As the concert builds to its climax, the lead singer climbs atop a throbbing kick drum, precariously balancing on her high heels, all the while not missing a beat with the driving guitar riff. When the song comes to a close, she leaps backwards, her head missing the beer-stained ceiling by mere centimeters as the final chord is struck midair. The landing would be perfect were it not for a malfunctioning guitar strap, and her instrument falls to the stage with a thud followed by a shower of ear-splitting feedback. But she recovers, kicks aside her guitar, knocks over a microphone stand, and exits the stage.
A moment later she’s back, seemingly transformed into another person—the star performer now functioning as her own roadie, spooling guitar cables and packing gear away. Soon after, she’s standing at the bar, where a first-time audience member congratulates her on a great show and buys her a beer. Later, the fan joins the band’s entourage for an after-show meal at a nearby izakaya (pub).
This scene could never happen at Summer Sonic or Fuji Rock, where armies of security guards are deployed to keep fans away from musicians. Yet such intimate encounters between music makers and music lovers occur every night in the many “live houses” that dot the Japanese music map. Cramped, smoky, nondescript concrete boxes hidden away in basement floors below restaurants or shops, live houses are the birthplace of a Japanese subculture which is quite literally underground, but is set to take its place on the world stage.
A quick look at the numbers hints at the scope of the thriving scene. There are roughly 1,000 live houses in Japan, and around 300 in Tokyo alone. Figure five or so bands playing nightly at each venue, with three or four members per band, and you get a sense of the expansive scale of this vibrant subculture.
Japan’s network of live houses and fans is often a welcome surprise to visiting foreign musicians. Danish punk band The Assassinators, who recently toured the country for the first time, were impressed with the sheer range of the scene—especially in contrast to their native Copenhagen, where forced evictions by the police and condemned buildings are not unusual.
“The whole concept of having a lot of live houses putting on shows for underground bands is really healthy for the cultural life,” says guitarist Jani. “It’s nice to have a scene that isn’t dominated by commercial, MTV-rock-star bands. It stimulates the not-so-commercial music scene and gives up-and-coming groups an opportunity to play. And it is those kinds of bands that make the music scene.”
But such opportunities were not always so easy to come by. Uzi-One, leader of seminal Japanese punk band Aggressive Dogs—still going strong after nearly three decades—remembers an era when the venues were still a rarity.
“There were no live houses available to us back then,” says the singer, reflecting on the group’s beginnings in Kita-Kyushu in the early ’80s. “We would rent out a whole coffeehouse and put on a show. We’d bring in cases of beer to sell, build a makeshift stage out of plywood. We would make flyers, print tickets, then sell them and collect them at the door ourselves. It was a real hassle, but in those days if we didn’t do that, we couldn’t play.”
Live houses evolved from music cafes
Live houses as they’re known today evolved from the "ongaku-kissa" (music cafes) of the ’60s and ’70s, venues where patrons could request a song be played on the shop’s record player with each drink order, and where acoustic folk acts occasionally performed. In 1976, the management of a chain of "ongaku-kissa" opened an altogether new kind of club called Shinjuku Loft, in the location where it still stands in Kabukicho. Unlike other venues, which were dotted with small tables that encouraged a passive and private enjoyment of the music, Loft encouraged fans to be active and social, cramming 300 standing patrons into a black box. The crowd would soon be pogoing to punk and noise bands like The Stalin and Hijokaidan, and the venue would serve as a stopping point for touring overseas artists like Einstürzende Neubauten and Sonic Youth.
The scene began to expand rapidly in the early ’80s, with the opening of pivotal venues like Huck Finn in Nagoya. These live houses were modeled in large part on New York’s legendary CBGB, the birthplace of the Ramones, Talking Heads and many other bands from the punk and New Wave era. Yet there were—and still are—many differences between Japanese live houses and their counterparts abroad.
“Live houses are something unique to Japan. The way of enjoying music is different” says Hideki, guitarist of Tokyo-based band Howling Guitar before a recent show at Heaven’s Door in Sangenjaya. Hideki and crew have played at live houses around Japan, and have twice appeared at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, giving a new perspective to their experiences at home.
“In other countries, bands play in bars. Some people are there for the music, and some are there because they want to drink and there is no other place to do that at night. If they like the music, they stay. But if they want to see a famous band like Motley Crüe, they go to a big stadium, buy a ticket, see the show, and then go home. So you have to think of a live house as a stadium, where everyone is there for the music. Only a live house is much, much smaller.”
“And because they are much smaller, we have no money,” adds Howling Guitar drummer Akira.
Little money to be made in live houses
Indeed, playing the live house circuit could hardly be described as a lucrative venture. “The fact that we can never make money is what I would like to see changed,” Hideki says with a sigh. “If we don’t invite a lot of friends and sell a lot of tickets, then we have to pay out of our own pockets.” He’s referring to the widely-disliked "noruma" system, which requires that each band meet a ticket sales quota or make up the difference in cash. It is not uncommon for a band to put their all into a performance only to find themselves afterwards scraping together upwards of 30,000 yen to pay for the privilege.
“Real estate is expensive in Japan, and this makes live houses expensive,” Akira explains. The fact that bands must pay to play also drives up ticket prices to the region of 3,000 yen per show, much higher than cover charges at comparative venues in other countries.
“I feel bad having my friends pay that much to see us play,” complains Takkan of veteran Tokyo punk band Crispy Nuts. “In other countries, you could probably see Madonna play for that price.”
Despite the comparatively high entry costs, there are many fans who visit live houses several nights a week. One familiar figure in Tokyo is a small woman clad all in black who flits about in front of the stage with a camera. She is Hiroko Matsushita, known as the “Koenji Godmother,” a photographer who has published two collections of live house photos and is working on a third.
Matsushita started photography to fill her spare time after her children had grown up and left home. One of her first shots was of a young woman with a mohawk she met outside Koenji station. This woman was in a band, and invited Matsushita to a show. The photographer loved the youthful atmosphere, and embarked on a mission of shooting live houses.
“I really wanted to document these young people who have talent but who don’t have the opportunity to appear on TV,” says Matsushita, who has twice suffered cracked ribs and broken cameras when mosh pits became too intense. Today, she has photographed literally thousands of musicians, and considers the members of over 400 bands “friends.” A recent, well-attended celebration of her 73rd birthday was held, of course, at a live house.
The media attention that was so elusive to bands when Matsushita began photographing them two decades ago is now easier to come by—the internet, in particular, has made the music world a smaller place. Twenty years ago, groups like Shonen Knife and Boredoms slowly gained followings overseas through overpriced import CDs and obscure fanzines. Today, with MySpace, YouTube and iTunes, musicians enjoy instant access on a global scale, and success can come knocking at the most unexpected of times.
The all-female band Bo-Peep, for instance, had been plugging away at the live house scene in their native Fukuoka and, later, in Tokyo for a decade when they were suddenly tapped to play the Rookie A Go-Go Stage at Fuji Rock in 2007, an experience they recall as “overwhelming.” This performance was followed by three successful UK tours. More recently, Red Bacteria Vacuum, another girl band active on the live house scene, was selected to represent Japanese rock at the J-Pop Summit in San Francisco, which included an appearance on the MTV Iggy channel.
“The scene will definitely continue to grow and spread,” says Aggressive Dogs’ Uzi-One. “Music has the power to cross borders.”
Live House 101
With hundreds of live houses and thousands of bands in the Tokyo area, it can be difficult to know who to see and where. Here are a few places to start:
-- Juice (www.juicemusic.com), a free monthly magazine listing schedules for live houses across Japan, available at music stores and venues.
-- Most groups have profiles and post schedules on Myspace.com. Explore the Friends list of the bands you know to find new acts.
-- Acts seen performing outside the south exit of Shinjuku station or in Yoyogi Park are often advertising upcoming shows. Be sure to pick up a flyer.
-- Metropolis concert listings and the website Tokyo Gig Guide (www.tokyogigguide.com) are also valuable sources of information.
Kevin Mcgue is the director of Live House, a feature-length documentary opening this fall. Check www.live-house-movie.com for details.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today