Japan 2011: Gacharic Spin & 1000sayOctober 18, 2012
Last December we took our first trip to Japan in three years, my tenth visit overall. It turned out to be what I think is my best visit yet. Here I am writing down everything that happened before I forget. I’m splitting this up into several stories, so that I have a chance at actually getting through it instead of trying to capture the whole thing in one giant post.
Concerts were the theme of this trip for me. I insisted to H that I should go see as many as possible, something I would have compromised on before. This post is about “2011 FINAL -YEAR END OF GIRLS-”, the ridiculously-titled show on December 28 at O-West Shibuya. The rationale for the name was apparently simply that all four bands were fronted by female vocalists. I was interested because of Gacharic Spin, the outrageously talented hard-rocking band that I’d gotten way into since someone randomly plugged their video for “Lock On!!” in IRC.
H and I planned our fancy haircut appointments in Shibuya so that I could just walk over to the concert afterwards. This was the first time I didn’t get a haircut from H’s father immediately upon arriving, because we were planning on going to this salon. The guy taking care of me was obviously sick, and seemed apologetic and surprised that I even noticed and cared. Had some pretty crappy ramen. Killed some time at fancy clothing shops around the Shibuya/Harajuku area, and at Mandarake (taking the secret way in as usual.)
H went back home, and I was on my own. I made my way to scope out the venue for that night’s concert. Wandering the back streets of Shibuya alone at night was actually mildly creepy. Once I had found the place and confirmed that it was where I needed to be, I went looking for food. Ended up at Mos Burger, for the sake of convenience and speed. And because I hadn’t had it in about 10 years. Pretty good, now that my taste and appetite are closer to the Japanese side than the American side.
I made it to the venue with plenty of time to spare, and lined up on the stairway where I was pretty sure I was supposed to. It felt pretty cool to be the first one in line. That prime front-row spot would be mine. But I spent enough time waiting there that I started getting worried about whether it really was the right spot. But eventually people started appearing and lining up behind me. The surprise came when the doors opened and they started calling out for people who already had tickets. I had reserved tickets online well before leaving for Japan, but apparently some folks had already picked up special green tickets. They were let in before me. I did, however, get orange ticket number 1.
Once I was let inside, I went straight for the barrier. Plenty of dudes had already set up in the front row by folding their jackets over the barrier, but there was one more good spot left, which I took. That was my spot for the rest of the night. I spent a while standing around and trying to get Wi-Max signal, but that place was far too well-shielded. Eventually I glanced around and saw F Chopper Koga herself, the legendary bassist for Gacharic Spin, stationed at the merch table. She was waving at the fans individually and urging them to come over to the table. Zounds!! This person I’d listened to and admired and been inspired by for countless hours was standing right there and… yep, she is waving and beckoning right to me.
Koga has an instructional DVD on how to play slap-style bass, which I had a vague notion of maybe kinda wanting to pick up. But when F Chopper Koga herself is running the table, there is no question: you go and you buy F Chopper Koga’s DVD. So I told her I was a big fan, and that I’d like to buy one. We got into a little conversation about how long I’ve played bass, and how I was planning on starting a band when I got back to the USA (which I did!). After the transaction was done, she pulled out a little hand-decorated instant photograph of herself, including an exhortation to practice hard. I should have noticed sooner how cool a thing I had just been given, but I was already nervous and wanting to get out of her way and stop wasting her time.
Eventually the show started. The first band was Tokage, a pretty straightforward and unassuming rock outfit that had just put out their first CD. They put their hearts into it and got the crowd pretty well warmed up. When they were done I visited them at the merch table and said hello, told them I was in town from Seattle, and got a signed copy of their album.
Next up was Susie Love, a band that I am still not entirely sure what to make of. They seemed like a group of college friends who’d gotten together to mess around with music, or something. In place of their guitarist they set up a goofily-decorated mannequin, as if they were apologizing for one of the members not being able to make it. Between songs, the singer had a habit of calling out how insufficiently-enthusiastic the crowd was, which in my book is a surefire way to get people even less on your side. (It seems better to keep pretending like everything is going great.) In the end I couldn’t tell if their heart was in it at all, and what their deal really was.
Third up, though, was 1000say. I knew nothing of the band but their name, which seemed like a sort of multilingual pun. 1000 is pronounced “sen” in Japanese, so I figured: 1000say, sen-say, sensei. Then, of course, they came out and introduced themselves as “A THOUSAND SAY”. Heh. In any case, I was immediately impressed by their sound, their stage presence, their enthusiasm, and their great attitude. They’re two men and two women, with an upbeat electronica/rock thing that swung back and forth between really dancey and really proggy sounds. The guitarist and bandleader, Man, was standing close enough for me to have been able to touch his guitar if I wanted to. He seemed to get pretty excited at my excitement, and I like to think my rocking out helped him to rock out a bit harder. When the keyboardist Michelle took an ocarina out of nowhere and did a little solo in the middle of the particularly electronic track “Basket Shoes”, I knew I’d found a pretty special band. For the final song, Man leaned way out with one foot on the barrier while I bounced around and waved my arms right in front of him.
Afterwards I was eager to meet the band at their table, and went straight over. Man, Api, and Michelle were there and happy to chat. I picked up a copy of their album and a T-shirt. Tackling my shyness, I asked if they would sign the CD. The three members who were there happily signed it while having a little conversation with me. After a while I found myself wondering at how long they were happy to just talk, and wondered when they would hand me my CD and ask me to move on. We chatted about their recent appearance at an anime con in Paris, and how they ought to travel to the US next. After five minutes or so, someone came running back to the table with my CD in hand, which I didn’t even realize was missing — they’d actually sent someone to track down Non, the drummer, so that I could have a full band autograph! I thanked them profusely and went back to my precious front-row spot to await Gacharic Spin.
I was not really prepared for a Gacharic Spin show.
At the moment the lights went down for them, the atmosphere in O-West became pure celebration. People were bouncing up and down, shouting along, throwing their hands in the air, and dancing with a sort of abandon I am not accustomed to seeing from Japanese people. The opening track was “Juicy Beats”, complete with the blinking-LED gloves that were specially designed to allow the fingertips full freedom to play instruments. The whole audience seemed to know the entire dance routine.
One of the first things I noticed was how small everyone on stage was. It’s easy to forget that the people in music videos are just people, and to imagine them as larger than life. In reality, it just didn’t dawn on me that these Japanese women would probably be pretty tiny compared to me. The next thing I noticed was the copious amounts of tape they used to fasten their straps to their guitars, for safety when doing their trademark guitar-spin technique. Lots and lots of tape.
Several times, overexcited fans tried to oust me from my precious spot at the barrier right in front of guitarist Tomo-Zo, but I was not budging. The show proceeded with seemingly ever-increasing energy. Band members would hop up on elevated platforms at their key moments in each song, to riotous applause.
One curious thing about Japanese bands is that they often designate a “band leader”, and it’s not necessarily the singer. Gacharic Spin’s leader is Koga, the bassist. So when the time came to greet the fans and talk about the band’s recent activities, she got on the microphone. While Koga delivered an ebullient and sincere monologue about how grateful they were to be up there pursuing their dreams, Hana and Armmy interjected with jokes. The friendship and rapport between the band members was touching and inspiring. These are people doing exactly what they want to be doing with their lives.
At the end of one song, there was a sudden silence. the whole place went dark, then a spotlight came up on Armmy, the singer, standing on a platform, staring intently at a traditional Japanese toy she’s holding, called a kendama. It’s a wooden stick with a ball dangling from it on a string. The goal is to swing the ball up into the air and catch its by its hole on the stick. Armmy takes one try at it… and fails. The whole audience lets out a sympathetic groan as the spotlight goes out. Then the lights come back on for the one final chord of the song, as if nothing had happened. Apparently it’s a regular thing, and for a while they were even keeping track of her score on their Facebook page.
The ecstatic chaos of this recording of “Broken Lover” does a pretty great job of capturing the spirit of the performance I saw. (If you only play one of these embedded videos, make it this one.) Imagine like a sustained hour of this: (The live version of the song was taken down; enjoy this fake-live version instead.)
Throughout the Gachapin performance I kept noticing a Western-looking fellow with a big camera, walking around the restricted areas and photographing the band. At one point, Armmy even leaned down and smiled right into the lens while pulling this guy’s hat off his head. I figured he was some contract photographer who just happened to be a white dude. At the end of the show, as I was gathering my stuff, he came up to me and introduced himself. In fact he was Gacharic Spin’s official photographer and international promoter. Apparently I was the only foreign fan he’d seen at any recent shows, and he was glad to see at least a little bit of interest from outside Japan. He’d even noticed my mention on Twitter or Facebook that I was planning to come to the show, so he’d been on the lookout for me. We talked about his other jobs doing sports photography, the thrills of the Japanese indie music scene, how he got involved with the band, and how frustrated he was about trying to get them on iTunes internationally. In all, he reminded me a lot of my friend Andy.
Eventually this fellow Dan brought me over to the Gacharic Spin table for a personal introduction to guitarist Tomo-Zo and a reintroduction to F Chopper Koga. I did my best to express how inspired and thrilled I was at their performance, which they received graciously. Dan dug up an “I am a Gachaman” sticker for me as a parting gift, and we agreed to keep in touch online, which we have. I spent the train rides home tweeting every detail I could remember, and reflecting on how I’d just had one of the greatest nights of my entire life.
Sometimes when I worry that maybe I’m not doing enough cool stuff, that I’m missing out on something, I remember experiences like that and feel pretty relieved.
The bittersweet part of this story is that not long after I saw them, Gacharic Spin’s singer Armmy had to leave the band because of her worsening dysautonomia. Since then, the drummer Hana (my personal favorite!) and the new keyboard player Oreo Reona have been picking up the vocal duties, along with some guest vocalists. It’s sad that Gachapin had to lose their unbelievably energetic and charismatic frontwoman, but I feel tremendously lucky that I got to see them while she was still doing her thing.