Of all the times I’ve thrown myself into the deep end inadequately prepared this has to be… well, it’s probably not the most overly ambitious, but that probably says more about my life and my choices than anything else.
I have joined a metal band. In Tokyo. With Japanese people. Who can’t speak English.
Putting the harp in places where it shouldn’t be has long been my thing. Aside from my own songwriting, I’ve played on electro-jazz and pop punk tracks, at anime conventions and fashion shows. What I’ve always wanted to do but have never gotten the chance to is play in a band. See, people often want a bit of harp for that one quirky song but they don’t want to keep you around as an actual permanent member. I wanted to continue playing the harp in Tokyo, but the band bit was not something I intended.
So there’s this website oursounds, which is a kind of social networking for Japanese musicians. Starting a band in Tokyo was something my boyfriend always intended (seeing as his Japanese is far better than mine, this isn’t going in over his head so much), so he was using the site to find bandmates. I thought, “Why not, lets make a profile and see what happens?” I got a number of messages. I perhaps made a mistake in including a photo and some of the messages… didn’t seem like music was their primary concern. Some were for projects I wasn’t that interested in but one stood out. A singer (or rather death vocalist) for a symphonic metal band was looking for a female singer and instrumentalist. His band had been going for a while but several people had left to they were looking to rebuild it with a new lineup. He had seen my profile and he liked that I could play the harp and sing in English. He was really complementary and it seemed interesting so I thought I would give it a shot.
I was pretty nervous when I went to the first rehearsal, in a studio in Shinjuku. Studio hire is cheap and commonplace in Japan – probably because strict landlords restrict practice of even classical instruments or ban them altogether. This particular studio was super trendy, with tonnes of posters of Japanese and Western rock bands on the wall. After I clumsily introduced myself, we ‘warmed up’ by playing through some symphonic metal favorites.
My bandmates are great people, and excellent musicians. Seriously I have lucked out with the level of technical ability and musicality they all possess; to be honest I feel a little inferior. None of them, however, know any significant English. This means that rehearsals are difficult. Really difficult. Interestingly, I find my bandmates far harder to understand than my colleagues at my school, despite their best intentions. I think this is because they speak mostly in plain form, whereas the teachers at school use polite form. For those who don’t know, Japanese language varies a lot depending on the level of formality of the situation. Foreigners are almost always taught basic polite form first, then plain form, and then the super scary keigo (honorific speech) for advanced learners. I only really started getting to grips with plain form this year, whereas I’m much more comfortable with polite form. This means that I can cope in the staff room, a work situation. However, in a rehearsal with my bandmates (men in their 20s – men usually speak less politely than women) I’m pretty lost most of the time.
It’s all very well to say that music is a universal language there’s also slight cultural differences in ‘the way music is done’ that are difficult to understand that I really should have been more aware of. For example, even in metal songs, Japanese tunes tend to follow a pretty set structure. When I played them a song of mine I was hoping we could add to our repertoire, what raised eyebrows was not the lyrics in English (singing in English is pretty standard for Japanese metal bands, which I think is a shame) but the structure. What I considered a variation on simple verse/chorus with a couple of time sig changes was really pushing the boat out to them. Also, my bandmates seem to place a greater emphasis on ‘influences’ than I’m used to. In my limited experience of collaborative writing, we mostly jammed or did our own thing and fix it as we went along. Before my band tried my song, they wanted me to link me examples of songs I wanted to sound like to find its ‘image.’ This was really hard for me to do, one because of the language barrier, two because the concept of ‘do your own thing and we’ll see how it goes,’ seems foreign to them as well.
I realise this is all very vague but I don’t want to name the band or my band mates yet because it’s still early days but we will be gigging next year, possibly when my parents come to visit. I’m not sure who will be more scared, my whiter than white parents and my 6’1 blonde brother or my bandmates…
In the mean time, I’ll be dutifully learning my music related vocab sheet, schooling myself on Japanese metal, enjoying myself and terrified at the same time. Peace.