14 June 2012
An Interview with Japanese Underground Guru Alan Cummings
I have the honour to interview Alan Cummings, the Japanese Underground guru, recently. We communicated via email and he managed to answer some of my questions as you can see below.
Alan Cummings has been writing about the Japanese Underground scene since the 1990s for left-field media like The Wire magazine (He just did an article for The Wire on Keiji Haino's long-running out-rock project, Fushitsusha, who just came back with a brilliant album since the early 2000s). You may want to find out more here. He has done interviews and articles on some of the key bands in the Japanese Psychedelic canon and he has also done Primers for the scene in his writings.
Alan is also very prolific in terms of his translation works for many albums released by Japanese Underground record labels; his time and effort is invaluable as they provided many of us outside of Japan a glimpse into the world of these musicians and the conception behind many of these great albums. (Many PSF Records CD sleeves feature his words for the original Japanese ones; the website link is to the Japanese language site so use Google Chrome browser for instant translation if you dont already know...)
He is a very busy man and he has promised to answer the rest of the questions which I gave him in due time and for that, I would like to thank him tremendously but till then, I think, the following should whet our appetites a bit...
1. Alan, you have been known to be the expert and the man to go to when it comes to Japanese underground/alternative music so perhaps you can share with us what got you into this amazing music from Japan?
I remember hearing a track from the second Hanatarash album on John Peel's radio show in 1988 or so. The year after that I went to London to start studying Japanese at university. I was already interested in that whole mid 80s US underground thing, Sonic Youth, Big Black, Butthole Surfers, Nirvana played at my college on their first trip to the UK in 1989, etc. So of course I wondered what kinds of alternative music there might be in Japan, but you got to remember that this was the pre-internet age so information was not easy to come by. Scraps of information, labels and band names were hoarded and memorized, and you tried to join as many dots as you could. Anyway, during my first trip to Japan in 1990, a friend sent me a recent issue of Forced Exposure, the one that had a review of the second High Rise album on PSF. And that armed me with some names and sent me off on a quest to track down some of this music, which proved quite difficult in Sapporo, where I was at the time, though I did pick up that Hanatarash record, some Zeni Geva and a couple of other things in the local punk shop. Future trips brought me to Tokyo, where I managed to track down the PSF/Modern Music, after much fruitless and sweat-drenched wandering through the backstreets of midsummer Tokyo. PSF was really my crucial connection in Japan, and through them I started meeting artists and hearing about stuff that kept on blowing me away.
2. Who would be your favourite Japanese artistes and groups and why?
There are way too many to list. Keiji Haino and Fushitsusha, obviously. For a singular, unquantifiable uniqueness. Kazuki Tomokawa, for his wrenching emotional power (at his recent show at Cafe Oto he pretty much slayed the entire room). Masayoshi Urabe, Masayuki Takayanagi, Kaoru Abe, Motoharu Yoshizawa for singular approaches to free improvisation that show there is space in that idiom beyond Brit free improv and US free jazz. Akio Suzuki, for the utter seriousness of his playfulness - really, way more people need to hear him. There are lots of others.
3. Perhaps you can share with us about the Noise scene in Japan next. What do you think are some of the reasons giving Japanese noise releases and acts such enduring status in the minds and hearts of adventurous music fans?
I don't have much to say about that, really, since I have never really been much of a noise person. Partly I think it's the usual strand of exoticism. Japan has always been this unknown, blank slate that the oustide word projects all kinds of desires on to, from the Japonisme stuff in Europe in the late 19th century, to the Beats and their quests for Zen, right to all the anime and manga otaku today. For some, people Japan and 'extremity' or 'craziness' are a natural projection.
4. Is there a similar drying-up of the Japanese Noise scene in recent years? If yes, why? If not, perhaps you can kindly share with us who have we been missing out on!
I know a lot less about noise, but my sense is that there is still a lot of stuff going on in the underground. Some of it seems to be cross-pollinating with rock, electro-acoustic stuff, drone and so on. But as Alchemy have stepped back from being a record label, there are fewer visible labels dealing with that stuff though. And I get the sense that a lot of it has either gone to micro-editions or to web distribution. I really like the more drone end of that spectrum, Neurec, Reizen, etc. Folks like Takuya Sakaguchi are still out there writing about it, and online distributors like S.O.L. Sound (http://sol.shop-pro.jp/), Omega Point (http://homepage2.nifty.com/paganmusik/omega/top.html), Art Into Life (http://www.art-into-life.com) and so on, are good ways to find out what's getting released.
5. When I went Japan twice I realised that there are actually many books on underground and avantgarde music available in the bookshops/record shops there but sad to say they are all in Japanese. I believe there is a market out there world wide for the translated works of these texts but so far I have not seen or heard of any. (E.g. the one on Hijokaidan and the history on Japanese Free jazz are two which immediately came to my head) Is it possible for you to share with us why there seems to be noone taking on this task (actually I am thinking of you as a possible candidate to translate them into English)
Oh, there are lots of books that would be worth translating. But with any job like that it's a matter of money and time. It's still a pretty marginal interest, so a book on Hijokaidan might sell how many copies in English? 500? 1000? And when you think of having to get it printed, distributed, plus paying someone enough for the six months or whatever it would take to translate it... E-publishing might be a more feasible route, but it would still be a long, tiring task - and I already have a full-time job that has been taking 80-90 hours out of my week for the past few years...
(Photo of Alan Cummings: courtesy of Volcanic Tongue website)