Walk into any Tokyo-based CD megastore (e.g. one of the 45 Tower Records locations, which, believe it or not, still exist in Japan) and make your way to the "Western Music" section. In this bent dimension you will find mainstream American pop, but also electronic obscurities from the likes of the genre-bending drone-pop producer Inga Copeland or the Belgian electro-collagist Ssaliva, often straddling the same "Store Spotlight" shelves as EDM heavyweights like Skrillex or David Guetta. An outsider passing by may write this off as a Japanese indifference to the nuances that punctuate "music-from-abroad," or that this seeming curatorial faux pas is just Japan being idiosyncratic, another example of the wacky caricature many attribute to the country's pop culture sensibilities. In reality, the placement of left-field, underground music alongside major label bangers in music stores throughout Japan is a deliberate decision to bring niche music from around the globe to the Japanese masses, an initiative spearheaded by one Japanese music fanatic.
Shimpei "Melting Bot" Kaiho is a Tokyo-based music scene veteran who was simply a diehard experimental music fan before trying his hand to work on the business side of the independent record industry. In 2009, Kaiho founded Melting Bot, a self-described "platform" for fringe electronic music that functions as a label, PR house, and event promotion unit all under one tag. As of 2015, Melting Bot has re-issued dozens of releases from the catalogues of roughly 30 independent labels from around the world, including cult favorites from New York and London like RVNG INTL, Software, and Night Slugs. Kaiho also curates an event series under Melting Bot called Bond-Aid, showcasing non-Japanese artists such as PAN records founder Bill Kouligas and California-based techno act D/P/I alongside up-and-coming Japanese producers (unbeknownst to many outside the country) in hopes of introducing like-minded creatives and audiences to one another.
Although Kaiho originally selected foreign music to release based on his personal preference, his platform has evolved to become a channeling medium of sorts—one that filters in sounds that 'fit' with what he sees as the current cultural zeitgeist among young Japanese artists and underground arts enthusiasts in Tokyo, giving Melting Bot a unique gate-keeping propensity. The music will still make it to Japan, no doubt, but it might not receive the status-boosting cred approval that Melting Bot offers, a sign of support that can make or break the success of an artist on Japanese shores.
Kaiho is a rare breed in Japan, a gem among pebbles. He's one of the few people in Tokyo who not only has made it his life's work to explore the fringes of Western and Japanese music, but he's aiming to bring them closer together—or at least spark a greater dialogue between the two. The cultural trailblazer is embracing the positive aspects of globalization by looking for connections and complements among disparate places. There's so much good music being made around the world, but even in the age of the internet, sometimes you need a sheep herder to get it into the right hands. VICE sat down with the man bringing left-field techno to Tokyo to discuss the story behind his multi-functioning Melting Bot, as well as Japan's rich history of avant-garde music scenes.
VICE: You started as a fan, but now you personally promote this largely unknown music within Japan. Is that position of being a tastemaker something you intentionally sought out?
Shimpei Kaiho: I didn't intentionally set out to orchestrate some big gesture. When I started out, there were a lot of good labels that I really liked that weren't getting any placement here, so I reached out and asked to re-issue and distribute various records. Over time, the work continued to compile and the identity of Melting Bot expanded. At the start, to be 100-precent honest, I was just serving as [label] Planet Mu's agency in Japan. I didn't really think about Japan's relationship to the global underground music scene, most likely because I was still deep in the local side of things.
But then I began promoting Traxman and the other footwork music from Planet Mu and it coincided with a juke explosion in Tokyo around late 2011 or so. It felt like a chain reaction in the underground where suddenly all of these local producers started bubbling up, people like Shokuhin Matsuri. The Japanese version of this production style carried a unique aesthetic, its own character, and that's when I really noticed there was a correlation of interest in underground dance music among Japanese music consumers and people elsewhere in the world, plus a causality that was pushing reaction and development. After that, I began looking deeper at the local creators around me, as well as the wider connections between Japanese musicians and music movements tied to other cities.
What initially even drew you to this music in the first place?
Just over ten years ago, I was living in England and studying at university in Liverpool. A friend turned me on to Boomkat right when it started up. Then there was Bleep, Warp's digital distribution service that started just after. I was perpetually checking these two sites that covered a lot of this left-field stuff. However, Bleep and Boomkat tended to focus on England and Europe, while America was pretty underrepresented. A friend and mentor in Tokyo who ran a label called Moamoo—which was a progenitor of Melting Bot in that it distributed Japan-only editions of releases from lesser-known foreign labels—eventually started talking about this current of independent music in America. Partially because of him, I came to know about these new US sounds in the latter half of the 2000s.
That's when I started to really pay attention to America as a listener, and started reading websites like [the defunct] Altered Zones and its many affiliated blogs that were big at the time. Twitter had just started up, too, and I started following artists I liked, which would lead me to new music.
I keep hearing about how the market share of Western Music sales in Japan is diminishing, and on top of this CD sales in Japan, in general, are falling. Has this affected your business?
Plummeting might be a better word [laughs]. I'm on the ground you know, so I can totally appreciate the scope of that drop. When I first started Melting Bot... Well, I can't say the exact numbers, but basically our sales are practically a third of what they used to be, and continue to drop with increasing speed.
In the face of that reality, how do you see Melting Bot surviving?
One thing is pushing back to the outside: Not only importing sounds from outside Japan, but also exporting the local sounds outside the country. I think this is something Melting Bot is capable of doing. Then there is the event that I do through Melting Bot called Bond-Aid. I think out of everything I do, Bond-Aid is the most important.
What exactly is it?
Around three years ago, I started thinking that the real value from the local scene was in live performance and that direct exchange. I really need to start organizing an event. Little by little, I started hosting this Bond-Aid event. This became Melting Pot's direction, using the event as a preliminary step to then distribute foreign artists' CDs and doing their PR in Tokyo. The next event, the seventh in the series, will feature Inga Copeland and Lorenzo Senni. The name itself references the idea of aiding the bonding process among disparate creators and packaging it all together as one unique type of content. It takes the jumble of artists and ideas that comprise Melting Bot, and connect the dots as a live experience.
Similar to the decrease in music sales in Japan, do you think the number of underground music fans is decreasing?
That's tough to answer. I think the world, generally, values Japan's avant-garde output over its pop. Today, the artists are spread out, and even in Tokyo these tiny scenes exist in a vacuum. Every major city in Japan has an underground music scene, but we're talking crazy small ones, collections of 30 to 50 people.
I don't think decreasing is the right word; I think they are way more scattered. There are more creators now than there were before, due to the internet, but if these pockets of culture aren't directly tied to your personal circle, it's like they don't even exist in the physical world.
Do you attribute this to the local cultural traditions? That people don't push themselves out there and keep things to themselves?
In the past, the process of putting out a record almost by default meant that you had to connect with someone. The same for events. Now, with Soundcloud and social media, maybe you don't need an in-person connection for your music to be published. Events too have fallen under a similar light, with way fewer people are coming out than before. In the past you had to go to a club to hear a DJ mix, but now the net offers a bounty to that end, so maybe people here are just satisfied with that because that in itself is fun—like there is no need to experience something directly in a spatial sense.
Isn't that an issue for you from the perspective of Bond-Aid?
Yeah, totally huge. But when I started Bond-Aid, the thing I thought was exciting was how, rather than just releasing something from abroad, creating a kind of content that was truly unique, really taking the local and the foreign and bringing something new into existence was the most interesting part of organizing this type of event for me. Something truly original, that really only happens there at that location. That to me has a very real social value and real meaning, and that translates to attendance.
How do you feel about turning your own personal interests and passions into a career?
As someone who is trying to make a living off of this passion, it's a matter beyond me wanting to do this, to promote music and put on events: It's a matter of needing to. I think if I didn't have this, I would live a much lazier existence. That necessity to keep pushing forward wouldn't be there.
Even for me, trying to make music a business doesn't sit as the best scenario, especially for independent music. I used to be opposed to the idea of existing off of money made through music, but then I reached this dramatic point where I thought, if I don't do this I'll die! You know, that leads you to listen to a ton of music, more than anyone normally would listen to. It leads you to dig deeper and connect with everyone.