SXSW ’09 | Japan Nite

jn2009_header.gifThe venerable Austin tradition—now in its 13th year—expands to two nights and 13 of the finest bands in Japanese rock, plus a tour of seven other US cities. We have your preview.



An Austin tradition, Japan Nite once again hits the streets of Austin to bring the finest in Japanese rock to America’s shores. Now in its 13th year, the venerable tradition is expanding, with 13 bands spread out over two nights-March 20th and 21st at the Elysium-and a tour of select US cities to allow those who can’t make it to Texas to join in on the fun. Here’s a look at all the bands making their way across the Pacific this year, courtesy of Benten Tokyo and SXSW Music Asia. Check below for tour dates and line-ups.


Asakusa Jinta [Website] [MySpace]

After taking 2008 off from the festival, Japan’s one and only "psychobilly punk marching band" returns to SXSW this year. Words start to fail you when you try to describe Asakusa Jinta’s one-in-a-million sound, but try to picture this: throw elements of jazz, rockabilly, punk, ska, and straight-up rock in a blender with Japanese music traditions like enka, kayokyoku, and jinta. Then imagine that concoction as played by a six-piece band featuring guitar, drums, and a three-piece horn section (MieKachint on soprano and alto sax, B-Ken on euphonium and tuba, Seasir on trumpet), all lead by silken-voiced singer Oshow and his rumbling stand-up double bass. The result is a swinging, relentlessly high energy, wholly unique sound that is among the most unique and compelling concoctions you’re likely to hear. The band, who has been thundering around the streets of Asakusa, Tokyo since 1995, has put together a new self-titled compilation (out now on Rollergate) to serve as a gateway for a foreign audience. If this meager attempt to describe their awesomeness has in any way whetted your curiosity, do yourself a favor and track down a copy.


detroit7 [Website] [MySpace]

Returning to SXSW for a second year in a row is detroit7, a three-piece garage rock outfit built around experimental arrangements and the distinctive vocals of frontwoman Tomomi Nabana. Where detroit7 distinguish themselves, however, is with the guitar solos, snarling, beastly things rung from the neck of Nabana’s infamous white, lefty JazzMaster guitar. Nabana’s skills are on full display on "Raise High," a blast of Stooges-esque proto-punk packed with enough wailing guitars to do the late Ron Asheton proud, while the rest of the band proves their worth on the "In the Sunshine," a phenomenal slice of Yeah Yeah Yeahs-style indie rock that rides a pumping rhythm from bassist Nobuaki Kotajima and disco-tastic beats from drummer Miyoko Yamaguchi. Active in Japan since 2001, the band is poised to take over the English-speaking world thanks to their new, self-titled album, released on March 10th by Domo Records and the first to receive wide release in the US.


Dirty Old Men [Website] [MySpace]

Don’t let the name fool you: with their chiming guitars, soaring arrangements, and Nobuyuki Takatsuto’s breathy vocals, this emo-rock quartet are less "dirty old men" and more Japan Nite’s winner of the "band most likely to show up on The O.C." award. "Moon Wet With Honey" has the kind of slow emotional build and earnest vocal delivery that Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba has built his career on, while "Rain Show" channels the melodic, high energy sound of Jimmy Eat World. The band’s latest Japan-only release, accelerate, is due from Spice Records on April 25th.


The Emeralds [Website] [MySpace]

Making their sixth straight appearance at SXSW, Yokohama-based power trio the Emeralds stand ready to take over America with the release of their first full-length LP, Love Is Rolling. The band exemplifies surf punk boogie at its high octane best, with all three band members firing on all cylinders at all times, whether its drummer Akio’s snap-crackle-pop drums on the title track, singer/guitarist Kazuya’s nimble fretwork on the anthemic "All My Love For You," or Ogure’s menacing bass riff from "Shimokita Dream," which snakes around like something out of a long-lost killer ‘70s action flick. "Never Change" captures the band at their rawest, with a rumbling Alice In Chains-ish bass line paired with the loud-soft dynamics and screeched vocals of Bleach-era Nirvana. But the track to watch out for is "Talk About Love," a jaw-dropping tune that’s equal parts Jimi Hendrix’s "Fire" and the theme from Spy Hunter. Its chaos is the perfect home for Kazuya’s rapid-fire, tongue-twister vocals.


FLiP [Website] [MySpace]

The story sounds like a gimmick: they’re all girls, they’re all 19, their singer and guitarist met at McDonalds as high school sophomores looking to "form an oh-so-cool girl band," and their name has a lower case "i" to make it "more appealing and cute." Here’s what’s not a gimmick: their music. The four girls in FLiP have a modern rock sound that’s ready for radio without being pandering or cheesy. "DARTS" plays like a harder-edged Tegan and Sara, with singer/guitarist Sachiko’s elevating from pleading to passionate to downright desperate, while the angst-ridden Hole-meets-Yeah Yeah Yeahs stomp of "It’s a Lie" is sure to grab hold and not let go. Even at this early age, the girls’ instrumentation and songwriting chops are rock solid, which can only mean even greater things ahead.


GRAPEVINE [Website] [MySpace]

I must confess that I know precious little about Osaka’s GRAPEVINE, but their latest three song single (released last year on Pony Canyon) makes me want to learn more: "CORE" has the airy atmosphere and insistent percussion of mid-era Radiohead (think "Idioteque"), b-side "Wants" is a soaring acoustic guitar ballad with tons of little details (pulsing, Beatles-esque organ; sustained guitar distortion; bludgeoning drum fills) bubbling just below the surface, and the bonus track is 12 minutes of live songs with the glam strut of T. Rex. It’s a staggeringly wide range, but to be expected from a band who lists artists as disparate as the Beatles, Neil Young, and XTC as influences.


HONEY SAC [Website] [MySpace]

With a sound as sweet as their name and as sunny as an August day, HONEY SAC are pure pop, plain and simple. First formed in Kansai in 2002, the all-female five-piece started touring throughout the rest of Japan with the release of their self-produced debut Starting Over in 2005. The first two songs on their newest EP, 2008’s Rakka Slider (Cozee Records), mix big melodies, crunchy guitars, and spaced-out organ, recalling the Elephant 6 pop sound of bands like Apples in Stereo and Dressy Bessy without the sometimes psychedelic overtones, while the 80s-tastic "Fellow Feeling" feels like something the Knight Sabers might have played in the classic rock-meets-mecha anime Bubblegum Crisis and the closer "Fighting Girl!" adds horns and a bubbly, ska-like bounce.


Omodaka [Website] [YouTube]

The house/electronica music that Soichi Terada records under his nom de DJ Omodaka bears a passing resemblance to Daft Punk, but it’s the similarities in approach, not musical style, that really stand out. Like that famed French band, Terada first grabbed attention by pairing his beats with eye-catching videos, most notably the trippy clip for "Kokiriko Bushi" that garnered over 700,000 views on YouTube. Terada’s beats are prone to go odd but interesting places, like his 8-bit version of Bach’s "Cantata No. 147" that plays like a blip-hop/classical hybrid. Starting last year, Terada has been taking the Omodaka show on the road, and given his penchant for mixing the worlds of audio and video, the results are undoubtedly something best experienced in person.


quaff [Website] [MySpace] [YouTube]

There’s always something fascinating about musicians who use the idiom of rock music to explore the traditional music of their country, from Max Cavalera’s incorporation of Brazilian rhythms into the thrash metal of his bands Sepultura and Soulfly to Flogging Molly’s use of banjo, fiddle, tin whistle, and accordion to give their punk rock an Irish flavor. The Japanese equivalent is quaff, a six-man "Samurai rock" band who blend guitar-driven heavy metal with traditional Japanese music. Sometimes, like on the ornate Taiko percussion of the song "Kurabe" from their 2007 album of the same name, the Japanese elements take over completely. Sometimes, like on the DragonForce-meets-Dethklok speed metal of the title track from their latest, the 2008 EP Dragon’s Fire, the pendulum swings all the way in the other direction. But where things really get interesting is tracks like "Metropolis ‘SAIHARA’" where as much attention to the marching, tribal drumbeat and bamboo flute as to the 1980s twin guitar metal attack, while singer Seiya’s nasal vocal style gives his lyrics the cadence of a Buddhist chant. Though the bamboo flute and Buddhist chant aesthetic reoccurs throughout, the rock half of the equation isn’t all metal, with "Aeon" bringing rap into the mix (courtesy of MC Ukisemi) and the atmospheric "More Than Blue" moving into trance/electronica territory.


SA: [Website] [MySpace]

"Welcome to fuckin’ monster SA’s sound," pompadoured frontman Taisei growls during the opening of "Big Time," and he’s not just blowing hot air: SA does indeed have a monstrous sound, packed with nimble guitar solos, a rhythm section that bobs along at blistering speed, and shoutalong harmonies delivered in a guttural roar that echoes classicist punk bands like Rancid and Pennywise. Anything but another johnny-come-lately copycat, SA have battled a solid quarter century in the punk rock trenches. Formed as Samurai Attack by Taisei and his high school buds in 1984, the band scored early buzz before the frontman took off for Tokyo in 1987 with his new band, Bad Messiah. A one-off reunion gig in 1999 led Taisei to reformulate SA as a solo project, settling on the current line-up in 2001. Last year’s Vandals Bop (released on the band’s own Pineapple Records) runs the punk rock gamut, from the barked choruses of "Cum on Braves" and "Drive the Night Away" (the piano in the latter giving it an Andrew WK vibe) to the X-style rockabilly twist "Gatta’ Gotta’ Rotter Train." SA gives a nod to modern times with the slicing, Franz Ferdinand-ish guitar lick on "Fossil Head," and even finds time for a spirit-lifting piano ballad worthy of 1970s Elton John on "Over the Hump" before wrapping everything up with "Weekend Nutters Boogie," a salute to lost, drunken nights worthy of the Dropkick Murphys.


SPARTA LOCALS [Website] [MySpace]

SPARTA LOCALS bring the post punk fury with their latest, 2008’s Leecher, an album chockfull of inventive guitar licks that careen over drummer Takeshi Kajiyama’s constantly shifting time signatures. The opener kicks off with a lightning-fast angular riff from guitarists Shinnichi Ito and Kosei Abe that plays like Fugazi crossed with Arctic Monkeys, then downshifts to a slow, sunny bridge before kicking back in full force. "Monster" lurches like In Utero-era Nirvana and "New Hero" finds Ito channeling the shimmering, echo-drenched sound of Television, but it’s the Gang of Four-meets-Talking Heads funk of "Jet Juice" that will burrow its way into your head and not let go.


Special Thanks [Website] [MySpace]

Fun, spunky pop-punk is the name of the game for Special Thanks, the latest in a line of female-fronted bands to come out of Japan’s Aichi prefecture. Their debut EP Seven Colors (released last year on Grooovie Drunker Records) is a twenty-minute slice of catchy-as-all-get-out melodic punk, with Sean’s blisteringly fast three-chord guitar, Lupin’s bobbing basslines, and Nochi’s machine gun drums forming the perfect setup for lead singer Misaki to sing of broken hearts, favorite songs, and late night visits to Mr. Donut in a girlishly cute voice, all in endearingly-accented English. Most songs ("I Don’t Know," "Mr. Donut") play like Avril Lavigne fronting a pre-fame Blink-182, while the band channels emo popsters the Starting Line on "You Say Good-bye" and the half-ballad/half-rocker  "Stamping Girl" plays like a punk rock Taylor Swift.


Stereopony [Website]

Formed just last year in Okinawa, the all-female three-piece Stereopony may be the youngest band on this year’s Japan Nite tour, but they already impress, even with just two singles in their discography. Their debut single "Hitohira no Hanabira" (released just last November on gr8! Records) is a monster rock song, with singer Aimi’s new wave-ish guitar and Shiho’s four-on-the-floor drums bringing to mind the Killers. It’s the kind of high octane song that’s tailor-made to be an anime theme song, which may have something to with it being used as just that, playing over the closing credits of the long-running action series Bleach. Their sophomore single, "Namida no Mukou," released in February of this year, also found an anime home as the opener for the second season of Mobile Suit Gundam 00. | Jason Green


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03.20 SXSW Japan Nite 1, Austin, TX @ Elysium

with: FLiP / Dirty Old Men / HONEY SAC / SPARTA LOCALS / GRAPEVINE / detroit7

Opening band: Anchorsong

03.21 SXSW Japan Nite 2, Austin, TX @ Elysium

with: Stereopony / Special Thanks / The Emeralds / SA / Asakusa Jinta / quaff

Opening band: Anchorsong

3.22 New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
with: detroit7 / SA / SPARTA LOCALS / FLiP / Omodaka / GRAPEVINE / Asakusa Jinta

3.23 Cambridge, MA @ T.T. The Bears
with: detroit7 / SA / SPARTA LOCALS / FLiP / Omodaka / THE EMERALDS

3.24 Chicago, IL @ Empty Bottle
with: detroit7 / SA / SPARTA LOCALS / FLiP / Omodaka

3.26 Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
with:  detroit7 / SA / SPARTA LOCALS / FLiP / Omodaka

3.27 Seattle, WA @ High Dive
with:  detroit7 / SA / SPARTA LOCALS / FLiP / Omodaka
Opening band: The Slants

3.28 San Francisco, CA @ Independent
with: detroit7 / SA / SPARTA LOCALS / FLiP / Omodaka

3.29 Los Angeles, CA @ Knitting Factory
with: detroit7 / SA / SPARTA LOCALS / FLiP / Omodaka

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