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LIFE

Fuji Rock gives lesser-known bands a stage

Asia's best outdoor music festival, Fuji Rock offers a playlist studded with globally recognised bands. But it's also a showcase for less well-known groups. James Moore samples them this year

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:28am

I love Fuji Rock. I love the people who go, the friends I've made there and the epic food, plus its location in the Japanese ski resort of Naeba is nothing short of stunning. The great line-up over three days in late July makes it the best outdoor music festival in Asia. "Forest, clouds, mountains … and plenty of smiles" - that's how Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne describes it.

Over the past 15 years, almost every major international act has graced Fuji Rock's seven main stages - and I feel so lucky that for the most part I've been there for the ride. This is a true giant on the festival circuit. But (after all that hyperbole, you knew there was a "but" coming, right?) on paper, the line-up of this year's festival - which took place last weekend - felt a bit underwhelming. Yes, the food and the people were always going to be awesome, but only Arcade Fire could arguably have been described as a band at the top of their game. And who was that scheduled to headline the Red Marquee on Saturday night? Was it really an 81-year-old Yoko Ono? Surely that was a cruel joke.

Japanese and Western bands compete for stage space, and acoustic blends with electronica, punk and even Mongolian throat-warbling

Maybe previous Fujis had spoiled me and I was becoming blasé? Or maybe, more than any other year, I needed to broaden my horizons and search out more obscure talent. Sometimes when big-name bands play festivals, expectations can be dashed and you miss out on the real highlights out of a sense of obligation.

So I have turned this absence of star power into an opportunity to explore. Armed with some substantial YouTube and Spotify research, I turn once-random names into my personal set of rock titans. I am ready to begin my journey into the Japanese Alps.

THURSDAY NIGHT

The festival doesn't officially start until Friday morning. But arriving at the grounds of this enormous site is always a magical feeling. There's a palpable sense of expectation for the weekend - and an inordinately long queue for merchandise. It's almost as if the participants feel they haven't been a part of Fuji Rock until they've got the T-shirt. Or perhaps it's because the hordes realise they're in for a sweaty few days and arrived with inadequate luggage.

In years past, I camped. As far as campsites go, it's fairly civilised, and even has its own onsen (communal bath) and a female-only section. But finding a plot on level ground can be a struggle - and rain is a constant threat. This year, I secure a small space on a tatami mat in a furniture-free room designed for people a lot shorter than me. Although I am sharing with four other middle-aged men, this is luxury compared to my battle-worn tent. After a few Echigo lagers and a wander around the site's expansive food court, it's refreshing to head back to the chalet. The transition from camping will not be difficult.

FRIDAY

Green Stage headliners: Franz Ferdinand, Denki Groove

White Stage headliners: Basement Jaxx

Red Stage headliners: The Birthday

Highlights: Parquet Courts, Talco

I decide it's going to be Meat-on-a-Stick Day. The food here must be the best selection of grub at any festival. The beer and sake is not bad either. But it's the meat skewers that really stand out. The queues for the most succulent yakitori are long, although of course excellently disciplined. While I often get side-tracked by rice bowls, pizzas or gyoza dumplings, today is all about the skewers.

The morning starts slowly. It begins with lying on the grass in the sun listening to oh-so-mellow music from The Lumineers. I ignore Hunter Hayes and James Iha - only to be awakened by the high-octane commotion from Brooklyn-based band Parquet Courts. It's a sweltering set in the Red Marquee, full of energy and hot bodies.

The group tell me later that they love the experience. They say it's "wonderfully overwhelming" to be in Japan for the first time, and good to be so far removed from the US. Bassist Sean Yeaton admits "you never know what kind of festival you're going to get, and for this one we really had no expectations or even if people would show up" - but show up the people do. The group seem to relish playing for the foreign audience and have adapted well to local culinary options, having miso soup for breakfast.

Then it's over to 1980s revivalists Wild Beasts, who are anything but. With a sound like Erasure, it's all pretty tame. A more appropriately named gig is next: Slowdive are entertainingly chilled.

Immediately afterwards come Temples, featuring English frontman James Edward Bagshaw. With hair that rivals Buzz Osborne from Melvins and a psychedelic sound to match Tame Impala, he and his band put on a great show. Bagshaw has an impressive falsetto and the set sounds just as clean as their studio album Sun Structures. Overall it's cheery music for such a beauty of a summer's day.

Taking it up a notch are remarkable Italian troupe Talco. I've never seen a crowd reaction to a performance like this before. The mosh pit at the fringe stage, the Orange Court, manages to somehow choreograph itself into running around in circles in some kind of manic conga, people throwing themselves at the mercy of the ska-influenced music. So it's not just me who sees the appeal of the lesser names on the line-up.

My friends and I take a gamble on a 12-man brass band from the Balkans in Cafe de Paris, one of the smallest venues. Fanfare Ciocãrlia are technically excellent, but no one could have predicted the shake-down when they present their caps to collect tips afterwards. A three-day ticket is ¥44,000 (HK$3,300) after all.

To round off the evening, Lucha VaVOOM - a Mexican wrestling ensemble from California, who also striptease - adds yet more surrealism to the Palace Arena.

SATURDAY

Green Stage headliners: Arcade Fire, Damon Albarn

White Stage headliners: Manic Street Preachers

Red Stage headliners: Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band

Highlights: The Heavy, St Vincent, The Bloody Beetroots Live

A quick shower and soak in the chalet's onsen is a great way to start the day. If my Hong Kong flat was big enough or if I went to rock festivals every weekend, I'd build an onsen - their healing powers are impressive.

And so I positively bound over to The Heavy for a 11am start on the Green Stage. It's the busiest I have ever seen this enormous venue for an opening band. Drummer Chris Ellul later explains why they seem so pleased to be there. "This is the furthest east we've ever come. It's something special and we've been blown away by it all - to be on that stage looking at those hills and to get the crowd reaction that we did. It's unprecedented."

The reason they've made it to Japan is something out of Lost in Translation. "We had a song that was used in a Pepsi advert out here. The ad became really popular and the response was really positive. We just assumed that it had been so long since we started the band that we'd never make it out here - but Fuji gave us a call."

"The only thing that has been a downer has been the heat and that we missed out on Damon Albarn and Arcade Fire. Hopefully we'll be back though, and further up the bill," adds Heavy bandmate Kelvin Swaby, who has a truly soulful voice.

The loud start to the day continues with Canadian punk band White Lung at the White Stage. Lead singer Mish Waya, also a Fuji newbie, admits it's hard to be irate in this beautiful setting.

St Vincent (born Anne Clark) knows how to put on a show. Her style is a tough one to label and her voice is a combination of Bjork, Kraftwerk and The White Stripes.

Then it's time to head back to the Green Stage for the big boys. I can't resist seeing Blur frontman Damon Albarn, who has really come of age with an accomplished set. Then there's the reason that the festival is noticeably busier on Saturday: Arcade Fire. The audience knows every word, and laps up this lavish and high-production performance. A bop to The Bloody Beetroots Live completes proceedings in an excellent, but hazy, 1am show in the Red Marquee.

SUNDAY

Green Stage headliners: Jack Johnson, The Flaming Lips, The Pogues (special guests)

White Stage headliners: Outkast

Red Stage headliners: Lorde

Highlights: The Strypes, The Flaming Lips

This year's preview of Fuji Rock in 48 Hours described it as "anti-Glastonbury" given its propensity for order over chaos. It's an astute observation, given the chances of your portaloo being pushed over are almost nil, obvious drunkenness and drug use is rare, and disciplined queuing abounds.

Equally Fuji Rock isn't bogged down by the same programming dilemmas as festivals in the US or Europe. This summer, while Twitter is overloaded with mock rage over Glastonbury's first-ever heavy-metal headliner, Metallica, Fuji Rock is comparatively worry-free.

Every year, Japanese and Western bands compete for stage space, and acoustic blends with electronica, punk and even Mongolian throat-warbling (Huun-Huur-Tu played the Orange Court on Saturday).

Despite having a genre-specific word in its name, part of Fuji Rock's appeal is that it caters for all kinds of music lovers, even on the bigger stages. On Sunday, as Outkast and Kelis close the White Stage, and the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra and The Skatalites close the Field of Heaven, one can be forgiven for changing the name to Fuji Hip-Hop or Fuji Ska. The afternoon on Green is all rhythm and blues, with youngsters The Strypes preceding Japanese institution The Roosters.

My (relatively) headliner-free festival is over and in my mind it's a true success. Forest, clouds, mountains and smiles are bolstered by a catalogue of diverse characters, performance and sound.

I'll leave you with two last comments: whoever thought The Pogues closing the festival would be a good idea must have been drinking from the same bottle as Shane MacGowan. And whoever added This is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary about one of the world's loudest bands who became big in Japan, to Cathay Pacific's on-air entertainment system is a genius.

thereview@scmp.com