Booking Valen-grind’s Day in Japan’s extreme underground with Kaala


Matt Ketchum of Kaala, a community development platform for fringe cultures, details what is involved in booking gigs in Japan’s extreme music underground.

Considering that I’m 30 and have spent 7 years participating in and helping organize Japan’s underground, it should come as no surprise that I know absolutely nothing about how booking shows works outside of Japan, which I’m told is quite different. It’s not really news to me so much as it is a なるほど (naruhodo, or “Oh, right. It would be like that, wouldn’t it”) thing. But I’m not here to talk about being a fish out of water in the American underground, I’m here to talk about Kaala’s continued efforts in Japan. So on with the narrative!

Without passing judgment, Japan tends to appreciate sustained personal connections over business acumen, and while this isn’t always the case in the underground, assuming it is with whomever you are talking to about a gig is never a bad idea. Fortunately, a good portion of my 20s was devoted to building those relationships and reputations, so getting in touch with bands or venues isn’t much of a problem and hasn’t been for maybe 4 years. And now that Kaala’s been functioning for a while, the rep has spread: Even if we don’t know a certain band or venue, we probably know someone who does, someone who trusts us, and who is willing to make an introduction. I won’t lie, it’s kinda tough to get “inside” but once you are things ease up considerably. Nothing good ever comes easily, right?

But having a decent rep is par for the course.  It’s difficult to get anything done without one, and I’m willing to bet that anyone who’s gained one has wonderfully unique and charming stories about the struggles they endured to establish it. I know I do. Nevertheless, it’s a given that if you are an event organizer with any name at all, then you already have some level of reputation for yourself, but what sets one organizer apart from others is, simply, the extent to which they’ve got their shit together. “Shit” being defined here as a confounding stew of high mental anguish threshold, ability to think on one’s feet, a mild form of schizophrenia, and genuine love for the world that music helps build.

Last I checked, the consensus on booking shows for domestic acts in/around Tokyo was that 4 months’ lead time is good, 6 months’ is great, and that the pace at which lead time is lengthening is most likely going to continue if not accelerate. It goes without saying that international bands require significantly more time and consideration.

The amount of time required to “safely” book a gig is due to a slew of separate issues that together create some pretty big problems for Tokyo. Don’t get me wrong: Tokyo is an excellently vibrant megacity, but it is, paradoxically, also a cultural black hole (mostly) full of lost souls pecking around blindly for something to remind them of their humanity.

To elaborate a bit, I’m of the opinion that those stuck in the churn of Tokyo’s bipolar cultural climate gravitate towards entertainment as both release and grounding. Concerts are, of course, one of the more popular entertainment destinations, and there are literally hundreds weekly vying for millions of potential attendees in the ~30 mile radius that covers Tokyo’s metro area. A lot of people (just as in any other country) have what I’ll call sheepish taste in music and readily turn to very tightly managed and very visible acts such as Momoiro Clover, AKB48, BabyMetal, Kiss My Ft2 (what is up with that name?), Sexy Zone , or any of the countless other idol or pop groups out there for their carefully produced dose of distraction*.

On the other hand, you’ve got underground music, and Japan is where I really got tuned in to the extent of its power. Whereas my perception of more mainstream/accepted forms of popular music revolves around the concept of comfort (e.g. pretty things, familiar things, positive things, etc.) in an environment deemed overly stressful, I see extreme music veering in precisely the opposite direction — attracting those not looking to distract from difficult or new situations and concepts, but rather to approach them head-on. This is a phenomenon that can be found all over the world, but to each country it has a unique application. Japan, with its notably strict status quo of 出る針は打たれる(deru hari wa utareru, or the nail that stands up gets hammered down), is no exception. So yeah, the underground in Japan is really underground because it’s kind of not supposed to be there, or so would say the powers that be.

Now, despite the relatively small audience size compared to stadium shows for vastly more popular bands, to book an extreme music show in Downtown Tokyo is nevertheless to walk a rather nefarious path, one strewn with many obstacles: レンタル代 (Rentaru-dai, or rental cost) and 前売券・当日券 (maeuriken and toujitsuken, or pre-sale & door tickets), キャパ (kyapa, or capacity), dealing with nearby shows that are 載っている (notteiru, placed on top of aka conflicting schedule), and the dreaded ノルマ(noruma, or ticket quota). That last one is the choice weapon of the numerous junk bookers who favor the pay-to-play system, which, crazily enough, is sometimes required by the venue of the booker, and not just by the booker of the musicians*. These are a few of the dangers one must identify, target, and destroy on the road to breaking even in booking an extreme metal show in Tokyo.

So, given that Kaala’s last event (not a concert but our first Death Metal Deathmatch (DMDm) which features craft beer, extreme metal, and deathmatch wrestling at Bar Brujeria in Roppongi (run by Butcher ABC’s vocalist)) was in October, and that 4 months is the bare minimum lead time one should shoot for in booking a concert, the earliest we could hope for was February 2017. This, naturally, evoked thoughts of Love, Lust, and Lube, and so we croaked “By George, we cannot wait! A Valentine’s gig we must create!”, our raspy belches echoing through the streets, causing looks of tempered disgust on the faces of passersby. Thus, the seed of Eros Revenant was planted in our fertile minds.

There was another, special factor to take into consideration with Eros Revenant: up until DMDm, I had been responsible for organizing concerts. However, now that I’m stumbling around on the East Coast getting things going here, someone else needed to take up those responsibilities in Japan; the problem was, no one else had experience. This, happily enough and not insignificantly facilitated by the wonders of modern technology, turned out to be a blessing, as it meant that we didn’t want to risk booking a more expensive venue while our team on the ground in Tokyo was learning the ropes. That meant one of two spots that don’t play by the rules of venue rental, instead offering a simple 50/50 split of door sales with no money down: El Puente in Yokohama in neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture, or What’s Up near Uguisudani Station in Tokyo’s Shitamachi area.

Truth be told, I’ve never been to What’s Up, and hear it fits maybe 20 people. Nothing against the guys who run it, but given Kaala’s lengthy relationship with El Puente’s owner, the one and only Shiggy, and the fact that El Puente fits probably 50, deciding which venue to host Eros Revenant at wasn’t too hard.

Now, I can’t really remember where exactly the precise theme of Eros Revenant originated from, though I know that our editor, Aaron, has always been keen on callously lewd acts of exhibitionism and that our resident researcher, Jharrod, accidentally birthed the name whilst flexing his mighty intellect. But suffice it to say that when you’re throwing a Valentine’s Day concert and your whole team is already aware that there are a lot of bands in the area with names dealing with genitalia parlance and the greater sphere of bodily fluids and excrements, it’s not such a great leap for that team to conclude that they ought to assemble all of those bands for a commemorative concert that is deadly serious about the world and its inhabitants’ capacity to make sweet love with each other, often regretfully, and almost certainly sloppily, but nevertheless frequently.

After a relatively drunken conversation on Slack (our preferred medium for pretending like we’re organized), we concluded that there were 6 bands we should approach. We did, and landed all 6. Let me fill you in on each of these Tokyo menaces, one by one:

Codename: Cunts
How we know them: Zothique’s raging keyboard wolverine, Kenji
Weapon of Choice: “Junk” punk
Special Power: Filth-beam

Codename: The Erections
How we know them: Kaala’s own on-the-streets (read: homeless) punk informant, Jordan
Weapon of Choice: Oi!
Special Power: Insatiable beer thirst

Codename: Anal Volcano
How we know them: Good friends with guitarist, Daigo
Weapon of Choice: Moshy Goregrind
Special Power: The Misstep Two-Step

Codename: Diarrhea
How we know them: Japan’s sexiest female R.L. Stine, Nanami!
Weapon of Choice: Goregrind
Special Power: Gyrating hips

Codename: JK肉壺切断 (JK Nikutsubo Setsudan)
Association: Daigo!
Weapon of Choice: Carcass-inspired Goregrind
Special Power: ?

Codename: Fuck on the Beach
Association: Shiggy
Weapon of Choice: Powerviolence
Special Power: Keeping the fear alive for over 20 years

The thing to know about underground concerts in Japan, perhaps more than anything else, though, is that close to everyone totally hates buying tickets digitally. This means that, up until recently, if there was a show, tickets would start selling at the door about an hour before the show started. That’s pretty much how things still go, though I’m pretty happy to see the very metal and very excellent nano-brewery Thrash Zone has begun selling advance tickets on their premises.

So, even with this excellent line up, and with cupcakes provided by our good friend Suzy Krueger, we’re confident that Eros Revenant will be a celebration of Love and Fucking that will everyone will enjoy.  After years of doing this, and with the tools we’ve built with Kaala, there’s no doubt in our minds. But our ultimate goal is not to hoard these skills for our own profit — rather, what we desperately want is to get these same tools into the hands of not just the domestic scene but international fans too, and increase the people in the know about Japan’s outstanding underground!

*This is one of those statements that weeaboos’ll probably latch onto and say some derogatory remarks about how I don’t understand Japan. This is a general statement, not intending to include each and every person in Japan – of course there are (many) exceptions, but it’s a very well documented fact that Japanese (especially corporate) culture is very good at stubbornly retaining The Old Ways, and that involves respecting your elders and shutting up.

*I do think it’s necessary to point out that while there is an overabundance of pay-to-play gigs, it is not my personal opinion that that system has been institutionalized. The crux of it is that pay-to-play has been around for a good while, and is an understood and accepted method of organizing concerts and as such is simply the way things are done. This acquiescing to existing structures, regardless of merit, is certainly something that you’ll see at work in many paradigms of modern Japan.

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Matt Ketchum left his hometown of Pittsburgh and arrived on the shores of Japan in the fall of 2009. He quickly formed a short-lived metal project before the Tohoku earthquake changed his life forever. After assisting in frontline relief efforts he was transferred to Tokyo where he became involved in various projects concerned with Tohoku, including a crowd-sourced photography initiative aimed at raising funds, and a media distribution platform. Before becoming a founding member of Retch and starting the now-defunct event production group Blood Rite, showcasing bands from Japan's extreme music underground, he was the guitarist for Tokyo black metal band Darkcorpse. At the moment, he's back in Pittsburgh working at getting Kaala off the ground there - international metalheads unite!