehorrors.co.uk DR
After its Tokyo debut, the Brooklyn quartet is headed for Takao-san
“It’s a mystery to us how we got booked—we don’t even have an audience here,” says drummer Christopher Bear of young, arty New York indie-rock quartet Grizzly Bear. “The festival made us an offer that was enough to get us here, so we agreed. We’re basically just here to see Japan, and have zero expectations of winning any fans.”
Grizzly Bear may have their expectations low, but it’s safe to say that their label Warp and Japanese distributor Beat Records will be hoping that the complex, psychedelic folk of their new album Veckatimest goes over here like it has overseas. The hotly tipped group last year supported Radiohead on tour, with guitarist Jonny Greenwood calling them his favorite band.
As it turns out, the band’s set of moody, complex songs featuring instruments like the bass clarinet and autoharp is well received by the several thousand assembled at the Sonic Stage for their midday set. You’d have to try pretty hard not to win over this up-for-it festival crowd, but Japan is already huge territory for Radiohead, and has shown a taste for arty, folkie acts like Joanna Newsom. So it seems likely that Grizzly Bear will return soon.
For now, the four members are simply taking it all in. “We expected it to be a sensory overload, but we didn’t realize how sprawling the cities are,” says guitarist Daniel Rossen. “We were driving into Osaka, and it just went on and on—it reminded me of Blade Runner.”
“Everyone has been insanely nice, and taking care of your guests seems to be a more important value than in the US,” adds Bear. “They make you feel comfortable about being a foreigner.”
After a few more interviews, Grizzly Bear will head out to the Marine Stadium to take in Beyonce’s Vegas-style revue. They’ve then got Monday off before heading to Narita for the flight home. “Tomorrow we’re going for a big meal at Takao-san,” says Rossen eagerly. “We have some friends who’ve spent a lot of time here and are going to take us. Apparently, there are some very beautiful gardens. We’re excited because the food has been awesome so far!”
Veckatimest is available on Warp/Beat Records. www.grizzly-bear.net DG
Thirty-two years on, the punk progenitor is still a sensation
“My favorite gig is an up-close, sweaty club gig where you can sweat on the audience and they can sweat on you. But don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy festivals.”
So says New York punk pioneer Joan Jett hours before taking to Summer Sonic’s vast Mountain Stage with her band The Blackhearts. She’s just arrived on-site, sitting down backstage with Metropolis after a hurried lunch consisting of “like, two bites of beans.” Indeed, this appearance is an in-and-out job for Jett, who has to head straight to the festival’s Osaka leg after her set.
“I’m bummed,” she says.
“Elvis Costello’s on after us, and I’d like to see some of that, but I think we have to jump to Osaka. The festival looks incredible.”
Jett first visited Japan in 1977 as a founding member of all-girl teenage band The Runaways. Unknown to the group, they were a sensation in Japan—hordes of screaming fans greeted them at the airport.
“We weren’t prepared mentally for what was gonna happen,” Jett recalls. “It was literally like a Beatlemania kinda thing. Except these were mainly girls. I think for Japanese society, it was a bit different to give women a voice.”
Jett is currently serving as executive producer of The Runaways, a movie version of the girls’ story set for Stateside release in 2010. “It is absolutely not a biopic,” she says. “It is a story that took elements from The Runaways’ story. There are elements of truth in it, but there are also elements that were created.”
The singer also appears in the forthcoming Hollywood movie Lock And Roll Forever, a fictional work based on Osaka’s all-girl teenage ska group Oreskaband. “We just ran into them [backstage],” she says. “I think they’re a lot of fun.”
Now 51, Jett takes her responsibility as rock role model seriously, working with up-and-coming bands via her label Blackheart Records. She claims never to have heard Britney Spears’ dismal 2002 version of “I Love Rock’N’Roll,” the iconic cover song that launched Jett’s solo career, but she sure has words on the subject of women in music.
“Not much has changed in the 30 years since The Runaways, which is pretty astounding. Girls are still just allowed to pop, but they call it rock. The food’s ‘rocking,’ the makeup’s ‘rocking,’ the clothes are ‘rocking’—‘rock’ doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s a vacant word.”
Yeah, right. When Jett and her band take the stage later that day, they disprove that comment completely with a fierce, high-energy performance. Pretty, yes; vacant, no.
Fit To Be Tied: Great Hits is available on Victor Entertainment. www.joanjett.com DR
The Glaswegians are happy to play for the respectful Japanese instead of drunken Europeans
“This is a lot bigger than before,” observes Raymond McGinley (above), the guitarist and vocalist for Teenage Fanclub, about the tenth anniversary Summer Sonic.
The Glasgow rock group has been here for three of them.
“2000, 2005 and now this,” McGinley continues above the din in the press room. “It seems to get bigger every time we come. The first time, we thought, ‘Wonder if we’ll ever come back,’ and every time we come we think this may be the last, so you kind of make the most of it.”
McGinley has nothing but praise for Japanese audiences, which some bands complain are too quiet. “Here it seems like people come to the festival to listen to music and see the bands. In Europe, people are there more to get drunk, and the music is kind of secondary.”
A respectful audience is the right one for Teenage Fanclub, because their delicate harmonies and jangly guitars aren’t exactly the makings for a moshpit. And today at Makuhari, respectful is what they get. Many in the crowd are mouthing the words to songs that come from a back catalog of eight albums over two decades.
A ninth album, McGinley says, is in the works; tentatively titled Shadows, it’s due out in the beginning of 2010. Can he give us a hint of what’s on it? “Sometimes people say Teenage Fanclub does the same thing every time, but we feel like we’re expressing ourselves in different ways,” he says with a laugh. “There are a lot of new textures and different dynamics. But it’s the same guys playing the same instruments.”
And with that, McGinley heads backstage to prep for his set later in the afternoon. But before they catch their flight home tomorrow, the members of Teenage Fanclub will make the most of their time left in Japan. “We have a relatively early flight, but I still think it will be good to stay out tonight,” he says with a wink. “We’re open to the randomness of wherever we’re led, but I don’t think we’ll be going to bed early, because like I said this may be the last time we’ll be back.”