Chai: A little kawaii goes a long way

Chai | Mark Thompson photos

By now, a lot of people know Chai, a quartet of young Japanese women who dress in matching pink outfits and act about 10 years younger than they are . . . and they’re already very young. The band made a name for itself overseas before it gained much traction in Japan, but it’s not clear if this career move was planned by management or the band itself. We tend to think it’s the former, but after seeing Superorganism’s precocious performance earlier this weekend, we can’t be sure.

In any case, the band acquitted itself nightly during a 30-minute set at Sunday midnight at the Red Marquee, zipping through a catalogue that was eclectic without being surprising. What was surprising is how funky this team could get with such simple musical tools. Lead singer and keyboard maven Mana kept the chirp up as best she could, though toward the end her regular register poked through while thanking the audience for all their support. We hear the band has great prospects for the future, and we hope that isn’t the gimmick talking, but these days it’s so hard to tell.

Dirty Projectors: Headliner material

Mark Thompson photos

As American indie bands go, Dirty Projectors are perhaps too perfectly conceived. Leader David Longstreth, a Yale graduate, has always taken popular music very seriously, to the point that one of his first projects was a musical study of the work of Don Henley. His music has always been complicated and challenging, even if his subjects are strange.

At the Red Marquee on Sunday, in a slot that immediately followed the Dylan show, Longstreth and his freshly reconfigured mates made a stab at being geniune headliners, the kind who can hold an audience and entertain them. And for the most part they succeeded. The songs built up a head of steam that made for a real rock show, and the audience, who didn’t always seem to be familiar with the material, nevertheless went along with the plan and came out the other end genuinely entertained.

serpentwithfeet: The devil you say

serpentwithfeet | Mark Thompson photos

Wise came out dressed head to toe in camo and twirling  a red frill. Considering his name and the color of the frill, the Devil came to mind, and often in Wise’s convoluted lyrics, the idea of redemption is keen, he seems to seek a way out of eternal trouble.

Gay and raised in the church, Wise’s dichotomies are there for everyone to see, and during the set he seemed agitated, as if the act of expressing his feelings through music was blasphemous.

But he was totally relaxed with the audience, playing a form of lounge piano while he told the crowd what a privilege it is to play in Japan. At another point, he said it was “time to get messy,” but the tone and tempos remained subdued throughout. The audience didn’t, however.

Because Wise’s introspective music is so intense, the crowd picked up on his desperation and reacted with uncommon empathy. Several of the quieter numbers even elicited ovations. Wouldn’t have expected that in church.

Hinds: From Spain with cuteness and love

It was raining pretty heavily when the Madrid band Hinds took the stage at the Red Marquee, which has a roof. Naturally, punters in the vicinity sought shelter there and the band may have thought they had hit an unexpected goldmine. It’s a common misconception.

Carlotta Cosials, the main singer, sort of knew what was going on. “Even though the rain is falling, can you guys go crazy?” she asked in her high-pitched, heavily accented English. “Are you drinking? Is it too soon?”

Hinds plays a strummy form of indie pop that’s infectious and peppy. Their appeal in Japan has a lot to do with the fact that all the members are women and that they aren’t afraid to fly their freak-cute flag. In fact, the Japanese word Cosials most used during their set was “kawaii.” Fortunately, they are capable of both swinging and grooving, so at least they justified their cute component, even without the advantage of the rain.

King Gnu: Psych for a new age

King Gnu | Mark Thompson photo

The Japanese psychedelic/prog rock quartet King Gnu hit the Red Marquee on the unforgiving Sunday morning slot, when everyone is too busy nursing their hangovers to give a shit about “progressive” music (that’s why they book so many punk bands for that time). But King Gnu can get seriously funky in the David Bowie manner, and when I first showed up I noticed two members playing keyboards, which sort of encouraged me, but later I found that one of them doubles on guitar.

Note to record companies: more double keyboard bands please.

Princess Nokia: Straight outta New York

Mark Thompson photos

Destiny Frasqueri, better known as Princess Nokia, held the Rad Marquee stage at midnight with unusual power for a self-described nerd. Though she’s obviously got herself a stylist now, some of her early videos showed a kid with glasses and baggy clothes rapping about memes and Game of Thrones. She was quite confident in those videos, and in a sense proud of her wonky temperament, which meant something given her impoverished, abusive childhood.

She made good on that image about halfway through her show when she brought out an interpreter and explained how important Japan was to her and “people like me” when she was a kid. The manga and anime she consumed helped her make sense of the world. “I love you Japan,” she said. “You made my life better.”

And she made the Red Marquee better. After Kendrick’s show, it would be hard to come up with a hip-hop concert that could compare, but Nokia’s was more personal and therefore more powerful. We were surprised she didn’t do anything from her new emo album (more nerdness). Essentially, she channeled her feminist, bisexual persona into freestyle raps that, while probably not connecting literally with the audience, definitely connected viscerally and emotionally. She was so on top of the situation that the audience responded to it as pure entertainment, even if they didn’t necessarily know the stuff she was presenting. The best show of the weekend.

Superorganism: Let’s fame

Superorganism | Mark Thompson photos

The Red Marquee was more packed for the Superorganism show than any we’ve ever seen when it wasn’t raining. Since it’s the international band’s first foray to Japan, why all the interest? Well, mainly, it’s because the group’s lead singer, Orono Noguchi, is a Japanese teen who joined the group as a fan and basically took it over, despite the fact that everyone else in the group is about 10 years older.

You wouldn’t know that from her stage demeanor, where she acts like a gangster, creating cognitive dissonance of a different sort. Superorganism’s music is an artless blend of hip-hop style and ABBA effusiveness. Noguchi’s often off-key vocals set a standard for honesty while the group choruses summon up images of high school glee clubs.

But it was Noguchi’s between-song patter that made the show. Using the f-word as verb, adjective, noun, adverb and directive she took the piss out of the crowd, lying about her provenance (“I’m from the south, Adelaide, Australia”), making fun or her Japanese heritage (“he’s more Japanese than I am, which means he’s a good Japanese”), pretending she doesn’t speak Japanese (though she’s fluent in English and speaks with an American accent, she apparently grew up in Japan), acting like the arrogant rock star, and then tearing it all down (“I sound stupid, don’t I?”).

Everybody wants to be famous, as their song goes, but only Orono Noguchi understands why that’s a dumb desire. Weirdly enough, the audience understood, and even though the band didn’t play their full 50-minute set, they gave them an ovation that may make Noguchi wonder what it is about these Japanese.

Lewis Capaldi: Sad songs before lunch

The before-noon slots (yes, there is more than one) at the Red Marquee typically are filled with Japanese punk bands or foreign artists making their debut in Japan. A lot of the time it’s the last time you hear of these artists, though we do once remember seeing Fiery Furnaces give a blazing show at 10:30 on a Sunday morning.

This year’s dubious distinction goes to Lewis Capaldi, a young Scotsman who, in his own words, writes “lots of sad songs.” He warned the audience beforehand to “be prepared.” But they dug it, probably because Capaldi has a hangdog demeanor and a powerful, gruff voice that puts across his version of bruised masculinity with maximum melodrama.

His lyrics are full of the kind of romantic cliches that Elvis Costello rendered ridiculous by 1978, and the dramatic structures were all the same: start slow and quiet and build into something heartrendingly loud. Actually, that stuff works, and it definitely worked on this crowd, mostly couples taking in their first show of the weekend, my guess. In any case, whenever Capaldi hit one of those extreme Joe Cocker moments at the end of his songs, the crowd invariably cheered … and he acknowledged it, stepping out of his suffering character for the moment. Consistency is the key, not authenticity.

Peggy Gou: Now that’s dancing

Berlin-based DJ Peggy Gou presented a more conventional dance event following Jon Hopkins’ blowout. Strangely, the Red Marquee practically emptied out once Hopkins’ set was over, attesting either to his drawing power or Gou’s relatively lighter rep in Japan. We don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that Gou is Korean, but in any case her reputation in Europe seems to be much more solid than it is here.

Still, sometimes less is more, at least when it comes to audience size. Gou likes big statements and though her beats can veer toward the abstract, she’s fairly traditional with the tension-and-release. Consequently, about ten minutes into her set a dance circle had formed near the front of the stage, and the dozen or so people taking part were pretty damn good. Bystanders gave them plenty of space to strut their stuff and they siezed the opportunity greedily.

Gou is quite a good dancer, too. Unlike a lot of IDM DJs, she doesn’t just wiggle her butt and pump her shoulders. She weaves in an out of the beats, incorporating her equipment moves into her dance steps. The only distraction was a guy who came out waving a huge South Korean flag in back of her. At first, we thought he might be part of her entourage, but she didn’t act like it, even when he placed a bottle and a glass next to her. When was she going to have time to pour a drink for herself?

Jon Hopkins: More than one thing

There’s always a push-pull dynamic going on at the Red Marquee after hours. Though the festival tries to get like-minded electronic music artists together on particular nights in order to adhere to a given theme (Planet Groove, Tribal Circus), generally the similarities are only there if you look deep for them. Consequently, you’ll have dedicated electronica artists followed by IDM acts.

Jon Hopkins seemed to be the main draw on Saturday morning. He went on at 1:15 and played for an hour that was interrupted by a major technical glitch that took about 5 minutes to fix. Hopkins has won lots of awards and is a respected soundtrack composer (he studied classical piano at the Royal College of Music in London), so he knows the deeper end of electronica, but he was obviously hired to get people dancing, and he did, but not in the usual way, which is to start a groove and then just keep adding and subtracting during the time allotted, gauging the audience’s temper as you go. Hopkins actually played what amounted to songs, finite compositions that varied greatly in tone and structure, but were definitely distinct musical entities.

Thus the crowd wasn’t able to build up a head of steam, but that seemed OK with them. At the end of each piece they clapped and hooted and wiped the sweat from their brows, eager to hear what would come next.

Mac Demarco: Giving a rat’s ass

Mark Thompson photos

As a former indie band maven, Canadian singer-songwriter Mac Demarco has transitioned nicely into what could be charitably called the profane Jack Johnson, or maybe a post-millennial JimmyBuffett. Much more profound lyrically than either artist, Demarco still prefers the soft rock canon for inspiration, though I wouldn’t be the one to tell him. He’s relaxed to a fault. When he walked out on the Red Marquee stage in shorts, T-shirt and floppy hat, he introduced his band mates by first name only, as well as a bunch of casual friends who were just going to set stage left and listen. “They’re the bistro,” he joked.

And it was a loose show, professional but not very serious. He loved interacting with the audience, which seemed to know quite a bit of his material, though early on he said he wasn’t sure if anyone “would give a rat’s ass” if he didn’t give a good show. When his drummer started the wrong song, he made him apologize to the audience, and the guy just kept saying how awesome it was to be in Japan. The hits just kept on coming, and the audience seriously did give a rat’s ass, even if Demarco didn’t.

Tune-Yards: Hands in the air

Mark Thompson photos

This is the fourth time I’ve seen Merrill Garbus play and while I’ve always enjoyed her shows, I also fretted for her well-being. She had so much shit to do, singing and looping her voice, playing percussion and electric ukulele, all those pedals and effects.

Tune-Yards at Fuji Rock Festival

Her early evening show at the Red Marquee wasn’t particularly crowded, but the people who were there seemed primed for what she offers, a kind of super personal version of African styles filtered through her quirky world view. On her new album she takes herself to task for her “appropriation,” and the opening song of the hour-long set was “Your Hands,” which addresses this problem. Personallly, I find it almost too conventional in the Tune-Yards catalogue, but live she breathed life into it, stretched it out, improvised a bit. By the end, the audience was jelly. She got an incredible ovation for a song they seemed to barely know.

Tune-Yards at Fuji Rock Festival

So imagine their reaction when she eventually played songs they did know. “Gangster” and “Water Fountain” practically had the crowd tearing the place down. What made them so special was Garbus’s newfound ability to express herself without having to deal too heavily with the equipment. Her drummer and sideman helped a lot, but mainly I think she’s just gotten so good at this shit that she knows what she can and can’t do, and what she can do is phenomenally complex.

Tune-Yards at Fuji Rock Festival

Sporting a bluish-grey short haircut that complemented her elder sister vibe and a baggy grey dreww that billowed in the breeze, she cut an imposting figure visually, as well. But it was the sonics that sold the show. I understand her apprehension at being possibly labeled someone who appropriates another culture for their own gain, but quality is quality, and this was the best I’ve ever seen her. The crowd indicated it was the best thing they’d seen in a while, too.

Let’s Eat Grandma: Small bites

Let’s Eat Grandma
Let’s Eat Grandma|mark thompson photo

The British duo Let’s Eat Grandma has called their music sludge pop, which sounds about half right. Though pop elements definitely abide, they aren’t as sludgy as they think they are. Their songs have distinct structures and the lyrics, in turns funereal and hopeful, couldn’t state their intentions any clearer. However, their songs are also circular: they never get a groove on, but rather keep revolving around repetitive musical themes that don’t often correspond.

Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth are also quite young, and their singing tone wavers between petulant and sardonic. The fact that they sound so much alike (they’ve been BFF since they were little girls and making music together since they were 13) means if you close your eyes you can’t tell who’s singing. And when they sing together and build a wall of sound, it’s blissful.

Let’s Eat Grandma
Let’s Eat Grandma|mark thompson photo

Their mid-afternoon set in a sweltering Red Marquee was well attended, and, judging from the reaction, well liked. Part of the duo’s appeal is their youthful insouciance, and Japanese music lovers can appreciate the cute vocal signifiers, the white shorts, and the artless presentation (that tenor sax solo was just so…satisfactory). I liked the dancing myself, which was performed while they stood behind their respective keyboards. The drummer sat in the background, very much part of the sound but not the sight. Since the songs are often rhythmically tricky, he has his work cut out for him.

Mo’some Tonebender: Perfectly good guitar

Mo'some Tonebender
Mo’some Tonebender | Mark Thompson photos

The Fukuoka-based indie guitar band Mo’some Tonebender closed the prefest concert at the Red Marquee in squalling style. As the name implies, they’re into every possible thing a guitar can do but aren’t particularly obsessed with chops, and the crowd was totally cool with that, or, at least, with the punishingly loud riff riot they produced on stage.

Mo'some Tonebender

Visually, the band was pretty interesting. Bassist Yasunori Takei wore a huge pair of angel’s wings and a neon signboard on his head, never missing a beat despite the added baggage. Drummer Isamu Fujita displayed the kind of open-mouthed freneticism one usually associates with guitarists (for the record, he plays guitar, too) but managed to channel it into pounding rhythms that never quit, even between songs.

Mo'some Tonebender

It was an efficient, satisfying half hour of noise and mayhem and left the assembled partiers stoked for the weekend.

Mo'some Tonebender
Mo’some Tonebender

Good call.

Full Moon Fuji

Full moon over Fuji
Full moon over Fuji

It’s been perfect weather so far. Cool and clear, with a full moon marking Fuji Rock’s 20th year at Naeba. We walked the half mile to the entrance and the place was already hopping for the prefest party, which is open to everyone for free. We must have missed the bon odori dance, but the raffle was happening (some kid from Canada won a towel and some cash and the MCs were making fun of his lack of Japanese, but in a good natured way). The fireworks went off as scheduled at 8 p.m., and for once you could chart their definitions in the sky; no obscuring mist or clouds.

Prefest fireworks get this party started

Koichi Hanafusa, one of the major domos of the festival, made his usual opening remarks at the Red Marquee, noting the 20th anniversary and making a special note of the international flavor of the festival, greeting the assembled crowd in about ten different languages. Of course, that’s part of Fuji’s appeal, which may be increasingly rara, even in Japan, where diversity isn’t quite as celebrated as it might be, though, compared to the U.S. at the moment, it’s doing better than could be expected. In any case, Fuji’s ecumenical spirit is celebrated most fervently at the prefest blowout, where groups who deign to play for free get to strut their stuff in front of the most receptive crowd of the weekend–the prefest punters, who get in for free, but are already itching for great music. The adrenalin is already present.

Interactivo at the Red Marquee for the prefest fest.
Interactivo at the Red Marquee for the prefest fest.

Interactivo, the band that opened the festival, is from Cuba, which is as ecumenical as they come. They started with a funky fusion instrumental and quickly devolved into salsa sensationalism. The crowd loved every minute and danced their best latin moves. It was over in a quick 25 minutes, and we drifted out into the food court, enchanted by the moon and the easy, friendly vibe. It should be a great weekend, rain or not.

Slowdive: Slow corps

Slowdive | Mark Thompson photo

By now, we’re pretty anxious whenever we step into the Red Marquee. Though the rain has mostly held off today, as soon as we entered the tent to wait around for the British shoegazer outfit Slowdive, it did start to rain in earnest, and we wondered it we were the cause. Actually halfway through the set we noticed some sunshine outside, but maybe that was our imagination, or a mirage. But in any case the rain seemed to have stopped.

Who knows? Maybe the band’s hypnotic psychedelic guitar sound appeased the weather gods. For sure, their music is not the kind of thing we listen to at home. It’s too redundant, the tempos are all the same, and there’s no dynamic range—songs start incredibly loud and remain that way. The only distinctions are melodic and harmonic.

Slowdive Mark Thompson photo

But live, this stuff works much better than you could imagine, and while some of the people definitely stopped by to get in out of the rain, by the end of the set, they were as hypnotized as those who expected to be. I mean, any band with three guitars has to be paid attention to.

At one point, Neil Halstead commented about Japan, “I really like that the weather doesn’t change here,” though maybe he was talking about the weather inside the Red Marquee. God knows it changed three times during their set outside.

Slowdive | Mark Thompson photo

Arca: Difficult

Arca | Mark Thompson photos

Alejandro Ghersi’s midnight DJ set at the Red Marquee didn’t seem to channel much from the records he releases as Arca. Though the music was denser and bassier than his recorded hip-hop, it was equally challenging, and didn’t seem overly personal. He didn’t sing—though he did a lot of talking and there was certainly a diva quality to the performance. In other words, it wasn’t your usual DJ show, though he did manage to play music that people could dance to, at least every so often, but there was almost a begrudging quality to it. Arca would often leave his equipment and come downstage, strutting back and forth and vocalizing in various modes, but always sounding desperate. At times he seemed to be egging the audience on, but toward what?


Co-billed AV artist Jesse Kanda, who sat onstage to the left, had the whole back screen to himself and he really used it. The images, mostly of animals in some sort of distress, were extremely difficult to watch at times, and he would keep repeating them over and over, as if he were obsessively picking at a scab. Sometimes, he would throw in footage from the award-winning documentary, “Leviathan,” about a fishing boat in the Atlantic, and it was a welcome respite from the body horror. Combined with the darker shades of Arca’s selection and the DJ’s confrontational attitude, the visual portion completed a performative trifecta that was fascinating without necessarily being enjoyable. And it went on for a long time.


Sampha says

Sampha | Mark Thompson photos

Few pop artists have had to adjust their expectations in accordance with their failures as much as Sampha Sisay, the London native who held forth in the headline position at the Red Marquee on Friday. Having tried and pretty much failed as a hip-hop beatmaker, he ended up remixing others beats (such as The xx’s, who were playing almost at the same time several meters away). But in the end, he just had to put out his own R&B-inflected pop songs, composed on his trusty piano, and set to keyboards and drums.


Though the motif was simple, the presentation was anything but. Sampha, dressed in an odd white getup that looked as if he hadn’t completely put it on, was completely in charge and had the relatively small audience eating out of his hands. Alternately swooning and declarative, his uniquely hushed vocals made such an impression that people around me gasped at the emotional clarity. R&B has turned into a form that favors style over content, but Sampha doesn’t see much distinction.

De De Mouse

We listened to De De Mouse’s noontime set at the Red Marquee from the newly installed boardwalk across the way leading out from the old international food court, so we could enjoy Daisuke Endo’s perky EDM just fine but weren’t able to see his typical gyrations and extreme gestures behind the console, which is just as well. They’re sort of distracting and beside the point. But here are some pix anyway.

Ryan Adams: Redemption

We didn’t see the last time Ryan Adams played Fuji, but we heard he was slightly pissed. Not sure why, but in any case his situation wasn’t helped by the fact that press photographers were limited in what they could shoot and there was an announcement before the set at the Red Marquee saying that flash photos from the audience would be a serious problem.

None of these rock star prerogatives made much of an impact on the show. Adams, who is prolific and somewhat contrarian, delivered a classic rock concert, one where guitar histrionics and heartfelt conviction went hand in hand. At first he seems strangely oblivious to the circumstances, wearing a leather jacket in a tent that was smoldering due to the sun. No one held it against him, and his blend of alt-country and classic rock eventually sucked in people who might not have know who he was in the first place but nevertheless knew what they liked.

So even the slower, more sentimental songs made an impact, thanks to Adams’ realization that he was making a difference, at least for the moment. Every subsequent song drew a more emotional response, and by the time he ended on a purely rock number, the audience was in his hands. He didn’t even seem to fathom it. He stood on a monitor and did the rock star thing in a darkened shed. What could be more cliche? But the audience wouldn’t leave. They wanted more as the crew came out to remove the equipment. They were still clapping when I walked away. 

Jenny Lewis: You can call me Lewis

During her late afternoon show at the Red Marquee, Jenny Lewis, late of power pop behemoth Rilo Kiley, related about her first trip to Fuji some years ago, a show we saw and loved, though it was a strange one. Lewis, a solid rock act, played as the first act of one of the late night shows, which is usually reserved for techno/dance artists or out-of-there indie acts. What happened is that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was supposed to play but cancelled and Lewis was hire to fill in. As we remember only a handful of people showed up, but she delivered fully. 

There was a much larger crowd for this, her first legitimate Fuji show, thought it wasn’t what you would call a sellout. She related the earlier story, misremembering the band’s name as Clap Your Hands Say Hi, but the crowd hardly cared. 

Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis | Mark Thompson photo

Jenny (“you can call me Lewis”) plays an earthy form of Americana that connects directly on an emotional level, and the audience succumbed to her obvious charms. Whether she was playing country or soul or pure power pop–she did a killer version of Rilo KIley’s “Bad News” — she made good on her reputation as a soulful singer and a forceful personality.
Her band was aces, especially in the vocal department. 

She finished the show not with a bang but with a whimper and received the kind of ovation usually reserved for guitar freakouts. Playing “Acid Tongue” on acoustic guitar with all her bandmates only adding choir like choral backup, she floored the audience. It take a big person to pull off a ballad as a finale. 

Aqualung/Nate Ruess: White guys

Saturday afternoon is hump time, and most level surfaces throughout the festival site were covered with people dozing in chairs or just dozing. We half expected to see most of the people in the Red Marquee in such a state for Aqualung’s early afternoon show since the British singer-songwriter (Matt Hales) is known for ballads. Surprisingly, the shed was packed, and most of the people were standing. Hales’ classically oriented songs don’t lend themselves to dancing or mush emotional catharsis, so there wasn’t much to observe in terms of audience reaction.

Totally the opposite atmosphere held sway at the Green Stage a little while later when Nate Ruess played. We have yet to figure out what the distinction between Ruess’s main gig, fun., and his solo act is, since fun. is almost all Ruess’s baby, and his new material follows the same pattern: grand melodies, life-positive lyrics, huge dynamic shifts and full-throated singing. Though most of the songs were from his new album, he did the fun hits and also a song from his first band, The Format.

He even did Prince’s “Let’s Get Crazy” in a bid to prepare the crowd for Deadmau5 later on the same stage. People in the audience didn’t dance as much as the people on stage, who wheeled and ran pivot on each other during the upbeat numbers. The audience did perk up on the big chorus songs, like “We Are Young,” a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Actually, white guys have to try harder in the afternoon, and Ruess seemed to understand his function.

Holychild: Meet Cute

Friday’s merciful weather gave way to full fledged sunshine on Saturday morning, but there was also a stiff breeze to counter the scorch. Appropriately, Holychild held forth at the Red Marquee at lunchtime. Though the duo–expanded to a trio with a drummer for their live performances–is famous for their sardonic take on poppy R&B — the title of their new album is “The Shape of Brat Pop to Come” — the vibe is very sunny. 

Singer Liz Nistico came out in hip huggers and a silver bikini top and was all perky and bubbly, shaking her hips vigorously to the harsh beats. Though it was too hot by half in the Red Marquee to dance, a lot of people took up Nistico’s invitation to do that. She’s persuasive, but the whole kawaii act, which appeared sincere but was obviously aimed at this particular audience, undermined a lot of her cred as a wiseass. She announced that the crowd in front of her was the largest they had ever played for, which would seem to indicate they haven’t done many festivals.