four flea circus

On July 28th, Four Flea Circus came to Osaka to play at The Bridge, a musicians’ collective located in the Shinsekai area of Osaka, which is kind of a cross between Coney Island and Amsterdam. Shinsekai is the site of one of Japan’s early modern entertainment districts, Luna Park, the Shinsekai Amusement Grounds. The original Tsutenkaku Tower, a key Japanese symbol of modernization, was built in 1912 at the center of Shinsekai and was a combination of the Arc de Triomphe (the base) and the Eiffel Tower. According to the information pamphlet they give at Tsutenkaku, the original tower “burned down during the Second World War — the polite translation of “bombed by the Americans” — and was rebuilt in 1956. Tsutenkaku is one of my favorite sites in Osaka, and there will be a longer entry about this landmark later.
In any case, earlier this year my friend Charles Ferris, who plays trumpet, told me that Four Flea Circus would be touring in Osaka over the summer and he asked if the band could stay with me. I was more than happy to say yes, both because Charles is a totally great guy, and also because there’s a special kind of free-fall dislocation that occurs when you meet up with your friends in the alternate context of a foreign country (what William Gibson refers to as “the mirror world”). I suppose it’s the pleasantly slight delightful abyss of strangeness that erupts whenever someone from one frame of reference makes a guest appearance in a different frame where they simply don’t belong.

I met up with the band at the Festival Gate building after their soundcheck. I know Charles from UC Berkeley, where he’s doing graduate work in ethnomusicology, and I’d met Marié Abe, an accordionist and song writer, one time before at a Japonize Elephants show at the Make Out Room in San Francisco. Both Charles and Marié play with the Larks and Japonize Elephants in addition to Four Flea Circus. I’d never met the other two members of the Circus before, but Lisa Mezzacappa and Jason Levis turned out to be incredibly wonderful people, as well as incredible musicians. Lisa plays bass and has studied with Henry Threadgill and performed with Meredith Monk, the Sun Ra Arkestra, and Joe Lovano, among others. Jason has played drums with a variety of groups (including the Larks) and he graduated from Naropa, where my grandmother teaches. For the Japan tour he carries a compact drum kit with him that he refers to as “the pocket tsunami.” Both Jason and Lisa have just finished touring with Donovan (yes — that Donovan) and I’m once again impressed by whatever it is that gives musicians their incredible traveling fortitude.

At Festival Gate we also met Marié’s friend Miho, who is an Osaka native and who works at an international pre-school in Toyonaka, only two stops away from Osaka University. Since the Fleas wanted to see some of Osaka, Miho suggested that we walk through the Shinsekai arcade, and then up through Den Den Town (the electronics district, kind of like the Akihabara of Osaka), and finally to the Dotombori arcade for dinner. Miho immediately paged herself as the coolest person in the Kansai when she pulled us into one of the old-time gaming halls in Shinsekai. The games inside were similar to old-style wood-and-pin pachinko games, but with large white gumball sized balls. For 100 yen you got about 15 balls and if you were careful you could play for quite some time. The hall had this incredibly great kind of dilapidated carnival feel to it, though you could tell that the people who were there were really having a good time and taking joy in the machines. The best moment came when the old woman who was running the place opened Jason’s glass lid for him so he could get enough balls to win a delicious chocolate candy prize.

After spending time in the Shinsekai arcade we walked by Tsutenkaku and then made our way through Den Den Town, where I found two shops full of Voigtlanders, and where Jason and Lisa bought two 500円 pornographic capsule toys — one with a bondage theme and one with a sexy nurse theme. Eventually we ended up in the Dotombori, which is one of the famous food areas of Osaka. The Dotombori Canal is located in an area of Osaka that is famously associated with the phrase “Kuidaore,” which apparently refers to the act of going bankrupt from spending too much money on food. Instead of going bankrupt we stopped at “the most famous takoyaki stand in Osaka,” which was right across from an incredibly delicious okonomiyaki stand where we bought okonomiyaki and ice-cold cooler beer. There’s nothing quite like eating okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and drinking ice-cold cooler beer while sitting outside in the Dotombori in summer.

There’s also nothing quite like The Bridge, a collectively run performance space that literally bridges the span between the two towers at Festival Gate. The Bridge is a really large performance space and has that special feeling about it that only places that have had a lengthy relationship with artists can have. There’s both a sense of at-homeness and a sense of aliveness at The Bridge and people wander around drinking wine, coffee, or tea, talking and inhabiting space in a happy-desultory manner. Along the back wall of the drink lounge is a sand garden with a single lone speaker sitting in it, sound standing in for stone. According to Shoji, a friend of Charles who Charles originally met when he was living in Nagoya, this speaker is the last remainder of a show in which hundreds of speakers were hung from the ceiling and the entire floor was covered with sand. It was a kind of speaker garden or speaker beach that you could walk through while investigating sound. Shoji is himself an artist (he did the cover art for OOIOO’s Kila Kila Kila), and is married to Yoshimi — of OOIOO and Boredoms fame —one of the greatest avant-rock sound artists at work today.

In fact, the first band that played that night, Niseuo (which means “false fish”) reminded me a lot of the Boredoms. Like the Boredoms they were tight and loud with well orchestrated arrangements that had enough space to lend themselves to complexity and surprise, but they also had the kind of cosmic otherworldliness of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Meanwhile, the singer (also piano player), navigated like a satellite between brilliant bursts of focused anger and a subtle kind of abstract Dada emotionality. And he shot the Mona Lisa with three kinds of toy guns. After the show they were nice enough to give me a couple of tapes (yes — tapes!) after I told them what a treat (to use Lisa’s phrase) I thought they were.

While the second band was alright, although it sounded too much like a standard jam band after the startling pleasures of Niseuo, the Four Flea Circus performance was really special. I’ve heard Charles play several times before, and I’ve listened to the Four Flea demo, but I really wasn’t expecting the kind of taughtly spectacular communication that they were able to open up on stage. It’s an incredible pleasure to listen to musicians who are in the process of inventing new speech every time they play together, especially when this speech occurs within the formally delineated space of pre-established song structure. It’s like watching a new song growing out of a break in the limb of an old song, or watching a plant bloom but, unexpectedly, with just the right wrong flowers. In any case, Four Flea Circus managed this kind of exhilaration — out of jetlag, out of exhaustion (I think Charles was practically about to hallucinate), they managed to open up new spaces in each of their songs for momentary inhabitation and then surprising disembarkation to the next stop or turn.

After the show was over we packed the instruments onto the Midosuji line and took two trains and two taxis back to my apartment where we drank beer and put capsule toys together.

Four Flea Circus site. Go here and download an entire e.p.!

Niseuo site.

Tsutenkaku Tower.
It’s Four Flea Circus in front of Tsutenkaku Tower. Hey, where’s Lisa?
Marié awes us with her incredible Smartball gambling skills.
Charles is awed by the big city.
Lisa and Jason are awed by Osaka’s delicious takoyaki. Takoyaki is one of Osaka’s regional specialties and is often subjected to the unfortunate translation of “fried octopus balls.”
Niseuo is simply awesome.
Charles on trumpet, Jason on drums.
Lisa and Marié in action.
After a hard day of making music there’s nothing like taking all of your clothes off to escape the heat of Japanese summer.

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