Living in Japan
From the band's perspective

From the band's perspective

Added In: Living in Japan › Arts

Joe Sichi

Faith does not consist of what the world believes. It consists of what the individual believes, or perhaps more precisely, of what the individual would like to believe.

I like to believe that I am a quiet individual who enjoys nothing more than sprawling on a sofa with a book of poetry and some classical music or jazz on the stereo. I like to believe that my stereo plays nothing rougher than Uncle Bob before he went electric, or maybe James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, though I regularly throw out the last track, “Steamroller,” as it messes with Sunday afternoon harmony.

Faith runs into trouble when it confronts reality. In my case, my faith in who I am was shaken when I found myself the manager of a hard rock band with members in their early twenties who preceded and ended most sets with shots of tequila. How this came to pass is a story for another day, but it involved pizza and beer, and yes, tequila.

In the world of bands trying to make a name for themselves there are rites of passage that correspond roughly with Dante Alighieri’s divisions in The Divine Comedy. You start as the local version of a garage band, which in Japan would be more aptly titled a practice band – renting rehearsal space weekly and practicing for years.

Once you are ready to leave this “Forest of Darkness,” you enter the “Inferno,” i.e. playing any local bars that will have you. From there, you probably won’t be lucky enough to have Vergil guide you, but any old sod willing to take the title of manager can get you to the next level, Purgatorio.

In purgatory you will play in the local live houses, and, if you are any good and can stick with it, you will pass up to Paradiso. This used to be a signed contract, but with the recording industry in flux some level of fame and occasionally the elusive fortune will have to suffice for Paradise.

Fish Tank TV, the band I - for lack of a better term - managed, for two years was passing from Inferno to Purgatorio during the time I worked with them. They were still playing some local bars, but more and more their gigs were live house shows. I watched the band make this transition, and the sound that I was hearing after just a few live house gigs was remarkably tight compared to what it had been a few months earlier.

Stevie P., front man, vocalist, and lead guitarist, describes the transition this way: “In a bar you can still hear yourself playing, in a live house you can only hear your monitor. The sound check is beyond crucial - you feel as though you're detached from your music while playing.”

He talks of bands he’s seen flabbergasted by the fact that the drummer has to sit and hit the drum pedal for fifteen minutes so the sound engineer can initiate the settings. Stevie, a trained classical pianist and with a degree in sound engineering, heard when something was off well before I did. 

To make those initial inroads into the live house scene, a band needs a recording of decent quality, a sizable fan base, and, most important, confidence and experience. Just wanting to play isn’t enough, you’ve got to move it to a professional level.
In spite of the fact that FishTank TV is a drinking band - they met while drinking, established some of their best contacts while drinking, and come up with their most outrageous ideas while drinking - they were always professional prior to and during a gig. This gets them invited back to live houses again and again. Welcome to Purgatory.

To understand why this is purgatory, you need to understand the way the live house system works in Japan. Put it simply, it’s “Pay to Play.” A live house will invite a band they want to play a particular, often themed, night. The band is told: “Tickets for the night are 2,000 yen. You guys have to sell 30.” If you don’t sell the tickets you are still going to be responsible for 60,000 yen.
Fish Tank TV has a sizable fan base and no trouble selling tickets, but even with this out of the way you’re still not assured of a good night. Problems can occur outside of the band’s control, as was the case when FishTank TV made the top 10 of 76 local bands in a band competition.

The final was held in Art Pier Hall and judged by representatives from Radio I, Electric Lady Land, Zip FM, and Yamaha. Competing for 300,000 yen (enough cash to allow them to record a second album), FishTank on that day met with an interviewer who wouldn’t ask them music questions (only drinking questions…), a sound engineer who left their sound thin, and a frozen audience, which FishTank managed to get to their feet and warmed up for the next and eventual winning band whose main feature was a cute girl in a mini, mini skirt. The band plays on; Vergil, where art thou?

Stevie and I once took a bicycle trip out to Gifu to come up with ideas for the future and further band solidarity. On the way out, somewhere in the fields just past Ichinomiya, we passed a forlorn farmer standing in his field of what had been perfectly ripened watermelons. Someone, perhaps a jealous rival farmer, had gone through the field meticulously and smashed each and every melon. As we passed by, Stevie and I both wished there was something we could say, but knew there wasn’t, for we also knew that feeling.

A gig rehearsed for, prepared for, and ready to knock their socks off can go horribly awry. Once the FishTank bass blayer, Omi, hadn’t showed up for the sound check and still wasn’t there five minutes before the start time. Stevie and Kenji, the drummer, were forced to furiously rewrite the set list, converting it quickly to an acoustic set, and had just finished when Omi arrived with one minute to spare.

Other disasters can be caused by the crowd, an equipment malfunction, perhaps even by misaligned stars. Conversely, sometimes all that’s needed to make a normal gig great is one catalyst - one guy or girl in the audience who gets up and thus gets everybody else up, one bit of unplanned hilarity on the stage, or a drum solo that just won’t quit and looks to the audience like it’s going to be the last anyone ever sees of the drummer (Kenji is known for these).
Preparing for a live house gig is no small feat. When you play in bars, you can often leave some of the heavy equipment behind to be picked up later in the week. Not so with a live house.
FishTank has large flightcases on wheels, a tube amp head, pedal board, main guitar and spare, cables, effects boxes, bass guitar, bass amp, etc., all of which has to get safely to and from the live house. Luckily the most important thing they’ve ever lost was Kenji’s jumper. FishTank’s audience is mainly in their mid-20s to early 30s, meaning there is usually a lively after party to plan as well.
Most times the equipment goes home first and the band gets to the party a little later. Considering the locations of the live houses where FishTank plays, this can be a logistical nightmare. While Tightrope, Heartland Studios, and even the Art Pier Hall, are fairly central, the band also plays at Prime One (formerly Zed) in Kurumamichi, Cotton Club in Toyohashi, Deborah in Tokyo. And then there was the Walkathon in Meijo Park; at that gig all the equipment had to be trundled through the mud and pouring rain, and the band was forced to go without a sound check due to scheduling overruns.

The image of Purgatory gets a bit clearer when all of this is taken into consideration, and yet FishTank will tell you that none of this has hurt them, in most respects it has only made them better. They stuck with it, unlike myself. I’ve reclaimed my Sunday afternoon sofa far removed from Dante’s imagery, and the sweet, erratic sounds of Uncle Bob’s harmonica pleasantly play through the stereo... or they would if the Meat Guy hadn’t stolen it, but that’s also a story for another day.

I haven’t yet put a movie of my Sunday afternoon faith up on YouTube, but you can place the current location of FishTank TV in Dante’s trilogy at or