Free Mini Live at Tower Records Shibuya
November 23rd, 2015
Live Report by Cayce
“Big in Japan” – time was when that was a racist phrase used to denigrate Western rock bands who became more popular in Japan than in their home countries – and in the 80’s, that meant bands like Depeche Mode and Japan (the band), who had their big breaks in the Land of the Rising Sun before rising to superhero status in Europe. But in these days of internet-based global culture, that sort of thing hardly seems to matter anymore. After all, what effect can national borders possibly have on music in an era when it’s possible to stream whatever music you like off convenient cloud-based services like Spotadora and Pandify?
…oh, wait, I forgot! Cloud services only contain a mainstream fraction of the world’s music! Hipster-approved “indie” darlings who are secretly just mainstream pop in disguise – (I’m looking at you, Florence, Imogen, Regina, Grimes) – sure, listen all you want to, it’s all in the Cloud. Actual cult bands from non-English speaking countries full of brown people? Forget about it, says the Western world – why would you want to listen to that?
The fact remains that underneath all the hype about cloud music is the dirty truth that these services disproportionately favor certain types of artists while completely eclipsing others. And if what you’re after are those artists in the shadow of the eclipse, or you simply don’t put much trust in the vagaries of computer hard drives, or you appreciate the anti-capitalist ease with which actual CDs and vinyls, unlike data, can be freely shared with friends, loaned out, borrowed, copied, or sold on eBay when you’re sick of them or needing extra cash, then records and record stores are still your friend.
So here's one for you Western cynics who scoff at CDs and records as things of the past that no one buys anymore – over in Japan, Tower Records is laughing at you.
Fuck your “big in Japan” – in the world of records, Japan is the big dog.
For example, just the other day, over in San Francisco, This is NOT Greatest Site’s own Kame spotted a poster for a documentary film entitled, “The Rise and Fall of Tower Records.” But here in Tokyo, the only “fall of Tower Records” we’ve ever heard of is going back to Tower Records again and again throughout the autumn season to buy more and more wonderful goodies, plus running into friends, taking purikura, catching some free shows, and having a drink while we’re at it.
And if you’re surprised that drinking and purikura are activities that could take place in a record store, you, my friend, need to pay a visit to Tower Records Shibuya.
Record shops in the Western world may be dropping and withering like autumn leaves, but in Tokyo, the sun is rising on a new age for Tower. After more than a year of remodeling, Tower Records Shibuya is up and running full-scale in its new function as not only a place to peddle musical wares, but carrying on the tradition of the local record store as a buzzing and vibrant community hub, doing a great deal to support and further the careers of local artists.
As the biggest record store in Tokyo, Tower Records Shibuya was always a wonder of the record world, with a comprehensive selection of music in every genre, both domestic and international, as well as a truly impressive array of imported books and magazines in languages other than Japanese. Sure, mouth-breathing idol fans would line up here by the hundred to buy forty copies each of the new AKB48 release, but every Tokyo indie band was also on the shelves here and nowhere else (except for maybe Disk Union), and fashion aficionados knew that if what you wanted were French fashion glossies the size of phone books, the top floor of Tower in Shibuya was the place to go.
Following the store’s redesign, however, Tower has improved and expanded all its functions. The imported books are now located conveniently on the second floor, next to a pleasantly dim and cozy café where thirsty musos can relax on comfortable couches, eat tapas, and drink coffee, beer or wine till 11 at night. The j-pop, j-rock and j-punk sections on the third floor remain largely unchanged, but visual kei has moved out of its former cramped corner next to domestic rock and pop and up to its own mini-empire on the fourth floor, right along with anime soundtracks and all things idol. There’s even a new event space up here, where idol groups, anime voice actors and visual kei bands alike can hold in-store mini-lives and meet-and-greets without driving away the other customers…which ought to tell you everything you need to know about the state of visual kei today.
Upper floors are populated by hip-hop, jazz and classical, and rumor has it that a newer and better bar has opened on the phantom ninth floor, but we haven’t visited it ourselves yet, mainly because we always get stuck on the fifth floor in the land of international rock-n-roll. Here, on a good day, you can spot famous j-rockers hiding under hats and masks as they shop for the new Dead Weather or David Bowie album, or comb through the newly introduced vinyl section, which has now expanded from a single small carton into three full banks of coveted imported LP records, both used and new.
Dedicated LP collectors have long relied on smaller shops like Disk Union, Strangelove and Vinyl Japan to get their fix, but as vinyl continues making a remarkable international comeback, Tower Records is now doing its part to put the “record” back in the record store by enthusiastically pushing a line of portable record players small enough to fit in Japanese apartments and priced to be affordable even to students and starving indie musicians. If you always wanted to hear early B-T on vinyl, your chance is now.
But while all this stuff is certainly cool, where Tower Records Shibuya really shines is when it shines a spotlight on Tokyo’s own musicians. Not only does Tower now sponsor the online streaming music TV program Bang-On, featuring interviews with loads of local artists including plenty from the goth and underground scene (some recent appearances: Tsuchiya Masami, Justy-Nasty, Auto-Mod, The Novembers, Plasticzooms, and Ka.F.Ka), but also, the re-design of the store created multiple new event and exhibition spaces suitable for a variety of promotional events such as costume exhibits, photo exhibits, mini-lives and meet-and-greets, in addition to the usual slew of bonus extras like stickers and posters that come with new releases, which can be picked up at the “special extras” counter in the back corner of the ground floor. Tower has also partnered with numerous artists throughout Japan to make various humorous versions of its iconic red-and-yellow “No Music, No Life” poster, including the “No Buck-Tick, No Life” poster sold with the Arui wa Anarchy live album last year. In the newly installed purikura booth, you can even make your own, complete with your own photo booth head shot and “No ____, No Life” custom caption.
Between all this excitement, the lavish visual displays, the extensive listening stations where you can try out the records before you buy them, and the fact that the store is open till 11PM every day of the week, it’s not surprising that the place is always packed with customers. More than a few times, we’ve had to stand in line for ten or fifteen minutes before reaching the checkout, because the line is just that long.
This may sound like an inconvenience, but it isn’t. This is the kind of experience that you can’t buy on Amazon—running into one of your friends by chance when you’re there on the release date of the new album by your favorite band, or – as happened to Cayce shortly after the release of Arui wa Anarchy last year – even finding unexpected camaraderie with a suspiciously goth-looking checkout counter clerk when she can’t suppress a grin as you set down the newest issue of Rock & Read featuring Mr. Sakurai on the cover. Her eyes flick from the magazine to the Buck-Tick tour bag over your shoulder and back again, and you make eye contact with her, give her just the tiniest smile, and pull out your wallet in such a way that she can see the silver Buck-Tick ring on your hand, a long-lost relic of the Sexy Stream Liner tour, and she can’t hold it in anymore.
“That’s a Buck-Tick tour bag, isn’t it?” she says, clearly trying not to appear too keen, but you can see it in her eyes – this one would emigrate to Buck-Tickistan in a heartbeat, if she could get a visa.
“Yeah, it’s a Buck-Tick tour bag,” you respond.
“He came in here once, you know!” she says, in a rush of excitement. “Acchan himself! I saw him with my own eyes! He was so cool.” By this point, her pupils have transformed from black circles into tiny red hearts.
“What did he buy?” you ask her.
“I don’t know if he bought anything, I didn’t ring him up.”
She smiles at you all the way out the door. As soon as you’re out of the store, your shopping companion (another B-T fan) asks suspiciously, “Why on earth would Mr. Sakurai ever visit Tower Records?”
My friends, consider the following possibility: deep down, a small childish gleeful part of Mr. Sakurai is still squirming with delight every time he sees his very own records all up for sale in the big record store. If you’re an artist by profession, the thrill of seeing your work be recognized never really wears off.
Yet despite the fact that Tower Records has done a great deal of promotion for Buck-Tick, including a number of billboards and costume exhibits, among other things – for anyone familiar with Tower, it is indeed very hard to imagine Mr. Sakurai going there, let alone performing there.
For one thing, it’s much too bright. Modern Japan is still caught in the throes of a passionate and abusive love affair with horrifically bright fluorescent lights that illuminate everything right down to the dust in the corners and make everyone’s skin look like strawberry yogurt, old newspaper or moldy bread – unappealing at the best of times, but unacceptable if you’re a goth.
Yet up until very recently, this was exactly what bands had to contend with when performing in-store lives at Tower. When Der Zibet appeared at Tower Records Shinjuku last year for a free acoustic mini-live to promote their album Nine Stories, the four instrumentalists traipsed onto the tiny stage with the resigned look of whiskered, aging dads, accepting humiliations from their teenage children with good humor – the stage was barely large enough to hold five cheap plastic folding chairs and a microphone, so in lieu of a drum set, drummer Mayumi had to make do with nothing but a plastic tambourine. But when Lord of Darkness Issay himself joined them a moment later, he was visibly shaking and sweating.
“This is very difficult for me,” he announced to the small throng of red-eyed fangirls who stood before him, each lipstick smear and half-unstuck set of false lashes on their faces fully visible beneath the merciless fluorescent sun in the ceiling. “It’s too bright. I never go to places this bright if I can help it! I look disgusting.”
Then the band started into a riveting acoustic rendition of the mournful “Aether no Jikan” and the group of heavyset, 40-something women in the center of the front row immediately began collapsing over each other in a heap of ecstatic squeeing while the rest of the crowd looked on nonplussed, feeling put on display and awkwardly sober (Tower Records Shinjuku still doesn’t have a bar.)
Der Zibet is one of those bands who are at their best when they play acoustic sets, and Issay’s voice threatened to overwhelm the fragile sound system, until even the aimlessly browsing salarymen in the back of the store had pricked up their ears and come over to have a listen…but as you might imagine, a band this glam and glittery is far better enjoyed under some flowery psychedelic colored lights in a properly darkened live house – if for no other reason than that the darkness does a damn good job of hiding the terrifying fangirls from view.
Therefore, for all the reasons stated above, and for the sheer degree to which their gothness is darker than darkness, a band like The Mortal would appear to have no chance. After all, if the fluorescent lights didn’t turn the band members to ashes on the spot, any stray salarymen who happened to pass by and hear Acchan-chan singing would in all likelihood go into cardiac arrest brought on by the sudden shock of realizing that this is what love feels like, and Tower Records would be held liable.
Lucky for The Mortal, then, that Tower Record’s Shibuya’s magical metamorphosis included converting the basement into a bona-fide underground live house called Cutup Studio, where even the most nyctophiliac bands can perform unmolested…by bright lights, that is. Whether they will be able to play unmolested by fangirls is quite another matter, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Special invitation-only events are nothing new in Buck-Tickistan. Offering the chance to win free live tickets is a pretty great way to sell albums to fans who might otherwise prefer to pirate their friends’ copies, and the tactic works especially well on fans of people like Mr. Sakurai, since so many of them are so much more preoccupied with what he looks like than with the music he actually makes that one sometimes wonders if they’d prefer it if he didn’t bother making music at all and simply worked as a professional coat rack (burn!) The need for The Mortal to sell albums was particularly keen, given that they were a band that popped out of nowhere for a limited time only, and if they were going to sell it was going to be now or never.
Mr. Sakurai’s most desperately devoted followers might be willing to throw money blindfolded at anything with his name on it, but for people who were still on the fence, a Tower Records Mystery Event seemed a good motivator…and the benefits went both ways. Not only was Mr. Sakurai was selling albums right left and center, propelling The Mortal’s releases to number 11 (Spirit) and 12 (I Am Mortal) on the charts in the weeks of their releases, but since in order to get tickets to enter the lottery for the Mystery Event, fans had to physically go out buy the CDs on location in one of Tower Records’ bricks-and-mortar locations in the Tokyo area, more customers who otherwise might have bought the album online came marching in through Tower's doors, thereby raising Tower’s profile as a musical hot spot in the public eye.
Plus, campaigns like this have a certain propulsive mystique that builds far more excitement than a regular tour. The last time Buck-Tick did something like this was back in 2009 with their free live at Akasaka Blitz to commemorate the release of Memento Mori. Tickets to that event were awarded by lottery, but to enter the lottery, fans first had to buy copies of both the Heaven and Galaxy singles, then log onto a strange website and enter the serial numbers contained on the lottery slips hidden inside the single booklets into black-and-red text fields like the reanimated ghost of Geocities. That tine, over 10,000 applications were submitted in total, but in the end, less than 1300 lucky fans actually got in the door. In lieu of tickets, invitational postcards printed with line numbers were sent to the winners’ homes a week before the show, adding to the drama. Though Cayce and Kame each submitted only a single application for that event, by some miracle, This is NOT Greatest Site managed to win a ticket, so you can read our live report here if you’re curious.
This time, however, the system was very different. Instead of having the application tickets be included inside the CDs (which would have been impossible, since the distribution of tickets was limited to select Tower Records shop locations only), each Tower location had a pile of application tickets at their disposal, and each fan who bought a copy of Spirit would get one ticket per CD purchased…but the catch was that once the tickets were gone, they were gone. Thanks to the support of our readers, we were able to purchase a total of twelve copies of Spirit on the release date, and so we were entitled to receive twelve tickets.
When we went down to the special extras counter to claim our tickets, we watched a steady stream of Sakurai fans queue up to receive one ticket each...so imagine the surprise on the shop attendant's face when she saw we had bought twelve copies! When we handed her our proof of purchase slip, she blinked several times before laboriously counting out a stack of exactly twelve tickets, and then laboriously double-checking before handing them to us. In the world of idol fandom, it’s not uncommon for fans to buy dozens of copies of the same release (bitches be crazy!), and at the time of Buck-Tick’s free live in 2009, we heard tell of Buck-Tick’s fans doing the same thing, just to get more shots at winning. But this time, that particular practice did not seem to be in favor, so thanks, readers, for your cooperation in turning Cayce into the official, Tower Records-endorsed Acchan-sama’s Not Greatest FanTM.
A month later, the full album I Am Mortal was released, and we were back at Tower again for the second phase in the operation. Amid a ghostly host of black-clad Mortal fangirls who floated dreamily between the life-sized The Mortal banner on the wall and the huge The Mortal display in the center of the room, we went to the reservation counter and picked up our twelve copies of I Am Mortal. Next, we headed to the special extras counter yet again, and exchanged our twelve tickets from the twelve copies of Spirit for a new set of twelve tickets for I Am Mortal, each bearing a lottery number. Now all we had to do was sit tight and wait for the winning numbers to be announced.
And as it happened, though competition was fierce and many fans lost out, thanks to your help, we did indeed win a ticket! So come Monday, November 23rd, we headed off to Tower Records again to see the show. We couldn’t have done it without you, so thanks again!
November 23rd is Labor Day in Japan, and therefore a national holiday, which meant that everyone was off work and partying in the streets. In Shinjuku, in front of Studio Alta, a trance rave had been in full swing since the early hours of the morning, and crowds of drunken ravers were dancing shirtless with their children sitting on their shoulders blowing soap bubbles, but as usual, the Shibuya party atmosphere was of a more pedestrian variety.
Five or six promotional events were happening at Shibuya Tower on the same day, attracting an unusual cluster of various fan groups, all of whom seemed to agree on one thing: The Mortal’s fans were total weirdos with whom no one in their right minds would want anything to do. Forty minutes before the show began, Tower staff members directed The Mortal’s fans to line up in order of their ticket numbers in the stairwells above and below the entrance to the live house, and judging by the supercilious looks The Mortal’s fans gave each other as they passed each other in the hallway, nobody disdains The Mortal fans more than The Mortal fans do.
Actually, I’m really not being fair to The Mortal here…because if the fan behavior we observed over the course of the tour was anything to go on, most of the people who attended The Mortal’s shows weren’t really fans of The Mortal at all. As far as we could tell, The Mortal’s true fans (all 25 of them) were nothing but pleasant and delightful. Sadly, The Mortal's true fans were in the extreme minority.
I will say more about this in my forthcoming tour report, but it bears mentioning here, too – the fan dynamic for The Mortal was extremely different from the fan dynamic at Buck-Tick shows, and not in a good way. Buck-Tick attracts an extremely wide array of people, male and female, of all ages. Perhaps Sakurai by himself could never hope to attract such a diverse crowd, especially given the intense darkness of The Mortal's work. Still, naïf that I am, I expected that mixed in with the usual hyperventilating Acchan-sama worshipers would be a generous helping of old-school goths drawn to the Bauhaus, Banshees and Damned covers, and maybe here and there a stray fan of Jake from his Guniw Tools days, or a hardcore no-waver devotee of Yukio Murata.
But in the (ahem) immortal words of Hamlet, it was not to be. Instead, nearly the entire crowd was composed of nothing but the sourest, dourest, most fanatical Acchan acolytes, all of them middle-aged women, and nary a boy nor a teen nor a goth to be seen.
Of course, seeing as all the women were wearing black, it was probably hard for lay people without degrees from Goth School to tell that these women were all merely goth cosplayers (gothplayers?) and not actual goths. But to the small minority of clove-smoking, coffee-drinking, sun-hating Sisters of Mercy fans in attendance (go to 21:00 if you don't want to watch the whole thing), the difference between the real and the fake was as obvious as it was painful.
How could we tell? My friends, we could tell because REAL goths do not cover their black lacy ensembles with slate-grey puffer jackets from Uniqlo. Long Black Coats are one of the greatest joys of being a goth, and anyone who does not welcome winter as the season when they get their Long Black Coat game on is most certainly NOT a goth. Short black coats in leather, fur, PVC or the like may also be acceptable, but puffer jackets of any kind except for genuine leather ones are out. You have been arrested by the Fashion Police. Go to jail now.
Another way we could tell: real goths do not EVER wear turquoise fanny packs. If we catch you in one, you will be arrested by the Fashion Police. Go to jail now.
A third way we could tell: goths are extremely vain creatures who spend a lot of time caring for their skin, hair, and nails, and a lot of time doing their makeup. If you see someone with a lot of brand-name black clothes but a dowdy haircut, horrible skin, no manicure and no makeup, that, my friends, is almost certainly not a real goth, but an insecure weekender or anime otaku just pretending. And I might add that the requirement for nice hair, nails, and makeup (at least for special events) is irrespective of gender.
For those of you who want to say “oh Cayce, you’re being unfair, everyone knows that real elder goths don’t necessarily bother to wear black, because they’re over it,” my friends, you are right, and I do agree with you. But real elder goths, black clad or not, would surely have joined in our impromptu chorus as we sang the Sisters of Mercy’s “Something Fast” to pass the time while standing in line. They certainly would not have stared at us like they wanted to burn out our eyes with acid (and not the fun kind, either.)
And yes, I know that Sakurai told Dave Fromm on air that fans should wear whatever they felt comfortable in to The Mortal’s shows. But this is Japan, my friends, a land where no one ever says what they really mean out loud. Just because he told you it was okay not to wear black to the gig doesn't mean you should actually take him up on it.
But more to the point…it would be fine for fans to wear whatever the hell they felt like wearing, if they were obviously people who were passionate about the music. It would even be fine if they weren’t goth at all and had no gothic aspirations whatsoever…if they were obviously people who were passionate about the music.
Yet in this case, I am extremely sorry to say, the only thing that 90% of the fans appeared to be passionate about was Acchan-chan-sama-chan’s hot [insert body part here]. If anything, they seemed more than a little resentful of the fact that with The Mortal, Mr. Sakurai had retreated into a dark, noisy, chaotic world that they didn't understand; resentful that with The Mortal, Mr. Sakurai had shed his provocative, audacious crowd-teasing Buck-Tick stage antics for aloof, dignified, introverted emotional drama uninterested in selfish fan desires; resentful of the fact that with The Mortal, rather than playing to their fantasies, Mr. Sakurai had instead opened a door upon his true inner world, and the fans found to their dismay that they didn't like what they saw inside: not some slick, coiffed, vampire prince idol pretty-boy, but a man with a barbaric past struggling to come to terms with half a century of life on earth already spent, using expressions far too intelligent for them to bother to try to understand. Oh yeah, and covering some English songs while he was at it – and everyone knows that foreign languages and foreigners are scary.
Seriously, fangirls – it’s not like he didn’t tell you in advance that that was exactly what he was doing. In each and every interview, Mr. Sakurai made three things abundantly clear:
1) The Mortal is NOT Buck-Tick
2) The Mortal is Mr. Sakurai’s midlife “I do Me” manifesto. The Mortal has given Mr. Sakurai permission to do exactly what he wants to do (hint: it's not you), and he’s doing it (not you) to the max.
3) Mr. Sakurai of The Mortal is deliberately trying to make you as uncomfortable as possible by pushing you nose to nose with Death herself. He is not trying to turn you on (unless being pushed nose to nose with Death herself turns you on, in which case you are probably a real goth after all.) But anyhow, no matter what Mr. Sakurai of Buck-Tick may have done, Mr. Sakurai of The Mortal does not care about your ladyboner.
In summary: just because you like Buck-Tick doesn’t mean you’ll like The Mortal, and that’s okay. But The Mortal is Mr. Sakurai’s baby, and if you think it’s an ugly baby, you’ve got precious little justification for calling yourself an Acchan fan. Nobody calls their favorite person's baby ugly.
But don’t take it from me, take it from him. “I wanted to make sure I believed in all the lyrics I wrote, from corner to corner,” he said to PHY magazine. “I wanted to make sure I only wrote lyrics I really felt, 100%,” he told Ongaku to Hito. “I feel grateful for the other band members for making this possible for me.”
In any case, a little after 5PM, the Tower staff began directing fans to line up on the stairs in order of numbers. We ourselves had been lucky enough to draw a very low number, which meant that we were subject to the unusual lineup policies of the Cutup Studio live house. Given the limited space at Tower Records and the importance of leaving the stairwells open enough that regular store customers could pass, it was impossible for all fans to line up in the stairwells above ground. So instead, fans with ticket numbers lower than 50 were instructed to line up in order down the sub-sub-basement stairwell, with number 1 at the top and number 50 at the bottom.
Who knew Tower Records extended this deep under Shibuya? We’d naturally assumed that Cutup Studio, as the basement, was the lowest level, but it turned out that this was far from the case. Below Cutup Studio was another basement, and another basement, and still another basement. Gazing down the echoing expanse of white staircase, it was quite easy to imagine that these fluorescent basement record storerooms extended all the way down to Hell itself. Fitting, perhaps, for The Mortal, since going down those stairwells felt like being sealed into a fluorescent white-tiled tomb.
Even if you speak fluent Japanese, hearing venue staff call line numbers is difficult at the best of times, given that staff members usually employ megaphones which distort their voices beyond all recognition. At Tower, it was even more difficult. None of the Tower staff bothered to go down into the netherworld of the basement staircases to tell fans what was going on or whether the line was moving, so we were left to rely on the signs which had been posted intermittently on the white walls, advising each group of numbers as to where they should stand. Even if the staff members had been shouting above, though, it would have been impossible to hear them over the squeak and clomp of the soles of the fans’ platform boots on the smooth, damp tile (out of respect for Mr. Sakurai, it had been raining off and on all day.)
By rights, this ought to have been a deliciously exciting moment of Chosen Ones waiting together to be taken away by the Magical Mystery Tour, but sadly, most of the fangirls in line still looked sour, suspicious and ill-at-ease, glaring each other as if prepared to start a fistfight over who was the bigger Acchan-chan worshipper. The only exception, as far as we could see, was the tanned, shaggy-haired fifty-something raver goth a few steps down from us, who reeked of cigarettes and alcohol and looked quietly prepared to have the time of her life – in all likelihood, she’d come straight over from the rave in front of Alta and was well geared up for her second part of the day. She paid the other fangirls no heed.
Then, at last, the line began moving. Tower staff announced that there was a gift box by the door of the venue where fans could leave gifts for the band members, but since nobody had expected this, nobody had any gifts to offer, and all simply breezed through the venue doors, through the soft-lit, black-mirrored hallway, and into the venue proper, where, despite being ordered by the staff not to run or push, they all dashed as quickly as possible to the railing and proceeded to jostle for space in a thoroughly unladylike fashion – no sooner had we found a spot in the second row along the front railing than we felt the sharp elbows of the fangirl next to us digging deeply into our ribcage, despite the fact that there was space to spare on all sides.
What she was fighting for, we couldn't guess, seeing as she already had a perfect view of the stage – the stage at Cutup Studio is about the same size as the stage at Shinjuku Loft, where the PV for Climax Together was filmed, and not only is it tiny, it’s so low that if you’re standing in the first few rows, the band members are right there in your face, practically at eye level.
Seeing someone like Mr. Sakurai on a stage like this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we’d have thought people would be treasuring it...particularly because in many ways, Cutup Studio is the perfect sort of venue for a band like The Mortal, given that it feels like a glitzed-up version of a typical underground goth club, low-ceilinged, dark and cozy, complete with exposed wires and air circulation ducts decorating the ceiling. Therefore, for some reason, we’d imagined that the crowd would be behaving in a goth-club appropriate fashion, keeping their distance from each other, remaining calm and dignified as each fan danced in her own small, separate sphere. After all, this venue is so tiny that you can pretty much stand in the very back and still be closer than you’d ever get at NHK Hall or the Budoukan. But there comes a time for each of us when we must kiss our dearly-held fantasies goodbye. When 6PM arrived, a Tower Records staff member took the stage to go over the simple ground rules for the event:
1) No recording or filming of any kind
2) No pushing
Yet as soon as he left the stage, the lights went down, and the stage entrance music came up over the speakers, the fans all began pushing, shoving, and clawing each other mercilessly, paying no heed to the warning. Barbaric man? More like barbaric fans - and what we experienced in the second row was only a small taste of what was going on further back in the crowd, where some of our friends reported being slapped, kicked, and having their hair pulled, to an extent largely unseen even at the more violent Buck-Tick shows. If everyone had calmed down they surely would have had a better view, but it would appear that calm and Acchan-chan fangirls do not mix.
Given the small size of the venue, it would have been impossible for The Mortal to use the set dressings and special effects they employed during the rest of the tour. For this show, the stage was completely bare but for the band members' instruments, and even so, there was limited space to spare, mainly due to the size of Murata Yukio's guitar effects control rig. Measuring nearly a full two meters across, it sprawled over the front of stage left like some kind of malevolent sentient machine from The Matrix, complete with five or six glowing electronic eyes on stalks, swarms of pulsing blue LED lights, and what must have been fifty pedals, at least. Miyo Ken and Jake Cloudchair's rigs were far more modest, but since they both shared stage right, they had less space to themselves. All the same, we suspect that the band members probably felt more relaxed in this environment than on the gargantuan stage of NHK Hall, since most of the time, when they're not touring with superstars like Mr. Sakurai, they're performing tiny indie gigs at tiny underground venues like Shinjuku JAM and Koenji High, which may be older and less slick-looking than the Tower Records venue, but have, in essence, the same vibe.
The thing that Cutup Studio has over live houses like JAM and High is its state-of-the-art sound system. In general, low-ceilinged basements have terrible acoustics, and low salaries for PA operators and limited budgets for sound equipment at indie venues don't help matters. Though it's true that Japanese indie live houses have a reputation for having excellent sound equipment compared to their Western counterparts, there's still a limit – unlike Tower Records, indie venues don't have a whole huge wad of corporate cash to throw at buying the Best Speakers Evar. But Tower Records has a reputation to live up to, and in outfitting Cutup Studio's sound system, they clearly spared no expense. So while The Mortal's instrumentalists ducked out onto the stage in a staggered clump, indie-band style, and Mr. Sakurai himself followed with minimal pomp and circumstance, the clarity of the sound made it plain that this would be no ordinary basement gig.
As soon as the atmospheric chanting of the stage entrance music had ended, Mr. Sakurai took his place behind the microphone stand and the band ripped straight into “Pain Drop,” every layer and nuance of every instrument coming through as clearly as the studio recording played over hi-fi speakers. Cutup Studio still can't beat the sound quality of an internationally famous rave club like Studio Coast, but it came damn close, and outstripped the sound quality at NHK Hall by a large margin.
Beyond that, this kind of wild, raw, intimate atmosphere is how goth music is meant to be enjoyed, and the band themselves seemed to be bursting with excitement from the moment they appeared. Dressed in the same black-and-white tunic, black vest, black pants and masked top hat combination he'd worn at the other shows on the tour so far, Sakurai danced back and forth along the edge of the stage, ducking in and out of range of the fangirls' fingertips while making a great show of pretending he didn't even notice that the audience was there. Jake and Murata, on the other hand, were much more obviously conscious of the crowd, and took every opportunity to come right up to the front and slice their hands theatrically across the fretboards of their guitars. At the other shows on the tour thus far, they'd largely hung back and allowed Sakurai to take center stage, but here in this basement, things were different – for the first time, we were seeing The Mortal as a five-piece band, and not a solo project with four support members, and it made all the difference. During the chorus parts, Sakurai and Jake screamed into the same microphone, but judging from the look of admiration on Jake's face, he still hasn't quite adapted to being in such close proximity to his beloved Acchan-chan on a regular basis.
Things only continued to heat up as the band started into “Dead Can Dance,” during which, true to the indie basement live house atmosphere, Sakurai actually spoke all the words of the “to be or not to be” sequence in the middle of the song aloud, rather than relying on the backing vocals from the PA, as he had been doing at the previous stops on the tour. Though The Mortal's work generally veers more toward the macabre than the erotic, this song is an exception, and Sakurai milked the eros for all it was worth, shaking and gyrating across the stage, then raising his fist in an obscene gesture and rubbing it expressively with his other hand. But though he bent his head close enough to the front-row fangirls that they were able to grasp at his hair and pat his powdered cheeks, still he maintained an aura of obliviousness to their presence, very different to his usual stage antics with Buck-Tick.
At Buck-Tick shows, he makes sure to let the fans know he sees them, pointing, grinning, and egging them on, but with The Mortal, his interactions with the crowd seemed more like carefully orchestrated theater. Perhaps this explains some of the sense of resentment we felt simmering in the midst of the crowd – no matter how much the fangirls pushed, how loudly they screamed, or how violently they clawed each other to try and get closer to their idol, he refused to acknowledge them. We wished we could have told them that they were missing the point. This time, it's not about you, girls. It's about the music.
After “Dead Can Dance,” Sakurai spoke to the audience for the first time.
“Welcome! We're The Mortal!”
The crowd cheered. Sakurai's English pronunciation is very good, and he said the band's name exactly the way a British person would have said it.
“Deep deep deep deep...dream!” he called, and the band launched into “Yume,” every shimmering guitar chord perfectly audible over the venue's amazing sound system. Though a slow lyrical ballad like this ought to have taken the tension down, the enthusiasm was still infectious, and the fans danced madly through the chorus as Jake turned his face up toward the ceiling, closed his eyes and shook his head back and forth in his signature gesture of complete immersion in the music.
But a short show in a tiny venue like this is best suited to up-tempo songs, so as soon as “Yume” was over, the band went back to the hard and heavy with “Fantômas.” The haunted-house scales of this song were all the work of Miyo Ken, who was happy to step out to the front of the stage for the first time and swing his long black locks at the crowd during the solo, but it's clear that the whole band love performing this number, and no one more than Sakurai.
Playing up every detail of the narrative, Sakurai transformed from sinister to romantic and back again, slashing with an invisible knife at the air in front of him, putting one shaking finger gently to his trembling lips as if in barely contained murderous lust, doubling up to growl the lyrics to the bridge before stepping right up to the edge of the stage again during the instrumental break and throwing his arms wide, daring the fangirls to try to grab as many pieces of him as they could reach (before he kills them, that is – don't fuck with Fantômas!) Despite the violence of the crowd, most fans were just ever-so-slightly too polite to do more than pluck at his sleeves...but perhaps they were all simply trying not to associate themselves with the owner of the fangirl hands who worked their way back and forth across the front of Mr. Sakurai's very fine black waistcoat (vainly searching, no doubt, for his well-hidden and pasties-protected nipples, as he gazed out over the crowd, steadfastly ignoring her.)
As “Fantomas” ended, Sakurai stepped over to Jake's side of the stage and the two turned to face each other, Sakurai bending his head conspiratorially towards Jake's as Jake bent over his guitar and started into the opening rock-n-roll riff of “Tsuki.” From there on out, both the stage and the floor were in chaos as the band members traded places at the front of the stage, mugging and tossing their hair for the crowd, while the fans in the third and forth rows pushed so hard on the fans in the first and the second rows that the fans in the front row were bent double over the railing and unable to straighten up while everyone in the crowd punched their arms into the air for each “tsuki” in the chorus. Jake and Murata had taken over the sides of the stage, so Sakurai was forced to stay in the center, miming shooting the ceiling with an invisible gun.
“Tsuki” is as intense as it is short, so it seemed to end nearly as soon as it started, but the band didn't let the tension lag even for a second, and ripped straight into “Barbaric Man.”
We could barely believe our ears - never has this noisy, noisy song sounded so good! The sound system in Cutup Studio is sufficiently advanced that even though Murata was creating a roaring, wrenching tornado of sound all on his own, Jake's guitar, the bass and the drums were all equally audible, like a hi-fi orchestra of chainsaws. Too often, it's the vocals that get lost in the mess of sound this loud and dissonant, but for the solo project of someone like Mr. Sakurai, losing the vocals would be unforgivable.
We didn't have to worry. Far from being lost, Sakurai's vocals seemed to soar above the messy tangle of instrumentals like a raptor above an earthquake, each word he murmured clear and distinct as if he were whispering in your ear. When the chorus came around, Sakurai didn't have to strain or push himself at all – he simply floated into falsetto and sang lightly, almost gently, the lovely tone of his voice belying the violent lyrics. For those of you who worried that he's losing his voice as he gets older – he isn't. He's never sounded so good in his life as he sounded with The Mortal, and Tower Records was only a tiny taste of it.
Sadly, this being a mini-live, the end was destined to come sooner, rather than later. When “Barbaric Man” ended, Mr. Sakurai addressed the crowd again.
“Congratulations on winning,” he said. “Thank you so much for buying a CD by a completely unknown band like us! We're newbies on the scene, so thank you for your support.” The crowd may have been made up largely of humorless crazy fangirls, but at least they were able to laugh at the idea of Mr. Sakurai being a newbie. “Anyway,” Sakurai continued, “I know it's been short, but unfortunately the next song will be the last song. Thank you for coming, and please listen.”
Of course, what else could it be but “Mortal”? This track is the theme song of both the album and the project thus far, and not only that, but it's Jake's most faithful rendition of the archetypal goth sound, as exemplified by the Sisters of Mercy, or perhaps, more properly, The Mission.
As one of our NGS friends pointed out - “It sounds like Sakurai gave Jake a copy of The Mission's greatest hits, said 'study this!' and Jake came back with 'Mortal'! Someone more intimately familiar with goth music would never have produced such a faithful copy of that 80's sound!”
We think she's right, but even so, we hesitate to accuse a song this good of being cliché – it hits all the right spots, it has a beautiful melody, and it's catchy as hell. Plus, these lyrics are, in Cayce's expert opinion, some of Mr. Sakurai's best ever, and we challenge anyone else to argue otherwise. Unlike most of the other songs on the I Am Mortal album, this song is equally well suited to huge halls as it is to basement live houses, perhaps because there's a damn sight more Buck-Tickishness in this one than in most of The Mortal's other work, and Buck-Tick has mastered the art of filling giant halls with dramatic soundscapes. However, the advantage of hearing “Mortal” in the close quarters of Cutup Studio over such a glorious sound system was that it was like watching a live version of the basement studio PV.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Sakurai seemed to understand that, and played up the song for full effect in nearly exactly the same way that he performed it for the PV. While the fans raising their hands in the air and singing along to the chorus certainly added to the feeling of cosmic universal truth in the lyrics, the best moments in the song were the quiet ones, particularly the second verse. As Sakurai sang the lines “The faintest blush/Ah trace with your fingers/Over my lips and rising on your cheek,” he raised his hands to his lips gently, stroking his own face with a brush of his fingertips, a tiny haiku-like gesture that brought the whole song to life in an instant. How much love makes us feel, and how quickly it vanishes!
Apropos, then, that with end of this song, the all-too-short show was over. Even the band themselves seemed disappointed that it had been so short, and took their time leaving the stage, lingering to wave copiously to every inch of the front row. Unlike Buck-Tick, where Sakurai usually vanishes from the stage quickly after the last song leaving the other band members to deal with saying goodbye to the fans, at this show, swarmed by his besotted admirers, he stuck around for several minutes, reaching out his hands to as many fans as possible, letting them pinch and squeeze him goodnight.
“Thank you, everyone,” he called, blowing kisses at the fans. “Thank you and goodnight!”
Less than an hour after it had begun, the show was over. Sweaty and dazed, the fans began to make their way out of the venue, stopping to snap photos of The Mortal's band poster hanging in the black mirrored hallway. Though the crowd violence had been excessive for such a small event, still it had been worth it, just for that once-in-a-blue-moon chance to see someone as big as Mr. Sakurai on such a tiny stage.
All the same, personally, we're hoping that next time, in order to win tickets, you have to achieve a high score on a goth music trivia test (administered on the spot in the store to preclude internet-enabled cheating.)
Because the fact is, no matter how much you may think you love Acchan-sama, if you never heard of Bauhaus, Siouxsie or The Damned before the advent of The Mortal, you may love him, but you don't know him.
Are we snobs for saying that? Probably. But all goths are snobs. As the late great Steve Strange used to say at the doors to his famous club nights, “If you were me, would you let you in?”
1. Pain Drop
4. Fantômas - Tenrankai no Otoko
6. Barbaric Man
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