“When thinking about Japanese music, most people imagine elaborate costumes and a lot of style… I want people to understand that there are also bands in Japan going way beyond their aesthetic value. With a core focus on music, these bands have a lot of actual substance.” Balancing rock shows with med school, Steven Tanaka’s fervent passion for punk music has not waned since his study days. In fact, our Torontonian MD’s implication in the art scene has only grown with time: he currently dishes out around 40K a year to have underground Japanese bands tour Canada. Next Music From Tokyo, pioneered by Steven alone, is his way of contributing to the scene while trying to debunk any stereotypes traditionally associated with Japanese mainstream music. “I am not necessarily looking for any initial shock value from this tour. I know that a lot of bands dress up and it’s fun, but in their case, the music itself is not something that I am too enamoured with. Therefore, with the bands that I select for Next Music From Tokyo, I make sure to emphasize the music as well as the stage presence and quality of the performers.”
On June 15th, 8 pm, the Divan Orange will be hosting five bands flown straight from Tokyo to offer Canadians quite an unforgettable experience. I mean, how often does one hear of an anaesthesiologist hosting a group of underground punk bands at his own expense, from half way around the world? Steven even ends up losing money off of this project, but that does not even begin to compare with what he gains from the experience.
“There are so many personally rewarding aspects to the Next Music From Tokyo Tour, but something absolutely priceless that I gain are the stories,” elaborates Steven. “There was this one time, during Indie Music Week in Toronto, we were assigned a stage manager who had no previous knowledge of the project. He was so blown away by the music that he became an immediate fan and auditioned to be the guitarist for one of the bands (the band only had a support guitarist, at the time). Next thing you know, he was planning on moving to Japan to play for them – until the earthquake happened. Then he was not actually able to go and the whole plan fell apart. It’s just kind of funny to see how this tour can motivate people in a way that changes their lives – I just listed one solid example. I have a lot of people tell me that going to the Next Music From Tokyo events are part of the best concerts they’ve ever been to – just to hear people say that makes me feel great.”
One thing that I was personally quite impressed with was the high ratio of women I saw playing in the bands that will be touring this year. I feel like the women in the local punk rock scene are a lot less actively involved, to be honest. Steve had a lot to say on the subject: “I agree that in Japan, there is a lot more equality in this regard. I mean, quite a lot of bands just have the token female member who plays bass or the keyboard and whatnot – a lot of bands feel like they can draw in crowds through a cute female musician. However, you get a lot of purely female Japanese bands. Also, when you go to shows in Japan, you realize that a lot of the PA people are actually female as well. In Canada, I’ve never been to a venue where the ‘sound guy’ was a female – women therefore seem a lot more involved in all aspects of the musical scene in Japan.”
The line-up in itself will be pretty eclectic. Owarikara (a band name totally impossible for any Westerner to pronounce) and MotherCode, being “definite no-brainers”, are totally worth looking forward to for their stage presence. Otori will be quite a surprise because although they do have the potential to “scare some people”, the female vocalist seems to have a lot of beautifully raw energy. PENS+, having named their band after a pencil case brand, are definitely a must-see for the ludicrous source of their band name. And although Steven seems a little more sceptical about Atlantic Airport (“their music is the most accessible, but their performances can also be the most underwhelming”), Steven did want to incorporate at least one more mainstream-sounding band to try to please all of his audience members. Very meticulous planning he’s been doing here.
Beyond travelling to Japan around six times a year and completely supporting this project on his own, Tanaka basically fulfils every role necessary for the tour to function. “I get the bands; I make sure they have all the legal documents necessary for entering Canada; I rent all the music venues; I get all of the instruments ready; I am in charge of promotion. Even at the shows, when there is no door person, I take charge of the door myself. Sometimes I go on stage to introduce the bands and between sets, I’ll have music ready, like a DJ. And in order to get everyone riled up, while I’m on stage, I’ll sometimes stage dive and crowd surf.” And here we have a full account of what it’s like to be a professional multi-tasker. Wow.
Tanaka’s last words really showed his desire to have others understand what he sees in those bands: “I just really want to emphasize the point that although a lot of people believe that this show is supposed to be for the Japanese community alone, it’s not – it’s actually aimed towards all regular Canadians. To all those who do not understand Japanese, it doesn’t matter: I don’t understand it all that well myself. You’ll still have a great time coming to the show, as long as you remember that the music in itself is a language.”
Finally, with a sly smile, Steve pointed out what could easily be established since the beginning of the interview: “This tour is essentially run by a fan, and there aren’t many tours like out there.”
Next Music From Tokyo Vol. 7 at Divan Orange (4234 St. Laurent) on June 15. 8 p.m. $15 ($10, in advance here)