This Canadian Doctor Is a Legend in the Japanese Indie Music Scene

Next Music From TOKYO Tour Vol. 10 | © Bryan Wong-Lim
Next Music From TOKYO Tour Vol. 10 | © Bryan Wong-Lim
Canadian anesthesiologist Steven Tanaka is not only the founder of Next Music From TOKYO, a cross-country tour that brings relatively unknown Japanese music acts to Canada, he single-handedly organizes, promotes, and bankrolls the whole affair, costing upwards of CAD$50,000 each year. We caught up with Tanaka just days before the Toronto leg of the tour kicks off.

So, how did you get into underground Japanese rock music?

Growing up in Vancouver, I started listening to punk/hardcore in high school but I knew very little about Japan’s underground music scene until more recently. In 2007, through a combination of browsing CDs at Tower Records in Japan and watching anime, I discovered a Japanese indie band called Chatmonchy. They were a female band who played heartfelt, shoegaze-tinged emo rock and were unlike any North American band I’d ever heard. I fell in love with them and then discovered more and more Japanese bands that leaned more towards post-punk and math rock. My first underground show in Japan was in early 2008 when I watched eight bands play at a tiny venue called Shinjuku Motion. All eight bands were unknown local bands and the fact they were all excellent and all sounded so different from each other just blew me away. That’s when I fell in love with the underground music scene in Japan.

Do you think there’s a reason why Canadian indie bands are so different from Japanese acts?

I would rephrase the question as “Do you think there’s a reason why Japanese indie bands are so different from everyone else?” My impression is that there isn’t too much that separates indie bands in Canada from those in the US or the UK. Although many bands with disparate styles exist, overall there is a lot more homogeneity within Western indie music compared to the Japanese indie/underground scene. In North America, there is a greater tendency for new indie bands to emulate what’s currently popular, whereas in Japan, bands are more likely to experiment, be progressive and push themselves from a technical standpoint in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the pack.

The audience poses with band at Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver; Tanaka on the bottom left © Bryan Wong-Lim

Tell us about the very first Next Music From TOKYO tour back in 2010. Was it difficult to get the bands and the audience on board?

I travel to Tokyo five to eight times a year and go to shows almost every night I’m there. I’m not shy about speaking to bands after they perform and trying to make new friends. For the first tour, I purposely chose bands I really liked and with whom I had already established a relationship. It wasn’t too difficult to get the first set of bands on board but later on when approaching bands I admired that didn’t know of me or my tour, it became more challenging.

Attendance at the first show in Vancouver was pretty decent! About 250 people showed up thanks in part to an article in The Georgia Straight and sponsorship from my alma mater UBC and CITR Radio. It was difficult for me to promote in Montreal, and the turnout was quite small. In Toronto, attendance was great since it is currently my home, and I have many more opportunities to promote the tour.

How long before things really started taking off?

I did the second tour right away the same year in October 2010. Maybe it was the proximity to Thanksgiving Day and university midterm exams, but attendance dipped significantly compared to the inaugural tour. I almost gave up after the second tour, but I’m glad I didn’t because Volume 3 is when things really started taking off. For the first time, one of the shows (Rivoli in Toronto) sold out. And since 2011, almost every show held in Toronto has sold out even after moving to a much larger venue (Lee’s Palace).

Most of the shows in Montreal also started to sell out with subsequent tours.

Next Music From TOKYO really digs deep into the Japanese indie music scene. Where is your favorite hunting ground in Tokyo when scouting for new bands? What do you look for?

My favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo for discovering new bands include Shinjuku (Motion, Marz, LOFT, NineSpices), Shimokitazawa (Shelter, ERA, Basement Bar), and Shibuya (O-nest, Lush). In searching for bands to bring to Canada, I avoid the generic and look for bands that have some sort of originality or freshness to their music. However, I despise the use of gimmicks or style over substance to achieve such an end. I also like the music to have a soulful or emotive quality and to be a bit quirky and experimental in nature. I prefer bands that are very technically skilled and have excellent stage presence as well as some improvisational ability, so that the experience of watching the band perform live is quite different from listening to their CD. Ideally, I want the band’s music or live performance to be so brilliant it strikes a chord with my heart and leaves me in awe.

The tour now costs you tens of thousands of dollars each year. You’re probably tired of hearing it, but we have to ask: has the cost ever deterred you?

As a physician, I make a very comfortable living that can subsidize this incredibly expensive hobby. If I had invested the money into something that was actually profitable, I’d be in a much more enviable financial situation, but to me money isn’t as important as doing something fulfilling that you’re passionate about. Sometimes I feel the bands and even the fans take advantage of my generosity, and doing the tour twice in a year is an exceptionally large financial burden, but so far the enjoyment and memories created by the tour outweigh the losses.

What is the most rewarding aspect of the tour?

The most rewarding aspect of Next Music from Tokyo is hearing the bands frequently say that the best time of their lives were experienced on this tour.

Next Music From TOKYO used to be an exclusively rock music affair. What gave you the idea to bring pop idols into the mix? And were they well-received by the usual crowd?

I wouldn’t necessarily say NMFT was exclusively rock, as artists such as group_inou (electronic), Charan-Po-Rantan (accordion/Balkan/folk) and numerous “underground-pop” acts have participated throughout the years, but last year was the first time I brought a full-fledged idol group to Canada. However, Maison book girl are about as atypical as an idol group can get. The average age of the members is much older, the tone of the music and performance is cool and aloof as opposed to cloyingly happy. But above all, it was the quality and uniqueness of Maison book girl’s music that really impressed me and compelled me to invite them on tour. There was definitely a component of the core fan base that couldn’t accept the idea of idol music, but overall Maison book girl was very well received and helped attract new fans to NMFT.

If you hadn’t started Next Music From TOKYO, what would you be doing?

I would still travel to Japan as much as I can, but be more open to visiting other countries as well. I love music and if I couldn’t do a tour bringing Japanese bands to Canada, I’d probably curate and host my own shows in Tokyo when I visit. I also love food and am quite knowledgeable when it comes to Japanese soul foods. If my hobby/side-business had to be outside of music, I’d consider opening a Japanese restaurant that more greatly reflected the best foods Japan has to offer.

Bands from Next Music From TOKYO vol. 8 getting ready for sightseeing © Kevin Leung

We’ve heard you sometimes take the bands sightseeing to local tourist spots. What do they think of Canada?

I’ve been to Niagara Falls so many times that the thought of going again makes me want to shoot myself, but it’s always a joy seeing the bands have a blast while riding the Hornblower (Maid of the Mist) and experiencing the torrential Falls up close. Quirky and incredibly multicultural areas like Kensington Market, the sublime European feel of Old Montreal, the majestic Notre Dame Basilica, and the breathtaking natural beauty of Vancouver and its mountains make the bands feel like they never want to leave Canada.

The bands absolutely love visiting Canada and especially having the opportunity to perform in front of such great audiences.

Follow Next Music From TOKYO’s official website, Twitter, and Instagram