Angular guitars and sassy vocals laid over disco beats and thick synth lines filled the black light-drenched space at Club K on April 13 as Osaka's 333(bababa) played the final show of its short U.S. tour. The crowd, which filled the small venue, moved to the music with grins on their faces as the charismatic young singer showcased his James Brown-inspired dance moves. The band, virtually unknown in the States, was the most recent of an increasing number of Japanese bands touring the country by way of Baltimore, facilitated by the venue's manager, Michael Young.
For Young, what began as merely an interest in Japanese culture has developed into a role as one of Baltimore's most active ambassadors to the Japanese underground music scene.
Young is a Japanophile, but he doesn't fetishize the culture. Introduced to Japan through cinema and animation, his interest in the arts has developed into a deep respect and admiration for the traditions and customs of the Japanese people. This spurred his decision to visit the country in 2007.
"My first trip consisted of checking out the places I read about in Tokyo and the surrounding areas," he recalls. "I went to a couple of record shops and met some people from bands and went out drinking with them. They told me about shows and some bands to check out locally. At the same time I was giving them CDs of my band for them to check out."
Even with both parties having only a rudimentary understanding of the other's language, staying in contact via the internet proved easier than expected. After a few months of communication, Young booked a U.S. tour for Yokohama's Full Chin in 2008. He, in turn, booked a Japanese tour for Young's band Osceola later that year. While on tour, Young continued to forge relationships with bands and individuals around Japan, eventually touring the country several times. Through the continued reciprocity of these relationships, Young has found himself regularly hosting some of his favorite Japanese bands here in Baltimore.
"Bassist Yuki-Chan of Tacobonds had booked one of my shows in Koenji, Tokyo," he says. "On that same tour we played with Groundcover at the singer's venue, 20000v Denatsu, in Tokyo. Both bands really blew me away."
Now, Young is able to return the favors when both bands arrive on June 15. This will mark the first time that he has been able to bring in a touring package consisting of more than one Japanese band, something he is particularly excited about.
"The two bands coming here is almost like they are bringing part of their scene to the U.S." he notes. "They are two very hardworking bands. Their live performances are full of energy and really explosive. Just the overall vibe of the bands is something that more Americans should be exposed to."
Groundcover, a six-piece experimental rock band incorporating elements of psychedelic rock, punk, and dub, is truly something to behold. The band is precise and, at the same time, raw and explosive. Comparisons can be made to their countrymen the Boredoms, or to U.S. bands like Tortoise but with more of a punk edge. Tacobonds, with similarly unconventional song structures, technical precision, and intense live performances, is a good fit for the bill. U.S. audiences hearing Tacobonds for the first time will likely be reminded of the late '90s East Coast post-punk acts like Washington D.C. band Q and Not U.
To coincide with the weeklong tour, Young has arranged for a split release between the two touring Japanese bands; his own band Echo Hey Hello; and local indie duo Weekends, who are playing two shows on this tour. Protagonist Music, a label co-owned by Baltimore resident Bill Tsitsos, is releasing the four-way split cassette tape, which should be available by the first show of the tour.
To outsiders, Baltimore may seem like an odd choice of cities to use when introducing a foreigner to the United States, but Young has always had faith in the city's ability to charm his overseas guests.
"I think Baltimore gets a bad rap in general, so some bands might be a bit sketched out at first, but I assure them about the city and how awesome and diverse it is," says Young. "They trust me, and after they get here, they meet so many people and make so many friends that they end up falling in love with the city."
Even though his main focus and energies are on this upcoming tour, Young continues to look toward the future, setting larger goals for himself as well as for the Baltimore music scene. While Club K and its nontraditional setting is a great place for experimental acts and regional touring bands, the recently opened venue the Crown (1910 N. Charles St.) will provide a larger space and a similarly relaxed vibe.
"I would love to expand the communication and booking connections with Korea, Taiwan, China, and Japan," says Young. "Maybe eventually bring multiple bands from different countries at the same time. I'd like to begin to bridge the gaps in DIY music between Asia and the U.S. and help to gain exposure for hardworking, passionate musicians who deserve it."