[SPECIAL] Interview with Jimi Aoma, May 2013


This time we have as our special guest Jimi Aoma, who used to play bass for visual kei bands Laverite and Chemical Pictures, is also known as the guitarist for Tommy heavenly6/february6, and has supported Carly Rae Jepsen and Steve Appleton in their Japan tours.  So we sat down and had coffee (albeit virtual) as RekON tried to gain Jimi’s insight about things that we had wanted to know all this time about VK world and concerts in Japan in general – and in the process, we came to understand some more about Japanese culture!


Note: bold and italicized song titles in Jimi’s answers are ours.

 Last year, I went to several visual kei (and non-visual kei) gigs in Tokyo and the first thing I noticed in every VK gig I walked into was: the majority of the audience was girls.  I could count the number of boys who were present each night with the fingers of only one hand. Where are the boys that one day probably will eventually form VK bands – which overwhelmingly if not exclusively comprise of boys?  Or did I just get into the ‘wrong’ venues? (I went to CYBER, EDGE, and CUT UP STUDIO, and a Yoyogi 2nd Gymnasium gig by D=OUT, if this information helps.)

VK audiences are most definitely a girls club, and the industry is definitely catered toward that. As a result it can make guys feel a little uncomfortable to go to a show. They may be seen as intruding, or maybe misconstrued as being there to hit on girls (which may or may not be a justified fear, depending on the guy), and frankly, dudes moshing is probably scary to most of the girls (although they get pretty rambunctious too!)

That said, those guys are there–though they may have different tastes. They may not be as willing to just go to a random show and see bands they aren’t going to care about, so they won’t be at the really minor shows as much. They might peruse the magazines or the web, and only once they find a group that really piques their interest will they go check it out. And when they do, they might just hang out in the back and watch.

Having guy fans is sort of a badge of honor. At the risk of stereotyping, I think male fans put more importance on technical skill than other aspects, so when a band sees guy fans coming it’s kind of like, okay, we’re not just pretty faces putting on a good show, we’re actually kinda good. This is somewhat of a conflicting attitude to hold, though, because obviously without the initial force and number female fans we’d be nothing, and personally I kind of appreciate that the testosterone in the scene, if you will, is extremely counter-balanced.

Chemical Pictures had a handful of guy fans which we liked, and some of them even came to the in-store events, which was cool too, because that’s otherwise a more intimate affair where an individual fan might stick out more, and they might feel embarrassed or something. Versailles, on the other hand, I would put hard cold cash down on a guess that their audience was pretty much 50/50. They composed with that European neo-classical metal fanbase heavily in mind. NoGoD has male fans for sure. I’m sure there are plenty of others with a sizable group of male fans, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish who paid to see the show and who are guests! Haha.

They guys that are going to be the next young VK bands, where are they? Typically listening to more “mainstream” visual (or ex-visual, or visual-associated) groups. Lots of dudes who grew up listening to L’arc, or Luna Sea, and then on the other hand, when I started there were lots of guys saying they got into it all because of Dir en grey, and a few years later, the new kids were saying they got into it all because of Gazette, and now who knows what they’re citing! MUCC is another one I heard cited as an influence.

Visual Kei is pretty much defined by the company you keep. This means the live houses you play in, the management companies available, the magazines you appear in, and of course your friends in bands. I’ve actually never been to Cut-Up or the Yoyogi one you went to, but when we were on Speed Disk we played at AREA a lot, and I got a sense that it was a little bit more conducive to male presence? Could just be me. There are lots of live houses really, and even when I was still going around checking out the scene, there were definitely venues I felt more comfortable going to than others. Black Hole seems to attract some male fans.

I also want to say that live houses are funny, because some of them we’d LOVE the house and the stage and the sound or whatever and hate backstage, or vice-versa. CYBER got better once they rented a small office in a building around the corner to act as a dressing room, because otherwise there is only the tiniest of rooms to get anything done in. AREA, once I got used to it I was fine, but it’s basically just a long narrow hallway running the length of the building. It has good mirrors and lights, though. Since EDGE is a totally new place, they seem to have thought it out well; I was pretty impressed by the backstage. Not huge, but at least workable. It’s difficult of course since space is a premium!

 Another thing I noticed was that no fans took pics or recorded fancams.  This is totally different from the gigs of Korean artists that I have been to.  Of course, there are restrictions on taking pics or vids too in Korean gigs, but the implementation of the rules seems to be more relaxed compared to Japan.  At least Korean companies do not really scour the internet to claim fanpics or fancams.  (Last year someone uploaded a fancam of him meeting Alice Nine in a coffee shop in Jakarta; PSC had the video taken down.)    This has been one of the obstacles felt by foreign fans of Japanese music: it is simply difficult to get fanpics or fancams that actually can help fandoms grow.  Some have even argued that the fast growth of Korean music popularity is partly due to fanpics and fancams, while the lack of them has helped creating a kind of stagnancy to the popularity of Japanese music.  (Although I have to admit, a gadget-less gig is actually very nice when you are present; but it leaves fans at home biting their nails.)  What is your opinion on this?

This is definitely an aspect of Japanese culture as a whole and not just Japanese music or even Japanese business. Japanese people as a whole are far more concerned about privacy that most others, and internet culture is similarly ‘behind’. Facebook took a long while before it got a significant user base, and even now I think a lot of people are really wary. Some companies perhaps are more active about protecting their brand and image than others, but I think it’s a fact that Japanese business has not really caught on to the ‘free content’ distribution model yet. Cameras and such at a gig are really annoying, in my personal and insignificant opinion, especially in this era where you can shoot video on a giant iPad. (We agree on this, Jimi! – ed.) The other thing to consider is, an official cameraman will have a nice camera and then you can pick and choose and control which shots are seen by others. I’ve rejected shots where I’m making a weird face or you can see right up my nose or something. Where ‘image’ is exactly what they are selling, it is vitally important to them to be able to control that to the last detail.

Also getting permission is a huge deal. Some might say it’s easier to ask for forgiveness, but I think it’s just polite to be totally upfront with your intentions. I don’t blame the person who uploaded their video, as they probably just didn’t realize what would happen, but the band was probably just hoping for a bit of respite and it can be confusing trying to keep that space.

Also I don’t agree that Korean music popularity is due to fan-taken pictures and videos, I think it’s the money behind it, pure and simple. Their product has high production values right out of the gate. The fact that they’re more lax about fan-taken stuff is probably just a bonus. HOWEVER, I say all of that as someone who has no interest in Korean music or anything, so I could be totally wrong!

I touched on this in my interview with JaME:
Many fans complain that bands do not come to their country and accessibility is limited, yet they want the scene to remain small and intimate. Do you think there is any middle ground achievable?
Jimi: It totally sucks if you really want to see a band but have no means to do so, but that’s more of a personal problem than anything. … I think the only middle ground is, accept that you have decided to follow something that is super niche, so just consume what is within your means to consume.”

Which sounds a little insensitive, perhaps, but it’s kind of hard to explain. Like, I don’t necessarily think unlimited access to creative content is a right. The primary market is Japan and Japanese people, and it is a HUGE gamble to try to invest in promoting this stuff overseas. If a company refuses to even when faced with clear demand, then that’s their loss, mostly. I guess I just have this perhaps fantastical image of a hardcore collector of some nerdy thing, like French comic books or something obscure, and someone being super obsessed but they track down all the rare issues and import through various channels, all in an era before computers. The internet has made us more connected, more accessible, and more open and honest, but it has also sort of made us impatient and entitled, haha.

Jimi dan band lamanya, Chemical Pictures, dalam formasi berempat: dari atas searah jarum jam: Jimi, Schwarz, Tenten, Joe

And what if we attend a VK gig and dare to take pics?  What’s the worst thing that can happen to us?

If you’re good at playing the clueless foreigner you might get away with it, but I don’t recommend trying to play the “gaijin card” just on principle. 😛 The worst thing that might happen? Not sure. It’s pretty clearly written on the walls of every live house and sometimes even announced before curtain that all recording/photography is prohibited, so they might ask you to stop? I’ve never seen anyone asked to delete photos, but you never know? Never seen anyone explicitly kicked out, but you never know? In the 90s I know that bootleg recordings were pretty popular but the venues cracked down on that pretty hard.
I think one venue somewhere once asked people to put any cameras in a box at the front desk and they could reclaim them later. Can’t remember what band or what show. I kind of like this policy, even though it’s kind of draconian and kind of a turn off, haha.
And ah, foreign fans often complain about how difficult it is to buy tickets from outside Japan/online…

This just doesn’t seem like a priority, and I guess I just imagine a situation where people are worried that people who buy tickets don’t go to the show, because that’s just empty seats. Are people worried that the show is going to sell out before they get to Japan? That’s a legit concern, I suppose. I’m sure they want people’s money but they’d have to put up an English interface, deal with English tech support, etc. Japan is still not really a credit card culture like the US is so that’s a large part of why online services are kind of lacking. (Amazon, Rakuten, Playstation Store etc. are successful because you can buy pre-paid cards at convenience stores or even pay your bills and invoices at convenience stores. It’s a unique way of handling these things and I suspect compatibility issues are one concern).

Recently you had another tour with Steve Appleton in Japan, and in your tumblr you mentioned about how fun it was to be able to take a look around the city you were visiting – because you didn’t have such luxury (if I may so) during your VK days.  Is it really difficult for VK artists to get this degree of liberty?

All I really meant by this was, I was always the first guy in the makeup chair, and once you’re in makeup/costume, it’s primarily just embarrassing to go out like that to go find some takoyaki or something! Usually when we’d pull into town, depending on how early we got there, we might go somewhere and grab a bite, walk around and shop… but we very rarely ever had the time. The one exception might have been Sendai, just because that was home to two of our guys (Tenten and Joe of Chemical Pictures – ed.), and we happened to be playing with amber gris and maybe another band we were friends with, and it kind of felt just like a day on the town with buddies because we were there so early.

Having played to VK and non-VK audience, what’s the biggest difference(s) between them that you have felt so far as a performer?

There is definitely a difference. It’s a culture thing (sub-culture, I guess, to be more accurate). VK fans are probably characterized as being super enthusiastic, but still polite and keep their distance. I was really surprised the first time I played with Steve, because people were tapping me on the shoulder, pushed things at me to sign, asking for photos… all of which I gladly did, but I was shocked because for a split-second it felt ‘rude’, simply because VK fans don’t do that. Signatures are for in-store events, and photo-ops rarer still. That being said, sometimes I wish it was more acceptable to have nice chats, shake hands, sign things, take photos etc. with some of the more loyal, polite VK fans because I really came to appreciate that core group of supporters, but then again that’s not fair, is it? Haha.

Inaccessibility is a big aspect of why fans of that sub-culture are so die-hard, and it’s important to keep things that way. Maybe it started out because of noise complaints, but it’s discouraged to hang around the place after the show and chat with fans waiting (they often have noise curfews or get complaints from neighbors or need to be cleaned up by a certain time), so fans often only catch a glimpse of us entering or exiting. This is also discouraged by venues because it causes foot traffic jams. Anything to avoid 迷惑 (meiwaku,  annoyance – ed.), really.

Chemical Pictures – Praparat.  This is the version where Jimi appears.  Later CPS re-recorded this song with their newer members.

Of all the venues and/or festivals you’ve played in Japan, which one is the most memorable for you?  ‘Memorable’ here doesn’t necessarily be in a positive way…

Luckily I don’t have any “that was awful!” memories, but let’s see:

Chemical Pictures: Our first show at O-East or West, just because that was sort of a personal goal I had set, that if I could be in a group of my own and play one of those venues I’d be satisfied that we weren’t terrible!
I don’t remember where the shows were, but we did a tour with NoGoD toward the end of my time with the group, and I love those guys to death and count every single one of them as good friends. We switched off as headliners, and at each show we would swap members and do a song. One night we played Warau Picasso with Dancho, Shinno, Joe, me, and K; the other night was Saikou no Sekai, with Tenten, Kyrie, Joe, Karin, and Shiun. I loved the heck out of that tour and that might have been my high moment, live-wise, with the group.
The one other might been my last one-man with them, at O-West. We spent a ton of time designing lighting, stage, set list, etc and it was really stressful but also just a solid show. It was kind of euphoric, but that might have been because I was exhausted by it!

Other than CPS, playing Summer Sonic alongside people I had no business being in the same room as, that was pretty wild. Dream Theater! Stevie Wonder! Taylor Swift! Die Antwoord! Everlast said I played well! Michael Monroe asked me if any of the catering was vegetarian! Orianthi started a conversation with John Petrucci right before I could, and then they left! Atari Teenage Riot kind of scared me! And then on this last tour, playing the Yokohama Green Room festival and meeting Miyavi, who I have respected for a long time, and he was so friendly and warm and funny. I like funny people, as anyone who has looked at my twitter can attest.

And then the Halloween thing I did with Tommy, with big Japanese rock guys left and right. Hyde, yasu, Kaz, Hitsugi… I only had the courage to get to know Hitsugi (of Nightmare – ed.), but only because I knew Yomi already through Tenten.

As far as I’m concerned, my realistic musical goals have been completed, so anything else is just a huge bonus I am so thankful for.

And talking about festivals – Japan is home to some of the biggest music festivals in the region.  Sometimes we say “Artists may skip other Asian countries, but not Japan”.  (Many of us are still itchy about bands like My Bloody Valentine and even Inspiral Carpets playing Japan but no other Asian countries recently.)  Seems like there’s a place for every artist and every genre in Japan… Is this impression that we get true?

Really? Indonesia seems like it should be a more popular destination. I think international artists should try to schedule more shows in Asia too. Are they forgetting Asia is not just China, Korea, Japan? (or even Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc.)
I do think though that because people tend to live and let live in Japan when it comes to tastes that it allows almost everything to thrive, though I’m currently on the lookout for a Periphery-like Japanese band, so if anyone has any suggestions!…
But sure. Folk? Huge at one point, dedicated following now. Hip-hop? Tons of J-hip-hop, although outside of a few things here and there I find most beats a little ‘soft’. Prog? I know tons of people who love King Crimson, Yes, Dream Theater, etc. Radiohead is huge, Oasis… post rock? Mono, te, toe… Heck, Merzbow practically invented the noise genre and I’m not sure he could have come from any country other than Japan. I definitely feel like there are a lot of weird niches and sub-genres, and they all get their chance to thrive in their chosen environment, whether it be a big outdoor beach festival or a tiny grimy underground one.

I mentioned this in the JaME interview too, but there’s definitely a feeling here that you aren’t judged for your tastes, at least not out in the open. In America more people are prone to call you lame or dumb for liking Band X or Y, but I’ve never really seen that happen here. As for me I try to keep my judgments to myself, though I have to bite my tongue when an otherwise highly cultured acquaintance admits to me they like a particular idol group! 😛

Jimi dan band lamanya, Chemical Pictures, dalam formasi berlima. Kiri-kanan: Joe, Jimi, Tenten, Shiun, Rui

Talking about different kinds of music… since you’re also a big fan of jazz, which jazz musician, dead or alive, would you love to have a jam session with?  Japanese jazz musicians perhaps?

Oh goodness, you are asking the wrong person. I would never be able to hang with anyone. I’m bad at jazz guitar, my jazz bass is pretty rusty, and my jazz piano has been wiped from my mind as if I’d had a run-in with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. So let’s just say, I’d probably not really want to jam with any of them, but I’d certainly like to take lessons from someone, probably a fictionalized, stable, sober version of one of them! So yeah, I’ll just say I want Bill Evans to teach me how to play piano all over again.
(I mention Bill Evans because he kind of reminds me of a modern-day Debussy, who I always liked back in my piano days)

Do recommend us Japanese artists/bands who you think are fantastic onstage (not necessarily amazing on records, but if they are, so much the better!).  Who knows we can check out their gigs if we visit Japan next time!

As far as visual bands go, and my friends, I keep recommending NoGoD and amber gris. Both very different, but very talented. If they weren’t a limited project I would have recommended Tenten’s former project. The group Joe is with now, Ensoku, is pretty fun to watch. Other than that, I have to apologize and say I really don’t get out that much, and very rarely catch shows!
Oh, wait; James (MacWhyte, bassist for Tommy heavenly6 – ed.) took me to go see The Back Horn awhile back and I thought they were great and was mad at myself for not knowing much about them before. Their opening act, Ogre You Asshole, was one of the coolest things I’d seen in a long time, although they are probably not for everyone, and they don’t move on stage at all, but I loved what they did.
When people ask for “a Japanese band that is really good live”, I just say you can’t go wrong with a Maximum The Hormone show. Just even get their live DVDs, they’re great. In fact, back when I first started in Chemical Pictures, I would watch the tapes later and wonder why I looked so dumb; I borrowed the Maximum DVD from Tenten and studied that and some other bands and I suddenly looked a lot less dumb. (I probably still looked dumb, though!)

And more about your personal achievement so far as a musician as the closing question.  If you can name only one record you have made that you are most proud of, what will that record be?

I have a very quick answer for this, although it’s two records, so I still have to decide. It’s definitely a toss-up between Praparat and The Man Who Shot the World (Sekai wo Utta Otoko – ed.) Case 3: Hinawajuu. I think we were lucky with our engineer and masterer for Praparat, and it helped that we were a new band with strong songs and were very excited about working with each other. It was a very electric atmosphere during that week of recording. Praparat is really good, Reincarnation is really good, and Schwarzwald is just beautiful. Hinawajuu has Roundabout Satellite, which I am proud of on a musical and lyrical level; Yami ni Furu Planetarium, which kind of became a defining CPS song; Sick Boy Sam Sick Flower, the music and melody of which I wrote 11 years ago while washing dishes in a restaurant back in California, so it was very special that when I brought the song to the guys they loved it immediately. Canvas is just a ballad that’s there, and sure I worked hard on that one too but the other songs are really why I chose it. Wait, can I pick a third? A fourth? I mean I’ve really only released 7 CDs with CPS, so other than maybe two of them in particular I wish I could choose them all. Other than that my only other credits are lyrics for Tommy, though I mean, yeah, I’m proud of those too.

Thanks for answering us Jimi.  And I still owe you a coffee.

strong, black or only just a tiny dash of cream, two or three sugars

We definitely enjoyed the interview, and we hope you, our readers, also do!

You can follow Jimi’s twitter here.

Jimi appears in this MV.  Can you spot him?

Tommy february6’s new album, 「TOMMY CANDY SHOP ♡ SUGAR ♡ ME」, will be released on June 12, 2013.

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