Welcome to 2013 Dear friends.
2012 has been my Burmese year, and I closed it with Mission of Burma.
2013 will be a Japanese year, bear with me, I start it with a Japanese band: Melt Banana.
Melt Banana were invited in December last year, by Shellac, to play for their Nightmare Before Christmas ATP festival at Camber Sands in UK. I was there just for one day, so I cannot comment on the rest of the event, but there are no doubts they played the best set of that (Satur)day.
To a non expert as I am is difficult to differentiate Melt Banana by the large number of Japanese bands experimenting in the noise rock. Melt Banana surely were among the first to join the loud party and they still rock the hell out of it.
A project started in 1992, produced the first album in 1994. This trio has been frequenting the underground stages for two decades. Since then they have produced at least 9 studio album plus an endless series of releases well summarised here.
Japan from an European perspective seems a difficult-to-understand country. That is why I want to go and “touch it” with my full set of senses and a couple of cameras.
It looks a country where the extremes touches. A millenary tradition and hi-tech futurism cohabit. What I find ‘different’ is where the missing in the middle has gone. Extremes are everywhere but you can navigate between them through a comfortable zone. I can’t see, from overhere, where that zone is.
I see the most contemporary architecture merging in the most traditional gardens, the simplest minimalist food eaten with sophisticated teas whose leaves are kept in the shadow before harvesting.
Music wise, Japan, doesn’t appear so different to the same inexperienced European eye I am. Japanese music gathers at the extremes.
In rock they love everything that is beyond. Either it is noise, grindcore, hardcore, speed metal or John Zorn.
Otherwise they are big lovers of classical music and 70s progressive rock which is nothing else than its modern commercial branch.
I know it’s a reductive and ridicule analysis, that’s why I want to have more insights.
Century old traditions, bonsai, ikebana, zen gardens and capsule hotel with every other possible gadget fit in two cubic metres.
It’s either black or white. Where’s the grey in Japan? I want to visit the fields, the farms, the markets, the streets to understand those people.
And to understand its music scene. And everything else.
I’ve seen several Japanese artists live in the years, legends as Keiji Haino, post-rockers Mono, psychedelic drones as the amazing Boris and English based bands as Bo Ningen.
This was my first time with Melt Banana. I have not listened to much beyond the cover of the Italian classic “Tintarella di Luna”, played at a speed ten times faster than the original, and some stuff I YouTubed before the concert. I don’t find easy to listen to grindcore from the record.
Yasuko Onuki is the singer. A girl with one of the highest pitch voices I have ever heard. You know those voices that can break wine glasses. I read she sings in English, but I challenge everyone to understand what she says.
She writes the lyrics too, so. Yasuko also manipulates some sort of devices to control the beats, some of the effects and the sampled bases.
The guitarist is Ichiro Agata, the other member who founded the band back in the nineties. Ichiro and Yasuko may be the most common Japanese names, to me sound as a couple of robots fighting to save the world in the cartoons I used to watch on TV as a child.
They’re not robots at all, but look close on stage. Ichiro plays guitar with a multi effected technique that makes it sound everything but a guitar. This while he runs all over the stage in the same neurotic way Melt Banana music is perceived.
He also wears a surgical mask on stage.
He isn’t an oddity. I browses for street photos of Japanese towns and came across many people walking with that masks covering their faces.
It’s another curiosity of Japanese costumes. Why some people wears those masks?
To my old world it was an oddity of the late Michael Jackson due to his hypochondria and persecutory beliefs. I struggle to believe so many Japanese undergo the same kind of paranoia to the point of wandering the streets with a surgical mask on! Is that really fear of germs? Is that fashion? Has anyone asked them if they believe who does not has those masks on is going to stay in bed with serious infections at a certain point? I need to go and see.
Melt Banana are supposed to be a trio. There should be a bassist on stage. I haven’t seen him and he doesn’t appear in any of my photos. Where Rika Hamamoto was? Hidden onstage somewhere? Or left in Japan? You tell me.
The music is what it says on the tin. Fast noise rock provided by the guitarist with a yelping singer. A beat sampled out of a laptop. Relentless, loud, somewhat repetitive and surely addictive.
The first 10 minutes are intolerable and several leaves the packed hall. Then while you start to adapt your ears and your eyes to the mayhem happening in front of you, the show shifts into a more “comfortable” experience that even turn into a hypnotising one.
It’s not because the music changes. It’s not they warm up and play better. If they didn’t stop every so often you’d struggle to define when one piece finishes and a new one begins.
It’s a physical adaptation to the happening. You get accustomed to the roaring.
Within half hour Melt Banana hyper energetic set drives the audience to the border of insanity. The most spectacular crowd surfing I have ever assisted materialise in front of the stage. People floats over heads, hundreds of arms push them around the venue before they land because of exhaustion. In time for another one to restart.
I am next to Todd Trainer, Shellac’s drummer (and his lovely girlfriend) watching this. I can see through their eyes how amazing this is looking.
Surely not the record you want to put on your CD player to chill out, Melt Banana live show is a relaxing way to face your daily stress, not with a relaxing massage, but with an overdose of hysteric music that helps your body to eliminate all your toxins.
If Japan remains the land of extremes. Melt Banana are an essential example of this.
Crowd surfing or body surfing is one of the funniest activity at music concerts (for the ones doing it more than the ones supporting them, maybe). Despite venues’ security tries to forbid it with threatening signs, for safety reason (I never heard of someone hurt because of this), they never managed to stop it whenever a show becomes lively and the “mosh pit” bouncy.
I was going to tell how to photograph it, then I realised I already, did about 4 years ago along with a Courteneers’ forgotten post. Forgotten because of Courteneers of course. I remember to be attacked by fans insulting me because I didn’t love the band… oh well. Courteneers, go guess. Hey Hey, My My.
To find another concert photography tip after 200 or so isn’t easy (anything you want to know?).
At that time I didn’t have many photos to go along with that tip. There are many more readers of liveon35mm today than in 2008. I am more experienced so, as my latin ancestors used to say, repetita iuvant. I’ll write about this again.
To photograph crowd surfers has technical issues.
It is not difficult but rarely can be done from the pit while shooting the band. Because the surfer are behind you and they are in the dark. Exceptions are open air daylight concerts and bands member joining the surfing. The light technician will follow it with a spot.
If you are in a small/medium venue and the security let you photograph from the back after the three songs in the pit, that is the ideal situation. Shoot the band first, then move back and do the surfers.
Crowd surfing is also unlikely to happen in the first three songs of a gig and concentrates mostly towards the end and during the hits.
Once you are in the back, preferably in a slightly higher position than the crowd (unless you are 2 meters tall) you canstart.
At this ATP the small stage was perfect in size and the photographers were allowed to stand at mixer desk. It was about 50-70 cm elevated from the rest and gave the perfect angle to photograph with a 70-200mm telephoto lens.
From the back, the band will be the background of your photograph. I will never stress enough how essential is the background and the composition in concert photos. In this situation it is not a background anymore, it is complementary to the success of the image because it’s the band there.
The crowd surfer is likely to be a black silhouette, rarely there is light on them. When dealing with silhouettes, with no details in the subject but a black spot, what makes the picture is the shape. It has to be recognizable and in a natural pleasing (or bizarre) pose. Be ready, shoot fast and discard anything that is confusing and not discernible in post-edit.
Beware, a crowd surfer is not up for a long time. From the moment they appear to the moment they disappear among the crowd or are rescued by the security, it’s a matter of few seconds, rarely more.
If you happen to be in a venue that has balconies (as Koko in London for example) there is a great perspective up there on the side.
If it also happen that the artist itself jumps on the crowd and begins to surf crowd is the moment you don’t want to have the wrong lens on, as it happened to me at Koko for Amanda Palmer.