Squatter-Loos, Sun and Soulwax: This is Summer Sonic

Words and photos Sarah Hiscock

Last summer, I flew out of Tokyo on possibly the same day Radiohead were flying in.  But having got over my initial despair, I took solace in purchasing a ticket for Summer Sonic music festival on Sunday 19th August, in Osaka.  As a veteran of both British and European music festivals – and having attended at least one festival a year for the 12 years prior to my living in Japan – I was keen to see what a large-scale music festival in this country would be like.

I had already been to “Festa de Rama” and “Green Green,” both smaller-scale music festivals in Hiroshima.  Despite being hit by a typhoon at Festa de Rama, I had great experiences at these festivals and was looking forward to what Summer Sonic had to offer.  But would braving Japan’s second largest music festival (behind Fuji Rock), in the heat of the Japanese summer sun, leave me craving another typhoon to cool me down?

Much like England’s Reading and Leeds festivals, Summer Sonic takes place in two locations over a weekend, with the same bands playing at each. The bands playing the festival in Tokyo on the Saturday then play in Osaka on the Sunday, and vice versa. I couldn’t afford the 22,500 yen for both days in Osaka, only the 12,500 yen for one day, so I went for a Sunday ticket. The main acts confirmed for the Sunday were as follows:

Grimes

The Vaccines

Crystal Castles

Passion Pit

Lost Prophets

Gotye

Soulwax

Franz Ferdinand

Sigur Ros

Greenday

I am a massive fan of Soulwax. I love their original, eclectic dance and rock sound, and their collaborations with many other dance acts in their Radio Soulwax live shows. I was also looking forward to hearing the beautiful melodies of Canadian singer/producer Grimes, and the experimental electro chaos that is Crystal Castles live.

In order to arrive at the festival site as early as possible on the Sunday, my boyfriend and I stayed in Osaka the night beforehand. The first band of the day started at 10.20am, which is a lot earlier than festivals back in Europe. The festival is held a bit of a trek away from the city centre, at the Maishima Summer Sonic Osaka site. We left our hotel armed with our sun hats and sun cream and caught the underground round to Cosmosquare, a station 30 minutes from central Osaka station. From there, we had to purchase a return ticket for a special festival shuttle bus which left from in front of Cosmosquare station. We joined what looked like the world’s longest queue, and I started to prepare myself for hours of waiting in the sweltering sun. However, I should never have doubted Japan’s efficiency. Within about 20 minutes, we were out of the sun and on the bus to the venue. The bus ride itself took only 10 or 15 minutes.

We arrived at the site, walked about 20 metres and quickly exchanged our tickets for wristbands. A short walk later and to my surprise, we seemed to already be in the festival arena. Festivals in England have massive security measures: big fences circumnavigate the sites, there are thorough inspections of bags, and wristbands are checked to ensure they haven’t been removed and transferred. There was nothing of the sort here. I kept on waiting for a big entrance with security checks, but found myself instead stumbling across the smallest of the four stages, the Flower Stage.

The venue and layout of Summer Sonic was nothing quite like I had experienced before. There were four different stages, three outside and one inside a big arena. Walking between the outside stages involved small checkpoints where the wristbands were (quite laxly) checked. This often caused quite a bit of congestion, and in between acts finishing and acts starting on other stages it could take quite a while to get from one stage to another – particularly if you tried to head to the Mountain Stage.

Getting to the Mountain Stage involved passing by the food court area. The food court was a very busy area most of the day, with a lengthy wait for some for the most popular stalls. Food available included: sashimi rice, kebabs, chicken and chips, okonomiyaki and yakisoba – all of the usual suspects at a Japanese festival.

Beer, at only 600 yen a glass, was a lot more reasonable than at festivals in England. When dealing with the humidity of the Japanese summer at an outdoor music event, cheap(ish) beer is a Godsend! The toilets were a much nicer experience than the horrors I’ve experienced before. Squatter portaloos, it seems, are the key to a cleaner festival toilet experience.

The soundtrack to our day at Summer Sonic included music from the following: Infinite, The KOXX, Group Love, Grimes, The Vaccines, Lostprophets, 吉井和哉 (Kazuya Yoshii), Franz Ferdinand, and Soulwax.  Of these, the only complete sets we saw were Lostprophets, Soulwax and Kazuya Yoshii.  This was partly due to unavoidable time clashes with bands we wanted to see, and also the time it took to travel between stages.

Infinite are a Korean boy group who we happened to see on the Mountain Stage. They weren’t really my cup of tea, but if you enjoy watching seven pretty boys dancing impeccably synchronised, rehearsed routines and singing generic K-POP, then they could be for you. We left their set early, to escape the sun and move inside the air conned Sonic Stage. Here, we came across another Korean band, The KOXX. I’m not really sure how to describe the KOXX… Think Atari Teenage Riot mixed with an 80’s synth band, thrown together with repetitive flashing visuals, strobe lights and guitar smashing. I couldn’t quite work out if I was enjoying the spectacle before my eyes or if I wanted it to stop.

Infinite on stage

Infinite on stage

We passed the main stage, The Ocean Stage, just as GroupLove were playing “Tongue Tied,” their catchy, feel good song made famous by an iPod commercial. We had a little boogie and were planning to leave until they linked straight into a cover of Houston’s “Dance with Somebody.” I’ll give this band credit for knowing how to keep the audience even after playing their most famous hit song. It was a great mini medley, with the band appearing to really enjoy themselves.

One of the acts I had been eagerly anticipating was Grimes. Unfortunately we only made it back inside the Sonic Stage in time to see the second half of her set. The Canadian singer’s mesmeric vocal loops and eclectic industrial, synthpop, electro sounds were captivating. Bubbles blowing from the stage added to the dreamy atmosphere. Her keyboard playing partner, dressed in a freakish panda/dog hat, unfortunately turned this dreamy atmosphere into more of an hallucinogenic trip gone wrong. This, of course, did not spoil the musical delight that was Grimes.

Grimes peforming

Grimes peforming

Next, we headed back to the Ocean stage to see the end of The Vaccines’s set. They won the NME Awards’ “Best New Band” award this year, so I was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about.  After hearing them compared to the likes of the Strokes and the Ramones, I had high hopes for this performance. I was unfamiliar with any of their music before Summer Sonic, and to be honest, I’d be unfamiliar with any of it now. To me, they sounded like a run-of-the-mill indie band you could find playing in any local pub in England. Maybe they were having an off-day, or maybe I’m no longer down with the kids and am somehow missing something when it comes to The Vaccines.

The Vaccines playing a disappointing set

The Vaccines playing a disappointing set

Feeling a little disappointed by the previous act, we stayed at the Ocean Stage and waited for Lostprophets. The last time I saw Lostprophets was eight years ago, when they played at my Student Union. Well, I have to say, how these Welsh rockers have grown. I mean in a physical sense. They are one muscular rock band! Anyway, back to the music… They performed energetically and kept the large crowd jumping to all the classics – getting the biggest sing along to their big hit “Last Train Home”.

After Lostprophets,  I was planning to head up to the Mountain Stage to see Death Cab for Cutie, but my boyfriend talked me into staying at the Ocean stage to watch Kazuya Yoshii. I’m glad I took his advice. Suddenly, the hip, young “I’m going to wear my best/silliest clothes possible because it’s a festival” types had disappeared and I was surrounded by the more “I’m here for the music rather than to look cool” types. Kazuya Yoshii was the lead singer of ‘The Yellow Monkey’, a huge Japanese rock band who split in 2004. This front man oozes coolness and he had the entire crowd singing along with his slightly gruff voice to classic melodic rock tunes. Skilful in the art of running to each side of the stage to get a reaction from the crowd at each end, he really impressed me.

Kazuya Yoshii impresses the crowd.

Kazuya Yoshii impresses the crowd.

Kazuya Yoshii performing classics.

Kazuya Yoshii performing classic rock.

To complete our long stint at the Ocean Stage, next on were Franz Ferdinand. Oh, Franz Ferdinand… These are a band who maybe need to learn to respect their audience a little better. Around me, people in the audience were (albeit a little calmly) jumping around, dancing, singing along and enjoying the music. However, there seemed to be no pleasing lead singer, Alex Kapranos. On a number of occasions he openly expressed his disappointment with the lack of enthusiasm from the audience. At one point, he stated something along the lines of, “Are you all out there enjoying a cup of tea?” He needs to learn to accept that a Japanese audience will be more reserved than the likes of, let’s say, an audience in Glasgow, if you catch my drift. Apart from this blatant rudeness, Franz Ferdinand seemed to be well-received, and I enjoyed having a little sing-along to material from all three of their albums.

Finally, we headed back to the Sonic Stage for Soulwax. My past experiences of Soulwax have been a little on the raucous side. They included the following: a six-hour solid dance marathon in Benicassim; watching Soulwax, Justice and 2ManyDJs back to back; a spectacular stage invasion by only me, followed by an even more spectacular stage dive at London’s “Fabric”; an ambush of the band’s dressing room by myself and a friend followed by a quick escort out of the club by security. Soulwax’s high-energy big beats, mixed with rock sounds, tend to bring out the wild child in me. However, my behaviour at their Summer Sonic show was a lot better than before.  It was the smallest crowd I have ever been amongst while watching them, and also the tamest. When some of Soulwax’s biggest hits, such as E Talking and NY Excuse were being performed, I found I was the only one going a little loopy and I was throwing myself around more than the other people near me. Still, the crowd were all getting into the music, bopping and dancing along, having a fantastic time. Although small, the crowd were definitely keen Soulwax fans. Soulwax stormed the show with all their hits and their trademark black and white light show.

Soulwax

Soulwax and their trademark light show.

We decided to leave on a Soulwax high, due to concerns about queues for the shuttle bus back into the centre, and being restricted by train times back home. Our decision made us miss all three of the headliners: Greenday, Sigur Ros and Adam Lambert. I would have loved to see the beautiful, melodic, ambient Sigur Ros, but I will have to see them some other day. All in all, Summer Sonic was a great festival. If you ever plan to go, make sure you prepare yourself for the heat of the Japanese mid-afternoon sun and you will have a great time.

 

Editor: This article was written in September 2012, before news came to light of legal accusations against Lost Prophets lead singer, Ian Watkins.