My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.
This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.
Pieces of the puzzle of understanding another country’s music business can take a long time to fall into place, especially when the country is Japan. I have been playing in Japan since my never-ending (I hope) worldwide tour of open mics and open jams began in 2009. It was only last night on my fourth visit to Japan, therefore, that I suddenly discovered one of the mainstay ways bands and pop musicians get gigs and tour the country and develop their thing…. It’s called the “live house,” or in Japanese, “rai-bu.”
But let me back-step a little. It turns out that my previous post and mini gig, at Club Mercury, was also at a live house – but a very small one. When I asked the manager there if he knew any open mics or open jams or places where I could play the following night – last night, Tuesday – he very kindly and enthusiastically told me he would call around and see if he could find something.
So it was that I finally received a tweet and an email from him yesterday and he asked me to meet him at Club Mercury again if I wanted to play somewhere, because he had found a place for me to play, and it would be easier if he took me there. So I headed off to Club Mercury, and we took a cab over to the live house called Soma, in the Shinsaibashi area. This is a very cool, crowded area of small streets and street people and restaurants and bars and clubs near the Namba station.
When we stood outside Soma and he said, “This is it,” I started wondering what kind of place he had taken me to. It looked bloody big, there were posters of bands all over the place, and it really looked professional and hip. I had sudden visions of me making my appearance opening up for some famous Japanese at Osaka’s equivalent of the Bus Palladium in Paris, or hey, why not the Palladium in London? Well, not quite. But anyway….
We entered and I found myself in a hip and colorful cool bar area being introduced to a woman who had been warned of my arrival. I could not understand any of the talk, but she led me to a backstage area and said, basically, “Here’s your dressing room, and the stage is on the other side, there.” She pointed out a wall with a door at the end of the hall, and I heard music and continued to wonder what was going on. But for the sake of adventure, I said to myself, Cool!
She then told me that I was booked to go on a 8:20, for half an hour. Whoa!
I then met up with the manager from the Club Mercury again – whose name I have not put here simply because I have not got a clue of how to pronounce it, even though I tried several times, but it’s sort of like Hajth…. He bought me a beer and he asked if I wanted to go into the auditorium to drink it, during the show.
So we entered the room, where I found a fabulously cool mid-sized live house area with a large stage, great sound system, huge dance floor and tables area and in the very back a control room area with what looked like two or three technicians working the light and sound.
There was a performer on the stage singing to recorded music, and I was now once again thrown into a sense of confusion. It was not, clearly, a karaoke. But what was it? By the time I went up, there were about six spectators plus the sound people, maybe eight or nine people maximum. Some were, I would learn, musicians.
I took to the stage, got the guitar and vocal mic sound checked and then did my half-hour “show.” Later, I met the first singer, she gave me her CD, “Jump!,” and then some other musicians, and I watched the half-hour gig of the musician after me, whom everyone calls Tazz, but whose stage name is Vividamien. She was damned good. Played a nice expressive guitar – which was a neat Ovation, by the way – and also had a very good and expressive singing voice with some original sounding tunes.
Afterwards we all went into the bar area and had some beers and some food – including the local Osaka specialty of takoyaki. We also jammed a little. It was an insanely wonderful evening, and I owed it all to the manager at the Club Mercury, and the open arms of the Soma live house. Because a live house, I learned, is the way that bands find their audiences and get known in Japan. There are no booking agents for small bands because there is virtually no money to be made in it. So instead, there are hundreds, or probably thousands, of these live houses all over the country where bands have access to a staff and great equipment and a stage and a bar. And the band usually is auditioned and has to ensure that a certain number of spectators will come to listen, and buy tickets. That pays for the rental of the room.
I, like most foreign “bands,” did not have to pay for the booking and get people there – that was actually due to the kindness of Hadth – I will get that spelling as soon as I can – who got me the gig, and who in fact invited me to everything throughout the evening. Unbelievable where music is capable of taking a person! This was a real introduction to a whole facet of Japanese musical band culture that I knew nothing about, even after three previous years playing where I could. That said, I had noticed the name “live house” here and there – I just never knew what it was. Now I do….
Oh, and by the way, being on that stage under the constantly changing spotlights and with a sound crew that knows what they are doing, was a real joy – no matter how small the audience might have been….
Sometimes finding a place to play in a new city one has never been to before requires a little more than just an Internet search or randomly wandering the streets. Last night before I set out to randomly wander the streets of Osaka, where I have never been before and where I found no open mics or jams on my Internet search, I decided to contact a friend of mine whom I know in Paris and who frequently plays in Japan. It turned out that this friend, who calls himself LadiesDi, is actually right now doing his tour of Japan clubs. He was unavailable on Facebook or anywhere else – I still haven’t heard from him! – but I noticed the name on his site of an intriguing looking venue in Osaka where he played last week.
So it was that I decided to set out in search of the Club Mercury and see if it was possible for me to play there. Located near the Hard Rock Cafe, I thought I had that landmark to use as a guiding point in a culture where I find it extremely difficult to navigate. But I am getting better and better after several visits to Japan, and this trip has been my biggest breakthrough so far in terms of understanding signs and streets and other cultural marks.
So to my complete and utter shock and surprise and a sense of pride, I arrived directly at the Club Mercury, making no big errors as I went. At the door I found there was a 20-euro cover charge, but some very nice people who did all they could to understand what I was looking for. I asked them if I could play music there, and they said that there was already another band. They then inquired within and said I should come back later if I wanted to play.
So I went across the street and had a sumptuous pizza with cream sauce instead of tomato sauce, and then I returned to the Club Mercury, and went in to find that the show had ended for the evening, but that the owner manager was aware of my desire to play. He asked me what date I was free, and I told him I was leaving Japan on Wednesday.
“Do you have a guitar now?”
I said I did, and he invited me on the stage to play. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The place had around 25 people there to listen, the stage was sizable and very cool, this kind of bauhausian feel to it, and complete with spotlights, a curtain and a great monitor system. The room was very small, and on the curtain in front of the stage when there was no performance, old movies are projected.
I played a few songs with all spectators listening quietly, and applauding with warm appreciation. I spoke to most of them afterwards, while I ate the noodle soup I had been offered in gratitude and payment for my set. In short, it was all very bloody amazing!!!
I was also told, by the way, that Osaka is full of such neat music venues, hidden, off the main roads, in basements, in places you would never find them if you didn’t know. The Club Mercury has existed for eight years. It has a regular stream of local bands and musicians playing there, and is well worth the visit for the cool atmosphere and people alone.
After I left, I decided to flex my new found navigational muscles and dared myself to walk all the way across town back to my hotel rather than take a subway train. Along the way I met a young band, called The LaQ, sitting in the covered mews thing that traverses the center of town. They gave me their CD, which I have not been able to play yet, as I have no CD player in my hotel or on my computer. I put the CD with that of one of the musicians I met at the Club Mercury, called Side Slow, and I look forward to listening.
As I neared my hotel, I passed a bar and some people within saw that I had a guitar and gestured me to come in and play. There was nothing going on musically, but it looked like a fun group of people in a small, comfortable, corner neighborhood bar. So I went in, played a song and took a beer.
That was the beginning of a long end to the evening playing music myself in the bar, and listening to one of the other people at the bar, a guitarist named Gil, whom I have recorded on video here, which makes up partially for the lack of videos from the Club Mercury, aside from the panoramic. But I truly regret not having heard any of the music from the other musicians at the Club Mercury, and I should never have gone for the pizza – except it was great.