W. David Marx (Marxy), Hustler of Japanese Youth Culture, 26, Tokyo, Japan. Marxy is one of the tallest residents of Tokyo. A curious wunderkind, he's explored many sides of creativity – composing music, writing, researching and debating his way into pop culture history. And Marxy can do it all in Japanese too. His debut album, kyoshu nostalgia is his life story in music format. Our conversation ran all over the place, but that’s the price you pay for hanging out with someone dabbling in life.
Name, Age, Location
W. David Marx (Marxy), 26, Tokyo, Japan
How many careers have you had? What is your current title?
Student (age 3 to 22), Magazine Editor/Store Manager (22-24) Currently: Graduate Student/Freelance Translator/Songwriter
What project will you be working on next?
I am working on my Master's Thesis on media-management company collusion in the Japanese music market and its overall effect on product innovation.
Your house is burning down. What one possession (aside from human/animal life) would you grab on the way out?
All my music and writing and research is on my computer, so I'd take my laptop and external hard drive. Although it'd a lot cooler if I'd answer "my favorite bookmark" or something.
When and how did we meet? You were my superior at Tokion. We met at the job interview in May 2001.
You grew up in Pensacola, Florida right? How'd you end up in Tokyo?
Pensacola has a "sister city" arrangement with a small town in Japan, and through that connection, I first came to Japan before my senior year of high school. As a kid, I was always really into pop culture - and not just the individual pieces of it, like music, TV, etc., but the idea of "pop culture" itself. So, I was really shocked/pleasantly surprised when I came to Japan to find that there was this whole world of pop culture that vaguely resembled the American version, but was totally different. After that, I got kind of obsessed with Japan and studied it maniacally in college. I had an internship to work for a publishing company after my freshman year, and I lived in Tokyo for three months in '98. And not only did I discover that everyone in Tokyo was way cooler than me, it seemed that they were way ahead of everywhere else in the world. Capri pants were really big for girls, and dark denim was huge, and lo and behold, the next year America picked up the same things. So, beyond just an interest in (retrospectively) crappy Japanese pop cult, I saw Tokyo as an unbelievably ultra-trendy hot spot, which I think directly has to deal with the fact that I was from Pensacola, Florida. It's like being not really understanding addition and seeing someone do multiplication: it was just a whole level above what I understood. I also quickly noticed that there was this huge information gap for info coming out of Japan. Like, A Bathing Ape was everywhere in '98 Tokyo and it had been huge in Japan for a while, but in the West, all the guys who knew about it were all hoarding info on it like it was a “secret.” And that was generally what it was like: Japan was hot but only a few people were going there or knew about it. Momus wrote a great essay called "Shibuya-kei is Dead" all about 1998 Japan, and he was the only one I could find who really understood what was going on there. So I just kept researching etc. and doing Japan-related things. And I chose intentionally not to move there after college, because I had a pretty deep complex about "sticking out" (I'm 6'4) and I had a really trying experience working in a very traditional Japanese office in 2000. I lived in New York City instead for two years, and then finally realized that I need to go back and finish up the research I started on Japanese youth consumer culture. Today, I'm not so enamored with Tokyo as I was, but I still have a pretty deep curiosity about figuring out whatever logic it is that rules Japanese culture.
So what exactly are you doing in Tokyo now? You're making music, writing, and researching. Is there any one thing you want to do full-time?
Officially, I am a graduate student and that pays the bills. When I first got here, I busied myself with other things, but now my head's in books all the time. I need to start doing more for my Master's Thesis, but I'm excited to do that research, so it’s not particularly a drag. I make music. I put out a CD. I feel stuck in Japan unable to promote it, so I remedy that by making more music. It's a vicious cycle. I started my blog last October as a lark, and for some inexplicable reason, there are thousands of people who want to read about explanations of Japanese pop culture and industry gossip. I also do part-time jobs like translating concrete-repair manuals and scientific papers about consolidated carbon-fiber sheeting into English.
Well maybe now you are the voice of the Westerner in Japan. What Momus was to you in the 90s may be who you are to curious people in the 00s. Especially since the distribution of Japanese popular culture has saturated the masses.
I don't think I'm "the Momus" of the 00s when it comes to Japan, because he always has been "selling Japan" to a certain extent. I think he got people (including me to some extent) excited about what was going on there in the late 90s. I am not really selling Japan as much as selling the idea of "understanding Japan." And like with anything, the more you understand it, the less you idealize/worship it. I also feel the responsibility to correct a lot of the common misconceptions about Japanese pop culture that abound in the Western media. They are slow to the story, and what’s nice about blogs and the Internet, is that we can provide real-time coverage. I get such a reputation for being a grump or jaded or "disillusioned" or "a bitchy Westerner" when it comes to Japan, but if you want to start being disillusioned about Japan, the only thing you have to do is pull back the curtain and look at the way the cultural industries work here.
Why make music? What do you hope to accomplish from that? The music industry is pretty systematic. You find yourself frustrated with the marketing but you aren't surprised, are you?
This is something I honestly grapple with everyday. I want to make music, but I don't particularly want to sell my music or myself. But here's where they get you: without putting your music on the market for sale, everyone will not accept your music as "real music." The easiest way to legitimize culture - especially those things once considered "pop culture" - is to sell them. And if someone else wants to go crazy and sell my album, I don't mind so much, but I just don't have the heart to go out and force it on people. If someone wants to buy it, I'm happy about that but I'm much happier when someone listens to it – regardless of buying it. And I'm sure this all comes off like some pretentious lie - that it's all about the music, man, while I count my earnings - or worse, just an excuse to cover the fact that I’m not selling many records, but honestly, if I could figure out a way to give out my music for free in a way that it would still be up for critical review and treated like a "real release" then I’d do it in a heartbeat. And that point may come in the near future, but I'm really uncomfortable making myself a commodity, and it may be an inevitable part of life these days, but I feel that at least it may be worth thinking about ways to fight this. The irony of course is that I study marketing, which I think of as "knowing your enemy". I'm trying to use marketing as a way to think about how markets create culture in our society, not how to sell people things they don’t need.
Agreed. I feel I have a love/hate relationship with marketing. I'm fascinated by it but loathe what it actually is.
Oh, I used to think marketing was fascinating. Like "A Bathing Ape" - that brand was really nothing but clever marketing, and I respected that. But the problem is that our generation's heroes are all marketing geniuses not artistic geniuses. Like Puff Daddy. And I can't help but feel that this is exactly what the market/business structure wants us to think. Like my friend at MTV always says, "The idea of selling out is SO over!!!" But I can't help but think, that's because They want us to think it's so over. Like who made cigars cool? The tobacco industry. So, who made marketing cool? Businesses. And to take this to a broader discussion, Momus and I were always fighting about whether Japan is "post-modern" or not. And post-modernism triumphs the lack of depth and the lack of borders between products and art among other things. And I can't help but think, aren't these exactly the values that the market wants? Isn't Japan just a place where market logic has taken over all cultural values?
I'm going to steer us back to your music for a minute. You write fun melodies but break up the sound with electronic sound bytes. I can also hear the influences of the Beach Boys and the Beatles. What's up with that? Please describe your music. Or better, can you write a short review of your own mini-album?
Lately, there have been a lot of artists all doing a style described as “hyper-prog” where the arrangements take quick fragmented turns into different styles. It's a really obvious direction for music, especially if you start playing with things like Pro Tools, because you can have the song go from heavy metal to folk in a blink with no problems. I like the Beach Boys a lot less than I get accused of, but in the demos for Smile, they were doing all these really break-neck turns with their music and that fit with what this Japanese band I like called Plus-Tech Squeeze Box was also doing. And the Beatles were the kings of pastiche, even though they're not remembered for it. With those conceptual and structural influences at the base, I was trying to use the EP as a way to reconstruct what my childhood sounded like - video games, 60s TV shows, Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution - through making the album. I like good melodies and belabored chord progressions and I want the complexity of the songwriting to match the complexity of the production. The whole thing's kind of a mess, but hopefully not too difficult to listen to.
The music? Your persona. Your music. You now. I've been songwriting seriously since I was 14 or so. I had a four-track in high school and played in bands. When "alternative" died off, I got pretty bored with music, but then I was re-energized by the late 90s Japanese sounds like Cornelius, Buffalo Daughter, etc. In college, I bought a drum machine and analog synth and sampler and made terribly lo-fi crappy acousto-electric pop songs. And then I took another break from music and got a computer-based music system, and I've just been figuring it out from there. Originally I named my new band "young alive in love" thinking I would make kind of lame, twee, "groovy" type things, but the Japanese totally hated that I was naming myself after a Flipper's Guitar song and I started hating how wimpy the name sounded, so we were panicked for a name (this is two years ago, pre-release) and my label was just like, use Marx. And almost across the board I hate musicians who sing under their real names. Even the Plastic Ono Band is better than just “John Lennon.” I have had the nickname Marxy for the last three or four years, and it's easy to say in Japanese, so I just said, how about Marxy and everyone was cool with it. What albums are currently on heavy rotation in your household? I've been kind of anti-music lately since I'm trying to work on new things.... but 1) The Mamas and the Papas - Twin Best 2) The Kinks - Something Else 3) The Very Best of the Banana Splits 4) The Mae Shi - Terrorbird 5) demos from Japanese band nhhmbase 6) O.Lamm - Hello Spiral You are pretty young and fairly accomplished. I want to know, which of your work has given you the most satisfaction? Because I'm still young, nothing I've done feels like some kind of "final" accomplishment. It all feels like training for the next big thing, and being unsatisfied with all of it is the built-in engine that moves you. When I finished my album, I did feel very satisfied about it, but that's worn off and I'm half-way done with a new album, which I'm sure I'll eventually be satisfied with. I've always done my blog in a pretty relaxed, freeform manner, and oddly, that's the thing that's gotten me the national press (both in Japan and America.) But what I like about it is the real small, daily satisfaction - whether I write a little essay or fake music criticism piece or silly proposal of a movie based on the Atari game ET. After Japan, where to next? I'm not sure how people perceive my experience in Japan, but I'm not here while it's hot and ready to leave the minute it's not "cool" anymore. I'm pretty invested for the long term, and now that I'm really bilingual and almost fully literate, I don't have any problems being here - other than dealing with my height complex and the very small portions of food. Tokyo is great in that you can really get everything you need here from anywhere in the world (except good Mexican food). I'm poor at the moment, which means looking but not touching, but once I have to get a real job, I imagine being able to be pretty comfortable. If I decide to get a PhD, I may have to go back to the States for a while, but I think I'll be in Tokyo for the short-run. I'm not some kind of cool-hunting poacher looking to pillage Japan for its trends and ready to move on when the corpses run dry. Learning about the way the Japanese trend/product/cultural system works has always been very interesting and rewarding for me, and the current "taste deflation" just adds a new angle for explanation. Sample some of Marxy's original music here or tune into Marxy's guest DJ gig at OK Fred. Enjoy.