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Live Music in Tokyo: What’s the Rumpus?

SNA (Tokyo) — Musician Kaleb James joins WTR to discuss the music industry as seen from Tokyo and in the age of digitization.


Michael Penn: Welcome once again to What’s the Rumpus? Today, as you can see, our guest is none other than the famous the accomplished Kaleb James! Extraordinary musician of the Tokyo scene and beyond.

Kaleb James: WOW, well…

Michael Penn: He’s the first guest wave had whose album I have on my iTunes .

Kaleb James: I’m on rotation!?

Michael Penn: Yeah you are, yeah you are!

Kaleb James: Thank you, right.

Michael Penn: Kaleb James is a musician who works for many bands, I believe you also do sort of like session-type stuff as well?

Kaleb James: Yeah, Yeah.

Michael Penn: And I know him basically through his band Dark Matter.

Kaleb James: Right.

Michael Penn: …which is the one I have on iTunes, but we are going to talk a little about music and about Japan and maybe a little about the internet as well, so thank you for joining us today.

Kaleb James: Oh, thank you for the invite! It feels good to come into this Tokyo area. A little more often I’m a Yokohama kind of guy.

Michael Penn: Alright! First, let’s first start with a little more about yourself. How is it that a pro musician originally from the United States landed here in Japan and starts making your career here?

Kaleb James: I came over on a gig. I auditioned. I had a band in New York and, one of the things we were doing in New York, and it was supposed to be only for seven weeks and it was, and we finished it. At the end of it, a friend… that show was actually in Kansai, someone from this area, Yokohama and Tokyo area, needed a pianist and a singer. Just to make long story super short, I did it. I called back to New York and make sure nothing’s pending and there wasn’t. I kept extending and making sure nothing was pending… extending, nothing pending, and I ended up sticking around for almost a year the first time out. Then I went back for a while and came here, basically. Japan has been my hub. I am still working all over the world and doing stuff with other artists. Japan has been my place to lay my hat for a good long while now.

Michael Penn: Since you did end up coming back to Japan and deciding to make this more or less your hub as you say, Why? Was it the attraction and the advantage of this scene opposed to New York or other places?

Kaleb James: Well, actually I was doing a lot of good stuff in New York too. I was on tour with a couple of artists, I was with Bobby Brown and New Edition, Al B. Sure! and Lenny Kravitz… lots of folks, so I was doing a lot of stuff anyway. When I came here I was doing more stuff, so as it turned out I was back to a lot of my friends, who do come back and forth to Japan, other states and other countries, and there were always two questions that turned out after a few years of being here, and one was, “When are you coming back?” and the other one was “Can you get me a gig out here?” Because there was not a whole lot going on in the music industry in general and Japan is not that much different, but I find the opportunities a lot and more accessible for what it is I want to do, which is perform, yes, but also writing and studio work and production and stuff like that.

Michael Penn: Now when these more famous, well known, global acts come to Japan, how often are they bringing their own people? And how often are they basically looking for people in the local scene to pitch in on various gigs?

Kaleb James: Well it has changed over the years. It was a time when there was no problem bringing an entire band even your side people or production people, but that’s changed because you know budgets have changed. It’s got a lot to do with the access with in my opinion to good live music and the dumbing down of… how that’s had an effect on the music industry overall. Not just live but recording as well, so it’s changed. There was a time when you can bring over a lot of people. Now people for the main part, if they can try to get pick-up bands and musicians to cover them when they get here… which isn’t a problem either because the people do exist. You just need to know who to call, and luckily I am one of the people who knows how to get in contact with those folks.

Michael Penn: And I presume you’re on their list?

Kaleb James: I hope so! I have been working pretty well. You know, I’ll be leaving in a few months to go on tour throughout Asia with Nathan East, and the first part we’ll be doing Java Jazz for 2019 in Jakarta and we’ll go off to other places as well. Yeah! I’m still working with folks here. I’m doing Billboard in a couple of weeks with another artist that needs a pick-up band. So, were doing a couple of shows in town here and around Japan, so… it’s what they need basically.

Michael Penn: Well looks a little bit at the Tokyo scene. How big is it? How much of it is foreign? How much of it is Japanese? We’re talking about the live music scene. Is Tokyo a mecca of live music or is it kind of a desert: where does it stand in your view?

Kaleb James: There was a time when that was a really a hell of a spread, but not as much anymore. A mecca or a desert? The parameters work. There were a lot of more live houses or lives clubs for local musicians at one time. Now a lot of them have closed down. I have my own theories about that.

Michael Penn: Share them!

Kaleb James: Okay! Well, um, in my explosive opinion, I will piss off a lot of people with this, but basically, I think it is a dumbing down.

Michael Penn: Okay you’ve mentioned that twice now. What is the dumbing down of the music scene?

Kaleb James: Dumbing down for me is, this is just my opinion, but I think it really works and think it makes sense. The music industry overall is… I think a lot of big businesses are run by a lot of people that don’t really know what the hell they are doing. I’m constantly amazed by that, as many other people are when they deal with corporations and big businesses, to be amazed people who are positions of influence and have really, really big responsibilities, which they just have no idea what’s going on. That happens a lot in music and that’s because you might be grandfathered in or somebody just likes to have drinks with you a lot, they give you a great job. What’s happened, though, is that those people that get those positions are not very good at what they do, they’re not talented and they don’t have real instinct. Its harder to control real musicians than it is to control people that are…

Michael Penn: Acts.

Kaleb James: Well… They’re acts, but I mean there is a value to that too. If you create a subject that anybody can do, anybody can do it. Real music takes real musicians and talent, but they want to get paid and wanted to be treated right. So, what they have done is ‘dumbed down’ the necessities for what it takes to be called a musician and an artist. As a result of that they can literally get anybody. There was a time where you needed to know what you were doing to create music. Now they will give you some free software with any computer whether you want it or not. Anybody can be a producer. As a result it makes it easier for ordinary people to create these semblances of what music is, but it’s not real. It’s crappy. But that’s okay because they have dumbed down the pallet of the buying public to believe that this is the same as what it was when it was real.

Michael Penn: So, excellence is kind of suffering and it is kind of becoming a lowest common denominator that appeals to public somehow.

Kaleb James: That’s a biproduct of it. More importantly, there was a time where musicians and artists, it was nothing extraordinary of having an instrumental in every album. Chicago did it, Earth, Wind & Fire did it, Three Dog Night did it, Tower of Power… you had vocals and tunes you could dance to, tunes you could drink to, tunes you could party to, tunes you could bang somebody to. All of that was on one album. Now that meant that people you go to school with, your mum or people that just want to have a good time, when you bought the album you got all of that.

Michael Penn: So, like for the point of view from the industry executives, they’ll rather go for the easy money rather than do the hard thing to get the better music?

Kaleb James: Right. We suffer as music lovers as a result of that and following that as musicians.

Michael Penn: Alright. Well, when your talk of this phenomenon, Is Japan or Tokyo any better or worse is that respect, and where does it sit in the spectrum?

Kaleb James: I have a great deal of respect for Japan. Japan is internationally known for entertainers, everyone is big in Japan. There are artists that come to Japan from home and go right back home, they’re not on tour. They’ll be living their life, day to day going back and forth to the Seven Eleven or the Piggily Wiggly or wherever they shop. One day they’ll rehearse the band for like a day and a half get dressed, pack a bag, fly to Japan, do about five days and go right back home. So, Japan has been sustaining many artists all over the world for a long time. Japan takes a lot in. I think they would do better every now and then they would boo.

Michael Penn: So, they need to be a little more judgmental.

Kaleb James: Japan will take anything, man. They just take it! I’ve seen artists walk off stage because they felt the audience wasn’t it ‘feeling it,’ so to speak. I have a few examples of that with major artists who walked out on a live show.

Michael Penn: Japanese audiences are quiet and respectful.

Kaleb James: They felt it was not what they deserved as an artist on stage. Or being straight about it, they are just lazy asses and they cheated the audiences out of the cash. So… Blue Note, for what would be $180 dollars for a fifty-minute set… are you out of your god damn mind! If this was America for half the price you would get three artists. These people come to Japan and get away with a lot of crap. So, I think Japan would do well to every now and then throw some rotten fruit or refuse to leave a hall if that artist doesn’t get back on stage, because I paid for a whole show and that was bullshit. I’m not leaving this place and none of you should leave either until you give me back my money or they get back on stage.

Michael Penn: Those of you that are here in Japan and trying to make a living here, is this a place where you can make a living as a pro artist? I imagine artists everywhere are struggling… that kind of goes along with art. Does it feel any better or worse from an economic point of view, trying to get jobs and get paid? I imagine that you wouldn’t get screwed out of money as much here in Japan as opposed to other places, once they do commit to give you the money.

Kaleb James: Yeah, right. It’s not as bad as other places, that’s absolutely true. That part is true. For the most part they’re above board. You get what you… they call it a ‘guarantee.’ That’s a term that I never heard until I came to Japan, it’s called a guarantee, which really actually means you’ll get paid no less than the amount. You may get more, however. Whatever the chances may be that you’ll get more… that’s a whole other thing. You’ll get no less than the price quoted and that’s something you can depend on in Japan. So, as far as new ideas and things experimental, it’s good for that because Japan can take anything, pretty much. As a result of that there is a lot more opportunities, there is a novelty to being non-Japanese. I think it works both ways. I think Japanese too often listen with their eyes when it comes to being a musician. For a long time, I didn’t get session work as a rock musician and as a singer or playing-wise either because something about my melanin count didn’t covey a feeling of rock music to them. Having no idea that I grew up on Hendrix and Crosby, Stills & Nash and a lot of other rock musicians… and of the godfathers of rock, James Brown and Chuck Berry… they didn’t know that! So, when I did some rock session I was like ‘wow!’ does it really surprise you? That you get an apple from an apple tree that came from an apple seed? That seems odd to me. Then again, they listen with their eyes a lot. So, there are some advantages, some novelties, that work both ways. I think for non-Japanese musicians it works in their favor.

Michael Penn: And one of things I want to cover before I wrap it up is digitization. The internet is here now, there are all these new technologies and there could be some guy in Tokyo and some guy in Portugal and some guy in Maine listening to your music potentially and downloading it somewhere. In many ways this is a blessing and a curse, but overall as a professional musician are you feeling like this digitization of the music world is something that is ultimately a benefit or a loss?

Kaleb James: I think on a grander scale, the world changes. I’m sure there are lawsuits that are pending that are still on the books for the whale oil unions from a hundred years ago that are complaining about this new stuff called ‘electricity.’ I’m sure they’re still pissed off about their industries as well. The world changes and you got to keep up, and if you don’t you may get lost. I think that, ultimately, it’s a good thing because as time goes by it will probably be easier for you to get your music. A lot of people don’t know this, but there was a time that you couldn’t watch a movie on your watch… weird but yeah. It changed relativity quickly. That’s the thing about it, it was not gradual, we are talking ten, fifteen years that the world changed… that’s not even a generation. So… it’s something to run and keep up with, ultimately, the fact that you can download and watch something that somebody took without your permission, and somebody on the other side of the world literally can be watching something you just did. That ultimately doesn’t work well with musicians because there was a time when you wanted to see a live show you would go to a live show. That’s changed. There was a time when you wanted something and probably copied it from a friend… that could happen, but the most part you would have to do some work to get it and it probably cost you and in some way benefited the artist. That has changed a great deal. There was a time when it was was considered huge if you got two million in sales, now thirty thousand, fifty thousand… even somewhere between one hundred thousand likes or downloads is considered a win. The world has really, really changed and I think the great deal of that has to do with the access. The access to technologies, it has not been a real good friend for musicians and artists for their work, because the accessibility has made it so that everyone is okay with thieving your shit. That’s really what it is. It’s so easy that everybody seems to think it’s alright and it’s not! You’re really stealing our stuff! The access is so common that its seems like its an okay thing. It was never okay to record our shows, it wasn’t okay to record a live show and give it to your friends, and it isn’t okay now it’s just because it is easy because of the technology. So ultimately in the scheme of things, it has not been a friend to people who get paid for their creative work. That’s a fact. But at the same time you have to adapt, and you have to do something along those lines and do your best and make your way as best as you can. That’s always been the case with creative artists.

Michael Penn: Well, I hear you. The news industry is very similar in the ways to that same kinds of affects from digitization, I think. Well, thank you very much. This has been another episode of What the Rumpus. Kaleb James, once again, so thank this guy for coming in and an giving us a stimulating and exciting discussion.

Kaleb James: Thank you.

Michael Penn: Well thank you for joining us and see you again for the next episode of What’s the Rumpus.

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