Archive: My second job


Recently I seem to have signed my weekends over to what was supposed to be my hobby, but is quickly becoming my second job. Albeit one that doesn’t pay me any money.

On my way to my second job early this Sunday morning, I looked around the train to see the people around me spending their Sunday mornings asleep on a train. One in every three was a schoolkid in uniform, on their way to their second jobs.

Which is strange, because if you ask schoolkids what their hobbies are, the number 1 answer is always “sleeping”. Push them to give an answer that isn’t essential to their continued existence (breathing is not a hobby either, in my book), and they may sullenly admit that they have been playing violin since they were old enough to support their own necks and are auditioning for the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra on the weekend. Perhaps where we’re going wrong is in assuming that extracurricular interests are necessarily fun things that one does to relax.

My students’ recollections of high school are rich with tales of their club activities, the friends they made and the skills they learned, not only relating to that hobby but also the skills of teamwork, the socialisation into the world of seniors and juniors (senpaikohai) that will be so important in their future lives. But their stories are also surprisingly full of regret, obligation and sleeplessness. If they genuinely got out as much as much as they seem to put in, Japan would be a world leader in everything. It’s no wonder they look so surprised when I say that I did music, journalism, film andJapanese society at university, in addition to being a founder member of the Comatose Club. In Japan, there is no dabbling.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy taiko. It’s been raising the hairs on the back of my neck since I first heard these guys, Kodo of Sado Island, back when Japan was still a semi-mythical country for me. Coincidentally, they’re a pretty good example of the kind of dedication I’m talking about, the apprentices living together in communal buildings for two years before the initial selection to the group, and probably going for runs and cold showers in the mountains at 5am. Forget it if you just like hitting stuff.

Needless to say, our group is nowhere near as serious. But we do have four performances on four weekends this November. And there’s nothing more painful than getting up on a day without work earlier than you would get up on a day with work.


Funabashi’s nashi pears: so delicious, they spawned this terrifying yet much-loved mascot-thing (by Neodaisuke, via Wikimedia Commons)

Still, I bet you’re thinking it must be pretty rock and roll, huh? Well, let me walk you through today’s performance. We opened the festival with a rousing performance of Yoake, then pushed all the drums out the way and went and stood in the cold in our traditional tiny shorts for another 45 minutes while some important business was taken care of. One of those cookie-cutter patronising-polite women with the squeaky voices introduced the twenty important-looking men and one woman sat in a circle up on stage, along with their impossibly complicated positions in the local hierarchy. One after the other, they stood up to make speeches, each less engaging than the last. The head of something or other division boasted that Funabashi’s nashi pears are more delicious than Ichikawa’s, the next town over. A smaller fellow, who’s fittingly only a vice-head, earned a smattering of applause for arguing that Funabashi’s carrots are second only to Hokkaido’s. A third man riffs on eggs, and then it’s time for all the children to come forward. Carefully please, it is easy to fall on flat, obstacle-free ground.

The suited men and woman all stand up, and start throwing rice cakes at children, not in anger but in festivity. Well-mannered chaos ensues. Remarkably, the children are actually leaving the scrum once they’ve caught a prize. Perhaps they don’t like rice cakes? Or maybe they’re ill? Next up in the fun is a 120kg tuna, which is convincingly dead and flopping around wetly on stage. It’s sliced open expertly by a town official with a samurai blade, before being sold off, raw of course, price depending on cut. By the time we finish our performance, only the head is left. The kids are lining up to have their photo taken with it.

Now that anticipation has had time to mount, Shibaroku taiko take to the stage. And we rock, and I do my best not to mess up too badly, and it’s all going so very well until I hear that annoying squeaky voice cutting through the drum I’m perfectly happily hiding behind. She’s scented fresh foreigner blood.

There are three things I hate about the inevitable gaijin interview, and they’re no longer that I stick out like a sore thumb or that I can’t answer the questions. The first is that I am usually the last person to have entered the group, and hence absolutely the worst person to call up for interview. Ask the sensei– he can tell you useful things about who we are and what we’re doing; my main focus is on not getting too much in the way. The second is that we play kumi-daiko, which means ensemble drumming: each member is as important as any other.

The third brings us neatly back to what I was whingeing about just the other month: bloody stupid questions. Here’s one I didn’t include in that particular rant: “What was your first impression when you came to Japan?” Like the others I listed at such vitriolic length in those earlier posts, honest yet prosaic answers will get you nowhere. “It was really hot”, or “You don’t bury electrical wires like we do in England” cause nothing but a chill in the air and one more stamp on the deportation point card. Well, if you won’t play the game…

It also doesn’t take into account the fact that I first came to Japan twelve years ago. Twelve years. That’s a long time in which to both forget and to learn. I can tell you a lot more interesting things from the perspective of a longer-term resident who speaks the language than any wide-eyed newbie could ever dream of. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. But then that would be rocking the boat.

I was half-tempted to say something either really stupid or really offensive. Surprised that everyone here has two arms, two legs and a head? Surprised that nobody carries swords any more, that you can’t see men in skirts with shaved heads lopping limbs off insolent peasants during your morning commute? Surprised by how ignorant people here are about other cultures, hmm? But loyalty to the group won out and I said nothing. Literally nothing, which was probably a little awkward for Squeaky-chan. But then not saying is the flower, ne?

From here on November 11th 2012.

Archive: Front Line Assembly & Stromkern

Front Line Assembly

Front Line Assembly bring the apocalypse

I couldn’t get into support act Stromkern, much as I tried. Fusing hip-hop and industrial is certainly valiant, and there were flashes of something interesting in there, but… I dunno. Just as I thought they’d reeled me in, they’d go insipid again and I’d be back to hating the guitarist’s idiot gurning. They ended on a high with ‘Heretic’ (listen here), a righteous industrial stomper that shook the roof and finally got my ass moving, but on balance they were pretty missable.

But then we weren’t there to see Stromkern. The anticipation levels were pretty high after a ten-year wait since FLA’s last London appearance, but from the moment they launched into opener ‘Buried Alive’ (from new album ‘Artificial Soldier’) it was clear we were in for a treat. Against a video back-drop showing a suitably dark and corrosive vision of the future, the five-piece cooked up a dance-or-die sonic onslaught, underpinned by some highly impressive live drumming.

Next up was ‘Vigilante’, from the guitar-heavy ‘Millennium’ album. The crowd was already more than happy to go crazy, but the hits kept on coming. Although I was disappointed not to hear some of my favourites from ‘Hard Wired’ and ‘Implode’, each song played was so blistering that it has become a firm favourite in the weeks since the gig.

The set finished with ‘Plasticity’, with the guitarist switching to take on second live drummer role. At this point my grin must have been wider than my face – the one thing I love more than live drumming is crazed apocalyptic live drumming played to a room-full of rivetheads. Great stuff.

Naturally we didn’t let them get away without an encore, and they returned to two Tactical Neural Implant tracks, ‘Gun’ and ‘Mindphaser’. And then, triumphant, they were gone. Here’s hoping I don’t have to wait another ten years to see them again.

From here on September 15th 2006.

Archive: Taiko drumming at Rhythmsticks

Taiko drums

Tools of the trade

Taiko (太鼓) means ‘big drum’ in Japanese. The drums come in a variety of forms, ranging from small, tuneable shime-daiko to the giant o-daiko, which can be as large as six feet in diameter. Taiko drumming has its origins in shrine ritual and ceremonies connected with the natural world, but has developed over the latter half of the twentieth century into a powerful performance art. Perhaps the best-known Taiko drumming ensemble in the West is Kodo.

I played taiko for two years when I lived in rural Japan, joining a local (but quite accomplished) group called Netaro Daiko. Although I didn’t have any background in percussion, I was fascinated by the thunderous, primal sound of the drums, and by the intensity created by the tempering of fierce aggression with serene, assured control. I begged them in my halting Japanese to let me join, and they kindly accepted.

Over the next two years I trained with the group every Wednesday evening, thwacked the hell out of my sofa at home, and performed at numerous local festivals. I wouldn’t say I was very good, but I did master the ancient Japanese art of ‘poker face’ – mistake, what mistake?

My passion for taiko drumming remains undimmed, and I never pass up an opportunity to see it performed live. Last Saturday (July 22nd) the Rhythmsticks Festival turned its attention to Japan, with the Taiko Master Series. This series features three leading lights in Japanese music: Japanese taiko percussionist Joji Hirota, US taiko master Kenny Endo, and US shakuhachi virtuoso John “Kaizan” Neptune.

Having spent several fruitless weeks trying to get even a sound out of a shakuhachi, I can’t help but marvel at John Neptune’s mastery of, and ease with, the instrument. The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute, with a sharp notch cut into the top producing the sound when blown over in a certain way – a certain very particular way. It’s not an instrument for playing tunes, but has a remarkable range of pitch, tone colour and dynamics, which makes it extremely expressive. To me it seems a very human instrument; the sound is liable to escape in unpredictable directions, to falter and to gather strength again. In the hands of a player as skillful as Neptune, these qualities can be harnessed to create a very moving and thought-provoking sound.The taiko drum is similarly raw and natural-sounding, and the larger the drum skin the more open it is to manipulation.


Kenny Endo makes full use of this, playing with the drum’s voice by varying the angle and strength of his strikes, controlling the pitch by placing pressure on the skin, utilising every surface, calmly controlling the sound until it’s time to let it thunder out unchecked. Joji Hirota takes a quieter approach in his solo, creating a beautiful and enveloping atmosphere which subtly tugs at the heart-strings.All three are keen explorers of the full spectrum of musical possibilities, fusing thorough mastery of traditional forms to non-traditional influences – “Tradition as a Basis for Innovation”, as Kenny Endo puts it. At no time is this clearer than the trio’s cheeky nod to Dave Brubeck, a jazzy drum groove overlaid with snatches of the famous “Take Five” melody, played by John Neptune on an Indian Jew’s Harp. With some snatches of South Indian singing thrown in for good measure. It shouldn’t work at all, but in these hands it’s clever and undeniably compelling.


This piece in particular has me grinning from ear to ear, but it’s only the highlight of a performance which is both inspired and inspiring from start to finish. Thoroughly recommended for anyone with an interest in Japan, percussion, jazz, fusion, performance art, or just a plain old love of damn good music.


From here on July 30th 2006.