I met Tom on a train to Hackney after the BABYMETAL forum show last July – which was well wicked – and we’ve been in contact ever since. I figured it was about time I interviewed the wee bam, especially seeing as how I took him around Glasgow and we both got properly wrecked.
Hello Tom what are you doing right now?
Alright Colin? About 30 minutes ago I spotted an article on Facebook moaning about how Burger King’s Rodeo Burger looks nothing like the picture. So, naturally, I wanted a Burger King Rodeo Burger. When I got to my local North London BK, I noticed that I could double up a Steakhouse Burger for a quid, so I put aside my Rodeo craving for another day and settled for quite possibly the most gorgeous double Steakhouse Burger I’ve ever seen. I took a picture and everything. So, here I am, beautiful double Steakhouse Burger in one hand, thumbing my reply to you on my phone in the other. Rock ‘n’ roll.
You’ve signed some massive Japanese artists over the past couple years. How did this happen?
Yeah, I’m as mystified as you as to how that happened. I don’t mean to be big-headed (yes I do, I love it), but JPU Records has the biggest bands of Japan right now. I mean, Dempagumi.inc just won Best Japan Act at the MTV European Music Awards. No one saw that coming! I’d have put money on BABYMETAL or ONE OK ROCK to win, both signed to international labels now. And yesterday SCANDAL performed on national Turkish television, representing Japan in the ABU TV Song Festival, which took place in Istanbul this year. And last month HMV chose the latest album from the GazettE, DOGMA, to be one of their recommended releases from indie labels in October. I was proper excited about that. Cheers HMV. Anyway, I haven’t answered your question. I signed these bands because I’d had a long relationship with labels in Japan. I started as a writer, much like you, covering Japanese music. That was over eight years ago, and in that time I built some solid relationships in the industry in Japan, and I guess they trusted me. I’d already done PR and marketing for several Japanese artists in the past. To cut a long story short, I was asked to do some market research by a governmental body, and it ended with me finding all the elements needed to run a label (distribution, bands wanting to sign, etc), but all parties were missing someone in the middle, the actual label. So I used all my life savings to become that missing link, and it all just kind of went from there. It was accidental, but it was something I’ve been passionate about for ages.
But you turned down babymetal!
Kind of! I met them really early on in their career. Their Facebook page had under 200 likes, and KOBAMETAL kindly took care of me in Tokyo at the time, and we went to some metal shows together. He’s such a cool guy, and really into his metal. I felt a real energy coming from him. But, at that time, BABYMETAL didn’t know what the future held or what direction to take. They asked me for some help with getting UK gigs and I didn’t really know how to help them (for starters, the girls were super young back then, I wasn’t sure if it was even legal for them to perform at most venues here). They seemed to really care about gigs, and not too much on the CD release. At the same time, my ultimate dream band to sign, the GazettE, approached me about releasing their album. I only had limited funds, and their album ended up costing me more than double what I had already saved to produce, so I had absolutely nothing left over to work with anyone else. I would’ve loved to have worked with BABYMETAL. If only I had unlimited money, eh.
How are you perceiving peoples attitudes to Japanese music of late? Is it becoming more popular or just the same as when you started your label?
It seems the same to me. The general public don’t care. They might like the odd band, like BABYMETAL, Maximum the Hormone or Mad Capsule Markets, but that’s as far as it goes. Of course, I’m generalising here, but even fans of Japanese music can be quite stubborn and unadventurous too, sticking with just the bands they already know. JPU has a small following of people who will buy each of our releases, regardless of genre, so that’s really nice! But it’s hard to get people to listen to a band they aren’t already familiar with.
How easy is it to sign artists from Japan? What assurances do you need to give their management?
In Japan the management usually run everything. Before I can get anywhere near them I have to impress the label. So there’s a small chain of people I have to impress before reaching the band or its management. A lot of my artists are on Sony labels, who I’ve had a long relationship with, so I guess they vouched for me. Japanese companies like to do a lot of check ups on you. I mean, the amount of industry people who instantly add me on Facebook the moment we even suggest doing business together. It’s a little unsettling at first. And I had several close friends tell me they’d been interrogated by various label people from Japan trying to find information about me. I think a lot of business is done on trust and personal relationships, it seems. I mean, I chat to most of the people I work with from Japan via FB messenger or LINE (Think “What’s App”, but popular in Japan), and the last time I was in Japan I was hanging with them more than my actual non-work friends. There’s also an advance you have to make to prove you’re committed to making X amount of money for the band, and that’s the guarantee for it. It’s basically a way of saying “I’m gonna make you this much money, and I’m so confident I’ll do it, you can have it right now.” Plus, I have a great distributor I work with, that can get their music into places many can’t. JPU Records has a pretty solid social media network too. I don’t think any other similar label in Europe (maybe the world?) can come anywhere near us in terms of how we connect with fans. We’re always at conventions, expos and events too with booths, promoting our music and talking to the fans. I’ve had bands tell me that they’d rather work with me than a major label, because they know I care a lot about the music and we won’t forget about them after the first two weeks of sale. Also, we have a solid artist rooster of some of Japan’s biggest and most respected acts. If JPU is good enough for them, why not you?
What have you learned running JPU? Can you tell us a couple of really surprising/unexpected things?
I learnt that Japanese idol music isn’t the devil. I’d always been against it and thought it was a plague of the industry, but Dempagumi.inc completely turned me around on the subject. Everything about them is so fun and artistic. Before them, I’d always associated idol music with charmless pop songs, sung by girls who were dead behind the eyes. And then there marched Dempagumi, smiling from ear to ear and looking like they’re loving every minute. Another reason I love them is that they collaborate with indie artists frequently, and create some really cool art pieces, not just music.
What’s the most frustrating thing about running a label, especially a niche label such as JPU?
Facebook. Once it played an important role for us, but now it’s becoming increasingly useless. Also, as said earlier, trying to get people to spare 3 minutes to listen to something outside their comfort zone.
I find it hard to place some articles about Japanese music (I had a babymetal interview turned down) in the press and I know you’ve said there is a recalcitrance in the media. Do you still think this and if you do, why?
Yeah. I mean, check out this review of the latest Dragon Ball Z film to hit UK cinemas, courtesy of media muppet Mike McCahill of The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/oct/01/dragonball-z-resurrection-f-manga-animation – it’s this kind of bullshit I have to put up with all the time. He clearly has no idea what he’s writing about, but that doesn’t stop him from spewing incorrect ideas and stereotypes that have no relation to the production he’s supposed to be reviewing.
What acts have you got your eye on or can you not say?
Guso Drop. My friend’s friend lost a tooth at their show once, and I saw them in Tokyo recently and it was the most insane gig I’ve been to in years! There were circle pits, an entire crowd of two-steppers, fist swingers, and some lemon doing a backflip off the front rail and into the crowd. Not bad for an idol group.
Where do you see JPU in 5 years time?
More artists, with no worry about cashflow. It’s so hard to balance things right now. I’ve had to miss several new bands because I didn’t have enough cash at the right time. My dream was to sign the GazettE, and that’s happened now. So now I just wanna push forwards, keep everyone happy and keep releasing albums that people enjoy.
### the GazettE unleashes sampler for DOGMA: https://goo.gl/SrMoVm
### Album mastered by Ted Jensen (Bring Me The Horizon, Deftones, Pantera)
Released: 2 Oct (CD) /// 26 August (MP3)
And I’m on twitter too!