Until recently the designation "big in Japan" was, for all intents and purposes, a slap in the face to most pop and rock musicians. Now with heavyweight trendsetting labels such as Matador and Grand Royal capitalizing on Japan's newfound, growing, and supercool reputation for quixotic and innovative musical hodgepodges, other labels are clamoring to cash in. Suddenly "big in Japan" is a desirable status symbol.
One eastward looking label is the Los Angeles-based Emperor Norton, which, until a couple of years ago, could boast only of signing eminently forgettable guitar bands like Upper Crust. Now, under the direction of manager Steve Pross, Emperor Norton has made a big splash with back-to-back releases of records by a trio of distinctive and divergent Japanese artists: Zoobombs, Takako Minekawa, and Fantastic Plastic Machine.
"We had the idea of putting out the Japanese records together in the wake of Buffalo Daughter and Cornelius," Pross explains. "We wanted to capitalize on that energy." Buffalo Daughter, Pizzicato Five, and Cornelius, along with earlier grumblings from Shonen Knife and the Boredoms, were the first wave of the so-called Japanese invasion, and Emperor Norton hopes to open a second front by promoting its Japanese bands to the same cult status as their predecessors.
Why Japan? According to Pross one reason is that Japanese sonic collagists like Cornelius are able to take sounds and influences that Westerners contend don't mix, and smash them together into pioneering, forward-looking music. "We have certain cultural biases that this doesn't go with that," Pross says of Western musicians. "The Japanese don't have the same cultural context."
Amid the wide variety of sounds coming from Japan (ranging from loungecore to hardcore), the glue that holds them all together is the widespread crosspollination of vastly dissimilar genres. Buffalo Daughter's glorious melange of indie guitar and hip-hop, though not immediately striking, shares a lot with Cornelius's marriage of American pop, electronica, and punk. By the same token, Cornelius is similar to Pizzicato Five, which pours even more styles into their musical blender. Rest assured when you buy a CD by one of these new-breed Japanese artists, what you will hear is a challenging patchwork of styles woven into a marvelously catchy ensemble. Old styles, hackneyed to Westerners, are wonderfully revitalized. And in addition to the liberating ease with which the Japanese are able to combine seemingly disparate forms, Pross sees other reasons for the recent explosion of Japanese music.
"Any kind of music is available in Shibuya (a hipper-than-hip section of Tokyo), whether it's obscure Brazilian vinyl or American guitar pop," Pross says. "So if someone's interested in a style of music, all they have to do is go shopping."
The three bands Emperor Norton has already signed exemplify the mix-and-match approach and encyclopedic knowledge of musical genres prevalent in so many Japanese bands. The Zoobombs' latest, Welcome Back, Zoobombs!, mixes Boredoms-style noise-punk with blues and hip-hop; Takako Minekawa's Cloudy Cloud Calculator fuses Kraut rock and electronica influences with pop sensibilities; and Fantastic Plastic Machine's self-titled debut is a delectably swirled pastiche of lounge, bossa nova, and house. Although they're not classics, these albums display a refreshing attitude toward music-making and are well worth listening to.
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Like its unconventional namesake Joshua Abraham Norton, a nineteenth-century San Francisco iconoclast who declared himself emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico (he printed his own currency and made often outlandish proclamations that ran on the front pages of local newspapers), Emperor Norton, according to Pross, wants to strike out on its own by creating a new genre he calls "eclectica." These three very diverse releases, as well as upcoming offerings, should bolster the label's claim of defining a new musical archetype. "I felt like there were so many indie labels," he says, "that I wanted to separate ourselves from the rest. I just wanted to take us in a direction so that we wouldn't have to compete with labels who are big on MTV."
When the label first formed in New York City in late 1996, it struggled with a fairly bland stable of mainstream guitar bands and was further hampered by distribution problems. "In the beginning we weren't successful," Pross recalls. "It's easy to be a target for criticism when you don't put out good records, but I don't hear any criticism anymore."
One possible explanation for Emperor Norton's ability to boldly delve into Japanese and other eccentric bands is the label's connection to the Getty family fortune: Emperor Norton is owned by J. Paul Getty's grandson and heir, Peter Getty. That fact is something Pross says they don't like to advertise for fear they'll be considered a vanity label. Although Emperor Norton wants to keep the Getty bond hush-hush, Pross freely admits that Getty, a musician himself, is very much involved in operations, especially signing bands and writing ad copy and bios. Big-money backing is also evident in the slick packaging and spot-on media savvy. Despite its nonindie exterior, Emperor Norton, by shedding light on the second wave of trailblazing Japanese music, has proved itself much more than a dilettante's lark. Even with the very polished look of Emperor Norton's publicity and CD design, the label, Pross says, would prefer to grow organically through college radio, zines, and clubs. That Rolling Stone did a brief writeup of Emperor Norton as a label to watch, and that Takako Minekawa had a short stint at the top of the college-radio charts, proves the kind of grassroots, word-of-mouth notoriety Emperor Norton seeks is already beginning to take shape.
Emperor Norton has made a name for itself by showcasing Japanese bands, but the label doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a Japanese-only outlet. "The Japanese-invasion thing has really mushroomed, and some people think we're a Japanese label," Pross says. "I view the label more as international, and I would like people to think we put out all kinds of good music." Already Emperor Norton has released a record by Arling and Cameron, two Dutch DJs, and a remarkable homage to French pop called Pop Romantique that includes tracks by the Apples (In Stereo), Lloyd Cole, and Luna. In the future look for releases from Ireland, France, and Mexico. The positive feedback the Japanese releases are garnering proves the label is headed in the right direction. The response, Pross notes, is overwhelming: "I was astounded that people loved the music I loved.