January 4th, 2010


What's Flumpool?

Relax; if you live outside Japan, once you finish this article you'll never have to hear of Flumpool again. That's one of the nice things about being on holiday in a foreign country; things which are destined to persecute the natives, possibly for years, are merely local curiosities for you, the tourist. You can derive some passing amusement from the marketing around Flumpool -- a new band from the Osaka region, completely without musical interest, currently promoting their debut album -- without having the sinking feeling that you're destined to spend several decades either listening to or resisting them.

I made a decision in 1984 to ignore Madonna, you know. I decided she wasn't interesting. I've been living with that decision for 26 years. But ignoring Madonna is not an option in Western culture. Madonna, her management and her marketing people have made absolutely sure of that. There is no freedom of choice when it comes to attention, though there may be freedom of choice when it comes to purchase. As far as I know, none of my money has ever gone Madonna's way. But I've "paid" attention to Madonna. Look, there she is on the subway wall, modeling for H&M! Look, here's a serious, intellectually-respectable book about Islam that talks about her! And here's that song where she paid a bazillion dollars to ruin Abba's "A Man After Midnight" forever! This song sticks in your brain like charred tar! Can we leave the taxi at the traffic lights?

But Flumpool. Flumpool are big, but they're not as big as Smap or Arashi. If you made a decision in Japan to ignore Smap when they came up in the early 90s, well, I'm sorry for you. Smap are on the cover of almost all the TV magazines in Japan this week, as they seem to have been continuously for the last twenty years. (The ones Smap aren't on, Arashi are. And let me remind you that if you chose to ignore Arashi, well, your girlfriend or your wife didn't. Instant couple conflict, as you are daily revealed to be not-Arashi. Thanks, marketing! Thanks for pissing on me from a great height!)

But to get back to Flumpool. You'd think it would be a no-no for a band with "pool" in their name to refer, on their first album sleeve, to the piss mannekin, the Manneken Pis in Brussels. But why not? There's a successful musical called Urinetown, and a piss manifesto. So this band is a pool of piss, and proud of it! They even pun cunningly on the proximity of "piss" and "peace" -- in April they'll play a "Love and piiiis kids' show".

Musically, as the clip above shows, Flumpool are crushingly banal. Their ultra-formulaic songs sound as if they've been written by a machine, and completely exemplify the super-conformist "aggressive normality" which characterises so much of Japanese -- well, let's face it, of all -- commercial culture these days. But if innovation is banished from the music, it's alive and well in the marketing, and that's how we seem to want things.

I went into a branch of HMV yesterday. In stark contrast to all the other shops in the And& shopping centre in Osaka (clothes shops, Muji, Loft, Chisato Tsumori), HMV was quiet as the grave. And I thought to myself: "Was there really a moment when record shops teemed with people, and when a young Me would come here looking for the newest, most exciting things in the world?" There was, but that moment has passed. There will be no more cakes and ale at HMV.

There was also a moment when I was employed as a songwriter for the Japanese market. I'm reminded of it during a business meeting with Sony Music Japan, my worldwide song publisher, in Tokyo. It's a sort of surreal experience. Books about Bob Dylan lie around reception, and somewhere someone's playing The Beatles' Abbey Road album (Sony Music Japan publishes Lennon and McCartney).

Sony Music Japan signed me in 2001 on the expectation that I'd perform as well commercially in the 00s as I did in the 90s, when I wrote a string of hit records for Kahimi Karie. Of course, fashion is fickle, and the Shibuya-kei movement I was associated with got replaced by... well, nothing special. So the big sum of money Sony gave me has never been earned back, and because I'm on a roll-over contract, I stay signed to them forever. I don't mind at all; I get a worldwide music publisher with an impressive name and Japanese connections. But regularly we have these meetings where Sony nudge me gently about the outstanding debt: "So what are we going to do to recoup this advance we paid you, Nick?"

At this moment I remember all sorts of famous Japanese people I've been told like my songs. That sensitive one from Smap, what's his name, the one who reads novels? He once mentioned me in an interview! And Miki Nakatani, is she still making records? She's got good taste! She likes me! Or what about if I wrote for Arashi? My girlfriend would fucking love that! I could even get revenge on Ninomiya for being so pretty by making him sing something stupid and self-effacing!

Sony tell me, gently, kindly, that sure, they have connections to Arashi's management and could play them anything I wrote for them. But they mostly do rap numbers, in Japanese, with fairly generic music. And the days of Japanese bands being impressed by foreign writers and producers are over. I listen to all that, nodding, then ask if perhaps Aoi Yu doesn't want to make a record at some point? She might, thinks my publisher, but her management would probably want it to be a sure-fire hit. Solid, commercial material. We both know that doesn't mean me. (Intriguingly, Sony Music Japan employ their own full-time songwriter, a kid who's sitting on the sofa beside us wearing headphones, making songs on a laptop as we speak. How very Tin Pan Alley! There in the office, under the strip-lights!)

We end the meeting with a compromise; I'll send in an mp3 of me and Kyoka singing Dracula; MTV have asked for some horror film-type track to be used in an ident and who knows, we may be in with a chance.

But, to get back to Flumpool... well, let's not bother. You and I, since we don't live in Japan and are beyond the reach of even its most inventive marketing, need never hear the name Flumpool again. We can let our definition of Japanese music be encompassed by this fabulous 1985 documentary about Ryuichi Sakamoto instead. That and Akio Suzuki banging on a can, Doddodo screaming, some monks playing conch shells, the enchanting story-chanters at the kabuki theatre, and a gorgeously mournful snatch of gagaku.