Turning Japanese

Until recently, the designation "big in Japan" was, for all intents and purposes, a slap in the face to most pop/rock musicians. Now, with heavyweight trendsetting labels such as Matador and Grand Royal capitalizing on Japan's newfound, growing and supercool reputation for quixotic and innovative musical hodgepodges, other labels are clamoring to cash in. Suddenly, "big in Japan" is a desirable status symbol.

One eastward-looking label is LA-based Emperor Norton, which, until a couple of years ago, could boast only of signing eminently forgettable guitar bands like Upper Crust. Now, under the direction of label manager Steve Pross, Emperor Norton has made a big splash with the back-to-back releases of records by a trio of distinctive and divergent Japanese artists: Zoobombs, Takako Minekawa and Fantastic Plastic Machine.

"We had the idea of putting out the Japanese records together in the wake of Buffalo Daughter and Cornelius," says Pross. "We wanted to capitalize on that energy." Buffalo Daughter, Pizzicato Five, Cornelius -- along with earlier grumblings from Shonen Knife and the Boredoms -- were the first wave of the so-called Japanese invasion, and Emperor Norton hopes to open a second front by promoting its Japanese bands to the same cult status as their predecessors.

Why Japan? According to Pross, one reason so much interesting music is coming from over there is that Japanese musicologists (his term for sonic collagists like Cornelius) are able to reformulate sounds and influences that Westerners think belong separate and smash them together into pioneering, forward-looking music. "We have certain cultural biases that this doesn't go with that," says Pross of Western musicians. "The Japanese don't have the same cultural context."

Despite the wide variety of sounds coming from Japan -- which range from loungecore to hardcore -- the glue that holds them all together is the widespread cross-pollination of wildly dissimilar genres. Buffalo Daughter's glorious melange of indie guitar and hip-hop, though not immediately striking, shares a lot with Cornelius' marriage of American pop, electronica and punk. By the same token, Cornelius is similar to Pizzicato Five, who pour even more styles into their musical blender. Rest assured that when you buy a CD by one of these new-breed Japanese artists, what you will hear is a challenging quiltwork of styles woven together in a marvelously catchy ensemble. Old styles, hackneyed to Westerners, are wonderfully revitalized. And besides the liberating ease with which the Japanese are able to combine seemingly disparate styles, Pross sees other reasons for the recent explosion of Japanese music.

"Any kind of music is available in Shibuya (a hipper-than-hip section of Tokyo), whether it's obscure Brazilian vinyl or American guitar pop, so if someone's interested in a style of music, all they have to do is go shopping," he says.

The three bands Emperor Norton has already signed exemplify the mix-and-match approach and encyclopedic knowledge of musical genres prevalent in so many Japanese bands. The Zoobombs' latest, Welcome Back Zoobombs!, mixes Boredoms-esque noise-punk with blues and hip-hop; Takako Minekawa's Cloudy Cloud Calculator fuses kraut-rock and electronica influences with pop sensibilities; and Fantastic Plastic Machine's self-titled debut is a delectably swirled pastiche of lounge, bossa nova and house. Though not classics, these albums all display a refreshing attitude toward music-making and are well worth listening to.

Like unconventional namesake Joshua Abraham Norton, a 19th-century San Francisco iconoclast who declared himself emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico, printed his own currency and made often-outlandish proclamations that ran on the front pages of local newspapers, Emperor Norton, according to Pross, wants to strike out on its own by creating a new genre he calls "eclectica." These three very diverse releases, as well as upcoming offerings, should bolster the label's claim to defining a new musical archetype. "I felt like there were so many indie labels," he says, "that I wanted to separate ourselves from the rest. I just wanted to take us in a direction so that we wouldn't have to compete with labels who are big on MTV."

When the label first formed in New York in late 1996, it struggled with a fairly bland stable of mainstream guitar bands and was further hampered by distribution problems. "In the beginning we weren't successful," says Pross. "It's easy to be a target for criticism when you don't put out good records, but I don't hear any criticism anymore."

One possible explanation for Emperor Norton's ability to boldly delve into Japanese and other eccentric bands is its connection to the Getty family fortune. The label is owned by J. Paul Getty's grandson and heir Peter Getty, something Pross says they don't like to advertise for fear Emperor Norton will be considered a vanity label. Despite wanting to keep the Getty bond hush-hush, Pross freely admits that Getty, a musician himself, is very much involved in operations, especially signing bands and writing ad copy and bios. Big-money backing is also evident in the slick packaging and spot-on media savvy. Despite its nonindie exterior, Emperor Norton, by shedding light on the second wave of trailblazing Japanese music, has proved itself much more than a vanity label.

Even with the very polished look of Emperor Norton's publicity and CD design, the label, says Pross, would prefer to grow organically through college radio, zines and clubs. That Rolling Stone did a brief write-up of Emperor Norton as a label to watch, and that Takako Minekawa had a short stint at the top of the college-radio charts, proves the kind of grassroots, word-of-mouth notoriety Emperor Norton seeks is already beginning to take shape.

Though Emperor Norton has made a name for itself by showcasing Japanese bands, the label doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a Japanese-only outlet. "The Japanese-invasion thing has really mushroomed, and some people think we're a Japanese label," says Pross. "I view the label more as international, and I would like people to think we put out all kinds of good music." Already Emperor Norton has put out a record by Arling and Cameron, two Dutch DJs, and a remarkable homage to French pop called Pop Romantique that includes tracks by the Apples (In Stereo), Lloyd Cole and Luna. In the future, look for releases from Ireland, France and Mexico.

"When people think of cool indie labels, I hope they think of us along with Matador and Grand Royal," says Pross about his ambitions for Emperor Norton.

The initial positive feedback the Japanese releases are garnering proves they're headed in the right direction; the positive feedback, says Pross, is overwhelming: "I was astounded that people loved the music I loved.