Because of Ghosts: A Tour Diary
BECAUSE OF GHOSTS fill MARCUS TEAGUE in on the ins and outs of touring Japan, with photography by BECAUSE OF GHOSTS.
One of the curses of being a band from a far-flung continent such as ours, is the hurdle of actually figuring out how to get off it. When an Australian band goes overseas to tour it conjures up images of major label bank vaults creaking open, iPod singles on mobile phone ads and FHM covershoot winners. So when 3 guys in and just beyond their teens from an instrumental band in Brunswick run off for a quick jaunt around Japan, you check to see if the sun still hangs.
BECAUSE OF GHOSTS are three unassuming brothers from Melbourne city, a town only now recovering from the wave of instrumental bands that washed through its smoky corners a few years ago. For a while it seemed anyone with a delay pedal and cinematic pretensions was the second coming, but perhaps as with any wave the tides have receded to rightly reveal the jewels under the surface.
But BECAUSE OF GHOSTS came to attention because of a wisdom, style and purpose that belied their meagre age. Sprawling instrumental epics that rely on guile rather than bluster, evoke wet vistas and interior monologues usually reserved for the likes of the Dirty Three and The Necks.
Taking on the DIY ethic to extremes, theyve built a personal mini-empire by taking command of their design, packaging, recording and distribution. But. It still doesnt explain how they got to fucking japan.
I met Jacob, Dominic and Reueben on a balmy Autumn night in a beergarden in Brunswick, and proceeded to conduct an interview of alarming insight, pathos and general amazing-ness. Then I got home and found I hadnt taped a word. So a few weeks later I hooked up with Jacob and Dom again in the bowels of a city caf. Reuben however had learned his lesson about me, and couldnt make it ...
M: Mess and Noise
1. GETTING TO JAPAN
3. PLAYING LIVE
4. OTHER BANDS + CROWDS
5. THE VENUES
6. THE AUDIENCE
7. THE EXPERIENCE
8. THE FUTURE
GETTING TO JAPAN
D: So in early 2003 we put out an EP independently called ‘Make Amends with your Adversaries Before Dawn’.
J: That was the first one we put out that Dom played on.
M: (To Dom) You didn’t you play on the first ones?
D: The demos? No.
J: No Dom was overseas ... the first ones were just Reuben and I on guitar and drums.
D: So I jumped in and added bass to the live set.
M: Were you always going to be in the band?
D: It just happened when I came back.
J: When he came back he said ‘Do you want a bass player?’ and we said, ‘That’d be cool’. That was 2003.
D: So Pete Cohen from Sodastream liked this ep, and he and (Sodastream bandmate) Karl were about to head off to Japan and Europe. He offered to take a bunch of the EPs with him to give out to people he thought might be interested in it. This guy called Taka in Tokyo who runs Wonderground records was interested. Wonderground records have put out Sodastream and Art of Fighting, the Go-Betweens, Machine Translations ... as well as a little stable of Japanese artists that they manage.
M: How does this guy know so much about Melbourne music?
D: He came to Australia as a teenager on exchange and fell in love with the music scene. He took some of it back with him and started up a record label, with the idea that he was going to be the Go-Betweens’ Japanese man (laughs) ... and he did it!
D: I think he’s been going for about 10 years now. So Taka offered to release our EP in Japan and we said yes. Then he started asking us if we’d like to go over and tour. We said we’d love to but we need to save up some airfares. So it was released July 2004 in Tokyo ... and by February 2005 we were there playing shows.
Well ... see there’s no street press in Japan, no community radio, nothing like RRR or PBS in Japan. It’s all done by email and flyers on the streets. And articles in glossy sort’ve magazines.
M: Right. So you just thought ‘We’ve got to knuckle down and save?
D: Yeah. We had enough money off our own backs to cover our airfares, scrounged together a bit of extra cash for some accommodation, and negotiated with the label over there to cover some of our venue costs and transport We thought it would be a bit of an adventure for a little band from Melbourne to get over there.
J: In Japan you have to actually pay to play! Put up thousands of dollars at the venues to just be able to play the show. So the deal (with the label) wasn’t like we had to pay for the entire tour, we kind’ve did a split. Taka covered the Japan costs and we covered the airfares.
M: He basically paid out of his own pocket to have you guys play.
D: Yeah. And in response he took all the door sales himself to cover his costs. We only made any money from our merchandise sales ... which was very little.
M: Did you know how far his distribution went, and just the sort’ve esteem his label is held in over there?
D: Well ... see there’s no street press in Japan, no community radio, nothing like RRR or PBS in Japan. It’s all done by email and flyers on the streets.
J: And articles in glossy sort’ve magazines.
D: We had an interview in a magazine called ‘Cookie Scene’ which is pretty similar to Mess and Noise actually. But a lot more advertising, lots of international bands. It was $10 on the shelf. That came with a cd sampler we were on, and that month that edition had a feature on Melbourne bands that we were in.
J: With a picture of a koala on the front.
D: So Taka/Wonderground has distribution that covers the territory of Japan, and he’s also involved with the Fuji Rock festival and a couple of other major festivals.
J: He has a band called ‘Rovo’ which funnily enough in Japan people can’t pronounce, they say ‘Lobo’ (laughs) ... yeah I think they’re on Universal or Sony or one of the major labels. Wonderground have a couple of small artists like us and then a bunch of major ones that like, play the festival’s to thousands of people and sell out the big rooms.
D: That’s how they make their money.
M: Did you all stay together? Was that organised by the promoter?
D: No Reuben stayed in his friend’s flat which was a good hour and a half by public transport into central Tokyo. Jake and I stayed in a Guest House which is a tiny self contained unit about the size of this booth. The promoter booked that for us but we had to cover the cost of it.
M: Right so you truly just did turn up and then you were in his hands?
D: Yeah. it was a fair amount of trust too, you know we hadn’t talked to this guy at all ... only by email, and there we were at the airport and ...
J: We waited.
D: And yeah he might not have shown up.
M: You could’ve woken up in a bath with your liver removed.
J: Our livers removed?
M: Haven’t you heard that story? It’s an urban myth.
M: So you played four shows over there?
D: Three shows in 10 days.
M: And was it all in Tokyo?
D: Yeah it was. Two in an area just west of central Tokyo call Kichijoji, and one in the south-west suburbs called Shimokitazawa ... which is where the record label’s based as well. It was like playing a couple of nights in Northcote and a night in North Melbourne.
J: I guess for a band of our size to go to Kyoto or Osaka which is what we were talking about, the highway costs are just too high.
D: We would’ve had to hire a van.
J: Hire a van and every couple of kilometres you’re paying another toll, and it just costs even hundreds of dollars just to drive down the road. So they (the label) weren’t too keen on us playing elsewhere. But they’ve been talking about us going back to play other cities.
M: In lieu of the highways I guess people take public transport to get around, cause you were saying that musicians after gigs either flee or are just there hanging around?
D: Every third or fourth guy on the train had a guitar on his back or was carrying a laptop, either going to a gig or coming from a gig.
D: Every venue we played had an excellent sound system with an engineer that worked in house, knew the system back to front. They had a pristine backline of guitar amplifiers, eight-speaker bass cabinets...
J: Rolands, Fender Twins, Ampeg speakers
D: And a ‘working’ drumkit.
J: Some were better thean others but yeah, decent enough.
D: We also managed to borrow bits of equipment from other bands that were playing on the night, a kick pedal or a cymbal.
M: You were also saying that a lot of bands over there basically use their soundcheck as a rehearsal.
D: Yeah it’s noted on the schedule for the night as ‘rehearsal time’. Each band gets about half an hour to do a soundcheck/rehearsal. Bands we talked to ... in Japan there’s no ‘Mum’s garage’ to rehearse in. There’s no space.
J: The first show we did, cause we were the headline band we had to rehearse first, and we were running a little late with the whole set up. By the time we finally got ready to play a song, everyone was getting nervous because we had about 5 minutes left of our scheduled soundcheck time. So we played about 3 minutes of one song that used all the equipment we needed to; we were happy with the sound and we could hear everything so we stopped. The other band people just didn’t know what to say. They came up to us and said uh ... ‘Very short rehearsal!’ (laughs) ...
D: ‘Melbourne bands very tough!’ (laughs)
J:‘You are very tough, you no rehearse! You just ... wing it!’ (laughs) We learnt what they meant cause the next band went to soundcheck and they played their entire set.
OTHER BANDS AND CROWDS
M: How did you find the other bands you were playing with, and what was their reaction to you? And the people that came to your shows? Did many even know who you were?
D: A couple of the bands that had been billed to play with us did know who we were. One performer, a solo singer/songwriter called ‘Shugo’ had actually requested to Wonderground that he be on a bill with us.
J : And these girls in a band called ‘Miaow’, they’d been emailing us saying how much they liked our cd ... wanting to play with us, so they were on the bill as well.
D: But ... the Japanese culture of not being too forward meant that it was very hard to get a response out of people generally. You had to really initiate the conversation.
J: There’d be people that were just sort’ve standing near you going like this (clasps hands) and you go ‘Hi how are you going?’ And they’d go ‘OH ... HELLO’ (laughs) and they’d want to talk to you straight away. They were just busting for you to make the first move. And there were some shows where there were crowd members at the front that obviously knew the music because we’d start a song and within five seconds they’d be like (starts clapping) ‘OH it’s this! ... It’s this song’ – so there were people there that were genuine fans. The people who wrote that letter (see above) were those type of people at the very front, with big smiles on their faces watching everything that we were doing.
D: They bought a tee shirt, they grabbed a cd.
J: They got us to sign everything.
M: So that would’ve been quite a big surprise I imagine?
J: Oh, absolutely.
D: Going halfway across the world to find someone likes your music is really ... flattering.
M: It sounds like then that it’s a fairly DIY ethic, the way that gigs are run over there.
D: The smaller stuff around town definitely. But Tokyo’s so big and there’s so many people that ... y’know there’s a huge noise scene, a huge punk scene, and we were just in this little sliver of post-rock.
J: One gig was venue that was about 200, 300 at Shimokitazawa. The second night was a small club which is more of a noise club. Merzbow had played there the week before.
D: Then there was a bar that doubled up as a cd store during the day. At night they had laptop gigs and bands.
J: The capacity in there was I think 80. The night we played there was 150, it was really really packed in. M: Were most of the shows packed in?
J: That one was cause it was such a smaller venue.
D: The other two venues there was 150 – 200 people. And by the third night we were recognising faces in the crowd from the other two shows.
J: There are just so many small venues everywhere. I mean you wouldn’t know they were there until you were taken to them. You’d go up to the fourth floor and the elevator doors would open and you’d open a soundproof door ... and suddenly this band is playing really fucking loud! These kind of things are situated all over the city. I mean when you play shows you can’t drive into the venue to unload your gear. We had to a couple of times and it was so difficult. A few times we just had to go on the train.
M: A lot of the time when a band goes away, they maybe start to realise what you can achieve in a wider sense, rather than just waving to your mates when they come along to the show. Maybe you project a bit more to the audience because you don’t know who’s in it.
D: Definitely. The biggest thing about being a band for us is playing live and feeding off audience reaction and the vibe of the venue.
M: Which, with your band being quite delicate in parts, how do you gauge that? I mean it’s not like the crowd is jumping up and down.
D: We’ll get it by how silent the crowd is while we’re playing so, in the more delicate parts, if we can hear people having conversations then we’ll know that they’re not listening and we’ll just get on with it. We were told that everyone will applaud very politely, like a golf clap but if they’re really into it there will be a few little hoots and it’ll get louder and as the gigs went on it got louder and louder to the point where there was real cheering.
J: By the end of the last gig it sounded like a Melbourne crowd. It was really bizarre because the first night that we played and while the other bands were on, when everyone was clapping, if I just suddenly went ‘WOOOO!’ (claps) - everyone would stare at me. I thought it was funny. I was just trying lighten them up a bit. WOOOOO!
M: So that makes it sound like a lot of the same people came to all your shows ...
D: There were probably a few familiar faces, I guess it was more by the end of each night. Because there were five bands playing, as they went on we’d try and encourage people to get a bit louder.
J: On the second show a guy had taught me some Japanese. I walked up just before we started playing and yelled out ‘Kimitatchi jumbi desu ka?’ Which means ‘Are you ready?’, I would have sounded hilarious and everybody cracked up laughing immediately. And then they were silent again to be polite but it sort’ve broke the ice in a way.
D: I learnt how to say ‘Please come forward, come closer’ for the last gig because – like a Melbourne crowd – there was a huge gap right in front of the stage and ... I’ve forgotten how to say it now, but they all shuffled forward.
M: So do you think the tour was worthwhile? Not just as for you as a personal experience but in terms of making those contacts and playing those shows?
D: Definitely. And on top of that as a band it helped us understand about international touring as well. We now know that we can actually grab our guitars and go somewhere and play without the problems that we thought we might encounter. Even playing around Melbourne now we’re not that bothered by using other people’s amps or borrowing drum kits.
J: When we’ve gone to Sydney or Adelaide we really wanted to have our own equipment cause we’re comfortable with it. It just wasn’t viable at all for Japan. We had to use someone else’s equipment so we did, and we just coped with it. It’s good knowing that now if we do an international tour and drive round to lots of cities we don’t HAVE to have our own stuff.
D: Both Europe and North America have been dreams for us as a band for a long time and I think they’re more attainable now. We’ve already got a possible date lined up in California for a little festival that’s going on there.
J: We’re getting a lot more international interest. There’s a guy from San Jose that’s been in touch with us who’s putting on a SXSW style conference, and he wants us to come and tour.
D : We’re getting emails from people who want cds in Finland and Norway.
M: How would they even know of you?
D: We’ve asked saying how did you hear of us and they’ve replied ‘Oh I’m into post-rock ... and I know Mono.’ (laughs)
M: Are you making any headway into seeking out distro and help overseas?
D: Yeah, we’ve been blown away by what happened in Japan. We’ve sold more cds there than we have in total here. With decent distribution there, they’ve had our cd in major record in major record stores.
J: We saw our cd between Beck and the Beautiful Girls in HMV.
D: But I don’t think we’d head overseas at all without a release to promote.
M: Is the circuit in Australia not as enticing now?
D: Not at all. There’s still a lot more we could do here. We’ve managed to play shows in Sydney and Adelaide which have been great, but we’d love to get to Brisbane and to Perth and even Hobart and the city centres around the country.
J: Even in Melbourne, rather than playing every second weekend at the Rob Roy, which is great ... but we’ve reached a point where we don’t play every second weekend now. Maybe once a month is the absolute maximum that we do. Just because its gets a bit tiring and we don’t want to bore the audience. But for us, we all do other stuff. I mean I’m full time at uni and Dom is at work and we don’t want to exhaust Melbourne but there is definitely an avenue for expanding what we do here. By playing the one-off shows in a really amazing venue with great line ups.
D: So far for us it’s been entirely independent. We’ve been managing ourselves and releasing records ourselves and the next step is definitely to get some sort’ve national distribution, and possibly even at least a record label to help deal with some of the admin and promotion.
M: So you’ve just been doing it on consignment?
D: Entirely, yeah.
J: It has been great but we’ve also reached a point where we want to spend much more time on the music and playing as opposed to spending time chasing up record stores.
D: Ever tried sewing 500 cd covers?
M: Sewing? No. I’ve fed 500 sheets of tracing paper through a photocopier ... but no sewing. How long did that take?
D: A while.
J: Some of them broke from the paper to the cardboard. Whoever has those ones, hold onto them, they’re special.