The fantasy makes life worth living

Writing “Love Hotel,” I wanted to ensure that creating a narrative set in a conceptual Tokyo would be appreciation, not appropriation. For that to be the case, I needed to demonstrate respect by educating myself. Hopefully this post illustrates our sincerity and gratitude. Some Japanese people we met while touring were surprised foreigners would be interested in the topic. It was a mundanity: a functional social construct. We were from Middle Earth! To them, New Zealand was the fantastical realm of curiosity and possibility. My understanding could only ever be limited, based on literary and visual references (including Misty Keasler’s sublime monograph, “Love Hotels: The Hidden Fantasy Rooms of Japan”). The lyrics and symbology are allusive: a kaleidoscope of the human condition. It is not a work of social or cultural anthropology. However, the people and places did make an indelible mark on our lives and we are deeply grateful for the opportunities they gave us—including this record which has become something of lasting value to me personally. 

We created a Facebook group in January 2009 to start sharing ideas that would invoke the next album we wanted to make. Released in August 2010, nearly two years after “A New Aesthetic,” “Love Hotel” was just six songs. It was ambitious material, exquisitely produced and developed around our busy jobs and studies.

I made two posts initially: the lyrics to Eros and a series of playlists to express the direction of other unwritten songs: “Intro / Tokyo,” juxtaposing vibrant pop culture and loneliness in the megalopolis; “Giri” (‘burden of obligation’), the plight of the salaryman; and “Technophilia.” Daniel also had a sense that album two needed a particular closing statement. Something in the vein of Martin Grech’s “Tonight.” (I discovered Grech by way of Jeff Buckley and was incredibly moved by his first album. An outrageous talent.) The intent for the songs that would become “Love Hotel” was largely set before we had lyrics—or music.

Here’s a compilation of those very playlists. (An honourable mention for these songs that are not currently on Spotify: Martin Grech, “Open Heart Zoo;” Rebecca Moore, "Stilleto'd Young Stars.")

It’s interesting to touch on “Eros” for a moment as it was the conduit between records. I think it was still being written at the time we started recording the material for “A New Aesthetic.” One of Dave Holmes’ suggestions to immerse ourselves in the work and unique, live-in studio setting, was to put up lyrics in the physical space. I remember thinking it would be striking to see those provocative words on the walls. (We didn’t do it for those sessions, but with “Love Hotel” I shared the emerging lyrics more openly and I think we all benefited from better understanding of the meaning and craft.) The following are the lightly edited notes I wrote for the band about “Eros.”

Inspired by the book “Santa Evita” by Tomás Eloy Martínez about the life and celebrity mythology of Eva Perón. One level of interpretation of the lyric sheet is a dialogue in the unnatural relationship one character has with her embalmed body. Charged with deposing of the corpse in secret, he loathed Evita in life but develops a macabre obsession. She is like the worshipped statue of a pagan goddess and parallels the Venus epithets: Venus Erycina, “Venus from Eryx" (embodying "impure" love and the patron goddess of prostitutes); and Venus Armata, “Armed Venus” (Evita was known as “Commando of Vengeance” by followers who wanted her canonised).

The picture of a man in love with the 
idea of a woman—a simulacrum—echoes the fantasies and role playing acted out by customers in love hotels. "Simulacrum means ‘likeness, similarity,’ it was first recorded in the English language in the late 16th century, used to describe a representation of another thing, such as a statue or a painting, especially of a god; by the late 19th century, it had gathered a secondary association of inferiority: an image without the substance or qualities of the original,” (Wikipedia). The incestuous metaphor of Eros and Venus compounds the theme of “impure” love. But it also plays on the presentation of Evita as the mother of the nation.

Curious stuff. The track galvanised the illusory, sensual direction of the record. It also benefited from me reading Japanese authors ("Grotesque" by Natsuo Kirino, "After Dark" by Haruki Murakami) and being nestled in a group of songs. That opened the aperture to include more ideas of convention, urbanism and technology. The result was a richer setting and narrative drama. In my mind, much of the lyrics were conversations between characters (in the style of White Lies’ “The Price of Love”) or internal dialogues making sense of place and self. Other books that were important:

I collected Tokyo Incidents merch for a time. The live DVD “Just Can’t Help It” is extraordinary. Our notes suggest that “Shinkansen” referenced their cerebral fusion-pop with an aspirational connection to The Smashing Pumpkins. I certainly hear something of “Jellybelly” in there. There is a brief comment about how the chorus should feel: ‘a middle-aged man falling in love on a smooth train ride at 1,000 miles an hour.’ I later learnt this could be better expressed as the predictive “koi no yokan.” This theme of transitioning realities, into and out ennui, stemmed from the idea the mizu shōbai (water trade) served to make conventional life bearable: “The fantasy makes life worth living,” (“Monster in a Pretty Dress”). And the Shinkansen conveys the listener to our poetic love hotel. Hanrahan writes, "...maybe the are all going nowhere. Just riding the train to kill time. Kill memory. To enjoy the spectacle of anonymity. The thought is a temporary buoy. You stay as long as the imagined collective ennui entertains you." 

“Ennui” — the clearest realisation of what the band was striving for in song, I think. We had the music first, but a strong instinct for the story it could tell. Melancholy feeding fantasy: nostalgia and disassociation driving escapism. Overpopulation diluting uniqueness; manga, anime and sexual fantasies (actualised or not) preserving the individual. I noted these two passages from Lee: “The Japanese preferred their simulations, their imitations, to the real thing, happy to accept sacrifices in translation as long as they were made in favor of convenience and predictability, like the orderly, patient fashion with which everyone waited in lines… A line to get into the lineup.” Further:

After 1980, everything had changed… The world was a much meaner place now, more superficial, more corruptible. There were scandals, but nothing was really scandalous, because the worst things imaginable happened every day and were immediately packaged into entertainment. No one seemed to have any innocence left to lose. Yet, underneath it all, people still lived out a million heartrending dramas of no consequence, searching for love and kinship, finding joy and betrayal. Hostage to their hearts.

Powerful input. Still, the lyric writing process was work and continuously refined to these sparse but dense words that I hoped would create high resolution imagery but broad interpretation. “Ennui” was equally inspired by Aya Koto’s art nouveau style manga which I apparently wanted the bridge and outro to reflect sonically.

The beauty and contrasting ugliness of the mizu shōbai was beguiling. The subject of “Monster in a Pretty Dress” could be an empowered or victimised character, existing between the glitz and grisly. A more nuanced interpretation is that the monsters are the customers: indulgent and abusive. This song and “The Sadness of Men” referenced the character Kazue Sato in Kirino's novel "Grotesque:” “In order to induce the process of decay, water is necessary. I think that, in the case of women, men are the water.”

The song “Love Hotel” strikes the finest balance of sad beauty, heavy melancholy and uplifting escapism. It does want Daniel intended as a closing statement but doesn’t try to make an argument. It has resonance with something innate—if not experienced then suspected. “And give your conscience the slip down Love Hotel Lane where they shoot neon rays in the black hearts of men / Reverie / And so from the depths of your deviancy profess love and selfishness.” That’s about as good as I’ve ever done.

We commissioned Dave to remix “The Sadness of Men” in 2011 for the major label re-lease of “Love Hotel.” It was never shared widely.  Reconnecting with the material has been a joy. We created a music video to celebrate this era of our band. It’s heartening that people still care. So, thank you to those early and current supporters of the record. It means a lot and we would like you to have this song as a small gesture of appreciation. (Subscribe to get it and our newsletter emailed to you or click here if you’re already a member.)

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M.


This post was originally published in the Rothko Records newsletter.