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While in Tokyo earlier this year, I was tipped off to Bar Sugimoto. Advertised as having cheap beer, lively discussion, and only being open on Wednesday nights, I trekked to the outskirts of Shimokitazawa for a drink and was intrigued to learn that the bar is eponymously nicknamed after the bartender and Japanese guitar player, Taku Sugimoto.
Sugimoto's guitar career has ranged from heavy, dense electronic sounds to restrained, acoustic sets that often employ silence in their composition. The latter has garnered him international attention in the free jazz and improvisational music scenes, collaborating with the likes of Kevin Drumm, Radu Malfetti, Mattin, Michael Pisaro, and Keith Rowe, to name a few. Locally, he has been famously collaborating with Tetuzi Akiyama for years, and he has worked with Sachiko M, Yoshihide Otomo, Taku Unami, Takeshi Ikeda, and Core of Bells. He has a current project with Moe Kamura called Saritote, who just made their US debut at Amplify 11 this past September in NYC. Recordings of many of these collaborations can be found on Sugimoto's record label, Slub Music, for which he also provides much of the album art. But come Wednesday night, you can find him behind the counter at Bar Sugimoto.
When did the bar open and how did you become involved?
The correct name of the bar is Wednesday Heights. The building (café & bar) is called Gendai Heights and is owned by Toshiki Iwata, who has been a friend of mine for 20 years. We were having drinks together one night and Iwata-san talked about how he wanted to use Gendai Heights to open a casual, salon-style bar. If I were to describe this atmosphere in one word it would be apache, which is a Japanese slang word that's different from its English meaning. It's a new concept we're trying to spread. I told him I wanted to be involved. That was summer of 2009.
Can you explain more about apache?
It's a hard word to translate. It's not common in Japanese either. It's similar to camp as described by Susan Sontag, Notes on "Camp". It's non-academic, the backside of dandy-ism, Donald Miller, John Cage, the coach from the Bad News Bears. Modern music is not apache because it's academic; however, playing the modern music is apache.
Are there live perfomances?
Wednesday Heights doesn't have live performances, but I used to have live concerts at the Gendai Heights cafe. Iwata-san also owned a previous building that I used to have performances at and that was how we came to know each other.
How has music been involved?
At first we didn't play music, we only played the played the radio by the radio-cassette player-- music, live sports, talk shows... it didn't matter. Being on live was the important point, being apart of the everyday life, a sense of safety. We were opposed to the bar that makes you listen to music. Japan also has standing bars and liquor stores where people drink in or in front of the store; we wanted to incorporate the apache social atmosphere into this type of bar, and in these bars the radio and/or TV play the dominant roles. We were tiring of the situation that every bar plays music. Besides, both of us don't usually listen to music. These days I sometimes play the vinyl Gendai Heights owns, and sometimes I stop by at the used store on the way to buy vinyl to play-- but I usually sell them soon after. I play experimental music and my CDs, but that's only when a few people are there. When it's loud, sensitive music loses its meaning. Besides, there are not very many people who are interested in that kind of music. I play it because I want to listen to it. When nobody comes, I don't often play music. It's tiresome to choose which vinyl to play. Even when there are people, sometimes I don't play music, or I let Iwata-san choose and play. I have to add about an experiment, too. I can't stand the fancy drinking places playing jazz at low volumes. I'm not into the jazz anyway, but what I don't like at all is the use of jazz to make the mood. So, I do this masochistic play by making the same situation at the bar using the jazz vinyl Gendai Heights owns. It's funny because it's not "making you listen" but I do it as a mockery.
Can you talk about the collection of vinyl at the bar? Is it yours?
Most of them the bar owns. There are a few of my vinyl, too. When I used to have concerts at Gendai Heights café I left my vinyl back then and those are part of the record collection now. With the exception of a portable CD player, I no longer own any music player at home, so I started to bring my CDs and vinyl to the bar, too. I believe a lot of the collection at Gendai Heights are also from the patrons.
Do conversations with the patrons influence track selection?
The topic of music only happens once in a while. Wednesday Heights attracts more drinking buddies around the area than friends who play music together. So most of the time the topics are about good Soba noodle or Ramen noodle places, funny owners at other bars, new drinking places, gossip, cultural stuff, and sometimes film. I don't really talk about music with my friends anyway. Well, I also play in an amateur rock band (mostly parody) with my drinking buddies in my neighborhood, so I play random rock music when they come to the bar to give them some ideas of what to play next as the band, and play what they request, too. People who come to the bar love old rock music (including myself), so a lot of times, they enjoy talking about music, and sometimes, I join the conversation and tell them my opinion. There are times Iwata-san picks film soundtracks to play and that starts conversation about the films. Basically, I choose the music to play by my mood of the day, or just by random. Most of the time, I pick the vinyl from the shelf without thinking. I think that music should not be played most of the time, and it will be interesting to play in the right time.
Is there preference to vinyl over other mediums (CD, digital, etc)?
Yes, I prefer vinyl. The vinyl is sentimental for our generation. There are fetish attractions to the design and covers of vinyl. I used to be into them and had my collections, but sold most of them to make money. I only have twenty or so at my home right now. Plus, the stereo equipment and/or turntables oppress you, because house and apartment situations in Japan are especially tight, so they will take up my place and make me feel uncomfortable. I feel like they are "the household Shinto shelf". I don't like to be bothered by them when I create music. I sold my vinyl to make money, but I don't need a lot of vinyl anymore. Well, of course, there need to be certain music players and there are enough numbers of music I want to listen to.
Can you put together a playlist from the bar's vinyl collection?
I mostly play rock music at the bar, so that's probably where I should pick the tracks from. Hmmm, let me think. I usually concentrate on guitars when I listen to rock music--or I should say only when I listen to rock music--because I'm a guitarist. In addition, I'm not interested in guitarists with techniques; what I like is the idiosyncratic--not the obviously idiosyncrantic or weird, but the unconventional guitarists who are stupid and somehow crazy. The guitarists who fulfill these conditions are J. J. Cale, Robbie Robertson, Robert Quine, and Neil Young; they often play stupid solo parts. My favorite technical guitarist is Amos Garrett. Oh, yeah, I was talking about the vinyl collections at the bar!
Karen Dalton's In My Own Time is an album I left a long time ago at Gendai Heights café. I like the guitar of this song, and I believe it was Amos Garrett. Mark Glynne and Bart Zwier's Home Comfort is an album I listened to in my early 20s, and one of the few I still own. It's mysterious music that's hard to explain-- there's nothing similar to them. J.J. Cale's Cloudy Day is a helpless track that makes you laugh, but the guitar is excellent; You Keep Me Hangin' On has my most favorite guitar solo. Bonzo Dog Doo-Duh Band makes me think that if I'm in a band, I want to sound like this. I'm not a big fan of Lou Reed or John Cale, but I like the Velvet Underground. I also like Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson, but I like more from Fairport Convention, which they used to be in. The last three are modern (contemporary) music tracks that I own and bring to the bar because I can't listen to them at home.
Karen Dalton - Something On Your Mind
J. J. Cale - Cloudy Day
J. J. Cale - You Keep Me Hangin' On
Bonzo Dog Doo-Duh Band - The Intro And Outro
Mark Glynne and Bart Zwier - Friends and Celebrities
Velvet Underground - Sister Ray
Fairport Convention - Matty Groves
Erik Satie - Vexations Side A (performed by Reinbert de Leeuw)
Iannis Xenakis - Anaktoria (performed by L'Octuor de Paris)