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.


  1. i do agree that claude is a great artist, but i havent heard anything from him for a long time.
    the interview is a nice read, honest and even inspiring.

    cant talk about japan as someone who have lived there or even visited, but for me it looks as good as it can get, okay theres not many djs, but you still have one of the best parties in the world and 'big' names there, as i said i have never been there, but if i could come i would..
    mnml wave is around everywhere, same as trance and many other genres :)
    my point is that japan still looks many times better than the place im living :)
    the only place i would consider to be better place to live would be berlin

  2. nice post Chris. I agree you, Rokas, Berlin is the place. I´d also point London as a good spot. although I think that the city is full of crap music, there is still an interesting scene with very nice gigs ongoing.
    regarding Barcelona, where I live, I do not know whether you guys have a positive impression of the city´s electronic music scene, but my point is that it sucks, including Sonar. very few interesting proposals around. I´m starting to think that here, people dont like electronic music, most of them they just like partying regardless the music. Unfortunately, I don´t know Tokyo yet :)

  3. Nice post ne, but fees are still extremely high da yo! (In Tokyo)

  4. I agree with most of this bigtime! been saying the same for the last 8 years to booking agents still wanting the 800euro+ fee they get in Europe plus flights/hotel, etc. Why dont people get the simple fact that flight plus hotel is already sometimes 2000euros for japan trip compared to the 500euros TOTAL promoters have to pay for the same in europe? And that the scene outside is TINY with no decent dance music press (soon to change?!) ... And all this for underground acts who are hardly known in tokyo. I know one Dj who got paid 800euros for playing a 150 capacity venue. How does an agent say yes to that? Of course the promoters lost money - stacks of it and guess what, now they cant afford to do another party for 6 months.

    Double H | Heat - Haze man... you say fee's are still high - you're right sometimes they are and they damn well shouldnt be. some agents should stop taking advantage of teineisugi promoters from tokyo who often decide who they want before discussing prices and basically agree whatever the agent quotes as the artist fee... Agents take heed: get your artists out to Japan for cheap, put the dates in their myspace (looks great dont it?!), let the guys in Tokyo show them a great time and the scene in Tokyo will grow hopefully which in turn means more business in the future. thats how I see it anyway...

    As far as underground acts being paid the same as they do in Europe even though they are 1/3 as famous if it wasnt for Labyrinth most of the decent (underground) techno acts who get to go to japan (and have the time of their lives a lot of the time) wouldnt have a chance I think... another thing to thank Russ for. Trust me outside of what people learn through the Labyrinth & to some extent this blog (though not many know of it or can read it of course) their aint much press for the quality acts we love...

    Thank god, rant over...

    ps watch out for Nobu! sure he'll be back at Berghain soon...

  5. Totally agree with Dave regarding the fees and artists, if we could we would bring totally unknown brilliant artists ( unknown here )just to introduce them to the scene but their agents many times don't realize that flight + hotel + 800eu fee is just too much and most times you cant expect over 250 people turn around...
    Regarding local artists though.. I have to say there are many talented people here who don't get a chance to shine thru because local media only supports you once you have huge following ( Nobu case ) or have warm and fuzzy friendship with some booking manager...
    Actually, I think mnmlssgs could investigate local scene a bit more in depth! and not just go for the ones who made it....

  6. Nobu is an incredible DJ (and a promising producer, judging by his record on Grasswax).

  7. His Essential Underground mix is indeed wicked - surprised I hadn't picked it up before. Tip!

  8. Thanks for this interesting post Chris.

    A comment about the big 3 (and many others actually) still dominating the scene here.
    I have a theory about that, I call it "the sempai complex".
    For those not knowing what I'm talking about, the respect of the seniors (in family, work, sport...) is one fundamental aspect of relationships in the japanese society that has roots in confucianism.
    That's the way of living here and it's not something a foreigner can easily criticize. However, I think it can sometime be quite counterproductive since the respect is earned with seniority, not merit.

    Guys like Takkyu Ishino while not doing anything interesting anymore (and in his case, being absolutely awful behind the decks), still get massive respect and exposure here, much more than they deserve. No one here would dare challenge their Techno God statuses (and that's not helping them renew themselves for sure).

    Keep on revering these guys is not helping the scene, which should be driven by innovation and quality. It doesn't send the right message to young artists who will either try to imitate them, or will be too afraid to affirm themselves.
    It doesn't send the right message to the crowd either, who will keep on thinking these guys are relevant and that they represent the current state of techno.
    Booking these guys in big events, most of the time at very good time slots, just because they are "sempai" is not deserving the scene in any kind of way and bookers need to understand that. They might help fill the clubs, but that's short-term thinking.

    Quality should always come first. It sure isn't always easy to get retribution but it's possible, and Labyrinth is a brilliant example of that.

  9. From a traveller's perspective who spent a month in tokyo last summer, i couldn't help but notice the genuine passion that the japanese have for techno. In London or Berlin, where i have also spent some time, the techno scene gravitates around the culture ( drugs, guestlists, secret locations blablabla) instead of the music, imo. Whereas, the vibe that I got in tokyo was a lot more authentic in regards to the "scene." I was schocked when i entered a small club in naha\okinawa and the dj was playing some serious quality tunes..Again, that was my experience, I might have been at the right place at the right time, but i find it very difficult to stipulate that japan, especially Tokyo is in some sort of techno recession... the events from march might have put a damper on it, but I firmly believe that japan is still one of the best places to experience techno.

  10. @ Jelomu.

    Interesting comment. I remember seeing Fumiya Tanaka at Taico Club in Nagano a couple of years ago. It was the flattest techno set I'd witnessed in a longtime. Little attempt was made to engage with the crowd - the whole thing was decidedly low energy and reeked of arrogance to be honest.

    But like you say, these guys seem to be in an unsurpable position. No one is jostling them from below and they are not challenging themselves either.

  11. Regardless of the health of the scene in Tokyo, I have to take issue with some things here. I have seen some incredible sets from Takkyu Ishino and Ken Ishii over the years where they have made some very bold selections, and for you to say that they are shadows of their former selves is a little bit ridiculous. Most artists tend to slow down as they get older. Just look at what has happened to all the Detroit cats, which includes Claude himself. Having said that I would certainly love to see some new Japanese talent and would love to hear about some of the up and comers that you feel aren't getting the attention they deserve.

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