Thursday, August 25, 2011
Some thoughts on Claude Young and techno in Tokyo
Todd Burns has done an excellent interview with Claude Young over at RA, which I suggest you all check out. For me it feels weird that a lot of people new to techno might not know who he is. It feels strange he might be considered forgotten. But that probably just has more to do with when and where I grew up listening to techno: Melbourne in the late '90s. I think more than any DJ it was Jeff Mills who defined this era in this place, but I don't think Claude's influence was too far behind. His DJ Kicks mix was the stuff of legend as were his skills on the decks. He is just one of those key guys from that period. Saying that, it was Mr Mills that imprinted himself on my psyche. But Claude Young was responsible for what remains one of my alltime favourite mix CDs, which I felt never got the recognition it deserved. Young's contribution to "Essential Underground Vol. 03: Berlin / Detroit" is a beautiful, contemplative and timeless mix. It is one I would always carry, and travelled with me a long way. I was hoping to put it on as I wrote this post, but it appears that somewhere between Australia, the UK and Japan, it has disappeared. That is not cool. I suggest finding a copy if you can, I am sure it still sounds just as gorgeous today.
When I moved back to Japan last year, I was very conscious of the fact Claude Young was living here and was hoping to see him again. But I have not. I missed a good opportunity at Dommune because I couldn't make it, but besides that there haven't been many chances. A disappointing situation given that he is so much more talented than the vast majority of DJs based in Japan... It is also very strange considering the Detroit cult that remains so strong here. Put (Detroit) or (UR) behind a DJs name and that'll get people here excited, regardless of whether they are still relevant or not. For whatever reason, this doesn't seem to apply to Claude Young, however.
Given all this, I was very interested with Claude's reflections on Japan in the interview. Much of what he says echoes my views. It is worth quoting in full:
"Do you play out much?
Not a lot. We really want to push it, though. We'd like to do more things outside of Japan. Ironically, I don't do a lot inside of Japan. It's a really bizarre place. Maybe 15 years ago it was really brilliant, because it was so unique and now it's basically Europe East. People you can see in Europe you can pretty much see here on a regular basis.
You said in another interview that there wasn't an infrastructure in place to build up local producers. Is it still the same situation now in your opinion?
Definitely. It's a troubling trend. It's really interesting, because Japan had the run of being the top spot in Asia for a very long time and now the scene in China is really emerging. China is still on shaky ground, sometimes there are problems with events. But when they get that all sorted out, China is going to be the hotspot and there will be another dip in Japan because there is nothing really unique there. I don't want to be insulting, but from my perspective, there isn't anything unique. If I was in Europe or America or somewhere else and I wanted to go to Japan for something uniquely Japanese, it's very difficult to find. You're not going to find it at any of the major places, because they're pretty much tied up with tours. They have to fill the clubs.
I think you have a different perspective on it, living there as opposed to someone who just comes in, has an amazing time for however many days and then leaves.
Yeah, it's hospitality central so when you leave you're going to say, "Yeah, I had a great time." I had lunch with James [Ruskin] last year, and it was the same thing, he said it was really good but he just wishes he could get over more frequently. I get that all the time, "Why aren't you playing here?" And, you know, it has to be up to the promoters to talk to the right people. I'm the easiest guy to do shows with, but they don't get in touch. So when the people who actually find me [get in contact], I'm going to go out there and bust my ass for them as they've done their homework. As for the rest of them? Fuck it. I'm not interested."
I highlighted a few specific lines I want to comment on, which I think are particularly relevant:
"Maybe 15 years ago it was really brilliant, because it was so unique and now it's basically Europe East."
I think this is probably only half accurate. Yes, you do get a lot of artists coming through from Europe and elsewhere, but for the most part there is timelag - normally its about 1-2 years behind what is happening in Europe. 15 years ago I think this Europe influence was maybe just as strong, but it was combining in a more interesting and equal way with what was happening here, most notably with artists like Fumiya Tanaka. Also at this point Japan was right at the cutting edge - it was bringing artists early and helping them emerge, whereas now it is generally only once they are firmly established that they make their debuts over here. Today for the promoters here that do try to push things, and are ambitious with their bookings, more often than not they get punished with shitty turnouts, while artists that haven't done anything relevant for 5+ years still get regular bookings and fill clubs.
"They have to fill the clubs."
I have commented on this before - the club scene in Japan, Tokyo included, is not as strong as most people still perceive. There has been an ongoing and slow decline, and this has been greatly amplified in the aftermath of the 11 March disasters. The money isn't there like it used to be, there are not as many clubs as there used to be. As he states in the interview, things are very different from 15 years ago, when the fees were much higher and the club scene was much stronger.
Yeah, it's hospitality central so when you leave you're going to say, "Yeah, I had a great time."
This relates to my previous points - people that come here for a few days generally don't get an accurate read on the scene. They come, they get treated great, they head back to wherever they came from (often inspired), and continue to believe prevailing (mis)perceptions about the scene here. But if I am honest, most of the DJs here are incredibly mediocre, the music they play is dull as all shit, with too many artists slavishly following the bigger local names and the established sounds. People may be disavowing mnml, but that is still rocking on here (I don't think this is a problem unique to Japan, though!). The DJs that Japan is most known for - Takkyu Ishino, Fumiya Tanaka and Ken Ishii - are all shadows of their former selves. Despite sounding horribly out of date and boring, these big 3 continue to dominate the scene here, and really limit the possibility for new and interesting acts to emerge. DJ Nobu is about the only one to break this trend: he is a name worth remembering and hopefully can usher in a new wave of creativity here. But I am doubtful, as he is a rare exception.
Anyway, I'll stop there. Perhaps I am misreading how Japan is judged from afar, but this is based on my own experiences here and abroad, and reading Claude's interview just got some of those thoughts bubbling again. Anyway, lets hope the scene can recover more after March, and in the process, see Claude Young spinning here more often...
*edit* After reading a comment to what I wrote, it made me want to clarify something: this post was not to complain about the scene here in Tokyo. I know we get more good acts coming through here than most places in the world, and I feel very lucky to be here. But, as I've said previously, I strongly feel Tokyo is one of the key cities in the world for electronic music, and has a role that is more important than many other places. So in this sense, if the scene here is misunderstood or poorly perceived from outside, as I think is often the case, then it can have some more wide reaching consequences.