Dr. Steven Tanaka talks Next Music from Tokyo

Tanaka about how university student life factors into the tour, his Japanese-Canadian heritage, and how he balances two very different workloads.

Tanaka crowd surfing at Next Music 2015. Image taken by Mike Stroud, retrieved via Facebook.

By: Kitty Cheung, Staff Writer

Next Music from Tokyo, an annual cross Canada tour of Japanese Indie bands, came to Vancouver for its fourteenth time this past May. The tour is organized, and funded, by Japanese-Canadian and Toronto Anaesthesiologist Dr. Steven Tanaka and seeks to show Canadians the Indie music Japan has to offer — and what Canada has to offer them in turn. After attending NMFT14 in May, Peak staff writer Kitty Cheung had the chance to interview Tanaka over email about the tour and where it’s headed next. You can find the review of the show in print in the June 17 issue or online.

Kitty Cheung: If you could travel back in time and speak to Steve in 2010, before the first tour began, what advice would you give him? In other words, how has this tour changed you and what have you learned?

Dr Steven Tanaka: I don’t think the tour has changed me all that much. There are times where I feel like my efforts aren’t appreciated enough by the bands or the fans in the sense that everyone has so much fun on the tour and at the shows but NMFT still gets very little love and support on social media. That’s caused me to become a little bit jaded, but overall the positives greatly outweigh the stress and financial negatives that come with the tour. So if I ran into myself in 2010 I’d tell myself, “Self, there are times where you might feel this insane tour isn’t worth it, but persevere and you will have the best time of your life, make lots of great friends, and [create] beautiful memories. And also, make sure you bring ミドリ (Midori) to Canada during vol 2 before they break up and don’t do something stupid like taking tricot off the line-up during NMFT4!! Have fun and don’t hit your head too often stage diving!”

KC: As an anaesthesiologist and music promoter, you seem to have two big parts of your life dedicated towards very different things: medicine and music. What advice would you give to students who are trying to navigate between both academic and creative fields?

Dr. Steven Tanaka: It’s a very competitive world so, unless you’re Vincent van Gogh and naturally talented at both academic and creative fields, you’ll probably have to sacrifice a lot more time honing your talent in one area over the other.  Personally, I chose a career path that focussed heavily on academics in my younger years so that I could have the time and money to do more creative things later on in life. My advice would be to study towards a career where you can make a living doing what you enjoy and still have the time to pursue deeper interests.

KC: How do you balance the workload of organizing the tour along with your duties as an anaesthesiologist?

ST: My duties as an anesthesiologist take the highest priority as the health of patients are at stake. Although organizing the tour is a lot of work, NMFT is more of a hobby in comparison. I usually have at least four to five months to prepare for a tour. Since I’ve been doing NMFT for ten years now I’ve become used to getting the essential preparations out of the way quickly and I’ve had fans volunteer to help out with things such as poster design and distribution and video creation for promotion of the tour.

KC: Can you tell us about the most memorable experience you’ve had with NMFT?

ST: The most memorable experience happened on the very first NMFT tour. It was actually a very frightening experience where Ryogo Kobata, the guitarist/violinist of a band called Goomi was electrocuted while performing on stage at the Rivoli in Toronto. It was a small short circuit between the microphone and violin due to an overzealous fan at the previous Montreal show spraying Ryogo’s mic and equipment with a bottle of sparkling wine. Ryogo collapsed on stage and briefly lost consciousness but felt much better quickly with no medical complications. We cancelled the show but had another show in Toronto at the Whippersnapper Gallery the following night.

Courageously, Ryogo insisted on performing the next show and Goomi’s performance the second night was, pardon the pun, electrifying. Ryogo said that after the previous night he realized [that] life is short and one can die at any time so he might as well treat every performance from now on as if it could be his last. Goomi played their show with intense vigor that brought the house down and they carried that passion and intensity back with them to Japan. Goomi’s fans in Japan were surprised saying they returned from Canada better and more confident than ever.

So it was a frightening experience with a positive outcome.

KC: How do you think university student life factors into your shows? With Stereogirl being a band composed of university students, as well as the students who I noticed in the Vancouver audience, I’m interested in hearing about students as both performers and spectators.

ST: The NMFT shows are 19 and over (18+ in Montreal) so unfortunately some younger university students may not be able to attend the shows. The age restriction even affects the bands. I had some band members who were 18 [year old] university students that were only allowed to be in the venue for the performance. They would enter the venue right at the start of the show, perform first that night, and then would have to be escorted out by security and not allowed to enjoy the rest of the show with the other bands.

You’re never too young or too old to rock and roll and NMFT attracts an audience of all ages *cough* 19+ *cough*. But most of the audience tends to be university student age or immediately post-graduate and they tend to be the most boisterous and ambitious when it comes to moshing and crowd-surfing. For the Japanese bands with student members, NMFT is a time of vacation from school and they’re out to have as much fun as they can and make new Canadian friends.

KC: Based off of interviews I’ve read, you say that your family wasn’t aware of this tour and your financing of it, at least for the first few volumes. Has anyone in your family ever attended a show, and if so, what was their response?

ST: My dad has been to a few shows in Vancouver and has enjoyed himself a lot despite being more of a 60s/70s music kind of guy. He currently holds the record for most stage dives… j/k

KC: As May is Asian Heritage Month, I’m interested to see how this tour connects to your Japanese-Canadian upbringing. Would you say that organizing NMFT is a way of celebrating your Japanese heritage?

ST: I was born and raised in Vancouver, pretty much like a regular Canadian, with very little exposure to Japanese culture other than eating more miso soup and white rice than the average non-Asian and hearing my parents converse in Japanese. I didn’t listen to Japanese music at all until after I graduated from university. In fact it wasn’t until about 2007 when I went to my first underground show in Shinjuku, Tokyo, that I realized how amazing and ground-breaking the indie-underground music scene is in Japan. Being a foodie, I also became infatuated with all the great yakiniku, yakitori, ramen, and izakaya spots in Japan.

Although my upbringing was much more that of a regular Canadian than Japanese, it’s great to be able to show fellow Canadians how fascinating and creative bands from Japan can be through the NMFT tour. Conversely, I’m able to show the Japanese bands (most of whom are travelling outside of Japan for the first time) how beautiful Canada is, how appreciative and [raucous] we get for good music, and that Canada also has great food!

Tanaka confirms that Next Music From Tokyo Volume 15 will be held in May next year, “Most likely centered around the long weekend (May 15-20, 2020).” More information about the tour, visit nextmusicfromtokyo.com.