Rabbits Full of Magic

13 December 2009

 

Rainy Day Memories of Shibuya-Kei



In the 90s there was a Japanese underground pop explosion labeled by the press Shibuya-kei (for Shibuya was a convenient and relevant place to pinpoint a 'music scene'). It all more or less starts with Keigo Oyamada, who was in a late 80s teen pop sensation called Flipper's Guitar that sounded like Madchester. The video above, from their last record, is a take on Magical Mystery Tour, A Clockwork Orange, and Subterranean Homesick Blues, with samples from The Velvet Undergound and "Sympathy For the Devil". Keigo sings "I'm a monkey".



Fittingly, after the group split up Keigo named himself Cornelius (in honor of his benevolent namesake in Planet of the Apes) and began dropping genre-bending records that earned him the title 'The Japanese Beck'. 1997's Beach Boys/Jesus & Mary Chain/Music Machine/Walt Disney-referencing wonderland Fantasma is where I got on. I was obsessed with that record for a good six months after I got it. His video for Star Fruits Surf Rider from that album featuring him singing and smoking backwards cut with clips by father of computer animation John Whitney. Nowadays he makes music that sounds like a robot from the future making friendly pop music (see the video above) and has lent his music to futuristic music video masterpieces by Koichiro Tsujikawa. These videos look like stop motion that would be impossible to physically pull off, or at least computer animation that perfectly simulates the craft of handmade animation. Look at this video to see what I mean:



In the early 2000's Cornelius married Takako Minekawa, who may be my favorite avant pop musician of all time. He produced a few records of hers (see "Plash" below) and you can see/hear much of her music on youtube. I don't know how to describe it because each release sounds different, because she keeps finding new people to collaborate with and the results are consistently strange, fun, retro futuristic, stunning. She made a pop song with cheesy 60s synthesizers called Fantastic Cat, a spooky spy gogo-dance song Sleeping Bag, Disneyland-inspired glitch with Milk Rock, eerie drones with Sleep, an 808 breakdance jam with Fabie (1, 2, 3, Beat It), and here's a nice live video I captured of her performing Spider live in 1996, playing stylophone and singing through heavy tremelo effects.



In between selling out stadium concert tours Cornelius curated a legendary label called Trattoria, which became home to dozens of amazing underground Japanese and international bands that people in the west will probably never hear. Thank god for youtube! You can see videos from model Lolita-pop singer Kahimi Karie, stylish retro dance music from Pizzicato Five, hard-rockin' Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, psychedelic tribalism from OOIOO, moog rock from Buffalo Daughter and much more. Of course there are many awesome bands that are on other labels, including many of those listed above, but Trattoria was a great place for an outsider to start.



To me Salon Music was just another band on Trattoria, but once I'd read a little about them realized they were godfathers/godmothers of Japanese underground music, releasing records since the 80s. I owned 1996's "M*A*S*H*", which as you can hear above was a spot-on rendition of the kind of shoegaze that would get indie press ten years later. Like most Shibuya-kei groups they effortlessly genre-hopped to great effect. Hunting On Paris is a fun 80s electropop song that makes me think of the Vaselines. Watch this crazy snipped of a video clip for "Wrapped Up in Duet" for more 80s electro goodness.

You may have a story about a certain song or a certain concert that changed your life, that got you into music or else suddenly steered your lifestyle in a particular direction. Mine was seeing the Flaming Lips play the Masquerade in 1999, and the specific moment was when opener Japanese rock star Cornelius performed a theremin version of "Love Me Tender" while a loop of Elvis Presley serenading a Hawaiian babe looped mechanically in the background. The moment crystallized the joy I found in the music of the evening, and lead me to buy a theremin as well as alot of expensive Japanese import CDs.

A case containing dozens of these rare records was stolen from me several years later, and a new-found interest in punk rock and the music of my friends helped to end an obsession that captivated me for years. But the past rainy weekend has been a wonderful youtube trip down memory lane. If you have time to kill and a curious mind do yourself a favor and check out some of these groups.

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