Japan Nite US Tour | 03.16-22.12

A preview of this year’s edition of SXSW’s annual spotlight on Japan‘s best and brightest bands.


An Austin tradition, Japan Nite arrives for SXSW for the 17th year in a row. As usual, this year’s lineup offers something for everybody from raw punk to country pop, from dirge-y noise rock to traditional Japanese instrumentation and dancing. Read on for a preview of this year’s bands as well as tour dates for Japan Nite’s brief foray across the United States.
The Akabane Vulgars on Strong Bypass [MySpace]
Most high schoolers spend their summers goofing off, but Miki Uchizono had something else in mind: starting a band. In the summer of 2005, the industrious 16-going-on-17-year-old bassist set her sights on Kei Sofue, a classmate with “excellent reflexes” that she thought would “be very good for [a] power drummer.” To round out the trio, Uchizono kept things in the family, approaching her 21-year-old sister Yumi to handle guitar and vocals. Flash forward to 7 years later, and Miki’s summer project—the clumsily named, Tokyo-based Akabane Vulgars on Strong Bypass—has now developed into a rip-roarin’ punk rock trio motivated, they say, by “the vigor of man’s resurrection from the sorrowful and loss.” Far from the morose lament that statement implies, the band’s vicious new EP Run!! Caravan!! Run!! keeps things raw and defiantly lo-fi, opening with Yumi’s buzzsaw guitars and guttural punk rock growl on the two-and-a-half minute punk blast “Club Roxane” before letting Miki’s slap-bass groove the band through a pair of longer X-style punkabilly numbers.
Modern and ancient Japan collide in the form of Kao=S, a Japanese three-piece that blends Tsugaru-shamisen—a form of traditional music from the island of Honshu played on the shamisen, a sort of fretless, three-stringed banjo—with more modern influences. On the two-song instrumental sampler offered up for a preview, the traditional/modern hybrid proves quite striking: the first song pairs a triple-time acoustic guitar strum with lightning fast shamisen heroics sure to catch the ears of Steve Vai fans, while the second offers a slower, minor key melancholy akin to Alice In Chains’ acoustic EP Jar of Flies. The band doesn’t just blend the traditional and the modern, they also blend the aural and the visual by pairing Shuji Yamagiri’s vocals and acoustic guitar and Jack’s shamisen with vocals and traditional Japanese sword dancing courtesy of Kaori Kawabuchi, a motion actor for the Final Fantasy video game franchise.
NOKIES! [Website] [MySpace]
The members of NOKIES! may just now be in college themselves, but their list of influences reads like a college radio playlist circa a couple years back. The crisp, clean guitarwork and African-inspired rhythms of Vampire Weekend bubble to the surface throughout the band’s 2011 debut EP 7 Songs, whether played straight-ahead (the percussion-driven, “Bryn”-esque “Andy”) or with a bit of Arctic Monkeys’ speedy punk swagger (“White Boat”). NOKIES! can also do a pretty dead-on Strokes impersonation (check the nimble guitars on “We Are News in the Dance Floor”), and even manage to blend funk and Franz Ferdinand on “Take My Hand.” The last two songs on the EP prove the most impressive: the penultimate track “Who Cares” pairs a Ringo Starr drumbeat and some chiming Johnny Marr-ish guitars to craft a song that plays like Wilco’s “Summerteeth” as a conventional love song, while “Our Way Home” closes the record out with another Vampire Weekend-y tune that morphs halfway through into an echo-drenched epic worthy of U2. (The band’s latest single, “Oslo,” is a Snow Patrol-esque song that expands the band’s repertoire further in this grandiose direction.) The band is signed to Flake Records, a label run by a Japanese independent record store that is frequently responsible for importing international acts into Japan. Given the band’s English lyrics and easy comparisons to college rock mainstays, it’s not hard to imagine NOKIES! being the label’s first successful export.
The Rubies [Website]
The “Samurai Rock n’ Roll Trio” the Emeralds are no strangers to SXSW, having performed there six years in a row (from 2004-2009), but the band must have felt they needed a change because, while they are indeed heading to Austin again this year, they’re doing so as the Rubies, a side project started in 2009 by Emeralds singer/guitarist Kazuya and bassist Osuke that brings a new name, a new uniform (matching red pants!), and a new drummer in the form of Daisuke, the “drummer who can sing and dance” from the band Clarabell. Add in a tambourine player, “the mysterious Taro” (discovered at a karaoke bar!), and you have a band who, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Rubies sound an awful lot like the Emeralds, although the ramshackle surf rock elements have been tightened up into big, bashing pop-punk riffs, and the tongue twister vocals have been replaced with easy, crowdplease-y English shoutalongs. The band promises a crazy, over-the-top live performance sure to get booties shaking.
Saito Johnny [Website]
Sweet-voiced 24-year-old Saito Johnny was tapped by Taylor Swift to open the Japan and Hong Kong legs of her recent tour, but don’t hold that against him. True, the opening track of his 2011 debut I Am Johnny is the spitting image of Swift’s blandly inoffensive country pop, and “Goin’ Home” adds electronic blips and a drum machine for a sound that says “countrified Owl City,” but the singer, songwriter, guitarist, banjoist, and mandolinist has more than just pop tricks up his sleeve. The fifth track from “I Am Johnny” is pure bluegrass, with Iwami Keigo’s bass supplying a Tennessee Two-step foundation for nimble banjo licks straight out of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, while track six brings in bongos and a pair of dueling acoustic guitars for a Guster-y vibe. Track seven slows things down for a pretty, mandolin-driven lullaby before welcoming in the album closer, a raucous country rocker with the strut of Matthew Sweet’s “The Ugly Truth” (right down to the lengthy, unhinged guitar solo). But Saito Johnny saved the best trick for last, with a hidden bonus track featuring a positively brilliant ukulele and fiddle cover of “Video Killed the Radio Star” that must be heard to be believed.
Vampillia [Website]
In the grand tradition of the Boredoms and Melt Banana, Osaka’s Vampillia represent the avant garde, noise rock side of the Japanese music scene. After forming, the band’s bleak soundscapes quickly caught the attention of plenty of indie rock tastemakers, including Animal Collective producer Rusty Santos (who produced the abortive sessions for the band’s first full-length album), Icelandic ambient musician Ben Frost, and, most notably, Swans vocalist Jarboe and fellow Japanese noise artist Merzbow, who both appeared on the band’s 2011 LP Alchemic Heart, which Pitchfork greeted with a generous 8.0 rating. The band’s latest—The Primitive World, a collaboration with Canadian husband-wife drone metal duo Nadja—offers up an icy grandeur built from classically pretty piano, waterfalls of distorted guitar squall, and thundering, echo-laden percussion. The album’s centerpiece is “Icelight,” a 23-minute goth-metal dirge that sounds like it crept from the depths of Dethklok’s worst nightmares, an epic bit of noise certain to either drive you to ecstasy or try your patience, depending upon your own personal tastes.
ZZZ’s [Website]
There must have been trouble in paradise for the band Hystoic Vein: after blasting their way through Japan Nite 2010 and 2011, guitarist Youkaku, bassist Yukary, and drummer Lyn return to Austin in 2012 without singer Inko and with a new name, ZZZ’s. Fortunately, HV’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs-esque art-punk (which I described last year as “loud and angular and glammy and just plain awesome”) has survived the transition: “G’s” pairs thrashing post-punk with some cheerleader-y rah-rah vocals, the chaotic “Red Light” holds together thanks to Yukari’s thundering bottom end, and “Dystopia” brings it all together with a clanging guitar riff, throbbing bassline, and an insistent disco drumbeat. On the vocal tip, both Youkaku and Yukary take over for the departed Inko, running their voices through heavy distortion akin to that heard on some pre-fame KMFDM albums; though it may sound like they’re shouting through a beaten-up old megaphone, the effect does little to disguise the band’s massive hooks. | Jason Green
For more information, visit http://sxsw-asia.com/JapanNite2012/.
03.16 Japan Nite SXSW | Elysium, Austin
7pm The Rubies / 8pm THE AKABANE VULGARS ON STRONG BYPASS / 9pm Kao=S / 10pm NOKIES! / 11pm Saito Johnny / 12am ZZZ’s / 1am Vampillia


03.18 – Japan Nite | Double Door, Chicago
Doors: 7:30 pm / Show: 8:00 pm / 21 + / Tickets: $10
1572 N Milwaukee Ave Chicago, Illinois 60622,
(773) 489-3160
with: NOKIES! / Kao=S / ZZZ’s

03.19 – Japan Nite | Public Assembly Front Room, New York
Doors: 8:00pm / Show: 8:30 pm / 21+ / Tickets: $15
70 North 6th Street Brooklyn, NY 11211
with: NOKIES! / Kao=S / ZZZ’s / opening act: GELATINE

03.20 – Japan Nite | The Independent, San Francisco
Doors: 7:30 pm / Show: 8:00 pm / Tickets: $15 / 21+
628 Divisadero Street San Francisco, CA 94117-1502
(415) 771-1421
with: NOKIES! / Kao=S / ZZZ’s / Vampillia / opening act: sounddrug

03.21 – Japan Nite | The Viper Room, Los Angeles
Doors: 7:30 pm / Show: 8:00 pm / Tickets: $15 / 21+
8852 West Sunset Boulevard West Hollywood, CA 90069-2108
(310) 358-1880
with: NOKIES! / Kao=S / ZZZ’s / opening act: Eyeshine
DJs: Tune in Tokyo

03.22 – Japan Nite | Hard Rock Café, Las Vegas
Doors 7 pm / $15 / 18+
3771 S. Las Vegas Blvd Las Vegas, NV. 89109
with: NOKIES! / Kao=S (without Jack) / ZZZ’s / opening act: Eyeshine

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