Lagitagida On SXSW, Social Media and Breaking Down Language Barriers With Instrumental Music
THURSDAY MARCH 15, 2012—SXSW continues to transform Austin from a town known for live music and partying to a town locked in a continual hangover. Fliers for tonights parties are packing-taped over the ones from last night. The streets are filled with the zombie-esque lumbering of badge-holders, exhausted from waiting in lines and staying up all night. And yet the party persists as though this constant cycle of drinking and partying might just go on forever.
So I’m not taken back too far when I’m placed in front of the four members of Lagitagida at one in the afternoon and they look like they could use some coffee or maybe a cigarette.
Despite the fast times and free booze, the band has agreed to meet me for a bit of an interview before their show later that evening during the Japan Preview Show, an unofficial daytime showcase featuring most of the bands that will play Japan Nite and a few who won’t.
Lagitagida is one of the ones who won’t this time and it strikes me as strange given what kind of music they play. On their Soundcloud page, Lagitagida cites the likes of King Crimson, Frank Zappa, The Mars Volta and Slayer as their primary influences. Their is a highly-orchestrated, multi-layered quality to their music. It’s high concept to be sure, but leaves enough room to get the led out as necessary with monstrous guitar solos and drum breaks. While most of that other stuff is good, the singular quality that sets Lagitagida apart from all the other Japanese bands playing South by is their lack of vocals.
It can not be denied that commercial success for Japanese bands outside of their home country is consistently impeded by the language barrier. As a result, bands striving for popularity here (X Japan, Polysics and Shonen Knife come to mind) have gone so far as to write English lyrics or even record English versions of entire albums. Having no lyrics at all should give Lagitagida an edge over their more-established peers, shouldn’t it?
To find out, I’d have to get over my own language barrier with some assistance from band translator Midori Yamada. Unless otherwise noted, the answers below come from the band and filtered through her.
Nihongaku: Why have you decided to be instrumental?
Lagitagida (in this case, lead guitarist Kohhan Ohtake): For him, just being an instrumental band was a natural thing. He likes jazz music and progressive music so it was natural to have a non-singer band. But also, they couldn’t find any good singers around them so they just didn’t really care. They just went for the instrumental. It’s the coolest thing.”
Nihongaku: I know you’re influenced by the likes of King Crimson and Frank Zappa and I can hear those Jazz undertones to your music. I’m wondering if there are any Japanese bands you’re influenced by as well.
Lagitagida: He said maybe the bands they play together with in the indie scene. Those are the main bands they get influence from.
Nihongaku: Is this your first time playing in Austin?
They nod yes.
Nihongaku: And your first show was last night at Headhunters? How did it go?
Lagitagida: Very good. It was a lot of fun.
Nihongaku: The crowd reaction was good?
Lead guitarist Kohhan Ohtake smiles a bit and says “Yokata. Sugoi.” which roughly translated means he was glad that the reaction was so good.
Nihongaku: Sometimes it can be difficult to break into the American music scene mostly because of the language barrier. But since you guys have no vocals, it seems like it might be easier for you to break in. Is that the case?
Lagitagida: So that was one of the reasons they didn’t have a singer. It’s easier for everybody to listen to their music and then world wide they’ll have success. That’s the strength that they have.
Nihongaku: I understand that the band has been around for two years. What were you doing before that?
Lead singer Kohhan Ohtake turns to me and says, “Sugi no shigatsu de…next April de…two years.”
Nihongaku: So you guys are a relatively new band. What were you up to before Lagitagida?
Ohtake points to bassist Takehito Kono and indicates that they were in band before Lagitagida. Yamada jumps in to say that they were in a band together right before starting Lagitagida. It turns out the Ohtake and drummer Takayoshi Yazawa are still in a band together called Sajjanu. And, Ohtake says, Takayoshi and Takehito used to belong to a band together a long time ago. Clearly they’ve been playing in and around the same circles for years.
Nihongaku: What is your goal for playing SXSW?
Lagitagida: The goal is to do the best show at SXSW that they can do. And also, to meet new people and have connections for the next step.
Nihongaku: Are there any bands you’re hoping to see?
All members of the band seem to seriously consider this question so I break the tension with a quick joke. “Other than Bruce Springsteen of course,” I say. A few brief strings of Japanese from Yamada and the whole band laughs.
Takeyoshi puts forth a band called RES adding that he loves the singer but fears the show may be canceled. Ohtake wants to see Danielle Johnston. Bassist Takehito is hoping to see the Corrosion of Conformity. “Do you know of that band?” Yamada asks me.
“No,” I admit, “there are a lot of bands I’m going to have to look up after this interview!”
They keep coming with more, dropping names like Dinosaur Jr., Lionel Richie, and bluesy crooner Fiona Apple. It’s never right to assume you know what kind of music a given person, let alone an entire band, will gravitate to. I didn’t expect Corrosion of Conformity and I sure as hell didn’t expect Fiona Apple.
Nihongaku: Right on! I know you guys are playing the Japan Preview Show today. What do you think of that show as a preview for Japan Nite and possibly as an introduction to Japanese music?
Lagitagida: They’re not going to be Japan Nite so they don’t really know about that to be honest. They want people to say, “why are they not in the main stage?” They’re going to make them [the audience] say that.
Nihongaku: Where do you fit into the Japanese music scene? For example, most Americans can’t help but think J-Pop when you mention Japanese music. Obviously Lagitagida is much more independent. How is your style of music received in Japan?
Lagitagida: They think the Japanese people don’t listen to more music because they don’t have time or they’re not interested in listening to progressive music. They want to tell them like explain to them…introduce the progressive bands to the Japanese people. In a way, it’s hard to get an audience right now, but in the future, they’re in a good position because they’re the only band like them. They can be the only one and they have a great passion for it.
Nihongaku: Do you have any strategy to expand your music’s influence?
Lagitagida: What they do is free downloading for their albums. They also put videos on YouTube. Also, SXSW is appealing to Japanese people. They want to play worldwide so they can see that there is a band like this.
Nihongaku: You guys have a great website. Point in fact, there are a lot of bands with sites that aren’t half as good as yours. What has made you decide to focus so much effort on your site?
Lagitagida: They just wanted to show in the simplest way that people could see it. They didn’t really think about it. They just did it.
Nihongaku: One last question, how are you planning to party in Austin while you’re here?
This question requires no translator. A couple of them raise their hand as though they’re eager to volunteer their beer-drinking services immediately.
Yamada turns to me with an expression indicating she’s been keeping up with band members and says, “every day they’re drinking until morning.”
A few hours and one hazardous pedicab ride into oncoming rush hour traffic later, I arrive at The Grackle just in time to catch most of Lagitagida’s set. The venue is tiny if you can call it a “venue” at all. The Grackle is basically a small bar with some covered patio seating fixed to the front of the place. From there to the street is black top on which sits the East Side Kingz food truck, a taco truck and, during SXSW, a stage that appears to be constructed of wooden pallets.
It’s not much to write home about and certainly less than ideal justification to fly four progressive rockers and all their gear halfway across the world for a day show. But it’s easy to forget all of that when you watch Lagitagida perform. Like most good bands, they transcend things like location or even hangovers resulting from staying out till dawn on the streets of Austin. They lose themselves in the incantation they weave with every drum beat and strained whine of the guitar.
There is a jazz quality to Lagitagida’s music. They’ve built in a little space to move around in their own compositions; space for improvisation. Every instrument gets a little time to shine, usually just enough to leave you wanting a bit more.
Which is precisely how I felt walking back through East Austin to, eventually, reach my car. I wanted to hear more, a lot more. I realized that I was the embodiment of their SXSW goal. Slumping into my car with a couple of recently purchased Lagitagida CDs and my camera in tow, I realized that I did wonder why they’re not playing a main stage at SXSW. Alas, I’m left to wonder.
There is an unspoken custom of some of the bands that play the Japan Preview Show coming back for Japan Nite the following year. Hystoic Vein did it. Vampillia is doing it this year. Maybe there’ll be room enough for a progressive act with no vocals on the bill in 2013.