JAPAN’S KENJI USUI IS PUSHING THE MUSIC SCENE FORWARD, ONE BAND AT A TIME

The music industry and the music scene in America are completely different from what it was even just ten years ago, and it is continually changing. Napster of course led to the upheaval of the music business. There is still conjecture about the result of this occurrence and whether it’s effects were beneficial or detrimental to the music world. One side insists that it was blatant piracy, a crime that deserves severe punishment. Others state that this “anarchy” leveled the playing field which led to a resurgence in the artists taking control from music industry executives and the birth of the DIY movement in the US. For quite some time now, the Japanese have been attracted to American bands and artists, taking careful note of it. One person who has done this is Japanese artist Kenji Usui. Usui is a prevalent part of the Japanese music scene who has also pioneered much of the ever growing Japanese independent music terrain. As an established Japanese artist, Kenji has made it his mission to increase visibility for the less established Japanese musicians as well as visiting foreign artists and bands.

With a long list of band credits and recordings that include; Blackjack, SPOON, Allies and Aces, Pororocks, and An Atomic Whirl, Usui has become weaved into the Japanese musical tapestry. He is highly recognized for his talent on multiple instruments (Vocals, Bass, Drums). As someone who climbed up from obscurity to become one of the most recognizable faces in the Japanese music world, Kenji understands how difficult a job it can be to simply gain a platform from which to express one’s own artistry. With that in mind, he set about to establish the opportunities for other artists to accomplish this.

an-atomic-whirl-promo-photo-2014

One of the most direct and successful means of Kenji helping to expose artists to the scene was as cofounder of Noise Union Japan Records. This label has been a way to connect bands from Japan and surrounding countries. Noise Union Japan Records is a way to promote bands and develop a network that will allow artists to grow and expand. Founded by Kenji Usui and Chikashi Gushiken, this label seeks to showcase the best artists from not only Japan, but also Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Korea, and other countries in the region. Gushiken (Noise Union Japan Records co-founder) gives credit to Usui’s affable nature as well as his love of music for enabling the success of this record label, commenting, “Kenji has a knack for meeting people and finding a way to incorporate them into Noise Union Japan. Every time he goes to a show in Tokyo or travels to a different country, he comes back with multiple new contacts and new ideas for booking events or festivals. He is highly motivated and productive, driven by a genuine passion for growing the music scene.”

As a member of Anit-Clockwise Productions, Kenji helps to organize events around Tokyo. Whether it is a local band or an international artist touring Japan, Usui understands the necessity of having an experienced hand on deck. As a member of many different bands over the years (Anti-Clockwise Productions recently produced and shot the music video for “Sanlitun” by Kenji’s band An Atomic Whirl) Usui is particularly empowered to make the process much less cumbersome for bands from any location in the world. It has afforded him the chance to gain knowledge and insight, as he reveals, “The best thing about working with bands from other countries is the inspiration and new perspective it gives. For me, working and touring with bands from other countries has been the most rewarding part of playing music over the past several years and I look forward to doing more of this in the future. It seems that US musicians are very interested in Japanese music and culture. I am always impressed by the level of creativity and experimentation coming from US bands, and I think that there is very fertile ground for cooperation and collaboration between these cultures in the future.

The Tsuruginomai Festival in the mountains of Japan, showcases the deep underground of Tokyo’s music scene. Kenji has aided founder Kohei Noda with this festival every year since 2010, assisting with the production and booking, as well as performing with various acts each year. As an artist who has toured playing international festivals, Usui has been an essential part of helping to coordinate this festival and others to increasing success and attendance since its inception. Kenji confirms, “I regularly perform at the Tsuruginomai Festival with Pororocks, An Atomic Whirl, and Kissaco, as well as playing onstage with various friends’ bands. Being a performer gives me an immediate understanding of what the artists on the bill are experiencing. It’s important that I keep in touch with this to give both the bands and the audience a better concert experience. It is often difficult, but it’s also rewarding. Some of the best bands are the bands you never hear about; being a part of an event like this, you are exposed to these bands. There is always someone knew who is bringing a new idea or style to the music community. It’s exciting when you witness that.”

 

 

 

pororocks-in-2016

Advertisements

BRINGING THE GREAT CONCERT HALLS TO CLASSICAL MUSIC FANS

Cadu Byington has been on tour and is ready to sleep in his own bed again. He is not playing in an indie rock band or the DJ for a famous rapper; Byington is the sound engineer/music producer whom Jakob Handel tagged to work with him to capture performances by classical and contemporary artists at some of the most famous and historic venues in Germany and Switzerland. Handel Classic Audio wanted to enable classical music fans to hear these famous ensembles in their home venues to pay tribute to the composer, artists, and the acoustics of these iconic acoustical structures. Jakob Handel (Grammy nominee, Latin Grammy award-winner, and German Echo Klassik award-winner) has the credentials that attract the elite of the international recording industry. Handel’s work with Sony / BMG record labels, Universal, EMI and several independent labels has empowered him to gain access to many historic venues for recording purposes. For his latest passion project, he wanted to gain access to some of his favorite venues in Germany and Switzerland, and he wanted Cadu Byington as the expert he trusted on this project in a very hands on manner. Jakob Handel explains the decision for this choice declaring, “Cadu is a very talented producer; over the past few years he has come to dominate all aspects of a production. He is also a great musician, a feature that I think is the most important for a music producer. One must think musically more than technically, and know how to convert this musicality with the available technical resources; this is the secret weapon to becoming a successful producer.” The recordings would require them to quickly access the personality and intricacies of each venue and tailor the recording process uniquely and efficiently to each performance. With a full understanding of the challenges and demands of this opportunity, Byington welcomed the chance to test his abilities and deliver a product up to the standards of the Handel Classic Music name. Handel and Byington had been associated since 1999 but this was a major undertaking on which the two would work together. To fully appreciate these recordings, one must understand the approach that was taken to attain them. At a time when recording software has made everyone feel that they are a true recording engineer, a glimpse into the process that Byington and Handel undertook gives evidence to true mastery of the recording process at its best.

For this undertaking, the recording process was different from both a studio setting and conventional live scenarios. Handel Classic Music wanted to record at three different venues; Rosengarten in Germany, KKL in Lucerne, and Tonhalle in Zurich. The acoustic identity of these locations as well as the ensembles famous for residing there are so lauded and respected in the classical music industry that Handel Classic Audio wanted to bring the experience of hearing them to the world. Music fans have spent so many decades listening to music produced in studios that they may have forgotten (or even not be aware of) the fact that many of the historic concert halls were designed by architects to create the optimal acoustic environment to deliver a moving musical experience. Today’s modern effects are based on the acoustic benefits of these historic musical venues. Modern concert sound systems are so ubiquitous that many audiences have never attended a performance without them. Handel Classic Music wanted to deliver a more purist experience. Byington states, “The approach is totally different. In a concert hall, we want to have the sound in its purest forms, without the interferences of PA systems, and with everyone playing at the same time, like a real concert. The halls were designed to “mix” the sound “’n the hall’. In a studio, you don’t usually have all these acoustical qualities, and you have to add artificial effects to emulate the hall sound. Besides, there are few studios that have room to fit a large orchestra.”  While operating a large sound system requires one skill set, recording a performance while delivering the unique qualities of an individual location is a completely different talent.

Mannheimer Rosengarten in Mannheim, Germany has hosted concerts by contemporary artist like Sting, Simply Red, and many others but, it is mainly home for the classic orchestras and operas for which it was designed. Cadu and Handel traveled there to record the opera Der Prinz vom Homborg by German composer Hans Werner Henze. This Art Noveau structure was built between 1900 and 1903. As a traditional concert hall, Rosengarten has beautiful natural acoustic qualities. These characteristics can be overwhelming or beneficial depending on the abilities of the engineer in charge of assessing them. Byington explains, “When you enter a new hall, you have to sit and listen for all its qualities. Listen carefully to the rehearsal, and “learn” the hall. If you have a profound knowledge of your gear, you will know what to do in order to have the sound. The halls have dampeners and baffles, but in much bigger proportions. Based on the style of the repertoire, you’ll base your approach on more or less reverb, more or less microphones. This means that the venue characteristics as well as the piece of music and style need to be factored in when making the choice of microphones and placement.”

KKL concert hall in Lucerne, Switzerland is both aesthetically and acoustically stunning. This world famous venue is home for the Lucerne Summer Festival. Cadu travelled there to record the performance of Turkish pianist Fazil Say who played Ravel’s Piano Conceto in G. For this recording, Byington needed to take a delicate approach which took advantage of the tremendous natural attributes created in Jean Nouvel’s impressive design. Byington describes, “We did a light set up with 12 microphones, using a main mic technique known as the Decca Tree. The Decca Tree consists of three identical microphones positioned in a triangular shape above the stage. It takes this name because of the DECCA RECORDS engineers who made it popular as a nice way to get the overall sound of the orchestra while at the same time having a nice stereo image. In addition to the Decca Tree, we used other spot mics placed close to sections (like strings, woodwinds, brass) and a pair for the piano solo. The hall has such a wonderful sound that using too many mics can result in eliminating the characteristics for which it is known and loved.”

The final recording took place in The Tonhalle in Zurick, thought by many to possess the best acoustics in Switzerland. Cadu was recording a production which partnered American rapper Saul Williams and composer Thomas Kessler. A mix of rap lyrics with classical music. This truly unique and modern pairing required an engineer with both traditional and modern sensibilities. It was further proof that Byington was the perfect choice for Handel on this project. For a number of reasons, the mobile approach was well suited for this situation as Cadu relates, “It is very difficult for a traditional orchestra to go to a studio nowadays. It is very expensive to have an orchestra inside the studio just for a recording, that’s why we record live and on location. For the recording in the Tonhalle, we did three days of recording. We had singers, and a full orchestra with a lot of percussion, which required a setup of around thirty microphones. The approach was very similar to KKL Lucerne, but we captured the audio with much more detail, closer positioning, and more mics. The piece was an orchestral arrangement for some Saul Williams texts ‘said the shotgun to the head’.”

photo4

  The experience was quite demanding of Byington, Handel, and everyone involved. A myriad of microphones was required to cover any possible situation. The recording crew also needed to travel as lightly as they could, assess each venue quickly and accurately, and set up as efficiently as possible. While recording in a studio allows for multiple takes and splicing of takes, this recording project meant that each recording had to be perfect as there would be no multiple takes or overdubs. Although everyone spoke the universal language of music, the technical aspects of recording and the different locations often necessitated the musicians and engineers to communicate verbally in a language that was not their native tongue. It called for everyone involved to conduct themselves with the highest level of professionalism. Byington feels that he grew in his abilities as well as his appreciation for the musicians whose performances he recorded. He notes, “I learned a new standard in my profession, the standards of Europe for classical music is the reference for the rest of the world.” The recordings themselves pay tribute to the honorable history of the venues, the talented musicians who performed the pieces, and the mastery that Cadu Byington used to deliver them to the world.

 

STEFAN HILLESHEIM: CONTINUING THE LINEAGE OF THE BLUES TRIO

Jimi Hendrix. Eric Clapton. Stevie Ray Vaughn. These names are so iconic that even those who are not avid music fans know exactly who they are and why they are so famous. These three musicians have a great deal in common even though their lives and careers span different eras. All are iconic guitarists who have easily identifiable signature sounds. All of these men were heavily influenced by the blues. Equally significant, all of them had noted careers as sidemen before stepping up to front their own bands. It’s a scary move to leave a successful situation because you feel you want a vehicle to express your true artistic voice. Stefan Hillesheim agrees with this. Hillesheim had a thriving career in his native Germany, being recognized as one of “The” guitarists in Germany and Europe. As a member of BlueSide (the highly lauded German Blues band) and touring guitarist for Celtic Dreams, he was playing to sold out shows in Clubs and concert venues. The difference between an artist who uses music to achieve their goal of living a comfortable life and one who uses their abilities to vehemently pursue their art is vast; Stefan is the later. Although he founded the Stefan Hillesheim Band while still playing in other groups in Germany, the experience planted a seed that would ultimately lead him to pursue his own brand of Blues Rock (something he also shares with the previously mentioned iconic guitarists/artists) in the US, the place Stefan and others recognize as the birthplace of this genre.

A quick google or YouTube search of Stefan Hillesheim will allow you to access a multitude of videos in various group setting of this guitarist performing; one hears the deep,soulful, and melodic playing of this guitarist. There is always a nod to the greats of the Blues, whether it be Albert King or someone more rock influenced like Hendrix. Like the playing of the guitarists who came before him, Stefan is always conscious of adding his own subtle twist to the music. It’s important to Blues artists to say something we can all relate to and recognize, without repeating someone else’s statement verbatim. When Stefan decided to make the move from sideman to fronting his own band, it wasn’t out of conceit or any ego motivated factor…rather, it was out of humility. He explains, “Part of the decision to start my own band was curiosity. I just wanted to know what it’s like to be the lead singer and guitarist of a band playing my music. As a Band Member, you definitely have to make sure the singers sound good, your lead parts don’t interfere with the vocal melody, and your playing compliments the vocalist. Being the lead singer and guitarist gives you more creative freedom but at the same time you’re in charge of all the cues and have to maintain a very clean body language so that your rhythm section can pick up on it and understand what you’re trying to communicate.” Both seeking to further his musical voice and gaining empathy for the vocalists whom he has worked with are attributes that have made Stefan a desirable commodity in the music world. It might have been easier for Stefan if he stuck to playing with the groups he was already associated with but holding back his own artistic growth was more difficult to accept than winning over new fans. The Stefan Hillesheim Band had to win over fans on their own, which is not always an easy task. Stefan relates, “I think that our fans in Germany are very loyal and into hand-made music but they always want to hear the same songs and are sometimes hard to convince of new ideas and styles. I think that in the US there is a bigger and faster paced market for music.  Fans here are used to a bigger variety of live bands and they are more responsive to new material.”

Any great power trio requires a rhythm section that possesses an almost telepathic connection. Stefan chose drummer Alex Sauerlaender and bassist Mathias Wendels due to their exemplary playing and reputation in the European Blues/Rock scene but, equally as important…the fact that these two have played together for two decades. Hillesheim required a rhythm section that could essentially move as one entity, always able to serpentine with the twist and turns he would make as a vocalist/guitarist. Sauerlaender (who has been involved with a number of highly respected German rock and blues bands, including; Lucifire, BlueSide, Catastrophe Ballet,  Jet Set, and over a dozen others) remarks, “All the success that the Stefan Hillesheim Band experienced can be set upon Stefan’s shoulders. The band would never have existed if not for his drive and talents as a musician. He was truly the face of the band, and his skill as a frontman built the band into its highly esteemed reputation in the German music industry. The show that we performed at the famed Excalibur venue in the city of Koblenz, performing to a cheering, sold-out crowd, was indicative of the excitement and acceptance of the band’s fans. It was truly exciting to be part of a group which created such a feeling from fans.” One of the most memorable gigs for Hillesheim was the last one he played in Germany before relocating to the US. A true artist never rests and is always in pursuit of cultivating their sound and “voice.” Stefan had always known that he needed to move closer to the birthplace of the Blues in order to gain a deeper understanding of its essence. As he had done before, Hillesheim left a clamoring following and profitable career to start over again in America. He had a memorable send-off from musicians and fans alike. He recalls, “I would say one of our most memorable gigs was my last gig in Germany before I moved to California (2 years ago). It was sort of a going away party/concert and we played 2 long sets with a number of special guests and surprises. The audience was very responsive and totally into the music from our first song on. We played multiple encores. It’s hard to leave family and friends. I’ve started the trio all over again with players here in the US.  It is definitely challenging to move out here and see if people like your music. So far my experiences have been really positive and I can totally see myself playing more solo and trio gigs with my own band.”

Everyone can relate to the difficulty of venturing away from the familiar and into the unknown. Few can relate to moving to a completely new country that speaks a different language. Only a fraction of those can relate to doing so in pursuit of an artistic vision. Stefan Hillesheim is comfortable with sacrifice for his art, it’s a compulsion for him. Let those with ears hear.

stefan-hillesheim-band-01

Director Ben Bhatia builds a strong stomach and strong story for Channel 5’s Benidorm ER

Some may hear about Ben Bhatia’s most recent experience in Spain and assume he was a doctor. He wasn’t out soaking up the sun. He spent most of his time in the hospital, seeing the injured and ill. But he wasn’t there as a medical professional. He was there to tell their stories.

Bhatia was the director/producer on Channel 5’s hospital documentary series Benidorm ER. The show is based at the busy hospital Clinica Benidorm in Spain and shows real-life British vacationers that have been admitted to the emergency room due to an illness or an accident. Each episode follows patients from the hospital admission right through to being released. To add some additional color, Bhatia also filmed some follow-up stories that would show what the vacationers would do next to enjoy their last days in the sun.

Benidorm ER was an interesting show to work on. Being based in the Spanish holiday resort of Benidorm in one of its busiest emergency rooms, I got to see the other side of a holiday that most holidaymakers would prefer not to see,” said Bhatia. “It was a real honor.”

Bhatia was recommended to work on the show after working with another producer/director Georgina Kiedrowski, who worked with him on the BBC Three documentary series, Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. She thought that he would be an asset to the team after working on other similar projects.

“We needed a director with experience of working with sensitive and emotional contributors as well as somebody who could hit the ground running due to the tight turnaround of the show,” said Kiedrowski, the senior producer/director for Blakeway North Productions. “Ben really exceeded Blakeway North’s expectations and it was soon apparent that he was a real asset to the production. As a director, Ben is very hard working and is extremely creative. His storytelling and directing skills are impressive and his ability to think on his feet are skills that are hard to find in this industry. The fact that he is multi-skilled in being able to shoot, produce, direct and still stay companionate is a real talent.”

Apart from working with the hospital staff and patients, Bhatia mostly worked with a small crew of six people. This worked very well to cause minimum disruption and allowed normal practice to continue at the hospital. This made it easier to maintain access to the hospital. It is a big thing for a hospital to allow access to film crews, so keeping everybody happy, including staff and patients is paramount.

“This show was challenging as it was literally a case of seeking permission from the patient as soon as they walked through the door. A story which isn’t followed from the moment it starts isn’t as interesting. To watch a patient’s character develop over the period of their hospital stay is intriguing,” explained Bhatia.

Benidorm is a very popular holiday destination for the British, despite the cultural clash between the Spaniards and the Brits. Bhatia says he loved seeing how British people adapt to the Spanish culture.

“The warm personalities of the staff in this real working hospital was a delight to watch as they reassured the distressed, and sometimes in agony, holidaymakers,” described Bhatia. “To follow a story of someone first entering the hospital, watching their recovery to seeing them leaving with a smile on their face was a real pleasure.”

There was one thing Bhatia learned from the project, however, that he wasn’t expecting.

“How to have a strong stomach,” he said. “I had to film some major operations in the emergency operating room. This was something entirely new for me and after doing it, I realised I am not as squeamish as I thought!”