Relying on the Generosity of Strangers: The Life of Touring Bands in Japan

The Melbourne-based six-piece band The Lagerphones return to Japan for their fourth tour and are trekking across the country to perform 15 (mostly free) shows at bars, cafés, furniture shops and whatever community space will allow them to set up their horns, banjo, double bass and drums.

Ahead of the tour that will see them perform “legendarily rambunctious ramshackle” shows at Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, the full band took time to talk about last trains, izakaya delicacies, love handles and 9% Strong Zero.

What keeps you coming back to Japan?
Nick Martyn (drums): There’s a long list of things that we love about Japan. We can’t get enough of the rush of the big cities, the serenity of the countryside, the food, onsen, love hotels, and kombini birru. But the main thing we love are the people. We’ve been lucky in meeting some of our best friends – the most generous, thoughtful, hospitable and very fun people – in Japan. They make every trip special.

Every night the crew that comes to izakaya after we’ve been playing and partying for hours seems to get bigger and more rambunctious. The drinks get taller, the nights get later and sometimes we even kiss our manager! Not only do we have bucket loads of fun when we’re in Japan, we always learn and see new things – local festivals, art, Kabuki theatre – the culture of Japan is very fascinating for us gaijin. We never know what to expect from any moment – every show, every day really – is a surprise and we tend to make friends and fun times easily.

What is your favourite Japanese city to perform in and why?
Martyn: Saitama?…just kidding. It’s definitely Tokyo. All of our best friends are there and it’s where our manager and his family lives. It’s where all of our first shows took place and where we first realised how great a country Japan is. Even though we come from Melbourne, a big city in Australia, it’s nothing compared to the huge metropolis of Tokyo.

We are always in awe of the busy streets, subways, bars and eateries – there is always something interesting happening. We spend quite a bit of time being chotto confused, never quite sure what is going on, which just adds to the fun and surreal experience of touring in a place very different to where you come from. We love the audiences in Tokyo, people are attentive and respectful of performers, and they also don’t mind jumping on the bar and dancing – at least at a Lagerphones show! Even though we love to perform anywhere in Japan (Kansai here we come!) it’s because the bulk of our Japanese family are there, the people who’ve been with us since the beginning of our adventures, that we love Tokyo the most.

 

‘We have to apologize constantly for being obstructions’

What are the challenges of touring in Japan?
Louis King (banjo): They are many and varied; overworked, underslept, drinking too much, eating unhealthy…. It is a lot of fun though! We manage to tour through Tokyo with equipment that we can get on and off trains for two weeks, and have had to apologize constantly for being obstructions. It can be tiring work and stressful on the equipment but it does allow us to play multiple gigs in the same day and keep our transport costs very low. No complaints from us!

What are the benefits of touring Japan?
King: We have a great time meeting Japanese people at our gigs and we’ve got a great number of friends over there that we look forward to seeing every year (this is our fourth year in a row). Touring in Japan is incredibly safe, and we never have to worry about having our gear stolen, and can always rely on the generosity of strangers if you’re lost or in trouble. Japanese listeners are enthusiastic, great listeners and sometimes come to multiple gigs on the tour and buy our CDs and merch which is very unlike Australian audiences (sorry).

We manage to eat ourselves stupid and drink ourselves silly a dangerous amount of nights on tour. Although I often come back feeling like I need to get some kind of cleanse it’s incredible fun and I can’t wait to do it again. Watch out for the 9% Strong Extra Zeros; they are heaps of fun but the hangover can be almost too scary to face.

What is your favourite music venue(s) in Japan and why?
Ben Harrison (vocals/trumpet): It’s always hard to pick a favourite, but after a little thought, I’d say Bar Jazz Samurai. It’s an intimate jazz bar with a massive collection of maneki-neko spread all over the place. I started trying to count them but quickly gave up, as there are over 2,500.

We played a gig there a few years ago and the room, although not very big, was full of people and the atmosphere was very warm. During one of our sets, the master of the venue put on a crazy mask, came up on stage with a long piece of flexible tube, and proceeded to take a solo on said tube. I’ll never forget that site, one of those times where you pinch yourself because you’re not quite sure if you are dreaming or not.

How do Japanese live houses compare to those back home?
Harrison: Japanese and Australian live houses are quite similar in many ways. They both often have an urban and slightly underground feel to them, although the Japanese live houses generally have better decor than the Australian ones.

One thing I have noticed that is different is soundchecks. In Australia, a usual soundcheck is setting up mics, then quickly playing a song (or half a song) to make sure everything works and that’s it. In Japan, bands often play for 30 minutess, sometimes their whole set, as a soundcheck. Once the Lagerphones were soundchecking in Japan, and we got up, played half a song and then gave the sound guy a thumbs up. He was very confused, but then we went and had a beer with him, and he was happy.

 

‘That night hearts fell, thirsts grew and some extraordinary sounds were heard’

What memorable Japanese bands have you shared billing with?
James Macaulay (trombone): Our first gig in Japan, back in 2015, was at a rock venue called Underbar in Shibuya. We played with three very memorable yet completely different bands; a high energy avant-garde/punk trio called Milla and the Geeks, a beautiful experimental duo called Seasick, and the wonderful rockabilly legends that are the Learners. That night hearts fell, thirsts grew and some extraordinary sounds were heard.

Masamichi Hamada, or ‘Hama’, who plays in both Seasick and the Learners, organized an after-party/gig for us at Organ Bar, also in Shibuya. Not exactly sharing a tonne of language beyond “Kanpai,” we made many toasts, and played a very emboldened/well-marinated set for the punters and our many new friends.

There have been several other brilliant bands we’ve played with, but it would take too long to describe them all in any detail. However I must mention Arai Youko, who I first heard at our fierce leader (band manager) Vaughan’s book launch in 2016. I loved her set and bought both CDs she was selling, and got the most beautiful drawing and message on each as I’d asked her to sign them for me. Her songs have been a soundtrack to my life ever since, and it was a treat to share the bill again with her last year at Coffee Lawn in Yotsuya.

How do Japanese fans compare to those back home?
Macaulay: It is difficult to compare fans abroad to those at home, because we have known many of them now for so long and consider them dear friends. However, there are obvious cultural differences. People are far more likely to come and support us in Tokyo, often sacrificing their time to see us multiple times, and travel great distances in order to do so. We’ve often received all kinds of thoughtful gifts, from little snacks and refreshments to big sparkling bottles of Dassai. It is very easy to feel valued as a musician in Tokyo, because the Japanese fans go out of their way to show their appreciation. I’ve learnt a lot about how I would like to live from the kindness and generosity of The Lagerphones family in Tokyo.

What’s the most surprising request or comment you’ve received from a Japanese fan(s)?
Marty Holoubek (bass): The most surprising comments that I ever received from Japanese fans were when we came back to Japan for the second tour a few of our friends/fans kept coming up to me and jesting that I’d gotten fat (I mean admittedly maybe I’d put on a few kilos over the year but I honestly didn’t think it was that much!).

The nicknames that I’d managed to have acquired were ‘Tapu-Tapu’ (a nickname that is kind of an onomatopoeia for the sound of someone tapping one’s fat belly), ‘Pon pon’ (which I think is referring to chubby baby fat) and perhaps the one that has stuck the most is ‘Fatboy Fat’ (a nice tribute to big beat pioneer Fatboy Slim). There was even someone who was learning English at the time and was so proud of herself when she came up to me after one performance, grabbed my hips and said, “Look Marty, love handles!”

I was quite shocked by all this coming from such a well-mannered, respectful and kind population however I’ve since been assured that this was all coming from a place of endearment. To say I had put on weight implied that I’d looked like I was living the good life (and let’s be honest I had – a few weeks of beer and ramen everyday pre-tour was definitely “the good life”).

Please share your most memorable after-show experience in Japan.
Holoubek: Jon, Ben, our manager Vaughan and I raced to get the last train home as fitting a double bass in the cab never works in Japan. We got on the train but about two stops in, the train had stopped. Seems likely to be some track failure. So we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere on a train half-full of grumpy commuters and our manager coaxes us into playing some tunes on the train.

We take out our instruments and start playing and first of all everyone looks so shocked, like this was completely and utterly illegal. Anyway after a few bars of playing people were loving it and we kept walking up and down the carriages playing. After a while, the train guard came up to us and we thought we were finished. Turns out he was beaming. He then politely told us he liked the music but asked if we could play a little bit quieter.

We then had an unforgettable two-and-a-half hour walk home with a double bass as we’d missed our connecting train due to the delay. Ah Tokyo… you wonderful city, you.

 

‘Sampling as many izakaya delicacies as possible is high priority’

As a tourist, what are the must-see spots or must-do activities in Japan?
Jon Hunt (clarinet): There are three things that the Lagerphones love – beer, food and coffee. Here’s a must-see list from each of those categories that we think you’ll love as much as we do.

• Beer: Japanese lager is some of the best in the world but some of the craft brewers are out of this world too. Head to Hitachino Nest Brewing Lab and wrap your lips around and espresso stout. You won’t regret it.

• Food: One word – ramen. It’s incredible morning noon and night (especially really late at night after a few beers). Go to Ichiran Ramen for life-changing ramen served to you in your own private booth, so you can concentrate on nothing but that sweet, sweet ramen elixir.

• Finally, coffee: coffee might be the answer to all of life’s woes and you’ll get one of the best espressos on the planet at Davide Coffee Stop. The owner is one of the hippest humans we’ve ever met and all of us make our own coffee at home in Melbourne each morning in a super slick Davide coffee cup.

What foods are at the top of your list for your upcoming Japan visit?
Hunt: After a majority of our performances in Japan, we will end up at an izakaya. Often there is a large number of us including the band, our manager and many of our close friends that we have met since we first started coming to Japan. We order highballs or frosty beers or shiro wine and chat about anything and everything and order delicious snacks like agedashi tofu, yakitori, karaage and gyoza.

Sampling as many izakaya delicacies as possible at many new izakayas is high priority on our September tour. But the most memorable thing about it will be that we’re all together and hanging out with our Japanese friends.

Check our online calendar for The Lagerphones tour dates.

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