Interview: Next Music from Tokyo’s Steven Tanaka

Muso Japan exists as a means of exposing fans of Japanese music to bands that may be difficult for a foreign audience to access.  Japanese music is something that I, like many people, am passionate about.  Thanks to the internet and social media, there are a growing number of resources through which a curious mind can find the hidden treasures of the Japanese music scene.  Typing words and posting them online is a valuable way to get the word out about the things we love, but it only brings the reader so far.  It requires special efforts to bring the experience directly to an audience and allow them to witness first-hand the things about which we share a passion.  One man has figured out a way to get this done.
Steven Tanaka is the founder of Canada’s “Next Music from Tokyo” tour.  He is so passionate about Japanese music that he, almost singlehandedly, brings bands from Japan to Canada to showcase their talents for an audience which seeks access to Japanese music. Traveling to Japan at every opportunity to go to shows and find bands, Steven is a man who takes his love for the music scene to the next level.  Not only does his event bring quality Japanese music to an excited audience, it provides Japanese musicians with the opportunity to perform overseas.

Next week brings the fifth installment of NMFT, in which bands will perform four shows in three cities (Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver).  This year’s lineup boasts four excellent bands:  Mouse on the Keys, Chi-na, Hara from Hell, and, one of my absolute favorites, Kinoko Teikoku.  Steven was kind enough to take time out of his extremely busy schedule to answer some questions for Muso Japan.  It was an excellent opportunity to get insight from a guy who does what many people (myself included) wish they could do.  A very big thanks to Steven Tanaka for not only granting the interview, but also for all of his efforts in organizing Next Music From Tokyo.

(for more information on the tour please visit or follow the tour’s twitter account @NextMusicTokyo.  Cover photo used from NMFT’s site.)

Here is a promo video for this year’s NMFT.  Enjoy!

Interview with Next Music from Tokyo’s Steven Tanaka

1. Why did you decide to start Next Music From Tokyo? How did you grow so fond of Japanese music to the extent that you were willing to start a non-profit, out of pocket operation to bring bands from Japan to Canada?

Music has been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember. And Tokyo has the largest and most progressive music scene in the world. For me nothing is more fun than travelling to Tokyo and watching my favorite bands play at tiny live houses and discovering new amazing bands along the way.
I wanted other Canadians to discover how breathtaking and fresh Tokyo’s live music scene is. Since most of the Japanese bands I feel are the best can’t afford to travel to Canada on their own I decided to pay out of pocket and fly the bands here myself.
Even if tickets to the shows sell out completely I’m still guaranteed to lose an insane amount of money due to travel costs alone. Planning these tours is extremely time-consuming, stressful and expensive but it has been one of the most enjoyable, memorable and rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. The amount of fun I have doing these tours is worth more than all the money in the world.

2. What is the band selection process for each event like?  How do you go about finding these bands and then narrowing down the list to the final few?  Are there specifics that you look for when choosing bands to take part in NMFT?

I travel to Japan 5-8 times a year and see 1-3 shows almost every night I’m there.  So I go to more shows than a lot of music fans who actually live in Japan. (lol)   Before each trip I research into which shows I want to go to and discover a lot of new bands via Youtube, Myspace etc.  But videos and studio recordings are often misleading and the only true way to measure a band is by watching them perform live.

From the hundreds of shows I’ve been to I pick the bands that blew me away the most with their live performance.  Unfortunately, even with the offer of a free expenses-paid tour many bands I’d like to bring to Canada can’t come because of work, family, or other conflicts.  Sometimes bands have crazy demands in addition to me paying for everything; in which case I usually tell them to f*ck off.

For each tour I usually pick one “headlining” band that may draw fans in Canada who are already knowledgeable about Japanese indie music.  For example andymori (vol 1), Mass of the Fermenting Dregs (vol 2), NATSUMEN (vol 3) and ZAZEN BOYS (vol 4).   However, in Canada the Japanese bands are all on a level playing field and the lesser known acts frequently upstage the “headlining” act during shows.

In terms of narrowing the list I choose a “headliner” and an unmistakably great band that most people are sure to like as the core and then add two or three more great bands with a much different style/genre to inject variety to the line-up.  Last year, ZAZEN was the “headliner,” group_inou was the sure-shot and Charan-Po-Rantan and Praha Depart were the dark-horses that some fans liked even more.

However, I don’t always follow this formula.  But in order for a band to be considered for NMFT I have to love their music and more importantly then have to put on a great live show.

3.  From the time you select the bands, what all goes into getting them to Canada and making sure the shows go off problem-free?  How do you cater to bands who may have never toured overseas (language barrier issues, etc.)?

After the bands are selected I normally have a group meeting in Japan with representatives from all the bands to describe the tour and explain what I need done on their end.  Contracts need to be signed and I need CDs, photos, bios/EPK’s in order to promote the tour in Canada.

Back home I need to book venues at least 4 months in advance, book and pay for flights (NMFT vol 3 had 26 passengers; $1700/passenger), hotel rooms, and backline (drums, amps, special instruments).  The biggest headache used to be the mountain of paperwork and red tape involved with obtaining visas/work permits for the bands.  However, I found out last year I could book specific venues that don’t require visas and now I only book venues that are work permit exempt.  Score!

At the start I had to organize almost every aspect of the tour myself but with each tour more and more people have pitched into to help.   My friends Rob and Ryotaro have created fantastic promo videos.  Local bands have lent me gear to help save on backline and instruments.  Friends and fans have designed posters for me and helped distribute them in each city of the tour.  During the first tour my friend Nicolas came all the way from France to help me look after the bands.  And for volume 3, my friend Dan came all the way from Cali to help babysit the bands and he even helped pay for hotel rooms and car rentals.  My right hand man though is a guy named Geoff who has been absolutely phenomenal and indispensible in terms of promoting the tour, getting the media’s attention and securing interviews, articles and reviews.   I owe a huge amount of thanks to Geoff and any friends and fans who have volunteered their time to help me with the tour.

The vast majority of bands have never toured overseas prior to NMFT.  In fact, for many band members it’s their first time visiting a foreign country and they don’t yet have passports.  So most of the bands are in the same boat in terms of language barrier and culture shock but as soon as they hit the stage it’s second nature and they always manage to rock the crowd some how.

4.  The tour is called “Next Music From Tokyo” but have you considered looking to other cities with substantial and unique music scenes like Osaka, Nagoya, etc.?

Hyacca are from Fukuoka and they toured with us during Volume 3.  In terms of signing contracts and having meetings, it’s a lot easier if all the bands reside in Tokyo but in the past I’ve invited many bands from other cities:  Viridian (Nagoya), tricot (Kyoto), Midori (Osaka) etc.

It’s unlikely that I’ll pick all four bands from a region outside Tokyo and do a eg Next Music from Osaka tour.  Although some of my favorite bands right now all come from Chiba:  Happy!Mari, goomi, Harafromhell and Shaku.  Though Chiba’s so close to Tokyo they’re basically part of the same scene.

5.  What has the reception to NMFT been like?  How has the tour evolved since it was started?  

The reception to NMFT has been excellent.  There may be a few people who are disappointed that I don’t bring “crazier” acts but my goal isn’t to shock the audience with the weird and bizarre but to express the level of talent and creativity inherent in Tokyo’s music scene.   Most people who come to the shows really appreciate the skill and stage presence of the bands and the eclectic mix of musical styles.

Since the first installment of the tour it’s become a lot easier to gain the interest of ‘bigger” Japanese bands and especially in Toronto, the tour is popular enough to graduate to a much larger venue.  But bigger isn’t always better and personally, I prefer watching gigs at smaller, more intimate venues.  I don’t think the concept of the tour and nature of the bands has changed much but having fans help out with organizing and promoting the tour has made my life a lot easier.   If I can bring the same level quality of bands and performances each year I’ll be happy.

6.  Do you have any plans or hopes for future installments of NMFT?  Have you begun looking ahead to volume 6 at all?

I definitely hope to continue the tour each year until I unexpectedly get sick of Japanese indie music. Hahaha.   I’m hoping to do volume 6 this October but it may have to be put on hold until May 2014.  I’d like to invite group_inou and Akai Koen again and Happy!Mari is a new new band that is sure to kick Canada’s ass.