So Who The Hell Are YOU? Part 1
Why should you care what the folks at Kaala have to say? They're booze-hounds and wicked gunsels, every single one of them. What do they know about the Japanese underground, and why should you care?
Well, welcome to the series that'll answer those questions, dummies. The articles in this series will explore precisely that question and hopefully serve as a way for the awful bastards at Kaala to introduce themselves and explain why they're the ones to take you by the hand and guide you through the underground of Japanese extreme music. Or maybe it'll fail completely. Hell I dunno, I'm so goddamn drunk. -- Jim Broadly, editor in chief
“I fell in a bush” were the first words I ever heard come from the mouth of Kaala’s owner and operator. It was only after a few seconds that I realized he wasn’t speaking in code or offering a riddle of some kind, he simply meant that while walking near a bush, he had subsequently fell into that bush. And he must have considered this information to be extremely vital, because he said this to me before he had even told me his name or what the bottle in his hand was.
This was many years ago, back in the halcyon days of 2007, when we were both living in a tiny town of Hikone near the southern tip of Lake Biwa and studying Japanese at a nearby college. I was making my second go at university, having given up the first time to concentrate on my twin passions of sleeping past noon and flushing my life down the nearest toilet, and after many poor decisions and the death and/or incarceration of all my friends I enrolled myself in Wayne State university to study philosophy. And since a liberal arts degree needs language credits, I ended up picking Japanese. So here I was in Japan, older than all of my classmates because I had been the only one to take a four year detour through the land of poor decisions, and now this odd young man was telling me he had fallen into a bush. “Is he trying to warn me?” I thought to myself. “He’s making some pretty intense eye contact for a guy that hasn’t even introduced himself.” I supposed he was attempting to impress upon me the danger of Japanese shrubbery, which was apparently significant enough that he wasn’t going to waste any time doing so. Not when lives are at risk. Not on his watch.
I would have no time for a person like that these days. “I fell into a bush,” they’d say to me, and I would reply “Listen, stop making eye-contact with strangers, it’s inappropriate”. But as a younger man I was willing to take the risk and investigate this strange person. When you’re young, mysterious strangers are a great way to tumble into adventure and excitement. To me, as with many people, youth is meant to be spent telling everyone “yes” rather more often than is probably good for us. So when a stranger with wild eyes and something important to say about bushes approached me, I was ready to hear him out.
That stranger was Matt Ketchum, and a direct result of that decision is a long and strange story that ends with me here, now, in Tokyo, writing and editing for Kaala and organizing our podcasts. The story is made stranger still by the fact that when I arrived in this city I knew very little about extreme music, what little I did know I absolutely despised.
Over the years of our association, Matt has continually tried to expose me to extreme music and I have continually refused to pay any attention. I wanted nothing to do with any of it. I began studying classical music as a child and over the years I have performed in a number of different groups playing a wide variety of music, but I could not and would not consider the terrible grating noises spilling out of his computer speakers “music”. I could not for the life of me see what appeal this awful racket had. So you can imagine how funny it was when, during an interview for my first writing gig in Tokyo, my then editor told me they needed someone to write about metal. I nodded and told him I was his man for that, yes sir, no problem, while inside my head a trombone was saying “womp womp”. Still, a job is a job, so I took it upon myself to explore the underground metal scene as much as I could.
I can’t remember who said it, but a quote I’ve always enjoyed roughly goes as follows: “Any music scene is basically a roomful of people that all share the same STDs”. I don’t what your experience has been, dear readers, but that pretty much sums up the music scene I was a part of before I arrived in Japan. Many moons ago, I fled my home in South Korea and crash-landed in one of the three hipster kingdoms of the south-east United States, where I played in an Americana/Folk band and worked on a number of different projects with local musicians. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed doing that. There were some very talented people there and it wasn’t hard to find good musicians to collaborate with. But parts of it were very much what you’d expect from artsy white hipsters living in a town where you don’t need a lot of money to get by. It wasn’t just that the primary pursuits of the locals seemed to consist solely of a.) drinking, b.) sleeping around, and c.) playing music. I like all of those things and I indulged as much as anyone else in town. But before long I began notice a weird tension in the scene, some heavy presence that made everyone painfully self-aware. For the longest time I could understand what it was I was seeing, but eventually it dawned on me that everyone was acting like they were being watched and judged by their peers. Which, as it turned out, they probably were. I remember being at a house party one night when the host suddenly appeared next to me with an iPod and told me to pick a song. “Sure, what do you want to hear?” I asked politely. “No,” he responded with a much more serious tone than I was expecting. “I want you to pick it. That’s the point.”
The point of what, asshole? I nearly answered. I was eventually made to understand that this was some sort of test, and that if I failed my street cred would take a hit.
Which is patently stupid, of course, but I’m told that in America even the extreme metal scenes aren’t much different. A friend of mine returned to the states a year ago and recently told me that he was forced to remove all the metal patches from his jacket because American metalheads kept approaching him with the intention of quizzing him about the bands, about what vinyls he owned, about how real he was. I mean, Jesus. What kind of bastard does that? Who would even give a shit?
Not long after that, I took off toward Japan for a job that provided health insurance. When I first arrived I lived in Osaka, and the punk scene down there was so welcoming and friendly that I thought it must be an Osaka thing, but regardless of that, after a place like my previous home I naturally found the underground scene in Japan to be a breathe of fresh air. Still, everyone in Osaka -- mostly the drunken degenerate Jim Broadly, whom I met in Osaka and would later travel to Tokyo with -- told me that Tokyo people weren’t terribly friendly, so when I moved to the capitol six months later I was expecting the same sort of coldness I had experienced in the states (fyi -- Tokyo people are friendly, just not toward Jim Broadly, and usually for good reasons). But at each and every show Matt dragged me to, the same thing would happen: nothing at all. Nobody cared who I was or who I knew, they were just pleased to see new people supporting the bands. They were friendly and welcoming and the overall atmosphere seemed to be “oh, you like this music too? Cool.” And that’s it. No one tried to figure out how “authentic” I was, no one told me how lucky I was to be where I was, and nobody expected me to kiss their ass. They were just glad I was there. Best of all, everyone’s primary concern seemed to be the music, which was especially refreshing. Hell, the first time I reviewed an album for a paycheck was here in Tokyo and Tanaka Satoshi of End All gave it to me while we were drinking beer out in front of a 7-11. It's that kind of place!
This was how I ended up going Bush Bash and seeing Intestine Baalism perform, at which point the scales fell from my eyes and I experienced a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion. I finally understood the appeal of extreme metal. All it takes is the right band and even the most ardent denier can be turned. That night I begged Matt to buy me a t-shirt, which he did, and it is now the back-patch of the jacket I wore when I played with that same band a couple months ago at Koenji 20,000v. Things can move fast here, if you come into it free of pretension and open to possibilities. If you can manage that, you’ll find exactly what I found -- a community of like-minded weirdos listening to music that most of the world finds dreadful, but which we know to be just as rich and rewarding as anything you’d care to compare it to. There's amazing stuff happening here, and if you want to check it out we'd be happy to take you along. You won't find access like this anywhere else, and believe me when I say that we've checked.