My name is Jonathan Diener, and after thirteen years of playing in my touring band, The Swellers, we broke up and I had to move on. I'm a writer now, but will always keep music as a priority. After months of being home working on new bands, my friends Versus The World asked me to fill in on drums for their tour of Japan. It was an amazing opportunity full of introspection and life lessons. The next chapter of my life starts now and I'm here to tell the story.
My last band had the privilege of getting to tour Japan in 2006 when I was at the ripe age of 18. At the time, we had seen most of the United States and areas surrounding Toronto, but nothing substantial or remotely foreign-feeling. When our Japanese label (the now defunct Radtone Records) sent us over, we were in complete and utter awe of our surroundings. I saw downtown Tokyo before I saw Times Square in New York City. The rush at the time may have let nostalgia cloud the reality of the situation. Returning to the island as an adult with years of touring under my belt resulted in an entirely different experience.
After 11 hours of contorting my lanky self to fit in the plane seat and pass out, we arrived in Japan. Close to 10 years after my first trip, I was finally returning to one of my favorite countries. Instead of the standard (but brief) three days of shows, we had 10 days of playing music and exploring ahead of us. I could finally experience what I was calling “The Real Japan.” This includes taking a van, the subway, taxis and even the bullet train to shows. This is the real deal.
Painting the scene for the average Japanese punk show is easy: You walk into a small, dark club filled with overwhelming aroma of smoke and old beer. If you’re a foreigner, you’re most likely on a small festival show with a minimum of five bands who will all be sharing the same gear. A few of our shows had nine bands. The backstage is covered in passes, stickers and flyers of other bands with some of the funniest names ever (Psycho Food Eaters, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Leftovers Turkey etc.). The broken English name translations are always amazing to me. It was explained that bands just like the look and sound of the words for the most part, not the meaning. For some reason, most of the bands will soundcheck even though their settings will not be saved by the sound engineer.
In the level I’m used to playing at, the gear would always look junky and outdated. Drum kits from the ‘80s and beat-up heads were not very appetizing—until you plugged in and started to play, that is. Leave it to the amazing, disciplined sound engineers to make you sound like you’re playing an arena instead of a 100-capacity punk club. Non-musicians wouldn’t understand the frustration with playing other gear, but that’s the reality for most international traveling bands. If you don’t have your same gear every night, you’re gambling with something breaking at any moment. If you don’t have a tour manager or tech with you, you have to hope a rep from the show speaks English to help you out if you’re in a pickle. Using other gear all over the world has sculpted me into caring less about the quality of the gear I’m playing, and focusing more on my playing, making it sound the best I can and careful preventative maintenance before we start playing. (Meaning: tightening everything with a death grip.)
Now enters the fast punk beat. That’s right, the early ‘90s punk-rock drum beats are something I was reacquainted with, several times a night. The bands are always swift and extremely melodic, but even while mimicking the somewhat sloppy pop-punk bands they love from the States, they do it with laser precision. Every time we would walk into a club I would hear that beat. The vocal melodies were always mind blowing and had something special to them. Remember the smoke I mentioned earlier? The smoking ban doesn’t exist in this country and once the show begins, expect dozens of people, if not more, to chain smoke. I haven’t witnessed this in years and it really beat up my immune system. We saw on the news that when the Olympics come to Toyko is when they’ll consider taking smoking out of schools and hospitals. Yep, we were floored too.
For the majority of the trip, we were on our own to find food and get around town and I was quickly reminded that the language barrier was most definitely a thing. Being the ignorant American just pointing at things and giving a thumbs up wasn’t quite cutting it all the time. After all, why would people have to cater to us? In the States, we just try to decipher what tourists say in broken English rather than helping them out. People coming to the shows were apologizing to me because their English wasn’t great and I had to reassure them my Japanese was non-existent other than letting them know I wanted an English menu, and saying “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you” and “excuse me.” I did tell our new Japanese friends that being a traveling band makes it harder to learn dozens of languages and retain them all. In Europe you’re in a new country every few hours, versus playing in the United States and a few hours gets you from Detroit to Chicago. It was nice being able to ease some of the cultural stereotypes we had with each other. I made sure to dig into some deep conversations to address the common bond we all had, despite being on opposite ends of the planet.
The promoters usually will get the bands hotel rooms when they come over. For four days, the guitarist of Versus The World (Tony) and I were sharing a slightly bigger than twin size bed. The bed was also the size of our whole room. A tiny pathway that led to a small bathroom was next to us, and I was on the far wall side, so I often had to crawl over him at night if I needed to get to the bathroom. I was used to sleeping on our friends’ floors and couches, so getting a hotel room that wasn’t a party was still a plus for me. I also loved seeing coffee vending machines on every street corner. Drinks with red above them were heated and blue were cooled. Wake up, walk outside and get a small coffee for less than a dollar was a pretty nice way to start the day after sleeping foot to head with a semi-stranger.
To ensure the easiest touring experience possible, try to get an international data plan for your phone, a native speaking tour manager/driver and do your research before you show up to each city. Prepare by seeing if you’ll be able to eat once you arrive, or if you should binge before you make the drive to the next town. See if there are any cool attractions of historical or cultural significance near your venue or hotel. Our days off were either traveling to temples and shrines or going to ridiculous tourist traps and we ended up having a blast.
I ran into a few friends from Michigan and was able to catch up and get some perspective. I told my friend Nick that it was great how everyone greeted you and always acknowledged your existence whereas in Michigan they couldn’t care less. He quickly assured me that wasn’t the case at all and asked, “Did you notice that it was only people in the service industry that did that?” It stopped me in my tracks and I realized despite cultural differences, we really weren’t that different after all. Also I learned that despite being uncomfortable at times, I was witnessing what being in a foreign place was like. It’s not always easy, but I got what I wanted out of the trip: the real Japan.
Also check out Jono's last piece, “Becoming The Hired Gun.“