How a Toronto anaesthesiologist wound up being an ambassador for the next wave of Japanese indie-rock.
At 4 a.m. one morning in May 2010, a bleary-eyed Steven Tanaka had yet to fall asleep. The members of Mothercoat, a five-piece Japanese indie-rock band, lay passed out in his bedroom, and another 20 or so musicians covered nearly every surface in his two-bedroom Toronto condo. Several hours after a boisterous show at the Whippersnapper Gallery, and only a few more before they’d wake up and head back to Tokyo, the group slept soundly as Tanaka looked on in exhaustion.
Sleeping arrangements aside, Tanaka’s choice to play host to dozens of visiting musicians was understandable. He’d already covered all of their expenses from the previous week’s cross-Canada tour—plane tickets, accommodations, venues, and more. All in all, the trip set him back about $30,000. But perhaps even more remarkable than that massive bill is the fact that he knew exactly what he was getting himself into from the outset—and he’s already done it again. Twice.
An anaesthesiologist at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto, Vancouver-born Tanaka is the mastermind behind Next Music From Tokyo, a weeklong showcase of Japanese indie bands that’s hit Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver on three separate occasions over the past two years; the fourth edition kicks off at the Rivoli this weekend. Though he has no previous experience booking or promoting shows, the 38-year-old has taken it upon himself to provide an alternative to the ultra-twee J-pop and overdramatic visual kei that’s made its way to North America and expose Canadian neophytes to sounds and performers they’d likely never discover otherwise—costs be damned.
“Everyone pretty well thinks I’m crazy,” says Tanaka, a recent convert to the world of J-rock. Like many North Americans, he explains, he had the impression that Japanese music was gimmicky and imitative until about five years ago, when he began watching anime and quickly fell in love with a handful of bands that provided the soundtracks for some of his favourite shows. Since then, Tanaka’s made 40 trips to Japan, where he’s seen approximately 150 live shows, including Tokyo Boredom, a two-day festival of free Japanese underground rock gigs. Somewhere in that artist-organized weekend of endless mosh pits, Next Music From Tokyo was born.
“I was completely blown away,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I could do something like that in Canada!’”
Tanaka admits the tour, which he funds out of his own pocket, doesn’t quite match its inspiration in size or notoriety, but it’s grown since its inception. This edition boasts rock quartet Zazen Boys, who are to Japan what Arcade Fire is to Canada (minus the Grammy, of course). Fans and friends have also jumped on board to help Tanaka promote and organize the latest tour. One dedicated supporter, a videographer named Rob Perry, is driving up to Toronto with a drum kit and guitar amps from his native Baltimore. Shows have even begun to sell out—at one on the last tour, people were lined up outside the Rivoli until midnight to see the five-band lineup.
Tanaka has his doubts about whether the shows are truly effective in getting more Canadians interested in the Japanese indie music that he loves. But he has other reasons to continue his tours—even if he finds himself upwards of $30,000 in the hole after each one.
“Every little kid’s dream is to live the life of a rock star,” he says, “and I definitely feel that way.” If you find yourself in the audience at one of the Next Music From Tokyo shows, watch Tanaka—a self-described wallflower who didn’t attend his high-school prom—as he stage-dives or crowd-surfs, and you can get a good look at his inner child in action.
Along with that wish-fulfillment comes a healthy dose of familial anxiety. “My parents obviously know that I do these tours…but they don’t know I’m the one funding it,” Tanaka explains. “They just assume the bands are paying their own way. They would have a heart attack if they knew I was doing this.” Nevertheless, when the tour stops in Vancouver, he regularly stays the night with them. There’s nothing more punk rock than a free meal.
Next Music From Tokyo Vol. 4., at the Rivoli, 334 Queen St. W., May 18–19. 416-596-1908, nextmusicfromtokyo.com.