A monk in a white robe stands in front of the seven-foot- wide odaiko drum at Tokyo's Meiji Shrine. He hoists a baseball-bat-sized mallet off his shoulder, reels it back, and smashes the drum with terrible force. The sound unleashed is a cannon boom, below low, blanketing the grounds in reverberation. Everyone quiets: The odaiko drum is not hit without a reason. A ceremony or a war is impending. On this day, a wedding is about to begin. The monk pauses, steadies himself, and smashes the massive drum again.
Across town in the Ginza district, Too Short's "Mack Attack" pours out of a speaker mounted on a lightpost. A young Japanese guy in sagging white jeans and a Flavor Flav T-shirt takes the cigarette out of his mouth and spits. He catches me staring at him and mutters something. I don't know Japanese, but I know he said, "What the fuck are you looking at?"
My bandmate Dave Einmo and I duck into a subway station to find a train heading for the Shibuya district, where we have a sound check at a venue called O-Nest. A Japanese concert promoter named Shoko Inagaki has brought our band, Head Like a Kite, to Tokyo to play a pair of shows. She is starting a record label and is considering releasing our upcoming album. The shows are to introduce our music to the people of Japan.
Inagaki works for a company called Kyodo Tokyo, the first Japanese promoters to import Western music. They brought the Beatles to a martial-arts venue called the Budokan in 1966. They booked Led Zeppelin in the 1970s and Madonna in the 1980s. These days, they're booking Backstreet Boys in the Tokyo Dome. Inagaki found us through Smoosh, a band she brought to Japan a year ago, whose singer Asya performed on a song from our last album.
We arrive at our stop and Dave and I follow the throng out of the subway, navigate a maze of side streets, and make it to the club. O-Nest is a multilevel venue similar to New York's Knitting Factory. Our translator Lisa is there to help us with sound check. Lisa sings for a local band and is wearing very sexy bell-bottoms. The sound check is a gear summit: Japan runs on 100 volts and the U.S. runs on 120; power transformers must be used so our equipment doesn't fry. Plugging things in is tense.
"How would you like your drums to sound?" the sound engineer asks.
"Like Quadrophenia," I say.
Which doesn't translate, but we manage to set the levels, and set them high. I tap my 808 electric drum pad and it's loud enough for the Tokyo Dome.
Before the show, Inagaki takes us to eat. We're presented with an endless flow of perfect sushi, as well as iffier stuff like chicken hearts, octopus, and raw horse. The language barrier was already an issue; now there's a stomach barrier. I'm representing Seattle and I don't want tentacles to come back up midset.
Because we're from Seattle, Head Like a Kite is grunge to the Japanese. Three different people ask if we played with Nirvana. I tell a guy that Kurt Cobain's death was a lie and he's alive and working at Scarecrow Video. Our hometown legacy is a big deal to people here, adding unexpected pressure to the gig. Before, I was only worried about impressing Inagaki; now, I don't want grunge to die by my hand.
We're playing with two Japanese bands tonight, an instrumental drum 'n' bass duo from Osaka called Oak and a new wave rock trio from Tokyo called Avengers in Sci-Fi. Oak has toured America three times. "Audiences in Japan are more subdued," Naoki Hirai, the drummer, tells me in broken but knowing English. "They watch the show like they are watching a movie. Crowds study the band as much as they listen to them. But that does not mean they appreciate them less."
Just as Hirai suggested, the audience studies our set keenly. At one point, the power goes out midsong—a transformer must've blown. A single, ugly white light glares over the stage. I remember the one Japanese sentence I learned before the trip: "Sumo shiyouka," I yell into the crowd. "Let's sumo!" People are confused. Then the power comes back on and we pick up the song where we left off. The octopus tentacles and horse meat stay put in my gut.
The next night, our second show at O-Nest is better. We play with Muneomi Senju, drummer from Japanese psych-noise gods the Boredoms. Senju is a fluid, unconscious drummer. He uses triggers and pads to tone and loop his drums. His eyes are closed almost his entire set and he brushes the snare to mimic the ebb and flow of a digital tide.
In Tokyo, shows start and end earlier. By 11:00 p.m., Senju, Inagaki, a few more Japanese friends, and Dave and I are out of the O-Nest and winding our way through the streets of Shibuya. Everywhere there's music, speakers blasting music into the night. Britney and Celine sing from five-story-tall screens on the sides of buildings as literally thousands of people cross the intersection below. Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" thumps from an unseen sound system. A Denny's blasts "Funky Cold Medina." Tokyo is in the midst of a hiphop epidemic.
All this love and mass marketing of American culture, but none of the buildings are older than 50 years because of American bombing in WWII. There must be resentment somewhere, but people are gracious; public complaint is repressed. Perhaps pop music is a Band-Aid or bridge, or perhaps it's dividing our cultures even further. "Today, it's harder for Japanese to download good music from the internet," Inagaki tells me. "The government strictly regulates everything. The only music people can download here is mainstream." This is why she wants to bring American indie to Japan.
We pass a karaoke bar. A 65-year-old Japanese man in a suit is singing Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer." We drink sake, hot and cold. Further down the street we hear Jay-Z, Tupac, Kanye.
Hiphop, I realize, is a symptom of the real epidemic: sound. Tokyo is plagued by sound. The people import it, they identify by it, dress like it, and they funnel it into their ears. With 12 million people crammed into an area not even twice the size of Seattle—some 14,300 people per square mile—headphones are sanctuary.
It's almost 2:00 a.m. and the crowds have dwindled. We turn onto an empty Shibuya street. Halfway down the block, a DJ in a record shop scratches a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony record. The front door to the store is open and the DJ, alone, doesn't know we're there. He makes an offering of sound to the conglomerate hum outside, hooking beats into the white noise of the Tokyo night. It's the sound of ceremony or war. This vinyl is not scratched without reason.