Japanese Indie & Psych-Folk

There are many kinds of Japanese independent music – as in many other parts of the world, ‘independent music’ first meant an approach to music-making which was then codified into a genre or style (mostly, guitar pop). For the purposes of this guide, though, I’ll be focusing on one ‘arm’ of Japanese independent music, that which has come to be known by some as psych-folk, characterised by quiet intimacy, playfulness, and an unpredictable approach both to songwriting and recording, such that the material here often takes surprising turns when you least expect it. That’s one of the many things that makes this music so endlessly compelling, beyond its surface whimsy and imperfect beauty.

The key figures in the history of the music, really, are Tori and Reiko Kudo of Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Shinji Shibayama of Hallelujahs and Nagisa Ni Te, Chie Mukai of Ché-SHIZU, and Saya and Ueno Takashi of Tenniscoats. They’ve mostly all played together in various configurations, often as members of Tori Kudo’s shapeshifting, avant-pop big-band Maher Shalal Hash Baz. The Kudos, and Shibayama, share a trajectory that reaches back to the Minor scene in Tokyo in the early eighties, where the Kudos made abstract, droning psychedelic music under the name Noise; they also participated in improvised sessions. The presence of Mukai connects to another thread of underground music in Japan, one of collective improvisation – she was a member of Takehisa Kosugi’s East Bionic Symphonia, and later was part of Vedda Music Workshop.

A little later, Shibayama self-released a post-punk EP under the name Team Spirit, before joining forces with Naoki Zushi, a forming member of noise renegades Hijokaidan, in Idiot O’Clock and Hallelujahs. The only Hallelujahs album, Eat Meat, Swear An Oath, is perhaps the formative document of the whole scene; it’s certainly one of the most gorgeous and uncompromising guitar-pop albums to be released, anywhere, in the 1980s. The other keystone document is the Maher Shalal Hash Baz triple-album set, Return Visit To Rock Mass, where Tori Kudo and Shibayama worked together to document as many of Kudo’s songs as possible. Decades later, it still feels completely idiosyncratic. Both albums were released on Shibayama’s Org Records, which would go on to document his group with partner Masako Takeda, Nagisa Ni Te.

Then, a curious thing happened; Maher Shalal Hash Baz caught the attention of music writer David Keenan, who covered them in The Wire and introduced their music to his friends Stephen McRobbie and Katrina Mitchell of Scottish independent music group, The Pastels. The latter would release a Maher Shalal Hash Baz compilation, From A Summer To Another Summer (An Egypt To Another Egypt), as the first release on their new label, Geographic Music; they’d soon follow this with a Nagisa Ni Te compilation, Songs For A Simple Moment, and would also release several more great Maher albums.

During that time, The Pastels also met Saya and Ueno from Tenniscoats, who’d been quietly supporting their friends like yumbo, Eepil Eepil and Andersens, by releasing their music on a label, Majikick. The Pastels and Tenniscoats would eventually collaborate on an album, Two Sunsets, while Tenniscoats would go on to tour the world and work with all number of artists: Jad Fair, members of Deerhoof, Maquiladora, Pastacas, Bill Wells. They were also ambassadors for their scene back in Japan, eventually setting up an online distribution store, Minna Kikeru, to release their music, and their friends’ music, digitally.

Guy Blackman, of the Australian label Chapter Music, was also a quietly significant figure, releasing an excellent and defining compilation of Japanese indie-pop, Songs For Nao, in 2004. This found its way into the hands of Markus Acher of The Notwist, who’s now a fervent supporter of the music, working with Saya on a series of compilations, Minna Miteru, for German label Morr Music, while also helping pull together compilations of artists like Andersens and yumbo, and reissuing an album by Gratin Carnival on his own label, Alien Transistor.

It’s been great to see the music finding supporters overseas. But some of the real thrill of this music is digging deeply into the self-releases, CD-Rs, cassettes and download-only albums that many of these artists seem to pump out on a semi-regular basis to their fanbase; sometimes, CD-Rs are only available as gifts when attending one of their small-scale gigs. There’s something that feels very right about that; the intimacy and communitarian spirit of the music reflected in its means of distribution. Here are twenty albums, mostly relatively easy to find and hear, at least online, that give a good sense of how this music has developed over the decades.

Jon Dale

Return Visit to Rock Mass

Maher Shalal Hash Baz
Return Visit to Rock Mass cover

It’s always felt like a foolhardy, but totally wild thing to do – release a triple-album set by a group most people had barely heard of, even within Japan. The reasoning was simple enough: Maher Shalal Hash Baz’s Tori Kudo agreed to the release only if it would document every song he’d written to date. That didn’t quite end up playing out, though there are still 83 songs here. It’s the perfect encapsulation of this first phase of Maher Shalal Hash Baz: naïve pop that’s about the interplay between Kudo’s guitar and Hiroo Nakazaki’s euphonium, rich with happy-sad melodies. Some songs are fully formed, blessed with a graceful lilt; others are sketches of ideas, a few instruments tracing the basic contours of a melody or a phrase. Throughout, Kudo’s embrace of imperfection means the album is never predictable. By any measure, a perfect album, and visionary in the most unexpected but inspiring ways.

III

Naoki Zushi
III cover

On III, guitarist Naoki Zushi is joined by Shinji Shibayama and Masako Takeda of Nagisa Ni Te, the group Zushi moonlights with. But the songs here are by Zushi, not Shibayama, so it’s not Nagisa under another name. And while Zushi’s history in the Japanese underground might suggest experimentation – he was an early member of noise troupe Hijokaidan – III has a distinctly late-night, quiet side of the sixties feel to it: meandering two-chord folk songs, crystalline guitar figures woven into Tim Buckley-esque mantras, Zushi’s soft, ghostly voice barely hovering over the songs, caressing the melodies briefly. It’s no surprise that III has been lauded by some as a psych-folk classic, though even that’s a reductive reading of a deeply intimate set of songs.

Gratin Carnival

Gratin Carnival
Gratin Carnival cover

Koreyuki Matsunaga is the artist behind Gratin Carnival, a one-man home recording unit that started in 2011. This self-titled effort is their first album, released originally as a limited CD-R, and now available online. There’s something quite enchanting about Matsunaga’s compositions for guitar, saxophone and clarinet; he tends to state a simple, yet emotionally resonant phrase, or set of chords, and let them slowly do their thing, while wind instruments state playful melodies; sometimes you can hear the creak and rattle of the home recording studio, or the wheeze of a melodica, and a recorder drops by to grant “After Death” a toy-like folksiness. There’s something in here that reminds of chamber jazz, too, in the way the instruments twine tightly together.

Grapes

Muffin
Grapes cover

Muffin’s Grapes starts out in seemingly familiar territory – acoustic guitar and voice, singing out a simple song that sits neatly between psychedelic folk and indie-pop. But more curious things happen the deeper you get into Grapes. She’s a songwriter who signposts her influences directly, so the “All Tomorrow’s Parties”-esque, repetitive piano figure you hear three songs in is part of the arrangement for a song called, unsurprisingly, “VU.” There’s some lovely chorus singing on “We Are The Rainbow,” and the appearance of a wind-up music box on “Judee” functions poetically as a madeleine, a spine-tingling moment of déjà vu. Throughout, Muffin’s songs glow, their gentle kindness framed in all sorts of surprising ways.

Eat Meat, Swear an Oath

Hallelujahs
Eat Meat, Swear an Oath cover

Shinji Shibayama’s first group proper, Hallelujahs, learned all the best lessons from British post-punk – feel is more important than accuracy; the Velvets are your eternal spirit guide – and placed a peculiarly melancholy, hazy spin on things. It’s partly due to their embrace of a nascent, vague psychedelia that can’t help but develop out of blankly strummed guitars, solos scrawled through effects pedals, mind-numbing repetition, and dazed-out, blank-eyed vocals. Other people across the globe were exploring loosely similar ideas, and Eat Meat, Swear An Oath certainly shares mood and spirit with the likes of Opal, Galaxie 500, early Yo La Tengo, 14 Iced Bears, but Hallelujahs sound more disarming – not so much naïve, as willing to let their guard down, to shake off the fetters of ‘cool’, and let their songs be as drony, as cute, as reflective as they need to be. It’s an absolute treat of an album.

Last Night Songs

My Pal Foot Foot
Last Night Songs cover

Named after a song by legendary outsider pop trio The Shaggs, My Pal Foot Foot was formed by Yuko Kono and Kei Takeshita in 2000. While they never quite seemed to get the international attention of some of their peers (Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Tenniscoats), they were quiet achievers, releasing a clutch of beautiful albums before disbanding in the 2010s. Last Night Songs is exactly the right title for music this intimate and slow-moving – the five songs here are built from the gentle interaction of two guitars, plotting out simple chord shapes and intricate phrases as a bed for Kono’s and Takeshita’s peaceful sighs. It shares something with the more reflective end of post-rock and slowcore – Low, Codeine, Duster – but is yet more stripped back, elemental.

Yoru Made Matte

Saibou Bungaku
Yoru Made Matte cover

Yoru Made Matte is one of two albums recorded by the duo of Saibou Bungaku. Tomoaki Saito (guitar, vocals) and Seijiro Kuroda (cello) have a unique way of playing together that privileges music that dips in and out of silence – they’re folk musicians, in some ways, but playing a kind of folk that gestures more towards the Venusian blues of Loren Connors, the dream-space hints of songs by Hisato Higuchi, perhaps even the strung-out songs of Souled American’s later albums. Saito’s voice is a distracted murmur, while his guitar playing shuffles between flinty chords and tangles of pinging notes; the cello purrs and burrs through the songs, sometimes picking pizzicato; the quietness of the performances suggests music on a knife’s edge, but that’s deceptive, as these songs are sturdy and unbreakable. Psych-folk at its most dismantled.

Shu aroaro

Yuko Ikema
Shu aroaro cover

Part of a (relatively) new wave of psych-folk artists from Japan, Yuko Ikema’s songs are clear, ringing things, direct and unpretentious. As is often the case with such music from Japan, there’s a shadow of bossa nova in the deceptive simplicity of the writing, but most obvious here is the tenderness of the playing; Ikema’s approach to the guitar skips between light strums and jazz-like finger picking, either of which make for a beautiful bed for Ikema’s unforced, unadorned voice. Saya and Ueno of Tenniscoats both appear, briefly, and Ueno recorded this, Ikema’s debut album – she’d go on to release an EP on their label, Majikick, before a string of further self-released albums, all lovely.

Rice Field Silently Riping in the Night

Reiko Kudo
Rice Field Silently Riping in the Night cover

Reiko Kudo’s second solo album doesn’t do much differently from its predecessor, 1997’s Fire Inside My Hat, but it doesn’t really need to; Kudo’s aesthetic world is so clearly inscribed and so perfectly rendered that ‘variations on a theme’ communicate like seismic shifts. Kudo’s songs are more dourly melancholy than her husband Tori’s material for their group, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, and her arrangements tend towards the spare. Rice Field Silently Riping In The Night is like listening in to someone’s private thoughts; simple phrases repeat into the void of daytime silence, while Kudo sings as though she’s a skipping stone on water. There are collaborators here – Tori turns up, as do Saya and Ueno from Tenniscoats, and a few others – but their presence is worn very lightly.

Subtle Song

Pervenche
Subtle Song cover

In a recent interview, Masato Saito of Pervenche explained the roots of the group’s sound, their key influences: The Velvet Underground, Beat Happening, and Young Marble Giants. You can hear elements of all those bands in Pervenche’s Subtle Song, but it’s often at a molecular level, as though they’ve understood the poetics at the core of that music, divining a thread of minimalism that’s woven between, say, VU’s third album, and YMG’s Colossal Youth. It’s a sound that isn’t tidy, exactly, but it’s smart in knowing just what’s needed to make guitar pop of deceptive fragility and naivete. Vocalist Masako Nagai delivers the lyrics in a way that’s almost distracted; she’s present in the music, but only just, as if she’s about to disappear into the songs.

Feel

Nagisa Ni Te
Feel cover

Nagisa Ni Te, the husband-and-wife duo of Shinji Shibayama and Masako Takeda, have spent a good three decades whittling away at their unique vision of psychedelic folk. While you can hear influences in there – Neil Young at his most reflective; Pink Floyd before the rot set in – ultimately, Nagisa Ni Te’s songs are less about influence, and more about paring back to the bone, cutting to the core of the matter (in this case, the relation between the cosmic and the everyday). Feel is a particularly great example of what they do, with songs that take their sweet time to explore the nuances of three or four chords, through chiming guitars, wistful vocals, and the occasional eruption of starburst guitar solos, thanks to guest musician Naoki Zushi. Everything here’s unhurried, pastoral, unforced.

Nokori

Doodles
Nokori cover

By the time they recorded Nokori, their final album, Doodles had been reduced to the duo of Akiko Terashima (now in Usurabi) on guitar and vocals, and Nao Shibata on drums and backing vocals. It was the perfect line-up for Terashima’s lovely songs of longing; by focusing in on the essence of her shapeshifting, slippery guitar playing, and Shibata’s streamlined drum tattoos, Terashima’s songs really shine here. The album was produced by Jojo Hiroshige of long-time noise legends Hijokaidan, doubtless as it was released on his record label Alchemy, but his production also brings a kind of ruffled clarity to the album – it’s not perfect, but it makes all the right moves in the right ways. It’s a great album of dream pop, woozy and sweet in equal measure.

Panuu

mmm
Panuu cover

One of the many things that stands out about Panuu, the debut full-length by mmm (aka Moe Ishii), is the joyousness of the group sound she explores. After a gentle opener, “bye bye,” where mmm’s bird-like voice flutters over acoustic guitar, “magical omnibus” bursts into life with vividness and vivaciousness, rich with skittering percussion, and a wayward groove that recalls nothing so much as a big band playing swing. That’s maybe a weird connection, but Panuu goes all kinds of places, from droning arco double bass to homespun miniatures like “there there,” doubtless partly due to the musicians that join Ishii, wildly creative types like Taku Unami and Masafumi Ezaki. It’s a great album that constantly surprises.

A Sad Sound, a Velvet Sound and a Happy Sound

Puka Puka Brians, Puka
A Sad Sound, a Velvet Sound and a Happy Sound cover

An early band for Ueno Takashi, who would later form one half of Tenniscoats (with his partner Saya), Puka Puka Brians are a ragtag assembly of misfits, playing rough-as-guts post-punk pop songs that share a garage aesthetic with a bunch of different groups across the globe – think the wildness of Finland’s Liimanarina, and the messy splendour of New Zealand’s Trash and The Axemen, leaning slightly more towards the joys of a simple, three-chord guitar pop song. The singing is bluntly sweet, a just-out-of-tune mumble that sits just so amid skewiff guitars scrunched like balls of paper, and a rhythm section that knows just when to hit the right wrong beat. There’s something special about each of their five albums, but A Sad Sound… is a particularly winning selection of songs.

Between Static and Fire

Andersens
Between Static and Fire cover

Andersens released a clutch of great, idiosyncratic indie-pop albums during the 2000s. They’re led by Kiyozaku Onozaki aka Tsuby, whose writing tends towards the expansive – while these songs often circle around a few lightly strummed guitar chords, he stretches this out with high-toned guitar lines, washes of reverb, meandering piano, and bass lines that throb and sing like the fluid bass playing of Naomi Yang in Galaxie 500. Indeed, the Andersens sound isn’t too far from that kind of shimmering, dream-like melancholy of groups like Galaxie 500 or Bedhead, though with a gentle breathiness that reminds a bit of the seemingly fey indie of the post-C86 brigade.

Glimmering Star

Ché-SHIZU
Glimmering Star cover

While Chie Mukai’s Ché-SHIZU are best known for a trilogy of beautiful mid-nineties albums on the legendary Japanese record label PSF, Glimmering Star is their most powerful statement as a group. On this album, the pace of the songs and playing has slowed to a possessed crawl, which works beautifully for Mukai’s writing, which has long been informed by the melodies of traditional English folk music. The magic in Ché-SHIZU, though, is the interaction between Mukai’s crumpled, mournful voice, and her playing of the er-hu, a bowed two-string instrument from China, which slips and slides in the cracks between notes. It all grants the album a powerful haziness, even as the stridency of a song like “The Great Bird” threatens to take off like Fairport Convention at their most elemental.

We Are Everyone

Tenniscoats
We Are Everyone cover

The first full-length Tenniscoats album, after two mini-albums (Theme Of Tenniscoats and The Ending Theme), still plays out like one of their finest, most considered collections, even in light of the relative flood of releases that followed. On We Are Everyone, they’re giving more shape to their soft psych-pop songs; they’re still gentle, limpid things, but there’s a richness to the way they’re played, and both Saya and Ueno are unafraid to experiment with what can be done to their base material. Saya’s melodies are crystal-clear, and are served beautifully by her singing, which has, at times, an almost jazz-like phrasing. There are a number of Tenniscoats classics here – “Tree Or Not To Be”; “Telen-Pa-Woo”; “Rind-Gand Rind-Gand Hearts” – but some of the most compelling moments are the unexpected, lonely ruminations dotted throughout We Are Everyone.

Grand Tour

Sans Deer
Grand Tour cover

A short, but very sweet indeed, album from Sans Deer, a collective formed by Takuya Sugimoto, who was also a sometime floating member of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. The songs here are lovely chamber miniatures, starting with gently plucked guitar, and stretching outwards from there with clarinet, saxophone, and the ghostly shimmer of the musical saw, oscillating in the background like an acoustic theremin. It’s all performed live – in this case, at the FALL record store in Nishi-Ogikubo, Tokyo – with poise and equitable grace, and the charmed calm of the performance, its gestures towards the warmth and sensuous complexity of bossa nova and French pop, makes sense of Sugimoto’s branding of the music as ‘la varieté’: popular music with ‘diversity and depth’.

Shining on Graveposts

Eddie Marcon
Shining on Graveposts cover

Shining On Graveposts compiles the first two EPs by Eddie Marcon, the psych-folk duo of Eddie Corman (ex-Coa) and Jules Marcon. Corman in particular had a background in the noisier end of Japanese psychedelia, through their membership of Coa and involvement with LSD-March, but with Eddie Marcon, she’s writing intimate, spindly songs, variegated and tendrilling out from a core of tenderly clanging guitar and softly thrummed percussion. There’s something in the writing here that suggests bossa nova slowed to a crepuscular pace, crossed with the kind of shadowy acid-folk that the UK specialised in during the seventies: think Bridget St. John, Mellow Candle. It’s lovely stuff, barely raising its voice above a spirited whisper.

Le Petit Trou

yumbo
Le Petit Trou cover

The first widely released album by Koji Shibuya’s yumbo, after a few CD-Rs and a compilation set shared with Tori Kudo and Kinutapan, Le Petit Trou is a gorgeous, hermetic set of pop songs. You can hear Shibuya’s complex of influences here – the sultry sway of bossa nova and samba; the lop-sided creativity of such arch songwriters and conceptualists as Kudo, and Mayo Thompson – but there’s plenty of space for Shibuya to articulate his own writerly voice, which consists of an understated yet seductive melodicism that’s placed in idiosyncratic settings: spring-loaded ukulele twang; guitar, glockenspiel and brass arrangements that sway with the playfulness of chindon’ya (Japanese marching band) performers; blunt rushes of electric guitar, doling out the simplest three chord mantras. There’s something very effective in the way Shibuya sets contrasting voices in opposition throughout Le Petit Trou, aiming for a fragile unison.